Thursday, 28 January 2016

Napoléon returns from exile

Vladimir Roudenko as a young Corsican named Bonaparte... Fantastic news today that the BFI are set to release Kevin Brownlow's restoration of Abel Gance's Napoléon on Blu-Ray in the Autumn, and with that in mind I've just watched the first hour of my 5hr 13min copy, which was sourced from a British TV screening, and by and large is very good looking, but reduces the triptych to a single screen - I'm assuming the BFI will letterbox this section. I'm looking forward to completing the film over the next few days, the first hour was tremendous - the snowball fight at the military school, Alexandre Koubitzky's firebrand Danton, the revolutionary zealots singing La Marseillaise for the first time, a gloomy Napoléon watching a man hung from his apartment window by a vicious mob... Hugely exciting stuff, and I had forgotten Gance's anarchic handheld camerawork and the hyper-editing - the snowball fight in particular crescendoes in a dizzying volley of frenzied cross-cutting and superimpositions. More thoughts to follow...

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Revisiting Martin

John Amplas as a troubled Count... Just fresh from a screening of George Romero's 1976 film Martin courtesy of the 2000 Anchor Bay DVD. I hadn't seen the film for a few years so I'm pleased to say it remains as astonishing as ever. After the initial screening I took a second pass of the DVD, dipping in and out of the commentary track, which I've previously heard but had forgotten Romero's lamenting of the lost 3-hour b/w version of Martin which was stolen from the director's office. The familiar 95min cut of the film is so perfectly cut and paced - I'm thinking of the terrifically taut home invasion sequence, I wonder how this 3-hour version would play out. Romero mentions that this long version had reams of narration by Amplas, which was dropped for the final cut, but interestingly survived the paperback novelization - something to seek out. Another element of the film I really enjoyed this time round was Donald Rubinstein's atmospheric Stomu Yamashta-esque score, beautifully complimenting the extraordinary ghost town images of Braddock, Pittsburgh. I haven't seen any other DVD editions of the film but Anchor Bay's 15 year old DVD is looking very tired these days, hopefully a fresh HD transfer of the film is not far off...

Incidentally, my good friend and extremely talented graphic artist and film poster designer Jeremy (aka Silver Ferox) has designed two beautiful Martin posters - check them out here. Would be Blu-Ray producers take note !

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Crystal Japan

Musings on Crystal Japan, one of David Bowie’s secret and sadly neglected masterpieces… I’ve always considered this beautiful instrumental something of an orphan, its exact lineage is still debatable. Ostensibly the track is associated with the Scary Monsters album, apparently it was intended to close the album before being relegated to the flipside of the Up the Hill Backwards single. Furthermore Rykodisc reinstated the track back into Scary Monsters when it appeared on their 1992 CD re-issue as a bonus cut. And yet, Crystal Japan, or to give it its original title Fuje Moto San, doesn’t sound much like anything recorded during Scary Monsters, in fact the piece had been written in advance of Bowie’s appearance in the Crystal Jun Rock commercial in March 1980 which puts Crystal Japan just ahead of the Scary Monsters sessions. I’m thinking the track emerged from the Lodger recordings (and if so I wonder what else missed the album’s final cut) although listening to the track this morning I think it shares some of the same DNA as Sense of Doubt off “Heroes”. Despite Crystal Japan not having any readily identifiable Japanese elements (no koto strumming like Moss Garden), I think the track with its childlike melody would sound terrific in a Studio Ghibli film. Listen here

Friday, 22 January 2016

Dead End Street Listening

Another coup for the vinyl snobs ! Currently listening to some dark and eerie electronica courtesy of the soundtrack of Last House on Dead End Street which is set to make its debut as a vinyl-only release mid-February. A preview of the soundtrack can be heard here and it’s a treat to finally hear these pieces without the intrusion of canned dialogue and agonized screams. Putting this soundtrack together was something of a Herculean task - these short electronic pieces (and one unexpected burst of Euro-lounge) were originally selected by Roger Watkins from the vast KPM Library Music archive but crucially were left uncredited, which prompted some industrious Dead End Street fans to trawl thru the KPM discography to identify the pieces and their composers - among them Delia Derbyshire and Ron Geesin, the latter forging an unlikely link between Last House on Dead End Street and Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother !

Monday, 18 January 2016

Les Rallizes Dénudés

The mood this morning has been for maximum heaviosity so I’m currently trawling thru a 4CD collection of late 70’s live performances by Japan’s legendary psych rock group Les Rallizes Dénudés. I mentioned something last week about the MC5 and Faust and their links, tenuous or otherwise to revolutionary groups (The White Panthers and the Baader-Meinhof Group respectively) but Les Rallizes Dénudés are the real deal - the band’s bass player Moriaki Wakabayashi participated in the hijacking of a commercial airplane in 1970 with a militant Communist faction subsequently called The Yodogō Group. This event effectively drove the band underground, frontman and leader Takashi Mizutani became increasingly paranoid and elusive to the point where even today a shroud of secrecy envelops the band, not to mention a layer of tape hiss - apart from a few inconsequential recording sessions, the band’s music can only be heard courtesy of lo-fi tape recordings made at Rallizes concerts. Ironically, these grungy documents compliment Les Rallizes Dénudés music most effectively, the primal, lumbering psychedelic noise sounds utterly fantastic. If you’re a fan of famously terrible live albums like The Stooges’ Metallic K.O. or Wire’s Document and Eyewitness, your flight awaits...

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The Passion According to Martin

More musings on Tarkovsky... Some discussion earlier about the forthcoming Artificial Eye Blu-Ray of Andrei Rublev and whether it will contain the long 205min cut of the shorter 185min version had me thinking of the story of Martin Scorsese obtaining a print of the extremely rare 205min Rublev in the early 90's whilst visiting Russia. A print of the 205min version was preserved in secret by Tarkovsky's editor Lyudmila Feiginova before Goskino officials ordered the film trimmed for length and contentious material. According to legend this print was stored under a bed before eventually passing to Scorsese and finally to Criterion for their 1994 laserdisc edition. It's a wonderful account of clandestine film preservation and triumphant rediscovery and perhaps understandable if the story has been embellished somewhat - I've read discussions of the film in which Scorsese "smuggles" Rublev out of Russia, which conjures up noirish images of Scorsese carting the outlaw print onto a Moscow runway with the Intelligence agency hot on his heels. The truth was more sober. When Tarkovsky's sister Marina was asked in 2003 if Lyudmila Feiginova's heroic act of preservation in the Soviet era was dangerous, she replied: "No, it did not pose any particular danger. Nobody knew about it, and nobody would have cared anyway." Still, it would make a rather interesting film I think...

Mirror - the Definite Article

I wonder are there any Russian speakers reading this ? Artificial Eye are set to release Tarkovsky's 7 feature films on BR later this year, kicking off with Ivan's Childhood in April and culminating with The Sacrifice in July. No further details so far but all 7 covers have been posted online and I'm liking them very much. Which brings me to Mirror. Previous AE editions of Tarkovsky's film, the VHS and DVD, have been under the title of Mirror but the new BR artwork suggests they've gone for the inferior title of The Mirror. This necessitated some investigation as to whether the film comes with a definite article or not and I'm still not sure - some territories added the definite article, others didn't. Foreign language titles are fluid of course, but I'm curious to know if the Russian title зеркало translates as Mirror or The Mirror... I posed the question on my Facebook page and Michael Brooke, who's reliably knowledgeable about Eastern European and Russian Cinema chimed in with:
Russian doesn't have articles, so Mirror, The Mirror and indeed A Mirror are all valid translations. Had his last film been made in Russian, it might well have reached English-speaking markets as Sacrifice - and that's undoubtedly how Tarkovsky himself would have thought of it.

The Trash Factor

Wrestling with that thorny existentialist question: Is life too short for Bad Cinema ? I watched Don Dohler's 1978 debut The Alien Factor earlier and I should have known better - the general consensus about this one is that it's "not as good as Nightbeast" - perhaps the worst thing anyone can say about any film. Dohler's film is the epitome of what Frank Zappa affectionately referred to as "Cheapniss", and while the creatures running amok in this monster jamboree pleasantly recall 50's quickies, the ruinous direction, endless padding, bad wigs and unspeakable performances had me praying for a quick death. Actually I'm a little cross with myself because I should have used the time to work thru my unwatched discs but the original selection, L'Argent, a hefty two and a half hour French Silent seemed like too much heavy lifting so I thought I'd put my feet up with this Dohler's film but even fast forwarding thru lengthy scenes of ill-prepared cast members tramping thru the wilds of Maryland (and they were literally peering into every bush for the film's runaway monsters), this one felt like a 3-hour grind ! I thought I was prepared for Synapse's Blu of Manos: The Hands of Fate but I'm gonna have to think this one over...

Incidentally, for readers in the UK and Ireland, this piece of junk washed up on Talking Pictures, a 24/7 movie channel (Sky 343 / Freeview 81) which has offered up all sorts of interesting and colorful oddities - from wartime British films to 70's sex comedies to drive-in exploitation. In the last few weeks I've netted a few titles from the BFI's Flipside series (Lunch Hour and The Party's Over), Pete Walker's 1970 comedy Cool It Carol, the bikini-busting Dyanne Thorne quickie Point of Terror, and a number of Lee Frost/Wes Bishop knock-offs. Worth a glance at the listings...

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Bowie & Buster

Another great cinematic what-if was a planned Buster Keaton biopic starring David Bowie in the role of the Great Stone Face. Apart from a few pics of Bowie reading Rudi Blesh’s 1966 biography of Keaton during some downtime on The Man Who Fell To Earth production, I don’t think the project advanced very far but Buster was still on Bowie’s mind in 1993 when he appeared as the comic in the video for the Black Tie White Noise single Miracle Goodnight. A more substantial unrealized film project, first mooted in the early 80’s was Derek Jarman’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi film Neutron which would have featured David Bowie and Steven Berkoff as two opposing warriors of the wasteland. Ultimately the film fell through and Jarman funneled some of Neutron's ideas into his 1988 film The Last of England but in 1999, five years after Jarman’s death Bowie was still speaking enthusiastically about the project: "I want to approach his family at some time to see if we could do something with it. I have his script and his drawings. I even know down to the music how he wanted to have things done. And it would be lovely posthumously to do his piece. It would be fabulous. A wonderful script, a very scary piece of work.”

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

"If I can't dance to it, it's not my revolution"

I’m currently reading Peter Doggett’s 2007 book There's a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of '60s Counterculture and I was curious to google a certain Columbia Records advert the author mentions in the text. The infamous ad “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music” appeared in various underground publications in late 1968 and was greeted with jeers and mockery for Columbia’s apparent commitment to the revolutionary cause. Worse still Columbia wasn’t exactly a wellspring of edgy revolutionary music - apart from the idiosyncratic United States of America, the label had no firebrands like the MC5 or Last Poets to call its own, instead it looks like the mixed race of agitators pictured in the advert have been busted for listening to avant-gardists like Terry Riley and Stockhausen. Ironically, had the label waited ‘til 1970, the ad might have worked as a spot for one of Columbia’s biggest sellers, Bitches Brew which truly was the music of revolution, not to mention Mati Klarwein’s Afro-centric album artwork couched in the politics of Black Power and Black Pride.

Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie (1947 - 2016 - ????)

A constant companion in my life thru good times and bad, thick and thin has left the stage for the last time. A rush of recent activity signaled a renewal of creativity but now I realize it was a race against time – fortunately Blackstar is a wonderful swansong and in the space of three short days the album’s meaning has changed forever. I am numb, heartbroken. I can’t think of anything profound to say. Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do...

Post-script - 18th January

It has been an impossible week, and I was completely unprepared for it. I’m not a gushing sentimental type, when favorite artists leave the stage for the final time I can temper their passing knowing that they have left their mark on the world with a body of work that will last forever – I’m thinking of Peter Christopherson in 2010 and Lou Reed back in October 2013. But when I heard the news about Bowie last Monday week, I felt crushed. Blackstar had been blowing thru the house all weekend and I was looking forward to a renewal of activity and even the small hope that I might catch him this year in concert. I had no idea he had been ill – his vocals on Blackstar sound like a man in rude health – and later I was annoyed with myself for not thinking anything sinister after seeing the Lazarus video a few days previously. I don’t think I spoke to anyone on that terrible Monday, mercifully my nearest and dearest understood and left me to brood on my own. I’m still finding it difficult – reading tributes to Bowie from contemporaries and bands he inspired doesn't bring comfort, it just feels surreal – everyone talking about him in the past tense. And I haven’t listened to any Bowie music since he died - a curious side-effect of grieving I suppose. In time this will pass and the albums will be restored to their usual rotation  the CD player, and I expect I will revisit the films over the next few weeks. Just last night I started re-reading Kevin Cann’s excellent encyclopedic work Any Day Now: David Bowie The London Years (1947-1974), which for now will be administered like medicine for a broken heart.

The world is now a less interesting place to live in, but I'm blessed that for a time I shared that world with David Bowie. Whoever had a better soundtrack to their life ?

Thursday, 7 January 2016


These past few days I’ve been making my way thru Autechre’s massive 2015 live collection Ae_Live which consists of 9 one-hour live sets recorded in various cities across Europe in 2014/15. These recordings were taken directly from the soundboards so there’s no crowd noise straying into the mix, making these recordings sound less like performance documents and more like new studio workouts, prompting some furious debate among Autechre devotees as to whether these should be treated as 9 new albums or merely stop-gap dispatches. Either way, the music is extraordinary, very much in the vein of recent albums like Exai and Quaristice, all high velocity data streams of distressed electronics, fractured beats, Industrial noise and jagged machine glitch. I've read a comment from one listener drawing a comparison with the exploratory night flights of The Grateful Dead - it’s a good analogy but a better one might be drawn with the ecstatic fire music of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler - cacophonous, atonal but strangely beautiful. More info and samples at Autechre's Bleep Store...

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Inevitable Force Awakens post

Should the long-suffering people of North Korea ever have to hear proclamations from their supreme leader in the guise of a 50ft hologram, we can all blame J.J Abrams for putting the thought in Kim Jong-un's mind.... I got my draft card for the Star Wars film this afternoon and stepped up to fulfill my patriotic duty - but more about that in a moment. As the first act of The Force Awakens unfolded I wondered if Abrams and his team were being unduly reverential with the Star Wars legacy, such were the nods, winks and asides to the Original Trilogy, but as the film hit its stride, my suspicions eased when it became apparent that Abrams had pulled off the all but impossible task of making a Star Wars sequel entirely harmonious with the films that, sequentially speaking, preceded it. The Force Awakens answers all the questions asked of it - the screenplay is lucid, intelligent, and creative (the light saber duel in a snowy, twilit forest is truly spectacular), the cast incredibly able, especially the two very likeable young leads, and the magnificent futurist designs are complimented by some extraordinary and judiciously used CGI. I hasten to add that this is not a case of the seduction of the gullible - at least one CG-character I thought was ill-advised and I felt the otherwise reliable Domhnall Gleeson was guilty of scenery chewing, but these are minor complaints. As for that bit of patriotic business I mentioned earlier, it was a great thrill to see Ireland's own wild Atlantic island Skellig Michael in a pivotal scene late in the film. I was privileged to trod those same ancient, precarious steps as one character does some years ago...

Monday, 4 January 2016

There's a Riot Going On !

The fire wagons kept comin', baby, but the Black Panther Snipers wouldn't let them put it out”…. I’ve been listening to Kick Out the Jams these past few days, it’s become the soundtrack of my latest read, Peter Doggett’s 2007 book There's a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of '60s Counterculture. I’m only about 100 pages in so far but it’s already proving a fascinating read, especially the section on the various Black revolutionary groups that were jostling for power as the 60’s drew to a close. Particularly interesting I thought was Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton’s reading of Highway 61 Revisited as a coded text about the oppression of African-Americans - I’ve been looking over the lyrics to Side 1 of the album, "Ballad of a Thin Man" and l must confess I just don’t see it. I’d love to know what Bob Dylan thought of Newton’s interpretation. I’ve read some criticism of the book that it has an American bias, which is a shame, I would have liked to read something about German band Faust and its association with members of the Baader-Meinhof Group. Still, with 500 pages left to read I’m looking forward to picking it up later…