Monday, 20 April 2009

David Lynch's Industrial Symphony No. 1

It begins with a phone conversation - a guy breaks up with his girl (both played by Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern who were making Wild At Heart at the time), then we are transported to a space filled with various detritus, where a floating angel (Julee Cruise) sings a lament, and below her a girl, naked save for black panties writhes about on a wrecked car...

Eccentric even by Lynchian standards, Industrial Symphony No. 1, subtitled The Dream of the Broken Hearted is a 50 minute piece of experimental theatre featuring songs from Julee Cruise's first two albums and various soundscapes by long time Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti. The action filmed on stage features plenty of familiar Lynch iconography - pipes, bits of discarded metal, sinister light bulbs, and as a nod to Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, a log that is sawed by none other than Michael J. Anderson who played The Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks. The songs are mostly exquisite - with Cruise's ethereal vocals given a dark power by Badalamenti's subtle post-rockish guitar licks. The songs are separated by short interludes of dark ambient washes of sound, and the atonal noise of machine guns and wailing sirens.

Industrial Symphony No. 1 premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as a part of the New Music America Festival on November 10th 1989. As a piece of performance art Industrial Symphony No. 1 would have been quite an experience to see - there are at least two startling scenes - a 12ft skinless deer appears onstage, and towards the conclusion of the piece, dozens of naked baby dolls are eerily lowered from the ceiling. As a piece of film, its less successful, with its minimal lighting (mostly lit by spotlights) the visuals are often obscure and difficult to make out. It’s probably best to see the film in a darkened room to savor the various color filters and strobe effects.

Industrial Symphony No. 1 briefly made an appearance on VHS and laserdisc in the early 90's, before going out of print. The film is now once again available as part of the mammoth 10-DVD David Lynch retrospective The Lime Green Set.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Wes Craven's Swamp Thing

Wes Craven has had more than his fair share of hits and misses over his long career as a director. As well as bona fida classics like Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes and A Nightmare on Elm Street, there have been failures like Shocker and most notoriously The Hills Have Eyes sequel. Swamp Thing, from 1982 is neither a classic nor a failure, but part of a stratum of Craven films, that include Deadly Blessing, The Serpent & the Rainbow and The People Under the Stairs that are interesting enough to warrant a viewing or two.

Swamp Thing began life an unlikely comic superhero in the early 70's, a scientific fusion of plant and man, out to revenge the murder of his wife by arch nemesis Dr. Anton Arcane. After a series of dark, low-key independently produced exploitation films, Swamp Thing's transition from page to screen was to be Craven's big break out into mainstream fantasy cinema. For the film, the comic was condensed into some 90min, and sees the creation of Swamp Thing, a fledgling romance between Swamp Thing and a female scientist, and a showdown with Anton Arcane who in the film’s last act is himself turned into a monster. For all its weaknesses - and there are many, Swamp Thing is fast paced and hugely enjoyable fantasy romp. The Swamp Thing creature admittedly is a little phony (no Rick Baker wonders here, and the less said about Anton Arcane's warthog man-beast the better) but its hard not to get swept up in the excitement of Craven's direction, as Swamp Thing dispatches heavies and takes bullet hits with wild abandon. One scene has Swamp Thing lose one his arm by a machete chop only for it to later grow back with the help of a little photosynthesis. Craven also acknowledges his source material with some comic book style dissolves and wipes.

The film has a great cast - Ray Wise (famous for Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks), Nicholas Worth (of Don't Answer the Phone fame) and star of the show, the ever fantastic Adrienne Barbeau, who makes for a tough resourceful and sexy heroine. She also contributes a memorable topless bathing scene (but more about that in a minute). Craven is also reunited with Last House on the Left arch villain, David Hess. In fact, watching the film as part of Craven's body of work reveals some interesting parallels - the sequences in the wooded swamps of South Carolina recall Last House on the Left, and there's a spectacular stunt where someone is set alight - a similar scene would turn up in A Nightmare on Elm Street. That Craven took on a film shot around swampland is itself interesting. In 1980, Craven was set to direct a film called Marimba, a brutal action film set in the jungles of South America. The film never came to fruition but the script was reworked and eventually went before the cameras some years later under the title of Cut & Run, directed by Ruggero Deodata. Like Swamp Thing, Cut & Run features lots of scenes of actors jumping in and out of murky waters (mostly by Hills Have Eyes star and poster child Michael Berryman)

Swamp Thing is available as a barebones DVD courtesy of MGM. In the US the first pressing of the DVD was mistakenly given a PG rating, and was later pulled from distribution due to Adrienne Barbeau's aforementioned topless scene, and some nudity in a sequence where Anton Arcane's army of hired goons are entertained by some prostitutes. The presentation is fine, if a little soft but that was probably how the film was shot anyway. A sequel followed in 1989 and is best avoided...

Sunday, 12 April 2009

The Gospel According to Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), a film of the life of Christ remains one of the director's greatest works. That Pasolini actually made the film is remarkable - Pasolini himself was a gay Marxist, and prior to The Gospel According to Matthew he had caused a scandal with the short film La Ricotta, an irreverent look at the Passion, which almost landed him with a 4 month stretch in jail for blasphemy. However, a change of Popes at the Vatican had caused a shift towards a more liberal view, and after Pasolini submitted his shooting script was allowed to go ahead with his project.

The Gospel According to Matthew depicts most of the episodes from the life of Christ, but one can sense that Pasolini is more interested in Christ as an enraged social reformer rather that a deity. The film is closer to Pasolini's own film Accettone than The Greatest Story Ever Told. What is most extraordinary about the film is how it breaks with the traditional conventions of the Hollywood religious film. Pasolini uses Neo-Realist aesthetics, shooting in black & white with hand held cameras (by Pasolini’s regular cameraman Tonino Delli Colli who shot 12 of his films), tight, abrupt and sometimes patchwork editing, and a cast of non-professional actors - a mixture of people Pasolini found on location, and a number of writers and poets.

Intriguingly, Pasolini had considered Jack Kerouac for the role of Christ, but nixed the idea when he realised his image of Kerouac was based on a photograph 15 years out of date. One can almost sense the cinema veritae style of the film is informed by the rugged and ragged landscapes depicted in the film. Pasolini decided against shooting the film in the Holy Land, which he felt has overused and instead moved production to Calabria, an impoverished mountainous region south of Naples. Incredible also is the director's eclectic choice of the music from Bach and Mozart to rather brilliantly contemporary music like Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child (hauntingly sung by Odetta), the striking Congolese Missa Luba (for the credits), and Blind Willie Johnson’s wordless wail Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground.

Worth mentioning also is Pasolini's casting of his mother Susanna to play the middle aged Virgin Mary, a choice which some commentators on the film have scoffed at. Watching the film now in 2009 I feel there is something of a strange resonance at work here - its now widely believed that Pasolini's brutal murder in 1975 was a political assassination. Speculation aside, what is evident is the influence the film had on Martin Scorsese's own film about the life of Jesus, The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese originally wanted to shoot his film in Southern Italy, (but instead settled on Morocco) and certainly Scorsese's Christ shares the same forcefulness and urgency as Pasolini's. Whether you belive the film is a piece of religious art or a classic of European cinema, it is in a word, magnificent.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Rolling Thunder

Possibly one of the driest revenge thrillers of the 70’s Rolling Thunder has for years been collecting a steady following of exploitation fans, for its somber mood and atmosphere. Unlike the righteous payback of say, Coffy or Death Wish, the revenge served up in Rolling Thunder is very cold indeed. The story concerns a recently discharged Viet vet, Charles Rane (played by William Devane) who arrives back home in Texas after enduring seven years of torture and captivity in a Hanoi prisoner of war camp. Rane returns home to a broken marriage and a son he barely knows. Worse is to come as a gang of Mexican toughs arrive at his home looking for cash. When Rane refuses to hand over the loot, the gang execute his wife and son, and plunge Rane’s arm into a garbage grinder, leaving him for dead. Rane emerges from his ordeal equipped with a metal hook for a hand, and hell bent on revenge, with the help of Vohden, his Vietnam buddy who’s eager for a bit of trigger pullin’...

Rolling Thunder began as a Paul Schrader penned script, which by the time it got to AIP, had undergone some changes, namely the character of Charles Rane who was originally a hard-line Texas racist. Although Schrader’s original idea for the character would not survive the re-write, Rane would appear in another guise – as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Still, the film features some of Schrader’s preoccupations – guilt, self torment, and most explicitly, his love for The Wild Bunch, which informs the last act of the film as Rane and Vohden shoot it out in a Mexican whorehouse.

Originally Rolling Thunder was to be Schrader’s first shot at directing, but instead the directorial duties were handled by John Flynn who specialized in hard edge tough guy films like Best Seller, Lock Up, Out for Justice, and The Outfit, his best film after Rolling Thunder, an excellent Point Blank style thriller from 1973 starring Robert Duvall. Flynn’s direction is appropriately muscular but balanced by a great performance by William Devane who walks through the film like a ghost that left its body back in the POW camp. He’s a haunting presence in the film, his life meaningless and all but destroyed – the scene where he listens impassively to his wife’s dissolution of their marriage is one of the film’s great moments. Worth mentioning also, Rane’s restless Vietnam buddy Vohden, played by Tommy Lee Jones in a minor but memorable early role. In fact he delivers the best line in the film when he flatly declares to a prostitute, “I’m gonna kill a bunch of people

Rolling Thunder remains an impressive film today, in spite of a thousand meaner and meatier revenge films that came in its wake. Influential too; First Blood director, Ted Kotcheff probably lifted the short black & white torture flashbacks from Flynn’s film. Tarantino is a major fan and has done much to promote Rolling Thunder over the years, showing a print at film festivals, and naming his distribution company after the film. Unfortunately, the film is still unavailable on DVD but can be found through the usual grey sources, and is well worth tracking down.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Japan, 1976)

Famous nowadays for lending its name to the Canadian post-rock collective, Mitsuo Yanagimachi's 1976 documentary follows a Tokyo motorcycle gang called the Black Emperors. Unlike the outlaw gangs of Hunter S. Thompson's Hell Angels, the Black Emperors are depicted as bike-obsessed male teens indulging in a bit of anarchy - painting their logo on a wall (in English with a swastika nestled between the Black and Emperor); there's talk of rallies and rumbles with rival groups, but the most heat the gang catch is from the cops breaking up their meeting or frisking them down for weapons and drugs. Early on in the film one of the Black Emperors pleads with his mother to go with him to court, as a character witness so he might escape a jail sentence. That said, the film includes a rather edgy sequence where a young Black Emperor is punched and kicked in the face as a punishment for some transgression against the group. Its a key sequence in the film as Yanagimachi seems to have caught the group in perhaps the death throes of its 8 year existence - early on in the film, a senior Black Emperor appeals to the riders for greater unity, but by the end of the film, the group is facing an uncertain future and tries desperately to cling onto departing members.

Marking their territory: the Black 卐Emperor logo

Biker movies had been popular in Japan in the early 70's, and Yanagimachi's independently produced film was picked up for distribution by Toei to some considerable success. The film, shot in 16mm black & white is appropriately grungy looking with inky dark visuals and the ever constant whirl of the camera on the soundtrack. The soundtrack itself features a pretty good sampling of 70's Japanese rock and proto-punk. The film is available on DVD in Japan, (sadly unsubbed), and in various grey market editions elsewhere. My copy was put out by Superhappyfun, and while it looks great - sourced from a clean print, the subtitles never quite seem to be in sync with the action.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Dennis Hopper is The American Dreamer

The American Dreamer, a documentary portrait of Dennis Hopper is one of the great lost films of the early seventies. Made in 1971, as Hopper was basking in the glory of his Cannes winning film Easy Rider, and before the release of his second film The Last Movie (which would turn out to be a colossal bomb), The American Dreamer was filmed mostly around Hopper's ranch in New Mexico and finds the bearded director (who could have strayed from the cover of The Band's second album) baring his soul (and his ass) for the camera. Hopper's musings on art, film making, photography, sex and politics are wonderfully pretentious, including an incredible sequence where Hopper, with the need to feel "self conscious" strips off his clothes and walks down a sleepy LA suburban neighborhood, balls naked. In between bouts of Hopper firing off various hand guns and rifles, and indulging in some softcore grappling with 2 girls in a bathtub, we see a pensive Hopper overseeing the endless editing on The Last Movie, while trying to stave off Universal who are anxious to see what Hopper did in Peru with all their money.

The American Dreamer remains commercially unavailable today; apparently the film has been kept out of circulation by Hopper himself, which is not surprising as the film is hardly a flattering portrait. In one unnerving sequence, he indulges in, some rather Manson-like group sex with a bunch of groupies, (which he calls a "sensitivity encounter"), and at one point, Hopper mentions that he has visited Manson in prison. In a cringe worthy sequence, Hopper declares he is a male lesbian - I'd rather give head to a woman than fuck them...Basically, I think like a lesbian

The American Dreamer was co-written and directed by L.M. Kit Carson who would go on to write Paris Texas and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Part 2. The soundtrack is composed of some rather lame folk songs, written specially for the film – at one point the track The Screaming Metaphysical Blues goes - Here's to Mr. Hopper who traded in his chopper (?) The film's two best songs, Outlaw Song and the title track are by The Byrd's Gene Clark. The film may not be officially available but can be found through the usual channels, and for Dennis Hopper fans and students of American independent Cinema, it is required viewing.