Writers: Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham
Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
France, Denmark, USA 2016
The composer and musician talks about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.
Cliff Martinez started his career drumming for Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Captain Beefheart before making his big leap into cinema, writing the music for Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape, The Limey, Traffic and Solaris, . He’s since formed a close bond with Nicolas Winding Refn, composing the scores for Drive and Only God Forgives. Their latest collaboration, Refn’s shiny new offering The Neon Demon, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has an intriguing, pulsing electronic score that is haunting and emotional in equal measure, while the film itself unexpectedly divides critics and audiences alike.
Pamela Jahn spoke to the composer and musician about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.
The Neon Demon is your third collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn. Did the fact that it features women rather than men in the lead role, which is quite unusual compared to Refn’s work in the past, change your way of approaching the music for this film?
Cliff Martinez: No, Nicolas had told me very early on in the process, ‘This is going to be a very different film because the subject is going to be women.’ And when he told me that, I was curious what it would be like. But then when I got to saw the film and I saw the shower scene and things like that, I thought, ok, so that’s how Nicholas is making a film about women, of course. So, no, for me it didn’t feel so much different. It was more a departure for Nicholas himself, I think.
Do you think there is a specific link between electronic music and fashion in the way those two worlds seem to complement each other?
Oh, I never thought of that, but it’s an interesting idea. Maybe there is some sort of connection, I don’t know.
The music to Drive is widely regarded as one of the greatest scores of its time. Did it feel special to you when creating it?
I loved Drive from the minute I saw it, but I don’t think anyone imagined at the time how successful the film was going to be, or at least certainly I didn’t have a clue. It was just a great project to be working on. I’ve never really grasped quite why that particular score got so popular. And I’m still kind of fascinated by the fact that in my 25 years of working as a composer, that’s the one score that people keep talking about.
In 2014, the BBC created a televised re-score of the original Drive soundtrack – what did you make of that new version?
I’ve heard of it but I’ve never actually seen this new version, so I don’t know. I heard that it was re-scored but that’s about it.
You also worked with Nicolas on Only Good Forgives, which has these great karaoke moments. Were you involved in creating these scenes?
As I recall it, the script and the actual film turned out very different from each other, but I think the karaoke material was there from the very beginning. I remember that it was the first thing that I did when I started working on the project. I usually don’t come in until the film has been shot but this time the ground floor was really the script, because there were several karaoke scenes that they needed the music for so they could shoot. I’d never done any karaoke for film before and I remember in the beginning Nicolas had this idea about iconic country western songs but then he decided to go with Thai music instead. So, I think I created five of these Thai karaoke tracks, each track was then tested and got changed several times to be performed at the karaoke bar, but in the end I think we used the original tracks.
You started your career as a composer working with Steven Soderbergh. Was he your first sort of soulmate in cinema, in a similar way that Nicolas seems to be now?
I don’t know, we just seem to work together very well. We seem to agree on films, their philosophy, musical genres and so on. We have a similar taste, I guess.
You’re currently working with Soderbergh on the TV series The Knick. Does it make a difference to you if you compose for the big or small screen, apart from the fact that it’s a longer process?
That’s the thing, it’s more exhausting than feature-film work but, in the end, it just feels like a ten-hour Soderbergh film to me. But there are some differences as well, I guess, one of which being that you have to mix the score so it sounds right on very small speakers, because most people will see it on their normal TV at home. And you also really have to develop your theme and your emotional peaks and stretch them over ten hours as opposed to two hours.
You are working across the board, from cinema to TV and video games. How do you choose your projects?
To be honest, it’s more that people chose me rather than me selecting things. Directors like Steven, Nicolas or Harmony Korine, for whom I composed the score for Spring Breakers, have asked me to score their films. So I feel that if I have worked on these great projects, it’s not so much because of my decisions, but because people have chosen me and trusted me with what I can bring to their work.
Was there a score when you were younger that first made that feeling, that relationship between music and movies, click for you?
There are a couple of films or film scores that come up actually, like the old scores by Bernard Herrmann and especially Ennio Morricone. One of the first film scores that I owned on vinyl when I was young was A Fistful of Dollars. Another thing that resonated with me from the beginning was the TV show Saturday Night at the Movies. I would watch The Day the Earth Stood Still three or four times a year, and the music just got to me, I listened to it every time it came on.
A film might be flawed but the music can still be brilliant. What do you think the score can bring to the movie as a whole?
Well, the score depends on the film. The music has a significant role, especially if there is not much dialogue. People turn to the music to maybe explain a bit more about what’s going on.
Do you think a great score can save a film from being terrible?
No, I don’t think the music has the power to salvage a terrible film, but I do believe it has the ability to completely transform a film. It’s hard to explain what it is, I didn’t understand it myself until I saw a film without music and then with the music, but when you do that, you can appreciate the power of music. But still, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that music can rescue an utterly flawed film and turn it into an entertaining, successful film – no musical score can do that.
A collaboration between filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and composer Phil Kline
World premiere: 26 January 2014, Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival
Venue: Centennial Concert Hall, Winnipeg, Canada
Artistic directors and curators: Alexander Mickelthwate, Matthew Patton
The grand, red-carpeted Piano Nobile of Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall rests majestically under several chandeliers, which are not unlike bushy, shimmering inverted Christmas trees the size of the four-storey early 20th-century neo-classical corporate buildings that continue to dot the downtown streets of this once-powerful Midwestern Canadian burgh that reigned for three quarters of a century as a transport hub so vibrant it was dubbed ‘Little Chicago’.
These days, one is more likely to see tumbleweeds scuttling across Winnipeg’s wide avenues rather than people, but on blisteringly subarctic nights like this one, 26 January in the year of Our Lord 2014, one spies a few mighty snow-ploughing tractors and, sadly, weather-beaten panel vans filled with humanitarian aid workers dispensing hot coffee, sandwiches and blankets to the city’s homeless who stumble, Dawn of the Dead-like, o’er the icy streets under the warming influence of Lysol and cheap cooking wine from nearby Chinatown.
This is the Winnipeg currently governed by Mayor Sam Katz and a city council working in the grand tradition of those civic rulers before who, for personal gain, destroyed a once-great city’s genuinely vibrant downtown.
There is, however, no such blight within the warm confines of the palatial home to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra where a happy post-performance reception takes place in homage to a night in which history, albeit cultural history, has been made here in Historic Winnipeg, the Forgotten Winter City of Death, Dreams and Dashed Hopes.
The guests of honour are none other than celebrated American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and his collaborator, composer Phil Kline. They are here to present the world premiere of what will be the first of several public offerings of an exciting new work-in-progress, an opera entitled Tesla in New York. This collaboration between the pair of childhood chums, now well into their august years, bears the armament of their mutual love, appreciation and admiration for the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla.
Jarmusch himself is an impressive figure to his assembled admirers. Adorned in a military-green long-sleeved flannel shirt and black jeans, and sporting his trademark shock of white porcupine-needle hair upon his huge, brain-stuffed dome and his intense, and impressively chiselled, Hungarian facial featurs, he also fits the mould of the youthful ’Pegger artists who join him amongst the tony, blue-rinse set of Winnipeg’s ‘Old Money’.
‘Music,’ says Jarmusch after the performance, ‘is the most beautiful form of artistic expression and I sincerely believe film is the most closely related artistic form to music. It’s why I make movies, but it’s also why I feel the need to make opera.’
To say that music is often the driving force behind Jarmusch’s cinematic visuals, if not their very heart and soul, might well be an understatement. Can anyone imagine Eszter Balint in Stranger Than Paradise dragging her luggage through the monochrome warzone of New York without Screamin’ Jay Hawkins intoning his crazed seductive yelps of ‘I Put A Spell on You’, or for that matter as the film’s Greek Chorus of ennui and passion?
‘Music’, Jarmusch elaborates, ‘is my guide into the greater world through the medium of film. There were many places I’d never visited and wanted to get to know because of the music that came from them. The music of New Orleans and Memphis, for example, are what led me to eventually make films like Down by Law and Mystery Train. As for Tesla in New York, I know New York intimately, but I’m hoping the opera will allow me, through fact, fancy and imagination, to get to know Tesla’s New York.’
Music and made-in-Winnipeg-cinema have always nestled cosily under the fluffy blankets of glorious warmth and forgetfulness. To wit: earlier in the evening, while grabbing a smoke outside the Centennial Concert Hall in the -40 climes, I spied Guy Maddin, surely one of cinema’s great working film artists. He was scuttling maniacally up the granite front steps, strewn with sand to prevent icy tumbles, hurtling himself into the balmy ticket vestibule.
I sucked back the remainder of my bâton de cancer filled ever so generously with tax-free all-Natural Native Tobacco I secured earlier that day on a nearby reservation populated by my entrepreneurial Aboriginal Brothers. I then made my way to greet the esteemed Mr Maddin who was waiting patiently in line at the ‘Will Call’ wicket.
Adorned unrecognisably in my heavy-duty Ukrainian-immigrant-to-Canada Winnipeg chic, I jammed myself rudely in front of him in the line-up with nary a glance, nor word. I could feel Guy’s fury over this rude display of line jumping. I took further delight in imagining his steely Icelandic eyes boring deep holes of mounting anger in the back of my bushy rabbit-fur Dr Zhivago hat (purchased years ago from a street vendor on the Maidan of Kyiv, long before it was stained by the blood of Ukrainian freedom fighters).
I chose, however, not to let the magma well up too much in my old pal’s head and soon turned to offer my familiar visage, which was immediately met with a most incredulous jocularity from within his very being that filled that delectably bearded face of aquiline Nordic fortitude.
Where else could Jim Jarmusch launch a new opera?
Guy was torn about attending the post-concert reception. He’d never met Jarmusch and really wanted to, but he also expressed that this was ‘Jim’s night’ and he didn’t wish to cast any ‘pestilence’ over the affair with his presence. Guy did not elaborate beyond this. For some, he seldom needs to. I did, however, know immediately I’d not see him on the Piano Nobile later and that it would indeed be for very good reason.
To paraphrase James Cagney in Raoul Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde, ‘It’s just the kind of hairpin he is.’
And sure enough, Mr Jarmusch later expressed some disappointment that he’d yet to make Mr Maddin’s acquaintance. He furthermore noted: ‘Guy Maddin is an incredible musician. His films are incredibly and purely musical.’ Jarmusch is especially taken with Guy’s latest project, Spiritismes, an epic feature undertaking to remake lost films from the dawn of cinema that never existed but should have. ‘Guy wants to recreate things that don’t exist,’ Jarmusch intones respectfully. ‘Who else laments films and music that are lost and gone for all time? I want to hug Guy and yet, I don’t even know him.’
I suspect Maddin and Jarmusch know each other all too well, if only through the shared language of cinema and, of course, imagination.
‘Imagination is the strongest thing we have,’ says Jarmusch. ‘It’s always the beginning of any artistic or scientific endeavour.’
How appropriate, then, that we will soon have a chance to witness the blending of art and science. Below is a revised version of my Film Corner review of Tesla in New York.
A night sky, an ocean, wisps of white and a blue, so radiantly, yet alternately nocturnal and aquatic, cast a glow upon a stage empty of human figures on a landscape of instruments, music stands, speakers and amps – all standing forlorn in silhouette, waiting to be held, caressed and lovingly brought to life by the warmth of a human touch as the vaguely industrial aural pulsations of an unsettling drone wash over all in its path. It’s like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on lithium – so uneasy, so disorienting, yet so lulling – a magnet drawing us closer to either death or rebirth. Or both.
A night sky, an ocean, wisps of white and a blue, so radiantly, yet alternately nocturnal and aquatic, cast a glow upon a stage empty of human figures on a landscape of instruments, music stands, speakers and amps – all standing forlorn in silhouette, waiting to be held, caressed and lovingly brought to life by the warmth of a human touch as the vaguely industrial aural pulsations of an unsettling drone wash over all in its path. It’s like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on lithium – so uneasy, so disorienting, yet so lulling – a magnet drawing us closer to either death or rebirth. Or both. This is the appetiser to the main course of several new musical pieces performed by a myriad of brilliant, talented performers.
The performance is unveiled in the acoustically rich Centennial Concert Hall and though, in typical Winnipeg fashion, a Winnipeg Jets hockey game proves to be enough of a rival that the 2,000+ seats appear mostly empty – save for about one half the capacity of the majestic hall’s Orchestra level – those Winter City denizens who are not eyeball-glued to the town’s newly-restored-to-NHL-glory Jets are treated to an event of such artistic magnitude that they will carry the memories of it to their progeny and subsequent generations, long before they flutter away to their eventual respective deaths with the sounds and images of a work that seems destined for greatness dancing across their cerebella and into the warm, white light that awaits us all.
This was, to coin a phrase from one of my mentors, the late, great Meyer Nackimson, the legendary octogenarian film distributor who refused to retire and ran the MGM/UA distribution branch office on Hargrave Street in Winnipeg until he was forced to leave the movie business when the office was completely shut down in the late 80s:
‘Kid, Estelle and I saw the picture the other night and it was ONE HELLUVA GOOD SHOW!’
Though it was not a motion picture in the traditional sense (and the late Meyer and wife Estelle could have only viewed the proceedings from the Heavens), what we witnessed was indeed one helluva good show, , and most definitely a profoundly moving experience. Like so much great art presented within the picture-perfect magic of the proscenium, Tesla in New York was a visual and aural treat that made expert use of the stage in terms of the placement of singers, musicians and conductor/artistic director Alexander Mickelthwate (adorned ever so stylishly in a perfectly fitting suit of Winnipeg Grey as he wielded his mighty baton).
The simple, but beautifully focused and operated lighting cast its sweet glow over the renderings of exquisite music whilst, most notably, the aqua-blue screen morphed into an astounding montage of early Edison motion picture footage, edited by acclaimed experimental Winnipeg filmmaker and one-time Maddin collaborator Deco Dawson (who, according to Jarmusch, has ‘liquid hands’) and Matthew Patton (the New Music Festival’s fancifully chimeric co-curator) and under the guidance of Mr Jarmusch himself (who described his own words of direction in this matter as an ‘oblique strategy’).
Oblique or otherwise, it all pays off.
With Mickelthwate and company, plus the audience itself, being enveloped in the historic Edison footage (stolen for this production on, it seems, Tesla’s behalf in a perverse retaliatory act for all that Edison stole from Tesla – and, in fact, what Edison pilfered from pretty much everybody), I simply cannot imagine any subsequent production of this work without motion picture footage.
Though I was somewhat embarrassed to have used the clichéd word ‘electric’ to describe the production to Messrs Mickelthwate and Patton in their sumptuous Green Room after the show (well stocked with a fridge full of lovely spring water from the majestic Loni Beach in Gimli, Manitoba), I think, in retrospect, that it’s a perfectly fine word to have used.
Tesla, the Serbian inventor from Croatia who eventually found fame in the New World, was nothing if not the father of all things electric (in spite of Edison’s thefts) and it felt to me like the music and the performance were definitely infused with the very quality of electricity – aurally, emotionally, thematically and yes, at times, even visually.
Take, for example, the stunning, partially improvised Overture, wherein Mickelthwate guided singers and musicians alike to provide both melody and a fluffy, comfy bed for the onstage extension of the Lou-Reed-like Metal Machine Music drones in the pre-show. Kline and Jarmusch took to opposite ends of the stage and created some of the most haunting electric guitar feedback I’ve yet to experience, signalling precisely what this show seems to be all about: the force and power of electricity and all the ramifications and permutations of its magic as born from the mad genius of Tesla’s mind, and to put a perfectly appropriate fine point to it, Tesla’s boundless imagination.
Once the several pieces beyond this staggering overture began, one could, at points, gently close one’s eyes and launch into a very private place in one’ imagination to recreate Teslas’s heart and soul, allowing Kline’s often heart-breaking and alternately, elatedly soaring score to take us to those hidden, magical places of what Nikola Tesla wrought for us all, but what, he in fact, wrought for himself. The evening’s musicians and singers were all in superb and inspired form, but it would be remiss of me to not make special mention of the stunning work of mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, whose voice took us to places of both darkness and romance.
I must also single out countertenor David James (of the astonishing a cappella Hilliard Ensemble who so gorgeously opened the evening’s program). James fit this score like a glove. When I think of Tesla, I am always infused with thoughts of madness, genius, passion and an overwhelming sense of the unrequited (in terms of both love and career). James took me to places I both wanted to be and didn’t want to be and I can think of no better approach to a figure as important and complex as Nikola Tesla.
In all, the importance of this event to the cultural fabric of our new century seems clear. This was history in the making and from this point forward, one can but marvel and dream as to what magic will ultimately be produced when Kline and Jarmusch move forward with this work that explores one of the great human beings to have ushered us all into the 20th century.
Now, however, as we face in this 21st century both the power and danger of manmade resources and accomplishments, Tesla seems even more vital a figure for us to consider. To do so with art, with imagination, with music, with a myriad of multi-media and live performance seems very much a no-brainer. After the evening’s performance, Jarmusch cited the following inventions as the greatest manmade accomplishments: ‘Mapping the human genome, the Hubble telescope, the electric guitar and the bikini.’ One would like to think Tesla might approve.
Good Goddamn! My appetite has been whetted.
The buffet will follow and it will be sumptuous.
Tesla in New York, a collaboration between Phil Kline and Jim Jarmusch is currently a work-in-progress for an opera that will eventually take the world by storm. Thanks to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival, the first gold bricks have been laid down to take all of us to the Castle of Operatic Oz – a place of beauty, of imagination and wonder. Nikola Tesla himself would have it no other way.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty, ‘Bon Cinema!’
The Big Screen: The Story of Movies and What They Did to Us
By David Thomson
Allen Lane 595pp £25
Jazz on Film: Beat, Square & Cool
By Selwyn Harris
Moochin’ About/Jazzwise Magazine £25
The Future Revisited: Jules Verne on screen in 1950s America
By Françoise Schlitz
Chaplin Books £14.99
In spite of rumours of the demise of printed books and related ephemera, wondrous things continue to be delivered through my letterbox and my heart stirs at the thump on the mat when a padded envelope of unknown contents materialises. This month’s Cine Lit looks at three such recent deliveries.
David Thomson is one of cinema studies’ most prolific authors. By turns enthusiastic, irascible, grumpy, opinionated, personal, fair-minded and judgemental, he is above all deeply passionate, informed and honest. His writing is a joy to read and maintains a rare balance between populism and elitism. A critic and contextualist, Thomson is one of the best cinematic authors that we have. As the author’s modest rear dust jacket description has it: ‘David Thomson has a fair claim to be the greatest living writer on film.’ Can’t imagine who the greatest dead writer is – answers on a postcard please. At any event, it is obvious that any new book from Thomson is to be reckoned with and paid attention to. His propensity for magnum opuses – as evidenced by his authoritative Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Whole Equation, his history of Hollywood – now continues with The Big Screen. His polemical, probing style with its breezy narrative structure and insightful, often provocative, observations has been fashioned over many years. Thomson has been a sharp-eyed critic and writer on film for decades, his first publication arriving in 1967. The new book takes a God’s eye view of movies; it is international in scope and all-encompassing in theme. The reader is taken on a mighty journey from the beginnings of the film industry and through the succeeding decades with stops taken along the route to look at the rise and influence of academic film studies (pro and con) , cultural and social change before, during and after the wars and how these anxieties and pleasures were reflected on the screen and embedded in the textual codes. It ends with a wonderful epilogue reflecting on projection, screen and narrative, which, like the book, is suffused with misgivings about the present and future state of movie-going as a communal cultural experience. The Big Screen is a terrific ‘can’t put it down’ account written by an author who holds back few punches – all at once loveable, charming, irritating and unpredictable. A classic.
In an earlier column I enthused over the terrific CD box set of Jazz on Film: Film Noir and its accompanying booklet. How could this gem be bettered? Well… it has. Moochin’ About has just released a gorgeous new five-CD box-set with another informative 30-page booklet, Jazz on Film: Beat, Square & Cool. Featuring more lost or hard-to-get soundtracks remastered to a high standard, it includes such hipster efforts as The Connection, The Subterraneans (imagine A-Team’s George Peppard as Jack Kerouac! Score by Andre Previn), Shadows (a Cassavetes classic, score improvised by Charles Mingus no less), Paris Blues (score by Duke Ellington) and another wonderful four titles. Lovingly prepared and beautifully presented, this is a must-have set.
Finally, a rather unique title from a little-known publisher. Chaplin Books has released Françoise Schlitz’s The Future Revisited, an examination of Hollywood’s film versions of Jules Verne’s novels with a focus on Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, Mysterious Island and Journey to the Center of the Earth – a film seen in childhood which mesmerised me. Schlitz takes a multi-disciplinary view of the films and culture in which they were produced, with an emphasis on how Verne’s original novels launched readers into travels to imaginary places and provided them with newly imagined – but somehow plausible – experiences therein. She then goes on to deliberate how these spectacles and marvels intersected with, and were translated into, works that served the concerns of modernism, capitalism, notions of progress and consumption, all in aid of American post-war hegemony. Cinematic textual challenges to gender, politics, domesticity, innovation and science itself are winkled out of the films in question and an interesting account has been articulated. If at times the book has the whiff of a re-worked Ph.D thesis, what with its initial insistence on articulating methodologies and justifying certain contextual approaches before the unfolding of the narrative proper, it is nonetheless interesting for all that and provides a welcome perspective on a rarely examined aspect of film history.
James B. Evans
GONE… BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
You’ll pay a premium for securing a copy of this terrific title, Cocaine Fiends and Reefer Madness, Michael Stark’s illustrated history of drugs in the movies. It was a seminal study on the topic, and subsequent writers have borrowed generously from Stark’s research and thorough overview of the topic – though not always acknowledging him. The book was published by Cornwall Press in New York in 1982 and has long been out of print. It pops up on ABE and Alibris from time to time and I was lucky to pay £10 for it a few years ago on Charing Cross Road – you know the Charing Cross Road that used to have lots of used bookshops before the days of designer coffee shops and eateries. It is essential, along with Harry Shapiro’s out of print Shooting Stars: Drugs, Hollywood and the Movies (Serpent’s Tail, London) and the equally essential, though still available Addicted: the Myth and Menace of Drugs in Film by the ubiquitous Jack Stevenson. Save these books! JE
Unconventional trio Dead Rat Orchestra have been tinkering with harmoniums, axes, pigeon flutes, folly snow-boxes, home-wired glitchers and organ pipes for nearly a decade. Their new album was originally recorded as the soundtrack to Intrepid Cinema’s critically acclaimed BBC Documentary The Guga Hunters of Ness, which follows the journey of ten men from the community of Ness on the Isle of Lewis as they embark on a traditional hunt for gannets. Utilising their customarily unconventional instrumentation to create precarious and powerful abstract-folk, the trio of Daniel Merrill, Robin Alderton and Nathaniel Mann have come up with a powerful score, with compositions seeded in hours of study of Hebridean folk song. The Guga Hunters of Ness is out now on Critical Heights. For more information, please go to the Dead Rat Orchestra website. Below, the trio pick their favourite films.
1. Nanook of the North (1922)
We have had a nine-year love affair with Nanook ever since we first performed a live score to it back in 2003. At first, we were seduced by the stunning images, protracted pace, hand-written title boards, Inuit faces and the romance of the whole thing. Reverence descended into obsession as we began to delve deep into the origins of the film: reading biographies of the life of director Robert Flaherty; becoming engrossed in his diaries from the period. Soon our superficial affinity for the film gave way to a deeper understanding of what the film actually is: not a documentary film at all but a completely fictitious construct attempting to distil Flaherty’s experiences of 12 years living with the Inuit. As such, the film reveals almost as much about the director himself as the Inuit portrayed. This process of research enabled us to re-assess the score we had developed as we peeled back new layers of meaning. A good example is a scene in which Nanook, on the brink of starvation, spears a seal through an ice-hole and struggles to pull the beast to the surface on the end of a rope. We had always struggled scoring this section, concluding that it was actually the scene itself that was at fault – it felt overly long to us and lacked the drama that the event demanded. Through our research, we discovered that in fact the entire scene was a set-up! Flaherty had imported a dead seal from several hundred miles away, slipped the carcass down the ice-hole and got ‘Nanook’ to re-enact the hunt. Suddenly our misgivings made sense! We were not viewing a moment of life or death struggle, but a performance: almost a dance for the director. We changed tack and approached the scene as a dance scene – suddenly it sprung into life! (Band pick)
2. Let’s Get Lost (1988)
Weber’s Let’s Get Lost documents the comeback attempt by an aged and life-worn Chet Baker. Simultaneously it charts the story of his personal life through stunning cinematography, while liberally including abstract set pieces featuring actors (including a cameo by Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ bassist, Flea), which serve to embody the director’s readings of events. Chet is revealed as a callous and selfish lover who leaves a string of women in his wake, each of whom despises him but clearly remains deeply enamoured. Frankly, Baker was a bit of a bastard but one whose shadier actions were always absolved by the strength of his charm and his music. Somehow Weber managed to induce the very same sensation in me as the viewer – one of concurrent revulsion and enchantment – and, after seeing this film, I fell for Chet’s music. (Nathan)
3. The Shock Doctrine (2009)
Based on Naomi Klein’s book of the same title, The Shock Doctrine explores the lengths that governments will go to to force free market economics onto nations, regardless of the hideous consequences. Coining the term ‘disaster capitalism’, Klein demonstrates how these organisations opportunistically use natural disasters and also engineer economic ones as a form of electro-shock treatment on a mass cultural level. They create confusion and division reprogramming governments and cultures to take on free market ideologies that are against their own interests (much like the electro-shock processes used to ‘treat’ mental illness, with the aim of rewiring the patients’ thought processes). (Daniel)
4. Wings of Desire (1987)
I first saw this film in those dark and brooding late-teen days and in many ways it seemed the perfect fit, showing a way through: a glimmer of hope. As with all of Wim Wenders’s works, it’s unashamedly poetic and evocative. The film deals with the decision of an angel, on watch over the everyday struggles of an unknowing mankind, to renounce his immortality and become mortal. He chooses to experience the sensual and corporeal; to experience love. A sense of division is at the heart of the film, both between the spiritual and corporeal world – and within the setting of a still divided Berlin. It’s a film of longing. It also features an ace cameo from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the rare sight of Peter Falk (of Columbo fame) playing himself, or at least a version of himself as another ‘fallen’ angel. (Robin)
5. La Jetée (1962) La Jetée is a masterpiece of storytelling achieved through narration, still photographs and music. It never fails to captivate me and so strong are the images and narrative that I remember them far more vividly than any other film I have seen. A must! (Nathan)
6. Solaris (2002)
I’ve picked out Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 re-imagining of the story rather than the classic Andrei Tarkovsky version (1972). But I’m comfortable with that because this film spoke to me in a way I wasn’t expecting. Aside from beautiful cinematography and pacing, the sound design of this film opened me up in a way few other films have managed to do. Perhaps it was sitting right in front of the speakers when I first saw it at a cinema in Wood Green but I heard every detail and felt pulled in by the tension that is part of the architecture of the film. Add to that one of my favourite film scores, crafted carefully by Cliff Martinez, featuring an incredible combination of strings and pattering, percussive gamelan. A brooding and meditative work, it changed the way I listen to films and also led me to start learning gamelan. (Robin)
7. Someone Else’s Voice (1949)
When a magpie returns home to the motherland after travelling abroad, it challenges the local song thrush to a singing contest. The thrush sings sweetly to the wonder of the residents of its local woodland commune and receives rapturous applause. The magpie takes to the stage, dressed in decadent Western jewellery with the air and swagger of a rock star, before bursting into some red hot bebop, convulsing and grinding to the brass honk of her beak, with the beat of the drums resonating through her hips. The magpie is chased out of town by a bunch of young red birds, enforcing the message that it is better to stay true to your traditional roots than adopt new cultural forms. This piece of late Stalinist propaganda is hilarious and important on so many levels. Though its message is clear, the fun of the seemingly possessed magpie actually did more to propagate the spread of jazz in Russia than enforce Stalinist ideals! The Dead Rats feel an affinity with the magpie as this borrowing of all things shiny is a part of our process… And we hope we can give as fun a performance. (Daniel)
8. The White Diamond (2004)
Herzog’s documentaries are often criticised for being exploitative and too snide or tongue-in-cheek for their own good. For me, these aspects are merely conscious devices, employed to ensure that his poetic and ruminative pieces (which are always carefully layered and constructed towards commenting across the spectrum of the human condition) don’t become too sappy. The White Diamond is a beautiful example of this. (Nathan)
9. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
What would you do if your relationship was failing and everyone around you started turning into zombies? This film attempts to answer those problems. Cleverly put together with references to the great and good spilling over, it’s immensely funny and good fun – probably the first ‘rom-zom-com’! I loved Spaced and used to live where the film was shot so, on some level, can imagine it happening. (Robin)
10. The Wobblies (1979)
Wobblies is the nickname given to the members of the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), a radical and militant union started in 1905. Its radical face-to-face democracy and anti-hierarchical stance have made it one of the most confrontational and effective unions in fighting for workers’ rights. This film is entirely narrated by older members of the union who fought in some of the most seminal battles in the U.S. and helped to establish some of the basic workers’ rights that are now legal norms in the West. The beauty of this film comes from the amazing stories of resistance that these people tell; here are people who have lived exceptionally hard lives, made even harder by persecution by governments and employers alike, but who have truly fought and saved themselves through the power of the unique union they formed. The conditions they describe are shocking but the music they make as they protest is inspiring! Watch out for an appearance by anarchist song writer Utah Phillips (an old timer in the unique position of being one of the younger members featured in the film). (Daniel)
Gaggle are a multi-membered all-female contemporary choir led by classically trained Deborah Coughlin. A powerfully intelligent and creative group (a ‘gaggle’ in fact…) of women, their music ranges from beats to opera and is powered by vocal force. Gaggle’s debut album will be released on Transgressive in early 2012. For more information please go to the Gaggle website. Below, ten different members of Gaggle, named at the end of their contributions, pick their favourite films. Delia Sparrer
1. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
I only like films that pass the Bechdel Test (it has to have at least two women in it, who talk to each other, about something other than a man). I wish I had known about the test, and wish I had watched this film when I was 12, the same age as the protagonist Dawn Weiner. This is no ordinary pre-teen coming-of-age film; Dawn could be a 12-year-old riot grrrl or young Enid Coleslaw from Ghost World. The film is realistic yet kitsch in its portrayal of female outsiderness and suburban ennui. It captures the awkward yet sacred rituals of girldom perfectly, especially in the scene where Dawn performs an incantation over her DIY shrine to her dreamy teen crush Steve, glitter and candles flickering on her bedroom carpet. Welcome to the Dollhouse doesn’t pander to any of the ‘ugly duckling turned swan’ pre-teen film clichés, nor does everything turn out alright in the end, and it’s all the better for it. Glossolalia
2. The Evil Bong (2006)
The first time I watched this film I was half drunk on Kopparberg and eating Camembert (that might have been heart-shaped) on baguettes in a huge Gaggle Tour Bus, sat next to my bezzie mate Boadicea. We had this TV on the coach with literally thousands of films on it. As Gaggle are one big happy family, Daddy Gaggle Simon (writer, sound engineer, producer), who obviously had the remote (cock reference anyone?) skimmed through the options and eventually we found this – a gleaming gem of a film that no one thought we would watch all the way to the end. But we did, and I thank Christ every day for it. Apparently, what keeps 30 women entertained and quiet for more than half an hour is tits and drugs. Evil Bong is essentially a dumb stoner movie made on a budget better suited to YouTube. It eloquently tells the story of a group of stoners that inhale more than they bargained for, smoking from a possessed Amazonian bong. After a few ‘tokes’ the stoner boys are transported into a strip club (so far so good) and are danced around by hot topless ladies (great) who later murder them (Uh oh!), leaving their straight-living nerd roomy to save the day… It’s not pretty to look at, the plot’s bizarre, but it has the boyish charm of Beavis and Butthead and a billion other Vice/MTV rotters before it. Which basically makes it Lipstick Gaggle’s dream come true. If I wanted ‘Culture’ I’d go and watch Amelie. Lipstick
3. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
God – where to begin for reasons… It’s such a heart-wrenching tale about love, discrimination, disability, creative expression and done in such a fantastical, imaginative and sensitive way. A grown-up fairy tale. The production design and general style of the film is so incredibly cool, even today. I love that bit when all the cars come out of their pastel-coloured driveways in perfect timing – it’s such a brilliant shot to represent the eeriness of suburbia… And also when Edward cuts all the women’s hair and they all pretty much jizz their pants… And that bit when Kim dances in the garden under the snowflakes that Edward is making from his ice sculptures… And it’s got Johnny Depp… swoon… and Winona before she went mental and started stealing things. WONDERFUL! WigWham
4. The Seventh Seal (1957)
This is a film that totally stuck in my head after I watched it, even though it’s really different from and more serious than the type of films I usually tend to like. Max von Sydow is perfect as the soul-searching knight playing chess with Death – he barely even seems to say that much, it’s all in his sad eyes! It has a great mixture of being subtle in its telling but surreal in its content. The Crusades, the ever-present threat of the Black Death and the reality of witch burnings provide a backdrop that is both bizarre but familiar and totally fascinating. Apart from that, it’s strange to see iconic imagery that you then realise has been parodied and pastiched many times over (most comically perhaps in Bill and Ted – who play, and beat, Death at Twister and Battleships). It also inspired one of my favourite songs by Scott Walker. Sredni Vashtar
5. Sliding Doors (1998)
I’ve never looked at the world in the same way since watching this film. It made me question whether one moment really can change your path forever or if our fate is decided from the outset and the succession of events leading up to the end result is what we know to be life. I can turn my head in knots thinking about it and it does baffle me but I also find it very exciting – I can’t wait to see what life brings my way. Belle
6. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
Centred around two characters who feature quite largely in Hamlet’s life as his best friends, but are dispensed with in just one line and no further comment in the rest of the Shakespearian play. In this film adaptation of his own play, Stoppard (who is a genius when stretching the limits of language to absurdity) uses the medium to its advantage, creating a funny, surreal, nonsensical and cyclical piece of cinema. Also I just love Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, they are definitely British acting gems. Corvus
7. The Dark Knight (2008)
First of all Christopher Nolan: the man is a genius, and in my humble opinion has yet to make a bad movie. In The Dark Knight, Batman is simply badass, and when you take the Batman universe from the comic and drop it straight into a real-world crime drama you are on to a winner! All the campness of the 60s TV series and the awful Joel Schumacher movies are replaced by a dark and gritty atmosphere. The film is so well crafted with rounded characters all with depth and inner conflict, beautiful cinematography (Chicago makes an amazing Gotham City), and some breathtaking action set-pieces that aren’t reliant on crappy CGI. Jezebel
8. Hairspray (1988)
The John Waters one OF COURSE. Because it has the best fucking soundtrack, and it’s got the best performance of people doing the Madison in it. The best fucking hair, DIVINE GOD BLESS HER SOUL, and Ricki Lake AND Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono and Rik Ocasec as a beatnik – I don’t think I need to explain anymore than that. Strick
9. Mullholland Drive (2001)
I love the dark atmosphere of this film and how you can interpret the story in several different ways as it shifts between reality and the unconscious. The non-linear approach to storytelling is truer to life. Naomi Watts plays such a stand-out role in this, bringing to life several different characters through the movie and each one as believable as the other. Mixed with the surreal element and set against the backdrop of Hollywood, it gives a great dark insight to the depths of what is usually portrayed as an aspirational and glamorous place. Swanimaru
10. Now, Voyager (1942)
After much deliberation (Jurassic Park, Sister Act, Eraserhead, Slaves of New York, Lost Boys didn’t make the cut!) I think I have to contribute Now, Voyager. Stylish and moving, Bette Davis plays a really inspirational woman who finds her own happiness, ignoring the expectations and conventions of others. It explores some pretty modern ideas considering it was made in 1942 – from the stigma of suffering from depression and the success of talking therapies to women’s independence and a celebration of unconventional family relationships, with some timeless lines and a complicated but happy ending thrown in. McClean
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews