Thursday, March 31, 2011

THE SILLITOE PROJECT: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

There had been working class novels before. But they’d generally been written by middle class authors slumming it for the sake of material. When Alan Sillitoe burst onto the literary scene in 1958, the difference was palpable. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ was the real thing. It was in-your-face, attitudinous, unapologetic and fired up with fighting spirit.

This is how the novel starts: twenty-something anti-hero Arthur Seaton (played to belligerent effect by Albert Finney in Karel Reisz’s film version), a lathe operator on piecework rates – ie. someone who gets paid per item he turns rather than an actual hourly rate or weekly wage, and who stands to get his per-item rate lowered if he’s too productive (a key indicator of the novel’s “us and them” stance) – goes to his local pub, gets into an altercation with a loud-mouthed sailor home on leave, accepts the sailor’s challenge to a drinking contest, bests him, then – overcome with the alcoholic intake himself (Sillitoe describes Arthur’s intake as “eleven pints and seven small gins playing hide-and-seek inside his stomach”) – plunges down a flight of stairs. Woken up by one of the barstaff, Arthur blags his way back into the pub and gets another pint down him. Bad move. His guts protest and he sprints for the Gents. He doesn’t make it. An innocent middle-aged bystander receives Arthur’s regurgitation all of his best suit. Said individual reacts by whining impotently about the stains. His wife, however, girds her loins and tears Arthur a new arsehole, demanding that he at least apologise. Arthur responds by barfing over her, as well. The mood in the pub turns ugly. He scarpers.

There are plenty of occasions in the novel where Arthur is quite frankly a bastard. He shots a neighbourhood gossip in the face with an air rifle, he and a pal respond to a drunk driver by dragging him from behind the wheel and pushing his car over, he gets the married woman he’s “carrying on with” pregnant and when she holds out on him sleeps with her sister. He baits the foreman at the bicycle factory where he works. He pretends to be a pal to the workmate he’s cuckolding. He whiles away the hours at his capstan lathe fantasizing about planting dynamite under the factory and “blowing it to smithereens”.

In Britain in the 50s and early 60s there was an imperative called National Service. My old man got out of it because my granddad, out of the pit and running a small haulage business at this point, was driving for the government and therefore my dad wangled a deferment (he was paying court to a lass at the government office at the time, which helped). Most of his mates weren’t that lucky and reluctantly accepted their call-up papers and trudged off to spend two years in khaki. Alan Sillitoe’s first stories, as a kid, were about his cousins who had deserted from National Service; his mother destroyed them lest they be used in evidence.

For me, one of the key passages in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ is when Arthur goes to do his “fifteen days” (ie. a yearly additional stint in uniform):

On his first parade, the sergeant-major exclaimed that he couldn’t make out the shape of Arthur’s head because there was so much hair on it … “You’re a soldier now, not a teddy-boy,” the sergeant-major said, but Arthur knew he was wrong in either case. He was nothing at all when people tried to tell him what he was … What am I? he wondered. A six-foot pit prop that wants a pint of ale. That’s what I am. And if any knowing bastard says that’s what I am, I’m a dynamite-dealer, Sten-gun seller, hundred-ton tank trader, a capstan-lathe operator waiting to blow the army to Kingdom Come. I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.

Or, earlier in the novel, you can boil down Arthur’s philosophy to the one-sentence statement of purpose “All I’m out for is a good time – all the rest is propaganda.”

Between these two statements – “I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me” and “All I’m out for is a good time – all the rest is propaganda”, Alan Sillitoe gave me a reminder, a reality check, a suit of armour. I’m the first Fulwood to hold down a white collar job and it’s changed in my short lifetime beyond anything my granddad or my old man would recognise. The corporate mindset has pushed me through some hoops neither of them would have thought existed. But there’s always been a point where I’ve talked back, argued the toss, pissed off my bosses even though it’s ostensibly been to my detriment.

Arthur’s reprehensible in many ways, but he’s never less than honest about what he is. The theme of a technically dishonest person being true to himself in the face of the system/the establishment is something Sillitoe would address in greater detail in ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, however, more than lays the groundwork. Arthur, to whom family is the only social gathering to which he owes any fealty, has an ingrained antagonism towards authority figures from the outset. In an early chapter, Arthur has a brief conversation with foreman Robboe while he hands out the paypackets:

He walked away, and Arthur slipped the wage packet into his overall pocket. Truce time was over. The enemy’s scout was no longer near. For such was Robboe’s label in Arthur’s mind, a policy passed on by his father. Though no strong cause for open belligerence existed as in the bad days talked about, it persisted for more subtle reasons that could hardly be understood but were nonetheless felt …

Us and them. Bosses and workers. Rich and poor. The peasantry and the upper classes. It fills me with despair that four hundred years have passed since a proper revolution was attempted in Britain. Arthur fantasizes about revolution, even in the novel’s last chapter. Like Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ finds itself at a final chapter where its brawling, reactionary anti-hero takes a longer and deeper look into himself and faces up to the reality of maturity and responsibility.

But whereas Alex in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ reflects

Perhaps that was it, I kept thinking. Perhaps I was getting too old for the sort of jeezny I had been leading, brothers. I was eighteen now, just gone. Eighteen was not a young age. At eighteen old Wolfgang Amadeus had written concertos and symphonies and operas and oratorios and at all that cal, no, not cal, heavenly music … And now I felt this bolshy big hollow inside my plott, feeling very surprised too at myself. I knew what was happening, O my brothers. I was growing up.

… Arthur Seaton uses a quiet Sunday morning fishing to come to this conclusion:

Trouble it’ll be for me, fighting every day until I die. Why do they make soldiers out of us when we’re fighting up to the hilt as it is? Fighting with mothers and wives, landlords and gaffers, coppers, army and government. If it’s not one thing it’s another, apart from the work we have to do and the way we spend our wages. There’s bound to be trouble in store for me every day of my life, because trouble it’s always been and always will be. Born drunk and married blind, misbegotten into a strange and crazy world, dragged up through the dole and into the war … Slung into khaki at eighteen and when they let you out, you sweat again in a factory, grabbing for an extra pint … and nothing but money to drag you back there every Monday morning.

Alex: the thug, the truant, the rapist and the murderer. Arthur, the worker, the drinker, the womanizer and the voice of the working class. Reading ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, half the time I reckon I might not like Arthur all that much if I met him. The other half, I recognize myself in him.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

RAIMIFEST: the Evil Haiku trilogy

Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck is hosting a week-long celebration of Sam Raimi’s career. Things kicked off in final style a couple of days ago. Now along comes my first contribution to lower the tone.


Cabin in the woods,
Banshee-like POV shots,
Bad tree-rape ju-ju.


Sequel or remake?
Who cares? Blood-red black humour:
Chainsaw versus hand.


Army of darkness
Trying to fuck up your shit?
Shop smart – shop S-Mart!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Service announcement

My contribution to Bryce's Raimifest will appear, hopefully tomorrow, when Blogger stops being the hosting site equivalent of HAL9000 and permits me the most basic editing functions.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


I was violently ill last night and spent most of today laid up feeling sorry for myself; consequently this week’s Giallo Sunday entry is bit more rough and ready than usual.

Another case of a dementedly brilliant original title rendered bland for the English-speaking market: ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for Umberto Lenzi’s ‘Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro’ (trans: ‘Red Cats in a Maze of Glass’).

The title’s not as tenuous as you may think. The “red cats” bit references a witnesses description of the murderer, identity hidden under a red macintosh, plunging through rain-strewn shrubbery away from the scene of the crime. The “maze of glass” bit … ah, that would take us into spoiler territory.

Set in Spain, ‘Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro’ follows a package tour as they do the rounds of the tourist spots. Under the less than trustworthy aegis of tour guide Martinez (Raf Baldassarre) – a man who letches after anything in a skirt and enjoys playing not particularly endearing practical jokes – the group includes elderly cleric Reverend Bronson (George Rigaud), married couple Robbie and Gail Alvarado (Daniele Vargas and Silvia Solar), same sex couple Lisa (Mirta Millar) and Naiba (Ines Pellegrini), the laconic Hamilton (John Bartha) and his jailbait granddaughter Jenny (Veronica Miriel), and Paulette (Martine Brochard), ostensibly travelling alone but who bumps into her boss (and lover) Mark Burton (John Richardson). Mark is looking for a bit of the old in-out-in-out with Paulette while his wife Alma (Marta May) is recuperating at a clinic back in the States.

Then a murder occurs: a young woman, knifed to death and her left eye gouged out. A second killing takes place: one of the group, same modus operandi, during a ghost train ride at a funfair. Inspector Tudela (Andres Mejuto) – a week away from retirement – reluctantly gets saddled with the case. Tensions develop between the holidaymakers; suspicions are rife. Things get murkier when Mark discovers that Alma never showed up at the clinic and may be stalking him in Barcelona. Then there’s the revelation that certain parties might be implicated in a crime back in America; a guilty secret that has come back into their lives a continent away.

On one hand, ‘Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro’ is fairly boilerplate: the cop on the verge of retirement, the randy tour guide, the bickering couples, the unstable wife hovering in the wings. There are references aplenty to other films, most notably ‘Don’t Look Now’. The carousel of suspicion which whirls from one character to another until everybody on the tour bus seems to have motive, opportunity or hidden agenda is pure Agatha Christie. Red herrings swim through scene after scene with fishy abandon. The killer’s motive, when finally revealed, is as random as, say, that of the antagonists in ‘Strip Nude for Your Killer’ or ‘The Case of the Bloody Iris’.

And yet there’s much to enjoy: the peregrinations of the tour bus allows Lenzi to juxtapose the brief but full-blooded murder scenes against chocolate box cinematography; the focus shifts almost constantly, denying the easy identification of a protagonist and keeping an atmosphere of uncertainty simmering away; and the set-pieces are well staged, Lenzi cleverly orchestrating the comings and goings of the tourist group so that any one of them could have done the deed and no-one has a cast-iron alibi.

The cast do an okay job, even if the English dub I watched lumbers them with clunkily expositional dialogue. Elsewhere, though, ‘Gatti rossi in un labirinto di vetro’ delivers what you want from a giallo. The required amount of blood, nudity and J&B is present and correct. The whole thing moves along at a decent enough pace and Lenzi pulls some iconic and – at the denouement – effectively icky imagery out of the bag.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: magic and memories (guest article by Viv Apple)

Thanks to my good friend Viv Apple for this evocative and poignant piece.

The news on Wednesday of the death of Elizabeth Taylor, and the subsequent tributes and articles about that fabulous star, triggered memories I thought I’d long forgotten. In particular, ‘National Velvet’ (1944). It was this film which introduced me to the magic of cinema and made Taylor’s name as a child star, though she had also shone in ‘Lassie Come Home’ in 1943 - which I missed as I was evacuated to Staffordshire from London to avoid Hitler’s buzz-bombs.

I was a small girl with dark hair so I suppose I must have identified with Elizabeth Taylor – though I never consciously compared myself to the violet-eyed beauty. ‘National Velvet’ may not have been my first visit to the cinema, but it was the first film I can remember being moved by. The emotions engendered by child actors and animals in the story, and especially Elizabeth and Velvet, were as strong as falling in love and lasted longer than many love affairs.

From then on, my mother and I would walk the mile or so to the Astoria in Streatham High Road about once a week, and many of the films I saw then remain in my mind. When I was still very young another animal weepy, ‘The Yearling’, impressed me so much that I asked for the book (by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings) for my birthday and read it with tears streaming down my face. Cartoons were a favourite of course, with ‘Bambi’ top of the list (more tears!). There must have been many funny cartoons (and indeed there were lighter moments in ‘Bambi’) but the most memorable cartoon for me was the terrifying ‘Fantasia’ with its overwhelmingly oppressive shapes of vivid colour advancing towards me as I cowered in the one-and-nines.

Cinema in the 1940s and 1950s was very different from what it is today, and not just because of the over-acting and immovable hairstyles. Smartly uniformed usherettes would show us to our seats with torches, and we would sit in the stalls waiting for the B movie to begin the programme - or it may have been Movietone News which came on first. Then I would beg for an ice cream from the lady with a tray of goodies and a long queue. At some point, a large organ would slowly emerge from its underground lair just in front of the screen and the organist would start playing the same tunes, week after week. Finally, after what seemed like an hour but was probably no more than ten minutes, the organ disappeared again and the screen curtains would open with a magic click, click, click... The beam of light from the projection room behind us was always alive with patterns of smoke from the patrons’ cigarettes, thick and dusty, as it shone messages from Pearl & Dean onto the screen.

But it wasn’t all wide-eyed fascination. If the organist was boring, that was nothing to some of the B movies. English films then had a reputation for being of a lesser standard than the amazing Hollywood productions, and many were cheaply put together to fill a gap. They must have been boring because I can’t remember any of them. There were honourable exceptions, such as the Ealing comedies, but these were the main feature and not the one to be sat through whilst fidgeting with the seat in front. Even some American films could be tedious to young eyes; adults loved the musicals of Busby Berkeley, with all the Busby Babes dancing on endless staircases in dreamy dresses, but we children found these sequences excruciatingly dull.

Now, of course, I can appreciate the skill and artistry of the old musicals. But the really great movies of the 1940s and 1950s have always been loved, both then and now. Great stars made them, and none greater than Elizabeth Taylor, whose remarkable career and life was more interesting than any movie.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Shane Briant Tribute Site

Anyone who has followed Cinebeat’s articles on cult British actor, novelist and artist Shane Briant will already be aware of Robert Kenchington’s Shane Briant Tribute Site.

I knew Robert many moons ago in my pre-blogging days when a shared love of classical music and an appreciation of convivial drinking establishments defined some memorable evenings in Nottingham, Birmingham and London. After Robert’s move from the Midlands, I was remiss in keeping in touch and we fell out of contact for a while.

Then Robert’s email – with the appropriate subject line “a blast from your past” – landed in my inbox a couple of days ago; he’d recognized me from Agitation (despite the addition of a few years, more than a few pounds and a different haircut on the profile picture) and dropped me a line about his Shane Briant site.

For anyone who’s not visited and has the remotest interest in cult movies, go here. If there’s a more comprehensive Shane Briant resource on the web, I must have missed it!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor

i.m. Elizabeth Taylor, 27 February 1932 – 23 March 2011

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


(Two posters and a haiku: positively my laziest ever contribution to the Final Girl Film Club. A tip of the chapeau to Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck; the first paragraph of his review gave me the idea.)

Oh, Annette Vadim!
Oh, Elsa Martinelli!
Oh, Sapphic vampires!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Dead Man (guest review by Bryce Wilson)

Thanks my good friend Bryce from Things That Don’t Suck for the following article.

‘Dead Man’ is an astoundingly pretentious movie. But don’t hold it against it.

Every now and again you come across a film that has seems not just odd but to have genuinely evolved along a separate evolutionary track. And that’s ‘Dead Man’ all the way, just your average Saturday Matinee on Alpha Centuri, where everyone watches B Movie Proto Mumblecore westerns that mix arch black and white style with, meandering quasi formed ideas about Native American Spirtuality and William Blake.

Even comparing it to Jaramusch’s other work offers little help. While his other movies inseredt sly signposts letting you know what level Jaramusch was putting you on, ‘Dead Man’ offers no such cheat sheet. Even comparing it to ‘Ghost Dog’, which has a similar schism between its offering of austere meditations on Bushido and its weird riffs on Seijun Suzuki and Tarantino, offers little help. It’s as if Jaramusch has gotten deeply invested in his mumbo jumbo, but is kind of embarrassed about it. It’s like having a conversation with someone who puts mocking air quotes around everything he says, and then concludes by going “Seriously though it was pretty deep.”

‘Dead Man’ follows Johnny Depp as a milquetoast accountant from Cleveland, who ends up on the run after killing the son of Robert Mitchum. Hunted by a gang of killers, and guided by the Native American Nobody who takes him for the (short lived) reincarnation of William Blake. However this makes the movie sound like it has a lot more form then it actually does. Most of the film consists of Depp simply wandering into weird shit.

‘Dead Man’ is at its best when it’s at its least self conscience, which isn’t often. There are the scenes with Robert Mitchum in full force of nature/wrath of God mode. Perpetually framed by a cheeky Jarmusch in front of stuffed Bears, Displays of guns, Giant Portraits of himself and other things that reflect what a bad motherfucker Robert Mitchum is. As well as the scenes following the trio of bounty hunters Mitchum hires to assassinate Blake, including a shockingly funny Michael Wincot, and Lance Henrikson as a man with more dark secretes then seem possible. Their sections resemble nothing so much as the laconic naturalistic bickering between the principles in the early Jarmusch masterpieces, like ‘Stranger Than Paradise’ and ‘Down By Law’. If one makes allowances for the fact that they occasionally kill people and eat one another. The particular punch line to their scenes is exceedingly dark.

This is one of those frustrating reviews. I know it doesn’t sound like it but I have some very real affection for this weird little mutant of a movie. Much like the Neil Young score that haunts it, the quality of ‘Dead Man’ all depends on your point of view. It’s either a sparse and haunting meditation, or as Ebert suggested the sound of a man dropping his guitar for two hours.

Then again who is to say that it can’t be both?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: Phantom of Death

Given that the last Ruggero Deodato title I approached was ‘Cannibal Holocaust’, I settled down very nervously to watch ‘Phantom of Death’. Please, no wholesale animal slaughter, I prayed as the opening credits commenced.

Fortunately, there were no snake, turtle or monkey eviscerations, although I did have to sit through Michael York doing the worst impersonation of a concern pianist ever committed to film. York plays Robert Dominici, an ivory tinkler of the classical persuasion. He’s involved with but unable to commit to the gorgeous Susanna (Mapi Galan) and lusted after by wealthy fashion designer Helene (the uber-gorgeous Edwige Fenech). Poor bastard – must be terrible for him.

As if decreed by the bit of cheap sarcasm in that last paragraph, things do get pretty awful for him very quickly. Susanna is murdered, the second victim of a brutal killer who has very recently despatched specialist consultant Dr Carla Pesenti (Carola Stagnaro). This inaugural killing is intercut with Dominici’s recital and sets up an interesting aesthetic: a very formal, slightly detached directing style punctuated by Argento-like set-pieces defined by prowling, subjective camerawork and grand guignol violence.

My very poor understanding of Italian translates the indigenous title, ‘Un delitto poco comune’, as something like ‘A Small Community of Crime’, which is an unwieldy title but one that contributes to the misdirection Deodato puts in place for the first half hour. With Dominici as a successful and acclaimed musician, the luckless Dr Pesenti an expert in her field, and the soon-to-be-in-danger Helene the head of that sooooo giallo of institutions, the fashion house, ‘Un delitto poco comune’ is the first indication that here we have a group of affluent types whose lives are under threat, either from a someone with a grudge, or an individual within their midst.

Added to this, Deodato throws in any number of expected genre tropes, from the bumbling copper, Inspector Datti (Donald Pleasance) seemingly unable to prevent each successive murder, to enough in the way of spiral staircases, rickety elevators, heads plunged through decorative glass, sharp instruments flashing in the dark, geysers of blood and non-linear editing to suggest ‘Phantom of Death’ was made in the glory days of the giallo and not a decade and a half later in 1988.

In fact, Deodato’s manipulation of his audience’s knowledge and expectations of two decades of gialli is the film’s biggest asset. For the first thirty minutes, you sit back comfortably convinced that Dominici is being established as the Sam Dalmas or Marc Daly du jour, the reluctant hero in the wrong place and the wrong time who’ll be required to turn amateur sleuth when Inspector Datti’s incompetence puts him in danger.

Not so. Deodato whips the rug out in commendably effective style with an hour still to go, shifting the focus to Datti and ramping up the tension as a cat-and-mouse game between cop and killer plays out, with Datti’s good-natured daughter Gloria (Antonella Ponziani) a potential victim and Helene’s role complicated as events take another unexpected turn.

Unfortunately, the English language title provides a heavy-handed clue from the outset (take the first two words, factor in the importance of musicianship, think of a very similar title in literature and film, and bear in mind the disfigurement of that anti-hero), the performances are all over the place (York chews the scenery like it had just got five stars in the Michelin Guide, Pleasance drifts through each scene on autopilot, and Fenech valiantly strives for more than the script gives her), and the dialogue is often embarrassingly bad. Particularly when Inspector Datti speculates “Why would anyone kill a doctor? Hmmm? Ah? Unless [pregnant pause] they had something to hide.”

Also, the film is riddled with inconsistencies. A file is stolen from Dr Pesenti’s office and yet a crucial appointment is noted in her diary, but Datti never thinks to cross-reference them. Dominici keeps fit by training with an oriental fencing expert – what the fuck??? A concert pianist engaging in a physical activity that could damage his hands?!?!?

But there are also plenty of genuinely creepy moments (the most effective involving nothing more than a peripheral character on a swing), as well as an unexpectedly melancholy subtext about mortality, the existence of God and, if He does exist, the cruelty of His grand design. ‘Phantom of Death’ is half-and-half an extrapolation of Argento-style aesthetics and an inquiry into what a giallo directed by Ingmar Bergman would be like.

Friday, March 18, 2011


Use the phrase “the new Simon Pegg and Nick Frost comedy” and immediately you find yourself with an elephant in the room. Two of them, in fact. ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and ‘Hot Fuzz’. Both razor sharp and wickedly funny riffs on all-too-familiar genres (the zombie movie; the crime thriller) and not only send up their pop culture touchstones but vigorously revitalize them.

‘Paul’ could easily come off as the lesser sibling to these terrific, out-of-nowhere contemporary classics. Which is why it’s important, right from the off, to point out the crucial difference, as obvious as it may be: Edgar Wright has nothing to do with ‘Paul’. Unlike ‘Shaun’ and ‘Fuzz’, he’s not in the director’s chair. Unlike ‘Shaun’ and ‘Fuzz’, he didn’t co-write.

Instead, Pegg and Frost share the writer’s credit, while Greg Mottola calls the shots. I’m going to make the only ‘Shaun’-‘Fuzz’-‘Paul’ comparison of this article and make the observation that, on the evidence provided, it seems to be Edgar Wright who gives the earlier films their bite (and let’s face it, between the laughs, both ‘Shaun’ and ‘Fuzz’ have something of a mean streak). Take him out of the equation and the comedy is a tad gentler, more warm-hearted.

But with lots of swearing.

Seriously, ‘Paul’ is a wonderfully sweary movie. In particular, the line “Yo, fucknuts, it’s probing time” has automatically become one of my favourite movie quotes.

‘Paul’ starts out as a sort of anti-‘Spaced’, a love-letter to its protagonists’ nerdiness, rather than a send-up of their social ineptitude. Scenes of Clive Gollings (Frost) and Graeme Willy (Pegg) – respectively the writer and artist of a graphic novel involving an alien with three tits – noodling nerdily around Comic-Con and being mistaken for a gay couple at their hotel are wincingly unfunny and get things off to a decidedly shaky start.

Things pick up big time when they hit the road in a hired RV and head along Route 375, the so-called “Extraterrestrial Highway”. Another slice of nerd heaven for our boys, with stop-offs at the Little Ale’Inn (where they piss off a couple of rednecks) and the Black Mailbox (which they discover is white). They also discover a little grey individual, an otherworldly type with the ability to heal by touch and turn invisible while holding his breath. Named Paul – you’ll find out why in the opening sequence – and voiced by Seth Rogen, he’s a foul-mouthed, cynical, sarcastic alien with a penchant for dope, booze and hard partying. He’s the single best thing about the movie.

If, like me, you were starting to wonder if the Seth Rogen bubble was on the verge of bursting, then be jubilant. Acting with his vocal chords only, Rogen does his best work since ‘Superbad’. Funnily enough, like ‘Superbad’ (another ostensibly low-class but actually quite sweet comedy), ‘Paul’ is directed by Greg Mottola. He’s the film’s other great asset. Directing in an almost classical style (but allowing for chases, shoot-outs and a moment of utter wrongness where Paul’s admonition to “take your hands off my motherfucking junk” elicited the biggest laugh at the screening I attended), Mottola instinctly taps into the Spielbergian homages writ large in the script.

Mottola also brings back Rogen’s ‘Superbad’ alumnus Bill Hader as one half of a spectacularly incompetent pair of Feds out to catch Paul and haul him back to Area 51. Rounding out the cast are Jason Bateman as their considerably more proactive colleague Agent Zoil (the matter of his first name is one of the film’s more groan-worthy puns) and the excellent Kristen Wiig as Ruth, an optically-challenged Bible-basher. Her anti-creationism worldview blown apart by Paul’s existence, she makes a swift u-turn and decides to reinvent herself as a potty-mouthed bad girl. The results are priceless. Jeffery Tambor and Blythe Danner are memorable in small roles.

Narratively, there’s nothing particularly original going on, and Pegg and Frost’s characters aren’t quite as on-the-money as their ‘Shaun’ and ‘Fuzz’ personas (or even their ‘Spaced’ personas), but there’s no denying that ‘Paul’ provides 90-minutes of laugh-out-loud feel-good entertainment.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

THE SILLITOE PROJECT: the life of a writer

In late 2010, the Castle Rock Brewery announced a series of beers named after famous Nottinghamians. The first scion of the city they chose to immortalize in ale – before the likes of George Green, Albert Ball, Harry Wheatcroft or William “Bendigo” Thompson – was Alan Sillitoe. His most famous creation, Arthur Seaton in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, would have bloody loved that!

I’m not going to go into too much detail in this article, merely establish a bit of context. Wider discussion of his life will be pertinent to the books under review. Moreover, there are two autobiographical works on the reading list – ‘Raw Material’ and ‘Life Without Armour’ – where Sillitoe discusses his life and formative influences in such powerhouse style that any biographical sketch I could offer is pretty much redundant.

Still, the basic facts: Sillitoe was born on 4 March 1928. His family, frequently poverty-stricken, lived in Radford. His father was barely literate and given to drinking and heavy-handedness. At fourteen, Sillitoe began working in a factory, a job he walked out of after a dispute over pay. Sillitoe’s rebellious streak manifested itself early. After a union official told him he’d be paying part of his wages as dues, that it was mandatory and that it was for his own benefit, he advise the official to “fuck off and get dive-bombed”. Sillitoe’s adherence to his own code – which soon solidified into a political and social conscience – is writ as large in his work as it was in his life.

With the war drawing to an end and desperate to become a pilot, Sillitoe lied about his age to join the Ministry of Aircraft Production in 1945, where he worked for a year as an air traffic control assistant before volunteering for the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. As The Telegraph’s obituary noted: “Although he was initially accepted as a pilot, the end of the war with Japan had rendered further pilots unnecessary, and Sillitoe served as a telegraphist and radio operator in Malaya. In 1948 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent 16 months in a military hospital, where he began educating himself by reading Greek and Latin classics in translation.”

Between 1949 and 1958, Sillitoe eked out his disability pension from the RAF and wrote about half a dozen unpublished novels until, encouraged by Robert Graves (with whom he and his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, had formed a friendship), he began working on more autobiographical material. A series of short stories set in Nottingham and centering around the rebellious and pragmatic Arthur Seaton eventually cohered into the manuscript of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. It was an acclaimed and successful debut, which he followed up with the short story collection ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’. Both were filmed, again boosting Sillitoe’s reputation.

His second novel, ‘The General’ (1960), marked a significant change in direction and left a number of critics – as well as a large swathe of his readership – perplexed. ‘Key to the Door’ (1961) saw him back on home turf with a chunky family saga focusing on Arthur Seaton’s older brother Brian. Sillitoe continued Brian’s story in ‘The Open Door’ (1989) and eventually reunited the older and wiser Seaton brothers in ‘Birthday’ (2001).

Elsewhere, Sillitoe’s increasingly political views came to the fore in the Frank Dawley trilogy: ‘The Death of William Posters’ (1965), ‘A Tree on Life’ (1967) and ‘The Flame of Life’ (1974). His short story collection ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’ (1963) considered reactionary themes, while his travelogue ‘Road to Volgograd’ was written after he visited the USSR at the invitation of the Soviet Writers’ Union. Although Sillitoe enjoyed a reputation in Russia like no other western writer, he was quick to criticize the regime. Sillitoe revisited his travels here, as well as chronicling more recent visits, in his last published work ‘Gadfly in Russia’ (2007).

He continued to diversify as a writer throughout the 70s and 80s, with 1968’s ‘Guzman Go Home’ showcasing a deft talent for picaresque narrative and absurdist humour. The Michael Cullen novels – ‘A Start in Life’ (1970) and ‘Life Goes On’ (1985) – are firmly rooted in the picaresque tradition, while ‘Travels in Nihilon’ is an inventive and often just plain bonkers political satire. ‘The Lost Flying Boat’ (1983) is an unapologetically old-school adventure story, ‘Down from the Hill’ is equally unapologetically nostalgic, ‘Her Victory’ (1982) is one of the best examples of a male author completely and empathetically creating a female protagonist, and ‘Raw Material’ is a visceral fusion of novel and autobiography.

That Sillitoe punctuated these works with volumes of poetry, essays and children’s fiction only offer further proof of his continuing commitment to diversify and develop as a writer. His challenging and unflinching 1979 novel ‘The Storyteller’ examined the blurring lines between reality and fiction, bringing a gritty realism to material that many novelists have relied on the tropes of the horror or sci-fi genres to realize.

Sillitoe’s output was prodigious: factor in the kiddie fare, poetry, plays, translations and oddities such as ‘Leading the Blind’ (1997), a social history of the Englishman abroad in the nineteen-hundreds, and his bibliography stands at a good fifty volumes.

His life was marked by as great a sense of transience and wanderlust as his writing: he left Spain in the late 50s, thereafter dividing his time between England (he had homes, at various times, in Kent, London, Somerset and Diseworth, a village on the Nottinghamshire/Leicestershire border) and Montpelier in France.

Sillitoe published a volume of autobiography, ‘Life Without Armour’ in 1995, with an authorized biography, Richard Bradford’s ‘The Life of a Long-Distance Writer’ appearing in 2008 to coincide with his 80th birthday. Alan Sillitoe died, after a battle with cancer, on 25 April 2010.

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Film Unfinished (guest review by Aaron)

Thanks to Aaron of The Death Rattle, and regular contributor to the always excellent Gentlemen’s Blog to Midnight Cinema, for the following article.

A FILM UNFINISHED is a documentary that focuses on an unearthed and incomplete Nazi propaganda film simply labeled as "Das Ghetto", as well as a missing reel of rough footage which reveals how the Nazis manipulated and staged certain scenes in said propaganda film to make the Jews look as "inhuman" as they accused them of being. The "Ghetto" in the title of the propaganda film refers to the Warsaw ghettos of Nazi-occupied Poland, which were inhabited by dangerously malnourished Jews who lived in their own filth leading up to the ghetto's eventual destruction in 1942 at the hands of the SS.

The documentary also shows three survivors of the liquidated ghetto (who were only children at the time, obviously) watching the footage of the propaganda film for the first time. Without their emotional and revealing testimonies to back up the filmmaker's attempt at more or less exposing the Nazis, A FILM UNFINISHED would have ironically bordered on propaganda itself. Granted the Nazis deserve it if you look at things from the victims' point of view, but as an outsider looking in (that would be me), the slander of Nazis in cinema or otherwise is anything but breaking news; more like beating a dead horse.

"Every time you see a holocaust film, you have to ask yourself the question: What does this add to what we already know?"

The above quote is an excellent point brought up by Michael Berenbaum, whose name you can click on if you'd like to see his credentials. Perhaps it's not really in my best interests to speak on the holocaust, or even World War II in general for that matter. Stick a quarter in me and I'll talk about horror movies all day long, but world history - no matter how crucial - has never been my expertise. Why I even sought this documentary out in the first place was purely based on curiosity, and not necessarily an interest in the subject matter. But, to answer Berenbaum's question, what separates this film from a majority of the holocaust footage out there (let me stress that I'm merely assuming based on what limited knowledge I have on the subject matter) is that it provides a raw look at the events leading up to the Warsaw massacre.

A dramatic re-enactment of a testimony from one of the Nazi cameramen himself, Willy Wist, reveals that upper-class Jews were transported to Warsaw from Germany in order to provide a contrast between them and the poverty stricken Jews of the ghetto who were on the verge of death, only to be executed themselves. Perhaps the saddest thing about the documentary isn't necessarily the exploitative footage of the dead bodies on the streets and, eventually, being unceremoniously thrown into mass "graves", but the knowledge that the Jews who were being filmed were oblivious to the fact that they were about to be sent to camps or executed right there on the spot in a matter of days, and no I'm not talking about the type of camps that Ernest went to. However, with no way to verify the accuracy of Wist's testimonies, I can only take what this documentary's portrayal of Wist said with a grain of salt.

A FILM UNFINISHED is what it is, for lack of a better term. It provides a heartbreaking - albeit understandably biased - look at the living conditions (or lack thereof) of a large group of Jews in Warsaw during World War II, prior to them being exterminated like vermin. The documentary is very well-made to boot. Seek it out if you have an interest in the subject matter. Amazingly, even though there are holocaust museums and documentaries shown on television that deal with similar subject matter - all accessible to children, with or without adult supervision - the MPAA has given this documentary an R-rating, which further adds to the argument that the members of the Ratings Board are a bunch of Nazis.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: Hatchet for the Honeymoon

The Italian title of Mario Bava’s all-purpose giallo/psychological mystery/tale of ghostly revenge is ‘Il rosso segno della follia’, which translates as ‘The Red Mark of Insanity’. It’s a more appropriate title, given that the film spends most of its hour and a half run time probing the broken mind of protagonist John Harrington (Stephen Forsyth). The better known English language title, while magnificently lurid, is glaringly inaccurate.

It’s a cleaver Harrington does his killing with, not a hatchet. Totally different implements. No hatchet misuse going on in this movie whatsoever, no siree.

What’s that? I’m a rotten bastard and a no-good review for throwing out that last paragraph without a spoiler alert? Au contraire: it’s not a spoiler. Bava reveals Harrington as the killer right from the off, and just as quickly establishes his motive. He’s murdering newly married women and each time he kills, another little piece of a buried childhood memory comes back to him. A childhood memory that may be at the root of his desire to kill.

Granted, this kind of locks him into a self-defeating pattern – and regular appointments with mental health professional would certainly have been a better way to resolve the problem – but, hey, you can dig why Harrington wants to get to the bottom of things. Getting this little issue sorted out would certainly allow him to focus his attentions more on other things, such as running his fashion house (shades of Bava’s earlier ‘Blood and Black Lace’) or trying to talk his shrewish wife Mildred (Laura Betti) into an amicable separation. Yup: John is experiencing a problem akin to that of Stefano in ‘The Designated Victim’, Marco in ‘Death Laid an Egg’ and Martin in ‘The Red Queen Kills Seven Times’: a wife he can’t get rid of who wields both the whip hand and the purse strings.

But whereas Stefano, Marco and Martin simply want rid of their wives in order to be with other women, Harrington – for all that he’s attracted to models Alice (Femi Benussi) and Helen (Dagmar Lassander) – wants to wrest back financial control of the company his mother left him. It’s his mother’s death, gradually revealed in flashback, that’s at the heart of Harrington’s childhood trauma. Mildred, older than Harrington and as sharp as a stern parent in the way she talks to him, seems to be a mother figure – that is, if you take your mother figures straight out of the Brothers Grimm. Moreover, Mildred’s first husband was called John and her cries of “John … John …” at a séance (a scene that prefigures a key moment in ‘The Night Evelyn Came out of the Grave’, made the following year) are eerily similar to Harrington’s dying mother calling out to him in the flashback sequences.

‘Hatchet [’s a fucking cleaver, all right?] for the Honeymoon’ is a slow-burn movie that, by and large, doesn’t peddle quite the same baroque stylizations and tense set-pieces as ‘Blood and Black Lace’, but it’s fascinating and eminently watchable for several reasons. Firstly, it sees Bava at his most Hitchcockian since ‘The Girl Who Knew Too Much’: the upfront revelation of the killer’s identity and the crafting of exquisitely tense moments despite this playing of the hand was something Hitch did par excellence (think ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ or ‘Frenzy’); the quasi-Oepidal confusions of the protagonist are a variation on Norman Bates’ mother fixation in ‘Psycho’; and a squirmly protracted scene involving a corpse on the stairwell, a reflective surface, the dripping of blood and a spectacularly ill-timed visited from dogged detective Inspector Russell (Jesus Puente) is played out with as much panache as anything in the maestro’s filmography.

Also, Bava plays with reality/perception/memory like a cardsharp shuffling a deck. Reflections, flashbacks, shadows, things seen and unseen. Watching ‘Generic Sharped-Bladed Instrument for the Honeymoon’, you’re never sure how much is real and how much in Harrington’s mind, particularly around the two-thirds mark when Harrington is haunted in manner that brings to mind a classic M.R. James ghost story. There’s also a beautifully handled transition early on when Bava cuts from a train – the scene of the first murder – thundering through the night to an obviously false shot of model train carriages. At first it seems as if Bava’s tried to get away with matching stock footage to a cheaply-effected close-up, then the director pulls back for the reveal: it’s a genuine model railway layout in Harrington’s old childhood bedroom, the first of two significant scenes which see the troubled Harrington surrounded by the things of childhood. It would take Argento’s masterpiece ‘Deep Red’ before the giallo depicted childhood mementoes in as fetishized and sinister a manner as Bava did here.

The English language title does ‘Il rosso segno della follia’ a disservice, perking anticipation for a sleazy and sexualized stalk ‘n’ slash opus. What Bava actually delivers is a well-thought-out, eye-on-the-ball piece of work that continually monkeys with your perceptions and expectations and proves as inarguably as ‘Blood and Black Lace’ or ‘A Bay of Blood’ just how important his contribution was to the genre.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Mini reviews 2

After the haiku of a couple of weeks ago, some more succinct reviews – this time in rhyming couplets – of films I watched purely for the entertainment factor during breaks from working on the novel and probably wouldn’t have written several-hundred word reviews of even if I didn’t the manuscript to work on.

Not included are two recent releases – ‘Paul’ and ‘True Grit’ – which I enjoyed as much as anything I’ve seen on the big screen for a while. I’ll post full write-ups on these two next week.


This first film proved amusing but
Things soon descended into smut.


A dude who’s great on SNL
Makes big screen debut: goes to hell.


It could have been a big old mess
But for Amy Adams’ awesomeness.


The story’s fun, the tunes are hot.
Disney does stereotypes? Surely not!


Jet Li and The Stat team up with Sly,
A fuckload of shit gets blown sky-high.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

The Sillitoe project

I was born and bred in Nottingham. I still live there. I live on an estate that repetitively and hyperbolically gets mentioned in the press whenever the focus is on gun crime or knife crime. Nottingham, in recent years, has been foisted with a reputation as the gun capital of the UK. “Shottingham”, as the tabloids like to bleat. Like I say, I’ve lived here all my life. Only twice have I ever seen someone carrying a gun: a security guy at the airport in Rome, and a border guard at the Canadian/Alaskan border. Yup, I live in fucking Nottingham and I needed to go abroad to see someone packing heat.

It’s a shame that my home town gets such a bad rap. And yes, we have our share of slum neighbourhoods, financially disenfranchised residents (I’m not judging; God knows, if I found myself out of work for more than a month, I probably be out on the streets myself), alcohol and drug users, and certain areas where, to quote Bruce Springsteen, “when you hit a red light you don’t stop” (streets and back alleys, in other words, where the fault is yours and yours alone if you stray after dark).

And yet Nottingham has an established literary heritage – Lord Byron, D.H. Lawrence, Alan Sillitoe, John Harvey, Nicola Monaghan – and a nascent cinematic one. Karel Reisz’s classic film adaptation of Sillitoe’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ was largely filmed in the areas described by Sillitoe in his belligerently brilliant novel; more recently, filmmakers Shane Meadows, Chris Cooke (‘One for the Road’) and Steven Shiel (‘Mum & Dad’) have come to the fore.

When Alan Sillitoe died in April last year, I felt it like a kick in the guts. When someone I admire dies, there’s always a sense of sadness. But sometimes someone dies who defines your life in some way and you feel their loss as if a loved one had passed away. I remember growing up to the erudite and witty observations of Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ on the radio on a Sunday morning. I used to get up before nine o’clock on a Sunday just to listen to it. The day I heard of his death, I drove to work with tears in my eyes. I’d never met the man, but he’d been a part of my life.

The death of Alan Sillitoe was worse. He was one of the most famous sons of my home town. His debut novel ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ could have been written about my family. Swap Arthur Seaton’s lathe for a miner’s lamp and retain his “us and them” attitude and you could have my grandfather. Take his “don’t let the bastards grind you down” belligerence and stick it behind the steering wheel of a 16-tonne truck and you’re part way towards my father. Take Seaton’s philosophy that “whatever people think I am or say I am that’s what I’m not because they don’t know a bloody thing about me” and that’s why I refused to take a Myers Briggs personality test at work last week.

Maybe the “us and them” thing is a peculiarly British characteristic. Maybe it comes of centuries of the landed gentry – the upper classes – grinding the noses of the likes of my family line into the mud that makes me respond to the rebellious cadences of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. Generations ago, two Fulwood brothers undertook some work as casual labourers for a Nottinghamshire lord of the manor. He fucked them over re: payment. They laid in wait for him one evening as he returned from a day’s riding, fetched him off his horse, and kicked the shit out of the toffee-nosed bastard. (I take more pride in being descended from these guys than anything else in my family history.) Quickly, though, they came round to the fact that they’d just twatted an aristocrat. They laid tracks for Southampton, stowed away on a steamer and there is now a branch of the family in Canada. I trust they’re prosperous, rebellious and have no use for the aristocracy.

But I digress. When Alan Sillitoe passed, it was as if the only novelist in Britain who’d accurately captured the flavours and experiences of my city and my personal history had suddenly been taken away from us. Even more depressing, as the obituaries began to appear, was how repetitively the commentators fixated on his first two books, ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, as if these two works – and their respective film adaptations – were the be all and end all of Sillitoe’s output.

It was only later, having posted a review of Reisz’s ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ by way of a tribute, that I realized I’d adhered to exactly the same narrow-minded response. I also realized that, as much as reading Sillitoe’s early work in my mid-teens had solidified my ambition to be a writer, I’d only read about a third of his output. Cruising bookshops during the last week or two to plug the gaps in my Alan Sillitoe collection, it’s depressed me the most to discover that many of his novels and non-fiction works are out of print.

It got my mad up. I hit Amazon and eBay. I placed bids. I placed orders. I gave the PayPal account a bit of a workout. This week, I have received copies of ‘The General’, ‘Key to the Door’ and ‘The Death of William Posters’. I have located nine other works that won’t set me back more than £2 per copy. I reckon I should be able to amass the entire collection (excepting his poetry and children’s books) within the next two months.

I’ve very seldom posted book reviews on The Agitation of the Mind, and even then only film-related titles. This is changing. From next week, on a fortnightly or monthly basis depending on availability of titles and how long it takes me to read them (‘The General’ is 160 pages, ‘Her Victory’ almost 600), I’ll be working my way sequentially through Alan Sillitoe’s bibliography and posting reviews, as well as looking at the handful of his works that were adapted for cinema: most famously ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ which made a star out of Albert Finney, and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, starring Tom Courtney; in addition, I’ll be trying to track down ‘The Ragman’s Daughter’ (filmed, like ‘SN&SM’ on the cobbled streets of Nottingham) and ‘Counterpoint’ (based on ‘The General’) which, thus far, is the only Sillitoe novel to get the Hollywood treatment, with Charlton Heston and Maximillan Schell knocking heads in a war drama.

Next week’s post will be a prelude to the reviews proper, and present a brief biographical overview of Alan Sillitoe.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Myth and countermyth: responses to the Kennedy assassination (guest article by J.D.)

My thanks to J.D. from the excellent Radiator Heaven, for contributing this in-depth and insightful article.

The assassination of American President, John F. Kennedy is a watershed event in American history that has provoked people to question their own beliefs and those of their government. Yet, for such a highly publicized affair there are still many uncertainties that surround the actual incident. Countless works of fiction and non-fiction have been created concerning the subject, but have done little in aiding our understanding of the assassination and the events surrounding it. As Don DeLillo comments in his novel, Libra, "Powerful events breed their own network of inconsistencies." DeLillo also makes this observation in an essay entitled, "American Blood" in Rolling Stone magazine, which contains the groundwork for issues that he would later explore in more detail in Libra. DeLillo's novel depicts the events leading up to and after the assassination like a densely constructed film complete with jump cuts and multiple perspectives. This creates a strong parallel between Libra and Oliver Stone's film, JFK which covers much of the same ground and uses many of the same techniques but to achieve different conclusions. Libra and JFK present the assassination as a powerful event constructed by its conspirators to create confusion with its contradictory evidence, to then bury this evidence in the Warren Commission Report, which in turn manifests multiple interpretations of key figures like Lee Harvey Oswald. Libra examines the conspiracy to kill Kennedy as an ambiguous occurrence filled with many coincidences, loose ends, and viewpoints; in contrast, JFK offers a more structured examination of the conspiracy from one person's point of view where everything fits together to reveal a larger, more frightening picture implicating the most powerful people in the U.S. government. Libra and JFK are works which present the Kennedy assassination as a moment that contains many discrepancies and misleading facts, but differ in their presentation of how this affects our perception of the event.

For Don DeLillo, the Kennedy assassination is an important event not only in his life, but as an author. The affair has had a profound effect on DeLillo who states that "it's possible I wouldn't have become the kind of writer I am if it weren't for the assassination." The assassination left DeLillo with the feeling that he had lost a "sense of manageable reality" which made him more aware of "elements like randomness and ambiguity and chaos." It is these feelings that DeLillo would later convey in the character of Nicholas Branch in Libra. Branch must come to terms with his own feelings of confusion and self-doubt while investigating the death of Kennedy and the conspiracy that surrounds it. DeLillo expresses these feelings of randomness and ambiguity in the incidences leading up to the assassination. They are often presented in an uncertain way to convey the conflict between the facts, the eyewitness accounts, and the memories that often contradict one another, obscuring the truth. History has been manipulated so that we can no longer tell the difference between fact and fiction. There is a passage in Libra where Lee Harvey Oswald gets into a shoving match with some Anti-Castro Cubans and not even Oswald can remember how it was started. There is a sense that not only the reader is being manipulated, but the characters as well. This is apparent when DeLillo writes, "Lee felt he was in the middle of his own movie. They were running this thing just for him.” Oswald recognizes that the boundaries between what is real and what is not are beginning to blur. The simplest facts like his run in with Anti-Castro Cubans "elude authentication" because the origins of the event are unknown and we are left to theorize what the motivations were for it happening.

JFK also creates this blur of reality and fiction by mixing real footage with staged footage so that it becomes difficult to discern what really happened and what is merely speculation. Oliver Stone does this in order to create what he calls "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission because a lot of the original facts were lost in a very shoddy investigation." Like Libra, JFK presents the incident between Oswald (Gary Oldman) and the Anti-Castro Cubans as a simple event which becomes obscured by multiple interpretations. Stone begins the scene in 16mm, black and white film stock and then switches to Super 8mm in color with Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) narrating the whole scene. Stone is presenting three different points of views in this scene; one in 16mm black and white, one in Super 8mm color, and Garrison's own narration: “It was a public event, it was seen by people, and to this day there are different versions of what happened that day. Were the Cubans really angry, or was it a stunt? Was it a staged arrest? We wanted to fracture the perception of it as a mere flashback from across the street.” The change to Super 8mm symbolizes a different view or reading of the event as reconstructed in the mind of the film's protagonist, Jim Garrison. This is similar to what the characters in DeLillo's Libra experience, except that there is no single protagonist as there is in JFK. Instead, Stone creates different points of views or "layers" through the extensive use of flashbacks within flashbacks. This technique conveys the notion of confusion and conflict within evidence that Libra creates through its various protagonists.

One of the major sources of this confusion of data and information stems from the Warren Commission Report which DeLillo describes as "a ruined city of trivia." This encyclopedic novel is a microcosm of the assassination itself. It takes simple facts and scatters them about to create a convoluted path that both Nicholas Branch and Jim Garrison must navigate in order to find the truth. As Garrison explains, "It's all broken down and spread around and you read and the point gets lost." Garrison begins to interview people who testified in the report only to find that, as one witness points out, "It was a fabrication from start to finish." Within the report there are contradictions and forged testimonies supporting the government's theory that Oswald acted alone and that there was no conspiracy. Like the assassination itself, the Warren Report contains all the facts but distorts and presents them in such an unorganized fashion that any attempt to piece together a coherent narrative or conspiracy is "like drowning." It is up to Garrison to make sense of this mess and establish a coherent narrative which he does at the conclusion of the film when he presents his case in court.

The facts clearly aid the conspirators who, with some convenient coincidences like Kennedy's decision to visit Dallas, create a puzzling trail for Branch to follow. To this extent, the conspirators even create figures like Lee Harvey Oswald, who are ambiguous in nature. From the start, the conspirators plan to put together someone, to "build an identity, a skein of persuasion and habit, ever so subtle. He wanted a man with believable quirks." The conspirators construct multiple Oswalds to support a lone assassin theory. By creating several Oswalds, the conspirators effectively create a metaphoric room of mirrors where the real Oswald cannot be separated from the many fakes. This confusion works well as Branch realizes, "They all look like Oswald. Branch thinks they look more like Oswald than the figure in profile, officially identified as him.” Branch is presented with facts about Oswald that contradict themselves. Oswald appears in several places at the same time in a rather crude fashion so that Branch no longer knows what to believe. DeLillo shows how these multiple images of Oswald, created by the conspirators, are rough but effective in masking the real man. Branch is able to separate the multiple Oswalds, but this still does not get him any closer to the heart of the conspiracy or the true nature of Oswald. Branch has become tired of sorting through these lies and longs for a more structured path where everything is black and white.

This structured path lies in JFK as Garrison and his team also sort through the multiple Oswalds. Stone presents many of the same events as described in Libra while also crosscutting footage of an unknown person piecing together a photograph. This in turn is crosscut with real photographs of Oswald and staged shots of Stone's Oswald. As the mysterious photograph is completed, it is revealed to be the famous Life magazine cover of Oswald with the rifle that supposedly killed Kennedy and that "pretty much convicted Oswald in the public eye," as one character observes. This mixing of footage, both real and staged, symbolizes Oswald's various pasts, both real and faked. By showing the famous Life photograph being doctored, Stone is using that as a metaphor for Oswald's past. On the surface it looks believable, but upon closer scrutiny there is a more complex story as Garrison wisely notes, "They put Oswald together from day one." This is true both figuratively as the montage of fake Oswalds demonstrates and literally as the construction of the famous photograph illustrates.

DeLillo is an author clearly aware of film techniques: the energy they contain and the power they convey. This is clearly established in his essay, "American Blood" where he states, "Violence itself seems to cause a warp in the texture of things. There are jump cuts, blank spaces, an instant in which information leaps from one energy level to another." This effect is used in describing the death of Kennedy. DeLillo presents four different perspectives of the event: one from Oswald's point of view, a second from another hired assassin, a third from a woman on the grassy knoll, and a fourth from Nellie Connally. DeLillo effectively jumps from one perspective to another in order to show the assassination from all the crucial vantage points; from the casual observer, to someone right in the motorcade, to one of the assassins. Each jump cut causes "a warp in the texture of things" so that there is a feeling of chaos intruding on the event. As each account is presented, information "leaps from one energy level to another" and a disordered view of the assassination is revealed. By presenting these various perspectives, DeLillo is commenting on how an event can be interpreted differently by many people so that there is no clear cut reading.

JFK adheres to DeLillo's above statement in an even more precise fashion with its depiction of the assassination. Stone mixes real footage of Kennedy's motorcade with his own footage, while also using various film stocks to show the multiple interpretations of a public event that was viewed by many people. Stone jumps from Kennedy's arrival in Dallas to his motorcade heading for Dealy Plaza with several quick edits. He also crosscuts footage of a clock at Dealy Plaza to show that time is running out for Kennedy, he will soon be killed. This quick rhythm of editing creates an anxious mood and the tension increases. The film cuts to black followed by the sound of a gun being cocked and then fired. Kennedy has been shot. A black and white shot of a rooftop with birds flying into the sky appears with the sound of the gun shot echoing into the distance. Stone has taken what DeLillo has said in his essay and translated it visually. Stone "jump cuts" from the footage of the motorcade to a "blank space" for an instant so that "information leaps from one energy level to another." We go from the energy of the assassination to the shockwaves that ripple out by introducing the film's protagonist, Jim Garrison and showing his reaction to what has happened This is the leap that DeLillo writes about it in his essay, but depicted visually. By mirroring DeLillo's statement with this sequence Stone creates the strongest link between his film, which seems conscious of DeLillo's essay, and Libra.

Libra and JFK are important works in the sense that they accurately portray the assassination of John F. Kennedy as a complex public event surrounded by chaos and confusion. Both works present an intricate conspiracy at the source of the killing, but diverge at how they present it. Libra reaches the conclusion that the conspiracy to kill Kennedy "succeeded in the short term due mainly to chance." DeLillo presents several points of view, ranging from the individual conspirators, who create a confusing web of information and elaborate figures like Lee Harvey Oswald, in order to dissuade characters like Nicholas Branch from trying to make sense of it all. The conspiracy starts as a small affair discussed by a few men that grows into a large chaotic web that connects all the characters through chance and coincidence.

JFK, on the other hand, contains one main protagonist who exposes the conspiracy to be an intricately constructed coup d'état. Stone does not have the time to go into as much detail as DeLillo's novel and as a result paints his canvas with broad brushstrokes and powerful images in an attempt to create "a countermyth to the myth of the Warren Commission." DeLillo opts for a more intellectual and detailed examination of the assassination as one character in Libra explains, "Let's devote our lives to understanding this moment, separating the elements of each crowded second." JFK takes a larger, confrontational stance by boldly implicating the government in the conspiracy and the mainstream media in conspiring to cover it up. Stone is using the persuasive power of film to reach the largest number of people he can in order to wake them up and to reveal how they have been deceived by higher powers. There is no mistaking the importance of the assassination of Kennedy in American culture. Both Libra and JFK are proof that Kennedy's death continues to intrigue and interest people who are more open to the idea of a conspiracy that these works openly advocate.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

GIALLO SUNDAY: In the Folds of the Flesh

Sergio Bergonzelli’s sort-of giallo commences in fairly generic, albeit elliptically edited fashion, as an escaped criminal fetches up at a large and isolated house where a women who may be the matriarch or the governess is burying a decapitated corpse. The police turn up and our fleeing felon is re-arrested. Our corpse-interring femme fatale manages to get the job done in time and evade suspicion. A couple of children witness the evening’s activities.

I was confused, throughout this brief prologue, as to whether Bergonzelli was striving for a subversion of genre tropes by means of visual non sequiturs and a total disregard for conventional mise-en-scene, or whether he just couldn’t direct worth shit and didn’t know how an editing machine worked. This sense of polarity permeates the rest of the film.

Fast forward thirteen years and we have the matriarch or governess, Lucille (Eleanora Rossi Drago) still resident at the isolated old house, which for some reason has a fucking howitzer in the garden …

… and trying to care for the now grown-up but utterly dysfunctional children, Falesse (Pier Angeli, credited as Anna Maria Pierangeli) and her brother who I’ll just call Bro for the purposes of this review since it’s been a fortnight since I watched the film, I’ve forgotten the character’s name, I didn’t recognize the actor and IMDb is kind of sketchy on this one. Anyway, Falesse is psychologically disturbed, having flashbacks to the night she killed her father after he attempted to sexually assault her. The whole incest/sexual trauma angle doesn’t, however, stop her flouncing around the house in any number of slinky outfits and getting rather too cozy with Bro.

One day, a former associate of Falesse’s father – who we learn was a gangster type – turns up and makes himself at home. There is an immediate antagonism between him and Bro, particularly when Associate Dude (yeah I know, I really should have took notes) takes a fancy to Falesse. For a very short period of time, we’re on familiar ground: it’s Associate Dude vs. the Fucked Up Family in a psychological cat and mouse game which will surely culminate in the resolution of what happened to Falesse’s father and what Associate Dude’s ulterior motives are.

Then this plot strand is abruptly curtailed and, whaddaya know, here’s Pascal (Fernando Sancho) – our on-the-law-but-sent-back-to-clink bad dude from earlier. He’s out of the slammer now and out for a little blackmail. He breaks in at gunpoint and ‘In the Folds of the Flesh’ takes a swift and unsignposted turn into home invasion territory. Then Bergonzelli pulls the rug again and the supposedly dead gangster turns up claiming plastic surgery and the passage of time to account for the fact that he looks completely different. But is it even him?

By the time the denouement – a mishmash of cod Freudian psychology, police procedural tropes, last-minute revelations, concentration camp flashbacks, nonsensical screeds of exposition and soap opera histrionics – rolls around, odds are you’ll probably be too baffled to care. ‘In the Folds of the Flesh’ obviously wants to be trippy, mysterious and outré, a puzzle-box of a movie wrapped in psychedelic colours. Much of the time, however, it just comes off as pointless. The mid-section, dealing with Pascal’s blackmail attempt, demonstrates a ridiculous degree of complicity on the part of Lucille and her brood. The overacting has to be seen to be believed.

The 38-year old Angeli, cast as a 20-year old and saddled with a blonde fright-wig, is heartbreaking to watch in this knowing that it was her antepenultimate film and that she committed suicide the following year.

Indeed, ‘In the Folds of the Flesh’ is a pretty depressing affair all round: its attempts at sexed-up psychological shenanigans simply fail miserably and no erotic frisson is generated whatsoever; while the concentration camp flashback – horribly conceived and even more ineptly executed – aims for exploitative and controversial, misses on both counts and emerges as just plain sad.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Night of the Demons (remake)

Yeah, I know. I’m doing the wiseass captions thing again. I’ll stop it after this entry. Honest.

I know this much is true: Angela being played by someone who isn’t Amelia Kinkade is like Inspector Morse being played by someone who isn’t John Thaw or Harry Callahan being played by someone who isn’t Clint Eastwood. A ‘Night of the Demons’ film without Amelia Kinkade is like Led Zep without Jimmy Page, The Who without Keith Moon, Iron Maiden without Bruce Dickinson or the Academy of St Martin in the Fields without Sir Neville Marriner.

Which brings us to the 2009 remake of ‘Night of the Demons’ and your humble blogger leaning palely from his balcony crying, “Amelia, Amelia, wherefore art thou, Amelia?”

(But lest the venerable Ms Kinkade gets named in the Agitation divorce proceedings, let’s quickly answer that question and move on to an objective evaluation of the – sob! – Amelia-devoid sequel. A dancer and choreographer before she became an actress, Kinkade made another career move after ‘Night of the Demons 3’ in 1997 – her last onscreen appearance according to IMDb – and established herself as an “animal communicator” or “pet psychic” depending on which sources you consult. Since 2001, she has published two books on the subject – ‘Straight from the Horse’s Mouth’ and ‘The Language of Miracles’ – as well as touring and lecturing. Additionally, she’s an accomplished watercolorist and also writes and illustrates children’s books. Which is about as un-Angela a curriculum vitae as you could imagine!)

However, it’s 2010 and we’re talking ‘Night of the Demons’ for the Eli Roth generation with Adam Gierasch in the director’s chair and Shannon Elizabeth as Angela. Gierasch had previously directed the old-school horror/thriller ‘Autopsy’ (which boded well) after contributing to the screenplays for the ‘Toolbox Murders’ remake and ‘Mother of Tears’ (which didn’t). The jury was out before I even sat down to watch the film.

The jury was inclined to a “benefit of the doubt” mindset during the pre-credits sequence, a playfully executed prologue set in 1925 and shot like a silent movie, including title cards for the dialogue. Kudos to the filmmakers for getting their history right: the first sound shorts were made by the then-fledgling Warner Brothers studio, with the first sound stage being built in 1927 for the Al Jolson starrer ‘The Jazz Singer’.

Unfortunately, this is the only interesting thing the ‘Night of the Demons’ remake does.

Okay, here’s the set-up: Hull House is now the Broussard Mansion, where some strange yada yada yada took place in 1925 resulting in the deaths of blah blah blah and it’s now being rented by Angela, who’s hosting a rave there. Had this movie been made, oh I dunno a couple of years after the original, the idea of demonic shit going down at a rave might have held some interest. As it is, the movie already seems old hat before it’s barely started. The desperately attention-grabbing sequence where our heroines enter the Broussard place – all slow-down-speed-up-slow-down-speed-up – also seems hopelessly dated, as if you were watching a really naff MTV video from about 10 or 15 years ago.

Angela’s big introduction is when she addresses her guests (“hey, bitches”), recounts the dark history of the Broussard family, and exhorts the partygoers to set new standards of debauchery. Apparently, this is what passes for debauchery nowadays. The Marquis de Sade is doubtless laughing in his grave.

The proliferation of annoying teenage/twenty-somethings at Angela’s rave suggests that once our hostess gets possessed, entire swathes will be cut through the guest list – my already waning attention perked briefly – but then the police appear, break up the party and it’s it left to a handful of dullards who managed to evade the ministrations of the police to fend for themselves when things turn ugly.

Let’s meet the dullards. The script never makes it clear whether our trio of valley girl heroines Maddie (Monica Keena), Lily (Diora Baird) and Suzanne (Bobbi Sue Luther) are supposed to be teenagers or roommate twenty-somethings but all of them look a little too close to thirty for characters of this ilk. If you have difficulty telling them apart, by the way, Maddie’s the one in the non-slut Halloween costume, Lily’s the one in the slut costume and Suzanne’s the one in the uber-slut costume. I think. The only way to tell them apart is the amount of cleavage on display.

Oh, by the way, welcome to trashy exploitative American horror in the modern age, where there’s lipstick lesbian tonsil-hockey, demonic anal sex, champagne bottle fellatio, blood and gore going on all over the place but a five-second glimpse of a topless barmaid and a repeat of the nipple/tube of lipstick disappearing act from the original is all you get in the way of nudity. Even a promisingly seductive dance between Angela and Suzanne (I think it was Suzanne, anyway, the one with most cleavage on display) to the strains of “Loving the Dead” by Type O Negative is swiftly curtailed in the service of an unconvincing special effect before any of the frisson of, say, Emmanuelle Seigner and Kristin Scott Thomas in ‘Bitter Moon’ can be generated.

As well as the Three Valley Girls, we have a couple of useless boyfriend types – Jason (John F. Beach) and Dex (Michael Copon) – as well as Colin (Edward Furlong).

Colin is the pansiest and least convincing drug dealer in the history of cinema, thereby at least guaranteeing ‘Night of the Demons ’09’ some small place in the annals. Colin works for crime boss Nigel (Jamie Harris), who tawks wiv an Lahdan axcent (innit?) for all the world as if he’s trying out for the next Guy Ritchie film.

Can I just say: a drug dealer called Colin and a crime boss named Nigel – what the fuck is this, a lost Dud and Pete sketch from the late Sixties?!?! (“ ’Ere, Col?” “Wot, Nige?” “Got the mahney from flogging me drugs, Col?” “Fahnny yew should menshun that, Nige, yew’d nevah belief wot ’appened to me!”)

So. The Three Valley Girls, the Two Useless Boyfriends and Colin The World’s Worst Drug Dealer find themselves trapped in the Broussard Mansion after the cops leave. They accidentally awaken a demon, you’d never guess what happens to Angela, and an hour of tired genre tropes ensues. There’s a couple of visual references to the original film (including a cameo from Linnea Quigley), the cat costumes Lily and Suzanne wear (you know, the slutty and the uber-slutty costumes) are a nod to ‘Night of the Demons 3’, all the brouhaha about the history of the Broussard family and a late in the game plot device about a room protected by spells are reminiscent of ‘The Skeleton Key’, there’s some ‘Evil Dead’-stylee cellar door business, the old arms-out-of-walls trick used in everything from ‘Repulsion’ to ‘Day of the Dead’, and a message-hidden-under-a-dislodged-layer-of-plaster revelation that’s so blatantly ripped off from ‘Deep Red’ that Gierasch may as well just have run in front of the camera and yelled, “Please don’t sue me, Dario!”

It’s a hodge-podge. A mess. And it’s pointless. The original trilogy had a combined budget that was $2 million less than Seven Arts stumped for this joyless endeavour. As cheesy as the originals were, they at least gave us a memorable villainess. Shannon Elizabeth’s Angela is just plain dull, the actress bringing none of the spark that she did to ‘American Pie’.

Here’s lookin’ at you, Amelia. We’ll always have Hull House.