Thursday, 28 June 2012


'Comparisons are reductive.  And the critical game of trying to describe a piece of art by naming two others is not only lazy, but cheating.  If I were to say that this film is a blending of Jodorowosky's Holy Mountain and Terence Malick's The Thin Red Line (with the mystical terrorism of Michael Mann's The Keep), I would feel a sense of embarrassment about my ability to describe what I see to you.  But I did mention them, and even in withdrawing them I leave something for you to go on (like a prosecuting lawyer who draws groundless pictures which will inevitably be struck out by the judge, knowing that the pictures are in the minds of the jury and cannot be unseen).  A fake, maybe, but now you have a turnstile into the correct ballpark that holds And Tonight We Take Babel, and you can feel the ebb and flow of its game, restricted seating or otherwise.' Mitch Michener (1)

A spy has already given her life in exchange for smuggled footage, taken by microcameras hidden in her hair.  Based on this information, the psych-drum was struck, calling the men.  Soon, the corridors echo with humming nuns, one sitting in every home that has sent a soldier.  Families launch night-time candlelit vigils through the centres of towns.  Silently.  They walk a strict route as an omen of disaster, the song of curlews at night, has been heard.

We will witness, from beginning to end, a military attack on an enchanted meadow of noise.  The need for this land is never entirely clear, but we can gather from the bubbling voicebox thrum coming from it that it is more than a symbolic or strategic significance, and that the holy din therein can cause men to believe that they can swim new rivers and end all wars. 

The weather spoils one advance, leaving platoons marooned at the foot of the hill.  As they await instructions, their supplies, which consist mainly of powdered drinks, run low, and they are forced to brew soups from the spillages of wildlife.  They haven't seen the enemy yet, but know that too long spent in the valley could see them fatally outflanked.  The mood is itchy.  The prophylactic errors in boudoirs of towns on the trail must be left behind, a new spiritual strength must be found for the assault.  But where?  The valley is filled with exotic foliage.  Broccoli trees loom up to fifty feet, but are yellow and inedible at this time of year.  Endless shining truths loom on the horizon, ready to poison a corporal.  The men know that waiting until the solstice will make the attack harder.  But striking on the night itself, the longest there is, might swiften the end.

In the meantime, the regiment's icon is placed on a tablecloth at the head of the advance.  It sits, hot as an electric fence, crackling with premonitions of action.  Soldiers take turns making offerings, hoping to wash their arms with oranged energy before battle.  Their prayers seem to be grammatically unconnected lists, as if proving to their god that Babel Hill, with it's surfeit of language, must be delivered; without it their words have no meaning.  Despite their claims to blankness, corrupt imagery seeps through their syllables.

Generals in their tent discuss ball games from home to avoid talking about the paradoxes of battle:  We do not need to fight.  But we need to win.  We do not have a reason to fight unless we win.  Then meaning follows. 

One general, more thoughtful than the others, has been observing the men:
'Although the battle plan imposes few constraints on the movements of its soldiers, I learn with interest that individual performances do not diverge significantly from one another, nor does the regiment degenerate into chaos.  The fact that this does not happen is of considerable interest, because it suggests that somehow a set of controls which are not stipulated in the plan arise in battle, and that these "automatic" controls are the real determinants of the war.  Optimistically speaking, we are perhaps far more telepathic than we suspected.  On the other hand, perhaps we lack any imagination. This is fascinating, and could prove decisive in either direction.'

Psychic soldiers behind our lines sit and project an invisible netting over the battlefield.  Their concentrated efforts not only slow the movements of the enemy, but give our men the opportunity to advance through the air.  Teams of six can, with a combination of molasses, Diet Coke and prayer, lift off the ground and spin over the battlefield. Many of these early scouts will be shot out of the sky and move on to Valhalla introductory ceremonies, but the drama of their percussive deaths allows our army to find new positions.  The rest of us salute them, and run into our new positions.  The objective is now in view.

The enemy sends shunts into our psychic field.  These low-resistance connections in the circuit form an alternative path for a portion of the current. This bypass allows their guerrillas passage into our body channels, and if not stopped quickly, they can surgically divert blood from out vessels.    Instructions to the front line become ever more damaged and confused, arriving as whispered rumours.  The battle rages for days.

The general:
'Perhaps the only way to truly outflank this enemy is if we find a brand new pattern of assault.  I propose that we send a platoon through the unguarded pass we call The Afterlife.  Once there, these men can cause havoc with the minds of the enemy, who do not believe in what they cannot see.  Once these men have plotted coordinates, a massive rush of men behind them will swing the battle decisively.'

An explosion, and suddenly we are in a quiet room.

Young, young men smile and escort us through the white.  They are sort of astronauts, but with all the psychological aspects of sailors.  Their calm smiles lead us to a banquet.  We tell them of our orders, to take the pass, but they insist that we sit.  Slowly, the guilt we feel about abandoning our colleagues fades, and as course after course of delicious food is brought to us, we begin to believe that perhaps we have won.  For surely, only the owners of the melodious field of Babel could provide such a meal.

And Tonight We Take Babel Directed by Hans Van Den Boom Produced by Ronny van der Linden Written by Hans van den Boom Starring Willem Joos, Rutger Hauer, Herman Brood, Jeroen Krabbe, Hans van den Boom  102 mins OranjeFilm/ Rank Organisation Release Date UK: Sept 1977 US: N/A Tagline:'War Is Hill.'

1. First Lines From The Front Lines  (MacMillan, 1985)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

BEAT STAR (George Pammell, 1960)

The first thing you have to do is get an audience with Donald P. Impressario.  He's the main brain.  He has a stable of lads, all with names conveying undoubted star power.  Some will tell you that you should go it alone, employ a manager rather than be employed by one, that some singers earn 500 pounds a week, and that Impressario will only pay you 20 at first, but what they don't tell you is that he gives you a five year-contract, and he knows how to put you on the right bills.  He's a starmaker, and no mistake.

And look at his list: Dickie Brown, Bobby Dream, Luke Famous, John Gently, Vic B.Goode, Nelson Drive, Jimmy Lies, Dougie Anger.  Masters of the suggestive.  To a man they can rock a civic hall with a beat or bring the girls to screams just with the way they light a cigarette. 

Some of them are in Chichester on Friday.  This is your chance.  You know some chords.  When you worked on the barges after you escaped from that horrible comprehensive you held that job for a while, and you even liked it.  When it was quiet, the old fella Joe taught you a few blues runs on his homemade guitar, and you'd picked it up alright, Joe had said.  But they'd sacked you in the end, just like the other places, and now your Dad is all over your back with talk of the army.  You're eighteen in two weeks, and it is now or never. 

You put on your best blazer, the one you picked up in London when you went there that time, the one with the green silk lining that cost a packet that you hide under your bed.  You don't ring your mates, because they'll want to lark about and throw fag ends at girls, and they don't even know you've got some songs anyway.  They won't want the hassle of the train up to Chichester and back anyway, they reckon the big beat is silly half the time.  Elvis came out four years ago, and this fad will be done soon, they reckon.

The doorman is distracted by a blonde in a polka-dot dress, so you step by, push through the girls at the stage door and you're in.  A man asks you what you want, and you say you're looking for Mr Impressario.  That's me, he says.  Whereupon you tell him you've got some songs for his boys.  He takes you to the dressing room, where Bobby Dream is doing his hair.  Up close he looks even younger than you, has some acne, but still has that something.  American cars in his eyes.  He gives you his guitar and you carefully strum through one of your numbers.  Mr Impressario watches and says nothing, just keeps asking if you've got any more  Each one you play causes Bobby to tap his feet, click his fingers and fidget.  Sometimes he laughs at a particular change or lyric.  You can't tell if he likes the songs or not.

So you want to be a beat star,  he says, and you say no, no, you just want a publishing deal.  It doesn't work that way, he says.  Mr Impressario gets up, puts his arm around you, and leads you down a corridor.  The brush-off is imminent, you're sure, and he pushes you through a door.  There are lights in your face.  You turn back, and there is a red curtain.  You turn again, and see that you're on stage.  There are girls screaming.  You're mad, you've been tricked.

Sell it son, Mr Impressario shouts through  his laughter.  You're stricken.  You can't move.  You hate him for showing you up.  But the girls keep screaming,  and looking at you expectantly.  They can't see through the illusion.  They buy it.  You play a few awkward chords, and they still buy it.  You give them a number, stammering over a word or two, and they love it even more.

When you leave the stage, Mr Impressario puts his arm around you again.  He thinks you can do a deal.  And he's got a name for you.  Ricky Nervous.  It's a good name, he says.  You don't normally stammer you say, and will be sure to be more confident next time, when it won't be a surprise.  But he wants you to stammer for England.  Stammer like there's no tomorrow.  The girls don't love Elvis because he is tough, he says, they love him because he's a Mummy's boy, and that's why they'll love you too.

Beat Star Directed by George Pammell, Produced by Tom Harverd, Richard Richardson.  Written by Ron Stockwell  Starring Vince Eager, Max Miller, Marty Wylde, Anthony Newley Red Arrow/ Rank Organisation 94 mins UK Release Date: March 1960 Tagline: 'So you wanna be a beat star, eh?'

Friday, 6 April 2012

MONA (Lance Adams, 2012)

Jeff Hudson (Patton Oswalt) is thrilled when he lands a job as a writer for Bona Comics. He's been drawing and self-publishing his own titles for years with little success, and this opportunity is beyond his wildest dreams. His friends are confused that his chance has come now, and tease him about his love for Bona's most famous creation, Mona.

To them, Mona is nothing more than a refracted Wonder-Woman, a photocopied Supergirl; she has had so many shapely forms over the years, and been redrawn so frequently, that her face is a pixelated wash of back-stories. Up-close the dotted print of her skin is pockmarked with cancelled and re-cancelled origin tales, her hair burnt with re-dyed roots. But Jeff is in love, and encouraged by a dream in which it was prophesied that he would write 'The Greatest Story Ever Told In Boxes,' he approaches Bona with relish.

He has never before been past the lobby of the crumbling art-deco building in Midtown that has been home to Bona Comics since the late fifties, and he bounces his excitement off the high ceilings. His new colleagues are less enthusiastic. The other writers are depressed cynics who make it clear to Jeff that his writing abilities will rarely be used; The legendary originator of Bona and creator of Mona, Paul Bona (Frank Langella), has written every one of her stories for fifty years, and only takes on scraps of the team's ideas. Her shifting identity serves as testament to his obsessive attempts to perfect Mona.

Paul Bona lives and works on the top floor of the building, and rarely leaves. The writers send their efforts up to him in a dumbwaiter, and otherwise idle their days away playing pool. Jeff's illusions about his new employer are challenged, but when a combination of social ineptitude, persistence and a slapstick delivery mix-up (involving weary elevator man Tom Waits) results in Jeff stumbling into Bona's secret lair, he finds a surprise.

Rather than being the genius control freak of lore, Bona turns out to be a shambling wreck. He invites Jeff to stay and share Chinese food, and the pair sit in a dark room on furniture covered with sheets, while Bona tells his story. In the early years writing was easy for him. On any wet afternoon in the late fifties, Bona might invent and sketch a dozen superheroes, and fill in their histories before the bar closed. Those hopeful years were fuelled by his caffeinated energy and boozy enthusiasms. Of all of his creations, he loved none more than Mona. She grew from a blurry Amazonian pastiche into a modish icon by the mid-sixties, and flickered on the edges of mainstream success. Her small but loving fanbase stuck with her through manifold puberties and menopauses, as her powers evolved from the standard karate-expert/detective beginnings, on through various borrowed abilities, until the Mona we recognise today (a telekinetic sensitive),was established in the 1980s.

Bona tells Jeff that this was around the time that he realised, through the receding haze that was his recovery from alcoholism, that for a long time he had not been writing the stories. He'd always shared credits with younger writers to get them an avenue into the industry, but had written all the Mona stories himself. He hadn't remembered writing many of the seventies Mona strips, of course, because he was drunk for the whole decade. But that wasn't what he meant. 'At some point it dawned on me... that Mona herself has grown her own intelligence and is writing her own stories. She's already managed to siphon company funds into a new account in the name of her alter-ego, Jodie Green. I don't really understand how she did that. But I'm more concerned with what happens next.'

The shifting identity of Mona over the years wasn't caused by Bona's ego, fashion, or market forces it seems; but by Mona's own hand, as she aimed to craft her own personality. She is making herself into the woman she most wants to be.

Bona expects Mona to somehow make her escape. Can he stop her, with Jeff's help? Should they stop her? Would a flesh and blood Mona, filled with the good values Bona tried to instill in her, be a blessing to the world? And how will Jeff react to the prospect of his heroine threatening to become real?

Mona Directed by Lance Adams Produced by Rich Thompson Written by
Art Poize, Lance Adams Starring Patton Oswalt, Frank Langella, Marianne Faithfull (voice), Tom Waits Universal Pictures 115 mins. Release Date UK/US: May 2012 Tagline: 'And Woman Created Woman.'

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

LE BOTOX (Jean Champi, 1957)

In the 54 years it has taken to officially arrive in this country (this country being, variously, America, the USA, or some virtual construct located in both, either or neither) Le Botox (1) hasn’t aged a day. Its joy is as infectious as ever, its anarchy still as cutting (and cutting still as anarchic) as that of the far more celebrated Godard; and the free-and-easy techniques once described by Andrew Sarris as “of very mixed quality” look not only resolutely masterly but succinctly modern. There is a long shot following Pierre along the street, past the market and crowds, which makes a similar sequence in À bout de souffle look almost contrived; And during the scene in which Paulo (Michele Abbruzzo) serves at the Riviere restaurant, the elegant complication of Champi's tracking shots, weaving like slick ghosts through a staged bustle, couldn't have been guided any more perfectly by anyone else. His later sequence, following a family's departure from Tours and out into the Loire Valley, is studded with such quiet gold as to render the need for such gimmickry as colour, smell and 3-d as almost superfluous. All this without modern lightweight cameras too.

That Champi is not thought of as one of the French directors who 'turned the 20th Century about-face'(2) in the fifties and sixties is the kind of cruel sequence that the director himself conspires in his films, and one which he dealt with phlegmatically. 'True pioneers get lost in the wilderness years before civilization even knows they're gone,' he said at Cannes in 1972, when a campaign to have a new cut of Le Botox shown at the festival failed. But by the time he had come to be convinced of his genius, it had left him. His last two films, Paris Dans L'Ombre (1969) and La Fiction Est Fiction (1971) had failed completely, the thrusting camerawork obstructing the audience's embrace. He surely knew, after that, that Le Botox would be his one masterpiece, never to be bettered. Such knowledge so early in life (Champi was twenty-four when he made Le Botox, and sidled into Cannes two weeks before his fortieth birthday) is a sore test.

Traces of Le Botox can be seen across the contemporary cinematic landscape, as if we still cannot deal with it in its entirety. The subplot in which Paolo, prompted by a writing class exercise follows and becomes obsessed with a woman is blown up to fill the narrative in both David Thewlis' skinny and grim Lecher (2008, in which the director himself plays the man who ends up murdering the girl) and Neil Burger's Exercise (in which Christian Bale follows a girl, only to discover that his wife is paying her to drive him insane by acting out a biography of his fantasies).

Champi's screened illusions, showing us the trickery and wonder of our surround, hover just out of view, despite the microscopic attention thrown over this period of French cinema. He was never as caustic as Chabrol, as aggressive as Godard. He couldn't keep as cool as Rohmer, and he lacked the energy of Truffaut. He could match none of them for stamina. But filmmaker and friend Agnes Varda knew his worth. She describes Le Botox as '... the forgotten vowel of the French cinematic language. If we could only remember it, and remember how to fashion its form on our page and in our mouths, we could complete secret sentences of new perfections.'(3)

Le Botox Directed by Jean Champi Produced by Jean Champi, Michael Ravelle Written by Thomas Brix Starring Michele Abruzzo, Maria Lucho, Francois Truffaut SRV Films 119 mins Release Date UK/Fra: Oct 1957 Tagline: 'Too rich, too poor, Too hungry for more'.

1. Le 'Botox' being a French word for a 'hearty appetite' or an 'eager young boy', according to Merriam-Webster, or a 'hungry young cocksmith' according to Mary M. Webster (citation needed).
2. Sarris' famous phrase included the core group of Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Chabrol and Rivette
3. Sight & Sound, March 2008