Thursday, 24 December 2009


1. SHAZAM! (Daniel Goldstein, 2006, Isr/US/UK)

'Houdini's greatest trick was to make an elephant disappear. It was also his greatest flop. The illusion was so grand that the audience did not believe it. Sometimes, revelations can be too profound' Jim Steinmeyer

'The world can be served up proof, and it can be strong and true, and we still do not believe. Our positions are already too set.' Oshi

A documentary,then, at number one. I know, I know. But Brown student Daniel Goldstein's shaky cameraphone epic railed and rattled with such journalistic urgency that to not acknowledge it would be to prove some kind of peverse point. The informations contained herein are too Earth-shattering to ignore.

To begin with: Goldstein reveals the Wizards of the West Supermairgh, a select collection of alchemists whose magical powers died on the day that their special word of invocation, 'Shazam!' was found drowned in an East London canal in 1954. Foul play was suspected. Various theories link many to the crime (the Hells Angels, PLO, CIA, Soviet Union and international crime syndicates are named in the film), but who on Earth stands to gain? For with the death of 'Shazam!', man can no longer harness the tumultuous natural powers of the planet. Since the word was murdered, no human being is able to pronounce the word correctly- it comes out as
'Shuh-zaim!' rather than the now throaty gargling-iron-filings effort of yore) which has had dire consequences- human kind now finds it impossible to harness the Earth's hormones, and subsequently, grave sicknesses, such as global warming and AIDS (both with germinations circa 1954) have grown exponentially. The film looks at the botched inquest and subsequent cover-up by the Western governments, their sham-shazam wizards (fogging the lens of scepticism on prime-time television), and how rock'n'roll was invented, a charade of rebellion, to turn our heads like Christmas bells of jaunty distraction. There were other glistening lies, making truths (warlocks mourn death of a word/ A word drowns/ NATO invented rock'n'roll etc) seem preposterous. The veracity of an audience's belief almost managed to put shazam through a hall of mirrors, conjuring an infected appearance of magic. 'The US government is a placebo now' says government stooge W.Axl Rose in the film. 'I'm not even sure of the people in charge know that they are in charge. Their belief is that if you seem like a saviour, then you probably are. The world believed I was the singer in a dangerous rock band, and so I probably was.... and so 'Use Your Illusion' becomes a guiding principle really... you know, if magic is dead.'

A symphony of conspiracies so great is revealed that the viewer cannot hear, so loud is the clamour of truth.We hear about how the lido, a children's runaway haven, is the only place in Mexico City free from wrath of a corporation named Zodiac; How those that have earlobes and those that can roll their R's are in league, whether they know it or not. The journey ends in Copenhagen, as gamblers cross their fingers. The only solution? Dreamfarms in Indonesia, in which pubescent children sleep in large factories ('sweetshops') and their dreams are taken and used as fuel to fog the lens of the Western world, their kneebones used to tighten the screws of our ignorance.

... and JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, but there was no conspiracy; Oswald acted alone, spurred on by the liquid Satanic undercurrents that swept the Earth in the wake of the death of Shazam!... and a real sadness is that Shazam! is not remembered, but that a tired parody of the word is served to the world as a comic book story, for children and deflated adults in capes.


'Makes Michael Moore look like a rabble-rouser reading from an old script' The Guardian

'Shazam! shows us... the insipid tendrils of hope only drain the kitchen of its mess for a second, until the oppressive mess returns. Pernicious mummies of the state seek to hide the fact that they are hiding the fact that they are hiding the fact that there is in fact a malady of the sages, and humankind's fate, until the mid 20th Century tethered to its own regenerative abilities, now swings on its last life, unknowingly. Various new man-made tragedies serve as smokescreens, now that audio-visual arts have themselves lost a pull: black presidents, failing economies.' Noam Chomsky

'I totally loved the bit about that kid in Gaza or wherever who totally unplugged the world's electricity by lifting that watch battery that was wedged between two paving stones. He was hella cute, for a kid.'

'And to think! Our musical heroes were nothing more than juvenile indulgers and serial pederasts! Supported, no less, by a State who recognises the need for acceptable rebellion. Sickened, I burned my records. Including the ones I made. Especially the ones I made' Little Steven

Shazam! Directed, Written and produced by Daniel Goldstein Starring Daniel Goldstein Yasser Arafat Axl Rose Petra Wingfysh Kofi Annan Homade Productions Release Date: Worldwide online, Oct 2006

Monday, 21 December 2009


=6. SEPTEMDECILLION (Hypperson, 2004, USA)

=6. BIERCE THE FIERCE (Guillermo del Toro, 2006, Esp/US/Mex)

'If James Cameron is the King of the World, Hypperson is the Booze in the Cooking' Keith Floyd

'[Bierce the Fierce]... is a festival, a torrid dance, a gorgeous musical death...' LA Weekly

I've written about these two at length, and couldn't split them. Both equally as good as one another in almost every way. Both haunt the back of my eyelids perennially.

5. NUEVA GERMANIA (Soren Elkjaer, 2004, Den/Ger/UK)

'No-one will ever place my words inside quotation marks.' Soren Elkjaer

Dane Soren Elkjaer has to date served up a buffet (writers: the word 'smorgasbord' is not necessitated every time a Scandanavian offers a selection of anything) of filmic wonder. Any selection might have warranted a place here. Mehr Nicht, Mehr Licht (2000) focussed on the argument about Goethe's last words. Shortly after his death, a man in Augsburg in Germany was committed to an asylum for pronouncing loudly that he really said 'Mehr Nicht' (No More') rather than the attributed 'Mehr Licht' ('More Light'), a nihilistic wail rather than the more palatable invocation, instruction, last wish, or affirmation of something. The Doctor who committed the claimant him was honoured by the city.

Or we could have picked Elkjaer's Either, OR (2006) (synopisis: Soren Kierkegaard arrives by train in the small Oregon town of Either in 1854. At 41, his health is failing. He will die within the year. He has left a doppelganger in Europe who he instructs to live a hedonistic existence. His own plan is to write alone in the distant and lonely West, in a bid to carry out the ethical half of his own Either/Or theses. But when he gets drawn into a love triangle with a widow and her daughter, this may prove more difficult than he suspected...). Or Noah's Archimedes (2001) (The Biblical boatmaker meets the Greek philosopher. Both teach each other about bouyancy, etc.), or even his spellbindingly abstract biopic Agassi (2009), starring Isabelle Huppert as the leonine racket-swinger.

But Nueva Germania may be the best: Missionary of all things German Bernhard Forster (Bruno Ganz), along with his wife Elizabeth Bernhard-Nietzche (sister of Fred, here played by Tilda Swinton) set out for Paraguay in 1887 to start a new colony and prove the supremacy of the Aryan peoples far away from the Jews. The group struggles. A failure, Forster poisons himself in 1889. Elizabeth returns home in 1893 to look after her sick brother.

During the last portion of the film, after Forster has committed suicide and the dwindling band of ex-pats are drifting in a sick sea of madness, every line of dialogue is one that has been attributed as the last words of someone famous. The jungle rejects them, her harshness forces them out. 'Friends applaud, the comedy is finished' they say, 'drink to me! Moose, Indian, moose indian...'


When Sean O'Flanahan's play about the celebrity afterlife won a TONY in 2005, and it was announced that a film version was to be made by Warner Brothers, no-one could have envisioned this. The original play imagined Aldous Huxley, CS Lewis and JFK (who died on the same day in 1963) awaiting judgment in a grey lounge in the afterlife. They talk about Jean Cocteau and Edith Piaf, who had died on the same day a month earlier. They talk about Gandhi and Orville Wright, who had died on the same day in 1948. The film was to be a sober reenactment of the play, with the same cast.

When Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni died on the same day in 2007, O'Flanahan updated the play at the last minute, the actors improvising a touching for-one-night-only acknowledgement of the directors by impersonating them in Heaven. 'I realised that this play could run forever on the fumes of such tributes,' O'Flanahan said later, and when his friend Anthony Minghella and hero Arthur C. Clarke died on the same day in 2008, his cast repeated the trick. The proposed director of the film, Mickey Gilbert, thought that the excitement caused by these spontaneous rewritings lent the project new drama: 'In Spring 2009, we had begun shooting the original Huxley/Lewis/Kennedy script. I loved it, but as a film, something wasn't there. Something topical.'

Something soon came along.

On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Sky Saxon died. Gilbert quickly halted shooting, and reshot the film with his actors impersonating these three. No dialogue was changed: 'Instead of Kennedy worrying about his legacy, we had Fawcett. Instead of Lewis calming the others with warm Christian philosophies and fantasy stories, we had Jackson. We shot it in three weeks, and had it out by November.'

3. GESTERN IST NICHT DORT (Dieter Buchmann, 2001, Ger)

I've written about this previously too, and it only continues to rise in my estimation. Buchmann's other great achievement was his thirty-two hour Unity (2006), A real-time imagining of Unity Mitford's first meetings with Hitler in Berlin in 1934, when she learned his routine so she could 'accidentally' meet him in his favourite cafe. 'Before Sunrise meets Birth of A Nation' quipped Tarantino, Quentin, CA. ''Tasteless as turkey,' said Tarantino, Betsy, FL.

2. FIN (Michael Haneke, 2009, Aut/Fra)

'Haneke's moral diction is the glue of contemporary European cinema. His existence means I can be consoled by the failure of everybody else to show us burning bodies of war victims in every film since the invention of a medium for which 'medium' is an apposite word; Medium in the sense of divining ontological informations, and medium in the sense of being very average and unspectacular. How it should be, if you will, and how it is.' Tobias Hirsch

The last film to be released on the list, ducking snugly under the tape to be the one of the best as well. A couple middle-class couple finally have a great weekend together away from lots of family business. They feel guilty at first, but then loosen up, as they deserve some fun. They then turn on the news after a great forty-eight hours in blissful solitude to discover the world is about to end. Fin. No explosive apocalypse, just the certainty that everyone will die. The couple, most of all, feel guilty for their lovely last weekend. A suggestion floats that their internal relaxation somehow is linked to this chain of events; as if, by taking their eye off the ball, it has slipped under a passing car. This idea is very much a product of a modern egocentric and workaholic mindset, and is ruthlessly skewered by Haneke.

'We mock their bourgeois ways, we laugh at their pretensions, and we warm to their companionship. Ultimately, the horror and comfort comes from exactly the same place: Haneke is telling us how small we are, and how insignificant our worries are.' Sight & Sound

'The apocalypse, when it comes, will be inconsiderate. It will wait until just before your annual two-week holiday before descending blackly, leaving you rueing that fortnight you might have used more thoughtfully had you known. People of course, won't believe it. Won't want to. Will find it inconvenient, something to be spent away, ignored, etc. It will not be concerned with our society.' Michael Haneke

Monday, 14 December 2009


I should prelude my pick of my ten fictional films of the decade with a disclaimer, and it is not the usual one of the critic, the one in which he (for it is always a he in matters of listeria) leans away from his sums for a moment to lecture us on subjectivity, and how he has attempted to put personal taste aside and strive for some kind of fairness.

No, being a hardline subjectivist, I have no concerns about whether my choices are popular or right (these two things sadly too often being seen as the same thing in most parts of Western culture, and perhaps everywhere else too). My concerns are more practical. For while it is difficult for a critic or amateur film enthusiast to pick ten films from a decade at the best of times, picking ten fictional films is clearly a much harder task. Viewing enough cinematically released pieces to make a broad overview of the last ten years worth of available art possible involves a huge investment of time for even the professional film writer; to pick ten well, one must surely see many hundreds. I commend them their efforts. But my task is almost impossible. The number of imaginary films out there is so numerous as to make any cohesive overview as similar as nailing jelly to the wall- both are awkward, messy, and leave apparently random patterns. Each place on my list could have been filled with millions upon millions of alternatives, and any imaginary film enthusiast could make a list entirely different to this one.

So what follows, is by no means conclusively the 'best' or 'most important'. Just ten good ones that came to mind.

10: TRAVEL 'TIME TRAVEL!' (Jacob Michaels, 2006, USA)

If Computer Generated Images in modern cinema are indeed the jewels, crowns and swimming pools, all the cacophonies with which beggar boys drown out the silence of imaginative poverty, (and let it be known I'm no fundamentalist on these matters- give me a bejewell'd dragon in three dimensions over tawdry Oscar buzz on any and all of the seven days), then perhaps Jacob Michaels of California is a King of Ideas who needs no such lusty shenanigans. Perhaps.
Without him, sci-fi would be in exactly the same place it is now. No-one has followed his curve, bending schemes beyond the paradoxical until a sublime nonsense jazz permeates. 'History is worth more than the future. Darwinism and Jesus Christ would not be so contentious otherwise,' declares Dr Schwimmer (Jim Broadbent) the man behind the titular Time Travel time-travel company. His technology allows two rivals (Ben Kingsley and Udo Kier) to go back in time to kill one another as babes. The effects of their past-meddling are legion, a swarm of loose ends, a mind-meld of subplots. Michaels explores the chaos of time travel by splattering his screen with ridiculous real-time ephemera: three-legged mothers, unborn siblings, memories that are ruptured and false.

The simplistic cause-and-effect logic of Back to the Future is amplified horribly: deaths happen apparently randomly, the consequences of tiny seeds of actions completely unrelated. The world is explosive, as mistakes are being erased and paradoxes created constantly. If time is confusing, time travel is Confucius. Or concussion. Don't do it.

9: THE DRIVE (Lucy Simmons, 2002, Can)

'When I first read what I had written, I threw it in the fire. It was like Pithecanthropus Erectus giving birth to a fully-clothed smoking philosopher and murdering the child in mute shock, the writing was so far advanced from what I had done before. I rewrote it immediately, leaving out the best parts. Naturally, it was even better. With each rewrite, I removed more plot, like a chef boiling some fresh vegetables down to nothing. I came to realise that the repetitive action is the most powerful; this couple, driving in a car, leaving some kind of family dispute behind, not wanting to go home, but driving onwards, onwards: they were almost wishing the road into never ending, and of course it didn't.' Lucy Simmons.

'A couple drive in the country. They stop at a gas station. Repeat to fade.' Roger Ebert.

'The fact that they are so distracted by... life, by death, by something... that they fail to notice that they keep stopping at the same station- is perhaps the most poignant contemporary commentary on the modern human condition. The final shot- of the wife looking at the attendant, looking at her distant husband, looking back at the attendant, furrowing her brow, as if on the verge of realisation, recognition, of some kind of comprehension (about what? the fact that the road is repeating itself? That they're in some kind of dull hell? That they're simply lost?) before shaking her head distractedly- takes this quiet film beyond the perimeter of Hitchcockian suspense, to something less satisfying and more truthful: there may be bombs under our respective tables, but we rarely notice them, even when they do go boom.' Slavoj Zizek.

8: KAL-EL (Ang Lee, 2002, USA)

Another film, then, trading science-fiction cliches for hard currency. Ang Lee removes the rumbuncious idolatory from Superman by leaving him on Krypton; an alterna-hell of green normality. His semi-beurocratic life has echoes of Clark Kent, but shorn of the sudden gear-change at the drop of a baby into heroically sentimental icon, that refracted ideal of America's self-image. So, we have a man in a robe doing a job, with no smellovision sonatas, no Christmas tones. Kal-El is a regular alien with regular parents. But he has dreams, dreams in which he is strong enough to lift vehicles, repair dams, fly. 'To say I made Superman without Superman is absurd. He exists in Kal-El's dreams, just as he lives in ours,' Ang Lee said, in a defence of his apparent sabotage. The real heresy (if that is a strong enough word for pop culture fanatics in a post-Christianity world) was perhaps having a Kal-El whose escalating resentment about the disparity between his life and dreams ends with him making a bomb big enough to destroy his homeworld, before fleeing and crashlanding on a green and blue planet where he has ultrasonic ears. And where, naturally, he can fulfill his own invented destiny.

'That this Superman is like any reality show contestant- tall, handsome, convinced of his own uniqueness- makes him simultaneously loathsome and sympathetic. Lee's genius is in holding these two weights in complete harmony' LA Times.

7: LIPSTICK FIBROSIS (Bert Smith, 2007, UK)

'The blogging generation's Spiceworld' The Guardian.

'Hey Hey We're the Junkies' The Sun

'War of the Worlds meets Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park meets Mars Attacks meets Head meets The Day The Earth Stood Still meets Abba: The Movie meets Mamma Mia meets Signs meets Purple Rain meets The Faculty meets Help meets The Thing meets Eddie and the Cruisers meets ET meets That Thing You Do meets Mack and Me meets This Island Earth meets Oliver Stone's The Doors meets Plan 9 meets Dreamgirls meets The Faculty meets Paris Blues. In fact, I'll tell you exactly what this film is like- the scene in Masters of the Universe where Courtney Cox's boyfriend discovers that he can decipher the key to the cosmic flux capacitor portal device by plugging it into his Yamaha keyboard and playing strident yuppie rock chords, thus evading Frank Langella's Skeletor- that scene, over the course of ninety minutes, refracted through myspace. Fun.' Mark Kermode.

Real-life legends-in-their-own-bathtimes Lipstick Fibrosis play themselves as Earth's last hope against marauding martians. Druggy singer Oskar Minimal is the hero whose asexual pipes flood the air with so much tuneless drivel that the aliens cannot decipher it among the rubble of hipster carnage in 21st century London. The previously unheralded spazzcore refuseniks turn out to be lovable heroes, world is saved, triumphant sell-out concert ensues. The rushed sequel Lipstick Fibrosis At The Beach (2008) was a step too far, and the forthcoming Lipstick Fibrosis In Space (2011) seems doomed. After the dismal failure of Razorlight At The Edge of Time (2007), and Jet: The Movie(2008), the brief band movie resurrection seems over. He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kasabian (2008), it should be noted, received a verdict of 'surprisingly watchable' in my house.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

LE PAROLE (THE WORDS, aka TALEBAIT) (Mario Monicelli, 1973)

Mario Monicelli and Italo Calvino appear on-screen. Calvino stands over a typewriter. Monicelli reads what he types: 'When you get your tenses wrong, tectonic plates swallow houses somewhere warm. When your sentence srtucture is unsound, skyscrapers topple in another city. Words are everything.' What follows is a succession of short films, all written by Calvino, and directed by Monicelli.

Stories, of course, are not invented. They have to be caught. Some move slowly, like trees, and can be cut and stripped easily. Others, by which we mean the better, rarer ones, have a quicksilver movement that means they must be tricked. The Story Hunters of Italo Calvino's fable are not wilderness wanderers with spears, but lateral-thinking architects. Distant diggers obey subsequent clauses, and despite trundling through the tenses, from future perfect back to shrunken present, and manage to lay solid enough foundations. The machines pivot, laying scaffold to support word brick lines. These sentences can act as mazes, forcing stories down dead end alleys and into convenient corners. This results, hopefully, in capture. The words are abstract traps. For the Story Hunter, they can be everything, the poison that drugs the tale, the wall that prevents convenient getaway, but also (and this is crucial), they can serve to delay the hunter, for it is possible that he too may be rendered woozy and confused by the structures, and drunk on their horny potentials, be rendered babbling into ever diminishing tunnels of chatter, where letters, symbols, and punctuation haunt his direction (parentheses, often a clarifying pair of friends, only adding to the disruption by building roadblocks where doors should be (and building doorways inside smaller doorways, ever onwards) and offering little defence when truly required (when the tale shakes its fur and sidesteps at top speed, once, twice, a pirouette, a hop, all punctuation trips; in panic, over itself, over each other), and so the tale, so ripe for grasping and pinning while still alive into the display case (for sombre repeats, ad infinitum) one moment, is gone from view the next, tracks disappearing in the high winds/ heavy snowfall/ persistent drizzle.

'I shall be attaching myself to you like starfish for the rest of the night'. A writer (Vittorio Gassman) attempts to write down every detail of a woman (Gigi Proietti). She moves, and his notes are blurred.

New York, 1899. When The Professor (Donald Sutherland) designs a machine that writes plots for stories, he is inundated with visits from budding novelists high in descriptive talent but lacking the requisite organizational story-telling abilities to wow. At first the existence of the machine suggests the unimaginative rut that Man has run into by offering wondrous and complex storylines that are used by the writers to garnish the theatre and novels of the time. The Professor tours America with the machine, accompanied by his money-seeking agent (Warren Oates) and his daughter (Lily Dragoon), sprinkling inventive narratives on writers everywhere at $10 a pop. But soon there are problems: A protest group, known as the Pro-Imaginatives, follow the tour and as attention for the Professor's invention grows, so does their opposition. They believe that 'man should stand or fall by his own ideas, and that using a machine to create thoughts is blasphemous and false'.

The Professor counters this by drugging his audience, but finds himself confused about the next course of action. Conveniently (plotwise), the machine explodes, sprinkling its magic all over the world. Inspiration now floats in pockets, invisible clouds, waiting to be walked through by unaware individuals. Our only awareness of our contact with these fields is when thoughts attach themselves in sudden fashion in unlinked contexts: When shopping in a supermarket or walking to work, for example, and we suddenly think of a long-dead grandparent, or a childhood song, or a jarring, phrase, name or joke which we find we must repeat over and over, prayerlike, investigating the mystery of words. The movie suggests that the machine is behind early cinema releases like the Melieres' Trip To The Moon; that without it, Edison would have lacked the imagination to conceive of cinema.

The quatrain is a poetry train. Tight rhymes and iambic pentameter keep the wheels on the tracks, on the tracks, on the tracks, on the tracks. When somebody aboard writes free-form, the train comes off the rails. But is this a problem? Perhaps with lines fizzing in new, broken directions, the train may spin into unchartered territories? Klaus Nomi stars as a flamboyantly hopeless poet whose dizzy lines might lead the train to other planets, and they might not.

A poor farmer (Ugo Tognazzi) is confounded by a sudden frost which kills his crop of letters. Without letters, his village cannot talk. Twenty mute minutes ensue.

Back in the woods, the trap is set. The Story Hunters wait. But in the night, hope gives way to despair, as they remember how many beautiful sentences they need. As they wait, we hear a distant noise on the wind. As it grows louder, the Story Hunters look confused. But we recognise the voice: It is The Professor from 'The Plot Machine', repeating over and over, 'Even with my machine, I don't know how to end this story... even with my machine, I don't know how to end this story... even with my machine...'

Le Parole Directed by Mario Monicelli Produced by Mario Cecchi Gori Written by Italo Calvino Starring Vittorio Gassman Gigi Proietti Donald Sutherland Warren Oates Klaus Nomi Italo Calvino Mario Monicelli Adolfo Celi Ugo Tognazzi Claude Dauphin Titanus Film 99 mins Release Date Ita: June 1973, UK/US: Nov 1973 Tagline:'Grandpa, Where Do Stories Come From?'

Saturday, 28 November 2009


You've seen it. Or, you've seen something like it. The same anonymous actors, same colours, but a variation on a theme:
Nick and Debs stop at a donut bar in the middle of a huge goodbye party. Employees of a local office are saying goodbye to a colleague named Donna. She doesn't seem to be there yet, or perhaps she is already gone, but the place is covered in written and drawn testimonials to her. They gaze at her picture. Nick thinks she is pretty. Debs thinks she looks like trouble. Then a friendly guy asks them to sign her card. They protest, saying it isn't right, as they didn't know her. Eventually Debs takes the pen to be polite, but when she looks at the card she sees a message in Nick's handwriting. Did you sign the card before? Did you know her? she asks. Nick is apparently stunned.

Later, Nick finds a letter in the attic from Donna. Or, a postcard arrives from her, saying: Nick, I wish I could have got to know you before I left, D x.

The couple are haunted. The movie ends with first scene being repeated, but with Nick and Debs' discomfort amplified. They do not know why.

Jimmy Jensen was part of the Danewood scene (the brief postwar Copenhagen coterie of state-supported filmmakers), until he left to start a wired, off-the-radar operation in Mexico City. Beginning in 1949, Jensen and his Mexican cohorts churned out over five hundred Hollywood-aping noir thrillers, in English and often with a mixture of C-list Hollywood nobodies and young Hispanic talent. These pictures were largely shot with Mexico City standing in for LA, Chicago or New York and with their pulpy concentration of crime and lust became known as 'Mexican Sexiguns', or just 'Sexiguns'. The films were frequently made simultaneously, with often as many as thirty in production at once, leading to obvious pitfalls. Many films contain overlapping actors, directors and scenes. Sometimes the cast and crew did not know which film they were working on, and some films are clearly a collage of several, causing their plots to be a hash of tangled cliches. Due to this, all films are attributed to a fictional director, Hermoso Equipo (Spanish for 'beautiful team').1 The group found strength in this approach, with Jensen even believing that 'the more of different films we get in one film, more authors involved, the more plots we refer to... the closer to the centre of fiction and humanity we got'.2

American Chiffon Fahey and Englishman Martin Bastion, never stars anywhere else, made several Sexiguns together, notably Bone Ring (1952), Sterling Silver Hallmark (1953) and this. Donna, Or The Power Of Constant Thought also stars the Latina bombshell Luisa Teresa Caracas, better known as 'Pipi', a popular singer of overwrought ballads in her homeland, Peru. Here she stars as Donna, a gossamer image of charged sexuality who flickers on the edge of the grey screen, threatening to burst through Nick and Debs' idea of themselves with technicolor vigour, and further, on through the fourth wall completely, covering the audience with gorgeous neon plasma. Such is her beauty.

Fahey and Bastion, haunted by the suppressed memory/ exposed id/ vibrating chaotic alternative that is Donna perfectly portray a milk-white and gaunt marriage, affectionate but drifting to tepid. (Of course, this being Hermoso Equipo, footage from the same shoot is used to perfectly represent unsure newlyweds on the lam and kissing cousins in Young Marrieds (1951) and Against God's Will (1951) respectively.

Weird interludes abound. A sudden bank heist is prevented, a young homeless boy with a bag of gold wanders across the screen, and Pipi sings a stinging ballad, apropos of nothing. These diversions, clearly intended to be sections from other Sexiguns edited carelessly into the Donna mixture, actually serve to embody the protagonists' confusion about this strage girl very well; indeed, the constant dissonance of overlapping energies can at times be so potent that this hurried B-production transcends mere pastiche and becomes something more ephemeral and spectacular. 'It is as if the actors are trapped in the screen, awaiting the cruel mercies afforded by sudden editing'3

The Sexiguns drifted and died by the early sixties, as inner tensions and a loss of will meant that the focus of the group had been lost. But their achievements are still noteworthy: in fifteen years, an as many as five hundred films were released, but an estimated thousand more jumpy hybrids were made. Most are lost, but some still surface at film festivals or on obscure cable channels. Noteworthy Sexiguns This Seems Like It's Real (1952), Pretty Worn Down, Whatever We Do We Don't Tell William, 14 Carat Gold With A Very Sadly Shattered Amethyst (all 1954), Too Smoky To Be Emerald (1955), Turpentine Lipstick (1956) and The Dark Underbelly (1959) are widely available.

The American-Korean boybuilder, Wii Fit, was perhaps the most famous breakout star of the Sexiguns. His charismatic monosyllabic performances in This Woman Is Amazing (1953), Very Of Their Time, Very Unique (1953) and The Crazy Folk Who Think This Is All Junk (1954), led to a role in Vicente Minelli's Hollywood musical biopic of Mussolini, Il Duce (1959) and subsequently recurring roles in US television shows such as Mork and Spork, Mister Probs 'n' Sister Probs and The Love Fund. He may have become the most famous, but really picking stars from such a collective seems beside the point somehow.

Donna, Or The Power Of Constant Thought Directed by Hermoso Equipo Produced by Hermoso Equipo Written by Hermoso Equipo Starring Luisa Teresa Caracas Chiffon Fahey Martin Bastion Hermoso Equipo Films Release Date US: circa 1951 Tagline: 'Can You Forget Her If You Never Knew Her?'

1. This led to a curious and no doubt apochryphal incident when in 1963 Fidel Castro invited 'the genius who offers gorgeous satire of the evil empire, Hermoso Equipo' to visit Cuba. Castro of course, being a Spanish speaker, would not be confused by such an obvious ruse, but the story lives on.

2. LA Times interview, Sept 1977.

3. So says film critic Jean-Luc Sofie, whose book Sexie was a crucial factor in getting critical attention to Sexiguns many years after the fact.

Friday, 13 November 2009

THE PRISON RODEO (Shye Phillips, 1990)

'An incredible thing about cinema is that if someone is hiding in a closet, for example, perhaps from a group of pursuers, then we almost automatically feel a sense of trepidation about their potential discovery. This happens whether the hidden protagonist is a cop, a thief, a child murderer... what is this moral blur, and how does it occur?'1

This thriller has a trim and simple plot over which it plays a desolate magic:
Lance Guest stars as Vince, a man who is rightfully imprisoned for his part in a jewel heist. Despite swearing to stand by her man, his wife Hope (Penelope Ann Miller) soon shacks up with an avant garde country star DK (Dwight Yoakam) who writes a song celebrating their love.2 When this proves to be a smash on the charts, Vince vows to find a way to escape prison and win his girl back. The only problem is securuty has been stepped up after several high profile escapes, and there is no way out. Enter the Doc (Roky Erickson), a lifer whose eccentric practices suggest he can help Vince.

This much is established in the first ten minutes, with little fuss or fanfare. The swift arrival at
this juncture leads us to suspect a regulation prison drama, as our hero avoids survives lunch room staredowns and shower assassins. But we get something else when the Doc shows up. This isn't the wise and weary mentor we expect, for the Doc is somewhere between a poet preacher and magus. Through a series of incoherent, electric Erickson rants, we discover the Doc's escape plan for Vince: He will teach him to teleport through the walls.

'Vince, according to the law you deserve to be here. You did it. But there are higher laws. The rites of love give you access to more transient powers. Belief and control of this will come if you listen. I know, I know, you hear vulnerable sounds. The room has a changed timbre, with ideas wedged in a funnel and allowed to run. An unusual combination of textures is before your eyes. It makes every sound visible. Every now and again, as you breathe, allow a memory of your girl to bleed. Like the time you met, the time you approached her in the interval at the movies and said Will you have a drink with me?
You'll be confused. You'll be real confused. But these ideas float in a Xenon mist, and are only visible if you look straight ahead. No-one else here has this perspective, so they can't steal them. Classic military strategy. Steady. Don't fight the chair. Gung-ho iguanas tell me to relax. A thousand distractions, but you'll walk through the stone. Meanwhile, a beta unit that looks like yourself will warm your bed at night. Olefactory senses will guide you. Soon you'll be making it up to one another over warm beer at Silver Lake. The defences are like turrets. You'll dodge past them, a ghost, keeping radio silence in the fourth dimension. I'll jam the frequencies of nether ghosts while you dance on through the caves of the mind... shooting your way out through the walls like light. A long and fruitful life awaits with your little sweetie. Possibly.'
'Why possibly, Doc?'
'There is another possibility of course: Vince passes through the wall. His ghost walks twenty miles to her house. He sees her crying and thinks it is for him. It is not. It is because she is being haunted by her con ex-husband. Because it hinges on this: If your love is as true as you say, and hers is too, then the auditorium will clap your miraculous escape. But if not, then you are the stalker in their bad dreams.'

With this exchange, the Doc sets up a thought in our minds that it takes Vince a whole film to consider: that his wife was never supposed to be with him. Their love is over. Vince's Hope on the outside is someone else's, and should be.

Time passes. Vince practices. His teleportation appears successful. But increasingly, our sympathies are drawn away from him; Erickson's witchy tones don't ever stop, they drip over the images like a devil's treacle, or haunted molasses, or a wired broth. The frantic actions conveyed by his voice suggest all too well that he, not Vince, is the only one of them to truly feel hot emotion; Vince seems to slip away, his moral compass gone, his face a bland shadow. Our protagonist is essentially rubbed out of his own narrative halfway through, leaving only the memory in his wife's head of a failed first husband. And he disappears as if teleported not only out of prison but out of the world, and we are left hoping, in a final scene of domestic bliss between Hope and her DK, that Vince cannot touch her ever again.3

The Prison Rodeo Directed by Shye Phillips Written by Tom Tipley Produced by Shye Phillips, Martin Scorcese Starring Lance Guest Penelope Ann Miller Roky Erickson Dwight Yoakam Warner Brother Pictures US/UK Release Date: March 1990 Tagline: 'When Inside is Outside, is Outside In?'

1. 'The Slack Chariot: Cinema As 1000 Messages' esseay by Painter Williams, Times Literary Supplement, Sept 17, 1995.
2. The song includes the fevered quatrain that gives the film its title: 'Don't worry about him right now/He'll be starring in the prison rodeo right now/ You can call his name if you please/ But it's not him in your bathtub sha-sha-shaking your knees'
3. A 1993 sequel (Prison Rodeo II, 1993, starring Guest and Phoebe Cates) explored events after the first film, with Vince haunting his ex-wife in her new home in New Mexico. It played like Jerry Zucker's Ghost (1990) if Moore had been horrified throughout and Swayze had no Goldberg to filter his confusions through, comically or otherwise.

Monday, 28 September 2009


'[La Lengua Muerta] is about the frantic and frayed means of expression, the destruction of culture, the end of art...'1

How many pieces of art have placed a new adjective in the lexicon? In the same way that Catch 22 offered itself up as a phrase to explain something we had never quite so succinctly explained before, so too walks La Lengua Muerta. And how: for the means here are as legendary as the art itself.
Chilean director Gilberto Ayala constructed this paean to the sabotage of his country in secrecy within those tortured borders at various points between 1975 and 1979. Fearful of the regime of General Auguste Pinochet, Ayala cut apart his film and mailed each frame to different locations across North America. In the region of 108,000 frames were sent out. When Ayala fled Chile in 1980, he began the process of tracking down each frame to build his 75 minute film. Friends returned them to him over a period of months, and after an arduous editing process, he debuted the film at the New York Film Festival in 1982.

'Of course, some frames were missing,' Ayaya says. 'Some friends had lost them, or moved, or perhaps they had never arrived in the first place. This slow wave of mail bringing my film back to me proved emotional and revealing. Many scenes I had not watched since I had shot them, being in such a hurry to cut the film up and send it to safety. But each day, several pieces of my jigsaw arrived at my new address in Manhattan, bringing with them shards of memory, and new dreams. Some pieces are out of synch. I know. I accept this. Perfection was impossible. But a new magic was applied in the process, as if the spirit of thousands of my countrymen was enriched by the film's contact with thousands of Americans'1

The missing pieces actually work in the film's favour, giving the action a jerkily hypnotic lack of flow. Ayala didn't realise it at the time, but his accidental discovery of a technique would prove inspirational to a generation of offbeat auteurs. Other directors removed frames from their reels, and what quickly became known as 'Dead Language Style', or simply 'Dead Language' became a common entry in dictionaries of film terms.2

The film itself is wonderful and worthy of discussion beyond the history of its mythical journey. The plot is based on a famous Chilean folk tale, and it is also a commentary on the regime of Pinochet. Said Pauline Kael, 'Ayala's La Lengua Muerta is like Mikhail Bulgakov's novel Master and Margarita, this is magical realism without whim, but with angry claws.' 1

When the land of Alhambria wakes on midsummer's day, a surprising chill is in the air. There is a problem. The statue at the centre of town that was constructed by ancient fathers is gone. This icon was made of lettered building blocks, and their disappearance is calamitous. Without the powers of the blocks, the land has no language; the alphabet is forgotten overnight, and coherent speech vanishes. The written word is meaningless, and books are burned or ignored.

People have only the vaguest sense of what has been lost: How can the inarticulate rembember articulacy with any detail? Forgotten language litters the air. Every now and then, words are spoken, sentences even, as some kind of brain memory spins lines, but they expire, undeciphered.

The country descends into savagery; all the while, there is suspicion of an outside force. A group of young deaf street children realise they must do something. Their sign language is the only form of communication that still carries resonance, and they band together and attempt to rebuild. The strength of the young hopefuls in a dire circumstance is the backbone of the film's thrust and power.

Poignantly, the young star Maria-Maria Cruz disappeared in 1986, suspected murdered by the army in Chile. She would have been just nineteen years old. Her performance as the patient and busy leader of the group of street children is the emotional focus of the film 'Maria-Maria's death reminds me why I made the film in the first place,' says Ayala. ''Brave' is a word that is attached to artists far too frequently. Maria-Maria defined the word in ways that Hollywood, with its 'heroic' films condemning slavery, or Nazis, can never comprehend'.

La Lengua Muerta Directed by Gilberto Ayala Written by Gilberto Ayala Juan Jiminez Produced by Gilberto Ayala Juan Jiminez, Steffan Reuters La Blanca/Fusion Pictures Release Date US: November 1982 UK: March 1983 Tagline: 'How Can You Speak When There Are No Words?'

1. Pauline Kael, 1001 Nights (1990). Ayala was so taken with Kael's vivid phrase that he titled his 2003 autobiography A Life With Angry Claws. The quotes above are all taken from it.
2. Quentin Tarantino famously emulated the style for a disorientating action sequence in his Reel Cool Beach (2002), and Woody Allen paid homage with repeated use of Dead Language in If I Do Say So Myself (1989). Hal Hartley, Vic Vikram and Neil Labute have all also utilised the technique repeatedly.

Sunday, 13 September 2009


The Day We Lost A Month, the reaction was slow. No-one noticed at first: It was May, and November was the month that had been taken. As leaders took to our screens to tell us, most didn't understand. How could this happen?

Chris Marker (real name Christian Francois Bouche-Villeneuve) emerged internationally with La Jetee (1962), a seismic short composed of still photography that tells the tale of a post-nuclear time-travel experiment.1 It set the tone for his further work, especially La Jour Nous Perdu Un Mois. Both films share a documentary style, a time-travel motif and a bleak outlook. La Jour... takes an absurdist concept and grounds it in grim detail: The governments of the world discover that the month of November has 'vanished'. An explanation for this is not forthcoming. The film centres on events between this discovery becoming public and its consequences: it is, essentially, a pre-apocalyptic panic film, with a vague and not yet understood apocalypse.

Snatches of anonymous monologue surround the film:

One twelfth of our lives will be stolen away. That is at least six years to a healthy Westerner. Where did they go? Who took them? Early government reports were perceived as whitewashes designed to placate and confuse. This only caused people to suspect a conspiracy even more. Angry speeches turned into riots. But truthfully, the governments of the world were as unsure about the situation as the rest of us.

We are healthy. We are well. This will not happen.

But what if November literally caved in, leaving millions fleeing for a safer time of year, and destroying Thanksgiving? The rich might manage to buy themselves a perpetual August, guarded by hired armies, but others would be left scrambling from the void.

A group of revolutionaries in France attacked several May days and successfully captured them, with the aim of turning them into cool November ones; in effect beginning a rationing process of the rest of the days, spreading them along the calendar, pushing the edges of October and December into the void, like stepping stones over rushing black waters. But the French government, backed by the UN, freed the days in a daring televised raid.

The May days wilted, cried, disappeared. Years were shrivelling before our eyes.

A plan was formed that involved a small group of elite marines dropping by helicopter into the day after October 31st to see what was there. This mission was named 'The October 32nd Drop' and was deemed by many experts to be a suicide mission.

Could time be tricked if we supposed a new calendar? Could we trick ourselves into not noticing our cosmic short-changing?

The articulation of a fear of loss is potent here: What is being taken is not material, and thus cannot be saved. The diminishing of November is as strange and inevitable as the slipping of teenage love from its glorious mountaintop, or of one's own life ending. There is no villain to defend against, no cure; just apprehensive misunderstandings, loss, and possible death.

Come October, panics begin. With no November, what will happen? Will we simply jump to December? If so, can we just call that November? Some tried to compare it to the panic over the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, but that was technically a renaming. With this, we were actually losing time.

What if when the clock turns to midnight on Halloween, the world ceases?

The hopeless, black void at the end of this film is one of the most despairing negatives in movie lore. Sad as a D chord held indefinitely, the confusion and fear of the previous seventy minutes is funnelled chillingly into an ever darkening image.

And then, nothing.

Le Jour Nous Avons Perdu Un Mois Directed by Chris Marker Produced by Anatole Dauman Written by Chris Marker, Jacques Sternberg Music by Paul Misraki Starring Helena Chamelaine, David Richard, Serene Vespa Athos Films/Criterion Release Date UK/Fra: June 1966

1. La Jetee was later remade, most famously by Terry Gilliam as Twelve Monkeys (1995), but also by Mamoru Oshii as The Red Spectacles (1987) and by Jeff Poncaby-Ryde as Time Bitch (2001). Le Jour Avons... was remade by Jan Le Bont as No Thanksgiving This Year (2002), starring Nicolas Cage and Madeline Stowe.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Aa (Niko Hämäläinen, 1966)

Bb(Niko Hämäläinen, 1979),Cc(Niko Hämäläinen, 1992), Dd(Niko Hämäläinen, 1999)
Ee(Niko Hämäläinen, 2005), Ff(Niko Hämäläinen and Evan Hämäläinen, 2009)

The Finns, then, have a school of film-makers unadorned by the garland throwers of the world (impossible as that may be, given that in these times mankind increasingly appears to be an island of garland-tossers, with fewer and fewer worthy recipients of those celebrated woven flower decorations); a school that numbers just one, a furious pedant and painfully precise temperment, a man who refuses to die until he finishes his work, a work that is impossible to finish. A man who describes himself as 'Finnish at the beginning, and at the end...'
Hämäläinen's preoccupation, was, is, and will ever be words. The latest in his 'visualised dictionary' series,Ff, has just been completed and will be released in Autumn 2009, a mere four years after the release of Ee, which itself was only seven years after Dd. 'digital video technology is helping us speed up' he says, optimistically. 'Besides, Xx and Qq won't take me long, they are short letters,'1 The concept: Hämäläinen makes visuals of the the dictionary. Aa is a series of images representing each word in the Oxford English Dictionary beginning with A, in alphabetical order. The sequels follow suit. So Aa begins with an image of the letter a itself, before we see an aadvark, then a and so on. Some of his shots have to be created in interesting ways: 'to articulate both argue and then arguing, never mind argument, in interesting and unrepetitive ways is perhaps the difficulty in this. And of course, how to render abstracts such as abstract in second-long bursts of images is a constant problem.'2

The BBC's Arena strand made a documentary about Hämäläinen in 1975 entitled Dictionary Man, and they returned in 1999 to check on his progress, the result of which appeared that year as The Dictionary Man Forever. The question that the interviewer returns to time and again, is inevitable:

'Why, Niko?'

'Why what?'

'Why this?'

'I don't know what you mean.'

'Why film the dictionary? It is an impossible undertaking.'

(Pause. Niko thinks, as if for the first time, about this.)

'Well what else would you have me do?'

And so, we see in Niko Hämäläinen a romantic spirit specific not only to man, but to men; a foolhardy heroism in which no-one can win, for there can be no glory. And yet, we find it admirable, this bloody-minded devotion, and wonder, what would Hämäläinen's reaction be if he were to get close to completing his task? Would his knees buckle like a rookie serving for the championship at Wimbledon, a rookie who had been fearless until the point that possibility is fast becoming probability? We cannot know, for time will have its win over the project.

But is it a defeat for an artist to die before his work is done? Don't all artists die before their work is done? Some, perhaps, are done long before they die. The interest with Hämäläinen stems from the fact that we know exactly how much further he has to go. He is 70 now, and his latest, Ff is chapter six of twenty-six. And while this chapter has a polish that Aa lacks, and some of the transitions are more imaginative, the truth is that his style and technique are largley the same, over forty years on. Such consistency in art confuses us.

Gilbert Adair:
'Why are our letters in the order they are? What does it mean, besides putting the Alexes and Andrews on the sunny side of the classroom and the Zacharys and Zoes in the dark? What does it mean, beyond putting Springsteen, Bruce next to Springfield, Dusty (but far, far away from Springfield, Buffalo) in the record store? What chiming moments does such a pervasive ordering of the world throw up? Is our alphabet a key? Can it tell a story? What Hämäläinen does, in not so many words (or perhaps, in exactly so many words), is ask these questions, with a direct action so bold and hopeless that we question its sanity.'3

Evan Hämäläinen, Niko's son, who co-directed Ff:
'My father is a man haunted by dreams of an oversized alphabet forest, where rain falls and an l tips over, uprooted, or a k bends to offer a branch for a climber. Whether this is why he chose this project, or because of the project, well who can tell at this point?'

Adair agian:

'The truth is that of course he could have chosen to make films about his his family, or his home, something that was superficially more subjective. But the small decisions he makes in his films express his personality in ways other filmmakers fail to do over countless fictions: The skittering creature he chooses for the word bee, for example, or the grey, ashy block for the word brick; both articulate ceaselessly.'

Aa Directed by Niko Hämäläinen Produced by Niko Hämäläinen Venstock Films/Aqua Film Distribution. US/UK Release Date: N/A.

1. The Sunday Times Magazine, September 2009.

2. Dictionary Man, BBC films, 1976.

3. Flickers 2, Faber & Faber, 2008.

4. The Sunday Times Magazine, September 2009.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

BOBBY'S DREAM (Langston Bailey, 1972)

(...And we know, through epileptic flashbacks, that the situation somehow began with the murder of a young mother; a corpse lies in a bathroom, a baby cries, and a shadowy figure leaves through the door. Our hero (Bruce Dern, or similar) arrives at the scene, and we then flashback further: The young woman is alive, it is three days earlier, and we follow her on her relatively mundane path around her town. It ends, where it begins, with our hero hiding in an abandoned cinema. Bad guys are pursuing, and he's not sure if his gun will work. It is nighttime, and we are in something akin to a bankrupt Manhattan, but perhaps not.)

Click. Muffled movements; possibly his own. An alarm in the distance. Source unknown. He clutched the gun in both hands, put his ear to the wall and listened. Silence.

Hard Silence (1955) had been the first movie he had seen in this cinema, and now he thought of it, the dark moved, and he studied every suggestion. The building creaked with possibility, even more so now that it was empty, save for himself and his prey. Or his assailants, depending on who got the upper hand. His narrative had arrived at this point breathlessly; tedious stakeouts and crosswords had bled into action before he knew it, and now it came to this.

He cast his mind backwards over the facts of the case, looking for a detail that might help. Profile of the enemy? They outnumber me, I'm sure of that. They are more at home in this part of town too. One of them is at least twice my weight. Any pertinent fact that might help? One of them a southpaw? Colorblind? Temper? We've all got tempers. Kill remaining lights or turn them all on full? When? Athlete? Olympic runners run anti-clockwise. If I can get him going the other way, he'll lose some seconds. Similarly, always kick a boxer.

Bobby mentally unwrapped his black notebook. From the beginning it had made him think of another case: the girl, the prize, the double-triple cross; then there was the obscure artifact, the conspiracy, and the trap. He was sure that he had walked into it deliberately, but had spent so much time acting like he knew what was happening over the years that he was struggling now to pin down the specifics here. He was sure that they thought that he knew it was a trap, and as such the fact that he wasn't sure if he had known could be an asset: He knew something they didn't, which was that they didn't know what he didn't know. But what he didn't know was exactly how much he didn't know. He checked his gun. six bullets. He knew he hadn't shot anybody yet.

But the route to the present is hazy... there had been the letter that had arrived at his apartment, unnoticed for days in the bills. It sat on the dresser, the provocation of its hot knowledge ignored, until while driving one day it came into his mind; he turned for home, unsure why he hadn't opened it sooner. It was a valentine, with a sad sailor on the cover, bending a girl into an awkward kiss. He opened it, waiting for a punchline. Do you ever think of me? Love, Roxy. 3rd Mai, Never Again.

His instincts had been questioned by Johnson more than ever on this one. Old Girlfriends. Get over it, Bobby... and while he had met it all with bravado, it had troubled him. Roxy, his first girlfriend, was long dead. Another town, another time. Who here knew? Had May 3rd had been the day they'd moved into new territory at the fair? the day they knew the cartography of their separate lives might be shared? It seemed possible...

it was not long after that that she was taken away from him. She wasn't a cross on a map, she was a ghost.

And so the line nagged him. Someone who knew something wanted to tell him something.

It took him a while to get it. The French spelling of May was the end of the thread he had to pull, his way of unravelling the tangle. He circled it, tugged, it didn't give, he walked away, came back. Then, while sleeping, it came to him:

Roxy. 3rd Main. Ever Again.

The Roxy cinema, on 3rd and Main. The place. When he looked at their schedule in the Times, he saw the rest. Ever Again (Fritz Lang, 1952) was playing next Friday, midnight. Just the one time.

And so here he was. Question: What time is it? Past midnight, because the place is empty. He saw the last cleaner leave before he broke in. But it was Friday, he was sure, and that meant the late showing, which started at midnight, and finished at around two. He knew the last train would pass at 3 am, and that the noise would give him cover to make a move. But when was 3 am? He figured it was at least forty-five minutes since he came in here. How long was the film? If it was long, then that train might be any moment. He pictured the marquee in his head, saw the poster, saw everything, except the running time. Incorrect informations could not be filtered out: His memory, for example, repeatedly replayed photographically an image of himself , back before his hiding place behind screen one, across the red velvet seats, the lobby, the sign: BUS 5TOP (1956). Marilyn Monroe. A name with no S's, lucky, as the 'S' of 'Stop' had to be represented by a 5...
But that was weeks ago, a double bill with The Killers (1946), in a backroom of a bar; they had no marquee.

He had written a letter to Burt Lancaster thanking him for the genius of The Killers when he was in college. The moments otherwise undetected: When Marie's head dissects the 'Bus Stop' sign, so that it said, in sequence, B, US, TOP, then BE US on TOP, a subliminal message of hope, that they might Be Us on Top of the world, or even, he explained in an appendix, it could be the U.S. on top of the planet.

...a sound. He could hear a patio door sliding back and forth. Where was it? He was aware that the sound hadn't suddenly appeared, but that it had been growing for some time. There were no patio doors in the theater, none in the whole borough for that matter. He held his breath. The noise stopped. Letting out a breath, there was the sound again, long and slow. It had been his breathing, louder and more frantic than he realized, sucking back from his collar.

Which film had it been where the DRIVE-THRU sign was inhibited early in the first scene by the lead, a handsome innocent, so that it read D-I-E, instructing those open to such coding? Bobby had stood up, shouted 'he will be the killer', and walked out, leaving his date alone in the dark. The Avalon, - St. If only such certainties could be grasped here in the Roxy. I mean, The Ritz. This is the Ritz.

Oxbow Drive (1956), a film of such leading and misleading words (OXen? BOWs and arrows? Racing Drivers, Cattle Drives, Night Drives...) that poked through the images that he felt like a neon whiteness had burned into his eyes, never to be rubbed away.

This is the Roxy, not the old Ritz, remember, Bobby. You didn't see Cold Silence here. You saw Farewell, My Lovely here with that secretary, and Chinatown alone, more than once. The Roxy is gone.

... flashback in which the young mother is found dead in her bathroom, and the cops rage hard, and clues are given and given as this is more of a witch hunt now... he had spoken to a friend Doc about his doubts about being involved, Doc who was a doc, but off the record, but his words had fallen quickly and falsely onto the tape...'If I talk about it somewhat they'll prescribe the doctor or a massage or something more psychodramatic for which I have not the desire or the fire in my resolve to stand in that dark room for several visits visiting persecution upon my frame. If I don't, then they'll increase my workload to that of a healthy individual free of skull pain and worry. It would of course be a double-bind, were it not for the third factor, my own beady eye casting judgment upon my own (under) achievements... But I can't remember.... I just... can't... remember. I have a lyric in my head that was central to a previous case, but I don't remember how. It goes like this... 'I am a relative of the dancer/ Second cousin twice removed/ I'll steal a piece of his garment/ For you to do with what you do.' It is from... something. It solved something. But I don't know what, and the melody is murdering me over and over.'

...and when he heard it back, it seemed meaningless and wrong, somebody else's voice reading somebody else's script, bad enough to warrant a dismissive tagline... Bobby Spritz is a detective [pause]... with a problem. But it was noir lite, a melodrama-by numbers, far from the pivotal doubt and potential triumphs that elevated his skull.

It had all started so well, he was sure. But now he might just be an old man responding to noises in the night. Those kids. The first sign of trouble was the dead girl. There were always dead girls, pregnant and poor. But this one was called Prestbury, Alice, which had also been the name of his first girlfriend. It wasn't her, but a loop opened at the mention of the name. The chief suspect, missing, was an ex-army sergeant, Bates, Lucas. The name of his second girlfriend had been Lucy Bates. And here, that metaphysical engine, the angel driving all of them, had jolted: the card they all played, the Hunch, that hot chill from the nostril to the stomach that said something with this picture is slightly amiss exploded, and he knew that it was something more: The picture frame is askew, busted loose.

A taxi passes by, emitting late-night radio. Love excerpts hang in the air hopelessly out of context. Romantics, and there were plenty of those in his line of work, talked of the old days, but the city was different to the one sainted by memory. Same name, same vague location, but people were newer, traditions had shifted. The city was remembered in ceremony but chewed and rebuilt every second with the competing energies of a child who longs to be adult and an adult lnging for childhood. The city was ever-shifting, somewhere between this perceived present and perceived past. This, somehow, added to the tense uncertainty of people. He knew, that if he could articulate it, he could blame this feeling for half of the crimes he had witnessed. He'd sat with Johnson, talked, and Johnson had listened, indulgently, but Bobby had only circled the feeling. He couldn't quite hum the tune.

Bobby had followed as many dead ends as the rest of them. But a few celebrated leaps of faith over the years (The Case of the Quicksand, The Lost Watch) had marked him out as something of a clairvoyant, a seer. All it took was a couple of loudmouths at the station to call him 'Madame Bobby' or ask him to pick a winner on the horses, and his reputation was fixed. And he said nothing, it helped his business, kept the cops slightly in awe of him; but all the while he was paddling furiously underwater, desperate not to be perceived to have lost it. Personally, he doubted he had ever had it. But that didn't matter. Appearances held, and when a case needed opening, they'd call him up, ask him a favor. Hey Bob, let's get you drunk and see if we can't get you to dream, huh?

Reputation was everything. Take Eastwood, a P.I. he had known. Head full of Hammett, he looked on his profession mystically, as if it has come into it's way of being due to some abundance. An abundance of humanity. The day we're not human is the day I can retire. Not that he thought it was noble. It just was. Eastwood was a fine PI: quiet, tidy, inconspicuous. Made it seem like office work. Until a movie star came along with the same name. It was funny at first, when kids would call the number from his listing and ask for a Man With No Name to save their small town. Eventually, the cranks weighed him down, inhibited his business, put a spotlight on his doings. He took upon using his wife's name professionally. Changed the listing, changed his documents. But soon, that too was problematic: there was a new actor, named Hackman too. He retired before he could use his mother's first name, and it was just as well. Talk about instincts.

The truer the hunch, the more firm and fixed his conviction, the more he lost a grip on his bearings. If you have one ear on the cusp of the future, yesterday slips out of earshot. Past events murk together. Bobby felt a chill. He held his gun tigher. He recalled little now, which meant that the sudden feeling in his gut was likely correct: I'm going to die tonight.

The city lulled around him, low tide, and he pictured it outside the cinema, gray and black. He saw the alleys and fire escapes, but not in their correct configuration; in his mind they re-arranged themselves to aid his escape, and fell in over his tracks like new snow to conceal his position after he had gone. He couldn't leave the city, but instead opted to burrow into its depths until he was out of sight.

In that, of course, was the fitful existence of cities; his foes also imagined such assistance from the buildings, as did the millions around, favoring routes on a whim, sticking to wind-blocking paths, wishing for faster journeys across on their own graphs. This pulling in different directions lent the place it's frustrated energies, and caused the walls to tense defensively. A pipe tap-tapped overhead and threatened to flare like a poisoned nostril. It held. Water from somewhere moved through the walls. Normal sounds? Or are they trying to get my attention? Flush me out?

'Hey Bobby. They should call this one The Case of the Lost Girlfriends.'

'Or The Case of No Girlfriends.'

'Bobby Confuses Himself.'

'Or Bobby's Dream. The only lead you're following is your own tail. You're dreaming. Damn, I wish I could see it. Bobby's Dream. Ha. Man, every case you're ever on should be called that.'

He decided to move. He stuck his gun into the crack of the door and levered it open. He peeked through. More dark. But there was a sign, illuminated. NO EXIT. Punctuation? No, Ex it! Bobby, call your wife, apologize again, if you get out of here then make a go of it; Or No Ex, fall off the Earth tonight, say no prayer, and throw the suggestible alphabet onto the floor in a crash of bricks. Take a vow of silence, ignore the Maltese Falcon line, 'talking is something you can't do judiciously, unless you practice.'

Focus, or somesuch mantra, was muttered lowly, and it was him talking at himself. His words rang hollow. Focus meant nothing to him. On what? His guts were conspicuous, his senses untrustworthy. Recent dreams had slipped away from their usual parameters and into completely new space. Old friends had visited him, prompting crushingly sad mornings when he awoke and realised where he was, and that Jim was dead, or Suze had lost her mind, and that Bryan was gone. Johnson had bought him coffee and told him that the station saw him as a renegade now. Johnson had tried to keep them off his back, pulled as many strings as he could reach, everybody knew that. But Bobby had apparently gone too far this time. The police couldn't help him, in fact they were actively looking for him. One witnessed error, and his licence was gone. 

'There's nothing romantic about a P.I. with no gig,' said Johnson.

P.I. Pi. 3.14159.

'...and if you're out of this circle, then you're no P.I. at all.'

Pi. Circle. 
'Johnson, I think I can predict the future. Only sometimes, the patterns don't make sense. I get confused.'
'Bobby, you're off the case.'

Opinions, loud guesses. Bobby knew that he had no way of knowing what was round the corner. He had been in this theater forever, and perhaps would never find his way out.

Bobby's Dream Directed by Langston Bailey Starring Bruce Dern Nina Van Pallandt Francois Truffaut United Artists Release date US/UK: May 1972 Tagline: 'Somewhere between prophetic and pathetic, Bobby Spritz is a detective with a problem'

1. The film was the first of a loose trilogy, a homage to film noir, and was thus frequently known as Noir I. In some parts of the US, Bobby's Dream was re-released in 1978 as Bobby's Dream: Noir. Nobody has a compelling reason why.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

THE BYZANTINE (Wim Wenders, 1981)

Opening credits. The Byzantine, in red letters, appears over a shot of the Manhattan skyline.
I Am Waiting as performed by the Rolling Stones plays on the soundtrack.

We cut to an apartment. The song is now playing on a radio. Tomas (Bruno Ganz) is a German living in New York. On this morning, he wakes from a dream. In his head is the name of a book, and an author.

The Byzantine by John Goreman.

He feels that he must find it. Near his apartment in Manhattan is an all-night bookshop. He pays them a visit, but don't have it. The next day, he goes to as many libraries and bookshops as he can, but he cannot find the book. No-one has heard of it. They recommend him books about the thrilling Byzantine Empire, and books about their gorgeous architecture, featuring domes carried on pendentives over squares and incrustation with marble veneering and with coloured mosaics on grounds of gold, but it isn't like his dream. They point him to books by John Gorman or John Goring or Jim Gawman or John Goodman, and even a book named Byzantium by John Gressman. That must be the one you're looking for, sir. But he knows that that is not correct.

Tomas is distracted, unfulfilled. He falls behind in his work. Flashes of dream come back to him, but make little sense. He must find this book. But nobody has heard of it.

At the same time, a craze envelops New York. Even many of Tomas' educated and somewhat cynical friends are entranced by a glamorous Japanese visitor, a man called Dr Otomo. He is known to America as 'The Hysterical Water Claimant' thanks to the press coverage of his demonstrations. Dr Otomo is a scientist who believes that water has the ability to absorb, hold, and even retransmit human feelings and emotions.

Tomas is persuaded by his fellow expatriate Lothar to go to a highly publicized series of talks given by Dr Otomo on the Staten Island Ferry. Once there, Tomas is perplexed by just how excited the normally cynical New Yorkers are about this. He is even more surprised that the abruptly cynical Lothar is excited too.

During the demonstration, the Doctor shows an audience how using high-speed photography he discovered that crystals formed in frozen water reveal changes when specific, concentrated thoughts are sent towards it. Music, visual images, words written on paper, and photographs also have an impact on the crystal structure. Otomo suggests that as water can receive a wide range of frequencies, it can also reflect the universe in the same way. Water from clear springs and water exposed to loving words shows brilliant, complex, and colourful snowflake patterns, he claims, while polluted water and water exposed to negative thoughts forms incomplete, asymmetrical patterns with dull colors. The Doctor finishes by suggesting that since people are 70 percent water, and the Earth is 70 percent water, we can heal ourselves and our planet by consciously expressing love and goodwill.

His assistants take a block of freezing water and write Hate on it. They take another, and write Love on it. Each block is analysed to see the crystal patterns formed. The one with Hate has irregular patterns; the one with Love flourishes symmetrically. Dr Otomo's plan is to put huge blocks of ice in the Hudson river with the word Love written on them all.

His experiment seems to work: It brings much excitement and happiness to New York. People begin to calm down on their commute. There is an increase in friendly body contact. While Tomas is happy for his neighbours and friends, who all behave as if they have won a small lottery, he is less content that ever.

Because his small riddle is unsolved. He knows that until he finds a copy of The Byzantine by John Goreman, a particular itch will remain unscratched. And this small fact horrifies him. It makes him think about all the other things he hasn't done: The novel he hasn't finished, the family he hasn't started, the girlfriends who are gone. The book from his dream represents all of the failures in his life. Finding it would give him some hope.

Except, of course, it may not exist.

He re-reads the opening lines of his abandoned novel:

Little houses run themselves round rags planted for me. Headbutt hearted-hands fly upward serenades, hard hallelujahs invoked. Suggested readings lost, paperbacks burned for heat. Pulp murders downwind roughen the geography, and terrors abound in lipstick dreamings. Mis-spelt yoofs dictate the pace of cities, none more so than the liberal playgrounds, where innocents can carry samurai swords into bookstores and drink coffoee with back-slaaping friends without fear of challenge. The lozenge of prayer smooths streetsleepers' words, ghosting their existences withpalpable routine and wonder.

His English metaphors and beatnik angst trouble him now. He wrote these lines when he was happier, and now he feels a burning worry, and cannot write. Lothar suggests that he take advantage of the new age of excitement and pick up a girl at a party, enjoy himself. At one, Tomas finds himself alone on the balcony when the host, a pretty young socialite named Sara (Sophie Marceau) comes out to talk. She asks him why he is down. He says that something is missing. She offers him a drink. He declines, as he's already had lots to drink. She says that she is very intrigued by him: Everyone else here is happy, but he is not. Tomas apologises, saying that he did not mean to insult the hostess. She tells him not to worry, as she is happy that he is not happy. She is not happy either, and the pretense is killing her. They laugh. She goes on to talk about her dreams, and how she keeps seeing an image of a basement in a house that she knows is in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Over and over, she sees this basement, sees this house, knows it is in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and knows it holds something important.

But she has never been to Bethlehem, Connecticut. She didn't even know that there was a Bethlehem in Connecticut until her dream prompted her to look for it.

Tomas is amazed, and talks about his own dream. Maybe your book is in my basement, Sara suggests, laughing. Tomas looks at her seriously. We should go and look for it. Sara laughs, and then sees how serious Tomas is. She shrugs her shoulders, takes him by the hand, runs through the party, finds the keys to her car, and they leave. They drive through the night to Bethlehem.

We see a montage of the pair driving, laughing, enjoying each other's company. One More Night as performed by Can plays over this sequence. This could be love, we think.

They arrive the next day, exhausted, but keen. Sara draws a picture of the house, and a local shopkeeper warily suggests they try the northern side of town, as there are several houses that look like her picture there. They do.

After a while, Sara points at a house. That's It! They stop the car, and Sara runs to knock on the door. There is no answer. She knocks again. No answer. Then she looks down, and sees a note under a stone. She glances back at Tomas, bites her lip, and picks up the note.

It says:

Gone to the city to see the ice. Key is in the usual place. J

It could be John, Tomas thinks. Sara impetuously walks round the back of the house, and by the time Tomas catches her, she is climbing through a back window. She gestures to him to stay outside and keep lookout. The camera stays with Tomas as he nervously waits. For four minutes, an unbroken shot follows him. As he fidgets, looks around, and hops on the spot, a single synthesised note slowly rises on the soundtrack, reaching a fuzzy crescendo. The anticipation threatens to burn through the celluloid.

And then Sara returns. Nothing there, she says breezily. Shall we get breakfast? Tomas stops her. There must be something there. She shakes her head. And it looks quite different to my dream. Oh well, lets eat and get to know each other. Maybe that's the real meaning of all this. She begins to walk to the car. Tomas looks after her, confused.

OK he says. They get in the car. I Am Waiting by the Rolling Stones plays once more.

Cut to Tomas' apartment, morning. The Stones are still on the radio. Tomas wakes.

The Byzantine Directed by Wim Wenders Produced by Don Guest, Anatole Dauman Written by Sam Shepard Starring Bruno Ganz, Sophie Marceau, Jurgen Prochnow 20th Century Fox Release Date France: May 1981, UK: Oct 1981, US: Nov 1981. Tagline: 'Who can choose between truth and happiness?'