Friday, 5 December 2008


At this time of year, we indulge ourselves and watch movies that we wouldn't consider at any other time. With this in mind, I've pulled a top five of personal favourites from the archives for a special festive edition of Fictional Film Club. Here are the films you don't fall asleep to after Christmas dinner, but wish you could.

CHRISTMAS BOX (Joe List, 1972)
The original Christmas lesbian porn flick that incited America and caused The People vs Christmas (1975) court-case that set a precedent. Because New York Prosecutor Dick Fearless (itself an excellent skin-flick nom-de-plume, or nom-de-plum if you prefer, and the inspiration for the slogan seen everywhere outside the courts, 'Say No To Dick!', a dual-meaning line credited to S.L.A.G. (Sexy Lesbians of America Group)) couldn't prove that the work was without artistic merit, it was allowed to be shown in some mainstream cinemas, but with the new at the time NC-21 rating. Judge James Dodge at the time said 'the movie may not appeal to your sensibilities, Mr Fearless, and indeed, nor mine. But the interest in this case means I have to allow it to be seen. It may be flim-flam; it may be hogwash; but I'm no art critic, sir.' Star of Christmas Box Lesley Platinum- Blonde later won a bronze medal for the US at the 1984 Olympics in Archery and became a US Senator in Maine in 1989, before coming out as straight and marrying actor Tom Arnold upon his divorce from Roseanne Barr in 1994 (prompting Barr's career ending 'My ex-husband left me for a lesbian' rant at the Grammys that same year). Platinum-Blonde's marriage to Arnold lasted just two months. She now resides in Retirement, California, with her husband Susan, and recently vowed to 'never talk about that cursed movie again'.1

SILVER BELLES (Tom Berlinsky, 1989)
Misguided attempt to take successful TV show The Golden Girls to the big screen. Estelle Getty described it as 'a lovely little thing. We had such fun'2. Bea Arthur described it as 'a car-crash wrapped up in a tidal wave of leprosy. With glitter on top.'3

SO HERE IT IS, MERRY CHRISTMAS, EVERYBODY'S HAVING FUN (LOOK TO THE FUTURE NOW, IT'S ONLY JUST BEGUN) (Art Home, 1991) This seasonal indulgence involves a sewing together of homemade video clips of Christmas fun. We see kittens with wrapping paper on their heads, babies climbing into empty boxes, elderly relatives knocking the tree over. What makes the exercise interesting is that these mundanities are married with an original soundtrack by minimalist composer Philip Glass, lending the four-hour movie (much of which is in slow-motion) a surreal and terrible quality of sadness. Critic Barry Normal (sic) called it 'the most chilling event I've endured'.4

THE NATIVITY (Otto Preminger, 1959) Controversial re-telling of the birth of Jesus, with an all-star cast. Strangely, in a movie that starred African American actors (Harry Belafonte plays Joseph, Dorothy Dandridge plays Mary) the most cited reason for banning the movie in America was that the baby cast as Jesus was 'ugly.' Preminger, perversely, said 'Maybe I'm an optimist. But I see this as a sign that America is ready to look past color, and judge each face superficially on it's merits, or lack thereof'5.

BLOODY MARVELLOUS (Ike Cutey, 1945; see image, above) Seasonal favourite in which a man (Georgie Handsome, in his only major role) discovers that he loves the world, with the help of a gorgeous young girl. Curious fact: In the US, this film is known as Memory Hair, referencing the fact that the man is thrown into flashback reveries of memories of pre-war Britain (shown in dizzying Permacolor) whenever he smells the pigtails of the blonde child. 20th Century Fox realised that the curse in the British title was perhaps too strong for the delicate ears of that country. This title change has been repeatedly referred to by Evangelical Christians as an example of a Jewish conspiracy from within Hollywood against Christmas. Hate preacher Louis D. Smith would quote from the movie in a bid to 'remember the Christian spirit they tried to hide'6. despite this, Bloody Marvellous is as cheerful and saccharine as it gets.

1. Entertainment Weekly, Feb 6, 1999.
2. People Magazine, March 1992.
3. New York Times, April 3rd, 1997.
4. Film '91, Dec 9th, 1991.
5. Cahiers du Cinema, April 1962.
6. Song Of A Preacher Man, Controversy Press, 1985

Sunday, 23 November 2008

FICTIONAL FILM CLUB (Michel Gondry, 2010)

Mark Savage (Owen Wilson) is a man who writes blogs about made-up films. One day, in his usual state, drifting through the internet, he finds that another blogger is doing exactly the same thing as him. He is largely unpeturbed, as his own writing style and number of readers is very high. It becomes a concern to him when the blogger begins writing about a movie that is exactly the same as Mark's real life; it is about a blogger who writes about movies and who discovers another blogger is doing exactly the same as him, but it isn't a problem until he discovers that this blogger is writing about a movie that is exactly the same as Mark's real life: it is about a blogger who writes about movies and who discovers another blogger doing exactly the same as him, which is only an issue when this blogger writes a movie that is exactly the same as Mark's life, about a blogger who wrote about movies and discovered another blogger did exactly the same which was only a point of concern when the blogger wrote about a film that was identical to Mark's life.

It is a film about repetition. I'll say that again; it is a film about repetition and originality; about how two things can never be identical. Mark aims to discover whether he is the truer original than the other blogger, but finds his every move countered by the nefarious idea-xeroxer. For plot reasons best left unexplained (because, truthfully, they are not apparent) Mark goes into the internet with the help of a neurotic science student (Kirsten Dunst). The movie then becomes a meta-fictional Tron, a graphic hell of neon id fancy. Mark discovers that from the inside, the internet is a live electric forest, and is run by The Sage (Judi Dench) who is concerned by the pollutants filling up the wiry treelungs with 'content'. The Sage speaks only in dialogue that is a patchwork of quotes from others, as this monologue shows:

'Heathcliff! It's me, I'm Carefree! 1 LOL!2. You humans just ride along the information superhighway, wind down your virtual windows and litter comments along the verges. Your regard for the unnatural world speaks poorly for the sake of your souls.'3

Mark is moved by such a forceful plea. As a prime contributor of such effluence, Mark struggles to justify his existence, and the existence of his race. 'When I was a child, I dreamed of such technology; who would have forseen that I would use it to write rubbish and contact schoolfriends who do not remember me?'
Wilson's portrayal of Mark as the grinning but melancholy everyman is predictably sound and allows for Gondry to raid the cupboard marked Existential Pyrotechnics (fourth drawer down, below Post-postmodernism and Ironic Post-mortems). But it is Mark's quest for truth, beauty and heart in the inner workings of the internet that allows the movie to work. He is struck by The Sage's final quote (uttered as she is slain by The Space, a violet void that sucks her up and away):
'We await the day with relish that somebody dares to make a dance record that consists of nothing more than an electronically programmed bass drum beat that continues playing 4/4 monotonously for eight minutes. Then, when somebody else brings one out using exactly the same bass drum sound and at the same beats per minute, we will all be able to tell which is the best, which inspires the dance floor to fill the fastest, which has the most sex and the most soul. There is no doubt, one will be better than the other'4

Mark realises that he must look inside himself and that he need not fear competition; he must only wrestle with the demons of langour and incompetence. In a new spirit of personal expressiveness, he fights the Dragon of Wicca-Pedia, a multi-armed monster that attempts to drown Mark in a sea of randomly generated quotes 5 and tries to sweep him with many footnotes 6,7,8; he is assisted by his minions, Copy and Paste.
He repels the monster with it's glorious informations, and goes on to throw himself into the eye of The Space, whereby he meets his dream and nightmare: A statistical print-out of everything he has ever done, on one long stretch of paper. He discovers that there is no other blogger copying him, merely a virtual mirror that confronts him with his own thoughts before he thinks them. Thus he comes to see the internet as a massive haemorrhage of sub-Freudian lust and fancies. He is horrified to discover how much time he has wasted with pointlessness like working and getting things done, and he vows to sleep and eat much much more when he re-enters the real world...

...and at that he does return; his lesson, whatever it was, learned, his white rabbit hunted down and interrogated. There is time for a love scene and amoral (sic), before the Flaming Lips tune specially penned for the movie, Desktop of My Heart, chimes in in all it's predictable wobbly indie loveliness, and there isn't a dry vest in the art-house.

Fictional Film Club Directed by Michel Gondry Prduced by Anthony Bregman Written by Michel Gondry and Marc Savidge Starring Owen Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Judi Dench Music by Wayne Coyne Focus Pictures Release Date UK/US: April 2010 Running Time: 103 mins Tagline: 'Is Nothing Pointless?'

1. The first line the sage utters is actually a misheard lyric, another Gondry dig at the misinformation abounding in cyberspace. The line is from Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights, and should of course read as 'Heathcliff, It's me I'm Kathleen'
2. LOL: The earliest use of this popular internet shorthand meaning 'Laughing Out Loud' has been attributed to Ernest Hemingway, in his novel For Whom The Bell Tolls when an American soldier over a radio replies to an officer's order to mount a suicidal counter-offensive by saying 'Lima Oscar Lima, sir, the men sure think that's funny at this hour.' The exclamation 'WTF' meaning 'What The Fuck' is also used in the same conversation, when the radio operator is informed that he will be shot as a coward. As he is about to respond, artillery fire hits his position. 'Whisky Tango Foxtrot, sir! We're buried!' he shouts. This was not the first time the WTF shorthand was described in print however, and some attribute the first use to be as far back as John Bunyan in his Pilgrim's Progress, but this citation is disputed.
3. This is a direct lift from H.G Wells' Prince Kompooter, published in 1897 and believed to be the first modern reference to the internet.
4.Here the sage quotes from The Manual: How To Have A Number One The Easy Way by Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond, otherwise known as the Kopyright Liberation Foundation, or KLF.
5 footnote; disambiguation. See 6
6 see 7
6 see 7
7. see 888
8. This footnote scene is a note-perfect pastiche of a scene in exploitation kung-fu action flick Crazy Office Kickbox (Dan Ten, 1972) in which the hero must summon the ninja might of ten limbs to defeat the haunted photocopied, collated and stapled demons at work. Gondry uses exactly the same dialogue in the Fictional Film Club scene as in Crazy Office Kickbox, creating a dual echoing narrative that drives minds round bends.9
888. These quotes include oft-repeated witticisms from Twain,Wilde and Churchill and wise sayings from King and Mandela that Mark has received so many times attached to emails as to have been relegated from 'great' in his mind to 'downright lethal', causing his digitised brain cells to almost overheat in insipid pointlessness.
9. Gondry does a similar thing later in the movie, substituting dialogue from the climactic love scene between Mark and the neurotic science student and replacing it with speech from Aristocats (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1970) and Robocop 3 (Fred Dekker, 1993). This reinforces The Sage's argument that the world is drowning in all manner of trivial pop ephemera. The romance is hidden behind irony, the irony behind trash. But Wilson and Dunst smile, and we are saved.
888. zzk LOL. goto line 10
10 If > go to 20
20 If <>

Thursday, 20 November 2008

ELEPHANT GUN (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)

Made back to back with The Man Who Fell To Earth, Elephant Gun shares similarities with its sister film. Both have musicians as leads: David Bowie as the titular alien in The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Elvis Presley as the washed-up actor travelling to Las Vegas to gamble his last money on a roulette wheel. What is astounding about Elephant Gun is that it manages to make Elvis, the most famous man on the planet, unknowable. Here he is a smudge, a sad hollow middle-aged man.

The ironies abound of course. And they are traps that Roeg avoids with his straight-faced delivery. We see inklings of Elvis impersonators in Vegas, but there is no face-off, no acknowledgement; Buddy (Presley) sadly heads for his table, ignoring the glitz around him, the glitz that in real-life he represented to it's fullest. It could be seen as Elvis' disavowal of his own present, that he plays a man burning out inside and gambling his life away in this city of hellish castles.

There is a dazzling sequence at the centre of the film, in which Buddy looks at a collection of photos of good times past, and we are treated to a flashback sequence of recreated stills that echo previous Presley films. We see him in Hawaii, in LA, and in poignantly happier times on a previous visit to Las Vegas with an unnamed blonde, who the Buddy keeps seeing around town, but cannot remember her name to call and get her attention. In Roeg's Don't Look Now, he manages to create a sickening sense of dread building up to the climax; here he creates a sense of loss and fear. Buddy sees suspicion everywhere. He wins money, only to find out he actually lost.

The narrative becomes eliptical and deliberately listless. What is apparent is the growing awareness that Buddy hasn't picked Las Vegas on a whim, or because it is the sin capital of the world. The presence of a double is somehow, made evident. Is Buddy haunted by a possible alternative path his life may have taken? Does Buddy know someone who has huge fame? The repeated allusions in background conversations to an unnamed successful actor who is in town irks Buddy; what is the story? We have more questions than answers. Buddy is weary, looking for answers and avoiding them. The film drifts into existential whodunnit territory, with no idea of what the crime might be, never mind the protagonist. Cynical exchanges with a bartender litter the narrative:

Bartender (Rip Torn):Hey are you..
Buddy (Presley): Thirsty. Yeah. Gimme another.
Bartender: No I mean, didn't you used to be... I mean, aren't you-
Buddy: No. I've never been no-one. Not ever.
Bartender: Hey. Everybody is someone. I'm someone. She's someone. You're someone.
Buddy: Well set the alarm for me. Maybe I'll wake up and find out who.

There are two Presley songs on an otherwise electronic and low-key jazz score: The haunting and lovely How Many Tears Can A Sad Man Cry?, a Hank Williams style confession, and the charging drunk-in-denial Loose Booze, Loose Blues, which shockingly for an Elvis song is largely instrumental except for his distinctive echoing grunts and desperate full-throated wails.

Contractual disputes over the exact details of Elvis' movie contract and fans' shock at this departure for the star caused a lot of press and a limited release for Elephant Gun. The film came out just four months before the death of Presley. His casting was seen as a folly at the time, as watching the most famous face on the planet distorted through cracked art lenses was absurd. But this absurdity is what makes the film work. Roeg explains his choice:

'I wanted to do a biopic of Superman; I wanted him trapped in an alternative universe living a life with no powers. He would be having dreams about Earth, which he had never been to. I liked the idea that Superman, a fictional character on Earth, actually exists in another world; and that in our stories, we are sending a message to him. I wanted this man to be haunted by a possible superhero alternative to his life that wasn't happening. Then Richard Donner announced he was making the Superman movie the world wanted; so I conceived of Elephant Gun. In real-life, Presley was Earth's fictional Superman; his tragedy was that he was also real.'1

Elephant Gun Directed by Nicolas Roeg Written by Nicolas Roeg Starring Elvis Presley Rip Torn Music by John Phillips/ Elvis Presley Columbia Pictures UK/US Release Date: April 1977 Running Time: 145 mins.

1 Sight and Sound, May 2003

Friday, 14 November 2008

BIERCE THE FIERCE (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

Donald Sutherland stars as writer Ambrose Bierce, who famously walked into the Mexican civil war aged 71 and was never seen again. The film is by no means a biopic, and instead speculates on what might have happened after Bierce's last known sighting- in del Toro's hands, this speculative history is a peppery burrito filled with David Lynch, Ray Harryhausen, Apocalypse Now, spaghetti westerns and Lewis Carroll. del Toro gives us his dreamy nightmare, and his Day of the Dead vision of Mexico is a joy: families who turn into dancing skeletal swordsmen; pinatas that buck and spit fire, empty coffins that wander, looking for mates. Bierce sees visions of his twelve siblings, all whose names begin with the letter 'A'. He has flashbacks from his time in the US civil war, and is frequently under attack from memories of failed cavalry charges by mud-caked blue and gray zombies. The scene is an animated swirl of reflection, a technicolour counter to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man.

The film has an array of blink-and-you'll-miss'em cameos, including a heavily made-up John C Reilly and Mark Ruffalo as revolutionaries Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata. The pair have one scene as a bickering Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, including a bewildering exchange of wordplay and misunderstanding:

Villa (Reilly):'Is it a no?'

Zapata (Ruffalo): 'Yes; it is a No.'



'So you are saying no?'



'Yes. We are saying no.'

'You seem unsure. It seems like yes and no in your mind are inter-changable.'

'In my mind yes and no are a slither apart. This is how I like it.'

'Sounds like maybe to me.'

'No! Maybe is an uncertain word. Zapata is decisive'

Sutherland's Bierce takes in the madness with a weary lack of concern. As battles surround him, filled with heightened passions and disastrous desires, his blank expressions slowly reveal his own worries: What does it mean to die, or to live? His dialogue is filled with cynical lines taken from Bierce's own Devil's Dictionary, such as the time when a young revolutionary tells Bierce that he is a patient man. 'Patience is a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue,' Bierce responds, sullenly.

The huge array of fantastical happenings in del Toro's Mexico are unprecedented, outside of his own films. Ivana Baquero (star of del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth) plays a girl who may be a refugee of the fighting, an angel, or the ghost of Bierce's sister; Tilda Swinton is a three-armed rebel; del Toro mainstay Doug Jones plays a many-tentacled tree that weeps when traitors are hung from his branches, and unleashes a psychic magic, twisting the battle scenes into obtuse reckonings.

Donald Sutherland sang the title song, The Ballad of Ambrose Bierce, which was written originally by Nick Lowe for Johnny Cash, who did not record the song before he died. The song was originally titled Leaning Alone Against Mexican Stone, and was reshaped with the help of Rick Rubin. Sutherland does a winning impersonation of Cash, and his doomy baritone, descriptive lyrics1 coupled with an evocative video, caused the song to be a big success. A consequence of this was the widely believed internet hoax that the song was a suicide note from Sutherland, and that the actor had killed himself. Some news networks even reported this as fact, and it wasn't until Sutherland gave a press conference to announce his un-death that the hoax was outed.
'The lyrics aren't about giving up,' he said in an interview shortly afterwards. 'They reflect a concern that I think Guillermo had with the film as well. And that is, 'what is success? What is a legacy? What is fame? What is it worth?' These concerns are at the core of the Ambrose Bierce mystery. Why does a seventy something journalist and short story writer go on such a long and dangerous trip? What plan does he have? And Guillermo and I both agree, that while we cannot imagine what Bierce was thinking, we both find the complete disregard for a plan to be the most compelling thing about his case.'2

This controversy aside, the film won rave reviews for it's lavish design and for Sutherland's tired performance. It's meandering plot stopped it scooping major awards, and caused one critic to describe it as 'indulgent as a swimming pool full of cream-cakes; I forgot my rubber-ring of sanity, drowned and now my belly aches.'3

Bierce the Fierce Directed by: Guillermo del Toro Produced by Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron Starring Donald Sutherland, Ivana Baquero, Doug Jones, John C Reilly, Mark Ruffalo, Tilda Swinton Warner Bros/Optimum/Picturehouse UK/US Release date: Sept 2006 Running Time 137 mins Tagline:'Death is death when it is death'

1. The lyrics won a 'Best Lyrics To A Song From A Film' Grammy for Lowe Rubin and Sutherland in 2007. They also appeared in the Best American Poetry 2007 anthology (Ed Heather Stone) and as such deserve repeating here. Especially because some school boards in South Carolina removed this anthology from their library shelves precisely because of a perceived 'pro-failure, pro-suicide sentiment' in these particular words.

The Ballad of Ambrose Bierce

I'm Ambrose Bierce
I'm leaning alone against Mexican stone
I'm waiting for the guns that might shoot me
I am a gringo
But I'll beat old age
And disease
I'll never fall down cellar stairs
I am epiphany
I'm dreaming of all those that walk into the fire, rather than into the spotlight
Those that spend a decade in bed, Or have tea at their Mom's instead
Rather than grind out victories
Those that by design or accident will never be finished
I am Von Gogh's destroyed canvasses, Genet's burnt manuscripts
I'm Garbo walking away at forty-four
Forever more

2. Interview with The New York Times, January 20th, 2007.
3. Les Straight, The Times, 12th July 2006

Monday, 10 November 2008


Disruptive Pattern Material is another chapter in this director's book of hazardous shoots. Star Tim Roth was put through his paces by Herzog in many ways, resulting in what David Thomson described as 'the most complete systematic attempt at a dereliction of the actor as star in the history of cinema'1. On a gruelling shoot in Transylvania, Herzog attempted to create a version of H.G.Wells' The Invisible Man. Herzog had Roth film many scenes naked, as this is how the protagonist Griffin spends much of his time in the book. This created new problems, however, as many of the extras hired to play the villagers were untrained actors who repeatedly reacted to a nude Hollywood star. Herzog's reaction? To hire a blind cast. 'He must be naked. They cannot see him. This is the only solution,' he said.2

Roth caught hypothermia, but he gamely ploughed on, even when the director revealed to him that despite being the central character and the only star, his performance would be largely cut from the movie. Indeed, although we follow his story, and despite being in every scene, Roth only appears on screen for fifteen of the film's 263 minutes. Even so, he garnered an Oscar nomination for his performance, and describes Disruptive Pattern Material as 'probably the best film I haven't been in'3

'I realised as I went on, that Tim was too interesting,' said Herzog. What interested me about Wells' story was the moral blankness of the character. Tim, or for that matter no decent actor, could give me this blankness. The only thing that can be so absent is nothing.'4 And so we get slow scenes in which we watch villagers at work and at play, waiting for sly acts of subversion from someone we cannot see. The location shooting is beautiful, and the plot and events around Griffin become almost hidden in the background. One five minute segment of a woman washing clothes in a river seems mundane, until we realise that behind her back the clean clothes are moving slowly away from her. This form of negated drama creates a perverse kind of suspense, with the audience waiting for someone we cannot see to do something. When Griffin performs the climactic murders, the graphic release of blood is both horrifying and a relief.

MGM originally planned for the movie to be released on the same weekend in the US as risible Chevy Chase career-destroyer Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Herzog angrily objected, seeing this as a gimmicky attempt to stir up interest in two very different films on the same subject. 'It is childish and vain' said Herzog. 'I think it is a big shit on me'.5 He allegedly stole the master tapes of his film, and after being refused entry onto a plane at LA airport, he drove through the night to Mexico with the intention of putting the reels inside a pinata covered with gasoline and setting fire to the lot with a fiery club. (A fictionalised account of this story was filmed in 2005 as Hijack Monologue, a Sam Mendes production starring Bill Murray giving a supposedly spot-on performance as Herzog, but due to complicated legal tangles this uncompleted movie sits in the Warner Brothers' vaults with no release likely soon).

MGM relented on their release date, but instead pushed the movie back two years in the US, despite the film winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 1992 and being received in Europe as one of Herzog's most audacious and beautiful works.

Disruptive Pattern Material Directed by Werner Herzog Produced by Lucky Stipetic Starring Tim Roth Werner Herzog Filmproduktion/MGM US Release Date: November 1994 UK Release Date May 1992 Running Time: 263 mins Tagline:'Only The Blind Can't See'

1. David Thomson At The Movies, Penguin, 2005
2,4,5. Herzog on Herzog, Chappell Film Books, 1996
3. Neon magazine, November 1996

Sunday, 9 November 2008

PLAYBACK (Brian de Palma, 1982)

Based on Raymond Chandler's final novel, which was a flop in 1958, Playback stars Theresa Russell as a young woman who checks into the Roosevelt Hotel in New York with the intention of killing herself after a week of contemplation. In a series of flashbacks we see her reasons, which include an abusive relationship. During the seven days she finds that her misfortune is replayed in a multitude of small ways (the 'playback' of the title), leading us to conclude that her being is karmically afflicted, and that wherever she might have gone, her fate would have been identical. Chandler's famous detective Philip Marlowe (played wearily by a bloodshot Dennis Quaid), is tracking the woman, and it is through his eyes that we see the action unfold.

The slow-burning, moribund subject matter might have meant that the movie, never destined to be a blockbuster, would have been criticised; perhaps De Palma's whizz-bang pastiches (here stylistically references Polanski's Repulsion, but this only serves to show that Russell, despite her charms, is no Catherine Deneuve) would have ruined the movie anyway; but a curious creative decision by de Palma proved to be the film's main talking point and it's critical undoing. De Palma claimed that the movie was a 'direct translation' of the novel rather than an adaptation, and that each line of the book was reproduced visually. 'If it says 'she walks into the room, then Theresa walked into the room. If it says she sits down, then Theresa sat down. But more than that: I wanted to reproduce Chandler's grammar, and attempt to get to the root of his style. And so each period in the novel, each full-stop, is replicated by a cut on screen, each comma is replicated by a camera pan, and each paragraph had to be, if not a new scene, then a new tone; this is where music helped me.'1

This conceit was a bridge too far for most, with the editing (there are nearly ten thousand cuts in the two-hour movie) creating a visual barrage that renders the story largely redundant. The camera constantly twitches, causing Roger Ebert to refer to the film as 'pure seasick epilepsy'2. Playback is generally seen as a curio, filed in the same drawer as other exercises in cinematic self-indulgence as Gus Van Sant's shot-by-shot remake of Psycho (1997) and Oliver Stone's real-time, 50-hour telling of the events between the deaths of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald in Ruby (1998).

The explanation of the technique by de Palma led to the movie being popular on video in the late eighties, especially among students, who would organise 'Playback parties', which involved watching the movie with a copy of the novel, and following each of Chandler's lines as it appeared on the screen. 'Although you had to read very fast, and despite certain sections being a textual quagmire, it was entirely possible to see de Palma's effort,' said philosopher Slajov Zizek. He questioned the success of the effort however, and suggested the choice of the text was to blame. 'Why not The Big Sleep? Playback the novel failed not because Chandler had 'lost his magic', as was supposed at the time, but because the central discourse revolves around a pre-determined ethical position on the part of the protagonist. Chandler's success lay in his salient conversation within pertaining ambiguities... de Palma, further, reinforces this prefabrication with a further conceit of his own, filmic joke that undoes the gentle layering of denial that bewitches the medium'3

De Palma defended his experiment. 'I wanted to explore the supposed failure of the novel. It was originally conceived as a screenplay in 1947 or '48 before Chandler rewrote it as a novel, and I wondered if it was an error; if maybe it was supposed to be a movie; like a child who is forced into piano lessons when he has a natural talent for swinging a baseball bat.'4

As an aside, Todd Rundgren, rock music's grand conceptualist (who famously recorded near-exact covers of such baroque masterpieces as Brian Wilson's Good Vibrations) constructed a musical accompaniment for the movie using similar principles, using a drum beat to mark each cut. Todd Plays Playback, Sonically, was released and ignored in 1992. (Rundgren later repeated the trick for van Sant's Psycho).

Playback Directed by: Brian de Palma Produced by: Les Ashe Written by: Raymond Chandler Universal Studios Starring: Dennis Quaid, Theresa Russell Release Date US: March 1982 Release Date UK: June 1982 Running Time:122 mins Tagline: 'You Can't Escape Yourself'

1, 4. Sight and Sound, November 1986.
2.I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie by Roger Ebert, Andrews McMeel Publishing, April 2000.
3.Quantum Hokum by Slavoj Zizek, Verso, May 1999.

Monday, 14 April 2008

DONNY QUIXOTIC (Paul Mazursky, 1976)

A modern re-imagining of the Cervantes novel, with Jeff Bridges as a burned out acid casualty drifting through the South in the early nineteen seventies convinced it is the eighteen seventies.
He is armed with pretend six-guns and wearing chaps.

Elliot Gould stars as a quasi-Sancho character, attempting to reign in his dreamy friend's wanderings with sarcasm. They drift ever onwards, across dustbowl car-parks, seeking trouble or drama. They pick up fellow dreamer, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, who provides the soundtrack with a blissfil, wistful country set.

Every turn sees Bridges' naive hippy politics challenged by the cruel, complex seventies. His attempts to save bruised stripper Ellen Burstyn from her fate, and his efforts to first fight and then educate some young theives result in ever depressing scenes; Bridges plays Quixotic as the ever-smiling hopeful who cannot see that his knight-in-shining-armour shtick is old-hat and useless. The drama comes from his do-gooder ego ever-inflating against a background of ever-diminishing returns, resulting in a a sun-dried flip to Scorcese's Taxi Driver, another film with a delusional protagonist. Originally to star Warren Beatty as Quixotic (a move that would have rendered the character as agreeably less sympathetic but unbelievable as a Summer of Love refugee), the film stands as a quiet lost treatise on the inability to be a hero in ther modern world.

One scene, in which Quixotic sits at a bar with a weary cowboy played by Sam Elliot, was recreated in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski with the same actors. Indeed, Bridges as The Dude in the latter film could indeed be Donny Quixotic shorn of his righteous zeal and hope, resigned after the years to comfort and underachievement. The 'Dude Abides' line, repeated in Lebowski, is also a nod to Donny Quixotic's 'A Knight Abides' line.

Donny Quixotic Directed by: Paul Mazursky Produced by: Steve Spink/ Warren Beatty/ Paul Mazursky Written by: Ted Tucker, adapted from the Cervantes novel AVCO Embassy Pictures Starring: Jeff Bridges, Elliot Gould, Ellen Burstyn, Dennis Wilson, Sam Elliot Music by: Dennis Wilson Release Date US: December 1976 Release Date UK: February1977 RunningTime: 114mins Tagline: ''The White Knight Rides"

Monday, 21 January 2008

PRETZEL NIPPLE (Ron Aufburger,1983)

Set in a sunshine-drenched Eden, California, the brothers Mael from pop visionaries Sparks play themselves playing other people in this story of a young man (played with faux-naive longing by Russell Mael) who decides to embark on an epic journey around the world to find his true love. Shot at weirdly unnerving truck-stops and motels, Pretzel Nipple gathers in a feel of a day-glo Lolita, as Mael, all listless lust and lovesick in excelsis seeks his true mate. He meets along the way a waitress with a wooden leg (Terri Garr), a science prodigy addicted to drinking water (Michael Keaton) and a mafia hoodlum who cries himself to sleep (Mickey Rooney). His fortunes begin to perk up when he runs into a mute pianist in a dive bar (inevitably played by Ron Mael) who seems to somehow karmically inflect Russell with good luck, while absorbing all the slapstick ill-fortune himself.

After accidentally stealing a case from Rooney containing a happy-drug known ridiculously as Crypto-Fashia, they form a successful travelling medicine show selling the pharmaceutical across the Midwest. Their sales-pitch is augmented by song performances of several Sparks originals, and contain the absurdist truths of love sadness that the band deal in: 'Pretzel Nipple', ('If she needs a bite she comes to me/ Pretzel Nipple! Pretzel Nipple!'), 'Love Search Party' (Love Search Party/ Search Party of One/ If she's not here/ My loins will go home') and 'Sickening Sects' ('Stick Insects/ Have sickening sex/ But your love will never hurt me') are all genuine Sparks classics. In 'Parody/Pastiche', Russell unveils some of the most hilariously desperate lines as he attempts to woo a girl in a bar (played by Theresa Russell). To wit: 'I'm in a film in Hollywood/ but if you're not sure that you would/ then I should also like to say/ I arm-wrestled Hemingway/ And although I didn't win/ I was not humiliated/ And we spent the night on gin/ talking of girls we have dated/ And although he tallied more/ Mine had style with their shyness/ but nothing next to you/ with your when-what-how-who-whyness'; and: 'If 'baby' is your name/ Same as my favourite ex/ Our futures must be intertwined/ In interplanetary sex'.

The performances from Russell Mael are giddy and helium-edged, and as the brothers continue across America making money, he becomes disillusioned as his search for love continues to throw up duds (cue 'Probability of Finding The Zillionth Girl', with his attempt to work out the chances of meeting his one-in-six-billion love: 'I met twenty today, twenty yesterday, twenty the day before/ At this rate I'll need to live for two-hundred years more', before optimistically concluding that if they keep on travelling, his chances grow with every day: Show me the maths, oh Fibonacci/ That prove I'll walk tall in golden Versace/ With my baby on the grass/ Pythagoras is a gas, gas, gas'.

He finds his girl at the top of a mountain, reached when the Maels are sucked through a washing machine into a secret world. The girl (Jane Wiedlin) suggests that they seal their love by eating each other, and they do, singing 'Pretzel Nipple' as they go, this time with an added breakdown (the title sung defiantly to the tune of 'Bread of Heaven') as their animated heads, all that is left of them now, drift into space, licking and chewing each other.

Tim Burton acted as a cameraman on the film, and the tone and story arc is an obvious influence on his Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, released two tears later. The marriage of musical numbers and increasingly disparate narrative means that the psychadelic ending actually makes a perverse sense, and the desperation, pain and wit of the Sparks world prevents the whole affair from slipping into whimsy or silly Zappa-parody/pastiche.

Pretzel Nipple Directed by: Ron Aufberger Produced by: Dwayne House Written by: Jeff Sycke Total Head Pictures /Warner Bros Pictures Starring: Russell Mael, Jane Wiedlin, Ron Mael, Mickey Rooney, Michael Keaton, Terri Garr Music by: Ron Mael Release Date US: October 1983 Release Date UK: N/A RunningTime: 92mins Tagline: 'If She Needs A Snack She Comes To Me!'

Thursday, 10 January 2008

DEATH CLANG (Fritz Lang, 1955)

Lang's taut direction is strangely perfect for this ephemeral tale of the Grim Reaper's earthly representative (Barbara Stanwyck) and her seduction of a string of young artistic men, persuading them into Faustian bargains which are later collected by death's bailiff (a haunted Peter Lorre). Edward G Robinson stars as a former writer who gave up on his dream and is tempted by Stanwyck into returning, much to the upset of his girlfriend Joan Bennett, who remembers how unhappy Robinson was before she met him. A wise, non-judgemental treatise on artistic endeavour and ambition, the most striking thing about the film, beyond it's all-star cast and the stunningly dreamy midsummer Louisiana setting, is the sympathy for the villains: Stanwyck drifts from flinty femme to teary cog in a wheel, and Lorre is so sweetly apologetic, finding any excuse he can to evade his duty. Bennett emerges as the villain, somehow(a woman who nursed an alcoholic back to sobriety, remember) , slowly squeezing the life out of her man as she holds him.

The film embarks on a series of red herring dream sequences midway, and the plot becomes so convoluted (imagine The Big Sleep on a swamp, with dialogue by Marlowe and Freud) as to be left behind, replaced by Stanwyck and Bennett in billowing evening gowns atop the clouds of Robinson's fevered imaginings, Lorre dressed as a sad court jester, and five minute sequence in which all the characters wonder through the woods, evading the unseen, all-powerful Pan (voiced by a hysterical Orson Welles). Lang's ability to dance with cliche is vital, as he embraces some of the hokier psychology with straight-faced aplomb.

Lorre's sad turn as a man in an occupation he cannot escape was ignored by all of the award ceremonies, but it is crucial to weighing down the silliness here. Robinson is thoughtful and beautifully confused, and Bennett is revelatory as a sympathetic noble woman realising her own mistakes. Stanwyck's sly critique of her own persona, and impersonations of Dietrich, Garbo and Hepburn make her performance a spotter's delight.

The ending, where the four attempt to evade the certainty of death in a fairground is brutal but open, with punishments worse than death suggested, but not shown. Hollywood's coyness is to its credit this time, with the downbeat, enigmatic conclusion superior to any alternative that comes to the frazzled mind.

Exhibit A in the case for the studio system's ability to throw off its own shackles.

Death Clang Directed by: Fritz Lang Produced by: Nunnally Johnson Written by: J.H.Willy RKO Radio Pictures Inc. Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G.Robinson, Joan Bennett, Peter Lorre Music by: Arthur Lange Release Date US: January 1955 Release Date UK: May 1955 RunningTime: 83mins Tagline: 'Do You Hear The Toll, The Toll Of The Death Clang?'