Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Floyd on Film - Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii

Shot in October 1971, Pink Floyd's 3-day residency among the ruins of Pompeii is one of the more idiosyncratic rock performance films of the era. Director Adrian Maben's idea was to discard the look of contemporary concert films - the band on stage intercut with the standard shots of adoring crowds (a la Woodstock or Ziggy Stardust The Motion Picture), and instead capture the Floyd amid the stillness of the Amphitheatre's desolation rows, save for the eerie presence of some 12,000 phantom spectators. There's even something of a Godardian conceit as the director films the crew filming the band, amid the towering arc lights and camera tracks.

The filming at Pompeii was not without its difficulties and power cuts threatened the production, shaving 3 days off the shooting schedule. Luckily the director was able to get three solid performances in the can - "Echoes", "A Saucerful of Secrets", and "One of These Days". The band would later bolster up the running time of the film with performances of "Careful With that Axe Eugene", "Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" and "Mademoiselle Nobs" - a variation on Meddle's "Seamus", all filmed in a studio in Paris. Furthermore, a 1974 draft of the film was made which included footage of the band working on Dark Side of the Moon, as well as some irreverent interviews of a band trying to play down their image of serious composers.

A saucerful of Pink Floyd - the opening zoom shot of the band, their equipment and the camera crew
Filming the band in the ancient landscape of Pompeii was an inspired idea as the Floyd and their 20 tonnes of musical and electronic equipment look less like a rock group and more like interstellar space travellers, but the film is nevertheless dated, with some unnecessary multi-screen techniques, and some regrettable sequences of the band performing the Paris tracks against a back projection of Pompeii. Still, the music itself is entirely wonderful. The band had recently finished recordings on Meddle and bookending the film is an excellent rendition in 2 parts of the sprawling side-long track "Echoes". Each performance is arguably better than its vinyl take, and the band's extraordinary version of "A Saucerful of Secrets" is surely one of their finest moments ever.


Universal's 2003 DVD is a good effort but falls short of perfection. The image quality is good, although the DVD struggles with some of the more trickier shots at Pompeii - there's some shimmer in some scenes, but nothing to get upset over. The sound is impressive too - perhaps too much top end but entirely fine. Extras include a short but comprehensive 24-min interview with the director (directed by the band's perennial visualist Storm Thorgerson), plus some galleries of the band's promo artwork. However, Universal have put on the DVD two versions of the film - the original 1972 draft of the film (in its original 1.33 OAR), plus a newly struck director's cut which pads out the film with some bland cosmic visuals, and adds a fake 1.85 matt to the performance footage. One to be avoided, but seeing as Universal have neglected to add the 1974 version the Director's Cut is only way to view the Dark Side of the Moon studio footage (unless selected from the menu as separate chapters). Stick with the original 1972 version. These minor complains aside, for Pink Floyd fans the disc is absolutely essential.

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Notes
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In 1992, The Beastie Boys paid homage to Live At Pompeii with their video for "Gratitude" which was based on film, copying the horizontal tracking shots that snake around the Floyd. The Beastie Boys went so far as to label their speaker cabinets with "Pink Floyd London" as seen on the equipment in the original film.

The late 60's, early 70's were a fruitful time for Pink Floyd and Cinema. In 1968 they appeared on stage in the documentary, Tonite Let's All Make Love In London, and that same year they composed music for the short film The Committee. The following year they recorded the soundtrack for Barbet Schroeder's More. 1970 saw soundtrack duties for Zabriskie Point, and in 1972 they re-teamed with Barbet Schroeder for La Vallée. The band was also set to compose music for Alejandro Jodorowsky's ill-fated Dune, and rumour has it that Stanley Kubrick had considered the band for the music of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Saturday, 23 April 2011

An angry Argento fan writes to Total Film...

I was moving a huge pile of movie magazines this morning when I came across the October 2002 issue of Total Film (#69), the highly distinguished October 2002 issue I might add, as the Letters page included an angry missive from your humble narrator about the magazine labelling Dario Argento as an Italian schlock director...



Since then, The Card Player, The Mother of Tears, and Giallo all came and spectacularly went, and I must confess it's getting harder and harder to defend this once great film maker...

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Divine Trash

Steve Yeager's 1998 portrait of John Waters is required viewing for fans of Baltimore's most famous bad boy. The film spans Water's early life, his interest in putting on puppet shows for the kids of the neighbourhood, his love of Cinema which included Blood Feast and Bergman, his early film experiments inspired by Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger 1, his first features, Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs and the centrepiece of the documentary, filming Pink Flamingos, his breakthrough movie. Yeager's own footage which he shot during the making of Pink Flamingos is one of the major coups of the documentary. As well as lots of footage from the set (which shows Waters as a serious and demanding film maker), there's clips from rare films like Waters short The Diane Linklater Story and the still hard-to-see Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs (the scene where Divine enjoys some rectal stimulation with rosary beads is intercut with a clearly disgusted Maryland censor!), plus the abandoned film Dorothy, The Kansas City Pot Head.

John Waters, filming Pink Flamingos, 1972
Yeager's roll call of Waters' family, friends and fans is impressive - we hear from Waters charming, slightly bemused but proud parents, his brother Steve, Divine along with the rest of Waters' repertory cast from his early films (seen in contemporary interviews, and archival footage) and a host of film maker admirers - Steve Buscemi, Jim Jarmusch, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Paul Morrisey, Jonas Mekas, the Kuchar Brother George and Mike, Ken Jacobs, Hal Hartley, and David O Russell. Of course Waters himself makes for great company and he's on fine form here, reeling off great stories from those heady days and paying an affectionate tribute to the late Divine whom he refers to as a dear friend, my star and my Elizabeth Taylor...

Steve Yeager interviews Divine in full regalia, 1972

But the final triumph of Divine Trash is that it concentrates on those early trailblazing days and mercifully spares us the later Waters' misfires which a wider career retrospective would have netted. Arguably Waters last great film was Polyester which was followed by a string of bland, and uninteresting films, but as Divine Trash makes clear, it was this vital early era that paved the way for a new generation of film makers who would make their own entry into the bad taste sweepstakes.

John Waters in 1998... "If I discovered the cure for cancer tomorrow, Pink Flamingos would still be ahead of that in my obituary"

Divine Trash was issued on DVD in 2000 courtesy of Fox Lorbor. Unfortunately, the DVD is now long OOP but can still be picked up cheaply so its worth seeking out. Picture quality is fine for the contemporary interviews, and is understandably more scrappier for the older footage, but overall its a very worthwhile disc. Highly recommended.

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Notes
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1. A title card at the end of the movie reveals that Kenneth Anger and Russ Meyer both declined to be interviewed for the film. Whatever about Meyer's refusal, it's interesting to speculate on Anger's no show - perhaps it was due to the presence of one of the interviewees, author Bill Landis whom Anger put a curse as a response to Landis' 1995 book Anger: The Unauthorized Biography of Kenneth Anger.