Thursday, 29 May 2014

Fear of the Flesh: The Making Of The Fly

When the book is written about DVD there should be a chapter devoted to "false starts", and in it perhaps a note on David Cronenberg's masterpiece The Fly which Fox dumped on DVD in 2000 devoid of extras and perhaps most disingenuously paired with Chris Walas' utterly dismal sequel. Cronenberg fans had to wait five years for The Fly to be released in a stand-alone special edition but their patience was rewarded with a fine, nuanced transfer, a typically erudite director's commentary, plus a second disc of worthwhile extras. The centerpiece of the supplements is the 2005 documentary Fear of the Flesh, a superb 2 hour 41 minute making-of documentary which rounds up most of the major cast and crew members to share their memories of making the film.

Geena Davis and David Cronenberg on the set of The Fly

It’s almost expected these days that films produced under trying circumstances result in the most compelling retrospectives, watching the film-making process come off the rails in Burden of Dream or Hearts of Darkness can make for utterly compulsive viewing. The production of The Fly by contrast was relatively harmonious, but Fear of the Flesh is no less fascinating for it. While the film wasn't beset by a megalomaniac director or an out-of-control budget, the documentary reveals how two unforeseen crises fundamentally shaped the film into what we know today – the exit from the project of the original director (following the tragic, sudden death of his daughter), and the collapse of Cronenberg’s Total Recall adaptation for which the director had invested 12 months of pre-production work only to find himself effectively in search of work. Cronenberg himself is absent among the talking heads, which is a shame (perhaps he was busy making A History of Violence), but a younger, bespectacled Cronenberg is present in the wealth of video footage that was shot on set, showing the director quiet and relaxed, discussing set-ups with his actors or cheerfully directing the special effects crew to pump more blood and gloop. Despite the lo-fi fuzzy quality of the video footage, much of it is remarkable – we see the Chris Walas’ crew skillfully working the animatronic puppets (which netted the film’s only Academy Award), or Cronenberg himself wearing some bug-eyed glasses and dime-store fly wings, trying out the rotating room set which allowed Jeff Goldblum to crawl seamlessly up the walls of his laboratory. In addition there are outtakes of shots where optical effects didn't quite come off, and there’s some wonderful test film of Goldblum wearing the Brundlefly costume accompanied by a beautiful, fresh-faced Geena Davis.

Beauty and the Beast - Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis pose for test footage of the Brundlefly suit

As for the cast and crew interviewees, all bring vivid, fascinating recollections to the documentary. Jeff Goldblum, who seems as nervy as the characters he plays, remembers some last minute dialogue he added to his adrenalized monologue in the cafe scene; art designer Carol Spier reveals her inspiration for the design of the telepods, while cameraman Mark Irwin tells a hilarious story about Typhoon the Baboon's scandalous behavior on set. One of the more interesting subjects covered in the documentary are the two legendary cut scenes from The Fly – the infamous Monkey-Cat sequence and the Butterfly Baby dream sequence. In the Monkey-Cat sequence Brundlefly splices the baboon with a cat creating a grotesque, agonized hybrid of the two which Brundlefly quickly batters to death. In the second half of the sequence Brundlefly goes to the roof of his warehouse to vent his rage when a piece of fly appendage bursts forth from his body – which Brundlefly appears to eat away in utter frustration. The sequence was of course cut from the final film, which producer Stuart Cornfield admits was done in fear of the audience losing sympathy with Goldblum’s character. I personally don’t lament the loss of this sequence in the film, the actual monkey-cat puppet looks less impressive than Chris Walas’ other designs, which Walas readily admits was quickly prepped and shot right at the end of a hectic shooting day. Less contentious perhaps is the animated Butterfly Baby sequence which was conceived as one possible coda to the film. In the scene Geena Davis is lying on a bed and dreams of her unborn baby hatching from a larvae and flying off into a celestial light. It’s quite a lovely sequence in itself but absolutely belongs in another film. Wisely the sequence was dropped with little regret. Incidentally, both sequences can be found elsewhere on the DVD’s extras disc, and have been cleaned up and complimented with Howard Shore’s music to present them as they might have played in the final film. A very nice touch.

You are what you eat - from the Monkey-Cat sequence

Butterfly Baby takes flight (to the cutting room floor)

All told, Fear of the Flesh: The Making Of The Fly is an essential, near exhaustive chronicle of one of the great classics of 80’s Cinema, and establishes a marker for how a long-form biography of a film should be done. If, like me, you have missed this documentary, it comes highly recommended in conjunction with David Cronenberg’s commentary track. Be very impressed indeed.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Extra ! Extras !!

One of the problems of owning a substantial (read: bloated) DVD collection is finding the time to balance screenings of new acquisitions with old favorites. I must admit this is a skill I have yet to master, and I still have far too many films yet to be torn from their shrink wrap. Lately though I'm becoming more conscious of how far I've fallen behind on extras. When I first began collecting DVD in 1999 it was easy to watch everything - I must have seen Terror Takes Shape, the superb 82min making-of documentary found on the DVD of The Thing two or three times, and I really did sit through 49mins of Blood Feast out takes generously provided on the Something Weird disc. The documentary extra has become my weapon of choice over the years, this is the supplement I prize above all else, and the film collector has been treated to many incredible retrospectives - The Making of Close Encounters of The 3rd Kind (100mins), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Shocking Truth (75mins), Dangerous Days: Making Blade Runner (211mins), Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist (77mins), Under Pressure: Making the Abyss (60mins), The Shark is Still Working: The Impact and Legacy of Jaws (101mins), Universal Horror (95mins), Behind the Planet of the Apes (126mins) - all of which are highly recommended...

So, with that in mind I'm setting myself the challenge of seeing the following 10 documentaries over the next few weeks...

Fear of the Flesh: The Making Of The Fly (136mins)
Billy, How Did You Do It? (documentary about Billy Wilder, 183mins)
Notes on City of Women (60mins)
The Making of Psycho (94mins)
The Dead Will Walk (documentary about Dawn of the Dead, 76mins)
The Beast Within: Making Alien (177mins)
Stories (documentary about Eraserhead, 90min)
RKO Production 601: The Making of Kong, Eighth Wonder of the World (159mins)
The Battle Over Citizen Kane (113mins)
Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood (1979 documentary about Hunter Thompson & Ralph Steadman, 51mins)

We'll see how that goes !

Friday, 23 May 2014

"Tonite's film... "

A tacked on but somewhat necessary Introduction...
The following post began as a diatribe against the current state of television, but quickly changed into a sort of check-list of films discovered in my formative years of becoming a serious film fan. What follows is not a history of 90's television, but rather a spotty but hopefully accurate memoir of what I was watching during these years...

I'm currently reading The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the Third Programme and Radio Three, Humphrey Carpenter's dense and engrossing 1997 book, charting the long and turbulent history of BBC Radio's intellectual wing, The Third Programme which began broadcasting highbrow culture to the masses in 1946, eventually mutating into BBC Three in 1970. Reading the book I found myself reminiscing about how exciting TV was for this young film enthusiast throughout the 90's. In the years before my family bought a VCR, and even some years later when tapes of widescreen editions and foreign films were still prohibitively expensive to buy, television was a goldmine of film treasure. Sift through the TV listings nowadays and you're likely to find a cadre of bland, familiar, safe film titles recycled among the channels.

James Woods is consumed by television in Videodrome

I suspect the rise of home cinema culture is partly responsible for the current homogenization of film-programming on TV and while the film collector has gained more in the trade-off, I still miss the days of staying up late to catch films like El Topo, screened on BBC2 in 1997 (and introduced by Leone biographer Christopher Frayling), or Channel 4's one-time broadcast in 2002 of The Devils reconstruction and the Hell on Earth documentary which accompanied the film.

Any appraisal of this era of film-programming will inevitably lead to BBC2's Moviedrome, which racked up an incredible 11 seasons worth of cult films between 1988 and 2000. The Moviedrome format – a film preceded by an onscreen host introducing the film and contributing a few interesting factoids had been done previously by the BBC - in 1985 Guardian film critic Derek Malcolm hosted Film Club on BBC2 dedicated mainly art house films. Moviedrome by contrast was less precious about its selection, with producer Nick Jones serving up an eclectic roster of titles from the BBC’s film library, from exploitation horror (Q – The Winged Serpent, Rabid), to Italian imports (The Long Hair of Death, A Bullet For the General), eccentric studio pictures (The Beguiled, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), independent wildcards (The Honeymoon Killers, Tracks) as well as the odd idiosyncratic variation on a theme (Escape From Alcatraz double-billed with A Man Escaped). Initially Repo Man director Alex Cox was approached to introduce just one series but ended up fronting Moviedrome until 1994 when the program took a three year hiatus, returning in 1997 with Mark Cousins handling the introductions.

The original Moviedrome logo as seen in series' debut

Making its debut in May 1988 with The Wicker Man, Cox set out Moviedrome’s stall – on a set that resembled a cheap room at the Chelsea Hotel, complete with flashing neon sign outside, Cox wearing a Walker t-shirt, intoned: "Welcome to the Moviedrome a season of cult films. What is a cult film ? A cult film is one which has a passionate following (and) does not appeal to everybody. James Bond movies are not cult films, but chainsaw movies are…” As the series gathered momentum, Cox's introductions became more lengthy and elaborate, especially the opening titles - Moviedrome's first season had Cox transplanted Zelig-syle into old black & white clips, the 1994 season saw Cox on the run as an elusive Third Man. But more importantly, Moviedrome's intros served to properly contextualize films that otherwise might have been baffling to the casual viewer. I became a regular taper of Moviedrome from 1993 onward and it led to some memorable discoveries - Weekend, 200 Motels, Django, Andromeda Strain, The Harder They Come, Carny, Blue Collar, Bad Timing, Le Samourai, and Walkabout.

Alex Cox is the Third Man... from the his final year at Moviedrome

Despite Moviedrome taking a sabbatical after the 1994 season, 1995 was also a very good year for films on BBC2, with the Century of Cinema series picking up the slack. Throughout the year, the BBC showed 100 films chosen by editor Steve Jenkins to celebrate the centenary of the medium. The selection process itself was ring-fenced by what films the BBC had license to, so the series could not include the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Seven Samurai – two permanent top 10 fixtures of any film 100 list, but this left Jenkins with some wriggle room to include more imaginative choices like I Walked With A Zombie or Picnic At Hanging Rock; and perhaps the odd maddening selection - an absent Breathless represented by Jim McBride’s 1983 remake. The real value of the list was the extensive coverage it gave to World Cinema with screenings of Andrei Rublev (my first introduction to Tarkovsky), Amarcord, Tokyo Story, Rocco And His Brothers, Sanjuro, Aguirre Wrath of God, The Spider's Stratagem, as well as recent films like Sonatine and Farewell My Concubine.

Walking with Zombies in celebration of 100 years of Cinema

Closer to the Moviedrome spirit was BBC2’s Forbidden Weekend which ran over the weekend of May 27th 1995, and showed a number of censor-baiting films including Bad Taste, The Night Porter, The Silence (my first Bergman film), Performance and The Devils – the final two selections were particularly significant as the versions shown were the longest seen up to that point (the version of The Devils was the original British X-rated cut, which the BFI put out on DVD in 2012). The Forbidden Weekend also featured an excellent, revelatory two-part documentary on the history of British censorship entitled Empire of the Censors which featured contributions from Roman Polanski, Ken Russell, Bernardo Bertolucci, Donald Cammell, as well as ex-BBFC examiners openly critical of James Ferman's draconian stewardship of the board (with a particularly good account of Ferman's handling of the British VHS release of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). By contrast Doing Rude Things, which followed was an irreverent look back at the halcyon days of the British sex film, based on David McGillivray’s 1992 book of the same name. Interspersed among the films were various personalities waxing lyrical about seeing an X-rated film, among them John Peel fondly remembering an unnerving screening of House of Wax, and Jarvis Cocker defending Borowczyk’s The Beast.

"Dear John, I've cleaned up the shit on the altar..." 
Ken Russell reads his letter to head censor John Trevelyn regarding The Devils in Empire of the Censors

At this point I should say something about film-programming on Channel 4 but my notes are rather sketchy here in terms of transmission dates. In the decade before it was colonized by the reality-TV bug, with 10 solid years of Big Brother, and dreary mondo medical programmes like Embarrassing Bodies, Channel 4 was a tremendous resource for films which leaned towards the independent and the avant-garde. Before my time (and Moviedrome’s), Channel 4 ran a season of films in the winter of 1986 which became known as the Red Triangle films, so-called because the films in the series were prefaced (and discreetly watermarked during the screening) with a warning symbol advising viewer discretion – these were films that were violent and/or sexually explicit but considered culturally important works, like the harrowing 1980 Brazilian street drama Pixote or Shūji Terayama’s mind-bending 1971 film Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets. Channel 4 were required to make cuts to some of the more salacious films in the series to satisfy the Independent Broadcasting Authority, but nonetheless the Red Triangle season was a provocative, defiant moment in television in an era when the Video Nasties controversy was still raw in the mind of the Establishment.

Hallucination generation in Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets

Fortunately by the time I began seriously watching films in the early 90’s Channel 4 were still some years away from their current stagnation. 1993 was a particularly great year on Channel 4 for interesting low-budget independent films and avant-garde, experimental work. There was a season of films devoted to American independent Cinema, entitled Made In the USA, with screenings of sex, lies and videotape, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, She’s Gotta Have It, Metropolitan, as well as a number films by the scene’s spiritual father John Cassavettes, screened concurrently. Midnight Underground which ran through 1993 rounded up a dazzling array of rare experimental films by the likes of Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising), Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon), Stan Brakhage, (Mothlight) Robert Frank (Pull My Daisy), Antony Balch (Towers Open Fire), Jan Svankmayer (Food). Midnight Underground was true to its title and occupied a late night spot on Channel 4 and it’s amusing to think of the pub crowd stumbling home to be confronted with Wojciech Bruszewski’s abrasive 1973 film Yyaa, which consisted of cut-ups of the director primal screaming for the camera.

Allen Ginsberg in Robert Frank's beat happening, Pull My Daisy

Derek Jarman, one of the film makers represented in Midnight Undergound (with his Super8 momento of a Throbbing Gristle concert, T.G. Psychick Rally in Heaven) was a favourite at Channel 4 around this time. In April 1991, two of Jarman's more notorious films Sebastiane and Jubilee were screened as part of the Banned season (which included Scum and Life of Brian). In September 1993, Channel 4 premiered Derek Jarman’s final film Blue, which for the uninitiated consists of a single frame of International Klein Blue color set to the voice of Nigel Terry and others reading extracts from Jarman's diary (later published as Smiling In Slow Motion). Channel 4 was a particularly strong supporter of gay culture during this era and frequently programmed gay-interest films. In December 1993, a whole night of programmes were devoted to The Velvet Underground, which included a very rare screening of the underground classic The Chelsea Girls (which features an appearance by Nico as well as some Velvet Underground music recorded for the film). Some years later Channel 4 secured a very rare (and surely a first for television) screening of James Bidgood's extraordinary 1971 film Pink Narcissus as part of a programme which included Jean Genet's only film, Un Chant d'Amour, as well as a curiously censored version of Scorpio Rising, which had some of the bikers' antics pixellated out as if it was a victim of Japanese film censorship...

Darkness made visible... Derek Jarman's Blue

Fortunately, some of Alex Cox and Mark Cousins' Moviedrome introductions have been saved from oblivion and are available in variable but watchable quality on youtube. All are worth a look... The Empire of the Censors documentary is also available in two parts, in excellent quality and needless to say is highly recommended...

Saturday, 17 May 2014

The Mysterians

Over at the mighty Nostalgic Attic blog, all hell has broken loose with monsters of every shape and size (mostly of the thirty storeys kind) marauding across it's pages, so be sure to stop by and lend a hand to the Attic's harassed caretaker John Mulvanetti for the clean-up operation. Inspired by the Nostalgic Attic's monster jamboree, I've been revisiting Godzilla helmer Ishirô Honda's 1957 space invaders epic, The Mysterians. Strictly Saturday morning fare of course but for anyone interested in dipping their toe into the radioactive waters of Japanese Sci-fi, the film makes for a fine introduction.


The Mysterians, Ishirô Honda's fourth special effects extravaganza for Toho sees the director deviate from from the successful Kaiju formula of his previous monster movies for something more akin to HG Wells' War of the Worlds, with planet Earth fending off an invasion force of radiation stricken aliens looking to relocate from the cold wastes of Mars to the more agreeable terrestrial climates and kick-start their civilization using healthy human females... For all the comic book pulpiness of the plot, The Mysterians is a lavish well-mounted production, with bright, garish photography and art direction (as was the Japanese taste), the film notable for being Toho's first feature shot in 'scope. Admittedly the state-of-the-art special effects have greatly diminished over the years, but the film still boasts some fine model work - like the Mysterians' souped-up flying saucers - wonderful to behold in motion as they zip across the sky in attack mode. Although not a monster movie in the strict sense of the genre, there is a little kaiju icing around the sides with an appearance early on in the film of a colossal bird-like robot monster which reduces towns to ash in the firestorm left in its wake.

Flying Atomic Heat Projectors... fire !

But beyond deadly automatons, death rays and melted tanks, the film delivers grave tidings of the hazards of nuclear energy, the itinerant aliens might well be considered tragic, made homeless after their planet was annihilated by nuclear war (and in a nice bit of popular science, the fragments of the destroyed planet have resulted in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter). The film is given considerable weight too by the casting of Takashi Shimura, imparting a sad-eyed melancholic look throughout. Ultimately, the film is most successful for striking the right balance between juvenile and smart clever science fiction and in this regard is far more accomplished than say the Star Wars prequels whose plots are most likely incomprehensible to their intended audience. Incidentally, the film has left its own dent on popular culture, the Mysterians themselves look like a forerunner for the Japanese TV superheroes Super Sentai (or the Power Rangers if you prefer), while the Mysterians name was borrowed by 60's garage rockers Question Mark and The Mysterians. Interestingly, Gerry Anderson's late 60's creation Captain Scarlet battled a deadly foe called The Mysterons, a race of intergalactic aliens who used Mars as base to attack Earth. Perhaps, Anderson had Honda's film in mind when he conceived his models and marionettes series and used a bit of judicious tweaking to avoid the ire of MGM ?

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Uneasy Riders - First look at the Sorcerer Blu

Before getting down to business, I just wanted to preface this post with an admission that this post was originally inspired by Tim Lucas' recent blog post on the new Sorcerer Blu-Ray, which I felt was just a bit too cool towards one of all-time my favourite films, so now that sides have been chosen...

I'm just fresh from a screening of Warner's new Blu-ray edition of Sorcerer and overall I'm very pleased. Previously my only experience of the film was courtesy of Universal's 1998 DVD, which was little more than a port of the 1990 US laserdisc, with a soft, fuzzy transfer, faded sickly colors, and replicating the disastrous full screen framing found on the laser. Happily the Blu obliterates the DVD in almost every respect, with an astonishingly fresh looking HD transfer framed at 1.78, restoring the cinematic sweep of the film, and sporting wonderful robust colors and incredible detail, lending the jungle sequences in particular, an extraordinary dimentionality. Given Friedkin's propensity for tweaking his films for home video, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the Blu features two revisions, to the video and audio. Picture-wise, the Blu features somewhat different color timing to the DVD. Fortunately it's not quite as radical as the original French Connection Blu, but it's worth mentioning. I've selected two screenshots from DVD Beaver's review of the Blu and placed them alongside some grabs I took from the DVD - the caps are not quite in sync with one another but you might get a sense of what I mean:

 top - Sorcerer DVD 1998 (1.33 framing)
bottom - Sorcerer Blu-Ray 2014 (1.78 framing)

In the first comparison the queasy pink look of the DVD is replaced by a much more naturalistic look on the Blu. The difference in color timing is far more pronounced in the second comparison with the Blu opting for a much darker look for the film's 2nd bridge-crossing sequence. Personally, I like this new look, it adds a grittier contrast to the lush jungle vistas, and the failing light (the sequence is set during a tropical storm) adds more excitement to this great set piece.

The second revision made to the film for the Blu-Ray occurs in the very final moment of the film before the end credits. Without spoiling the ending, Friedkin add two gunshot sounds to the soundtrack where originally there were none. This addition has prompted debate as to whether Friedkin has over-egged the film's finale with this change but I think it matters very little, the original ending remains the same. Elsewhere the audio portion of the Blu does justice to the film's subtle but intricate sound design and the film pulsates with the crack of explosions and violence in the film's first half (strong stuff for a PG, it must be said), while later on the jungle scenes buzz with a powerful insect menace. Incidentally, the film is noteworthy among other things for the soundtrack score by Tangerine Dream (their first film commission in fact), although given Freidkin's sparing use of the music they provided, the album could just as well be counted as one of their great studio albums of the 70's. Finally I mentioned earlier something to the effect that the Blu was superior to the DVD is almost every way - in terms of extras the DVD has the edge containing the hard-working US theatrical trailer ("an unusual adventure into the realm of suspense") and 7 pages of production notes. I suspect any extras are being held back for a future edition, perhaps to mark the film's 40th anniversary in 2017. But don't wait until then, Sorcerer has returned in fine style and is an absolutely essential addition to your film collection.

Further Reading: Toby's Sorcerer Blog is well worth a visit for fans of the film and is teeming with all sorts of interesting articles, links and curios related the film.