(Let’s pass silently over the fact that I haven’t posted anything new for more than a month.)
The experimental films made by Ukrainian-American Maya Deren in the 1940s and 1950s are incredibly influential, whether most people know it or not. Once you’ve seen them you’ll notice reflections of them all over the place, in everything from art photography to pop videos. Her work has also definitely had a huge effect on me, particularly 1943’s Meshes of the Afternoon, whose haunting imagery– and imagery of haunting– is done an injustice when it’s described as merely surreal or dreamlike, even though it is surreal and dreamlike among many other things. It’s actually as if time has been turned inside out like a glove, but when it turns right side out again it’s a different glove, belonging to someone or something else entirely. It’s particularly fitting that reflections or decontextualised fragments of her most famous film turn up so often in popular culure, given the way that Deren dwells upon imagery of reflection and fragmentation in Meshes of the Afternoon.
Her obvious interest in ritual, repetition, nonlinear time and the perils of inner journeys has found its way into some of my own work too; these subjects can all be seen obliquely in Deren’s Meshes and much more directly in her collaboration with Marcel Duchamp, Witch’s Cradle (also embedded here). In the late 1940s she took a more documentarian interest in the practice and ritual of Haitian vodoun.
Meshes of the Afternoon.
Although resident in Los Angeles, Deren resolutely resisted Hollywood and was proud to be involved in every aspect of her own films. She made them, she said, “for what Hollywood spends on lipstick.” She also gave the great advice that independent or artistic film makers shouldn’t try to ape Hollywood but instead “use your freedom to experiment with visual ideas; your mistakes will not get you fired.” Deren paved the way for many of the independent American makers who created personal artistic statements in film (and later, video) rather than following a formula, but sadly Deren’s career wasn’t as long as it should have been. She died in 1961 at the age of 44, most likely because of prescription drug abuse.
Below you can watch Meshes of the Afternoon (with a soundtrack commissioned in 2012 by the late, lamented Bird’s Eye View Festival for film making by women) and Witch’s Cradle.
Otherwise known as the now traditional lazy retrospective listicle
We all know by now don’t we my little blackguards my pretty roadside fartflowers of the friggingfields my dearest filthy fuckbirds yes we know yes yes yes oh yes that the top pages on the site are invariably James Joyce’s paeans to using the tradesman’s entrance and the translation of Hokusai’s tentacle hentai. Tens of thousands of you, constantly, from all over the world, day and night. You must have massive right arms by now (if you’re right handed).
But there is so much more to explore, and some of it doesn’t even involve sexual fetishes. I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.
Minor spoiler warning because this is a discussion of Christopher Nolan’s new film Interstellar, if that kind of thing causes you angst. Nothing that wouldn’t be seen a mile off by any intelligent viewer of the trailer or the film itself, nor is there anything that wouldn’t be seen coming at interstellar distances (GET IT?) by any science fiction fan.
Thanks for all your help, sarcastic robot!
Interstellar is the story of three middle-aged white rappers who talk and gesticulate into a fish eye lens while a giant octopus monster fights a huge robot… no, wait… this is the plot of the video for Intergalactic.
The real Interstellar is a really well-crafted film with some beautiful imagery and design. Despite being an overlong and self-indulgent movie, the nearly three hour running time doesn’t feel like you’ve been wasting your life, despite parts of it seriously dragging on and outstaying their welcome. Certainly it’s better for a film like this– i.e. one that tries to be at least somewhat thoughtful and credits its audience with a little intelligence– to be hyped as the film of the moment than it is for utter shit like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or some ghost train jump scare horror movie to dominate the landscape. Apparently working out how to depict some of Interstellar‘s spacetime phenomena has directly helped the understanding of real astrophysics, and there can’t be many films or film makers who can say that.
The bad news:
Interstellar is actually about an intergalactic space mission via a wormhole, so its title is wrong for a start. Probably we have The Beastie Boys to blame for making it impossible that somebody as pathologically serious as Nolan could use it as a title for his film. On the evidence of his films to date, including Interstellar, he and his brother obviously also have major parental abandonment issues that they should work out with a therapist so they can move on with some new ideas in their scriptwriting. Like all of Nolan’s films it’s far too long and somebody ought to have the guts to make him lose at least 45 minutes from his running times. It’s ironic that Interstellar mentions relativistic time dilation so much, because each one of the scenes involving action or movement seemed to go on for longer than the entire three hours I was sitting in the auditorium, and not in a good way. He is not a great editor, or director of editors. Inception played to this weakness, or at least masked it, because time being stretched out was part of the plot. In general, though, action sequences shouldn’t make you want to look at a clock to see when they’re going to end.
Matt Damon in Interstellar: “They all think I’m crazy, but I know better. It is not I who are crazy. It is I who am MAD! Can’t you hear them? Didn’t you see the crowd?”
From the moment he appears on the screen, Matt Damon is obviously suffering from the SPACE MADNESS that countless good, bad and indifferent sci fi films have hammered to death as a plot device, not to mention it being a fixture of Star Trek, and every other sci fi show getting around to it eventually, as satirised perfectly in the eponymous Ren & Stimpy cartoon. No amount of Nolan solemnity can divert from the fact that this character is not very far away from floating around raving and eating soap like an animated chihuahua, especially with Chekhov’s manically disassembled robot (cf.The Black Hole) prominently featured just before Damon’s character appears. The carefully described relativistic physics and kitchen sink futurism of the first two thirds are unceremoniously airlocked in a ridiculously anthropocentric and cheesy final act because apparently love can break spacetime in your favour. A black hole is no biggie if you do a Peter Pan and simply believe enough, although Interstellar is still about 90% less saccharine than the similar Gravity. It’s not quite as logical or realistic as the All You Need is Love denouement of Yellow Submarine, though.
Michael Caine. Again. We get it, Chris, you want him to be your dad. Take it somewhere private.
The entire film could be compared to a pizza with lots of toppings; it’s clearly one item, quite a delicious one in fact, but it’s still basically junk food and all the pieces it’s made from are unavoidably obvious. To mention just a few: Transcendental space trips from 2001. Also HAL 9000 and the black Monolith from the same film, mashed up into a sardonic cuboid Jonathan Ives iRobot. On the subject of clunky, sardonic robots the most direct and therefore laughable comparison is again with Disney’s atrocious The Black Hole, but there’s also Moon, Wall-E, Forbidden Planet, K-9 from Doctor Who and even, shit, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Oh, hey, there’s the scene from Aliens where Ripley wakes up on a space station. There’s the space hangar from Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, et al. I wonder if somebody’s going to sneak in and steal one of the spacecraft because the hangar has inexplicably lax security? The barren inscrutability of alien planets from both radically different film versions of Solaris– somehow– plus a large dollop of the latter Soderbergh version’s 12 step-esque emphasis on transcendence through hitting rock bottom. There’s the romantically run down dustbowl near future farm house from Looper. Blatant self-plagiarisation of the gravity-shifting punch up, upside down buildings and nested timelines from Inception, though with greatly diminished returns.
There are even some large, distinct and undigested chunks of Farscape, although I doubt Nolan would ever admit to watching Farscape. He did use a Muppet as part of the main cast, though (Anne Hathaway). She urgently needs to learn more than two facial expressions, but she deserves some sympathy for having to deliver the mostly incredibly cheesy speech about love, in which both the love and the speech itself come from absolutely nowhere. It’s one of several sermons that bring the film to a screeching halt, but she does the best she can with it. Not last and not least– sardonic cuboid robots preserve us– there’s a last act story beat involving a deliberate plunge into a black hole, ripped whole from The Black Hole. At least there isn’t a wild west style shootout with laser guns.
It’s a tribute to Nolan’s strengths as a film maker that Interstellar is at least worth slightly more than the sum of its parts. It would just be nice if those parts were assimilated enough that it didn’t feel like a stumbling Frankenstein’s monster made of sci fi tropes and not the more philosophical, internal exploration it’s obviously aspiring to be. The same plot could have led to a wonderful, genuinely moving film under the directorship of somebody who approached it as magical realism instead of having the mentality of a kid playing with toy spaceships.
NB: I don’t care about spoilers, in fact I really don’t care hard about spoilers… but even if you do there aren’t any here that you won’t find in the trailers and publicity for The Babadook.
My alternative title for writer-director Jennifer Kent’s new low-budget Oz horror film is Parenthood: It’s a Fucking Nightmare That Never Ends. In The Babadook, widowed mother Amelia– suffering from unresolved grief and what could be construed as an open-ended form of postnatal depression– is either being driven mad by her son’s antisocial acting out, or perhaps vice versa and her descent into madness is destroying him. It’s this negative domestic energy that seems to open the door to the storybook character so unnervingly introduced in a Struwwelpeter-esque tome that shows up in their house in advance of Mister Babadook himself.
It’s quite an old school (and distinctly non-American) horror film in the sense that it smoulders incredibly slowly and Kent is scrupulous about neither confirming nor denying whether we’re seeing a potentially lethal folie á deux played out between a mother and son, or something truly supernatural. There are a few missteps: one is the house where most of the action takes place. In a more garish or expressionistic film (like the Mario Bava effort seen fleetingly on TV) it might make sense for a bereaved woman to decide it looks nice and helps the grieving process if you paint all your walls and doors battleship grey, or that it’s healthy to let her emo, disturbed 6 year old play with his dead father’s stuff that she keeps easily accessible down in the cellar. Ooh, symbolism. In a film that’s grounded in psychological realism and successfully extracts a sort of kitchen sink dread from all too recognisable family tensions, the house is already blatantly, ridiculously spooky before the Babadook even comes knocking. Doubly so when you lampshade it by making the protagonist’s sister say she doesn’t like visiting because it’s depressing. It’s like Amelia was having some kind of Borgesian interior decor metacrisis where she realised she was not really a person but only a character in a horror film. There are flashes of deliberate wit and warmth that really work, but seeing The Babadook with a largish audience also confirmed I wasn’t the only one who found some of its very, very wrong parenting unintentionally camp and funny instead of harrowing, in a sort of Joan Crawford Mommy Dearest NO WIRE HANGERRRRS EVAH kind of way. Nowhere near that bad, but definitely on the spectrum; enough to raise a few titters.
‘Mommy Dearest’, starring Faye Dunaway as Kabuki Wicked Witch Jack Torrance Joan Crawford.
Furthermore, for something that’s overtly being hyped as a horror film it’s foreboding but negligibly scary; it’s obviously intended more as a metaphorical exploration of the resentment or anger all parents occasionally feel towards their own children, and the guilt that ensues. In fact it’s almost like a walkthrough of psychoanalyst/paediatrician Donald Winnicott’s theories of child rearing, which were focused on getting past parent-child fears and resentments. This alone should make it clear that Jennifer Kent is not trying to compete with hack bullshit like Insidious or to make another slashers in the house flick. She deserves a huge amount of credit for that, and it’s great to see a labour of love like this getting wide distribution. It’s intelligent, gripping, it looks great and Kent is defiantly uninterested in playing out the ghost train jump scares, clichéd story beats, exhausted tropes and carnographic splatter that constitute the majority of Hollywood’s current horror repertoire. The film’s own publicity namechecks Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and Let the Right One In among others. It only bears the most passing resemblance to the first of these (mainly in its structure and is it a monster or is she mental? ambiguity) and absolutely none whatsoever to any of the remainder. The Omen in particular is a vastly inferior movie to both The Babadook and Let the Right One In, because The Omen is one of the daftest, most instantly dated and least disturbing horror films ever made. It has a few indelible (but also still daft) images; that’s all. The Babadook has much more in common with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Dark Water, or the glacial haunted house film The Others by Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar, in all of which single mothers find out the hard way that being able to grit your teeth and pretend everything’s OK doesn’t make anything really OK, either for the parent or for the child.
There’s also a lot of good stuff in the film about how callous and selfish all of us can sometimes be– unintentionally or otherwise– towards people who are obviously struggling to comply with the demands of society. It’s not going to obliterate the ghost train jump scare movie, but it’s certainly a pleasing alternative for those of us who still think horror films can have a brain in them without that brain being splashed across a wall.
I wouldn’t say that Funky Forest: The First Contact (ナイスの森 Naisu no mori) is a good or neccessarily a very funny film for the most part. But it is a film in which the scene above occurs, which is a kind of recommendation if you’re a fan of this blog and its usual subject matter. After a passing high school student is persuaded to use her navel to power up a Cronenbergian television that gives birth to a miniature sushi chef through its puckered sphincter-screen, the scene ends like this:
To which the only possible response from her– and us, probably– is:
(More animated GIFs follow: give them a few moments to load.)
“Danny doesn’t want to think about it any more, Mrs Torrance”
Thanks (?) to Verso Books I became aware of this splendid photograph by Annie Leibovitz, of Susan Sontag dressed as a bear. She just is, OK?
The bear costume, the hard stare, the keyboard. It immediately reminded me of something.
Now we know why Wendy was so freaked out. How the hell did Susan Sontag get in here? Forever more I will involuntarily associate her with evil ghost bear BJs at The Overlook Hotel. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is one of my favourite films, for one thing because of scenes like this where Kubrick– in contrast to the story’s original author, Stephen King, whose prose allows no dead horse to remain unflogged and leaves nothing that goes without saying unsaid– evokes vast realms of back story and untold narrative riches with just a few shots and one ineradicable image.
Even if that image is now irrevocably and randomly mixed up with Susan Sontag. Aren’t you glad I shared it with you?
Alejandro Jodorowsky and the glory of not getting what you want
Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune is a confusing phrase, but the documentary itself does absolutely everything right in terms of a compelling story, an incredibly charismatic protagonist, and a genuinely inspiring and uplifting message. Alejandro Jodorowsky is the bonkers auteur who made surrealist cult films like El Topo and The Holy Mountain with a mentality more akin to a prophet or a cult leader than a film technician, so it’s no surprise that he was drawn to Frank Herbert’s zeitgeisty eco-messianic novel. If Jodorowsky is any kind of prophet then he’s the Anti-Hack. For him it’s all about the passion, the politics and the image. Making perfectly constructed emotion-manipulating and money-making machines is not interesting to him at all. For a while in the 70s there were so many serendipities raining down onto him that it seemed the universe wanted Jodorowsky to make Dune, and it would brook no contradiction. It’s also depressingly inevitable that a dementedly overambitious project by an idiosyncratic and unapologetic genius like Jodorowsky would fail to thrive in Hollywood’s sterile earth.
This film about the abortion of another film reveals what a magnificent thing Dune could have been. Seventies sci-fi painter Chris Foss designed space ships and buildings. French comic artist Moebius designed the characters and costumes. The villainous, genocidal Harkonnens were styled by H.R. Giger, later famous after he was poached by Ridley Scott for production design on Alien. The grossly obese and megalomaniacal Baron Harkonnen would have been played by– who else?– the grossly obese and megalomaniacal Orson Welles. It’s both hilarious, typical and tragic that Jodorowsky failed to tempt Welles with money, but immediately secured a “yes” when he promised food. Salvador Dalí was to be the Emperor of the Galaxy (for about two or three minutes, because he wanted to be paid $100,000 a minute). Mick Jagger was on board, playing an androgynously beautiful version of the role that eventually went to Sting in David Lynch’s version. Imagine that as a casting session: who’s the best actor, Jagger or Sting? It’s like, do you want to eat the rotten wormy apple or the rotten maggoty orange? Continue Reading
It’s been out a while, but I only just got around to Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, the enigmatic, glacial barely-horror film in which an alien (Scarlett Johansson) drives around in a white Transit van and preys upon lone men in Scotland. I’ve not read the novel by Michel Faber, upon which the film was based, so this discussion is purely about the latter. There’ll be spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film and you’re one of those big babies there’s plenty of other things to read on this blog.
You know some bad news is coming, because I’ll start with the good. The film captures the bleak beauty and grey light of Scotland perfectly. It looks like the most grimly lush Radiohead video ever, if Radiohead singles were ever nearly two hours long. The score by Mica Levi puts many a mainstream horror soundtrack to shame with its angular, insectoid weirdness. Over the past year or so I’d say that only Cristabal Tapia De Veer’s peculiar score for Channel 4’s Utopia was better, more inventive or more crucial to the production’s atmosphere. Johansson seems to pick her acting roles at random out of a hat, and in the wrong film she can be stiff as a board and half as interesting. Given the chance, though, she can do great work. Making one of Sofia Coppola’s dreary chorus line of autobiographical Poor Little Rich Girl non-characters sympathetic (Lost in Translation) is quite an achievement, even when Bill Murray brings his full chemistry set. In Her, Spike Jonze and Joaquin Phoenix trowel on the protagonist’s lonely, nerdy life as a sadsack spod so thickly that we don’t doubt he’d take up all manner of hikikomori activities. It’s Johansson, however, whose voice performance really sells the concept of an incorporeal artificial intelligence product that loves and is lovable while at the same time never really anybody’s at all.
Conversely in Under the Skin, Johansson barely speaks through the whole film, but watch the extraordinary and chilling way her amoral, calculating character performs feminine charm and accommodation then a split second later looks like a dead cod lying on a bed of ice at the fishmonger’s. The only character comparison that immediately comes to mind is Daryl Hannah as Pris and Joanna Cassidy as Zhora in Blade Runner, inhuman humans who know exactly which male buttons to press but would snuff any man, woman or child without blinking. Hannah and Cassidy never got as much to do in Blade Runner as Johansson does here. Continue Reading
If you ever watched horror films in the 1980s or 1990s and thought to yourself “Freddy Krueger’s OK, but what this keloid-deformed, ultraviolent, serial killing child molester really needs is fishnet stockings and a massive rack”, then today you have finally hit the jackpot, my friend. A Japanese company is now offering this bishoujo Freddy statue, or “stuatue” as they have it on their site. I know by now it almost goes without saying that if we discover a highly inappropriate item has been sexualised, then somebody Japanese will probably be responsible. I take a glass-half-full attitude towards this fact, though. These figures are very, very wrong but bless your filthy, weird, perverted Japanese minds.
Bishoujo or bishōjo (美少女)means “beautiful young girl”, and is usually taken to mean a woman younger than university age. Given the obvious intent behind this item, it’s reasonable to translate the figure’s Japanese name into English as Barely Legal Freddy Krueger. Their tagline plays on the Krueger playground rhyme heard in the films (i.e. “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…”): 1つ、2つ、フレディが来るよ・・・美少女になって！ My Japanese isn’t great, but I think this could be translated idiomatically as “One, two, Freddy’s coming… and becoming a girl!”
They also point out that she’s standing in a pool of blood– which is always good fun, isn’t it?– and furthermore she has a “nice chest” and a “thigh gap”, i.e. the tops of her inner thighs wouldn’t touch each other even when she’s standing with her feet together. For those fortunate enough not to know already, it is my sad duty to report that this latter fetish item is the most recent body dysmorphic, mostly impossible beauty ideal being pushed by the fashion world and its related fucking-with-the-minds-of-women and normality-pathologising industries. It’s also worth noting that Freddy has used her trademark murder weapons to cut herself on the shoulder and thigh, because there’s nothing sexier than self-harming anorexic teenage girls, right?
Jailbait Jason Voorhees (from the interminable Friday the 13th series) is also available, and she too seems to have experienced some difficulty in dressing herself sensibly. Doesn’t she get chilly dressed like this, hiding in the bushes and spending ages inside cupboards or under floorboards preparing for that perfect kill? This relentless, remorseless killing machine has an axe, a machete, the iconic hockey mask, “powerful sixpack abs” and, most crucially of all, large breasts.
I recently renewed my acquaintance with Lamberto Bava’s deliriously silly 1985 gore film Demons/Demoni. It made me pine for the days in the late 1980s and early 1990s when me and my friends actively sought the worst VHS rental films to laugh at, be bewildered by, bitch about, quip at and get drunk with. For those who have missed out on this kind of wonderful experience– maybe you have mostly dullards for friends, or your partner affects only to enjoy good films or something, I don’t know– I recommend Red Letter Media’s Best of the Worst videos to give you an idea of how much fun you can have with a couple of atrocious films, a few (or a lot of) beers and some witty pals.
If my memory serves me correctly, during that long ago session Demons may even have been part of a double bill with the colossus of crap that is Showgirls, for some reason. Possibly one person bargained that they’d watch Demons if they could also rent Showgirls, or vice versa. In any case there are probably more similarities between the two than one might think. For one thing, both of them are well-made and good looking films even though this fine craftsmanship is in the service of scripts that are absolute trash and never make a lick of sense. Both were (perhaps excessively) sincere attempts at appealing to a mainstream audience, although they went about doing so in such an absurdly maladroit manner that with hindsight they couldn’t be more ripe for cult status instead of mass appeal. The primary difference between the two film makers is that I don’t think even Paul Verhoeven himself ever knows at any given time whether he’s got his tongue in his cheek or if he’s unironically revelling in gratuitous smut and violence, whereas Lamberto Bava seems to be quite firmly in the latter camp. I think gratuitous smut and violence can be glorious, by the way. I’m not knocking them. I mean, has anyone ever made ultraviolence more satisfying and cathartic than Verhoeven does in Robocop?
I’m on the record about the fact that I could hardly care less about spoilers, but for what it’s worth nothing here is going to give away anything major about the film. That’s mainly because there’s virtually no plot to spoil anyway. Some randoms get trapped in a cinema, some of them become possessed by demons and savagely attack the dwindling group of survivors, the end. Characters in the film have hairstyles and outfits in lieu of personalities. We learn virtually nothing about them as individuals either before or after they get ripped apart, gnawed, squished or stabbed.
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