Saturday, 28 February 2009

A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. (Tim Thurber, 1979)

This sci-fi dalliance started out as a straight adaptation of Alfred Bester's novel The Demolished Man, which pitted the resources of a vast interplanetary empire against a corps of mind-readers. By the time Tim Thurber had got his opposable thumbs on it, the script (which at one point was rewritten by a beardless James Cameron) was folded in on itself, like a classroom demonstration of a theory of time-travel.

A 95 year-old Douglas Fairbanks stars as reclusive rebel leader H.E.R.O. (Hope Enabling Religious Omen) who, with the help of Rich of Yolenge (John Travolta) gives battle in vigour to, as he announces from a mountain at a critical point, 'prove that men can very easily, with justice on their side, have useful, and free, purposes'. Both men share the belief that they must rise violently against oppression, and form the secret group A.C.R.O.N.Y.M.-Ace Corps of Rebellious Ousider New Young Men- to do this.

After the cruel government led by B.O.S.S. (Big Overlord of pSychic Subjects, herein represented by a holographic image with the voice of Sir Laurence Olivier) labels all disloyal citizens as L.O.S.E.R.S (Lethargic or Subversive Energy Redundant Subjects), a cult group of peaceful protesters (led by Dennis Hopper as R.E.B.E.L. (Reaching Everyone By Exposing Lies) name themselves L.O.V.E. (Let Our Violence End) and spray their symbols and slogans across the futuristic Maglev trains, but a counter-revolutionary band also calling themselves L.O.V.E. (League of Villainous Entities) steal the original groups signage and calling cards, and in an echo of the Nazis use of the swastika (an analogy heavily alluded to with some weighty pans and grating synth-strings), pervert L.O.V.E. to nefarious ends, forcing the authorities to ban all public displays of L.O.V.E.

The ban is quickly extended by B.O.S.S. to include all Acronym-using groups. This puts a price on the heads of A.C.R.O.N.Y.M., and they go underground, taking the alternative name of S.Y.N.O.N.Y.M. (Secret Young New Outsiders of Newer Younger Men) to buy themselves some T.I.M.E. (Tested Increments of Measured Essence). After L.O.V.E. members are murdered on live T.V. as an example to the L.O.S.E.R.S. and dissenters, H.E.R.O. and Yolenge's small band become Robin Hood figures to the oppressed populace. In hiding, they witness their original good name soiled by B.O.S.S., who stages fake A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. assaults on the poor, before cleaning the mess up with what he suggests is a 'heroic brand of Robotic Police; a life-saver in this darkened attic. This new band of Super Cops are playfully named A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. (Arch Cryptic Reminder Of the Nomenclature of Young Men) in an attempt to replace the populace's memory of the rebels with new safer ones. He speaks of a new kind of citizen, M.A.N. (Mechanized Aryan uNit) who will efficiently take the city into the future. Again, the Nazi references are somewhat overbearing.

S.Y.N.O.N.Y.M. stage an exciting climactic assault on the City of Glass Towers, the H.Q. (Headquarters) of B.O.S.S. H.E.R.O. inevitably dies in the skirmish, but not before he buys Yolenge enough T.I.M.E. to pixelate himself and slip unnoticed through the villains' cyber complex in bit-form, subsequently slaying B.O.S.S. in a P.O.N.G-like (Paddle Oriented Never-ending Game) death-match inside the computer. Travolta utters the now famous line, 'Game over buddy, press start!' and these celebratory words are recorded, played back, and strung out over the city tannoy, before breaking apart into single letters and floating down on the city like misty rain, causing alphabet trees to grow and liberate the citizens from the concrete of beurocratic word-hostaging. In the final optimistic scenes, we see the subjects farming the alphabet trees to grow new letters, which they arrange in beautiful lines. They now speak in iambic pentameter and frolic freely in green orchards. We hear the voice of a now much older Yolenge as the synthesized soundtrack (provided by Tangerine Dream in imperious sci-fi form) swells:

'... with time and manure, the citizens grew a new letter to add to the twenty-five we had. We called it 'Z'. 'Z' allowed us to make more words, but more importantly, it finally allowed us to sleep... and to dream... and to sleeeeep... and to d r e a m... y a w n . . . t o s l e e p . . . t o d r e a m . . . . t o . . . z z z z zzz....'

The film has been scavenged by the pop-culture savvy: The Ace Corps of Rebellious Outsider New Young Men were the inspiration for both the New York-based no-wave band Ace Corps and the British New Wave of New Wave band New Outsider Young Men (winners of the NME best live band in 1993). There are many examples of songs entitled 'Game Over, Press Start', including creations by the Talking Heads, Weezer, Wheatus and Ween. Greggs, the British chain of bakers, took their name from the pasty-like food units consumed in the movie: G.R.E.G.G.'s are Generous Reheated Energy Giving Globes, and at one point a member of S.Y.N.O.N.Y.M. says 'I'm so hungry, I could eat a thousand G.R.E.G.G's!'. This later became the centrepiece of a long T.V. advertising campaign for the company.
A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Directed by Tim Thurber Produced by Kip Warner Written by Tim Thurber, James Cameron, based on the novel 'The Demolished Man' by Albert Bester Starring John Travolta, Douglas Fairbanks, Sir Laurence Olivier, Dennis Hopper Music by Tangerine Dream 20th Century Fox Pictures Release date US: April 1979 UK: August 1979 Tagline: 'C.A.P.I.T.A.L.I.Z.E.!.'

Thursday, 26 February 2009

OL' JAZZFACE (David Lynch, 1981)

Q:What do you get if you cross a gorilla with a human?

This biopic of the gorilla that caused a sensation in twenties New York has been maligned as David Lynch's worst movie, perhaps unfairly. Made just after The Elephant Man and covering a similar narrative arc (outsider is outside; outsider comes inside; outsider prefers, and preferred, to be outside), Ol' Jazzface is a true-to-life story of Bess Lucas, a half-girl, half-gorilla who was born to immigrant parents on a boat to the US from Europe and abandoned on Liberty Island. She went through a horrific youth in the tenements of Brooklyn, being bullied and beaten by all, until kindly nun Sister Peters (played here by Ellen Burstyn, who was nominated for as Oscar for the role) took her in and introduced Bess to music. Authorities forced Bess into an institution after she ripped the arm off of a bully, but she subsequently escaped (after years of hair-pulling) and found fame in vaudeville as 'Ol' Jazzface', a singing, dancing comic whose deranged stage persona and aggression to the drunken crowds caused a stir and pioneered the Gorillage School of stagecraft, an approach used by such disparates as Mae West, Lenny Bruce and Melt Banana.

Bess Lucas' Great-Granddaughter, Martha McTally is the star, and this in itself caused controversy. Lynch insisted on McTally for the role, despite the studio pushing many young actresses forward (Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Sarandon both auditioned for the role), even going as far as suggesting that using a non-gorilla actress in the role would be grossly offensive.

The movie served helped pave the way for the Animal Rights Act that gave four-limbed mammals the right to vote in certain districts, one of the first bold moves of the Clinton administration. Indeed, in light of subsequent Hollywood reckonings, Francis Ford Coppola's Darn Yankee Cat (1988) and Oliver Stone's Nine Lives (1989) (both themselves examples of fairly large budget kit-lit adaptations that littered screens in the late eighties, made at a point long enough after the unsuccessful Scratch Offensives of the late sixties to be at last palatable to lily-livered Hollywood execs), Ol Jazzface can be seen as an important movie beyond its cluttered aesthetic parameters. Roger Ebert praised Lynch for avoiding sentimental cliche, but wondered when Hollywood would get away from making movies that 'invent a problem that we solved decades ago; then solve the problem onscreen, then congratulate themselves for progressive thinking.1'

Lucas herself died a sad death, her hero status undermined by drug overdoses, cannibal controversies (themselves captured lovingly in Crispin Glover's petrified short Give The Girl A Hand(1994)) fruit busts, drowned dancers in pools. Lynch, sad at having not captured her legacy well enough, has since only used animals in small roles in his movies.

A: A human/gorilla hybrid destined to be shunned by both humans and gorillas, undoubtedly due to suffer numerable sicknesses, probably sterile, certainly lonely.

Ol' Jazzface Directed by David Lynch Produced by Johnson Johnson, Mel Brooks Written by David Lynch, adapted from the memoir ''Nanas' by Bess Lucas Starring Martha McTally, John Geilgud, Danny Devito, Ellen Burstyn Paramount Pictures Release Date UK: Jan 1981 US: Feb 1981 Running Time: 142 mins Tagline: 'Ape Ape Ape'

1. New York Times interview, February 6,1982

Monday, 16 February 2009


That such a thoroughly modern piece of art could cause slow-burning collective shock... should please anyone with concerns of the future of humanity. That it should be a B-movie set in near future Germany made with only ten thousand Euros should warm the cockles of the romantic hearth. So: this near-future Germany then, where people are getting nostalgic for old things and playing with modern technology, much like us, here, now; but they do this so much that a collective short-term memory loss takes hold. Heads filled with dreams of future technologies (we see social networking ear-pieces and fleshy interfaces instead of keyboards) and sharpened memories of ephemeral history (a gameshow called Pop AD! in which contestants reel off huge lists of the pop charts in 1983, or dialogue from popular sitcoms) mean that slowly the country becomes aware that practical details of recent days slip from view. It starts with small things, like keys being lost, doors left open, and proceeds to a state where people cannot remember the way to the school their child goes to, or even cannot remember their child. Banks begin to fall apart because administrative skills are all but forgotten; panicked individuals wander the streets, not knowing who they are, reciting a list of Best Actress Oscar winners (and nominees) from 1926 onwards, for comfort.

The hero, played by Kurt Hauser, (who famously starred alongside David Bowie in Lindsay Anderson's Mime in 1973, and so by appearing here brings flashing memories to the surface of the audience) devises strategies to help him try to remember his wife, whose whereabouts he cannot decipher. A computer expert, he builds a keyboard with actors and pop stars faces instead of letters on the keys, which brings him to the attention of a secret underground group collating a Memory Advancement Database (M.A.D.) which aims to collect real-life memories. 'Without MAD, there is nothing' the boss of the organisation tells Hauser.

Gestern... was a remake of Sehnsucht (Nostalgia), which was made by Fritz Lang in 1930, and remade in 1935 in Hollywood by Lang himself. This first remake, titled Nostalgia and starring Henry Fonda, was a minor success. Since the success of Gestern... a band of fans of the Lang versions have gathered on the internet claiming that they can find remakes of the movie every year since its release; some even claim to find the original story in both The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Bible. Thinker Roland Barthes described the story as 'the only one ever told; but we have always forgotten it as soon as it passes through our ear canals, which profess to listen but are instead waterways filled with refuse and abandoned shopping carts'1

Dieter Buchmann himself has a mysterious past, with lists of film credits speculative at best. It is believed that he was the writer/director (listed as Dietmar Baumann) of Time-Traveller (1994), in which Ralph Macchio, after being told by a clairvoyant that he will become a war criminal and perpetrate mass genocides (and that, if he kills himself to stop this he will become a martyr and even more will die to honour his name), travels back in time to kill his own father, prevent his own birth, and thus prevent multiple organism deaths. He discovers that the much-used narrative device of changing the past to alter the future isn't true- he kills his father, but is still born in the future, but with a taste for blood from birth. (The tagline for the film was 'Man Builds Time Machine. Man Goes Back In Time To Kill His Father. Nothing Happens').

Naturally, Gestern Ist Nicht Dort was forgotten by everyone immediately, except by those few who could recite every line perfectly. Its warnings, whatever they were, remain more relevant than ever, I'm sure.

Gestern Ist Nicht Dort Directed by Dieter Buchmann Produced by Stefan Ardnt Written by Dietmar Baumann Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics Release Date: UK/Germany April 2001, US Feb 2002 Tagline: 'Where Ist My Mind?'

1. The Way It Wasn't by Roland Barthes, published by Hill & Wang, 2004

Saturday, 7 February 2009

THE SECOND DRAFT (John Loose, 1999)

I wanted to introduce this entry with a spine-tingling suggestion... but its gone.

So: Based on the elemental short story written by Puppy Smith1 (the authoress whose fledgling career was cut short by death at the age of nine), The Second Draft is a shifting thought-dribble regarding creativity, celebrity, and identity. John Loose vowed to never make a movie again after the post-modern afterburn of the project left him in hospital for weeks. His idea, of taking the frustration of the protagonist in the short story (who is bemoaning his lost first draft, which contains, he tells us, an incredible tale, beautifully told) and turning it back on the viewer by causing a similar second-hand psychosis, was always a tricky sell. He erased from view all plausible drama, making all situations roll with suggestion and suggestion only. The movie thus appears as a series of unfinished vignettes, with all of the major action happening off-screen, and this non-storytelling twisted the director in complicated knots. His execution took it far beyond what even he expected, leaving whole conversations muffled behind doors, and lengthy post-flashpoint silences. It was, Barry Norman told us, 'a cryptogram dressed up in a jigsaw hidden in a coming-of-age drama'2

Kieran Culkin plays the young American who moves to the sleepy seaside coast of Sussex, England with his grandparents. They spend their time watching classic Hollywood movies, and are excited when a woman who moves into a vacant flat in their streeet bears a startling resemblance to Marlene Dietrich. So far, so regulation. We wait for the unlikely friendship between the old dame and the mute boy; but this promise is withheld. No climax that is suggested is given. We are left to wonder, with the boy, along sunny, silent, coasts.
'Who the hell is the old lady?'3 cried critic Paul Hallus, and spent paragraphs describing himself throwing his hands in the air in frustration (itself a daring homage to the sensibilities of the film) But the old lady is not really the point. The story is subsumed below worries of how to tell it, just as young Joe (Culkin) is concerned that his small detective tale is a narrative with its bottom falling through. His life seems supernaturally tinged, but even he is aware that his grandparents (played zestfully by Albert Finney and Maggie Smith) play a huge part in the contrivance: Is the family's fantastic capability for suggestibility (as displayed in various scenes where they mistake incidents in classic Hollywood for intrigue in their personal lives) as cute as it first appears? Or are we party to a collective mental illness? Many events outside the house happen without the camera as witness, and we are only told about them by a grandparent. In turn, when young Joe begins to write a diary, we begin to see gaps between his words and the truth.

Loose slackens his grip; Smith disappears from view. Invisible lies smoke out the Dietrich lady, who is the cast-iron MacGuffin. Young Joe, innocently, is a flawed narrator. The English Channel is filled with sharks pushing teeth-holes through scrunched white pages.

An interesting phenomenon has plagued critics of both the short story and the film, Second Draft Syndrome, which is now worthy of its own Wikipedia entry. Many writers have seen their own first drafts of criticism of The Second Draft disappear: be it house-fires, computer problems, or authorial tantrum, many perfect pieces have been lost to fate. Both the LA Weekly and New York Times film critics failed to file a review on time, citing writer's block, and both produced apologetic synopses a week late; Paul Hallus himself lost a hard-drive when writing his, Roger Ebert lost a kidney, and a class in Iowa studying differences between the story and the film forged a suicide pact before turning in their papers, and although none of them went through with it, one of them, Marie Staedler, nearly did herself in with a stapler the following Spring (her own, if you will, second-time-around failure. This is the root of the phrase 'Doing a Staedler' which means to perform a task badly, especially one that involves harming oneself.4).

The Second Draft Directed by John Loose Prduced by Smith Brown Written by John Loose and Curt Dugless, based on a story by Puppy Smith Starring Kieran Culkin, Albert Finney, Maggie Smith Film Four Pictures Release Date UK: Jan 1999 US: May 1999 Running Time: 122 mins Tagline: 'I'm Sure I Said It All So Much Better Before'

1. The Second Draft won the Chehkov Prize for Short Fiction in 1999, ten years after Smith's death. Her collected stories, Unstories won the National Book Award in 2000. John Barth declared the end of the short, short story in an essay entitled 'Who, Where, Shorts, Shorts?' following the announcement of the prize. He later softened his claim in a follow-up argument in 2004, 'Aye, Where Short Shorts.'

The critical division over the short story prompts me to print it entirely here:

The Second Draft by Puppy Smith

'The elements stole my first draft. And you should know that that is something of a crying shame, for it was a kingly piece of work. Every word slid and locked into place, held by some magic. The tools of fiction were at their quickest in there. It not only told my story in an entertaining and enlightening fashion, it might have had something for someone other than myself too.
It not only told the story, but in interlocking haikus it managed to convey some power of everything I’d ever known. But a wind blew up and carried it off.
But what a draft; within it were codes and schemes. Surveillance systems were debunked, governments toppled; assassins evaded, crucial answers found.
But now they’re just mapcap theories, scribbled in invisible ink and lost; the pages are still disappearing across the beach in the wind. A whole bible of noise lost, chased across the stones, rediscovered page by page; a Hansel and Gretel trail to a big haunted house of an idea.
It started with the following; this much I remember.

Steven liked to break into houses on the Sussex Coast. His mother had died when he was small, hit by a bus, and his father had died some two years later, drunk with a broken heart. He’d walked into the sea, and washed up three miles along the coast. Steven was five. He went to live with his grandparents, who watched old movies all the time. These films filled Steven’s brain, haunted his sleep, and this fact may or may not have contributed to the present tale.

A wonderful part of my first draft dealt with the anecdote whereby a younger version of myself attempting to write an early version of my memoirs, aged seven or so, described the feeling of being an orphan as akin to ‘waiting for a wonderer to return.’
Grandad corrected me on my mistake. ‘It’s wanderer, Steven. Wanderer. Someone who wanders off.’
But Grandma saw the dramatic possibility of my word, and cut Grandad short. ‘Or did you mean wonderer, Steven, like someone who wonders why?’
They looked at me expectantly. ‘I think I mean both,’ I said.

Aah. That’s how it went. Or something. Ask the sea next time you’re on the Sussex coast. The sea ate the first version, the truest version of the story. This draft is inferior, it’s akin to development sketches of female parts I’d never seen. But it must suffice.
So the films; this is the important thing with my Grandparents. Let’s try:

Granddad had a penchant for gentlemen. Humphrey Bogart was enjoyable, but greasy. Cary Grant had it. Grandmother had a taste for the nice faces- James Stewart, Fred MacMurray; but father though them a touch soft.
There was Dietrich, who possessed some of the beauty of his mother. In Blonde Venus, she was barely plausible as a mother, and Steven supposed his own mother was like this; too beautiful, too stellar, to be plausible as a mother. That was why she’d died, he supposed. God’s will.
Oh, and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca, with Grandad’s Larry.

And then there was the woman who lived on our street, that aged, frail German, who Grandad thought was Marlene Dietrich.

'She doesn't live in Sussex' Gran said.

'I'm sure it is her,' Grandad said.

He was the straightest of die; Religion? A fearful hotch potch. Enigmas were never cultivated. But Marlene on the coast? True as true.

A convoluted interlude saw my boredom turning to crime, breaking into large flats on the seafront, watching their videos, drinking their tea. And then, inevitably, I was caught by the old lady, the cranky, would be Marlene; and the ensuing unlikely friendship was dreamt in a plausible and pretty way. I didn't evade the cliche, I embraced it, and these passages were some of the most rewarding on those papers.
And then, of course, we hear that Dietrich is dead in Paris; and of course, the flat is on the market; and we never see our Marlene again, except in our sleepy fantasies.

'Good, proud lady, that Marlene' Grandad said.

'You never met her, silly,' Gran said.

'Perhaps not. But she kept her garden tidy and was kind to the boy,' Grandad said.

I've been through my notes to find a scent of the magic; this outline does not suffice. All I find in my extensive perusals are plundered wordlists and defected lexicons. Now I’m gutting books, ripping their spines, to find suggestions of all that I had. I need a skin draft.'

2. BBC Film 99, Jan 26th, 1999.
3. Sunday Times magazine, Jan 30th, 1999
4. Eg:'I wanted to wax my legs this morning, but I completely did a Staedler and missed with the waxing strips and gave myself an inside-out mohawk.'