Saturday, 31 January 2009

THE IRON TOWER (Victor Lazarus,1926)

Strident Informations Abound! Default On Life!... and so on; Victor Lazarus' beautifully tinted silent vistas are punctuated by various sloganeering texts that never quite explain themselves; Silent movie great Donald Dunston Dunderville gives an iconic performance as a Roman Centurion who is determined to prove himself; and then there is the great Iron Tower itself, the biggest construction ever on a Hollywood lot, a towering monolith that in the movie appears one morning in the centre of Rome, tall and vulgar, begging to be challenged, and in real life unleashed a thousand poisons upon the Warner Brothers lot during its six-month stay. Avoid Diffusion! Disrupt Arts! the intercutting lines suggest and demand, prompting confusion from the pictures before us. An extistential journey? A surrealist wonder? A visual beanfeast? A symbolic afterlife query? A homosexual inquest? Pseudo-nonsense? The last pure leap of the silent age? The Iron Tower may well be all of these things, and more. Steadfast! Steadfast! Steadfast!

A ripe concoction indeed.

The crackling hollow images of early in the film set up what looks like being a standard romantic plot- Tyrus (Dunderville) is a Centurion of no great reputation, and his dreams of ways to prove himself to his mentor, Lexus (Roberto Strong) include bog-standard run-and-rescue scenarios and heroic pronouncements from the blond wonder (Breathe Maestro! Your Savior Explicits! Defence Is Dust!). Dunderville's broody insecurity invests these sequences with much pathos; but it is when the iron tower appears that he sees his true chance. No explanation is given for the appearance of the tower, which reaches beyond the clouds. The Romans see it at first as military assault, then as a blessing from the Gods; but as brave warrior after brave warrior attempts to ride his horse up the side of the construction, only to fall, the city's fathers begin to feel that the Gods are shunning them. They see this as a message that Rome is doomed. Alas! The Wolf-Brothers Forgotten, Accursed!

Tyrus, to the merriment of all, decides to attempt to climb the tower with the aid of only four arrows, which he drives into holes in the side of the tower and uses as steps, moving one at a time to make progress. The city gathers to laugh at the folly of the cherubic innocent whose climb is painfully slow. In some of the most dramatic sections of the film, Dunderville's hopeful and scared face is besieged by rotten fruit, thrown from below, and occasionally a failed hero, falling from above, hatred in his throat. Ponderus! I Will Resurrect! cries one burning victim. It increasingly seems like failure is the glorious option, that when he falls, Rome will nurse him to her rose breast and love him; but Tyrus continues, and makes it to the Supposed Volcano In The Clouds. The climax, set in lava skies, offers one thundering metaphor after another, as Tyrus, nonreligious and curious, argues with the heavenly voices and their brazen systems.

Freud, Sigmund called it 'the greatest sexual metaphor in the canon'1. Freud, Jimmy of the LA Chronicle called it 'barbaric witchery, fraudulent film-making, juvenile symbolism.'2 In light of the problems Warner had during shooting (one carpenter died falling from the construction, and two horses were injured in seperate incidents; costs escalated three-hundred-fold), Froyd, Beau of Snapshot christened the Iron Tower 'Mr Warner's Limping Member' before adding, after a disastrous opening few weeks, that 'America's chastity is clearly immune to such grand drizzle. Our belts are tight against such pornographic abundance' 3
Even so, the movie in time found a following, not least for its absurdist reckoning of heroism, the desperate performance of Dunderville, and the timeless images that pervade, ripping through the nightmares of a bustling century: The tower, the climb, the success of death.

The movie's title was changed to The Black Tower in Canada, where the terrorist group tour en fer (Iron Tower) had been causing political problems. The group changed their name to la tour noire as a riposte. Authorities thus banned the movie for years there, and it wasn't until a popular new version of the movie (with a soundtrack by German band Harmonia, added neon colouring and rediscovered lost sequences) was released in 1975 that Canadians could see The Iron Tower in full proud glory.

Dunderville? Alas his career struggled, like many of his peers, with the advent of sound. His shyly dashing appearance was undone by an ungodly flat vocal, but even so his fame (and that of co-star Tyrone Symple) was enough to bring success to Little People Are People A Little (Alan Smithee, 1933), RKO's response to MGM's Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932), the movie that started a domino effect of increasingly exploitative outsider flicks about those members of society with physical abnormalities. The success of Dunderville's sound endeavour warranted a quick sequel, but Little People Are People A Little Too (Reckless Adams, 1933) was boycotted by the midget union of Hollywood (Small Person's Association of Movie-Actors, or SPAM) who decided to offer none of their actors to the studio, on account of the first movie's 'unaccountable patronising of fellas under five feet'4. The Folly of Dunston Dunderville (John Turturro, 1998) a movie about the period, was a sympathetic look at Dunderville's naivety, but still drew lawsuits from his estate, such is the sensitivity about the politics of those movies that reside in RKO's vaults, unseen for years.

Oh Dunderville. As one of the captions from The Iron Tower put it: He Burns The Stars With His Poise! Can They Love Him? The answer was that they could, but all too briefly.

The Iron Tower Directed by Victor Lazarus Produced by David Warner, Adam Warner Written by Rick Flynn Starring Donald Dunston Dunderville, Roberto Strong Warner Brothers Release Date US: September 1926 Running Time: 74 mins Tagline: 'Where Did It Come From? Where Does It Go? Beware, The Iron Tower!'

1.Juvenalia, 1933
2. Oct 17th, 1926
3. Jan 3rd, 1927
4. SPAM press release, printed in Variety, Jan 14th, 1933

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

DIJONNAISE (Walter Friend, 1941)

Underground legend Friend's influential concern with the minutae of existence began with this experimental masterpiece, shot in an afternoon in 1941. Dijonnaise simply shows an unnamed man eating a meal. Shot in the grainiest of black-and-white-and-grey, this absolutely quiet movie is strangely compelling and tense: When, the viewer wonders, will the man sit down to eat? What is he eating? Who is he? Why? What is this all about? What time is it? When? Now? Who are you? What are you doing with that bread-knife? Why do I feel hungry? What? Et cetera, Et cetera.

Friend was a student of the Diktat School, a collision of ex-pat Americans in Paris between the wars who idolised both Renoirs, Robert Bresson and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and saw in them a way to breathe humanity into American cinema. They returned home to stalk Hollywood en-masse, and using cameras borrowed from studio lots, set about making difficult shorts, albeit difficult shorts that contain a multitude of Hollywood paraphernalia- in Dijonnaise, the protagonist wears the same coat that Humphrey Bogart wore in The Maltese Falcon, Friend's cheeky admission to the fact that he 'borrowed' Warner Brothers equipment. Fellow Diktat members John Vigour and Herb Silence shot their respective shorts Arrows (about lost Native Americans) and Sebastien (about the legendary drag cabaret star) in the same week as Dijonnaise and with the same equipment, causing celebrated film historian Dizzy Bordell to call that manic period of filming as 'the shots heard around the world'.1

Dijonnaise is famously notable for having a place in culinary history too, as a movie that created a new condiment- remarkably, dijonnaise (a winning combination of dijon mustard and mayonnaise) wasn't seen on the kitchen table before Friend invented it for this short (Friend actually owned the copyright to the recipe, before selling it to Kellogg in 1951 for an undisclosed amount). He repeated this trick of collapsing words together to invent a new one with Brunch (1941), in which we see a woman eating a meal that is neither breakfast or dinner, but somewhere in-between, and with Ham-Fisted (1943), in which we see a man with a ham for a paw attempt, clumsily, to eat himself. Fans of alternative cinema would keenly await each Friend release, anticipating the far-sighted nomenclature on the posters as much as the cinematic brilliance within.

Friend's reputation as a prime contributer to the lexicon was not affected by the lesser known works that failed: Brynner (1944) was not a word that passed into common parlance (there was already a word for the meal between breakfast and dinner- it was known, to 1940's Americans at least, as lunch), but it did become the stage-name of upcoming young actor Yul Jones, later to star in The King And I (1956), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and Stone-Cold Leprosy Soundworld (1971).2

By the fifties Friend influenced a new generation with the lyrical Intern-net (1957) and Motorheed (1959), speculative fictions about trainee psychic fishermen and electric skull replacement surgery respectively. But perhaps Friend's most lastingly memorable piece was At The Drive-In (1959), a documentary recording of a screening of Rebel Without A Cause at a drive-in theater in California. After some shots of cars arriving and young couples buying popcorn, the camera finds a spot and doesn't move; it simply watches the screen for the duration of the film. The technicolor melodrama attains a stark truth when reduced to greys, and Friend's detached viewing of the excitable youths on camera (and on the screen on camera) articulates the confusion of the generation gap as well as Ray's masterpiece itself, but from the other side: By this point Friend was well into his sixties.

He retired shortly afterwards, and wrote a memoir about alternative American Cinema entitled A Bit Of The Other, in which he expressed regret at having never topped his first film. 'It was never bettered. I have played with the ingredients, jumbled my technique, started the whole thing from scratch, not measured anything at all, measured everything; but nothing in my career is as sweet as that simple, wonderful, Dijonnaise'3

Dijonnaise Directed by Walter Friend Produced by Walter Friend, Herb Silence Starring Samuel Hartley Diktat Pictures Release Date US:Winter 1941 Running Time: 24 mins.

1. At Them There Movies: The Collected Dizzy, Roger House Publishing, 1966.
2. Interestingly for Fictional Film Club fans, Yul Brynner died on the same day as Orson Welles (October 10th, 1985), his co-star in The Battle of Neretva (1969). Brynner also appeared in the Welles-directed Perseid (1967), which was part of a never-ending sequence of inter-locking narratives that Welles planned would 'pull together every arc of myth, philosophy and truth into a rainbow of religious noise'. The series was called NOTES, and contains six finished movies, an unfinished seventh, a stage-play, and a cryptic novel. There is a link back to Walter Friend here: Friend was approached by Welles to assist with the cinematography of several of the movies, but Friend resisted. 'I took my Mount Olympian bulk to the Zeus of underground cinema; but Zeus was hiding in the sewers' Welles said about Friend's rejection.4
3. Macmillan Publishing, 1980.
4. Well, Well, Welles: Reasons to Disbelieve Or: A Life Against Hollywood Penguin Putnam, 1982

Thursday, 15 January 2009

SUPER MAGIC BOSS (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1982)

Katsuhiro Otomo created a landmark for Japanese cinema with his anime jaw-breaker Akira in 1988, but he debuted to little acclaim with this existential dream of a film six years earlier.

Boss, a lumbering man mountain living in the woods, comes under repeated attack from a small man dressed in bright colours. His attacks always follow a set pattern. At first, it is a mere annoyance; but the attacks become more frequent, and the assailant becomes stronger and faster each time. The man cannot remember a time when these attacks did not come. At first, the assailant was small and slow, and could be repelled easily; but soon, the attacker's reflexes improve, and he can beat Boss easily. Boss slides into trapped anguish, unable to escape the woods, and when becomes aware of his own horrific appearance after catching sight of himself in a magic pool, and becomes self-conscious about his golden colouring and extra limbs.
His sadness at becoming weaker is doubled by his inability to defend his friends, small birds that live in his hunchback. They fly out to help him whenever the assailant appears, but they vanish when hit, leaving numbers floating slowly heavenward, and sometimes burger-shaped treats or stars. Long sequences in the mid-section, some of the most thoughtful in the film, show Boss, a man who is used to being strong, contemplating his weaknesses, and cowering in fear whenever he hears a noise.

Boss' tragedy is that he never discovers the nature of his true place in life. This is revealed to us with an alarming shot near the end of the movie: Boss is shown to be an end-of-level baddie in an arcade game. The camera withdraws from his face, accelerates backwards into the sky, giving us an overview of the multi-faceted colour world in which he lives, which then dissolves into pixels and then becomes an image on a screen of an arcade machine in the corner of a canteen at an ice-skating rink in a small town in a large state in the middle of America. This delirious, epic reveal takes a full minute, and the dazzling melange of live footage from completely different locations, computer graphics and overlaid dialogue from the boys playing the game ("Remember when this boss seemed hard?" "Yeah! But now you just kill him so easy!") is stunning.

This neon requiem for the unnamed henchmen of violent arts provoked small controversy in Japan when the self-proclaimed Sad Cult, a group of teenagers in Osaka, drove their car into a river, leaving behind a note reading 'We Are Sorry, Boss'. The soft underbelly of the electronic future was exposed, leaving millennium-dreamers and candied ravers alike cold: who wants apocalyptic sadness when glitter-guns and jet-packs are loaded and ready? Thus the film limped to little success; but the failings bode well for it's longevity to wire-cynics and flagrant End-fearers.

Arase Sakiwake, a former Sumo wrestler (known as The Pepper-Shaker), played Boss in his only film role. He insisted on preparing for the role each day by changing into a kesho-mawashi, an ornate, embroidered silk 'apron', which he wore at all times on set before changing into his golden costume. It is believed that his payment for the role, at his own insistence, was the same amount that he would have received had he wrestled in a championship bout, and no more. Sakiwake later had his own chatshow on Japanese TV, called Sexy Baby, and was famous in Japan for a series of humorous cat-food commercials that referenced Super Magic Boss. Davis Tanahashi is gratingly perky as the ridiculously uniformed assailant (named in the end credits as Player One), whose initial enthusiasm soon turns to cocky and cruel showboating as he masters Boss' loud but limited movements.

The movie was remade for the American market in 1985 as Colorworld, and starred Andre The Giant as Boss. M Night Shyamalan took the plot of Super Magic Boss as the basis for 2007's critically panned Supernatural Echo Complex, starring Nicole Kidman as an evil valkyrie who knows not what she does.

An arcade unit based on the original movie was created by Namco in 1983, and spawned a series: Super Super Magic Boss 2:Extra Magic-Docious is considered one of the classics of the arcade era, and it's broody humour captivated young teens further when it made an appearance on the Nintendo Entertainment System in cartridge form in 1987 as Super Super Super Magic Boss X. To this day, many gamers in the West are in the dark as to the cinematic origins of this legendary title.

Super Magic Boss Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo Produced by Shunzo Kato Written by Katsuhiro Otomo Music by Shoji Yamashiro Starring Arase Sakiwake, Davis Tanahashi Toho Pictures (Japan) Orion Pictures/Bandai Entertainment (US) Manga Entertainment (UK) Release Date Japan: Oct 1982 UK/US: N/A Running Time: 98 mins Tagline: '1-Up Wins'

Friday, 9 January 2009


Cary Grant Goes To Cat Heaven holds a unique place in the faux-canon: It's legacy was a completely transformed industry, so much so that Gilbert Adair called it the 'Jean-Marc Bosman of film'.1

It was the movie that began the Great Footage Debate of the early nineties, which saw Humphrey Bogart posthumously advertising cleaning products('Here's Looking At You, Jif') and the work of Paul McCartney (who of course had died in a bicycle crash in 1967) being used without clearance to suggest that airlines were the safest way to travel (Wings' 'Jet' the so-literal-it-is-nonsensical choice). Paul's lover Linda, who survived Paul and spent years promoting vegetarianism and World Peace, sued Virgin Airlines (the offending company) saying that Paul 'would rather have died than have his music whored like this'. Virgin's lawyer, Rick McMinn, replied 'why not have both? Oh, and by the way, whores get paid.' Linda won the case, which caused devastation in the worlds of advertising and film (a period of disruption known to posterity as The Linda Effect or Linda-rance), as numerous productions were halted and companies sued. A series of sequels to Cary Grant Goes To Cat Heaven were canned (including Jimmy Cagney Contemplates the Elephant's Graveyard, Robert Ryan Witnesses The Neon Aviary Afterlife and Klaus Nomi on Pigeon Street), and the original was taken from the shelves of video stores for years.

The movie itself? Why, it is delightful. It is effectively a treatise on the virtues of wise sampling. Footage of Cary Grant from various Hollywood movies is cut together with footage of kittens and clouds to create a dreamy ambiance of loveliness. It is a miracle beyond the earlier Who Framed Roger Rabbit (, 1988), for no actors could be manouvred and no cartoons drawn; sure, the kitten stars are perfectly wonderful playing angels (in Cat Heaven all cats are kittens of course), and all deliver fine performances. But the real genius lies in the directorial discretion of which Grant clip to use at which point. This also results in a patchwork of famous and lesser Grant moments, and much fun is to be had from spotting the pilfered originals.
The delightful thing is that it is not just obvious candidate Bringing Up Baby that is pillaged:
Look! See the reaction shot of Grant as CK Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story looking at Hepburn, Katherine, contemplating a marriage proposal from Stewart, James. See it here used to suggest Grant's hopeful confusion as he enters the Gates of St Peter. We see, in effect, a Grant megamix, the mythical burden reconfigured in new contexts and found to be intact: Solid gold performance runs throughout, and the consistent selection means that say, a sentimental pairing of a beyond-cute kitten and maudlin strings is anchored by the tanned wonder himself goofing off delightfully.
Alex Cox called Cary Grant Goes To Cat Heaven it 'the hip-hop of film'2. 'Hollywood re-uses plots and cliches; why not footage? cried Salman Rushdie in a defence of 'sampling' in an essay entitled Everybody Calls Their Wife 'Baby', Why Can't I?3

Grant Goes To Cat Heaven Directed by John Doanon Prduced by Jeff Litbarsky Written by Doanon Starring Cary Grant Film Four Pictures Release Date UK: Jan 1990 US: N/A Running Time: 103 mins Tagline: 'In Our Dreams'

1. When The Downs Go Light Penguin Putnam, 1997
2. Sight and Sound interview, June 1991
3. Atlantic Monthly, August 1993