Thursday, 28 June 2012


'Comparisons are reductive.  And the critical game of trying to describe a piece of art by naming two others is not only lazy, but cheating.  If I were to say that this film is a blending of Jodorowosky's Holy Mountain and Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line (with the mystical terrorism of Michael Mann's The Keep), I would feel a sense of embarrassment about my ability to describe what I see to you.  But I did mention them, and even in withdrawing them I leave something for you to go on (like a prosecuting lawyer who draws groundless pictures which will inevitably be struck out by the judge, knowing that the pictures are in the minds of the jury and cannot be unseen).  A fake, maybe, but now you have a turnstile into the correct ballpark that holds And Tonight We Take Babel, and you can feel the ebb and flow of its game, restricted seating or otherwise.' Mitch Michener (1)

A spy has already given her life in exchange for smuggled footage, taken by microcameras hidden in her hair.  Based on this information, the psych-drum was struck, calling the men.  Soon, the corridors echo with humming nuns, one sitting in every home that has sent a soldier.  Families launch night-time candlelit vigils through the centres of towns.  Silently.  They walk a strict route as an omen of disaster, the song of curlews at night, has been heard.

We will witness, from beginning to end, a military attack on an enchanted meadow of noise.  The need for this land is never entirely clear, but we can gather from the bubbling voicebox thrum coming from it that it is more than a symbolic or strategic significance, and that the holy din therein can cause men to believe that they can swim new rivers and end all wars. 

The weather spoils one advance, leaving platoons marooned at the foot of the hill.  As they await instructions, their supplies, which consist mainly of powdered drinks, run low, and they are forced to brew soups from the spillages of wildlife.  They haven't seen the enemy yet, but know that too long spent in the valley could see them fatally outflanked.  The mood is itchy.  The prophylactic errors in boudoirs of towns on the trail must be left behind, a new spiritual strength must be found for the assault.  But where?  The valley is filled with exotic foliage.  Broccoli trees loom up to fifty feet, but are yellow and inedible at this time of year.  Endless shining truths loom on the horizon, ready to poison a corporal.  The men know that waiting until the solstice will make the attack harder.  But striking on the night itself, the longest there is, might swiften the end.

In the meantime, the regiment's icon is placed on a tablecloth at the head of the advance.  It sits, hot as an electric fence, crackling with premonitions of action.  Soldiers take turns making offerings, hoping to wash their arms with oranged energy before battle.  Their prayers seem to be grammatically unconnected lists, as if proving to their god that Babel Hill, with it's surfeit of language, must be delivered; without it their words have no meaning.  Despite their claims to blankness, corrupt imagery seeps through their syllables.

Generals in their tent discuss ball games from home to avoid talking about the paradoxes of battle:  We do not need to fight.  But we need to win.  We do not have a reason to fight unless we win.  Then meaning follows. 

One general, more thoughtful than the others, has been observing the men:
'Although the battle plan imposes few constraints on the movements of its soldiers, I learn with interest that individual performances do not diverge significantly from one another, nor does the regiment degenerate into chaos.  The fact that this does not happen is of considerable interest, because it suggests that somehow a set of controls which are not stipulated in the plan arise in battle, and that these "automatic" controls are the real determinants of the war.  Optimistically speaking, we are perhaps far more telepathic than we suspected.  On the other hand, perhaps we lack any imagination. This is fascinating, and could prove decisive in either direction.'

Psychic soldiers behind our lines sit and project an invisible netting over the battlefield.  Their concentrated efforts not only slow the movements of the enemy, but give our men the opportunity to advance through the air.  Teams of six can, with a combination of molasses, Diet Coke and prayer, lift off the ground and spin over the battlefield. Many of these early scouts will be shot out of the sky and move on to Valhalla introductory ceremonies, but the drama of their percussive deaths allows our army to find new positions.  The rest of us salute them, and run into our new positions.  The objective is now in view.

The enemy sends shunts into our psychic field.  These low-resistance connections in the circuit form an alternative path for a portion of the current. This bypass allows their guerrillas passage into our body channels, and if not stopped quickly, they can surgically divert blood from out vessels.    Instructions to the front line become ever more damaged and confused, arriving as whispered rumours.  The battle rages for days.

The general:
'Perhaps the only way to truly outflank this enemy is if we find a brand new pattern of assault.  I propose that we send a platoon through the unguarded pass we call The Afterlife.  Once there, these men can cause havoc with the minds of the enemy, who do not believe in what they cannot see.  Once these men have plotted coordinates, a massive rush of men behind them will swing the battle decisively.'

An explosion, and suddenly we are in a quiet room.

Young, young men smile and escort us through the white.  They are sort of astronauts, but with all the psychological aspects of sailors.  Their calm smiles lead us to a banquet.  We tell them of our orders, to take the pass, but they insist that we sit.  Slowly, the guilt we feel about abandoning our colleagues fades, and as course after course of delicious food is brought to us, we begin to believe that perhaps we have won.  For surely, only the owners of the melodious field of Babel could provide such a meal.

And Tonight We Take Babel Directed by Hans Van Den Boom Produced by Ronny van der Linden Written by Hans van den Boom Starring Willem Joos, Rutger Hauer, Herman Brood, Jeroen Krabbe, Hans van den Boom  102 mins OranjeFilm/ Rank Organisation Release Date UK: Sept 1977 US: N/A Tagline:'War Is Hill.'

1. First Lines From The Front Lines  (MacMillan, 1985)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

BEAT STAR (George Pammell, 1960)

The first thing you have to do is get an audience with Donald P. Impressario.  He's the main brain.  He has a stable of lads, all with names conveying undoubted star power.  Some will tell you that you should go it alone, employ a manager rather than be employed by one, that some singers earn 500 pounds a week, and that Impressario will only pay you 20 at first, but what they don't tell you is that he gives you a five year-contract, and he knows how to put you on the right bills.  He's a starmaker, and no mistake.

And look at his list: Dickie Brown, Bobby Dream, Luke Famous, John Gently, Vic B.Goode, Nelson Drive, Jimmy Lies, Dougie Anger.  Masters of the suggestive.  To a man they can rock a civic hall with a beat or bring the girls to screams just with the way they light a cigarette. 

Some of them are in Chichester on Friday.  This is your chance.  You know some chords.  When you worked on the barges after you escaped from that horrible comprehensive you held that job for a while, and you even liked it.  When it was quiet, the old fella Joe taught you a few blues runs on his homemade guitar, and you'd picked it up alright, Joe had said.  But they'd sacked you in the end, just like the other places, and now your Dad is all over your back with talk of the army.  You're eighteen in two weeks, and it is now or never. 

You put on your best blazer, the one you picked up in London when you went there that time, the one with the green silk lining that cost a packet that you hide under your bed.  You don't ring your mates, because they'll want to lark about and throw fag ends at girls, and they don't even know you've got some songs anyway.  They won't want the hassle of the train up to Chichester and back anyway, they reckon the big beat is silly half the time.  Elvis came out four years ago, and this fad will be done soon, they reckon.

The doorman is distracted by a blonde in a polka-dot dress, so you step by, push through the girls at the stage door and you're in.  A man asks you what you want, and you say you're looking for Mr Impressario.  That's me, he says.  Whereupon you tell him you've got some songs for his boys.  He takes you to the dressing room, where Bobby Dream is doing his hair.  Up close he looks even younger than you, has some acne, but still has that something.  American cars in his eyes.  He gives you his guitar and you carefully strum through one of your numbers.  Mr Impressario watches and says nothing, just keeps asking if you've got any more  Each one you play causes Bobby to tap his feet, click his fingers and fidget.  Sometimes he laughs at a particular change or lyric.  You can't tell if he likes the songs or not.

So you want to be a beat star,  he says, and you say no, no, you just want a publishing deal.  It doesn't work that way, he says.  Mr Impressario gets up, puts his arm around you, and leads you down a corridor.  The brush-off is imminent, you're sure, and he pushes you through a door.  There are lights in your face.  You turn back, and there is a red curtain.  You turn again, and see that you're on stage.  There are girls screaming.  You're mad, you've been tricked.

Sell it son, Mr Impressario shouts through  his laughter.  You're stricken.  You can't move.  You hate him for showing you up.  But the girls keep screaming,  and looking at you expectantly.  They can't see through the illusion.  They buy it.  You play a few awkward chords, and they still buy it.  You give them a number, stammering over a word or two, and they love it even more.

When you leave the stage, Mr Impressario puts his arm around you again.  He thinks you can do a deal.  And he's got a name for you.  Ricky Nervous.  It's a good name, he says.  You don't normally stammer you say, and will be sure to be more confident next time, when it won't be a surprise.  But he wants you to stammer for England.  Stammer like there's no tomorrow.  The girls don't love Elvis because he is tough, he says, they love him because he's a Mummy's boy, and that's why they'll love you too.

Beat Star Directed by George Pammell, Produced by Tom Harverd, Richard Richardson.  Written by Ron Stockwell  Starring Vince Eager, Max Miller, Marty Wylde, Anthony Newley Red Arrow/ Rank Organisation 94 mins UK Release Date: March 1960 Tagline: 'So you wanna be a beat star, eh?'

Friday, 6 April 2012

MONA (Lance Adams, 2012)

Jeff Hudson (Patton Oswalt) is thrilled when he lands a job as a writer for Bona Comics. He's been drawing and self-publishing his own titles for years with little success, and this opportunity is beyond his wildest dreams. His friends are confused that his chance has come now, and tease him about his love for Bona's most famous creation, Mona.

To them, Mona is nothing more than a refracted Wonder-Woman, a photocopied Supergirl; she has had so many shapely forms over the years, and been redrawn so frequently, that her face is a pixelated wash of back-stories. Up-close the dotted print of her skin is pockmarked with cancelled and re-cancelled origin tales, her hair burnt with re-dyed roots. But Jeff is in love, and encouraged by a dream in which it was prophesied that he would write 'The Greatest Story Ever Told In Boxes,' he approaches Bona with relish.

He has never before been past the lobby of the crumbling art-deco building in Midtown that has been home to Bona Comics since the late fifties, and he bounces his excitement off the high ceilings. His new colleagues are less enthusiastic. The other writers are depressed cynics who make it clear to Jeff that his writing abilities will rarely be used; The legendary originator of Bona and creator of Mona, Paul Bona (Frank Langella), has written every one of her stories for fifty years, and only takes on scraps of the team's ideas. Her shifting identity serves as testament to his obsessive attempts to perfect Mona.

Paul Bona lives and works on the top floor of the building, and rarely leaves. The writers send their efforts up to him in a dumbwaiter, and otherwise idle their days away playing pool. Jeff's illusions about his new employer are challenged, but when a combination of social ineptitude, persistence and a slapstick delivery mix-up (involving weary elevator man Tom Waits) results in Jeff stumbling into Bona's secret lair, he finds a surprise.

Rather than being the genius control freak of lore, Bona turns out to be a shambling wreck. He invites Jeff to stay and share Chinese food, and the pair sit in a dark room on furniture covered with sheets, while Bona tells his story. In the early years writing was easy for him. On any wet afternoon in the late fifties, Bona might invent and sketch a dozen superheroes, and fill in their histories before the bar closed. Those hopeful years were fuelled by his caffeinated energy and boozy enthusiasms. Of all of his creations, he loved none more than Mona. She grew from a blurry Amazonian pastiche into a modish icon by the mid-sixties, and flickered on the edges of mainstream success. Her small but loving fanbase stuck with her through manifold puberties and menopauses, as her powers evolved from the standard karate-expert/detective beginnings, on through various borrowed abilities, until the Mona we recognise today (a telekinetic sensitive),was established in the 1980s.

Bona tells Jeff that this was around the time that he realised, through the receding haze that was his recovery from alcoholism, that for a long time he had not been writing the stories. He'd always shared credits with younger writers to get them an avenue into the industry, but had written all the Mona stories himself. He hadn't remembered writing many of the seventies Mona strips, of course, because he was drunk for the whole decade. But that wasn't what he meant. 'At some point it dawned on me... that Mona herself has grown her own intelligence and is writing her own stories. She's already managed to siphon company funds into a new account in the name of her alter-ego, Jodie Green. I don't really understand how she did that. But I'm more concerned with what happens next.'

The shifting identity of Mona over the years wasn't caused by Bona's ego, fashion, or market forces it seems; but by Mona's own hand, as she aimed to craft her own personality. She is making herself into the woman she most wants to be.

Bona expects Mona to somehow make her escape. Can he stop her, with Jeff's help? Should they stop her? Would a flesh and blood Mona, filled with the good values Bona tried to instill in her, be a blessing to the world? And how will Jeff react to the prospect of his heroine threatening to become real?

Mona Directed by Lance Adams Produced by Rich Thompson Written by
Art Poize, Lance Adams Starring Patton Oswalt, Frank Langella, Marianne Faithfull (voice), Tom Waits Universal Pictures 115 mins. Release Date UK/US: May 2012 Tagline: 'And Woman Created Woman.'

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

LE BOTOX (Jean Champi, 1957)

In the 54 years it has taken to officially arrive in this country (this country being, variously, America, the USA, or some virtual construct located in both, either or neither) Le Botox (1) hasn’t aged a day. Its joy is as infectious as ever, its anarchy still as cutting (and cutting still as anarchic) as that of the far more celebrated Godard; and the free-and-easy techniques once described by Andrew Sarris as “of very mixed quality” look not only resolutely masterly but succinctly modern. There is a long shot following Pierre along the street, past the market and crowds, which makes a similar sequence in À bout de souffle look almost contrived; And during the scene in which Paulo (Michele Abbruzzo) serves at the Riviere restaurant, the elegant complication of Champi's tracking shots, weaving like slick ghosts through a staged bustle, couldn't have been guided any more perfectly by anyone else. His later sequence, following a family's departure from Tours and out into the Loire Valley, is studded with such quiet gold as to render the need for such gimmickry as colour, smell and 3-d as almost superfluous. All this without modern lightweight cameras too.

That Champi is not thought of as one of the French directors who 'turned the 20th Century about-face'(2) in the fifties and sixties is the kind of cruel sequence that the director himself conspires in his films, and one which he dealt with phlegmatically. 'True pioneers get lost in the wilderness years before civilization even knows they're gone,' he said at Cannes in 1972, when a campaign to have a new cut of Le Botox shown at the festival failed. But by the time he had come to be convinced of his genius, it had left him. His last two films, Paris Dans L'Ombre (1969) and La Fiction Est Fiction (1971) had failed completely, the thrusting camerawork obstructing the audience's embrace. He surely knew, after that, that Le Botox would be his one masterpiece, never to be bettered. Such knowledge so early in life (Champi was twenty-four when he made Le Botox, and sidled into Cannes two weeks before his fortieth birthday) is a sore test.

Traces of Le Botox can be seen across the contemporary cinematic landscape, as if we still cannot deal with it in its entirety. The subplot in which Paolo, prompted by a writing class exercise follows and becomes obsessed with a woman is blown up to fill the narrative in both David Thewlis' skinny and grim Lecher (2008, in which the director himself plays the man who ends up murdering the girl) and Neil Burger's Exercise (in which Christian Bale follows a girl, only to discover that his wife is paying her to drive him insane by acting out a biography of his fantasies).

Champi's screened illusions, showing us the trickery and wonder of our surround, hover just out of view, despite the microscopic attention thrown over this period of French cinema. He was never as caustic as Chabrol, as aggressive as Godard. He couldn't keep as cool as Rohmer, and he lacked the energy of Truffaut. He could match none of them for stamina. But filmmaker and friend Agnes Varda knew his worth. She describes Le Botox as '... the forgotten vowel of the French cinematic language. If we could only remember it, and remember how to fashion its form on our page and in our mouths, we could complete secret sentences of new perfections.'(3)

Le Botox Directed by Jean Champi Produced by Jean Champi, Michael Ravelle Written by Thomas Brix Starring Michele Abruzzo, Maria Lucho, Francois Truffaut SRV Films 119 mins Release Date UK/Fra: Oct 1957 Tagline: 'Too rich, too poor, Too hungry for more'.

1. Le 'Botox' being a French word for a 'hearty appetite' or an 'eager young boy', according to Merriam-Webster, or a 'hungry young cocksmith' according to Mary M. Webster (citation needed).
2. Sarris' famous phrase included the core group of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol and Rivette
3. Sight & Sound, March 2008

Friday, 4 November 2011


If one were to compile a book of pictures of the Soviet star Tanya Ryazantsev (and indeed someone has, but it might not count: as the evidence is absent from the web in body of image and of thought. He was a Ukranian photographer (with the distinctly un-Ukranian name of Sauvage), whose collection did not survive Glasnost to arrive safely in the ultimate age of carbon-dated ephemera retrieval, the digital one), one might see a study in the the effort that it takes to construct a frown: for rarely has an icon made looking iconic seem so hard-earned. If she has pedagogical eyes and learned limbs, then she is straining every last branch of her family tree to appear this way.

The photos would show all of her body parts, in varying sequences: the tight calves, stretched as if about to snap; the protruding collarbone, as distinct from her upper torso as a garland of ceremonial tibias; eyelashes, thin and fair, invisible in the sun.

Warhol's treatment of the star in many ways fits his treatment of everything: Ryazantsev's cheekbones are flattened, her expression deadened, her complexion rendered as pale as one of his own palid hairpieces. Warhol, the story goes, lost interest in the star long before he'd finished shooting her, passing her onto David Salle. Characteristically, the Factory host found the scenes that were shot and edited by Salle to be among the finest work that he himself ever produced. If Warhol traced the dichotomies between commerce and art, his most profound statements were the ones that crossed the production line: the silk screens made by others, for example. The films at which he cast but the most cursory glance are the ones that bear his stamp most surely. Such is the paradoxical grip of a certain brand of nihilism.

Ryazantsev then, an enigma of passions, her face a colony of efforts. But to what end? She certainly had none of the ambitions that seem to drive most actresses, and starred in only a handful of films in America, and then erratically. She supposedly turned down many big names over the years, only to say yes to the made-for-TV John Milius actioner Death Or Death? Ryazantsev returned to Russia in 1990 to 'walk the countryside and breathe the air. That is all.' Ryazantev, one suspects, is far too stupid or clever to care about her legacy. If her departure from cinema threatens to lend a Garbo tint to her narrative, the robust quietness of her post-fame life quickly distills such fancy. Garbo quit the screen because she cared, Ryazantsev because she couldn't care less.

In the final shot of the film that sealed her fame across Communist Eastern Europe, дневник моего заключительного года (Diary Of My Final Year, Lev Mikhailov, 1955) the girlish Tanya conjures a frown so delicately indecisive that the viewer feels tricked; its ambivalence strikes a contrast with the repeated mantra of her inner monologue ('You have to love yourself before you can hate anybody else, you have to love yourself before you can hate anybody else...') which spins ever onwards, until the words collide on the soundtrack, overlapping, and splitting, much like Alvin Lucier's sound piece I Am Sitting In A Room. The words become hollow and meaningless in repetition, an idea that Warhol, in particular, understood.

Ryazantsev Directed by David Salle Produced by Andy Warhol, David Salle Written by David Salle, Tanya Ryazantsev Starring Tanya Ryazantsev, Geri Miller Release Date US: Oct 1970 Tagline: 'Yes. No. Maybe. Maybe Not.'

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

FUTUR (Piotr Janas, 1958)

'Forty years and I have learned nothing, nothing useful, about the people, factories, politics and personalities of Hackney. The name has declined to a brand identity. A chart-topper: worst services, best crime, dump of dumps. A map that is a boast on a public signboard, a borough outline like a parody of England. My ignorance of the area in which I have made my life, watched my children grow up, is shameful. I've walked over much of it, on a daily basis, taken thousands of photographs, kept a, 8mm film diary for seven years: what does it amount to? Strategies for avoiding engagement, elective amnesia, dream-paths that keep me submerged in the dream.' Iain Sinclair

In 1947, Piotr Janas moved from Gdansk in Poland to London in England and immediately started work on his only film. His script revolved around a young man in wartime Poland who slipped forwards and backwards in time, and when he began shooting in the bereft streets of postwar London, the problem of the setting was evident. 'I didn't know if London was big enough to stage my memories of my bombed and occupied hometown. Even though it dwarfs Gdansk, the intensity of my destroyed home looms large.'

Janas never planned to leave anything more than just this one artifact, a nine-hour compendium of 'every thought, waking, sleeping, and the delicious etherworld in between.' He shot hundreds of hours of footage in London between 1947 and 1953, and became intrigued by the way that the narratives of different places can echo. 'I filmed so much, imprinting my memories of a now dead past onto my new home, that the effect was dizzying. I began to see doppelgangers of childhood girlfriends in the windows of London buses, and a turn down a calm street in Notting Hill one day drew me to my childhood road completely, even though they bear few similarities, except my own presence at one time, and then another.'

Compelled, Janas shot more footage throughout 1955 and 1956, bleeding his new autobiography into his script. 'All films are really, of course, about making films. The viewer cannot help but be aware, somehow, of the fact that their view is one given to them by an invisible hand. This was even more true for mine, it being my one and only attempt.' Janas' biography of his own time in London was being folded in on itself, ingredients inseparable from his time-travel plot: The process as the art.

In 1958 the film was released under the name Futur (the final 'e' being dropped because Janas wanted to acknowledge the unfinished quality of even an exhaustive work like this.) It is largely a science fiction narrative following a man as he jumps between occupied Poland and a dreamy future. But for long periods our hero is gone, vanished from the text, lost amid documentary footage of Picadilly Circus, Hyde Park, or Hackney's Mare Street. During many sequences, Janas' voice walks with us. His words are a jumble of his story and that of his character:

The future is made up of versions of the past, of course. Sometimes, our brain traces links, apparently to make the distortions more palatable. When I am in the future, I have memories of the present, and feel uncanny nostalgia for a variety of pasts. Walking down a London street, I know this is the near-future, so I scan the surroundings for clues, and tread carefully. It is busy, there are lots of people and cars. A girl loading furniture into a van wears a face mask to protect her breathing; a passing cyclist does the same. Other faces in the crowd wear them too, but not everyone. I pass a row of shops. Outside the pavement is filled with flatbed trolleys, the kind used to bring large amounts of milk or bottles of water back and forth. This makes the pathway hard to get through, so I step up onto one of the trolleys to let walkers pass in the other direction. Amongst the austere bustle, a dark-eyed woman smiles from under a furry Russian-style hat and fur coat. She looks like a school friend, fully grown, and is the only person making eye contact. Others move in and out of the supermarket with what I read as a life-during-wartime hollow calm, the kind that sets in after the realisation hits that panic stations cannot be manned permanently. Perhaps I am wrong.

I pass the supermarket. Behind me, a notably cheerful man camply declares that he will eat it (what? leftovers? something) with a few slices of FG. His female companion laughs. I walk on, debating in my head what FG might be. Conclusion: Fresh Golden, bread, and this sets a hunger off in me. I cross the street to a bakery selling the warmest, freshest loaves.

Home, at mother's. Except it is different. I reason that she has moved. It can't be too far into the future, but something has happened. This is a big, gorgeous house. I eat the bread with cheese, tomato and cucumber. My mother-in-law comes downstairs, and I remember that her and my father-in-law are staying here. My mother is out. My mother-in-law is carrying a cleaning device that is uses a vacuum- she has just done the upstairs bedroom, I guess, typically keeping busy. I show her the bread, and she is suddenly very hungry too. I cut more for her. I scan her face and the room for clues, something to bring back to my present, but I see none.

The unnamed central character never quite finds what he needs in either time. His frustration grows; this gift of foresight frequently proves useless to him, and the slivers of future he encounters contain little to carry back to the past for profit or nourishment. Before long, all he can see in the future is a looming absence: a world that rolls on, even after his death.

Futur Directed by Piotr Janas Produced by Thomas Standish Written by Piotr Janas, Tomas Lewandolski, Richard Smith Starring Robert Colt, Louise Mather Rabbit Films/CKF 552 mins Release Date UK: March 1958 US: 1982 Tagline: 'The Futur Is Murdr'

Saturday, 2 July 2011


My dreams are gone. I awoke with a phrase in my head that I knew was the key to unlocking a whole narrative, and repeated it to myself many times. I came up with an abbreviated set of codewords to help me recall the phrase, and an acronym of those words.

But it has all gone.

I first heard about Chocolate Cassette from David H, who (among many things) was the cultivator of a collection of anecdotal evidence of the wonder of pop culture's hidden corners. He had tracked down rumours of the film's existence across playgrounds and video shops of the West Midlands. His vivid descriptions, over several weeks, of the film's plot, dialogue, decor, acting nuances, and grand themes were, I knew, too complex to be completely true. His enjoyment of the telling was too obvious, and he would string us along at the end of a lunch break, withholding details until next time.

I stuck to him closely, convinced that he had seen the greatest film ever made, and that we, by being proxy witnesses, were glimpsing gold. And the more he told us, the more I knew it. I was sure it was a film pulled from my consciousness, and when the others lost interest (long after the most salacious details had been spent, their power rubbed out through repeated retellings), I hounded David H into further examinations, even prompting him when he forgot his own lines. Disappointed at his own waning absorption, I began writing down everything I could about the film. Before long I stopped bothering David H to check my work, and spun out alone.

By now, no-one else cared about the film, and only the curious insult taken from it lingered: Me? well you're as out-of-date as a chocolate cassette! My immersion into the world of the film I hadn't seen continued, to the point that I was certain that I had, after all, seen it. Hadn't I? In the time since I'd got a television for my eleventh birthday a couple of years earlier, I'd seen countless films. (In a way all of the entries in Fictional Film Club evoke a feeling in me, a feeling of falling asleep late at night close to my 14 inch portable television (in one of many possible bedrooms it lived), and waking up a little later to find a film underway. The sound levels of a film are vastly different to other television shows, and sometimes the drop to a quieter level wakes a dozer. In this particular scene and hundreds like it, I awake near the beginning; the protagonists are already involved in their story, but not so much that I can't keep track. In the days when more movies were on tv and less was written about them, you could stumble over them. B movies, classics, all treated equally, shown after hours. I saw many this way, not knowing until several days or years later what they were. Some are still lost, just vague structures of image and plot, evoking that Edward De Bono line about memory being that which is left when something happens and doesn't completely unhappen. There's the one where the kids break into what turns out to be a horror house, with the emaciated fella living in the walls (The People Under The Stairs, Wes Craven, 1992), or the man with nine lives performing dangerous jury duties in mob-ridden Chicago (Disclaimer, Tommy James, 1954), or further examples, on the tip of my-)

Chocolate Cassette lingered on the periphery for years until a recent visit home turned up some old diaries. A phone rings. Out of shot, a memory gathers. I knew nothing of this film until it popped into my head one day, sent there by a thousand ghosts. My writing from then is its own world, quite separate from the film. I quote:

'Sept 16, 1990.

I was about to go to bed last night when a film began on Channel Four. I idly watched the opening scenes, recognising both the father in the family who had played not only the leader of an unruly band of warriors (who also included an actor from an Australian television soap) in a lesser piece of sci-fi, but had been the host of a daytime gameshow in more recent years. The actress playing the mother I also recognised, but I couldn't place her. Their son found a diary, anyway, a plot point that seemed somewhat buried, and so I was subsequently baffled when the film swung on it. Anyway, grandparents loft, dusty light, treasure chest. Kid smashes the lock, finds nothing inside but shreds of newspaper. He thinks. But at the bottom is a diary. He takes it out. Leaves it in his room. Mum finds it one day. She opens it. Reads a random page:

'Dear Diary,

I cannot gather enough prose to talk about this. But I can put a clipping from the local rag below:

'Local Man Invents Chocolate Cassette'

[The following passage is highlighted.]

'....the ephemeral nature of song. You can record a tune which only plays once. A song that melts upon completion. No one can really remember it. It is a romantic one-off that you give to a loved one. They can eat the delicious mess. Ingest your melody.'

The distortions, from the real film, through David H's exaggerations and my own appropriations, only expand in time. Lies grow and grow, echo and echo. If I saw the film now, I'd probably overlook it, another face in the crowded station, so different it would be from my idea. Chocolate Cassette is my favourite film, at least until I see it.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

BABY SHOWER (Leo Katzenberg, 1977)

Todd Rundgren stars in this oddity (produced by Blake Edwards) about a man who, taking the advice of a successful gigolo (Cliff Robertson), begins gatecrashing baby showers in the Cincinnati area, arriving with presents in the hope of meeting women. Before long, he cannot successfully navigate any romantic encounter unless it takes place at one of these gatherings.

Time spent watching Baby Shower and trying to tell apart genuine gags and missteps of taste is time wasted. Take, for example, the Todd-sung refrain, added below. It reprises itself at least thirty times on the soundtrack, reflecting (rather too directly) our hero's sickening addiction. (1)

Baby Shower Directed by Leo Katzenberg Produced by Blake Edwards Written by Dom Perdue Starring Todd Rundgren, Maud Adams, Cliff Robertson Songs by Rodd Tungsten 88 mins Pink Productions Release Date US/UK: May 1977 Tagline:'Get out your one-sies and have some fun-sies!'

1. The songs, it should be noted, are credited to 'Rodd Tungsten'.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

JACKY (Jean Antoine, 1993)

'Obviously narration is only an act of memory; on the other hand, it holds nothing in reserve for future use; it merely derives a little pleasure from the states of dread by trying to formulate them as aptly as possible;from enjoyment of horror it produces enjoyment of memory.' Peter Handke (1)

'In the 1930s Warner Brothers developed a serious line in earnest, inspirational films celebrating great scientists, liberators and social benefactors, usually played by Edward G Robinson or Paul Muni, dedicated to Longfellow's lines in his "A Psalm of Life": "Lives of great men all remind us/ We can make our lives sublime/ And, departing, leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time." But Variety's contemptuous neologism "biopic" stuck, and biography has never had much standing in the cinema – unlike the literary world where, under the larger rubric of "life writing", it's a serious matter both to practise and study.' Philip French (2)

Joann Star's 2010 biopic Gainsbourg (vie héroïque) followed recent rock star narratives (Ian Curtis, Edith Piaf, Brian Jones, Peter Sellars, Bob Dylan) that eschew the Oscar-sweeping epic treatment of Gandhi or Lawrence of Arabia and settle for something more impressionistic or cheeky. Gainsbourg captures the nonchalant arc of its subject's life, is enjoyably raucous and thoroughly entertaining, but somehow it still leaves the viewer knowing less about the man that President Mitterand described, upon Gainsbourg's death in 1991, as somoeone who 'through his love for the language and his musical genius, lifted the song to the level of an art.'

The real truth is in fiction, of course. At the time of his death, Gainsbourg was filming a rollicking tale of a lady-killing singer. Jean Antoine's Jacky was fashioned from tall stories, and yet it can inevitably be read as a biopic of the star, whose own episodic life (with great highlights and a fair amount of mediocrity) serves as a bold confirmation of the print-the-myth ethos. After his death, the production continued without Gainsbourg, leaving a jumpy narrative that makes perfect nonsense, and thus his turn as the titular ungallant gallavanter is a bold sign-off, a self-penned eulogy, and somewhere between brilliant and disappointment.

Gainsbourg's existence is one that comes to us framed as a series of anecdotes (smoking in hospital post-heart attack, insulting American singer on television, being banned by the BBC for being too sexy, et cetera, et cetera), all fully-formed squares in a mythological tapestry, their veracity unimportant, their greater truth illustrative of something we admire: a man living to the edge of his capacities, world be damned. So too, Jacky's life is potted and episodic, every step a deviation from the road. The character is lifted from the Jacques Brel song of the same name (the galloping chanson that begins with the careering lines: 'And if one day I should become/A singer with a Spanish bum/Who sings for women of great virtue/I'd sing to them with a guitar/I borrowed from a coffee bar/ Well, what you don't know doesn't hurt you'), the one that treats its subject like a dreamy mystic, a pickpocket pragmatist, an ambitious romantic; the man who outdrank the Roman army, outsang Frank Sinatra and outfenced (Biblically speaking) Casanova, or so he says.

There is Gainsbourg, his face like a literary allusion, weighty and important as he can muster, knowing it is all a joke. His frequent accomplices (for he needs an audience, a victim, a stooge, someone to verify and spin) are excited by him. He is calmly crumpled in the residue of party after party, the veneer of noise on everything about him, but never on him; his eyes are hollows never to be full. In exchanges with another musician in a bar, we see a riff on Mae West cheek, making rich women buy them drinks so they can spill them on the suits of husbands. They step outside into the cool Marseille night, drunker than all hell, fighting their memories to put a face to a name: Steven Angiers, wasn't he at your college? A man you knocked out in a streetfight or prizefight? The man your mother left your father for? Or someone else?

But later, after many deviations, there is a Steven Angiers, and it is Jacky himself, overseas and in pseudonym, a man with no reason to live other than to prove that he can. Exposed to the winds, Jacky takes in Paris, Tangiers (because it rhymes with 'Angiers'), Bogota and Prague, actively looking for his lottery to throw a ticket towards. This snakes and ladders progress flicks the edges of destitute, and contains champion moments of alcoholic logic bereft of boozy remorse. 'I am Jacky, and I have a full compliment of fingers and toes,' is the repeated line to the changing faces in changing fauna, as if in a life of no clear path, such simple facts can stand as a humble gospel.

In the final scene, when Jacky takes the microphone in an empty bar, he doesn't know what his next song will be, and doesn't seem to care. (3) Absolute confusion looking very much like absolute bliss, and that is as it should be.

Jacky Directed by Jean Antoine Produced by Alain Terzian Written by Jean Antoine, Serge Gainsbourg Starring Serge Gainsbourg, Christian Clavier, Sabine Azema Strand Releasing Release Date UK/US: Jan 1993 126 mins Tagline: 'Too Many Pretty Singers, Not Enough Pretty Songs'

1. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
2. The Observer, August 2010.
3. The Gainsbourg-penned and performed songs 'Le Botox', 'Amour Cruise' and 'Mon Amant Avant-Dernier' appear in the film. The latter includes a verse sung in French, and then repeated in English:

You're my penultimate lover
The one before the one before the end
After you my energies will be sucked through the vacuum
By some peachy nymphet in a gloomy backroom
And I'll expire there sweating on the Indian rug
While she calls in the others to watch me slip down
To the spiteful netherworlds, where feeling so smug
I'll buy a drink for the jailer in exchange for a favour
A call to my love whose love never wavered
I'll tell her that down here it really is hell
O hello I'll be here a while , alas, oh well
Sort out her Lucifiction from her Lucifacts
Some of the boys have got on the escape committee
We know it's impossible, no room for self pity.

Monday, 30 May 2011

M.JAINET'S ETERNAL ZIGZAG (Francois Lepin Eziot, 1949)

Plotwise, this is as simple as those early cinematic experiments entitled Tennis Match or The Motorcar Departs: A man is pursued, endlessly, across borders. We pick up our sympathies from the details: small habits and clothing tell us that he is a member of the resistance and his assailant is a Nazi spyhunter. His name is M. Jainet, and he will run and run and run. The Nazi, trapped in hopeless caricature, has no name. Even as the film begins, we are clued in to what they both know: that this chase does not end when the war does. This is their own private battlefield, a psychic chess, and it knows no international law or politick. Their situations could be reversed, and they would behave in the same manner. Like Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle, a mutual suicide, keeping alive only to spite the other, clueless as to what death to either would mean.

Eziot takes a simple stylistic concept and holds it for 85 minutes, a captain clinging to his mast through a storm. An exercise in repetition, each scene is made up of a single shot, usually with an unmoving camera. Sometimes, a scene can sit empty for minutes: an abandoned market at night, a doorway outside a glowing bar, a towpath along a canal at dusk. But always, it seems, stairs are present, lifting through the darkness hopefully, to who knows where. Frequently, we have a three-quarter view, slightly elevated, a privileged angle on these cityspaces as smoky, desperate Eschers, cold geometries which our pair pass through. Diagrams freshly-built but anciently anatomical. Tension is never relieved, as every revelation is followed by a mind-wiped new scene. As soon as one man spots another (his body stiffening ecstatically out of the jetlag for a moment), his actions are quick and decisive, but ultimately mean nothing. Not unless we see capture and an end to the cycle, and we do not. For a new scene, in a new part of town, will surely follow. Sometimes Jainet finds the stairs, and our hopes are lifted. But he has only escaped to the next screen, to begin again.

In some scenes, nothing happens; there is no-one. In others, we might only see the pursuer or the pursued (perhaps searching eagerly, or hiding, or even, on occasion, relaxing, putting the danger aside for a moment (the latter of which is frequently the most affecting)); in at least one, both pass each other without noticing. Every time, we look for those faces: the twitchy, hopeful Jainet (played by Serge Reggiani, the popular French-Italian singer) and the lumbering never-tiring Nazi (Gaston Modot, who played another angry German in Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu (1939)).

At first, Eziot's espionaged theatricals seem like a game for the viewer, and each scene a mystery puzzle, a Where's Waldo? in frosty greys and blacks. But soon, the beautiful complexity of an eternally repeating screen (with the water-torture tension of infernal Pong) affects us, as does the knowledge that when Jainet ricochets himself into the edge of the screen, that is the end of it, but only for now.

Eziot tinkered repeatedly with his film, and the most widely seen cut from 1949 is by no means the most definitive. In 1972, He toured a 72-hour version entitled M.Jainet's Eternal Zigzag '72, with reels replayed in random orders; a stiffening, endless, Spy vs Spy, zen warfare, perpetual fear.

Francois Truffaut wrote about the experience of watching this version for Cahiers du Cinema: (1)

'In the theatre, the fans celebrated this event in various ways: there were poetry recitals at the back, and a drinking game near the front that fell away by the halfway point of the film. One group began to cheer the Nazi, perhaps finding in him the perennial despair of Wile E. Coyote, perhaps just yearning for a conclusion. Near me, a couple slept in each other's arms for the entire weekend, not looking up once. At one point, I became convinced that the roles had been reversed, and that Jainet was tracking his pursuer; Eziot had hypnotised me, or perhaps Jainet had realised that the best way to avoid capture was to follow... Despite the singular pacing of the film, the overall mood ebbed and flowed throughout: at one point, almost everybody cheered each carefully created scene, at another they were slow-clapping, and at others it seemed like it didn't matter what we were watching... after about eighteen hours, the backgrounds through which the two men move become less like Vichy France and more like other wartime outposts- Morocco, Stalingrad, Cyprus. By the fiftieth hour, I recognised nowhere. The longer one watches, the further away from the original place we are. One comes to feel that if one were to watch Jainet running for several weeks, he might end up leading his pursuer into the sun, or the outer rings of heaven; similarly, the viewer would leave the cinema to find themselves in a completely different city, on another planet, or in another body entirely.'

The film was homaged in Rick Marving's home computer games for the ZX Spectrum in those glorious early-1980s years of quick inspiration, bedroom programming and whimsical in-jokes. Monsieur Janney's Eternal Zig-Zag '82 and Monsieur Janney's Still Running, were both famous for being never-ending, self-generating puzzles, with no game over or prize screen.

M.Jainet's Eternal Zigzag Directed by Francois Lepin Eziot Produced by Jean Eziot Written by Francois Lepin Eziot Starring Serge Reggiani, Gaston Modot DisCina Films 99 mins Release Date UK/US: March 1949 'How long can you avoid yourself?'

1. July, 1972