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?'

Monday, 20 July 2009

THE PRISM (Unknown, 1972?)

... and then there was The Prism, adding to the endless list of art that staggered beyond the fourth wall and into notorious new countries. That horror movie, the one about an eye that sees your heart's desires and replays them forever in your mind, soiling your dreams through dull repetition; subject matter akin to any number of similar flicks, and yet that one emerged out of a particular sticky ghetto and exploded, overlapping a certain idea of myth with a certain idea of reality. Little seen, but oft discussed, the anecdotal evidence surrounding The Prism is always secondary and frequently false: Banned Worldwide. Well, banned at least in every country in which it was likely to appear, (the US, the UK, Japan) and in those with the theatrical gumption to throw their disgust into the fray (Nicaragua, Andorra). Contains footage of a real death. This was never proved. Seems unlikely. So scary that it induced death through heart attack to one hundred victims. Here, the tale of the movie continues along any other number of infamous trajectories. What horror movie didn't claim to have brought a fatal chill to a viewer? Except, here cold evidence is available: The sleazy picture house in Detroit that caught fire in 1974, killing 23. The feature: The Prism. The low-rent gangster that was found dead in 1978, and the prostitute charged with the murder who begged, over and over, to be taken to see her favourite movie. That movie? The Prism. The bust on the Brooklyn warehouse in 1980, that was supposed to be breaking up a hive of criminal activity, instead found three dead bodies and a projector spraying images on the brick. Those images, that movie, of course, was The Prism.

The suicides, lines of tangled twine that cannot be questioned. The dead projectionists, blurred by murder. Still, the film seemed like a false bottom, a salacious urban idea, an apocryphal glance.

Until: 1988, after receiving a tip-off, police in LA raided a downtown picturehouse and found an audience wearing tin-foil hats watching the movie. All fifteen were arrested. Three died in custody. Seven spent time in mental facilities. Two jumped off a bridge together. One died of a heart attack a year later. The print was destroyed, they say.

Michael Mann's Bust (1989) was to tell the story of that police raid on that LA cinema, but the project was abandoned when a stuntman died on set in a fire. Jeff Dandy's Black Movie (1993) was a film based on these events, with Cliff Robertson playing the director 'Jeff Michaelmann' in a cheap attempt to recreate a cheap attempt et cetera. Both of Takihiro Rodgers' attempts at the story, the original Japanese version 罵倒された映画 (loose translation: The Cursed Film, 1995) and the American remake The Tainted Celluloid Strip (1996) resulted in their respective production companies going under. Both companies' presidents had twenty-one year-old daughters who died of sudden illnesses upon the release of each movie. When Wes Craven publicly voiced a desire to make a film about The Prism, he felt pains in his chest and suffered a subsidence of inspiration. The lives of the LA raid victims was told at length in the HBO mini-series The Fifteen (2003-07). Star of the show Biff Hutchinson died on the night the series finale was screened. He was 22.

Others didn't die. The patterns of a curse are vague and inconclusive.

But art is nothing if not superstitious, and The Prism has become an unmentionable in Hollywood, a 2-d black and white bogeyman, a squealing Macbeth shrouded in gossip. With her unsolvable 'crimes' it is a Ripper myth in situ; the superstitious fear of those party to it's opening make it a 2-d tomb of King Tut; the parade of deaths attached to art suggest a visual Gloomy Sunday; the potency of her syllables make The Prism an avenging and spiteful Monty Python's Funniest Joke In The World lethal in complete form, known only to those who subsequently die. The lack of plausible witnesses make her a white hot monster of Loch Ness, poisoning waters and pricking curiosities. It serves as yet another prism through which we see humanity's taste for unsolicited tales, speculative afterworlds, and death.

It is said that Alistair Crowley's bones were burned and spliced into the original print of The Prism. It is said that alleged war criminal Radovan Karadžić showed a poor video copy of The Prism to prisoners taken at the siege of Sarajevo. It is said that The Prism doesn't exist, that the story of her birth is completely fictional, a fabrication to titilate and amuse. It is said. As is so often the case, something is said and hangs in the air, awaiting denial. Even if a story is disproved, the air is still bruised by contact.

'Cinema history, and indeed all history, is a catalogue of such black patterns. Life is so. Sometimes, the patterns are easier to read than at others. The Prism had a pattern that was stark, bold evil, witnessed by men and women of any nation.' So said Chester Harlton, the legendary occult expert, in March 2001. He died the following May.

The New York Post has, to this day, an unclaimed $10,000 payment for any journalist who wishes to view and write about The Prism. It sits in the safe of former editor Phillip Greenbaumer, who in typical grandstanding fashion posted notice of his intent in a front-page spread in 1980. The headline: Crusading Journalist Required, May Die. Without a known print of the film the money is unlikely to be claimed, of course. But if one were found, would our thirst be sated?

One suspects not.
The Prism Production Details unknown.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

THE ECSTACYSMS (Roger Corman, 1952)

'lest such arcane chicanery enslave our chicklets, we should find the breast milk of righteousness for their pouting mouths and remove the teat of poisonous cinemas from our towns.' Pastor Sid McBaleful, on seeing The Ecstacysms.

When this B-movie arrived, America was expanding and retracting to the first playings of the suburban teenage1 drama (in which under-21s first traced the now-perennial contours of liberation and frustration), and as such, it hit a spot. How a movie hits a spot is hard to say; but timeliness is all with regards to this kind of phenomenon, and this marriage of technicolor schlock and heightened sensitivities to the subject matter found a bullseye, and the exploitation picture was truly born.

In the pre-rock'n'roll fifties, 'ecstacysms' were hard to describe. Frantic tabloid suggestions multiplied with a collective libidinous urge to create delirious images in the public mind: Pre-teens were being eaten by beatniks, adolescents were cyborging their brains, illegal inter-racial homosex was a contagious epidemic, passed from sibling to sibling. Movie theaters were rumoured to contain poisonous pheromones, given off by a potent cocktail of youths multiplied by horniness, and as such, films aimed at young people were on dangerous ground. The state of Alabama banned popcorn after a scientist there claimed that it contributed to the sinful mixture, causing electric brain washes, and local pastor Sid McBaleful began a national campaign to ban cinemas. His polemic was even captured in a documentary that was, somewhat ironically, shown at drive-ins. Sid Says (Doug Long, 1954) was played before main features in an attempt to persuade young people to ignore movies and embrace a wholesome life. Theaters were happy to show the piece, as not only did McBaleful pay a princely sum for the slots, but movie-goers showed up in droves and bought extra popcorn to throw at the screen while it played, cheering every direct hit to the famous McBaleful bald pate.

Roger Corman's creation, then, one of twenty he made that year, managed to combine two concerns of the fearful right. Not only was it a cheap and lewd movie, but his subject matter was the gathering of young people into ritualistic groups, the like of which the adult world had heard about from newspapers, but did not understand. Shot in a documentary style, The Ecstacysms follows a group of curious youngsters as they deconstruct the shibboleths necessary to gain admittance into a group of peers that gather in remote locations to undergo what one teen calls 'a period of adsolute frenzy'. This frenzy is not drink or drug fuelled, but sponsored by young agony: at the conclusion of the film, we discover that the teens merely stand in circles and emit low moans in tandem. It is their sadness that horrifies the town, far more than any bad behaviour. Corman's entry into the fiery debate is ultimately quietly moral.

Lillian Gish appeared in the film as Annie, a widowed mother who achieves orgasmic delirium during the ecstacysms, and becomes obsessed with pushing further. Drawing the old-Hollywood Gish into the film might have threatened the lo-fi veracity of the experience, but to some, seeing a familiar face only seemed to enhance the film's plausibility: Gish received many letters from many viewers 'concerned' by her experience in the film. One even hitch-hiked from her home in New Jersey to visit the town of Youth, California, the setting for the film, to check on the occupants. Needless to say, she didn't find it. Youth, CA, is a fictional town.2

The Ecstacysms Directed by Roger Corman Produced by Roger Corman Written by Roger Corman Starring Rex Wigler Lillian Gish Sandy Doon Leslie Haslow Woolner Brothers Pictures Inc Release Date US: March 1952 Tagline: 'Where Do Our Kids Go At Night?'

1. The word 'teenager' can be attributed to the French film Tenage (Louis Louis, 1944) in which the titular protagonist, Marc Tenage, found himself in a constant state of delirious stubbornness.
2. A post-script: that woman, Betsy Louise Sherman, was so distraught at her inability to find Youth that she wandered the state in distress. Authorities asked Corman to rebuild the smalltown set that represented Youth in the movie in a bid to draw Ms Sherman back from a trance-like existence. Upon seeing Youth with its small corner store, iconic fountain and smiling extras, she whispered 'Oh, that's okay then,' before collapsing. She made a full recovery in hospital from Fictional Coma Syndrome, a condition now popularly known as 'Betsy's Trance'. John Carpenter made a film about Betsy Sherman in 1985, starring Veronica Cartwright, entitled Betsy's Dream (In Europe, this film was released as Oh That's Okay Then).