The Austrian zither is synonymous with The Third Man (1949), considered by many cineastes to be one of the greatest films of all time. A combination of guitar and harp, it is a five-string fretboard that belongs to the piano family and is played with the left hand.
The pleasant and alluring signature sound of the zither score starts with the eponymous theme tune – re-titled ‘The Harry Lime Theme’ in the UK after Orson Welles’s character. This seemingly inauspicious musical moment singlehandedly introduced the post-war world to a very unusual Austrian instrument. ‘The Third Man Theme’ enjoyed 11 weeks at number one in America. This kind of stand-alone success didn’t go unnoticed by the movie moguls. It pioneered the use of soundtracks to market and sell films.
Like all the best innovations and cultural phenomena this paradigm shift was entirely down to chance. Director Carol Reed was picking up carafes of wine for his crew when he spotted Viennese local Anton Karas playing the zither for pennies in the courtyard of a small sausage restaurant on the outskirts of Vienna. It was the first time Reed had heard this strange instrument. His mind raced as he wondered if it could carry a whole film score.
Karas was a virtuoso; he’d been playing ever since he found a concert zither in his attic in 1918 aged just 12. Reed brought him back to his Austrian hotel and after successfully testing recordings of the zither with rushes from the film he invited the stunned Karas to score the music for The Third Man.
The Austrian musician spoke no English and initially took some convincing to come to London. Eventually one night he asked Reed to listen to a new tune he’d done – this turned out to be the first recorded version of ‘The Third Man Theme’. Reed loved it and, unappreciative of the skills required, asked him why he hadn’t played that before. Karas supposedly told him that the tune takes a lot out of your fingers.
In the wake of The Third Man’s success the venues for Karas’s performances changed dramatically. He was invited to play the zither for Princess Margaret in Buckingham Palace and for the Pope in Rome. With the money he made from the film Karas bought a bar in Grenzing, Austria… and called it ‘The Third Man’.
Brighton-born independent director Pete Walker blazed a stylish and successful trail of mayhem through the flailing British cinema industry of the 1970s with a string of ‘terror’ pictures which delved further into the dark side of the human psyche than Hammer dared venture.
Beginning his filmmaking career in the early 1960s producing short ‘nudie-cutie’ films, graduating to sexploitation features, and soon spotting a gap in the market for grimy, gritty contemporary horror features, Pete Walker was a gifted director on an unashamed mission to provide cinema-going punters with the lurid thrills they wanted – as far as he was able given the constraints of British censors and slender budgets.
The son of flamboyant music hall comic Syd Walker, Pete was something of a showman himself, and delighted in playing the pantomime villain of the British film industry, outraging the moral majority – especially self-appointed guardian of British morals, Mary Whitehouse, and tabloid newspaper readers – with his oft-grisly, taboo-busting films. He once told Film Illustrated: ‘I don’t want people coming out of the cinema saying “what a lovely well-made picture”… the truth is that people don’t go to see lovely, well-made pictures.’ They may not have been lovely – it isn’t generally the first word that springs to mind when you consider Pete Walker’s films – but they were consistently well-made – and in contrast with much British movie-making at the time – highly profitable. What’s more, they still pack a punch today.
He hit his stride in the early 1970s, when he began to focus more exclusively on what he called his ‘terror’ pictures rather than comedy and sexploitation. Walker’s self-financed films (the profits from one would finance the next) bore the distinctive signs of an exploitation auteur. Shunning the now-hackneyed period settings of Hammer Gothic, Walker’s work was relentlessly up to date – sharply zooming in on a gloomy, grey, glum Britain, adrift in an austere, uncertain decade, the acid-tinged optimism of the 1960s an increasingly distant memory. Amidst the sex and violence, Pete’s films were shot through with bleak cynicism, and an uneasy air of disquiet. Short on happy endings, ambiguous in their political slant, and not suggestive of any easy answers, Walker’s best features reflected the awkward tension between permissiveness and repression in that fascinating decade, as youth and establishment collided, and often dwelled on the idea of corruption at the heart of seemingly respectable social institutions, like the Catholic Church, or the Prison Service. But these were no dreary political pieces; they were made to make money, and Walker optimised the exploitation content, working closely with excellent screenwriters including David McGillivray and Michael Armstrong. There was sex, there was repression, there was perversion, there was violence; but amidst all this bleakness, there were also Hitchcock-inspired flashes of sharp, dry, jet-black humour.
There are many lurid delights to savour in the Pete Walker canon. You might begin a whistle-stop tour through his back catalogue with Man of Violence (1970), one of his formative early works, a splendidly amoral gangster tale, where it’s hard to tell the goodies from the baddies. Described by Walker as a ‘Bogart-style spoof’, it was – of course – torn to pieces by critics at the time, but now fascinates both as a sleazy period piece and a piquant ingredient in the Brit-gangster melting pot that would shortly afterwards serve up Mike Hodges’s Get Carter (1971).
After that, why not move on to The Flesh and Blood Show (1972), an atmospheric, bloody multiple-murder whodunit set in a suitably spooky old theatre at the murky end of the pier – shot on location in Brighton – and starring a picture-postcard selection of young heartthrobs of the time: Ray Brooks, Robin Askwith, Luan Peters and Jenny Hanley. Who will survive? Who will snuff it? It’s splendid stuff, and as the title suggests, there’s plenty of flesh and plenty of blood.
Watch the trailer to House of Whipcord (1974):
You’re on to the bona fide classics once you get to House of Whipcord (1974), a remarkably moody, brooding, brutal prison drama. In this dreadful establishment, young women are punished for ‘permissive behaviour.’ Forced to swap their Carnaby Street gladrags for hessian tunics by unhinged, corrupt prison governor Mrs Wakehurst (Barbara Markham), they receive regular whippings from the cruel wardress (played to perfection by gimlet-eyed Sheila Keith, who was a Walker regular). Oppressively shot on location in the Forest of Dean, creepy, chilling, pessimistic and relentlessly bleak, this is top-drawer Walker. It even impressed critics – eager to unearth allegories in his work – to Pete’s surprise and wry amusement.
You can’t go wrong with Frightmare (1974) either, perhaps Walker’s masterpiece, which gleefully combines lurid, critic-baiting cannibalistic thrills and gory exploits with a power drill (wielded by Sheila Keith, joined here by Rupert Davies), with a gently persuasive subtext about the ineffectuality of psychiatry. It was extreme stuff, as far as British cinema was concerned, and – as usual with Pete’s films – provoked some negative press. Of course, that’s the kind of publicity money just can’t buy, and the director made the most of it, plastering the bad reviews across his advertisements like badges of honour. ‘A despicable film,’ sniffed The Observer; Pete cheerfully whacked it on the poster in big letters, and another coachload of punters flocked to see it. The film remains the director’s personal favourite.
Watch the trailer to Frightmare (1974):
Corruption in the church is the theme of House of Mortal Sin (1975), particularly the perverse desires of nasty Catholic Priest Father Meldrum (Anthony Sharp); it all ends badly, and no one is saved; while The Comeback (1977) features singer Jack Jones – playing a singer trying to revitalise his recording career – caught up in a bizarre murder mystery involving a highly Hitchcockian knife-wielding transvestite, who looks a lot like Norman Bates’s mum. It’s a gorily entertaining oddity indeed… they just don’t make ‘em like that any more, alas.
Watch the trailer to House of Mortal Sin (1976):
Calling it quits after shooting his most traditionally Gothic horror, The House of the Long Shadows (1983), which entertainingly teamed Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, John Carradine and the aforementioned Sheila Keith, Pete Walker gave up filmmaking and invested his money in property – notably buying a chain of cinemas in the Isle of Wight. Pete didn’t want to make films for the home video market, as he later confessed: ‘My love was the cinema. It was darkened auditoriums and shadows on a screen and shared experiences.’ Pete Walker’s love of cinema shines through all of his work; and the years have not diminished his finest features. Now, as then, when a Pete Walker ‘terror’ picture is playing, the auditorium is surely at its darkest.
Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman, King of the B Movie
By Chris Nashawaty Abrams
X-Cert: The British Independent Horror Film
By John Hamilton Hemlock Books
Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 2
By John Berra Ed. Intellect
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
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
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
Philip Hoare was born in Southampton and is the author of seven non-fiction books. His latest work, the magical The Sea Inside (published by Fourth Estate), is an invigorating tour of the sea, its islands, birds and beasts. Along the way, Hoare meets a cast of recluses, outcasts and travellers, from eccentric artists and scientists to tattooed warriors, as well as marvellous creatures, from a gothic crow to a great whale. Philip is a keen sea swimmer. Even in the depths of winter. Philip Hoare’s filmic alter ego is Thomas Jerome Newton from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Eithne Farry
There is no contest as to my avatar. He is Thomas Jerome Newton, the flame-haired, paper-skinned, grounded angel in The Man Who Fell to Earth. In 1976, when Nicolas Roeg’s movie came out, I went to see it three times at the cinema. I even took my cassette recorder and taped the soundtrack. I so identified with Newton that friends accused me of making my nose bleed in a Tube lift to emulate a similar scene in the movie. I also wore plastic sandals like Newton. I nearly fainted at the private view of ‘David Bowie is’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum earlier this year when I came face to face with the black suit and white shirt Bowie wore for the film.
But it wasn’t just about my adulation for the Thin White Duke (whom I saw for the first time that year on the Station to Station tour at Earl’s Court; the opening act was Bunel’s Un chien andalou (1929), and Bowie performed in a similar black and white outfit, lit by Dan Flavin-like white strip lights). Roeg’s fantastical film has elements of Powell and Pressburger as much as it has of science fiction or surrealism.
The film’s references to Auden and Icarus echo Bowie’s shape-shifting personae (as well as 1970s dystopia). At one point, Newton is being driven through the American wilderness (a sequence inspired by the Cracked Actor (1975) documentary, which prompted Roeg to cast Bowie) when you suddenly hear a burst of hillbilly banjo and see, through a weird watery sepia, a vision of 19th century sharecroppers.
Newton crosses zones and cultures, an existential figure, a stranded alien in search of water for his parched planet. The scene in which he stands at the end of a dock was, to me, a direct echo of Jay Gatsby standing at the end of his Long Island dock, looking out to a green light and ‘the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us’.
For someone addicted to swimming in the sea every day, often in the dark and lonely hour before dawn, Newton’s predicament still strikes me, long and deep.
More information about Philip Hoare can be found here.
Kate Worsley was born in Preston, Lancashire but now lives by the sea. Her debut novel, She Rises, is set in 1740s Harwich (memorably described by one character as the ‘arse of Essex’), and is all about press gangs, love, sex and the salty, seductive allure of sea faring. Kate Worsley’s filmic alter ego is Jack Hawkins as Commander Ericson from The Cruel Sea (1953). Eithne Farry
‘The men are the heroes. The heroines are the ships. The only villain is the sea, the cruel sea, that man has made more cruel,’ explains Commander Ericson of convoy-escort HMS Compass Rose in the opening voiceover of the classic second world war film The Cruel Sea. Ericson (Jack Hawkins) is the biggest hero of them all: he’s all corrugated, oiled hair and furrowed brow, noble self-control and tortured conscience, his only recourse a large pink gin.
From its very first gut-churning opening shot of Atlantic swell, this 1953 film (based on the Nicholas Monsarrat novel) conveys the horror and heroism of war at sea like no other. It’s a pathetically brave world of duffel coats and roll-neck jumpers, speaking tubes and cocoa served in enamel mugs. Ericson’s mission, to protect Allied supply convoys in the Atlantic from hordes of German submarines, seems doomed from the start, when he is assigned a bunch of laughably inexperienced officers (a second-hand car salesman, a barrister, and a journo).
After only three weeks, though, he has them in hand and they scan the ocean for years, everywhere from Russia to Gibraltar. In the end, he sinks only two subs. But it’s the kind of man Ericson proves himself to be that earns the enduring loyalty of his men, particularly Second Lieutenant Lockhart (the journo), who turns down his own command to serve with him a second time.
When they make their best contact with a sub it is directly beneath a dozen shipwrecked, bobbing men. Ericson gives the order to plow through them and bomb the sub – the consequences of which we see in a series of appalled reaction shots. He then realises that there was no sub there after all. Three previously rescued sea captains come to his cabin that evening, their consolations stilted but immensely kind: ‘There is no blame. But there may be thoughts. And for thoughts, there is gin.’ Make mine a stiff one.
Sightseers, Ben Wheatley’s highly anticipated follow-up to Kill List, is a comedic character study starring Steve Oram and Alice Lowe as a freshly in love couple who are setting out on a road trip across the north of England, which turns into something unexpectedly darker and fatally dangerous for anyone who dares to spoil their twisted idyll.
Pamela Jahn met up with the director at the 65th Cannes Film Festival in May to talk about exploring the British countryside, romance and how women are sometimes the better killers.
Pamela Jahn: Sightseers is very extreme, like Down Terrace and Kill List, but feels more open and lighter.
Ben Wheatley: Yeah, one of the major attractions to the story for me was to get out and explore some of the broader space of England, but also in terms of cinematic space… Sightseers is much more about figures and landscapes rather than just faces in frames.
And there is more humour.
Basically, I wanted to make a comedy after Kill List, because on the one hand, if I had made another horror film, everyone would have said I am a horror filmmaker forever and that would have been bad. The door would have just been shut and locked. We also felt depressed after Kill List, because it was just so horrible and it was such a hard film to make and to edit and to be involved in. And then you get this thing when you watch a film back, and you think, oh, well, I could have made anything, and I made this. Why did I do this? [laughs] So we thought, let’s just make something that feels lighter and happier, and more fun. And the other reason why we wanted to make this film is because we wanted to do something that is much more playful and loose. We knew that the movies coming up after this are going to be much more technical and difficult, so we wanted to be able to play a little more here.
The violence is still pretty shocking in places.
Yeah, but it’s not that shocking. Like Kill List wasn’t that violent, I mean not really. It’s just that you feel it because of the emotional kick, but physically and in terms of body count, it’s not that bad.
The script was co-written by the stars of the film, Steve Oram and Alice Lowe. Does it still feel very close to you though?
Amy Jump, who is credited with additional material, is my wife, and she co-wrote Kill List and edited on Sightseers as well. We restructured it a bit from their script and took things on board that we had learned from doing the two previous movies. So this way, we brought it into the family of the previous films. We also did the editing, and there is so much improvisation in it. There is actually a level of authorship that goes on top of the script, which comes purely from us.
There’s a line that seems to run through your films, that somehow refers to the extreme, or the animalistic in human nature. What is it that fascinates you so much about that?
Talking about England – but it’s the same in all of Europe, actually – it feels to me that there’ve always been layers of reality. Beneath the pavement is the earth, and there have been all sorts of things happening here for over thousands and thousands of years, and it’s all in us. And this is what we’re trying to show in these movies, that it is only a step to the left or the right and you find this stuff… Things aren’t as modern as we think.
What is it that attracted you in particular to this couple and their story?
When I first read the script and got to know the characters, what struck me was that they’re crossing over the boundaries of society, they’re not held back by modern manners. In a way, I could have been in the film, except I wouldn’t murder anyone, but I’d probably go back to the caravan, crunching my teeth, thinking ‘gggrrrrr’. And I think there is something about watching people who actually go through to the very end and break social rules and do it.
But it’s also that kind of strange story about a couple who are throwing at each other what they like and what they don’t like. First, he shows her his darkest side, and then she can do it much better than he can, and that’s really depressing for him. So he’s crushed. I like that… For me that’s quite romantic.
Are women the better killers?
In this one, yeah, absolutely! But I don’t think she speaks for all women [laughs].
You don’t seem to be worried that people might take your films the wrong way and actually be inspired by them.
It doesn’t end well for them, so I don’t know… And I made Kill List. Jesus, if I was worried about that, I would have stopped there.
Did the success of Kill List come as a big surprise to you?
Yes, it did. But I don’t know how you’re supposed to react when that happens. You can’t really think about it, because it just chains you from doing anything else. And you can’t take any of it seriously, because if you did, you’d take yourself too seriously and that’s a disaster – it totally inhibits how you work. So I just say ‘thank you very much’ and move on. And although you can pretend that you’ve got a plan, you just end up making the films you make. This is the only way I know how to do things. In retrospect, you could look at the movies and probably slot them in and go, ‘oh it’s a bit like this and a bit like that’. But they’re never conceived like that.
Do you feel there is something particularly British about your characters or your films?
In Britain, it’s like everywhere, there are people who are very meek and there are people who are just really, really violent. You wouldn’t want to stagger around drunk on a Saturday night in a seaside town in Britain without your wits about you. And I guess there are still people shooting pheasants with shotguns somewhere, things like that.
What’s your favourite killing scene in Sightseers?
I really like Ian’s death, mainly because I like the parallel editing, you see lots of things happening at the same time, and cut to the music – I really enjoy those sequences. And we’re trying to make each of them different, but then use certain elements again for her murders and his murders.
Is there something you think you consciously have to do, or not do, if you want to be a good director?
I don’t know…But when I became an editor that ruined everything. So once you know how to edit, you’re fucked.
Have you ever been on a caravan trip yourself?
I have been camping a lot, but not in a caravan, no. And I don’t know if I will now, after sitting with a camera in the toilet of that caravan with a monitor on my lap. The caravan thing might be over for me.
Iran: Directory of World Cinema
Edited by Parviz Jahed
Intellect 293pp Â£15.95
Conspiracy Cinema: Propaganda, politics and paranoia
By David Ray Carter
Headpress 271pp Â£24.99
Keeping The British End Up: Four decades of saucy cinema
By Simon Sheridan
Titan Books 287pp Â£24.99
A rather eclectic group of books this instalment, which range from the serious to the paranoid to the smutty. Fabulous!
Parviz Jahed is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable authorial voice on Iranian cinematic matters to be added to a list which includes, among others, Ali Issari, Hamid Dabashi and Hamid Sadr. Jahed has been close to the Iranian film scene for many years and displays a deep historical knowledge from his unique vantage point as an Iranian and as a transplanted European. He has also been involved with filmmaking as his excellent documentary, Bonjour Mr Ghaffari, demonstrates. All these factors make his account of the historical and critical development of Iranian film, Iran: Directory of World Cinema, as authoritative as could be expected in this concise a book. As is the format for this series of Intellect Books (which seem to pop up like mushrooms on a very regular basis), the book consists of focused thematic essays followed by critical appraisals of key films. There can be a certain unevenness in the editorial quality, consistency and scholarly rigour of some of the titles in the series, but Jahed’s book exemplifies the best of them. He has taken on much of the essay writing himself and has turned a critical eye on many of the films – in many ways this could have been a single author work although there are some fine contributions from others, notably Saeed Aghighi’s essay, ‘The New Wave Movement 1969-1979’. Many claims have been made for New Wave and contemporary Iranian cinema as any recent university syllabus will illustrate, but what is most interesting in Jahed’s book is his overview of the lesser-known territory of early Iranian cinema through the fascinating account of Film Farsi (and the Jaheli cycles) and on to an overdue salute to the forerunners of the New Wave such as Farrokh Ghaffari and Ebrahim Golestan. All in all a fresh and intelligently pithy story of Iranian cinema.
Rimbaud called for a systematic derangement of the senses in order to capture poetic essence and authenticity – to open oneself up to a different world view. And it is a systematic derangement of all historical sense, as the Preface for Conspiracy Cinema points out, as well as logic and sometimes sanity that is called for in reading David Ray Carter’s utterly fascinating book. Little, if any, writing has been focused solely on this topic and Carter has opened up and shed light into this very dark basement of cinematic endeavour. The sheer range of these theories is breath-taking, and encountering them is to bathe in the unprovable, the illogical and the downright paranoid. All the usual conspiratorial topics are present and accounted for: the two Kennedy assassinations, the Martin Luther King assassination, Diana, the ‘extermination’ of Koresh and his followers at Waco, Elvis, 9-11, to name a few of the more familiar subjects. But these barely reach the wilder shores of HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories (Department of Defence experiments run wild, UN’s World Health Organisation administering the virus via smallpox injections in order to depopulate Africa, Soviet plots) or secret ionospheric auditory transmissions sent out by the government to alter planetary weather and chemtrails emitted by all passenger jets doctored with aluminium to reduce skin cancers in the service of insurance companies to cut down on skin cancer payouts – and these just suggest the rich but bizarre pickings to be found in Carter’s book. Having viewed hundreds of independently produced films on these and other topics, Carter organises his findings into eight themes and introduces each with a short synopsis of the facts, the official version and the conspiracy theories around them before he reviews the many films addressing each particular theme. Enough said: this book is a terrific, mesmerising and bizarre piece of weird scholarship. Un-put-down-able! Like Wilde said, ‘Beware the half-truth, you may have got hold of the wrong half’.
Finally, there is only space to sing the praises of another breath-taking piece of wonderfully weird cinematic scholarship of sorts, Simon Sheridan’s fascinating antidote to academic texts, Keeping the British End Up, in a new, revised edition. Scrupulously researched and generously illustrated within the covers of a quality Titan publication, the book recounts – in suitably cheeky prose – the, er, rise and fall of… well, you know what! Anyone with an interest in the ‘other’ British cinema, which takes us on a journey from Nudist Paradise through the Confessions series via chapters entitled ‘Comings’, ‘Doings’, ‘…Goings’ and ends with a who’s who of actors and actresses in ‘Knobs and Knockers’, will be unable to resist this book. â€œThe ‘Wisden’ of British smut’ as Matthew Sweet accurately called it.
James B. Evans
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
In reviewing Simon Sheridan’s book, Keeping the British End Up, in this month’s Cine Lit column it is only fitting to pay homage to an earlier account of the ruder end (oooh missus!!) of sexy and soft core British cinema once – and still? – reviled and ignored by the critical establishment, the 1992 book, Doing Rude Things: The History of the British Sex Film, 1957 -1981 by David McGillivray. Published by the little-known sun tavern fields press, this was one of the first accounts to historically describe and archive this irresistible stream of sexploitation and low-budget films, which would be screened in only the seediest of Soho’s Macintosh brigade cinemas and no, that ain’t computers we’re referring to! McGillivray lovingly recounts those halcyon and opportunistic days (many a well-known ‘proper’ thespian appeared) and introduces many primary sources in the form of interviews and quotations from those involved. Pamela Green remembers how her nudie films caused such offence to some Women’s Hour listeners that she was invited on the programme to debate them – another time indeed. McGillivray is an informed and hospitable critic when reviewing the period and the films. Illustrations are copious – and copulatory. Copies of DRT are very difficult to find and sell for exorbitant amounts online. Save this book! JBE
Cast: Thomas Turgoose, Holly Grainger, Rafe Spall, Steven Mackintosh
‘I am not interested in telling miserabilist stories,’ says Tom Harper, relaxing with a coffee during a break from colour grading. It’s a bold statement given that, in his own words, his first feature film The Scouting Book for Boys is about how ‘each man hurts the thing he loves’. It’s bolder still considering that the two short films that helped make his name, while not bleak in a kitchen sink fashion, feature the estates, CCTV and inner-city deprivation.
Cubs (2006) is a pacy, hand-held depiction of a young teenage boy getting initiated into a gang of hoodie-wearing urban fox hunters. It gleaned a BAFTA nomination, but to this day attracts messages from internet viewers who love animals and hate the film, perhaps failing to grasp the subtle themes of class prejudice and peer pressure.
The opening shot of Cherries (2007) is of a school surrounded by grey sky, impossibly high fences and overarching CCTV towers. Within the school, teenage pupils expecting a normal class gradually realise they are being drafted to fight in the Iraq war.
Read our earlier feature on Tom Harper‘s short films.
Both films seemingly fit into the school of British cinema represented by Noel Clarke, Shane Meadows and Andrea Arnold. In fact, Clarke is working on a feature-length version of Cherries, Scouting Book‘s lead character is played by Meadows’s protégé Thomas Turgoose, and Arnold’s Red Road cinematographer Robbie Ryan is director of photography.
But though he admires them, Harper believes he does something different from his British peers. ‘I have a love/hate relationship with British film. I really like the majority of it and we have had a great year. But I think too much of what we do is a bit depressing. There are certainly depressing elements in Scouting Book but I hope there’s a bit of magic there as well,’ he says.
This magic comes from the chemistry between the two teenage leads David and Emily, played by Turgoose and newcomer Holly Grainger, and the sun-tinged setting of a caravan park in the Norfolk country to which they run away and set up home – surviving with the help of David’s trusty Scouting Book For Boys (the use of which was approved by the Scouting Association, Harper notes).
‘It eventually is a tragedy,’ continues Harper, ‘but it gets there via a love story and a magical summer holiday. We were really lucky as we filmed in October last year and it was just glorious. I really wanted it to feel poetic and nostalgic rather than grey and bleak – I find that much less interesting.’
Filming in October was not the only requirement brought on by the Â£1 million budget. Holiday-makers doubled as extras, accommodation was in caravans, and Steven MacKintosh had to replace Tony Curran, who pulled out as cameras were about to roll after being offered a more lucrative part abroad.
However, budget did stretch to 35mm cameras, which give Scouting Book, filmed mainly outside, the bright nostalgic feel of celluloid. Combined with its painterly aesthetic, Scouting Book signals a departure in style from Harper’s shorts. ‘Both Cubs and Cherries were hand-held and aggressive whereas this has a bit of that but it is much more composed and graphic. It’s a different approach to telling a story,’ Harper states.
And while Scouting Book also shows a leap in setting from the urban environment, and the fences, walls and barbed wire prevalent in the two shorts, its coming-of-age story reveals a commitment to teenage characters. Aged just 30 himself, and with boyish good looks that wouldn’t look out of place in a sixth form common room, does Harper think his subject matter might change as he grows older? ‘I don’t know,’ he says, slowing down. ‘I keep saying I’ll move away from films about teenagers, but I keep on finding them interesting. It’s a turbulent time in people’s lives and it’s the time you make these massive decisions, and I’m drawn to that, but I think at some point I’ll tell other stories as well.’
It seems appropriate that 18-year-old Turgoose has been cast as the film’s lead, since he has effectively come of age on the screens of UK cinemas. Picked up from a youth club near Grimsby, Turgoose demanded a fiver from casting agents to audition for Meadows’s This Is England and answered ‘no’ when they asked him if he would like to be an actor. ‘Clearly he never entertained the thought of being an actor,’ laughs Harper, who refers to him affectionately as ‘Tommo’, ‘ but somewhere along the way he’s made that conscious decision to take it seriously and put hard work into it. That’s what will make him stand out. And of course the fact that he’s fucking good! Really, really, really good.’
Turgoose’s performance is central to the film. ‘This is very much a one-boy story,’ Harper explains. ‘It’s important the audience stays with the main character even though he does some things that aren’t very nice. Tommo’s got such a wonderful, likeable quality I think he’d have to do something really vile for people not to like him. He starts a scene and ends a scene and you will watch his face for 90 minutes. That’s a really tall order but he is exceptionally good.’
The film was produced by Celador, the company behind Slumdog Millionaire, so that Harper now stands in the Oscar-shaped shadow cast by Danny Boyle’s big hit. If he finds this daunting, he hides it well. ‘The film will live or die on its own merit but because the producers have that much more clout and influence, it will be seen by more people, and that’s a good thing. It’s so nice that a really good film with British money is doing so well, and that most of the money is coming back to the UK so Celador can make more films,’ he says.
And if that can’t encourage some more magical British films then nothing can.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews