Saturday, 29 June 2013

Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams

Just a quick plug for BBC4's recently screened Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams, a spellbinding 1-hour documentary on the history of automata - self-operating machines powered by intricate clockwork parts. Presenter Simon Schaffer picks up the story in the 18th century, the golden age of automata when highly skilled watchmakers and inventors used their engineering genius to construct life-like biomechanical devices which could mimic the actions of their human or animal counterparts. Featured in the program are some of the most celebrated and astonishing automata that survive today. In the 1770's Swiss clockmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz's constructed The Writer, a mechanical boy who writes a short elegant handwritten note using a quill and an inkwell. A shot of The Writer's inner recesses reveals the extraordinary amount of work that Jaquet-Droz invested in his creation, the device contains a veritable microcosmic metropolis of almost 6000 miniaturized screws, springs, coils, cogs and cams.


Not content for The Writer to simply reproduce the same note time and again Pierre Jaquet-Droz designed the letter-parts to be interchangeable so the device could write whatever its owner fancied. The Writer and other Jaquet-Droz designed automata - the Draughtsman, a mechanical boy which draws a very artful picture of a dog, and The Musician, a young woman who plays a dulcimer-like instrument - are in effect early prototype computers, devices which are programmable, following a prescribed set of well-defined instructions. What's more fascinating are the philosophical questions posed - how Jaquet-Droz's automata or John Joseph Merlin beautiful Silver Swan (1773) transcend their collection of moving parts and assume a strange lifelike, even soulful presence like so many robotic dreamers that followed them - The Wizard of Oz Tin Man, the replicants of Blade Runner (a film which features a character who designs 21st century toy automata) and the child android from Artificial Intelligence.



If you're interested in medieval curios, and indeed the surrealist films of Jan Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers, I highly recommend you catch Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams.  Better still, Pierre Jaquet-Droz's three surviving automata, which still function are on permanent display at the Museum of Art and History Neuchâtel, in Switzerland while John Joseph Merlin beautiful Silver Swan can be seen a little closer to home at the Bowes Museum Durham, England.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Unmade Films of Donald Cammell

Rebecca and Sam Umland's 2006 book Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side is one of the strangest director biographies I've read in quite some time. This is not a criticism of the writing - the book is excellent throughout but what makes it unique among other director biographies is the sheer amount of films discussed within the text which didn't get made. Cammell made just four films between 1968 and 1995 but left behind twice as many screenplays which for various reasons outlined in the Umlands' book failed to catch fire. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that all one needed to make a film was a girl and a gun but time and again Cammell's perennial obsessions with sexuality and violence failed to make the transition from page to screen. I've scribbled down some brief notes from the book on a few of the more significant film projects that slipped through Cammell's hands. I should point out that my attempt to make tidy synopses of the screenplays discussed below does Cammell a disservice given the characteristic complexity the director invested in each project, and I would encourage anyone interested to seek out Rebecca and Sam's book for a detailed commentary.

Ishtar... The Beard...

Ishtar written soon after Performance, is set in Morocco and concerns a chance meeting between a film maker struggling to make a movie about the ancient Goddess Aisha, and a political revolutionary who has kidnapped a prominent American judge (a role William Burroughs was considered for). Ultimately the film foundered due to budgetary reasons (the film was to employ some innovative optical effects) but Ishtar refused to lie still - in 1972 Cammell shot some footage in Arches National Park in Utah loosely based on Ishtar, later posthumously edited and released as The Argument. In the mid-80's the screenplay was revived and retitled The Last Video, a project David Puttnam's Goldcrest wanted to make but withdrew from after the expensive disaster of Revolution (1985)

In 1972 Cammell wrote a screenplay based on Michael McClure's bizarre play, The Beard in which Billy the Kid and actress Jean Harlow meet up in an eternal afterlife and battle it out. Cammell declared he would not change a word of McClure's dialogue and hoped Mick Jagger would play the Kid but nothing came of the proposed film. In 1973 Cammell set to work on another uncompromising project, writing a dense and visually arresting screenplay of Nabokov's labyrinthine 1962 novel Pale Fire, typically considered unfilmable. Unsurprisingly Cammell failed to secure financing.

Aisha the witch in a expressionist shot from The Argument

The Lady Hamilton... Hot!... Fan-Tan...

Cammell next wrote a screenplay entitled The Lady Hamilton, (later known as Faro) a historical biopic of Emma Lyon, a free spirited and sexually adventureous women whose lovers included Lord Nelson. Lyon's story had been filmed in 1941 as That Hamilton Woman! starring Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier but Cammell was unable to stir up any interest for his version.

Following Demon Seed, Cammell worked on a Jack The Ripper screenplay with English theatre critic and writer Kenneth Tynan but was fired by the producer, which Tynan recorded in his diary - "Bill Tennant tells me over lunch that he wants me to continue with the script of the Ripper but that he proposes to ditch Donald C. as director replacing him with John Schlesinger or Nic Roeg." In any event the proposed the film eventually collapsed. (Warners had their own Ripper film Time After Time, in production around the same time). In 1978 Cammell worked on a screenplay originally developed by Zalman King entitled Hot! which was centred around a community of radioactive mutants living in the desert. King sought out Cammell to direct the screenplay on the strength of Performance. Cammell's vision of the film was steeped in mythological and Biblical references and might have resembled The Hills Have Eyes had it been directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

In 1978 Marlon Brando commissioned Cammell to work on a screenplay known as Fan-Tan, a hugely convoluted sea-adventure set around Hong Kong and French Polynesia just before the second World War. Brando was to play the film's swaggering anti-hero, but his enthusiasm for the project eventually dried up and the project ran around. Cammell however salvaged the screenplay and turned it into a novelisation which finally surfaced in 2006 co-authored by Brando and Cammell



Jericho... The Cull...

Cammell entered into another ill-fated collaboration with Marlon Brando who contacted Cammell after seeing White of the Eye and impressed by the film asked Cammell to work on a project he was developing. Jericho was a story about an unhinged CIA agent who is offered One Last Job to assassinate a Columbian drug baron. Of the crop of unmade projects Cammell collected over the years Jericho came close to being realized - finance for the projected 14million dollar production had been secured but Brando and Cammell proved too volatile a mix and the film was ultimately abandoned.

In 1993 Cammell began working on a screenplay called The Cull in which a traumatised Gulf War soldier wanted by American and British authorities goes into hiding in the wilderness of the Scottish highlands. On the face of it, the screenplay mines similar territory as First Blood, but The Cull has a complex time-shifting narrative and explores themes of man's propensity for violence, and illegal military warfare. Apparently Sean Connery expressed an interest in making the film. It's interesting to note that the climax of The Cull has the film's hero survive being shot in the head which may have helped propagate the myth that Cammell survived for some time after he turned a gun on himself, a myth the Umlands in their book strenuously debunk - Cammell's death was almost certainly instantaneous, ending a remarkable life and career.


A shot of Cammell's collection of unfilmed screenplays
(from The Ultimate Performance documentary)


Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance

I'm currently reading Rebecca and Sam Umland's excellent 2006 biography of Donald Cammell, and as a taster for things to come I caught a screening over the weekend of Chris Rodley and Kevin Macdonald's 1999 documentary Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, the first important study of this criminally neglected film maker who took his own life in 1996 with a gunshot to the head. Cammell might have made just four films over the course of nearly four decades but he lived a rich and strange life. Before he made film making his life's work, Cammell was a portrait painter of some renown, he was a sexual adventurer among the glitterati of 60's Paris and London, extremely well read (Borges was a lifelong favorite) and was fascinated by esoterica and ritualism. Incredibly Cammell met Aleister Crowley when he was a young boy - Cammell's father wrote one of the first biographies of Crowley (The Man, the Mage, the Poet).

Donald Cammell interviewed in 1992

The core of the documentary is the incredible history of Cammell's signature film Performance admittedly much to the detriment of Cammell's other films - Demon Seed (1977) is passed over in one short clip, while the lost classic White of the Eye (1987) is discussed all too briefly. Cammell's final film Wild Side (1995) is barely mentioned perhaps due to the shoddy treatment the film received by the studio who financed it. That aside, the discussion on Performance is quite extraordinary. Almost everyone from the film is interviewed - Anita Pallenberg remembers acting the awkward love scenes with Mick Jagger and the aggravation it caused with her then boyfriend Keith Richards; James Fox recalls his sojourn among the faces of South London in research for the film ("Jimmy Fox was regarded as one of their own" confirms Johnny Shannon who played mob boss Harry Flowers in the film); Jagger himself reads out an impassioned letter he and Cammell wrote to Warners who were appalled by the film's violence, while Nicholas Roeg who forged a symbiotic co-directing partnership with Cammell for the film is visibly upset over his split with Cammell during the fallout from the film.

Johnny Shannon and James Fox

Elsewhere sharing their thoughts and memories of Cammell are his brother David (who was associate producer on Performance), Cammell's wife China (pronounced Cheena), Cathy Moriarty (who starred in White of the Eye), Barbara Steele who knew Cammell from the Swinging London days and Kenneth Anger who cast Cammell as Osiris, Lord of Death in his 1972 film Lucifer Rising. Cammell himself appears in the documentary interviewed in 1992 and is engaging, intelligent, charming and in good form. But in his private life Cammell was given to fits of black depression, frustrated no doubt by the amount of film projects he was force to abandon. Friends admit that Cammell was perhaps his own worst enemy, he simply couldn't work within a studio system of film making. One close friend speculates that Cammell's inability to get films off the ground ultimately freed him to commit suicide at his Los Angeles home in April 1996, with a bullet to the brain, eerily echoing a scene in Performance.

A quick glimpse of Donald Cammell under the covers with Jagger and Pallenberg, from an outtake from Performance

Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance remains unavailable in any official edition at the time of writing, but the complete film can be seen over at YouTube. All four of Donald Cammell's film are currently available on DVD. Performance and Demon Seed are on Warner DVD. Dutch label Mælström put out a barebones but English-friendly White of the Eye (DVD reviewed here). The director's cut of Wild Side is available courtesy of Tartan, and includes Cammell's 14min short film The Argument, which was originally shot in 1971 but remained unedited until the film was reconstructed and mixed by Frank Mazzola in 1999.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Bloomsday

Sylvia Beach and James Joyce at Beach’s bookshop, Shakespeare and Company in 1922. Celebrating Bloomsday, 16th of June.


Thursday, 13 June 2013

Dawn Of The Dead - Complete Motion Picture Soundtrack

"Attention all shoppers..."

Generally speaking I don’t listen to soundtrack albums, preferring to experience a piece of film music accompanied by the images. However, I will make an exception for this incredible album compiled by two Dawn of the Dead obsessives who managed to track down just about every bit of music heard in the theatrical cut of the film and crucially present it here sans dialogue. Quite an achievement considering the bulk of Dawn of the Dead’s soundtrack was made up of tracks culled from various hard to find library music albums on the De Wolfe label. The music Goblin composed for the film has always been available – a Goblin-only soundtrack LP was issued soon after the film’s original release in 1978, and later debuted on CD in 1987. In 2004 Trunk Records took on the challenge of rescuing Dawn of the Dead’s lost library soundtrack, gathering together an impressive 39mins of music heard in the film, and released it as Unreleased Soundtrack Music from George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. In his liner notes for the album, label head-honcho Jonny Trunk wrote “Fans of the film in America have spent years trying to track all these originals down. It will take you years possibly, so don't bother.” Sound advice considering most of the albums Romero sourced the music from had long faded into obscurity, never pressed for CD. Even the Trunk album was incomplete, missing out on two of my favorites pieces of music, the track with the African drumming and chanting, used for the gun shop sequence in the film, and the weird phased version of the polka number The Gonk, heard when Steven emerges from the lift as a zombie.


Thankfully, these tracks and other elusive numbers have been located, and included in the unofficial double-CD Dawn Of The Dead - Complete Motion Picture Soundtrack which includes the library music and the film's selection of Goblin tracks. Even more remarkable is how fresh the library cuts sound, expertly scrubbed of the snap, crackle and pop of the original LPs and sequenced in the order heard in the film. This is an absolute essential addition to your Dawn of the Dead collection so I’d recommend you grab this right away. Rather than claim this labor of love for my own, I’ll direct you to where I found it, at the excellent Inferno Music Vault which offers some incredible soundtracks for your listening pleasure. Well worth spending some time there combing through the archives.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Gunnar Hansen on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Continuing a series recalling little nuggets heard on film maker commentaries. In this instalment Gunnar Hansen remembers filming a scene with Marilyn Burns during the legendary 27 hour shooting day and the moment when the mild-mannered actor transformed into his character Leatherface...
This scene there's a tube...a bulb in my palm with the knife and there's a tube to feed the fake blood. We shot this over and over again because the tube kept clogging. There's a piece of scotch tape over the blade edge to keep it dull. We couldn't get the blood out of the tube onto the knife edge and so after the 4th or 5th take while they're all getting ready to shoot it I turned away from everybody and stripped the tape off the knife and the blood tube and actually just cut her. And the reason was at this point we were insane and now we're 18 hours into this 27 hour day and at this point I was so crazy I just wanted to get the film over with. And I didn't care about anything, I didn't care about hurting her, I just wanted to not do this again...
Gunnar Hansen, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Dark Sky DVD/Blu-Ray, commentary index point 71:01)


Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Day Jobs of Philip Glass

I love this, and I wish I had a better scan... The Day Jobs of Philip Glass first appeared in the April 1992 issue of Pulse!, Tower Records in-store magazine. Illustrated by underground comic artist Justin Green as part of his Musical Legends series this very funny cartoon depicts a slightly surly mid-70's era Philip Glass driving a cab and plumbing apartments and lofts, just two of the jobs the struggling composer worked before his magnum opus Einstein On the Beach premiered at New York's Metropolitan Opera House and made Glass a household name. The 4th panel below, showing Time magazine critic Robert Hughes gasping in disbelief at the sight of Glass plumbing his new dishwasher really did happen. "But you are an artist" Hughes spluttered. Glass explained he was sometimes a plumber and he should be left alone to finish the job. In 1978 Glass finally handed in his cab license and ditched his overalls to became a full-time composer.

  

  
  
An anthology of Justin Green's musical legends which include Jim Morrison, Robert Johnson, Iggy Pop to name a few is available here (The lo-fi screenshots above are taken from the 2007 documentary Glass - A Portrait Of Philip In Twelve Parts)

Monday, 3 June 2013

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson

My introduction to Jack Johnson was Miles Davis' 1971 album, A Tribute To Jack Johnson, a collection of music which served as the soundtrack for Jim Jacob's documentary on the life of the great American heavy weight boxer. For Miles the project had a personal resonance. He loved boxing and was a regular at the fights and as he alludes to in his own liner notes for the album, had tremendous admiration for how Johnson lived his life, his taste for fine clothes, fast cars and faster women, and Johnson's refusal to tow the racial line set by the white establishment of 20th century America. All of which is explored in Ken Burns' superb 2004 film Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson which traces the extraordinary life of Jack Johnson, the son of former slaves, who fled Galveston, Texas to seek his fortune and battled and bludgeoned his way to became the first black heavyweight champion of the world.

In telling the story of Johnson's life the film explores the emergence of professional boxing from its earliest days when matches were strictly unregulated underground affairs to the world-famous The Fight of the Century of 1910 when former undefeated heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries came out of retirement to fight Jack Johnson. The film is also a damning indictment of systematic suppression of blacks in the post-Reconstruction America. Ultimately Johnson's toughest opponent was Jim Crow, and he had as many battles outside the ring - his struggle against the racism within the boxing world which denied him for years a shot at the heavyweight title because of his color, the poisonous racial theorizing aimed at undermining his athletic achievements, and the contempt he earned for his relationships with white women. Johnson was fiercely intelligent, highly sophisticated and for a man of his time progressively-minded, opening up a speakeasy on the South-side of Chicago which catered for blacks and whites - "I have found no better way in avoiding race prejudice" Johnson once said, "than to act with people of other races as if prejudice did not exist".

1909. Jack Johnson towers before a flattened Stanley Ketchel. Johnson hit Ketchel so hard it is said Ketchel's front teeth were found embedded in Johnson glove.

Unforgivable Blackness follows on the tradition of previous Burns films like The Civil War (1990) or Baseball (2004). Instead of the fragmented, frenetic pacing of contemporary TV documentaries (as well as the current vogue for applying three dimensional effect to photographs), Burns has a more classical meditative style, weaving together an incredible tapestry of archive photographs, personal correspondence, newspaper clippings and film footage (complete with subtle and sensitive sound effects to add additional life to the images). The film features insightful commentary from a wide range of personalities, including novelist and critic Stanley Crouch, essayist Gerald Early, Johnson biographer Randy Roberts, boxing writers Bert Sugar and W.C. Heinz, and James Earl Jones who played Jack Johnson on Broadway and film in The Great White Hope. Returning from previous Burns' films, Jazz (2001) and Mark Twain (2002) is the great Keith David who provides another fine narration, and among the excellent voice cast are Brian Cox, Ed Harris, Derek Jacobi, Amy Madigan, Joe Morton, Alan Rickman, Studs Terkel, Billy Bob Thornton, Eli Wallach, Jeffrey Wright and with great presence, Samuel L. Jackson as the voice of Jack Johnson. Wynton Marsalis provides the enjoyable ragtime score (with snatches of Blind Willie Johnson). Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson is available as a standalone 2-disc set or as part of an excellent value 10-disc American Lives boxset which rounds up a number of other Ken Burns films. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive

This week I caught a screening of Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive, a film I hadn't seen in quite some time probably owing to Elite's no-frills DVD edition which suffered from excessive digital fog. In 2007 Dark Sky Films put out their DVD edition which added a second disc of extras but more importantly featured a much improved transfer. I picked up the Dark Sky disc soon after its release and quietly filed it away on the shelf and forgot about it - until now. Thankfully the intervening years haven't dampened my enthusiasm for Hooper's so called difficult second album (actually his third film, if you include his rarely seen 1971 debut Eggshells) and Eaten Alive remains as sleazy and violent as you imagined 70's drive-in films to be when you were too young to rent them at the video store.


Unlike George Romero who did an about-turn after Night of the Living Dead with the romantic comedy relic There's Always Vanilla, Tobe Hopper took a job directing a screenplay which was so slavish of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre the comparisons between his breakthrough film and Eaten Alive seem unavoidable. The plot sees a disparate group of people wind up at the decrepit Starlight hotel in Louisiana to be picked off by a madman who's weapons of choice are a scythe and a ravenous alligator. As with Chainsaw, Eaten Alive was inspired by another American serial killer, this time, one Joe Ball, a WWI veteran who disposed of the bodies of over 20 women in a makeshift pool of alligators. Story wise both films may be cut from similar cloth, but Eaten Alive abandons the stark realism of its predecessor for something far more akin to a weird fairy tale, the stagnant bayous of Louisiana entirely recreated and reimagined at a soundstage in Los Angeles.


Watching the film again I was struck by the odd moments of strangeness - actor William Finley barking like a dog, for no apparent reason, or the surreal cutaways to a caged and starved monkey, balanced by scenes of pure menace, like the sequence where 8 year old Kyle Richards is terrorized by the scythe-wielding Neville Brand (a scene which probably caused the film's brief detention as a Video Nasty in the UK). Hooper had reigned in the bloodshed for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in an attempt to secure a PG rating from the MPAA but producer Mardi Rustam had no such concerns and the film doesn't shy away from bloody carnage. More problematic are the scenes of nudity which feel tacked on and probably were - Hooper left the film before completion and there are stories of additional scenes filmed following his departure.


Hooper's direction isn't as fluid as his other films, there's little of the show off camerawork that you might expect from the director, perhaps as a consequence of the limited scope of the sets, but the film conjures up a thick sinister atmosphere with its baroque lighting and the eccentric musique concrète soundtrack of tweeting electronics and music box chimes, meshing with the sounds of a radio spewing forth dreary country ditties. And there's the splendidly repellent art direction - the hotel, all mouldering wallpaper and strewn with discarded bric-a-brac, magazines, spectacles and a half-dressed mannequins. Of the cast Marilyn Burns spends most of her time gagged and tied to a bed while a young Robert Englund playing an obnoxious cowboy with a penchant for sodomy bags the film's famous first line. Stuart Whitman equips himself well as the helpful sheriff, Carolyn Jones acting underneath some old-age make plays the wizened brothel madam trying to unload some useless real estate, while a shell-shocked Mel Ferrer looks like he's wandered into the wrong the film. Effortlessly stealing the show however is Neville Brand who seems genuinely beyond the pale and clearly channelling a wellspring of alcoholic rage into his performance. Brand's hard-drinking had just about finished off a distinguished career and despite later appearances in The Ninth Configuration and Without WarningEaten Alive is effectively Brand's acting swansong.

No word about Eaten Alive is complete without mention of the film's numerous retitles. Years of choppy distribution has left the film with at least five official titles, 3 of which have been used elsewhere. Eaten Alive! was chosen as the export title for Umberto Lenzi's 1980 cannibal film (starring Mel Ferrer!); the film's UK title Death Trap is also the name of a 1982 Sidney Lumet film, and Horror Hotel was previously used as the US title for John Moxey's 1960 film City of the Dead. Apparently, the film might have been issued at one point as Brutes and Savages, also the title of a dreadful mondo from 1977 but I've yet to see anything that proves this. Personally, I like the eerily evocative Starlight Slaughter best. And finally no one it seems can agree on whether the creature in the film is in fact an alligator or a crocodile, least of all the person who compiled the closing credits, assigning effects artist Bob Mattey a credit for Mechanical Alligator and Crocodile...