Sunday, 31 October 2010


Serge Grebiot died this week, to little fanfare. The deaths of fellow French filmmakers Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol this year were rightly mourned and their lives celebrated, as two quite different men who produced worthy art up to their deaths. Grebiot lacked their consistency, for sure, and perhaps more precisely, their desire to make films (his last completed effort was 1997's How To Make An American Quit, a lazy and outdated jingoistic diatribe, displaying, finally, his complete loss of ju-ju), but when his powers were firing, most notably between 1968 and 1973, the art he offered could stand toe-to-toe with almost anyone.

One reason for his annexing from the canon could be that he was a Frenchman who made films in Germany, thus falling between the cracks of two national cinemas in various stages of revolt and reform. Young France had enough angry philosophers in-situ. Young Germans on the other hand, wanted to wipe out the old guard, in their desire to make a hopeful new statement about their forlorn nation. But this also meant a rejection of outside influences too; they could not mimic the stylings of American or British idioms such as rock'n'roll, pop, nor the strong-armed glamour of dizzy Hollywood. Same went for anybody else. Fassbinder, Herzog, Wenders, Kraftwerk, Can and Neu, all flying on the fumes of '68, painted new future possibilities, built new roads, distinctly German but not stiflingly so.

Serge Grebiot; Die Französisch Deutsch ('The French German') was born in Montpellier, joined the resistance as a teen to subvert the Nazis, and was subsequently stationed in Frankfurt as the Allies carved up the corpse of a land. Grebiot stayed, fell in love with a German girl, and made movies. It was a deeply unfashionable place to be making art in the late fifties; whereas Grebiot's countrymen were harvesting international acclaim with chic new-wave manouvres, Germany had yet to find her post-war feet, and as such much of the art produced was samey and fearful. 'Remember; we could not sweep away all of the Nazis; we still needed school teachers and policemen and judges. Many witnesses to atrocities were still in power. As such, most art tried to ignore the past quietly, and was thus beleagured and anodyne.' said Uschi Obermaier, model, activist and member of freeform radicals Amon Duul.

Grebiot, as an outsider, was freed from this compulsion toward self-invention, but also humbled and challenged by it. As such, his films can be seen as definitively German at times, in much the same way that it took immigrant talent (von Sternberg, Chaplin, Garbo, Dietrich, Wilder, Lang, Ophuls, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera) to define Hollywood in the first half of the 20th Century.

Nie Für Den Bus Laufen (1) was dubbed 'Hausfrau Noir' (the delicious mangling of two languages in the phrase a doff of the chapeau/kappe to Grebiot), and it rings true; the noir is there in the sharp silhouettes on-screen, which carry echoes of the Weimar gargoyles that went by boat to Hollywood and paired with a hard-boiled and pulpy American sensibility. Here, Grebiot reinherits the stylings, refurnished as they are with various detective-in-morally-complicated-waters motifs, and ties them, incredibly, to a one-room drama about a working class household in Frankfurt. Instead of a weary but smart Sam Spade, we have mother of four Irma (Betty Schneider), whose tired demeanour betrays a domicile at the end of its tether (a 'digs' in a hole, if you will, or an abode of corrode, or a crashed pad, even a dwelling of dwelling (2)). Her husband is absent, presumed dead, and the action (or lack thereof) centres on Irma's quiet inquisition of her children, who, it seems, are purpetrators of various minor misdeeds such as being messy and drinking all of the milk.

Grebiot centres on such mundane details that the viewer is thrown; Irma seems like normal mother and simultaneously insane, and the way in which the regular seems irregular (the checkerboard territories of the tablecloth, the luminous whiteness of the plates, the endlessly held stares of the children) offers a Realism/Realisn't duality of a Beckettian lean. The narrative, in which she slowly pulls out clues and jumps on hunches, spins like Chandler in a kitchen-out-of-sync. And the conclusions Irma draws about the slack moralities of her own generation and the potential of her children is equally hopeless and angry. This was taken as a harsh indictment of his adopted country, but Grebiot refuted this at the time. 'I do not speak of Germany. I speak of the world.' (3)

Immer für den Bus überfahren, Nein, Nie für den Bus laufen Directed by Serge Grebiot Produced by Karl Stuch Written by Max Friedl, Serge Grebiot Starring Betty Schneider, Patty Ernst, Lukas Fricker, Tomas Fricker, Roland Schneider Futurefilm/Octocinema Productions Release date UK: Oct 1970/ US: Nov 1971 88 mins Tagline:'Mutter Weiß Gut' ('Mother Knows Best')

1. The full title of the film was Immer für den Bus überfahren, Nein, Nie für den Bus laufen, translated as 'Always Run For The Bus, No, Never Run For The Bus', apparently to reflect Irma's indecisive nature, for their are no buses mentioned in the film. She betrays a confusion over the correct punishment for her children, or even whether they merit punishment, and speaks frequently with a muddled folksy wisdom. Even if we do not hear her say these words, we imagine them in her voice.

2. Such inane punning and repetition to diminishing effect (the lines above were especially selected to illicit annoyance and groans; that is why such crackers as 'crib of glib fibs' and 'grovel hovel' were deliberately hidden out of plain view in a footnote.) is relevant. As Irma grills the kids, she constantly clicks from accusation to apology and back, each time trying to cover her anger with humour and her sadness with a joke. Her lines are filled with many desperate jokes that are meaningless to an English speaking audience, including refences to German Shibboleths used during wartime to oust non-native spies.

3. Cahiers Du Cinema, March 1971.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

" " (Alex Goochy, 2004)

The name of this film is- . Or " ". Or " "(italics mine) That is, it is nothing, or it is a space. The studio backers (Warner Brothers, in the first hand, Dreamworks, the second; finally Columbia in a split the difference we-may-aswell-all-be-in-on-the-gag gesture) might call it The Film With No Name, The Film Without A Name, or Untitled, but all are problematic (not in the least because they have all been used before, attached to poor films and thus stained with failure), and were all heavily opposed by the director Alex Goochy.1

'These are all titles,' said Goochy in 2004. 'I wanted no title at all. It is complicated, but it is related to the idea that in naming something, and this is Eastern Philosophy now... in naming it, you're maiming it; you know it, and contain it. Titling a film, while making sense in many ways, completely finishes it in another. I wanted space for the film to fluctuate and shimmer under the glance of the world like a new species of plant we have just discovered but did not have a word for... or a constellation that may not be the brightest, or the most delirious formation, but holds the interest all the same.... because there is no name to rope the distant stars together' 2

The compromise involved using punctuation: floating quotation marks like this: " ", with, a space in-between, described by Harold Bloom as 'a symbolically hollow center'. He went on, and we should not stop him before he gets into his stride: 'The fact that the quotation marks hover on the billboards and marquees like air quotes made with fingers at dinner parties just makes the whole exercise seem even more damnable; these four separate swords of damocles hanging in two menacing pairs (like smug buddy cops on patrol a block apart), ready to catch us all. And we deserve it.'

Some at Warner/Dreamworks/Columbia, in honour of the unutterable title (or lack thereof) took to calling the film 'Ingooglable Basterd', and even leaked mocked-up posters with this title. The working title was 'Working Title', and this was replaced by 'Untitled Project', and some suggested a return to those prototypes. They called on Vikram Slinki, a friend of Goochy's, to mediate. Slinki, of course, is a a director who switches the titles of his films so as to change expectations; but at least he uses titles. A horror film that purports to be a romance is more shocking,' he said of his Lovely Tuscan Dreams (1999). Slinki suggested that Goochy go the route of their mutual acquaintance Phil 'Bill' Smith, who labels his films precisely. The problem being that Smith's films, including Morose Family Drama With Motown Scene (and Cancer) (1995), Verbose Smug New York Comedy with Unlikeable Protagonist (1996) and What Do you Mean The Girlfriend Did It? (Fake Dream Ending) (1997) all failed to find any kind of distribution at all.3

Goochy, provocateur, art-terrorist, anti-activist, settled for nothing less than nothing. She even suggested empty quotes next to the names of newspapers, her examples being: '" " says The LA Times. The New York Post raves, saying " " about " ", whereas the New Yorker was speechless.' The unofficial poster containing these words and un-words even hung in New York briefly, until the various publications named threatened litigation on the basis that they hadn't said anything or not said anything or even said nothing about " ", on account of the fact that they had not seen " ", and if a party can be unquoted (and have those lack of words presented as if ithey had been uttered or unuttered) about something about which one knows nothing of, well...where does it end?

Where indeed.

A question: Is " " any good? Nah. What happens in the film? Oh, nothing of consequence. Girl meets gun. Girl falls for gun. Girl kills gun. Mildy erotic thriller with epilectic subplot and brain-freeze editing. De Palma on ice, or Eszterhas on mildly tasteful sedatives.

" " Directed by Alex Goochy Produced by Alex Goochy Alex Cox Leroy Smith Written by Joseph Hand Starring SaraJo Belling, Thomas Gunter Warner/Dreamworks/Columbia Release Date US: Oct 2004 UK: Jan 2005 121 mins Tagline: None.

1. Alex Goochy, is in fact not the real name of the director. Born in the Ukraine, she moved to LA aged 23 in 1985, where she has directed many independent features under various awful pseudonyms, including Sue Denim, Biff Bangpow, and Martin Scoreswayze (although not, as suspected 'Bryan Diploma'. When the film Carry (Bryan Diploma, 1999) was released, Goochy was a suspect, but it emerged that Brian De Palma was responsible for this low-budget tribute to his own Carrie, in spoof tribute to Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot Psycho remake (1997) and Claude Chabrol's shot-for-shot The Man Who Knew Too Much (1997) (Hitchcock's 1956 version being the one copied, which itself was a remake of Hitch's own 1934 original of course).
2. Cineaste interview, Summer 2004.
3. A Film, Literally (2007) was on display at MoMA for some time in 2008.

Saturday, 2 October 2010


'And so dreams tell stories, many stories. I am writing a story, if it could so be called, about the Mary Celeste. I am painting scenes from the story I'm writing. And I am dreaming about the Mary Celeste, the dreams feeding back into my writing and painting. A burst of fresh narrative: the Celestial Babies and the Azore Islands... digression and parentheses, other data seemingly unrelated to the saga of the Mary Celeste, now another flash of story... a long parenthesis. Stop. Change. Start. Should I tidy up, put things in rational sequential order? Mary Celeste data together? Flying dreams together? Land of the Dead dreams together? Packing dreams together? To do so would involve a return to the untenable position of an omniscient observer in a timeless vacuum. But the observer is observing other data, associations flashing backward and forward.' William Burroughs

'Lancaster's writing is shorn of all allusion; it lacks the melange of tastes present in even the most mediocre of fiction; when speaking of faraway places he conjures them as if by magic, with a complete lack of vision; and somehow (much like a politician whose inarticulacy speaks to some people of an honesty (as if only the literate can lie or steal)) this only seems to say to a large strand of the public that this mean speaks the truth. This paradox has contributed to him being one of the richest floggers of text in the tongue.' William Deresiewicz

'Give me credit for my dreams.' John Lancaster

'He was a man who wrote about how he had done what he had not done as if he had done. Then we found out that what he had done was not what he had said he had done and that what he had said he had done he had not done. Embarrassed, he set out to do exactly what he had said he had done exactly as he had said he had done it.' Tagline from 'Friggin' In The Riggin'' poster.

.... except now he was old, and ashamed, and the world had turned against him. John Lancaster had had it all except literary kudos. But so what? He was a successful author, a diarist of his own real-life seafaring adventures, who despite completely lacking critical adoration had something else, a kind of macho integrity; a streetwise candour carrying with it the weight of a stout-bellied but strong-armed silhouette of, if you squinted, a low-rent Hemingway. Even his lack of style was seen as evidence of his honesty; a fancier hand and a more delicate turn of phrase might suggest a piano-fingered intellectual, rather than the stubbier and tougher digits of this oaken presence (Oaken Presence incidentally being the name of his fifteenth book of autobiographical adventure, and also the name of one of the yachts at his home in Barbados, earned from shilling best-selling potboilers).

And then it emerged: the round-the-world trips, the Pole-to-Pole journeys, everything Lancaster had claimed to have done was false. He had been on some minor cruises, but he could barely steer a speedboat. His exposure caused a fracture, for even when his mass popularity waned, certain serious critics suddenly took an interest. 'Imagine finding out that James Patterson was a supercomputer, or that Martha Stewart's food was not real but made from hybrid plastics: it would be weird not to be a little curious about the hows and whys,' said Harold Bloom. Lancaster's response was a vow to learn how to navigate, and then perform every single feat he had laid claim to. He tried, failed, went mad.

Walker Percy's script shows a life dashed on the rocks, and with Ford's unsteady hand on the tiller, the film is everything and nothing. We see events as Lancaster told them; we see events as they were; we see events as he then set out to make them, after his exposure. This is not shown in a linear fashion, however, and the mixture of fact and fantasy, performed by four actors, muddies the metaphors enough for us to lose our way. In a film about (dis)honesty, we are never sure about which parts we can trust. As such, it serves as a corrosive antidote to the limpid idolatry of a regular biopic, most of which rest in a deep gutter of cause-and-effect (x was an addict/wifebeater because he was a genius/x was a genius because he was an addict/wifebeater; montages detailing the exact moment of incredible genius because all genius has to have an exact moment (which presents the paradox of biopics: this 'showing' drags the art and artist to mundane cliche, and yet we are expected to believe that what we see is unique).

As played in vastly differing styles in this one film by Rod Steiger, Alain Delon, John Cassavetes and Charles Aznavour, Lancaster is presented as a cubist portrait; a muscular bald neck here (Steiger), a cowardly twitch there (Cassavetes); a brave smooth nose in one place (Delon) obscuring a more honest and self-regarding schnoz elsewhere (Aznavour); all are possible facades, all are as hopelessly true as they are hopelessly false. His teary wife (Gena Rowlands) buys all of them, as long as it suits her.

At one point, Cassavetes as Lancaster asks 'Is lying so wrong? Why? Who says?' At another, Steiger as Lancaster asks: 'Is a man without a dream any kind of man?' We see Aznavour as Lancaster ask 'surely it is more cowardly to tell the truth, with no risk of exposure? Doesn't a braver man build a bigger house of cards?' It is left to Delon, on the faux-deathbed, to say 'fiction is truth. Only liars think otherwise, and they're not worth my time.'

Friggin' In The Riggin': The John Lancaster Stories Directed by Vic Ford Produced by Bert Schneider Written by Vic Ford, Walker Percy Starring Rod Steiger, John Cassavetes, Charles Aznavour, Alain Delon, Gena Rowlands Warner Brothers 123 mins Release Date US: September 1974/ UK: March 1975 Tagline:'He was lying on seabeds; now he's lying on deathbeds.'