Monthly Archives: July 2010

Rich’s Pickings and the wry double bill

First things first, if you haven’t seen Rich Hall’s ‘Dirty South’ then stop reading now, and go watch it. You have until 3:14am on Sunday 25th July 2010 to catch it on iPlayer, you’d be a mug to miss it.

Why? Because it’s a brilliant personal  treatise on cinema, a very particular strand of cinema close to stand-up comedian Rich Hall’s heart. As a proud Son of the South he’s more than a little fed up with the generalisations the region has suffered under the lens of Hollywood, and is tired of having to rebut himself against a stereotype which isn’t half as clean cut as would first appear. Did you know it actually rains in the South?

And it’s true, the notion of the South is almost wholly coloured by the films he cites, and the literature behind it. That and the ‘I SAY, I SAY’ of Tex Avery’s Foghorn Leghorn, but maybe that’s just me. Anyone who has any kind of spiritual connection to a city or a region will be all too familiar of having to kick against the clichés entrenched by popular media through the ages. And I say this as a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Swede sitting in a grey and miserable Sheffield in July. Things are a bit more complicated than how they first appear, are we clear on that?

There really is some unbound pleasure in just seeing someone knowledgeable and witty just riffing on some really great films, and the pillars of literature they are drawn from. Informative AND funny is a big ask, but Rich Hall brings a degree of irreverence and sincerity to carry it all off.

Heartfelt personal paeans to cinema are nothing new, and I’ve sat through a fair few looking for guidance on what should be sought out, and what should be avoided. The rather explicitly titled, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, is a fine example but for all the anecdotes and personal outpouring it’s still a little stilted, and perhaps too grand in its scope. Scorsese whips through the hundreds of films he touches on, but to criticise, it does exactly what the rambling title promises. Personal to the point of autobiography, and anathema for film fans not falling over Ol’ Marty in the first place.

To indulge on the heady fumes of nostalgia, what I really long for is the good old days of Alex Cox and his short, sharp and to the point Videodrome introductions. A curated series of films, introduced at nigh-god-forsaken hours, with a pinch of cool reservation and a pinch of insight. It’s as true then as it still is now, for the channels are awash with more films that you could shake a PVR at, and there’s great value in just having someone go ‘Oi, watch this, it’s good. Why? Because I said so.’

Rich Hall ultimately has come to serve this function, as two films mentioned in the documentary found a slot later on BBC4 on the same evening, namely God’s Little Acre and In the Heat of the Night. A repeat of another Hall documentary this week, How the West Was Lost, was also accompanied by a screening of John Ford’s Fort Apache. Unfortunately neither the doc nor the film is on iplayer, but the marriage of insight and relevant film should really be encouraged.

Much hoopla was made when the BBC announced that Claudia Winkleman was to take over the vaunted Film 20XX reviewers chair, the sceptics howls being hushed by the corporation’s desire to get away from the ‘old man in a chair’ approach to film reviewing. Some further hoopla was made by David Puttnam, when he criticised television producers for not capitalising on the growing hunger and interest for film that is being demonstrated at UK box offices.

It’s hardly rocket science to see a simple equation where you take the likes of enthusiastic profiles (Rich Hall, Mark Kermode, Alex Cox, a woman perhaps? Channel 4 news’ Samira Ahmed tweets and writes enthusiastically about her love of westerns. Someone give her a call) to either spend five minutes hyping an overlooked gem they love, or even perhaps going on a further exploration of some the bigger tropes in cinema. Charlie Brooker’s gotten good mileage tapping Stewart Lee and the like to reminisce about old televisual treasures for Screenwipe, would it be so hard to extend this into the realm of film?

Tagged , , ,

Video Nasty #6: Blood Bath

OR: Reazione a catena / A Bay of Blood / A Mansão da Morte / Antefatto – Ecologia del delitto / Bahía de sangre / Banho de Sangue / Bloodbath / Bloodbath Bay of Death / Blutrausch des Teufels / Carnage / Chain Reaction / Chimidoro no irie / Den blodige bugt / E così imparano a fare i cattivi / Ecology of a Crime International / Im Blutrausch des Satans / Kanli körfez / Kravgi tromou /  La baie sanglante / O Sexo na Sua Forma Mais Violenta / O krikos ton eglimaton /  Sfagi sto akrogiali tis idonis / The Antecedent / The Last House on the Left, Part II / To spiti me ta alysidota eglimata / Twitch of the Death Nerve as it was also know. (Inofficially this film reigns supreme as The Nasty with the most alternative titles. A sure sign of the detachment of the creator from the final product, if ever one were needed.)

[Early Sunday morning.
Sat in living room, staring at the TV, eating cereal.
A housemate’s girlfriend comes in, awake long before he is]
“What are you watching?”
“Oh just some half-crappy horror film. Video nasty, banned in the 80’s, and stuff.”
“What’s it about”
“Well, it’s Italian, women run around half naked and get murdered horribly.”
“How so?”
“A bit, well a bit like this”

Gruesome muder in Blood Bath aka Twitch of the Death Nerve

“Oh right”
“And lots of red. Lots and lots of BRIGHT red.”
“This isn’t going to end well.”

Another murder from the film Blood Bath aka Twitch of the Death Nerve

“No, oh dear, that’s unfortunate.”
“Well that would spoil anyone’s day, wouldn’t it.”
“Why is it SO red?”
“Possibly because it’s shot on really cheap film stock. Decays very quickly, the colour balance goes a bit crazy. It is pretty colourful, now you mention it.”
“Is there any sort of story to this, or does it just..?”
“An old man and a woman at the beginning, one kills the other, then he dies, something about a will, something about some plans regarding a property development.”
“Oh, hello.”
[A bedroom scene on screen. From the perspective of the murderous voyeur we see the amorous couple get impaled, both at once, with a single spear.]
“Well, that’s symbolic, I suppose.”

Which neatly surmises a horror film which indeed revolves around a land dispute. The more inane the conflict, the more inventive the gore we demand.

In a film offensive enough to spook arch Dracula-himself, Sir Christopher Lee, from the premiere obviously warrants some note, but a sneaking suspicious creeps that maybe he snuck out not for reasons of common decency, but rather out of sheer boredom. The cut, thrust, slash and jab of the film is an incessant butchery of barely established characters for even weaker reasons. The critic might scoff that this is the very core of any ten-penny horror film, but a synopsis does not a film make, and there is scant meat on these very gory bones.

To even a passing viewer, such as the housemate’s other half, the gore is absurd to a point beyond the horrific. It doesn’t even stretch to a level of comedy value, with the result effect being much a kin to seeing someone drop a slice of buttered toast on the floor: ‘Oh dear, what a mess, nevermind…’

Blood Bath, Cephalopods, general ickyness

A single scene of a gangrened corpse being revealed beneath a similarly green tinged octopus was enough to momentarily put me off the Rice Crispies®, but that was more personal shudder than anything else. Not, should it be clear, that I have anything against cephalopods: some of my best friends are cephalopods. It’s just a bit too ick, in a way the rest of the film just isn’t, and more’s the shame for that.

A demented pull-back-and-reveal ending straight out of left-field is buoyed by an equally demented and deliriously upbeat closing number featuring the budget horror film staple I’m growing to love: the demented bongo solo. A cheery conclusion to a dreary dredge of a film. Save yourself some time and take greater excitement and trepidation out of the film’s quite superb original UK VHS cover, than you would in the sum total of the film.

 [The above cover is by way of the superb Video Cultures project, from Birmingham City University. They don’t claim any copyright, they just put it out there. Well done them.]

Tagged , , ,

Showing at the Showroom: When You’re Strange

The poster to the documentary When You're Strange[Major Correction: In the opening paragraph of this I state that the film opens with a Jim Morrison look-a-like stumbling around a desert, looking lost, hitching a ride from himself, and then hearing about his own death in Paris on the radio. I felt the whole thing seemed a bit anomalous to the rest of the film, but it turns out it was in fact Morrison in his own film HWY: American Pastoral, with ominous radio dialogue dubbed in by the documentary’s director Tom DiCillo.

It’s an inexcusable oversight on my part, fuelled by my own indignant pride at ignoring press-notes.

It’s comforting to know that others found these sequences uncannily restored to the point of looking like the were shot last week, and I guess the whole thing felt a little anomalous to me. The fact that DiCillo recut Morrison’s own film to suit the documentary’s narrative purposes is also pretty questionable in my book.

Not that that matters, as it still doesn’t excuse the fact that I fucked up.]

When batting around general truisms about documentaries it’s easy to just throw away the glib observation that ‘it’s all about the subject, sink or swim, it’s all about the subject’.  Which is true, as outside the realms of art cinema I have yet to hear or see anyone make a stunning hour and a half treatise on the story of paint drying. That said, part of me wonders why not?

The new documentary When You’re Strange is a study of The Doors brief explosion, the dips, the peaks, and the eventual demise of frontman Jim Morrison. It’s brimming with some quite stunning archive footage of the band preparing, recording, performing, and just larking around, with nary a talking head in sight. The film opens with a pretty uncanny Morrison [look-a-like] stumbling about in the desert, getting a lift from himself(?) and then hearing the news about his own death in Paris on the radio. At which point Johnny Depp, the modern cicerone of the hedonistic Sixties (see – Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson) chimes in some flat, timeless yet instantly forgettable observation about ‘The Man’ Jim Morrison. Which as openings for documentaries go is pretty damn worrying in my book.

The film eventually cuts to the actual business of the band; formation; early beginnings; first performances; the first studio session, and so forth and so on. The early days at UCLA film school, the band members found in meditation class and the first performances with Jim keeping his back to the audience. Following the daft opening a creeping sense of ‘going through the motions’ almost set in, saved wholesale by the endless wash of superb archive material. Footage like this, be it from television recordings, or from home film collections has a nasty habit of looking awful when blown up. Grain, static flicker, crackly sound, and aspect ratios which refuse to stay put make for a documentary makers nightmare. When You’re Strange has miraculously ironed over all these issues, and produced a film for fans of the band to endlessly fawn over.

The reputation of The Door’s live is as big as the band itself, yet actually seeing the band’s frenzied performance, Morrison’s explosive presence, the army of police officers spread out unevenly on stage, managed exceed the over-hyped picture I had of these ‘happenings’. More Beatlemania than hippy-hippy-shake, but with an added twist of cruelty and occasional no-show. The film bumbles on with the over-arching narrative, Morrison’s comings and goings eclipsing the whole of the rest of the band. The myth of the band rolls on, weighed down by the clichés it helped reinforce. Jim Morrison dies, his legacy lives on, The End.

Simply put the film is as good as your love of The Doors. If you can’t abide the band, or Jim Morrison in particular then you’ll really struggle with it. If you love the band then you’ll just drown in all the footage the film serves up. Those in the middle will find the film pretty middling. In part this reflects the film’s success in telling the band’s tale without either overblown hagiography or excessive apology. On the flipside maybe this just reflects how dangerously married the film is to its’ subject matter. 

Of course most documentaries have to be precariously close to their subject to come into existence in the first place, but it’s tricky when you can’t quite place the authorial bias in relation to the material. Director Tom DiCillo must obviously be a fan, but his presence and the tone it applies to the film is filtered through the slightly stern, yet reverentially hushed tones of Johnny Depp. The brilliance of a good and unexpected documentary is the ability to take even the most unpeculiar subject and frame it in such a way that anyone and everyone can take something from it.

Font fetishist doc Helvetica immediately springs to mind in this sense, taking the definition of a flat subject and breathing focus into the subject, and it was served well by building on the passion and interest of those at the heart of typography design. A Fistful of Quarters also plumbed the dangerously fringe fields of retrogaming, pursuing the compulsive score chasing of cabinet arcade freaks. As a struggling Pac Man addict I was instantly drawn to this tale, and the film found a huge audience well beyond the limits of gaming-niche it inhabited with a story of a rivalry that matched any Hollywood fare you care to mention. It of course played very loose and ready with the facts to build an immaculate arc for this story, but this it would seem is par for the course in modern documentary making.

That said, selling a documentary on an unspectacular subject is [as the Swedes would say] like selling sand to the Bedouins. Both Helvetica and Fistful both held a kooky hook which could sell them to anyone with even the smallest vein of curiosity. That they were both great documentaries also helped. Speaking personally, the magic of a brilliant documentary is the unexpected one you stumble across at a film festival, or at the back end of the TV schedules. Sheffield’s own DocFest does a fine job of bombarding me with more peculiar things than I could shake a festival pass at, and the kinks of programming and personal availability has forced me into seeing films I wouldn’t otherwise touch with a barge pole. A few stinkers along the way, sure, but a few gems I wouldn’t ever have a chance of seeing again.

Television however is the real home of the cold-calling documentary. A highlight in recent memory was The Man With the Golden Gavel, about A-list art auctioneer Simon de Pury, which I caught late on BBC4 and somehow managed to keep me hooked well past my bed time. Its’ subject, while charming to excess, is not particularly likeable, and more than a little cut-throat. It’s hard to curry interest in the struggles of a man who can only be described as obscenely rich, but the film skipped along with a swift pace and was packed with plentiful detail about the large auction houses of the world. I had absolutely zero interest in the subject, but stuck watching I was.

Whether When You’re Strange will have this effect on the unsuspecting cine-goer I couldn’t  tell you, as author and viewer are too enthused about the subject to begin with.

When You’re Strange is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 1st of July 2010

Tagged , , , , , ,