Saturday, 16 January 2010

Rated X by an all-White Jury !

Written, scored, edited, produced, directed and starring Melvin Van Peebles in 1971, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is not so much a film but a hand grenade thrown at conventional Hollywood Cinema. The story of Sweetback, a performer at a live sex show (hence the nickname), on the run from racist cops (and an "overdose of black misery") sounds like like typical Blaxploitation but the movie is anything but, as Van Peebles unleashes an arsenal of guerrilla tactics - crash zooms, super impositions, freeze-frames, over lapping dialogue, color effects, documentary-style inserts and an extraordinary editing style of colliding, cascading shots that pay little attention to established film grammar. So left field and experimental is the film that Van Peebles is closer in spirit to Alejandro Jodorowsky and El Topo than Gordon Parks and Shaft.

The film was largely financed by Van Peebles himself, and according to legend, from funds received from the Director's Guide of America, by way of compensation after Van Peebles got the clap from one of the actress, injured on set as it were. As well as that Bill Cosby loaned Van Peebles $50,000 to complete the film. With a heady mix of black politics, black spiritualism and agitation propaganda, and its raunchy jazz funk soundtrack performed by Earth Wind & Fire, the film was a huge hit at inner city Grindhouses.

Currently the best way to see Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song is Xenon's "30th Anniversary Special Edition" DVD which is the full uncut version - including the opening scene where Van Peebles' 14 year old son, Mario is seen frolicking with a whore; cut from the BFI DVD (in accordance with UK Child Protection laws). Presentation wise, some nightime scenes are a little murky, the print is full of dust and debris, and the soundtrack has plenty of snap, crackle and pop but considering the guerrilla conditions that the film was made under, Xenon's DVD may be a good facsimile of what it was like to see the film at The Roxy on 42nd back in the '70's. The DVD also includes a short documentary about the film (well worth seeing) and some trailers for Van Peebles' more hard-to-find films.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Watchdog on duty !

In the last week of 2009 I started buying up some back issues on eBay of Tim Lucas' Video Watchdog magazine, something I've been meaning to do for a while now. After a regular appearance as a column in Fangoria's sister magazine Gorezone, Video Watchdog made its fully fledged publishing debut in June 1990, and has been going strong ever since. The magazine quickly became required reading among fans of fantasy cinema for its trailblazing articles on European horror (How To Read a Franco Film, Issue #1), rare director's cuts (Manhunter, Issue #13), missing scenes (Fire Walk With Me, Issue #16) and alternative versions (Blade Runner, Issue #20). I managed to pick up a good spread of issues between #4 to #112 (and more to come I hope), but sadly #1, #2, #3 slipped thru my fingers when a rival bidder used eBay's automatic bidding ! What a snake !

Postscript: I chanced upon this post some years after I published it and I did manage to put together a complete run of Video Watchdogs - issues 1,2,and 3 were relatively easy to source - but issue 26 January/February 1995 proved to be the trickiest to find - in the end I grabbed a copy from a record store in Sweden of all places...

Monday, 11 January 2010

Some Good Stuff From 2009 Part 3 (Books)

The best book I read this year actually came as two books - JG Ballard: Complete Short Stories (95 to be exact, spread over two volumes). Ballard's writing can be broadly described ,as science fiction (a tag he hated), but unlike say the other worldly adventure stories of Arthur C. Clarke, Ballard was more concerned with contemporary life and what happened when the ordinariness of life became distorted. Its a Twilight Zone-ish notion to be sure, but Ballard's writing is dark, apocalyptic, prophetic. Admittedly Ballard's ideas and plots throughout the short stories can be dense and difficult (not to mention mind-bending, I'm still unsure of what exactly happened at the end of the 1962 story The Watch-Towers. Looking at the short stories more closely there is a sense that many of stories were dress rehearsals for ideas he would explore in more long form works, and throughout both volumes there are echoes and flash forwards to Crash, High Rise, Concrete Island, and in particular a short story penned in 1977, called The Dead Time could be an early discarded draft of Empire of the Sun.

The best film book I read this year, (or rather poured over) was FAB Press' follow-up/companion piece to their earlier Shock Horror. The Art Of The Nasty, which contains a huge collection of UK VHS scans, all pre-1984, before tabloid hysteria about the corrupting influence of horror and exploitation videos led to a major government crackdown and the term Video Nasty was coined. This book is an absolute joy to skim thru, and there are some truly outlaw sleeves on display (a sampling of some favorite sleeves below), produced during of halcyon period of a largely unregulated video industry. The scans are accompanied by comprehensive liner notes about each sleeve, including alternative scans for certain titles. As well as the official 39 video nasty videos, the collection also covers horror, exploitation and porno. Highly recommended !

Some Good Stuff From 2009 Part 2 (Music)

I hear so much music throughout the year its hard to keep a track of what came out and when it came out. One LP that got year long airplay in my house was Tangerine Dream's Poland, a 1984 live concert performed in Warsaw. Poland with its 4 long form electronic pieces is one of the great Tangerine Dream records, balancing Tangerine Dream's glorious run of 70's experimentation with the more commercial synth sound that band would be drawn to throughout the 80's. Poland may in fact be the last great, essential Tangerine Dream LP, and comes highly recommended.

Another great CD which I stumbled along this year was courtesy of Jeff Greinke, a US experimental sound artist. The shorthand description for Greinke's music is dark ambient, with its eerie abstract alien soundscapes. If Einstürzende Neubauten's music is the sound of collapsing buildings, Jeff Greinke's music is the sound of the building in ruins. His Cities In Fog collection is a landmark of sinister Isolationist electronica, but its his 1987 LP Places Of Motility which had me hooked in the last few months of this year, with its strange acoustic and electronic textures, Industrial rhythms, omnious rumblings and distorted spoken word samples. Fans of Lustmord, Final, Lull, Illusion of Safety and some of Robert Rich's more darker music should seek this one out right away.

As well as the usual raft of experimental and avant garde stuff I'm mostly listening to and terrorizing friends and loved ones with, I spent a good portion of the 2nd half of 2009 listening to The Grateful Dead, collecting al their studio LPs, all 36 volumes of their Dick's Pick's live shows (that's roughly 109 CDs!) and other Dead live albums. So, I am by now a fully fledged card-carrying Dead Head. Of their studio LPs, their run from the 1967 self-titled debut to 1973's History of the Grateful Dead, Vol. 1, spans a dizzying number of musical styles from West Coast acid rock, spacey psychedelia, musique concrète tape experiments, blues, folk and country rock. The albums made after that era are patchy admittedly, but their live shows remained as great as ever. Anyone curious about the Grateful Dead should seek out Warners' Golden Road boxset which collects all their classic albums plus some pre-Grateful Dead, Warlock material.

Some Good Stuff From 2009 (DVD)

John Peel used to say that the best year for music was always the current year, and I feel the same way when it comes to home cinema - 2009 was another great year for releases, with so many labels putting out great stuff in great editions - Criterion (In The Realm of the Senses), Masters of Cinema (the Fritz Lang Mabuse box set), Blue Underground (The New York Ripper BD), BFI (Pasolini's Trilogy of Life BD) Second Run (Daisies), Code Red (Messiah of Evil)...

In 2009 I made more inroads into Italian Cult Cinema, mainly spaghetti westerns (including Ferdinando Baldi's deliriously wacky Blindman) and Italian crime (Milano Calibro 8, Live Like A Cop Die Like A Man). Raro's DVD was less than perfect, but it was cheap. Hopefully one day Blue Underground will do something with Deodato's brutal cop thriller. As well as that, I picked up some Japanese pink films (Wife to be Sacrificed) in preparation for reading FAB Press' definite book on the Japanese Sex film, Behind the Pink Curtain, and a genuine holy grail for collectors of Japanese Exploitation, Horrors of Malformed Men. Also some classic American Hardcore (The Devil In Miss Jones, Neon Nights) which arrived in impressive cleaned-up 2-disc editions. Some great Polish stuff as well - Artificial Eye's Kieslowski collection, and some of the excellent documentary and experimental film collections from the Polish Audiovisual Publishers. I picked up some good boxsets as well, New Yorker's 5-disc The Cinema of Peter Watkins, Blue Underground's Alan Clarke Collection and Artificial Eye's comprehensive 10-disc Michael Haneke collection. Sadly, I missed out on Criterion's whopper AK 100: 25 Films of Akira Kurosawa - 25 (count 'em!) discs of Japan's greatest film maker.

Blu-Ray was the big deal for 2009. In the face of recession I splashed out on a 42" TV and a Panasonic Blu-Ray player. Seeing recent films like The New World or There Will Be Blood at home but as good as the what was projected on the big screen has been amazing, but what is truly exciting is seeing classic films looking like they were shot yesterday. Some of my best movie watching this year has been with films like The Thing, Mad Max II, 2001... Mad Max II in particular having never seen the film in 2:35. Warners Blu-Ray is a revelation. The BFI's Blu-Ray line has been nothing short of extraordinary - Kenneth Anger's complete works, Pasolini's Salo, Antonioni's Red Desert, and great, newly discovered oddities from the 60's like The Bed-Sitting Room, Herostratus and Pete Walker's ultra-rare Man of Violence. And whoever thought we would see Blu-Rays of The New York Ripper and The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue ? The Cannibal Holocaust BR must surely be around the corner...