Monthly Archives: April 2009

Sensoria: The Alchemists of Sound

alchemists-of-sound-montageLate April brings the eclectic and occasionally eccentric Sensoria film and music festival to Sheffield. Stepping beyond the usual tokenism of other single media festivals Sensoria manages that rare feat of keeping one foot in the live music venue and the other in the picturehouse. The most headline grabbing attraction this year has been the big-news-in-certain-circles reunion of local post-punk legends The Comsat Angels introduced by the quiffed face of British mainstream film criticism Dr Mark Kermode (residing). Which in my book at least lived up to the hype, carried if nothing else on the radioactive love of the Comsat fans. I doubt I will ever again see quite so many middle-aged men in quite such a buoyant state of boyish ecstasy. Three more ‘final weekend’ dates have been announced so look them up if you’re in need of some angular early 80’s introspective pop.

Yet the Alchemists of this post aren’t the Walkley-based foursome but rather the title of a 2003 documentary about the spectacular and cultishly lauded BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Their name may not be instantly recognisable to most but their output will be, if purely for the iconic music to many a British childhood nightmare in the theme tune to Doctor Who. On a smaller scale anyone who’s had to endure a stint in the British education system may be familiar with the workshops’ electro signatures to any number of mind-numbing educational programmes. Just about the only fond memory I have of geography lessons is chanting along with my peers to the relentlessly progressive and chirpy theme to something billed as Landscapes or Global or something equally asinine. Schools programming parody Look Around You excellently captured the incidental swooshes blips and blops that gave these programmes their bizarrely futuristic sound. That is to all purposes the Radiophonic Workshop at its simplest.

Born in the late 50’s out of the experimentation and engineering know-how of the sound technicians at BBC radio the story of the workshop is one of decidedly British eccentrics from both the sciences and the arts honing away at defining their own craft. It’s an absolute goldmine for a documentary. Alchemists of Sound takes the conventional talking-heads route of anecdote driven historicizing, spliced together with narrated segments of that classic tv documentary trick of tracking and zooming in/out of still images. Which is perfectly ok as there’s something ineffably awesome about seeing musicians dwarfed by banks of sound modulators, or hunched over an array of magnetic tape decks. It is as fine a document as any of the genuine razors-and-tape craft which went behind these early electronic experiments. About five and a half minutes into the Youtube clip below you can see how they laboriously constructed the Dr Who theme, layer for layer. It’s amazing, I could listen to that opening bass note all day.

As if in illustration of the gulf between early sound technology and modern digital sound manipulation, the archivist concludes the segment by compiling the meticulously layered tracks one by one on his rather handy computer. It’s almost a little deflating.

The screening was followed by a Q&A with Dick Mills, one of these very alchemist interviewed in the documentary who was more than willing to share tales of late night splicing and rushed commissions for long forgotten regional programmes. Rounding up the session one of the organizers for the festival asked Dick if he knew any reason why the gathered audience was predominantly made up of ‘young folk’. He was much at a loss to explain this new generation’s interest, but the audience itself was more than keen to chip in. Respect for the craft, the discipline and the sheer inventiveness of the Workshop were all cited and Dick was more than a little bowled over.

The added value of film festivals is more than reciprocal for an audience who goes out of their way to encounter both strange films and occasionally those brave souls associated to these strange films. Those tech savvy kidz could have more than likely just stayed at home on that frightfully wet Monday evening and just sneakily watched it on Youtube. But then that would be to rather miss the point.

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Against the Dark

against-the-dark-montageGreat films are all about High Concept. If you can’t boil it down to one sentence then the throbbing hordes of cinemagoers don’t want to know. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford? Way too much going on there, and the audience avoided it in their droves. Snakes on a Plane? You couldn’t keep the bastards from beating the door down on opening day. To hell with ‘art’ and ‘craft’ the devil is in the detail, so strip all detail out and you are left with the purest gold of heavenly concept.

Now working on such a notion we could conclude that –

Budget ÷ Purity of Concept = Box Office Success

(Purity) is defined by the number of words in the simplest possible description of any feature (Concept). By extension, the lower the word count the proportionally greater the film will be in recouping its costs. The equation of course necessitates that there be a definite concept, for a film without a screenplay (Purity of Concept = Zero) in turn reaps no profit. Such films are generally known as art installations, and broadly speaking operate outside the parameters of conventional filmmaking. The only know demonstrable exception to this rule are the collected works of David Lynch, which defy all applicable theorems.

By considering such an equation Segal’s latest direct-to-video release Against the Dark should rate highly in the article of purity, with a concept defined as such:

Seagal, Zombies.

Detractors would argue for alternatives such as ‘Seagal vs Zombies’, ‘Seagal kills Zombies’, or even ‘Seagal against Zombies’, yet the lower value holds true as the cinemagoer need only know that there is the presence of both Seagal and Zombies. How they are related or are involved is irrelevant beyond knowing they are both in the same film. As a result almost total purity of concept is achieved.

The irony that there is next to no Seagal or Zombies in this film has little or no bearing on its potential financial success. Concepts are like film titles, indicative of a features level of exploitation, which is to say the extent by which something is promised but not delivered. That this film should instead be about a gaggle of survivors with a dizzying mix of British and American accents running around an inescapable hospital intercut with sporadic shots of Seagal waddling to and fro, has little to no bearing on the films potential for financial success.

Indeed this film demonstrates in full effect the absolute minimum of Seagal you need in it for it to remain a ‘Seagal film’. It would be charitable even to consider this little more than a running cameo. Again and again he just bursts in, throws a few slices of his sword, makes a comment (not even a one-liner!) and then the scene ends. Rinse, repeat. Again and again and again.

The film then fails in having a budget which cannot afford to hire even its own producer for more than a day of shooting, this despite him being the headline star. With box office success (or in this case rental success) being relative to budget, Against the Dark will categorically fail regardless of the purity of concept. It fails almost completely (but unfortunately not wholly) to the point of non-existence. To all intent purposes this is a Non-film.

Pushing almost into the sphere of quantum physics, this film is much like Schroedinger’s Cat, existing while simultaneously not existing. In this respect the films of Steven Seagal may be a force unto themselves in this equation, and only further research will clarify this matter.

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

the-assassination-of-jesse-james1There once was a film called The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford This Duck Is Going to Fly, and the cunning and all knowing audience went in thinking ‘Aha! I can see what the filmmaker has done there! Leave me hanging for the moment of flight why don’t you!’

And sure enough the film rolls on, and the duck, it waddles about a bit, it quacks every now and then, and still the audience sits there with baited breath, waiting for that plucky duck to fly. Time passes and still that duck just doesn’t fly, but the audience by gum, is still on tenterhooks, waiting for the prophetic title of this film to come full circle. In their impatience they start to question why the duck wants to fly in the first place, but ho hum, he’ll get around to it sooner or later, and by then everything will be clear.

A couple of hours pass and the audience starts to forget why they came in the first place. ‘This is a film about waddling, not flying, not that there’s anything wrong with that’ says the audience. ‘But I do wonder if and when he might fly?’

The internal clock starts sensing that ‘a lot of time has passed’ the story ambles on, the audience is lulled into forgetting all about the flight. Yet before the thought ‘surely…’ has even started to cross their minds, it’s suddenly leapt, the duck is off the ground and is -actually- flying. They’ve seen it coming the whole film, but still can’t quite believe that it’s actually happened, and for a full minute they sit there gaping in awe of the fact. All their doubts, their questions, their fears, they all just disappear. They’re too busy just looking at the duck, in mid-flight, soaring away on waves of music they won’t be able to recall once they’ve left the cinema.

All they will remember is that the duck flew, and that while it did so it wasn’t actually a duck. It was more than a duck. But then in the moments before the credits roll it’ll be there as big and bright as broad daylight, the film’s title:

This Duck

Is Going to Fly

And on that note the audience silently files out, doubting the very nature of ‘duckness’ and ‘flight’ in general. All they can ask is ‘Will I ever fly?’

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The Beast in Heat

beast-in-heat-montage2When it comes to brow, the line between ‘High’ and ‘Low’ is a lot thinner than some people would readily admit. A case in point is to be found between arthouse rarity Salo and the grottiest of the video nasties The Beast in Heat. Being principally about the fascist regime in Italy during the Second World War, both gained an edge of notoriety for presenting the darkest corners of sadism, ‘an exploration of the drives which brought about the Holocaust’. To borrow a quote off the DVD cover.

Or to put it another way, they’re both a whips and handcuffs exploration of Max Moseley’s wettest dream. While Salo takes the high ground by citing the grand old Marquis de Sade as its narrative source, Bestia in Callore’s approach to the subject differs only in two areas: its budget and the audience’s expectation. As a late exploitation flick Bestia was churned out at record speed, rehashing material and actors from another WW2 flick made barely days earlier. The little money they did have was frizzled away on Chinese bangers for the few battle scenes which underpin any feeble vestiges of action. In a measure to save their precious money the wardrobe department of Bestia saw fit to reduce the costumes for ‘resistance fighters – female’ to absolutely nothing whenever in the presence of any Nazis. Bare flesh sells and the relative costs of getting some grubby bodies on screen is practically zero. “Quids in!” says mister producer.

In that respect Bestia skirts dangerously close to softcore pornography, and the budget of the torture scenes has you reeling in disgust at the grubbiness of it all. Not as it should be, reeling at the horror of The Horror. The farce of the cheapness comes to its culmination when a roaming camera in the fully operational Nazi torture factory comes across a poor woman strapped to a table with two black guinea pigs on her belly. You can only assume they were the cheaper, more docile alternative to real rats, but the effect it warrants is the comedic highlight which almost saves the film.

But you have to take such exploitative fare with a hefty pinch of salt. It truly is a film built from the title down, with more risqué alternative billing like SS Hell Camp, SS Experiment Part 2, and Horrifying Experiments of the S.S. Last Days guaranteed to pull in the idle Dirty Mac Brigade.

Coming up later in the Video Nasties list will be the more controversial SS Experiment Camp which only last year had Tory backbenchers bellyaching about censorship in the House of Commons. The irony of it taking the right honourable Julian Brazier MP a whole 20 months to react to the release of said DVD could be overlooked if not for the damaging impact it had on the BBFC.

The Video Nasties list stands as record to one of the many uncomfortable shifts the BBFC has been forced to make over the years. Yet moves by the same Board in the last ten years has seen the majority of Nasties certified and released in the UK, reflective of an open and some might say more liberal society. This might seem to fly in the face of the opinions voiced by Conservative Christian Fellow Mr Brazier MP and his rather backward looking friends at MediaWatch UK, yet these moves genuinely reflect the more permissive attitudes found in modern British audiences, reflected in a number of extensive and independent surveys conducted regularly by the Board.

Niche material such as the majority of the Nasties list will always pass under the radar of the opportunistic Mediawatchmen, so quite why SS Experiment Camp was singled out we’ll never know. Maybe like the Dirty Mac Brigade the spiritual successors of Mary Whitehouse caught onto the title alone and just went from there. Maybe they found out about it through their regular Nazi-themed S&M magazine? Who knows what these watchmen actually watch in their spare time? Who cares? Hopefully not the Daily Mail or anyone else with a voice that can’t be ignored.

For those hungry for a high camp ‘best-enjoyed-inebriated’ controversy-toting adjective-hyphenated non-horror should look up The Beast In Heat. Those looking for a good film could hardly do worse for ignoring it.

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Repelling the Pirates

Scaremongering trailers against piracy are a frustratingly unskippable feature of many a legitimately bought film or television series on DVD. Tuning into last weeks Film 2009 on BBC1 I didn’t expect to be treated to a five and a half minute propaganda piece lecturing me about the evils of piracy in the same tone they used in the late 90’s. I watch this show to get some insight on why I should go to the cinema, not to be guilt-tripped into going.

Alternatively try this link if the sound is too low on the above clip.

The ever affable if generally quite uninspired host Jonathon Ross crashingly stumbled from a light hearted review of ‘feel-good-movie-of-the-week’ The Boat That Rocked, into a po-faced homily to the film industry and its’ GREATEST ENEMY. He jokes at the irony of going from the ‘friendly’ radio pirates of the 60’s to the ‘no laughing matter’ film pirates of today, without exploring the irony that both are a collective of pioneers who operate outside the law to cater to the demands of an audience hungry for media beyond the tightly regulated channels of the establishment. Who knows, maybe Richard Curtis will one day write/direct a film about the nefarious hijinxs of the questionable geeks behind Pirate Bay? There’s a ‘loveable rum bunch’ if ever I saw one.

The greatest crime of this Beeb authored agit-prop segment is that it completely fails to distinguish between bootleg pirates who sell counterfeit DVD’s and the consumer who chooses to download and torrent films. One funds international crime and terrorism. The other does not. Not that this segment would differentiate between the two as associating both acts of consumption with international terrorism stands in the industry’s favour, facts be damned.

The segment takes the form of the standard parade of talking heads, trotting out the usual execs, producers and film industry lobbyists all pronouncing the imminent death of the dream factory, brought to its knees by those dastardly pirates. It takes a minute of prophesying a bloody doom before they actually address the fact that there are two types of quite different pirates.

The piece consistently skips between condemning one form of piracy, and in the same breath condemning the other, and the whole affair becomes a muddled affair of assigning blame to whom for what. ‘This’ harms the British Film industry, ‘that’ funds international terrorism, higher profit margins than cocaine… it’s all a dizzying blur of blame and guilt, all poured onto the viewer at home. An MPA funded research project authored by the RAND organisation titled ‘Film Piracy, Organized Crime, and Terrorism’ is at the heart of this segment, and you cannot argue with many of the claims it makes. Pirated DVD sales in Latin America and South Asia have been proven to fund international terrorism. Even in this fair nation of the United Kingdom has bootleg DVD sales gone on to fund the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland.

Yet it feels safe to say only an idiot would buy burnt bootleg DVD’s off a chap on a street corner. Standard definition? Mono sound? No subtitles? No extras? No thanks, I’ll pass on that. But it begs the question who does buy bootlegs any more? Those ‘better-than-coke’ profit margins must be dwindling as more and more people migrate online to get their latest films ripped from pre-release Academy screeners (not from camcorders). Surely the pirate of old is a dwindling breed in nations with ever increasing broadband access?

“The fight against copyright theft will be won or lost on the battlefield of cyberspace”pronounces John Woodward, Chief Exec for the UK Film Council. Out comes the stock footage of red tinted computer mice and computer screens. In heavy tones Woodward calls for the government to grant the industry legislative powers against these ‘persistent downloaders’. “So consider yourself warned” declares Mr Ross.

But you have to draught the legislation first and then make the threats, not the other way around gentlemen. So enough of those idle threats, thank you very much.

The whole segment rankles of an industry scared by ever escalating broadband speeds. In many respects the film industry is approaching the same fears the music industry faced five-six years ago, and are only slowly learning to react to increased downloads and an audience which is going wholly digital a lot faster than they are. Everyone is quick to sound the death knell of movies, yet such pessimism rings hollow in light of claims made in the latest episode of Film 2009 that this might be the first year Hollywood breaks $10 billion. Downloads are up, but so are box office tickets and DVD sales. It all echoes the spike in attendances that live music saw in the years following the boom of MP3 file sharing. A growing ethos with music is that you download what interests you, you purchase what you like and you see the ones you love live. Maybe even get a t-shirt while you’re at it. Films will become much the same, download what interests you, visit the cinema for something you like, maybe buy a DVD, maybe buy another for your friends if you really love it. The film industry needs to square that circle and step away from the process of trying to criminalise the consumer.

The party-political-broadcast ends on a rather dunderheaded link to the latest 3D feature to hit British cinemas: Monsters vs Aliens. The future today! A decisive blow against those pesky bastards with camcorders. And I’m all for it, on one condition: don’t make me, one of the consumer horde, pay for your self-serving upgrades. The cinema has ushered in sound, colour, widescreen, and multiple forms of  surround sound: all to tempt lagging audiences away from their homes and their TV’s. Digital projection (the corner stone of all 3D films) is going to save the film industry millions in shipping every year, so why then do I have to pony up for this expense saving technology? At least one British film critic has repeatedly chimed in on this matter, and I think it’s about time we all did.

There’s plenty more to be said on the matter, and I’ll be sure to return to this with focus on other issues in the near future. Til then I’d be grateful to hear any opinions/comments/links.

Just to end on an up-beat, take delight in these wonderful parodies of the rather heavy-handed finger wagging of the old anti-piracy adverts.

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