Sunday, 29 June 2014

Taking the Stand for The Walking Dead

All you have to do is stay on the pedestrian catwalk and in no time at all you'll be... strangled by the walking dead. 
Larry Underwood, The Stand
I've just spent a very pleasant few hours catching up with Season 4 of The Walking Dead, which for reasons unclear to me now, I'd been putting off seeing for months. I'm about half way through at this point and I can safely say this has been the strongest series so far as Southern cop Rick Grimes and a rag-tag band of survivors desperately cling onto the last vestiges of civilization in the increasingly eroding world of the living. Despite the show's somewhat listless narrative drift and the endless scenes of people aiming guns at one another, I find it all compulsively watchable, whether it be the astonishingly gory head trauma inflicted on the zombies, or the unrelenting bleakness of it all as the fortunes of the survivors wax and wane, but mostly wane given the show's eagerness to kill off cast members at any given moment.

Post-apocalypse Atlanta in The Walking Dead series

I'm not sure why it hadn't occurred to me before now but The Walking Dead satisfies one major itch I've been wanting to scratch for years now and that is to see a worthy adaptation of Stephen King's end-of-the-world saga The Stand, or at least the novel's first and most powerful section Captain Trips, in which a killer flu virus destroys 99% of mankind, and in turn transforms America into a post-apocalyptic wilderness very much in the vein of The Walking Dead. The scenes in the series of people probing dimly lit corridors where something is inevitably shifting in the darkness seem like they could have been ripped from the pages of The Stand, like the scene in the book where Larry Underwood gropes his way through a darkened Lincoln Tunnel strewn with decomposing bodies and automobile wreckage. The character of Rick Grimes feels like he's cut from the same cloth as The Stand's Stuart Redman who emerges from the Disease Prevention Center in much the same way as Grimes leaves the hospital in the first episode of The Walking Dead, both men discovering the extent of the catastrophe that has befallen their world. Similar too are the characters of The Walking Dead's Hershel Greene and The Stand's Glen Bateman - both wiser, older, men who offer advice to their younger counterparts.

Post-Apocalypse New York in the 5-part comic The Stand: Captain Trips

The idea for a film of The Stand was first mooted in the early 80's when Stephen King entrusted George Romero with the daunting task of bringing his 900-page epic to the screen. Ultimately the sheer size of The Stand ruled out a 140min film (or two films, which was considered at one point), and King's screenplay passed from Romero to Mick Garris who turned in a very pedestrian 8 hour television film in 1994. I suspect The Stand in its entirety might be best left read rather than seen, the book suffers from far too much mythologizing, degenerating into a banal clash between the forces of Good and Evil leading to an insufferable corny climax when the hand of God Himself descends upon the Babylonian city of Las Vegas to detonate a nuclear missile. When Kim Newman reviewed the DVD edition of the mini-series for DVD Delirium, he wryly observed that this divine ending looked laughably similar to the then UK National Lottery advert depicting a huge hand pointing at one lucky lottery winner, announcing "It's you!"1 Perhaps Frank Darabont felt likewise and saw in Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead comic, a proxy version of The Stand which dispensed with the Tolkien nonsense and focused on characters whose colors weren't necessarily fixed to the mast. Whatever the case may be The Walking Dead series has most likely put paid to any future adaptations of The Stand film, TV series or otherwise, and that I must concede, is probably a good thing...


1. "On its first UK appearance the show was hobbled in its big finish because God manifests in exactly the same way as in a series of TV ads for the then new National Lottery"
Kim Newman, The Stand DVD review, DVD Delirium Volume 3

This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a.... large animated hand - The Stand series climax vs. National Lottory ad

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

The Section 3 List

July sees the release of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide Part 2, the sequel to Jake West and Marc Morris’ critically acclaimed 2010 documentary which explored the Video Nasties phenomenon and more. Part 2 which comes as a generous 3-disc set follows closely the format of the first film, with the first disc containing a new documentary entitled Draconian Days, which picks up the story in the aftermath of the Video Recordings Act in 1984, right through to the end of James Ferman’s tenure at the BBFC in 1999 which ushered in a more liberal policy at the British Censors office. Spread over discs 2 and 3 is perhaps the real jewel of the set, a huge trailer reel of films which appeared on the Director of Public Prosecutions' Section 3 list (below), films "deemed liable for seizure and forfeiture under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, but not prosecution". As with the previous Video Nasties set, all trailers are preceded by context-setting introductions from among others Alan Jones, Kim Newman, Stephen Thrower and Patricia MacCormack, and given the eclectic range of Section 3 titles, should make for a fascinating couple of hours...

Black Room, The
Blood Lust
Blood Song
Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll, The
Brutes and Savages
Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, The
Child, The
Christmas Evil
Dawn of the Mummy
Dead Kids
Death Weekend
Deep Red
Demons, The
Don't Answer the Phone!
Enter the Devil
Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, The
Evil, The
Executioner, The
Final Exam
Foxy Brown
Friday the 13th
Friday the 13th Part 2
GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm)
Graduation Day
Happy Birthday to Me
Headless Eyes
Hell Prison
Hills Have Eyes, The
Home Sweet Home
Invasion of the Blood Farmers
Killing Hour, The
Last Horror Film, The
Last Hunter, The
Love Butcher, The

Mad Foxes, The
Mark of the Devil
Massacre Mansion
Naked Fist
Nesting, The
New Adventures of Snow White, The
Night Beast
Night of the Living Dead
Nightmare City
Oasis of the Zombies
Prom Night
Rosemary's Killer
Savage Terror
Scream for Vengeance!
Shogun Assassin
Street Killers
Suicide Cult
Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The
Thing, The
Tomb of the Living Dead
Toy Box, The
Werewolf Woman
Wrong Way
Zombie Holocaust
Zombies: Dawn of the Dead
Zombies Lake

Monday, 16 June 2014

Pictures of a City

Linked below, a short but sweet history of James Joyce's involvement with the Volta Cinema which opened in Dublin in December 1909, purportedly, Ireland's first picture house but it's debatable. Joyce himself did not stay with the cinema very long, disappointed by the lack of enthusiasm of the Dublin populace for the Volta's program of European imports. There's something very appropriate about Joyce having a connection to moving pictures - apparently the author met Eisenstein in the late 20's, both mutual admirers, and I can see Joyce's influence on the cinema of Godard and Fellini, especially 8½. You can read about the Volta Cinema here

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Disintegration Loops Film

I've just spent a very pleasant hour immersed in the film which accompanies music from sound-artist William Basinski's acclaimed The Disintegration Loops recordings. The film consists of a single continuous video camera shot of the Manhattan skyline on the evening of September 11th 2001. The footage was captured from the rooftop of Basinski's apartment block following the collapse of the second World Trade Center and shows huge plumes of smoke drifting across the city... In the weeks before the disaster, Basinski set to work digitizing an archive of old tape recordings he made in the early 80's, mostly bits of classical music sourced from local radio station transmissions which in turn were manipulated and looped to create new ambient soundscapes. As the years wore on, these tape recordings were packed away and forgotten about until Basinski re-discovered them in July 2001 and intrigued by these long lost works began transferring the tapes to CD. After setting up the recording of the first loop, Basinski noticed the music had become increasingly distorted and distressed, and upon inspecting the playback device noticed the magnetic tape was literally crumbling apart as it was being recorded. Basinski's initial dismay at the condition of the tapes now irrevocably beyond repair, soon gave way to delight as this unexpectedly haunted, terminally ill music began to emerge. Basinski quickly recorded the rest of the ailing tapes resulting in the four volumes of music we now know as The Disintegration Loops.

On a crisp, clear, blue skied September morning, Basinski watched from his Brooklyn rooftop, the second World Trade Center building collapse in a 47-story cascade of dust, smoke, steel and rubble. As these extraordinary events unfolded, Basinski played the disintegrated recordings from the sound system in his apartment, the deeply melancholic dying music resonating with the terrible visions unfolding before his eyes, intrinsically linking the music with the events of 9/11. The following morning Basinski recovered the video tape recording from the rooftop and cued the footage up with the first the disintegration loop piece, dlp 1.1. Running just under an hour, the video recording captures the immensity of the disaster with wave after wave of monstrous hot black clouds of concrete dust billowing out of the crash zone and across the Manhattan skyline. In a sense the film is an apocalyptic re-write of Brian Eno's Mistaken Memories of Mediaeval Manhattan, a 47min installation piece composed of footage Eno shot in and around 1980 of the Manhattan skyline with clouds, birds, and aircraft, serenely drifting across the camera's field of vision. Soundtracking the images is Basinski's music which begins with a simple pastoral melody and gradually with each successive pass of the loop makes its inexorable journey to oblivion, and as evening gives way to night, the image of Manhattan becomes like the music, more abstract and nondescript. The followings screen caps and timings are taken from the DVD of the film included in The Disintegration Loops boxset. The film is available for viewing on youtube

dlp 1.1 - 00.49

dlp 1.1 - 11.22

dlp 1.1 - 28.46

dlp 1.1 - 39.08

dlp 1.1 - 58.33

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune (2013)

There's a heart-stopping moment near the beginning of Frank Pavich's 2013 documentary, courtesy of Nicolas Winding Refn, who is recalling a memorable dinner he attended at the home of Alejandro Jodorowsky in Paris. Very late in the night, Jodorowsky asked the Danish director if he would be interested in seeing his film of Dune, which left Winding Refn momentarily stunned and bewildered. Had Jodorowsky somehow filmed Dune, the film famously abandoned in the late 70's ? What Winding Refn was actually invited to look at was the so-called Dune Book, a huge weighty tome produced for potential financiers, containing the mass of pre-production ideas, sketches, designs, storyboards, and shooting plans for Jodorowsky's projected film. Despite the fact that not a single frame of footage was shot for the film, Winding Ref was clearly awestruck: "Sitting there, 2am, at his house, seeing the book, looking at the images, and hearing Jodorowsky telling me what was gonna happen in every scene....I'm gonna tell you something - it's awesome". Watching Pavich's wonderful account of this legendary lost classic of Cinema, you might well agree.

Like the light from a dead star, Jodorowsky's Dune still shines brightly long after its collapse. Paul Sammon wrote about Jodorowsky's proposed film as early as 1984 in a Cinefantastique article entitled Versions of Arrakis You'll Never See. HR Giger's account of the film has appeared in several of his art books in conjunction with his paintings for the film, as have Chris Foss' conceptual art and Jean "Moebius" Giraud's storyboards and character sketches, which have been published or made available online.  Pavich's film brings all these strands together for what is the most fully rounded account of Dune to date, inching the viewer ever closer to what the film might have been. The heart of the documentary is Jodorowsky himself, at 84 years old discussing in Spanish and his own idiosyncratic take on English, the plans he had for Dune with an enthusiasm and energy of a man half his age. Jodorowsky is one of the great poet-philosophers of Cinema - when El Topo emerged in the early 70's, Jodorowsky declared: "I ask of film what most North Americans ask of psychedelic drugs". Speaking about Dune in 2013 Jodorowsky recalled an even greater ambition, referring to his film in hallowed terms as "an artistical, cinematographical God"

Alejandro Jodorowsky: "I wanted to make something sacred"

Jodorowsky has spoken on camera about Dune before, in the 1995 documentary La Constellation Jodorowsky, and the 2007 biography Moebius Redux: A Life In Pictures. What's significant about his turn here is the passion with which he recalls the doomed project, the sense of awe he had for the team of collaborators he gathered around him - Moebius, Dan O'Bannon, Chris Foss and HR Giger, his spiritual warriors whom he intrinsically trusted to bring his dream of Dune to life. There's a wonderful moment in the film when Jodorowsky appears upset yet composed when talk turns to the demise of the film, only to have his mood re-invigorated at the failure of David Lynch's Dune, a film maker Jodorowsky evidently has huge respect for, but cheerfully admits his relief that Lynch's film did not scale his own grand ambitions. Listening to Jodorowsky, there's a sense that the Chilean director is taking the opportunity afforded by Pavich's film to settle his affairs - at least in terms of Dune and at the finale of the documentary he sounds a clarion call for film makers to take all the material created for Dune and make their own film of it.

The colossal Dune Book, and a page of Moebius' storyboards inside

Elsewhere Jodorowsky spins marvelous yarns and delights in the serendipitous way the film came together. No sooner had Jodorowsky decided to seek out Moebius as his major collaborator on the film ("my camera" as he describes the French illustrator), both men soon met by pure chance. After an ill-fated meeting with Douglas Trumbull who was first considered to create Dune's special effects, Jodorowsky attended a screening of Dark Star in a nearby theater, and impressed by what he saw, contacted Dan O'Bannon to offer him the job instead. Ever inventive, Jodorowsky explains how he persuaded to Orson Welles to appear as the grotesquely bloated Baron Harkonnen, and his rather ingenious solution for dealing with Salvador Dali's preposterous salary demand for playing the Emperor of the Universe ($100,000 per minute of screen time!). Jodorowsky also recalls with some amusement his first meeting with Pink Floyd (chosen to write part of the score, along with the volcanic free-rock outfit Magma), and his outrage when the band turned up at the meeting in jocular form - "How you don't understand I am to offer you, the most important picture in the history of humanity. We will change the world. And you are eating...big macs!" - the director's fury quickly focusing the Floyd on the matter at hand.

Dune's spiritual warriors:
top: Alejandro Jodorowsky and Moebius (accompanied by a Sardaukar soldier)
middle: futurist designer Chris Foss, bottom: the late HR Giger

Despite the scope of Pavich's film there are some omissions although understandably not the fault of the film makers. Dan O'Bannon passed away in 2009, and Moebius followed in 2012. O'Bannon does make a posthumous appearance in the documentary by way of a voice recording, describing his incredible hallucinatory first meeting with Jodorowsky (who supplied the hallucinogen). O'Bannon's wife Diane is on hand and discusses her husband's happy time working on the film and the emotional turmoil he suffered after the film was abandoned. A key theme in the documentary is Dune's sense of collaboration, with Chris Foss and the late HR Giger remembering the atmosphere of creativity Jodorowsky created for his artists, both men turning in some of the best work of their careers; from Foss' spaceships which look like cosmic tropical fish, to Giger's dark, occult landscapes and citadels of the evil Harkonnen planet.

Chris Foss' design of the stricken Pirate spaceship, with the cargo of spice leaking out of the ruptured hull

For all its lofty ambition there is the inevitable question of whether Jodorowsky could have pulled it off. Pavich's film admirably attempts to answer the unanswerable by using some very tasteful 3D animation to bring to life Moebius' storyboards - the opening sequence alone was conceived as an immense long shot which would travel across the luminous wastes of the galaxy, eventually zeroing in on a pirate spaceship engaged in battle with a convoy of transports carrying the precious Dune spice. Jodorowsky later switches from outer space to inner space in a pivotal scene where Dune's hero Paul Atreides is conceived when a drop of his father's blood is seen travelling through his mother's uterus, the blood then fusing with the ovum in a spectacular explosion of fertilization. Considering Jodorowsky reenacted the conquest of Mexico in an extraordinary sequence in Holy Mountain using costumed frogs, one suspects his Dune could have been very special indeed. Despite the providence the film enjoyed as it took shape, Dune's collapse was swift and brutal. The production was financially secure with enough French money, but the film needed a large American distribution deal to recoup its budget. When producer Michel Seydoux shopped the film around to the major studios there was little appetite to deal with a maverick director and a film which might have ran anywhere between 12 and 20 hours. Speaking about the film's reception in Hollywood, Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz recalled "The worry was it would go way over budget...and it wouldn't have an audience because no one would want to sit through that long a film".

Jodorowsky’s Dune may have ended in failure but Pavich steers his own film towards a positive ending of sorts by celebrating the legacy of the film. With Dune Books deposited at all the various studios, the bones of the film were picked clean in the years that followed. Pavich borrows judicious clips from such disparate sci-fare as Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Masters of the Universe, Contact, Prometheus to illustrate the influence of Dune. Dan O’Bannon in the fallout from the film poured his energies into a screenplay entitled Star Beast which incorporated ideas from Dune, and later became Alien. Jodorowsky himself was still working out elements of Dune with his next film, the underappreciated Tusk, which he opened with a spectacular long shot. More significantly Jodorowsky and Moebius went on to collaborate on a series of graphic novels which were steeped in Dune mythology. The final word goes to Richard Stanley who makes a welcome appearance here, best sums up the film’s enigma: “Dune is probably the great movie never made. It continues to influence us and will go on influencing generations to come, despite the fact that it doesn’t exist, we cannot rent it, we cannot watch it…”