Friday, 4 November 2011


If one were to compile a book of pictures of the Soviet star Tanya Ryazantsev (and indeed someone has, but it might not count: as the evidence is absent from the web in body of image and of thought. He was a Ukranian photographer (with the distinctly un-Ukranian name of Sauvage), whose collection did not survive Glasnost to arrive safely in the ultimate age of carbon-dated ephemera retrieval, the digital one), one might see a study in the the effort that it takes to construct a frown: for rarely has an icon made looking iconic seem so hard-earned. If she has pedagogical eyes and learned limbs, then she is straining every last branch of her family tree to appear this way.

The photos would show all of her body parts, in varying sequences: the tight calves, stretched as if about to snap; the protruding collarbone, as distinct from her upper torso as a garland of ceremonial tibias; eyelashes, thin and fair, invisible in the sun.

Warhol's treatment of the star in many ways fits his treatment of everything: Ryazantsev's cheekbones are flattened, her expression deadened, her complexion rendered as pale as one of his own palid hairpieces. Warhol, the story goes, lost interest in the star long before he'd finished shooting her, passing her onto David Salle. Characteristically, the Factory host found the scenes that were shot and edited by Salle to be among the finest work that he himself ever produced. If Warhol traced the dichotomies between commerce and art, his most profound statements were the ones that crossed the production line: the silk screens made by others, for example. The films at which he cast but the most cursory glance are the ones that bear his stamp most surely. Such is the paradoxical grip of a certain brand of nihilism.

Ryazantsev then, an enigma of passions, her face a colony of efforts. But to what end? She certainly had none of the ambitions that seem to drive most actresses, and starred in only a handful of films in America, and then erratically. She supposedly turned down many big names over the years, only to say yes to the made-for-TV John Milius actioner Death Or Death? Ryazantsev returned to Russia in 1990 to 'walk the countryside and breathe the air. That is all.' Ryazantev, one suspects, is far too stupid or clever to care about her legacy. If her departure from cinema threatens to lend a Garbo tint to her narrative, the robust quietness of her post-fame life quickly distills such fancy. Garbo quit the screen because she cared, Ryazantsev because she couldn't care less.

In the final shot of the film that sealed her fame across Communist Eastern Europe, дневник моего заключительного года (Diary Of My Final Year, Lev Mikhailov, 1955) the girlish Tanya conjures a frown so delicately indecisive that the viewer feels tricked; its ambivalence strikes a contrast with the repeated mantra of her inner monologue ('You have to love yourself before you can hate anybody else, you have to love yourself before you can hate anybody else...') which spins ever onwards, until the words collide on the soundtrack, overlapping, and splitting, much like Alvin Lucier's sound piece I Am Sitting In A Room. The words become hollow and meaningless in repetition, an idea that Warhol, in particular, understood.

Ryazantsev Directed by David Salle Produced by Andy Warhol, David Salle Written by David Salle, Tanya Ryazantsev Starring Tanya Ryazantsev, Geri Miller Release Date US: Oct 1970 Tagline: 'Yes. No. Maybe. Maybe Not.'

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

FUTUR (Piotr Janas, 1958)

'Forty years and I have learned nothing, nothing useful, about the people, factories, politics and personalities of Hackney. The name has declined to a brand identity. A chart-topper: worst services, best crime, dump of dumps. A map that is a boast on a public signboard, a borough outline like a parody of England. My ignorance of the area in which I have made my life, watched my children grow up, is shameful. I've walked over much of it, on a daily basis, taken thousands of photographs, kept a, 8mm film diary for seven years: what does it amount to? Strategies for avoiding engagement, elective amnesia, dream-paths that keep me submerged in the dream.' Iain Sinclair

In 1947, Piotr Janas moved from Gdansk in Poland to London in England and immediately started work on his only film. His script revolved around a young man in wartime Poland who slipped forwards and backwards in time, and when he began shooting in the bereft streets of postwar London, the problem of the setting was evident. 'I didn't know if London was big enough to stage my memories of my bombed and occupied hometown. Even though it dwarfs Gdansk, the intensity of my destroyed home looms large.'

Janas never planned to leave anything more than just this one artifact, a nine-hour compendium of 'every thought, waking, sleeping, and the delicious etherworld in between.' He shot hundreds of hours of footage in London between 1947 and 1953, and became intrigued by the way that the narratives of different places can echo. 'I filmed so much, imprinting my memories of a now dead past onto my new home, that the effect was dizzying. I began to see doppelgangers of childhood girlfriends in the windows of London buses, and a turn down a calm street in Notting Hill one day drew me to my childhood road completely, even though they bear few similarities, except my own presence at one time, and then another.'

Compelled, Janas shot more footage throughout 1955 and 1956, bleeding his new autobiography into his script. 'All films are really, of course, about making films. The viewer cannot help but be aware, somehow, of the fact that their view is one given to them by an invisible hand. This was even more true for mine, it being my one and only attempt.' Janas' biography of his own time in London was being folded in on itself, ingredients inseparable from his time-travel plot: The process as the art.

In 1958 the film was released under the name Futur (the final 'e' being dropped because Janas wanted to acknowledge the unfinished quality of even an exhaustive work like this.) It is largely a science fiction narrative following a man as he jumps between occupied Poland and a dreamy future. But for long periods our hero is gone, vanished from the text, lost amid documentary footage of Picadilly Circus, Hyde Park, or Hackney's Mare Street. During many sequences, Janas' voice walks with us. His words are a jumble of his story and that of his character:

The future is made up of versions of the past, of course. Sometimes, our brain traces links, apparently to make the distortions more palatable. When I am in the future, I have memories of the present, and feel uncanny nostalgia for a variety of pasts. Walking down a London street, I know this is the near-future, so I scan the surroundings for clues, and tread carefully. It is busy, there are lots of people and cars. A girl loading furniture into a van wears a face mask to protect her breathing; a passing cyclist does the same. Other faces in the crowd wear them too, but not everyone. I pass a row of shops. Outside the pavement is filled with flatbed trolleys, the kind used to bring large amounts of milk or bottles of water back and forth. This makes the pathway hard to get through, so I step up onto one of the trolleys to let walkers pass in the other direction. Amongst the austere bustle, a dark-eyed woman smiles from under a furry Russian-style hat and fur coat. She looks like a school friend, fully grown, and is the only person making eye contact. Others move in and out of the supermarket with what I read as a life-during-wartime hollow calm, the kind that sets in after the realisation hits that panic stations cannot be manned permanently. Perhaps I am wrong.

I pass the supermarket. Behind me, a notably cheerful man camply declares that he will eat it (what? leftovers? something) with a few slices of FG. His female companion laughs. I walk on, debating in my head what FG might be. Conclusion: Fresh Golden, bread, and this sets a hunger off in me. I cross the street to a bakery selling the warmest, freshest loaves.

Home, at mother's. Except it is different. I reason that she has moved. It can't be too far into the future, but something has happened. This is a big, gorgeous house. I eat the bread with cheese, tomato and cucumber. My mother-in-law comes downstairs, and I remember that her and my father-in-law are staying here. My mother is out. My mother-in-law is carrying a cleaning device that is uses a vacuum- she has just done the upstairs bedroom, I guess, typically keeping busy. I show her the bread, and she is suddenly very hungry too. I cut more for her. I scan her face and the room for clues, something to bring back to my present, but I see none.

The unnamed central character never quite finds what he needs in either time. His frustration grows; this gift of foresight frequently proves useless to him, and the slivers of future he encounters contain little to carry back to the past for profit or nourishment. Before long, all he can see in the future is a looming absence: a world that rolls on, even after his death.

Futur Directed by Piotr Janas Produced by Thomas Standish Written by Piotr Janas, Tomas Lewandolski, Richard Smith Starring Robert Colt, Louise Mather Rabbit Films/CKF 552 mins Release Date UK: March 1958 US: 1982 Tagline: 'The Futur Is Murdr'

Saturday, 2 July 2011


My dreams are gone. I awoke with a phrase in my head that I knew was the key to unlocking a whole narrative, and repeated it to myself many times. I came up with an abbreviated set of codewords to help me recall the phrase, and an acronym of those words.

But it has all gone.

I first heard about Chocolate Cassette from David H, who (among many things) was the cultivator of a collection of anecdotal evidence of the wonder of pop culture's hidden corners. He had tracked down rumours of the film's existence across playgrounds and video shops of the West Midlands. His vivid descriptions, over several weeks, of the film's plot, dialogue, decor, acting nuances, and grand themes were, I knew, too complex to be completely true. His enjoyment of the telling was too obvious, and he would string us along at the end of a lunch break, withholding details until next time.

I stuck to him closely, convinced that he had seen the greatest film ever made, and that we, by being proxy witnesses, were glimpsing gold. And the more he told us, the more I knew it. I was sure it was a film pulled from my consciousness, and when the others lost interest (long after the most salacious details had been spent, their power rubbed out through repeated retellings), I hounded David H into further examinations, even prompting him when he forgot his own lines. Disappointed at his own waning absorption, I began writing down everything I could about the film. Before long I stopped bothering David H to check my work, and spun out alone.

By now, no-one else cared about the film, and only the curious insult taken from it lingered: Me? well you're as out-of-date as a chocolate cassette! My immersion into the world of the film I hadn't seen continued, to the point that I was certain that I had, after all, seen it. Hadn't I? In the time since I'd got a television for my eleventh birthday a couple of years earlier, I'd seen countless films. (In a way all of the entries in Fictional Film Club evoke a feeling in me, a feeling of falling asleep late at night close to my 14 inch portable television (in one of many possible bedrooms it lived), and waking up a little later to find a film underway. The sound levels of a film are vastly different to other television shows, and sometimes the drop to a quieter level wakes a dozer. In this particular scene and hundreds like it, I awake near the beginning; the protagonists are already involved in their story, but not so much that I can't keep track. In the days when more movies were on tv and less was written about them, you could stumble over them. B movies, classics, all treated equally, shown after hours. I saw many this way, not knowing until several days or years later what they were. Some are still lost, just vague structures of image and plot, evoking that Edward De Bono line about memory being that which is left when something happens and doesn't completely unhappen. There's the one where the kids break into what turns out to be a horror house, with the emaciated fella living in the walls (The People Under The Stairs, Wes Craven, 1992), or the man with nine lives performing dangerous jury duties in mob-ridden Chicago (Disclaimer, Tommy James, 1954), or further examples, on the tip of my-)

Chocolate Cassette lingered on the periphery for years until a recent visit home turned up some old diaries. A phone rings. Out of shot, a memory gathers. I knew nothing of this film until it popped into my head one day, sent there by a thousand ghosts. My writing from then is its own world, quite separate from the film. I quote:

'Sept 16, 1990.

I was about to go to bed last night when a film began on Channel Four. I idly watched the opening scenes, recognising both the father in the family who had played not only the leader of an unruly band of warriors (who also included an actor from an Australian television soap) in a lesser piece of sci-fi, but had been the host of a daytime gameshow in more recent years. The actress playing the mother I also recognised, but I couldn't place her. Their son found a diary, anyway, a plot point that seemed somewhat buried, and so I was subsequently baffled when the film swung on it. Anyway, grandparents loft, dusty light, treasure chest. Kid smashes the lock, finds nothing inside but shreds of newspaper. He thinks. But at the bottom is a diary. He takes it out. Leaves it in his room. Mum finds it one day. She opens it. Reads a random page:

'Dear Diary,

I cannot gather enough prose to talk about this. But I can put a clipping from the local rag below:

'Local Man Invents Chocolate Cassette'

[The following passage is highlighted.]

'....the ephemeral nature of song. You can record a tune which only plays once. A song that melts upon completion. No one can really remember it. It is a romantic one-off that you give to a loved one. They can eat the delicious mess. Ingest your melody.'

The distortions, from the real film, through David H's exaggerations and my own appropriations, only expand in time. Lies grow and grow, echo and echo. If I saw the film now, I'd probably overlook it, another face in the crowded station, so different it would be from my idea. Chocolate Cassette is my favourite film, at least until I see it.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

BABY SHOWER (Leo Katzenberg, 1977)

Todd Rundgren stars in this oddity (produced by Blake Edwards) about a man who, taking the advice of a successful gigolo (Cliff Robertson), begins gatecrashing baby showers in the Cincinnati area, arriving with presents in the hope of meeting women. Before long, he cannot successfully navigate any romantic encounter unless it takes place at one of these gatherings.

Time spent watching Baby Shower and trying to tell apart genuine gags and missteps of taste is time wasted. Take, for example, the Todd-sung refrain, added below. It reprises itself at least thirty times on the soundtrack, reflecting (rather too directly) our hero's sickening addiction. (1)

Baby Shower Directed by Leo Katzenberg Produced by Blake Edwards Written by Dom Perdue Starring Todd Rundgren, Maud Adams, Cliff Robertson Songs by Rodd Tungsten 88 mins Pink Productions Release Date US/UK: May 1977 Tagline:'Get out your one-sies and have some fun-sies!'

1. The songs, it should be noted, are credited to 'Rodd Tungsten'.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

JACKY (Jean Antoine, 1993)

'Obviously narration is only an act of memory; on the other hand, it holds nothing in reserve for future use; it merely derives a little pleasure from the states of dread by trying to formulate them as aptly as possible;from enjoyment of horror it produces enjoyment of memory.' Peter Handke (1)

'In the 1930s Warner Brothers developed a serious line in earnest, inspirational films celebrating great scientists, liberators and social benefactors, usually played by Edward G Robinson or Paul Muni, dedicated to Longfellow's lines in his "A Psalm of Life": "Lives of great men all remind us/ We can make our lives sublime/ And, departing, leave behind us/ Footprints on the sands of time." But Variety's contemptuous neologism "biopic" stuck, and biography has never had much standing in the cinema – unlike the literary world where, under the larger rubric of "life writing", it's a serious matter both to practise and study.' Philip French (2)

Joann Star's 2010 biopic Gainsbourg (vie héroïque) followed recent rock star narratives (Ian Curtis, Edith Piaf, Brian Jones, Peter Sellars, Bob Dylan) that eschew the Oscar-sweeping epic treatment of Gandhi or Lawrence of Arabia and settle for something more impressionistic or cheeky. Gainsbourg captures the nonchalant arc of its subject's life, is enjoyably raucous and thoroughly entertaining, but somehow it still leaves the viewer knowing less about the man that President Mitterand described, upon Gainsbourg's death in 1991, as somoeone who 'through his love for the language and his musical genius, lifted the song to the level of an art.'

The real truth is in fiction, of course. At the time of his death, Gainsbourg was filming a rollicking tale of a lady-killing singer. Jean Antoine's Jacky was fashioned from tall stories, and yet it can inevitably be read as a biopic of the star, whose own episodic life (with great highlights and a fair amount of mediocrity) serves as a bold confirmation of the print-the-myth ethos. After his death, the production continued without Gainsbourg, leaving a jumpy narrative that makes perfect nonsense, and thus his turn as the titular ungallant gallavanter is a bold sign-off, a self-penned eulogy, and somewhere between brilliant and disappointment.

Gainsbourg's existence is one that comes to us framed as a series of anecdotes (smoking in hospital post-heart attack, insulting American singer on television, being banned by the BBC for being too sexy, et cetera, et cetera), all fully-formed squares in a mythological tapestry, their veracity unimportant, their greater truth illustrative of something we admire: a man living to the edge of his capacities, world be damned. So too, Jacky's life is potted and episodic, every step a deviation from the road. The character is lifted from the Jacques Brel song of the same name (the galloping chanson that begins with the careering lines: 'And if one day I should become/A singer with a Spanish bum/Who sings for women of great virtue/I'd sing to them with a guitar/I borrowed from a coffee bar/ Well, what you don't know doesn't hurt you'), the one that treats its subject like a dreamy mystic, a pickpocket pragmatist, an ambitious romantic; the man who outdrank the Roman army, outsang Frank Sinatra and outfenced (Biblically speaking) Casanova, or so he says.

There is Gainsbourg, his face like a literary allusion, weighty and important as he can muster, knowing it is all a joke. His frequent accomplices (for he needs an audience, a victim, a stooge, someone to verify and spin) are excited by him. He is calmly crumpled in the residue of party after party, the veneer of noise on everything about him, but never on him; his eyes are hollows never to be full. In exchanges with another musician in a bar, we see a riff on Mae West cheek, making rich women buy them drinks so they can spill them on the suits of husbands. They step outside into the cool Marseille night, drunker than all hell, fighting their memories to put a face to a name: Steven Angiers, wasn't he at your college? A man you knocked out in a streetfight or prizefight? The man your mother left your father for? Or someone else?

But later, after many deviations, there is a Steven Angiers, and it is Jacky himself, overseas and in pseudonym, a man with no reason to live other than to prove that he can. Exposed to the winds, Jacky takes in Paris, Tangiers (because it rhymes with 'Angiers'), Bogota and Prague, actively looking for his lottery to throw a ticket towards. This snakes and ladders progress flicks the edges of destitute, and contains champion moments of alcoholic logic bereft of boozy remorse. 'I am Jacky, and I have a full compliment of fingers and toes,' is the repeated line to the changing faces in changing fauna, as if in a life of no clear path, such simple facts can stand as a humble gospel.

In the final scene, when Jacky takes the microphone in an empty bar, he doesn't know what his next song will be, and doesn't seem to care. (3) Absolute confusion looking very much like absolute bliss, and that is as it should be.

Jacky Directed by Jean Antoine Produced by Alain Terzian Written by Jean Antoine, Serge Gainsbourg Starring Serge Gainsbourg, Christian Clavier, Sabine Azema Strand Releasing Release Date UK/US: Jan 1993 126 mins Tagline: 'Too Many Pretty Singers, Not Enough Pretty Songs'

1. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams
2. The Observer, August 2010.
3. The Gainsbourg-penned and performed songs 'Le Botox', 'Amour Cruise' and 'Mon Amant Avant-Dernier' appear in the film. The latter includes a verse sung in French, and then repeated in English:

You're my penultimate lover
The one before the one before the end
After you my energies will be sucked through the vacuum
By some peachy nymphet in a gloomy backroom
And I'll expire there sweating on the Indian rug
While she calls in the others to watch me slip down
To the spiteful netherworlds, where feeling so smug
I'll buy a drink for the jailer in exchange for a favour
A call to my love whose love never wavered
I'll tell her that down here it really is hell
O hello I'll be here a while , alas, oh well
Sort out her Lucifiction from her Lucifacts
Some of the boys have got on the escape committee
We know it's impossible, no room for self pity.

Monday, 30 May 2011

M.JAINET'S ETERNAL ZIGZAG (Francois Lepin Eziot, 1949)

Plotwise, this is as simple as those early cinematic experiments entitled Tennis Match or The Motorcar Departs: A man is pursued, endlessly, across borders. We pick up our sympathies from the details: small habits and clothing tell us that he is a member of the resistance and his assailant is a Nazi spyhunter. His name is M. Jainet, and he will run and run and run. The Nazi, trapped in hopeless caricature, has no name. Even as the film begins, we are clued in to what they both know: that this chase does not end when the war does. This is their own private battlefield, a psychic chess, and it knows no international law or politick. Their situations could be reversed, and they would behave in the same manner. Like Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle, a mutual suicide, keeping alive only to spite the other, clueless as to what death to either would mean.

Eziot takes a simple stylistic concept and holds it for 85 minutes, a captain clinging to his mast through a storm. An exercise in repetition, each scene is made up of a single shot, usually with an unmoving camera. Sometimes, a scene can sit empty for minutes: an abandoned market at night, a doorway outside a glowing bar, a towpath along a canal at dusk. But always, it seems, stairs are present, lifting through the darkness hopefully, to who knows where. Frequently, we have a three-quarter view, slightly elevated, a privileged angle on these cityspaces as smoky, desperate Eschers, cold geometries which our pair pass through. Diagrams freshly-built but anciently anatomical. Tension is never relieved, as every revelation is followed by a mind-wiped new scene. As soon as one man spots another (his body stiffening ecstatically out of the jetlag for a moment), his actions are quick and decisive, but ultimately mean nothing. Not unless we see capture and an end to the cycle, and we do not. For a new scene, in a new part of town, will surely follow. Sometimes Jainet finds the stairs, and our hopes are lifted. But he has only escaped to the next screen, to begin again.

In some scenes, nothing happens; there is no-one. In others, we might only see the pursuer or the pursued (perhaps searching eagerly, or hiding, or even, on occasion, relaxing, putting the danger aside for a moment (the latter of which is frequently the most affecting)); in at least one, both pass each other without noticing. Every time, we look for those faces: the twitchy, hopeful Jainet (played by Serge Reggiani, the popular French-Italian singer) and the lumbering never-tiring Nazi (Gaston Modot, who played another angry German in Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu (1939)).

At first, Eziot's espionaged theatricals seem like a game for the viewer, and each scene a mystery puzzle, a Where's Waldo? in frosty greys and blacks. But soon, the beautiful complexity of an eternally repeating screen (with the water-torture tension of infernal Pong) affects us, as does the knowledge that when Jainet ricochets himself into the edge of the screen, that is the end of it, but only for now.

Eziot tinkered repeatedly with his film, and the most widely seen cut from 1949 is by no means the most definitive. In 1972, He toured a 72-hour version entitled M.Jainet's Eternal Zigzag '72, with reels replayed in random orders; a stiffening, endless, Spy vs Spy, zen warfare, perpetual fear.

Francois Truffaut wrote about the experience of watching this version for Cahiers du Cinema: (1)

'In the theatre, the fans celebrated this event in various ways: there were poetry recitals at the back, and a drinking game near the front that fell away by the halfway point of the film. One group began to cheer the Nazi, perhaps finding in him the perennial despair of Wile E. Coyote, perhaps just yearning for a conclusion. Near me, a couple slept in each other's arms for the entire weekend, not looking up once. At one point, I became convinced that the roles had been reversed, and that Jainet was tracking his pursuer; Eziot had hypnotised me, or perhaps Jainet had realised that the best way to avoid capture was to follow... Despite the singular pacing of the film, the overall mood ebbed and flowed throughout: at one point, almost everybody cheered each carefully created scene, at another they were slow-clapping, and at others it seemed like it didn't matter what we were watching... after about eighteen hours, the backgrounds through which the two men move become less like Vichy France and more like other wartime outposts- Morocco, Stalingrad, Cyprus. By the fiftieth hour, I recognised nowhere. The longer one watches, the further away from the original place we are. One comes to feel that if one were to watch Jainet running for several weeks, he might end up leading his pursuer into the sun, or the outer rings of heaven; similarly, the viewer would leave the cinema to find themselves in a completely different city, on another planet, or in another body entirely.'

The film was homaged in Rick Marving's home computer games for the ZX Spectrum in those glorious early-1980s years of quick inspiration, bedroom programming and whimsical in-jokes. Monsieur Janney's Eternal Zig-Zag '82 and Monsieur Janney's Still Running, were both famous for being never-ending, self-generating puzzles, with no game over or prize screen.

M.Jainet's Eternal Zigzag Directed by Francois Lepin Eziot Produced by Jean Eziot Written by Francois Lepin Eziot Starring Serge Reggiani, Gaston Modot DisCina Films 99 mins Release Date UK/US: March 1949 'How long can you avoid yourself?'

1. July, 1972

Monday, 16 May 2011

GOONER (Peter Harris, 1996)

'Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions.' Joyce Carol Oates

'The recurring image, the one that says more than any of his videos or statements, is the Warholian one we now have: bin Laden watching a video of himself, caught in a jihad for fame.' Christopher Hitchens

Some real-life fictions have an immediate impact on Hollywood ones. Nothing stops production, of course, but this month, the death of the world's most wanted man has created a conundrum. Two weeks ago there were two Osama bin Laden films being shot, and both must be hurriedly rewritten. Now, the general public will not abide by Kathryn Bigelow's as-yet untitled film about the fruitless search for the al-Qaeda leader. The ending must now be bloody and final. Word is that Bigelow's liked tale only because it had no 'closure' (a hopelessly modern term that, when used, sounds like it means something, but rarely does); now there must be, imperfect and prosaic. Similarly, Oliver Stone's fever dream With Us Or Against Us, (imagining a predictably bombastic afterlife in which a certain former US President and his nemesis collide with sticks, resulting in mutual destruction) was due in 2012, but now seems an exercise in angry cartoonish bloodlust too far: why put up with such overcooked satire when the wreckage of a real-life lynch-job is ripe for the picking?

Through flickering videotape, one man slipped into an iconography that it seems it didn't need his death to seal. He was already a ghost, turning up in Western dreams since before he was born.

He is there in Vick Kissing's The Phantom (1942), which follows a manhunt through Montana that ends in starvation and freezing to death. The group discuss the whys and wherefores of their eye-for-an-eye existence, but the audience never discovers the extent of the actual murderer's guilt. His size, ethnicity and gun hand are all argued over, and their harried accounts seem to describe a several different men. The fracturing and failure of the group seems inevitable from the outset, leaving the question of whether the killer exists at all (and by existential extention, whether a group hunting a non-existent man can 'exist', not to mention an audience of a film about them). Clint Eastwood,(1) himself existing somewhere between icon and human, remade it as A Horse With No Rider (2004). His last Western, it fit into a Bush narrative all too easily, with a posturing son leaning ever more on the Descartian double-bind: 'We're chasin' him. He must exist!'

1996: The year the Taliban took control in Afghanistan, and Arsene Wenger began introducing a new purist mindset to Arsenal Football Club. Twin narratives, two sets of idealism. Arsenal were hitherto the epitome of English gung-ho: Tony Adams drink-driving, Ray Parlour letting off fire extinguishers in Pizza Hut (and is there a more tawdry metaphor than that?), on a heroic death-charge for the old guard of banal boozers, facing up to their own terms of endangerment in a new world. Footballers in England would now eat pasta and drink soft drinks. They would no longer be seen gurning down the lens on Top of the Pops, arms around each other in a parade of uncool fun, like rictus Astleys.

1996 also saw the filming of Nick Hornby's loveletter to boyish men and Arsenal, Fever Pitch (David Evans, 1997). It also saw the release of a lesser known North London narrative: Gooner (1996) is Peter Harris' account of Osama bin Laden in London in the 1980s, going to see Arsenal play at Highbury. Or is it? Harris took the loose facts, that bin Laden had been known to frequent Gunners matches in the Thatcher years, and spun a tale about how a rich and bored man might be swayed by religious dogma or weekly worship of a sporting kind. This came out before the World Trade Center fell, of course, but after the earlier failed attempt in 1993. Harris' film does not predict the significance of his subject to a worldwide narrative (and it must be said, he has always claimed his character is a fiction, known only by the name 'Al'; Harris he also denied all knowledge of bin Laden until after his film was finished, but this matters little). Alfred Molina (2), that man of a thousand ethnicities, plays Al with no little sympathy. He seems lost and unsure as he buys up Arsenal memorabilia.

This could be the lost British terrorist film, Molina flickering across London like M.Vurloc in Conrad's The Secret Agent, unsure of his sympathies, building his resentments. Harris' denials fit the Osama myth perfectly, erasing a man from his own biography, until he is only a figment of the world's imagination, hiding in a dark cave of the collective mind. There are parallels with Chris Morris' Four Lions (2010), but the action is looser, less dramatic; like Gus van Sant (in Elephant or Last Days mode) if he had been asked to interpret a Hornby novel shorn of women and music, leaving only the football.

Gooner Directed by Peter Harris Written by Peter Harris, Rob Watts Produced by Rich Robbin Starring Alfred Molina, Dexter Fletcher Flickknife/BBC Films 99 mins Release Date UK: Sept 1996/US: N/A Tagline: 'Who Are Ya? Who Are Ya?'

1. Eastwood's films frequently deal with the potency of symbolic masculines. Could any other action hero dissect his own mythology so frequently and cuttingly? Compare and contrast with other tough guys as the butt of their own jokes: Vin Diesel, Hulk Hogan, the second half of Sylvester Stallone's career. And don't think that Arnold Schwarzenegger's barrage of limping comedies of the early 90s (think
Twins, Cinderfella, Kindergarten Cop, Austrian Thunder and Last Action Hero) display any kind of self-examination, as they are all one-note riffs on the same big-guy slapstick he'd always wrought.

2. There is a rumour that Alfred Molina has appeared in every film made during his lifetime, and even some that preceded it, such is his multi-faceted glory. He is one of those faces that link texts, jumping between them at rapid speed, cementing them as real live artifacts. His startling turn as John O'Neill in
He Knows Everything And It Doesn't Even Matter (2006) was as hidden from view as Osama Bin Laden at the time: sporadic video showings, unverified. Peter Bradshaw praised the film, but said that 'it suffers from a huge problem. That John O'Neill's story spins on a real-life irony too implausible for fiction: the FBI's best man on al-Qaeda who, having been forced out of the Bureau for maverick genius, takes up his new job as the head of security at the World Trade Center. He died on his first day at work, on September 11th, 2001, and this is too perfect to ring true, even though ity is true. Truth can be stranger than fiction, but it can also be more truly fictional. Sven Hassel's gutbusting By Their Necks (1965) does not suffer from the same problem, as the musclebound romps through Torah Borah lay no claim to credibility.'

Saturday, 7 May 2011


There is a sequence in F.G. Hoch's Mensch Versus Mittwoch in which protagonist Eli, played with brilliant care by Emil Jannings, leaves a bar drunk and walks down a Berlin alleyway. He is set upon by an unseen assailant, who beats him to a bloody pulp. The whole thing is filmed in the reflected retina of a feral cat, watching the action before passively turning away to toy with a dying mouse. It is such an extravagant piece of camerawork, stepping beyond the stark theatricals of the Weimer Expressionists (and through a portal of territory unmarked at that time, except perhaps by Man Ray's Alice dans le Pays des merveilles, the lost bravura short from 1932) that it jars the viewer from the narrative: Hoch acknowledges this by showing the next scene, in which Eli recovers in his room, twice. Many first-time viewers do not notice this playful repetition, this record-skipping break of the verisimilitude.

He was rarely so bold again. As film scholar Joseph Pranden said in 1962 when reviewing F-G's career downward spiral, 'the early prognosis of 'terminal genius' was hasty, and with time the outlook receded to the less spectacular: extreme spells of inspired sickness (Gestalt Honey in 1932, Zwölf Jünger (Twelve Disciples) in 1935) punctuating long spells of banal and lazy health, in which the ability to function is taken for granted (and too many titles to mention fall into this category).'(1)

His departure to America in 1937 was an ending. Far from flourishing in Hollywood like counterpart Fritz Lang, he froze. But here he fires beautifully, his promise coinciding with Weimar studio Ufa, just as the Expressionist movement was both flourishing and about to be stifled by the rise of the Nazis.

Man Against Wednesday applies overt noir sensibilities to a plot that stretches whimsy until it is a desperate and sad dirge. Eli experiences the week as seven individuals with an agenda: to him, each day is a person, lurking in the shadows, bumping into him in the same sequence, over and over. They all wear different colours, he is certain, and although their appearance is otherwise identical, he becomes convinced that they all have defining features. Monday, always one step ahead of the dullard Tuesday, is a red-pen wielding thought-editor whose vision has receded so much that he can only swivel his eyes in two dimensions, across the ledger and down the page, to the bottom line. Sunday is calm and apologetic, meeting Eli in parks and cafes, but the others all mix brawn with punctuality, a frightful combination.

Eli tries to reason with Sunday, asking her to visit more frequently, maybe twice a week; but she clams up, refusing to talk. This is how it must be, Eli.

Eli formulates a plan. If he can avoid Wednesday, the most timid of the rest of the days, he might disrupt the chain, and escape the clutches of their routine. But where can he go where Wednesday cannot? Week after week goes by, no refuge can be found. Eli changes his regular paths, throws everything out of sync, and loses his job and friendships because of it. But still, the days always catch up with him, and their aggression only grows. Eli drinks, and tries to sleep through entire days, but wakes to find that his assailants have visited, destroying his room.

He resorts to a final plan: barricading his room and waiting. If Wednesday can't find him, Eli wins. In a sickeningly slow final scene, Hoch allows us to live with what we know, and what Eli should know: that someone else is there in his small apartment. It takes an age, but when Eli finally turns his back, Tuesday steps out from behind the long curtains and unlocks the door, letting in his eternal successor. They nod grimly, their celestial relay handover as smooth as ever, and Wednesday enters, knife drawn.

Mensch Versus Mittwoch Directed by F.G.Hoch Produced by Franz Lammer Written by Lisbeth Heinz, F.G.Hoch Starring Eli Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Werner Krauss UFA/ Goldwyn Distributing Company (USA) 87 mins Tagline: none.

1. Film As A Popular Art Form, Scholar Books

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

I DREAM OF 'TO THE BRINK' (Peter Davies, 1988)

A boy (Matthew Rhys) dreams about a television show that he is convinced must be real, so rich is the detail in his head. He spends a day walking around his small Welsh town, asking people if they have heard of it. They have not. Every time he sleeps, he is taken to this world, a forgotten comedy-drama from the 1970s, an alternative past that only he can access.

Upon waking, he carried back with him the fully-formed history (life, loves, unloves) of a character he knew to be fictional, and yet: it was perfect in all the ways that a plausible outline should be, but vague and imprecise at the exact points that made it seem flesh rather than a carefully sculpted invention (taking into account the obvious, which is that art must consider logic in a way that real life does not, swathes of this dreamt figure's history were in the shadow, as blurry as a stranger at a station about which nothing is known except their keenness for the arrival of a train).

In the dream, the man was an English actor, a descendent of the Barrymore clan, whose name was Richard, or Rich, or maybe he was just rich. He was handsome in a slightly exotic way, dark like Tom Conti, but taller. Richard Barrymore then, estranged nephew of Sir John, who played posh con artist Hugh Brinkman in 70s sitcom To The Brink. He knew that this didn't exist, this show, but it sat in place in his mind as comfortably as those that did. To The Brink, numbers could be fabricated that seemed correct: 140 episodes, between 1974 and 1981, with a Christmas special in 1983 completing the cycle. By that point, Barrymore was starring in minor British films, small cameos in Hollywood productions, a grey beard for the stage, the usual. He died on-set in 1989, liver failure, the drink. 53. Loved, missed. They said nice things about him as a man, more than his acting. His technique was neither here nor there, his charms were his chops.

In the dream, the boy is looking at black and white photos from this show under a Christmas tree at his grandmother's old house, the one that stayed as a constant in his childhood. He can see the faces of the cast, including the grumpy pub landlord with the catchphrase ('Last orders, gentlemen. You too Mr Brinkman.'), the very common and very pretty Susie Soap, who works for Hugh in some capacity or other, and Mr Constable (played by an actor who was clearly well-respected and famous, because despite appearing for only one scene every week he was billed in the credits in large lingering letters as 'featuring Leo Carmichael as Mr Constable', to canned applause), a pensioner who Brink stops in to check up on, as some kind of penance or display of his virtuousness, lest the rest of the show leave us in doubt as to the golden heart below the caddish exterior. To The Brink survived the axe with the introduction of thick but loveable Jamaican sidekick Malcolm in the second series, a step that caused the show to be both praised for racial diversity and attacked for an apparent lampooning of immigrants. The boy loved Malcolm, and laughed just thinking of him.

Escapades: Brink always needed money, despite being to the manor born. Each week he would trip into some scam designed to return his crumbling estate to fortune. But everybody around him, except a select few, thought that his bank account was overflowing, and were trying to rip him off at every turn. Thus the frequent situation where Brink would be lavishing presents on a disinterested socialite while trying to convince would-be gangsters of his poverty.

There always seemed to be a scene where, Brink, cornered by some heavies/ an annoyed husband/ the police would feign a cockney accent and talk his way out of trouble; an inverse Eliza Doolittle, dropping 'is H's like smart bombs, for deliberate effect, and burying schooled vowels in South London lock-ups with the documented evidence of his five-hundred year-old family tree.

The boy even recounted some of the lines, pulling off approximations of the normal cut-glass Brink voice and his rougher alter-ego, but the town just laughed indulgently, and spoke of other television shows that they remembered, and were actually real. But none of them were vehicles, souped-up or otherwise, for the elusive and charming Hugh Brinkman.

I Dream Of 'To The Brink' Directed by Peter Davies Produced by Vic Marshall Written by Rick Green Starring Matthew Rhys, Thomas Bowen, Laura Ashe, Willie Ross Channel 4 Films 107mins Release Date UK: Nov 1988 US:N/A Tagline: 'Come Back, Hughie Brink, Your Drink Needs Drinking!'

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


This hypnotic film from the solipsistic eye of Cecil Franck is part of a larger exercise in narrative and mind-mapping that the filmmaker returned to throughout his career. Essentially an internal monologue over the top of images of a boy walking the streets of suburban Stuttgart, it hints at the melancholy of Albert Lamorisse's Le Ballon Rouge (1956). The footage, featuring Franck's nephew Jens, was shot in 1955, and subsequently reused by Cecil in over 100 films, recut and combined with different voiceovers and swathes of musics, an ever-evolving exercise in film. From 1955's Light Line to 1984's Lazer, Franck's manipulation of just an hour of the same visuals, over and over, is an endless working towards the central questions of art and meaning(lessness).

Mathematische uses an English language voiceover. A boy speaks:

'When I was a child I would love to make games out of everyday activities. any walk was a race with imaginary opponents. Or I might consider cars to be my enemy, and attempt to pass a lamppost before they did. This worked fine on quieter streets, where the noise of the car in the distance would serve as a challenge; I'd pick a marker ahead of me, one which seemed to be far enough away to not be so easy for me to reach before the car. A truly satisfying judgement would result in me dipping slightly to take the tape mere feet before the car passed unknowingly. On busier streets it would be harder to pick out individual cars in the hubbub, so I would change the game. One might be to see the sections of grass between the pavement and the street as safe zones behind which passing cars were no threat. In this case, I could not pass between them across a driveway entrance at the the same time as a car went by. Again, I could not run or stop, but by adjusting the pace of my stride, I'd hope to navigate an entire street without being 'hit' by a passing car. I would spend a lot of time imagining lines, running from the edges of the grass through perpendicular angles across the road and across the pavement. I'd also imagine similar lines across the front and rear bumpers of cars fizzing at 90 degree angles across the pavement, shots of invisible laser or light that would be repelled by the grass but would otherwise continue across the unguarded pavements, burning all in their path. Imagining these lines became second nature; They'd spin out from parked cars (also designated as cover sometimes) and benches, walls and any vehicle. Geometric prettiness from unseen shapes, dealt with by checked strides and sudden spurts.'

As late as 2005, with the release of Luxuriant Jay, Franck was still making films with the same piece of footage he had shot of Jens in 1955. 'I have not lifted a camera or been on a set in fifty years,' he said, 'for the images I collected then contain endless possibility. There are a million films to be made from those sequences of Jens, and I will never be finished. I am like a musician composing using only one chord, on one instrument, and through this repetition I discover anew things that I could not with a wider palette.'(1)

Jens Franck died in the year 2000, aged fifty-one. His uncle continues to remake his image, combining it, in various constellations, with various music (self-composed minimalist electronics, or commissioned/borrowed works from (among many others) Klaus Schulze, Holger Czukay, Robert Wyatt, Francoise Hardy and Die Krupps) and snippets of broken words. 'Now Jens is gone, I feel like my mission has sharpened, my idea more correct. In these fifty-five minutes, over and over, I can reflect his life, his family, his loves, his passions, through the way in which I edit a small section of his life as a boy. It is all in there, his entire existence, if only I can reframe it, highlight it, show it. For him.'

Mathematische Directed by Cecil Franck Produced by Cecil Franck, Tomas Duhbyoose Written by Cecil Franck Starring Jens Franck Franck Filmproduktion 55 mins Release Date: UK/US: None (shown on German television in 1973, and at Stuttgart's ContemptArt since 1995) Tagline: 'Still Here.'

1. KINO magazine, April 2005

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

LANDFILL (George Eliott, 1974)

Locals debate the meaning of a quarry in a poor small town in the Midlands. It is 1969, and the swinging sixties, a media hologram only filled in with hindsight, hasn't been seen here. A gargoyled sexless rock'n'roll bled through years too late, however, leaving a residue of shabby Teddy Boys with fists. A town of scared people looking anything but, hard-minded and shut down. This is not the quiet inarticulation of Leigh or Loach; the abstract murders herein hover like reanimated carrion, where bacon-faced sons seek only a swifter nip of spite in a nonsense world of hypercolours. Flick-knives hide behind lead-in lines and 'penny-for-the-guy' smiles, and devils hang signs in the centre of town, unseen in plain view. Landfill takes a paving slab to notions of British Realism, creating a slim but swampy Anglo gothic shorn of manors and barons. No Billy Liar fantasies of escape here; they know there's nowhere to run. The youths are distressed geographers, circling their homes. Our notional hero, a tough bundle of sticks named Smithy, chases down frustrated a philosophy, but it only appears to us in fragmented voiceover, dribbles of poetry:

'England. You're free to destroy the borders, but you can't see 'em. They're not big red lines. Counties don't interlock together in some miraculous patchwork, fitting exactly, as I thought when I was younger, meeting exactly at the edges. Rather, there are spurs and burrs, overlapping edges that rut like horny stags, and dead ends that don't match up, tunnels to nowhere. You ever notice how many walls in this town don't hold anything in or out? You can walk along them but they don't go anywhere. They're just endings. The grassy mounds, piles of rubble, even shops that no-one goes in. If you can even imagine a hero being here, you can just see him walking in and knowing that this is the kind of place that sporting hope ignores, and that this is where he gets cornered without his sixgun.'

Gangs fight over ownership of the night in various places, Smithy is enlisted. The prize location: the quarry, where bad things happen to children, and it is always their own fault for being there. Over the landfill site the dug-out soil stands as a semi-permanent hill, Mount Crud. The locals christen it, laugh at it, climb it, tut at it's grim appearance on their horizon, but it becomes evident that it represents far more than municipal decision-making and ugly waste-management. It is totemic, a vibrating hulk; at night the distant motorway hums, but so too does Mount Crud, as if when it was lifted from below the topline it brought with it deep messages that it articulates solemnly. A local copper breaks a leg chasing some kids up it, and some locals say the eyesore is a nosesore and earsore too, breaking out in itchy spots. Everyone wants to move it, everyone is desperate to fill the quarry in, but it doesn't happen. Superstition, once attached, is difficult to shake from even the flintiest of shins, and after a while most repeat, as if in the same voice: I don't know much, lad, but I know we aren't going to see the end of Mount Crud.

From the pile of filth some evidence is plucked: veteran lensman Herb Alcott began his career here, and stays his post with vigour, even if the camera flinches at the noxious fumes and racist countenances of certain characters. Child actor Bon Johnstone grew up to be the guitarist in post-punk brutalists The Pressure Group, whose seminal album 'We Are Not Against The Anti-Counter-Revolutionary Resistance' stayed perfectly unbought for years. Other faces are recognisable, turning up in all manner of British films and television, but no-one remembers their names. Their faces glisten briefly in the murk, a deja-vu. Director George Eliott stole her name from a local writer (but with a final, sarcastic extra 't', hovering like a provocation to pedants) who changed her name to be taken seriously by appearing to be a man; this gesture, in 1974, had the opposite effect, looming like a parochial blasphemy, something that Eliott the second clearly invited.

Landfill sank inevitably into the gloom upon entry, thrown into cupboards during the week of its release and into skips six months later. All is refuse, now and forever.

Landfill Directed by George Eliott Produced by Lew Grade, George Elliott Written by Simon Prince, George Elliott Starring Bon Johnstone, Eric Rudge, John Jules, Lucy Pine, Amanda Richards Red Films/Central Productions Release Date UK: Oct 1974 US: N/A Tagline: none.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

SCALA QUARANTA (Beppe Nona, 1963)

This cannot be approached like other Nona films: Scala Quaranta, sensing our critical apparatus even when our advance is silent, hastily retreats into the undergrowth. Its enigmatic figure belies a hardy creature, one that can survive in a range of unpigeonholed habitats. It has rarely been seen in captivity (underwhelmed by early screenings, it shrank from view), and a firm category for its confusing silhouette proves elusive. Strong-arm critics throw it in with Nona's 'Casa' stage, the period of films made before his entry into the global bloodstream with the Bond/Barthes/bebop melange of Sigh Your Name (1966) and the subsequent theft of international hearts with Wine For Song (1967).

Scala Quaranta at first seems set for the kind of Old Country whimsy that delights outsiders: we follow a small god-fearing family as they work, eat and play in a small town in central Italy, with a beguiling lack of glamour. Violent routine prevails. The details of their lives are worked out exactly, and yet petty squabbles and jolly argument are forces that push and pull the day. Mamma (Alberta D'Agostini) is the sun of the house, never resting, except to play cards. The family sit at hands nightly, gambling for small amounts. A slow pace is thus established, seeming unbreakable. But then, in a delightful scene of creeping significance, drama intervenes.

One night, when asked to cut the deck, youngest son Beppe (the delightfully podgy Paolo Rossi) turns over a joker. This is seen as good luck. The family laugh, calling the boy fortunate. He denies this, suggesting that he has a special skill. When given a second opportunity, he does so again, against the odds. The family tease and hug him all the more. Pappa (Giancarlo Bianchi) bets him a week of chores that he can't do it again; but once more, Beppe cuts the deck and finds a joker. The family erupt. Amid the laughter, Mamma stops, and tells Pappa to shuffle the deck properly. He does so, at length, as the other brothers and sisters lean in. When Beppe cuts the deck and finds a joker once more, Mamma screams and crosses herself. She shakes Beppe, asking him how he is performing this trick, and accuses Pappa of fashioning a cheat. But they deny it vehemently, and Beppe, now upset, sits silently. When Mamma thrusts the deck in front of him once more, he at first refuses to cut; but under a barrage of shouts, he sullenly does so, drawing a joker again.

This just does not happen. The family argue the significance through the night, periodically finding new decks to offer Beppe. When he cuts, he finds a joker every time. After twenty-five consecutive jokers, they stop. This is no quirk. Meaning must be found. A priest, a doctor, a man of high learning, all react differently, all equally unhelpful. Mamma cleans ecstatically, she throws out belongings, domestic sacrifice, offerings; she spends money in tears, buying new decorations and trinkets to hang around Beppe's bed, his door, his neck. Are we saving the child from Fate or is Fate the child? Neighbours close their doors, but is it to the family's intertwining with Kismet or Mamma's apocalyptic euphoria? Some weeks the family give generously on a Sunday, some weeks they stay at home, the correct course yet to be found.

Throughout, Nona skirts with delicious indecision, never allowing the viewer to completely sympathise with or against anyone. The whole affair seems simultaneously ridiculous and staggeringly significant. Beppe is a proto-Damien and/or fearfully abused, Mamma a superstitious sadist and/or a brave matriarch. Only Pappa is the same in every reading, emasculated and pale, haunted by his own inability to act. The central mystery about whether the jokers are a clever trick or a supernatural sign is never explained, and the family drifts into the shell-shock of a self-imposed exile, not remembering what the question ever was, but searching the walls for an answer.

Scala Quaranta Directed by Beppe Nonna Produced by Gilberto Moretti Written by Beppe Nonna, Astrid Luna Starring Alberta D'Agostini, Paolo Rossi, Giancarlo Bianchi, Rosa Bianchi
Cino Del Duca/Janus Films 144 mins Release Date UK: Oct 1963/ US: Jan 1964 Tagline: None

Monday, 31 January 2011


'Once you permit those who are convinced of their own superior rightness to censor and silence and suppress those who hold contrary opinions, just at that moment the citadel has been surrendered.' Archibald Macleish

'To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read, what value to place upon what we read, is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries.' Virginia Woolf

'I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.' Jorge Luis Borges

A librarian, Josie Werner (Barbara Stanwyck) dedicates her life to the flourishing and development of a library in a small town called Queen of All Souls, Texas. It is 1954. Despite efforts to censor and diminish the library by several successive mayors and various townsfolk, the shack-like construct survives all winds. The collection, due to the work of Werner, swells, and begins to receive national attention as a bastion of liberal learning.

The attacks on Werner grow however; her relationship with a black man (Titus Chambers) is examined, and her past as a young unmarried woman with a series of romances is repeatedly held up as evidence of the impropriety of her books. The fact that she is played by Stanwyck means that we both believe that any story about her may be true, and love her for it.

And just when we seem set on a path of anguishing town politics and individual bravery (shown, perhaps in the form of impassioned speeches in a courtroom setting, or a defiant entrance into (or exit from) a town meeting), an apocalyptic plot twist sets us on our bums, the deus ex machina being an actual nuclear apocalypse. The Russians and Americans set on a path of mutual destruction, and those above ground have only hours of unburnt air left. All recriminations are deemed petty, and the town pulls together to begin the evacuation.

The film thus folds back on itself, and breaks at the middle. The second half of the film bears little relation to the first. The constant is Josie and her bloodymindedness. As convoys leave the town, heading for potentially safer mountains and bunkers, she refuses to go. She shows no panic, but slips into a quiet silence as she organizes her books. When asked why, she doesn't explain. Weeping relatives come to try and persuade her to join them in one of the protective areas. Mankind needs people like you. We need you. She refuses, saying that someone must tidy the books. Stanwyck's natural defiance here rings like huge deep bell, no trace of trebly spite, just true and low.

If Josie's reasons are unclear to us, they are to her too; indeed, McCarey seems to be attempting to figure out the meaning of a life's work during these slow minutes, in the increasingly empty town and near-silent library. The examination is a clear-minded one that still comes up with no answers, as if McCarey knows that his own position as a credible and brilliant artist might be secure (a director of Duck Soup and The Awful Truth bends and scrapes to no-one in any just celestial Hollywood cafeteria; if such artful shepherding of Marxes and Cary Grants and Irene Dunnes is not a karmic get-out-of-jail-free card, one wonders what might be), but also that this means absolutely nothing.

Nearing the end, Josie writes a letter:

'I don't believe that good people make the world better. And often times they make the world worse, despite themselves. Isn't that why the planet is dying? Good people making mistakes? But you should still try. One bad person can do so much damage that it takes generations to repair. But all the good people in the world I think keep the world afloat. And they shouldn't have ever worried about betterment or evolution because- what's changed? In 10000 years? Textural things. That's all. But human nature seems to be the same. Self-destructive.'

She then rips it up with a laugh so dismissive that we, the audience, feel ridiculousness at the weight with which we might have received her words. They are meant for us, there is no-one else left for Josie to talk to. But they are hollow, mere platitudes (perhaps even stolen, half-remembered from another production); an attempt at making retrospective sense of a decision (and many other decisions, millions of them across a life) that needs no explanation. Because there is none. McCarey spares us the fiery end we know is due, cutting away from Stanwyck as she smiles into the distance, dreaming of the twenty-four (and more) variations of the note that she could have written, all plausible but too pat, somehow; no line is big enough to suffice, to be more than a scratch in the dirt.

The Library At The Queen Of All Souls Directed by Leo McCarey Produced by Leo McCarey, Jerry Wald Written by Mildred Cram, Leo McCarey Starring Barbary Stanwyck, James Earl-Jones, Ray Milland 20th-Century Fox Release Date US: March 1955/ UK: Aug 1955 102 mins Tagline: 'Just Because You Didn't See It Coming Doesn't Mean You Don't Have To See'

Wednesday, 19 January 2011


Bobby Hope (pronounced /huːp/, like hoop, but with a slightly Dutch 'y' sound in between the two o's, like a crooked nose being framed by two ever-open eyes) has made over a thousand films. He does so despite most having never been seen by anyone outside of his family. He also writes novels, cinema criticism and plays, shoots videos and documentaries, and hosts a cable access television show. He busks at at street fairs, dances at festivals, and takes photographs for exhibitions that take place on the side of the street. He does all of this despite being ignored. Talent be damned: Bobby Hope is a hero.

In Elvis Has Left The Bill (1982) he looped echoing fragments of Presley songs over images of an Elvis Impersonator in a diamond-encrusted coffin; this was punctuated by shots of a young lady at a table, her date keeled over on his plate, the raven-haired fatty possibly dead. Waiters pick their way through a mountain of peanut-butter-filled baguettes to give the girl a distressingly huge check. It seems li- [... And there I must interrupt myself.

I'm stepping from behind the curtain, breaking the performance to attempt a performance of a different kind: plain-speaking. Like any attempt to breach the fourth wall it will no doubt run the risk of seeming 'artificial' rather than 'honest' (the latter being perhaps the most misunderstood and incorrectly used word, with the most misunderstood and overpraised meaning), and that is fine too, because it has to be.

I'm momentarily compelled to explain myself (a rarity; I'm attempting to cherish it and embrace what comes naturally to others). Perhaps it was due to a concern that the Fictional Film Club, which may seem like a whimsical diversion, might need a defence, a manifesto, a stance to explain its significance to me. But here I am, on the stage, alone, facing the baited breath of both of the audience members, and I'm unsure. I clear my throat. 'So I'm speaking with some reluctance, knowing that there are at least twenty-four possible aspects of any single statement, depending on where you're standing at the time or on what the weather's like'. That's Harold Pinter. So is this:

'If I were to state any moral precept it might be: Beware of the writer who puts forward his concern for you to embrace, who leaves you in no doubt about his worthiness, his usefulness, his altruism, who declares that his heart is in the right place, and ensures that it can be seen in full view, a pulsating mass where his characters ought to be. What is presented, so much of the time, as a body of active and positive thought is in fact a body lost in a prison of empty definition and cliche.

This kind of writer clearly trusts words absolutely. I have mixed feelings about words myself. Moving among them, sorting them out, watching them appear on the page, from this I derive a considerable pleasure. But at the same time I have another strong feeling about wrds which amounts to nothing less tan nausea. Such a weight of words confronts us day in, day out, words are spoken in a context such as this, words written by me and by others,the bulk of it a stale dead terminology; ideas endlessly repeated and permutated become platitudes, trite, meaningless'.

Words lie. Especially those of other people. FFC fan William Self:

'I like the Fictional Film Club because I like the idea of a complete dictionary (with footnotes, and appendix) of something that cannot be complete; a dense map, thousands and thousands of hours of work, that is striking in its nonsense. But one that at any point may yield a dangerous clue or a few seconds of the most gorgeous melody you've never heard, before sending you stumbling down a dark passage again, lost.'

The FFC may be nonsense containing my deepest thoughts. It may serve as a diary written in a code that I do not understand, it may be a series of dreams that reveal significance seldomly. It may be a huge joke at my own expense, or an epic folly. Or a smaller, less glamorous one. (At this point, one of you might cough in the darkness, a cough that suggests that you don't come here for this kind of thing. In response, I might throw out a pun or fashion a balloon animal, but as you both are sitting in different parts of the theatre, your responses might be totally different. One of you might (might) laugh at the line, while the other mishears (mish-ears); the balloon animal from one angle might be a delightful puppy that enamours one of you, but it causes the other to leave, convinced I'd made a blasphemous shape. Which one did I make? I'll ask myself later and find out.)

Years end, and it seems right to mark them: I'm not superstitious, but I'm working on it. 2010 saw flickers of FFC in the real world: the unrighteously righteous Teeth of the Sea (and you should bookmark these boys and not only listen to their records but listen to the records that they listen to, read the books that they read, watch the films that they watch... recorded this piece of sublime madness:

After reading this:

An interjection into the real world, perhaps, or another layer of fabrication. Who can say?
My intent is vague. I'll continue faking an inner vision until I convince myself that I have one. Explanation, or lack thereof, is over. Now back to the picture. I'm sorry it's nearly over.]-eed, one would not quibble with the judgement. A. House Is Not A Homo (1984), his documentary investigation of self-described 'church leader and ambassador for heterosexuals' Andrew House (who was predictably arrested with five rent boys in Las Vegas in 1979) certainly brought him more attention. Since then he has fluctuated between iconoclastic surrealism (A Cake of Sleep (1987) and Jesus and His Apostrophes (1990)) and sober documentary (Dumb, Dumb and Full of Dumb (1988) and Charlie Sheen: Piss Factor (2007). What comes next for Hope? Who knows.

Elvis Has Left The Bill Directed, Written and Produced by Bobby Hope Starring Bobby Hope, Louise Hope, Johnny Hope Snood Films Release Date US: Oct 1982 26 mins Tagline: None.

Friday, 7 January 2011

THE SEARCHERS (Lars von Trier, 2009)

[This review is a near word-for word rewrite of Gavin Smith's review of Gus van Sant's Psycho in the February 1999 edition of Sight & Sound, with all references to those films replaced by ones to John Ford's (or Lars von Trier's) The Searchers. A cover of a piece about a cover of a film.]

Lars Von Trier's remake of John Ford's canonical 1956 film The Searchers - in which Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in the original, Vincent Cassel here) pursues kidnapped-by-the-Comanche niece Debbie (Natalie Wood then, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey now)- isn't the self-defeating, perverse exercise it might seem at first glance. It's more a work of 'metacinematic' research. By remaking The Searchers, the film-makers have managed to replay formally notions of transgression and difference that manifested themselves in Ford's original as themes and subtexts. So Von Trier's The Searchers is both more and less than a remake. More in the sense that it literalises the notion of remaking by copying or transcribing Ford's 1956 film, less in that it denies the standard remake strategy which demands that the remake transcend its origins by revision (Cape Fear, Scarface, True Grit).

On the contrary, Von Trier's The Searchers, with its ritualistic attention to detail, could be described as a re-enactment or, as he has suggested, as the equivalent of a cover version of a classic song. But critically, given that contemporary cinema has been permeated by the strategies and tactics of the original film, von Trier can neither reproduce the effect Ford's film had on its contemporary audience - its impact - nor escape the burden of its place in film history. If a theme of Ford's The Searchers is the terrible power of the past and how it blights the present, then it is doubly so for von Trier- indeed this becomes the new film's organising principle. The weight of the past on the present and the loss of autonomy afflicting Ethan Edwards becoming Von Trier's point of departure for this radical project.

Director and cinematographer (Chris Doyle of Chungking Express fame) have imposed on themselves a set of extremely tight expressive constraints to minimise deviation from the original movie. Their film uses the same score, is more or less the same running time and, most crucially, employs the same screenplay. If anything, von Trier's strategy is subtractive rather than additive. Although several anachronisms are wilfully permitted to survive, Frank S. Nugent's original script has been subtly abridged and pared so that, despite several enigmatically superfluous added lines, there is even less dialogue here than in the already sparse original.

On the other hand, given that the original derived much of its power from exuberant and colourful landscapes, von Trier's film employs a no-frills black-and-white shooting style and therefore has a completely different effect. And although many scenes are reproduced exactly, this is by no means a shot-for-shot remake. Many shots only approximate those in the original, and in general the pacing seems faster - dialogue is more clipped, shot duration more varied. In many instances, though, there are significant embellishments: Ethan's arrival scene (the opening sequence), is now a full minute longer and although many shots are identical, it includes a number of new images (a close-up of Martha's dilating pupil as she sees her brother-in-law and former lover; a blurred Martha's-eye-view of Ethan entering the house; a fleeting, enigmatic image of billowing storm clouds). Von Trier and Doyle's shots, even those reproduced exactly from the original, seem comparatively casual and indefinite, lacking the vibrancy, deliberation and measurement of Ford's. And the two films have completely different senses of space, particularly interior space. It is in such distinct yet unquantifiable differences that von Trier's inquiry or research finds its form. The same is true of the film's determinedly muted, enervated tone and air of inconsequentiality.

von Trier's The Searchers is fundamentally an investigation of the expressive and thematic possibilities of nuance. Given the same script and more or less the same visual architecture, casting and direction of actors become key. Sure enough, von Trier gets considerable mileage from the redeployment and reassignment of character values, enough to achieve a small but significant shift of meaning. Rather than using the modern equivalents, he selects actors who largely counter or contradict the original cast's qualities and associations. An example: the substitution of Gael Garcia Bernal for Jeffrey Hunter as part-Cherokee Martin Pawley, Bernal's boyish cheek making Pawley seem less naively earnest, and although he always seems foolishly brave rather than tough, one suspects he might match up physically rather better to Cassel than Hunter did to Wayne.

Vincent Cassel's non-American status is a matter of record (lending all manner of ironies to his character's discussions of the Texas Rangers, the South, and America), and he emphatically does not project the same blunt power that John Wayne brought to the role of Ethan Edwards; how could he? His Ethan lacks Wayne's weary (but buried) guilt, his own melancholy apparently due to a seemingly mounting sense of entrapment by his mission. Where Wayne's Ethan maintained a careful distance from Pawley, treating him with bullying machismo, Cassel's sadism is slyer and somehow more sexually complex.

However low-yield the shift in meaning von Trier accomplishes proves to be, it's enough to justify the experiment: same film, different meaning. Where Ford's search is conclusively resolved, at a price, von Trier's is ongoing, chasing its tail, losing its tracks in the sand. Which is a far more honest, if depressing, forecast.

The Searchers Directed by Lars von Trier Produced by Meta Louise Foldager Written by Frank S. Nugent Starring Vincent Cassel, Gael Garcia Bernal, Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, Emily Watson, Stellan Skarsgård IFC Films 119 mins Release date UK/US: Nov 2009 Tagline:'The Search Will Never End'