Archive for July 7, 2008

Blood for Oil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2008 by dcairns

Alex Orr’s zestful cheapie BLOOD CAR played the Edinburgh Film fest this year (the Fest has a long history of supporting imaginative exploitation cinema, starting with its ahead-of-the-curve Corman retrospective back in the ’70s) and the writer-director was around for the whole event. He seemed very approachable so I cornered him for the first Shadowplay interview.

Well, it turns out I suck at interviewing, but am OK at free-ranging movie conversation, so once we stopped with the programmed blather things went much better. This means that I only garnered a tiny amount of useable on-topic stuff to print here. So I’m using ALL of it.

BLOOD CAR details the misadventures of vegan schoolteacher Archie Andrews, who’s trying to convert his car to run on wheat grass, but inadvertently discovers it prefers blood. The day before the interview I heard someone describe the film as “technically horrible” (it’s not, but it’s shot on digital) but “conceptually brilliant”. The political subtext of “blood for oil” is never stressed, but it doesn’t need to be. The filmmakers were certainly well aware of it.

“A B movie should just be a BIG AWESOME RETARDED THING,” he says, citing Verhoeven’s STARSHIP TROOPERS as the big-budget version of that principle: Pretty kids getting eaten by bugs, plus a weird Nazi vibe. It’s all in the concept.

Alex and his pals were pitching ideas in the car, trying to find an exploitable low-budget scenario, and I guess the idea of a car came naturally to mind since they were in one. I bet lots of cyber-thrillers are thought up while the writers are staring at their P.C.s. It’s obvious, really.

Being an aspiring low-budget filmmaker myself, I had to ask Alex the budget and schedule question. The movie was made for “around 25-30″ and shot in 12 days, but there was a subplot that didn’t work, comprising about a third of the footage, so that was ditched and a further couple days new material was produced to bring the film up to length and add touches like the very funny baby-kissing coda. (OK, there IS some overt political satire).

Alex has a group of friends he regularly works with, and had helped out on horror films before, but never made one. His leading man is a friend whom everybody thought it would be amusing to systematically degrade and smear in blood. The “meat girl” character is Alex’s girlfriend (lucky guy). A local rap artist was drafted in to play a carjacker.

A little money was spent on one essential prosthetic effect, and a device to spray blood at high pressure was hired. And about fifty gallons of “Kensington gore” was purchased at a knock-down price.

The resulting movie has sold in Germany and has U.S. distribution, arranged through a sales agent. It’s pretty clearly going to turn a profit, and hopefully Alex will be able to make his next project.

“It’s about a white supremacist who gets a black hand transplanted onto him. It’s called BLACK HAND.”

Alex admires the seemingly loose but actually tightly organised plotting of LITTLE BIG MAN, and hopes to achieve a similar historical sweep. “Sex and violence can’t really offend anybody in a movie anymore, what with the Internet,” he says, “and nobody takes religion seriously,” so his plan is to use race, which is still a hot enough potato to get people talking.

“You gotta have an angle, other than ‘I’m great!’

Oh, I also want to mention Alex’s excellent abstract Peter Bogdanovich impersonation. “I met that guy, and he’s like a caricature of himself. He’s all, like, ‘Ah-wub-wub-wub.’” The sound can best be characterised as a smug burble. But Alex paid tribute to the burbler: “Your first two movies are the reason I became a filmmaker.” Bogdanovich is quite used to soaking up deserved praise for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, but: “What? Targets???” referring to his low-budget Corman-produced debut, to which Alex could only reply “YES Targets!” 

I agree, it’s a terrific movie, and Bogdanovich gets extra points for gamely seizing a poisoned-chalice project that had to incorporate ten minutes of outtakes from Corman’s THE TERROR, and turning it into a smart and touching homage to Boris Karloff, as well as a chilling meditation on modern-day violence.

It’s the kind of low-budget derring-do I’d like to see more of in British cinema.

Dreaming Awake

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 7, 2008 by dcairns

“I was dreaming I was awake, and then all of a sudden I woke up and found myself asleep.” ~ Stan Laurel in OLIVER THE EIGHTH.

Well, I did a foolish thing. To celebrate handing in my Shirley Clarke article (henceforth, “the Clarkicle”) I shelled out fifty clams for the giant 21-disc LAUREL & HARDY COLLECTION. Admittedly, I’ve been coveting them for ages. I have most of the stuff on old VHS off-air recordings, but knowing I have something as complete as necessary is a nice feeling. (Nobody needs to have all the shorts with Stan but not Ollie, or vice versa, and nobody WANTS to have UTOPIA/ATOLL K, that misbegotten final film which I’ve never had the courage to investigate.)

Having lugged the box home (it’s like a little briefcase in size) I immediately rifled through in search of what was to be my first watch. When I got to Disc 6, OLIVER THE EIGHTH leaped out at me.

I’ve always had a soft spot for this L&H. It might be due to the responses instilled in me by my mother, who would always get very excited by anything mixing fear and comedy. Well, I say always, but I’m probably thinking solely of her very audible reaction to the Disney Legend of Sleepy Hollow adaptation that forms half of THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD. All that screaming and laughing made a big impression on me, and influenced my love of the chases in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.

So, to O8, as it will be known when Roland Emmerich remakes it as a Summer Blockbuster. Fiona had seen it before, but I don’t think she remembered it in detail. What was weird was, seeing it with her, it became suddenly clear to me how brilliantly structured the film was. There’s no way to discuss this without spoilers, so run away now if you’re bothered by such things.

THE PLOT: Stan and Ollie run a “Tonsorial Parlor”. Stan discovers a classified ad of the “rich widow seeks husband” variety, and both he and Ollie resolve to apply. But Ollie hides Stan’s letter (“Oh noooo!” cried Fiona, who can be a little like my Mum in terms of her vocal emotional response to movies) before sitting down smugly to be shaved…

His application successful, Oliver Norville Hardy duly arrives at the designated mansion, where he finds a mad butler, Jitters, played by Jack Barty (born in London during Jack the Ripper’s autumn of terror, died two years after appearing in GASLIGHT, his final role) and Mae Busch (hard-bitten vamp, memorable in TIT FOR TAT and several other L&H films, deserves a statue in her honour in Adelaide, Australia). Then Stan turns up, having found the hidden letter, demanding half of what’s coming to Ollie.

BUT — Mad Mae was once jilted by an Oliver, and has spent her subsequent years revenging herself upon the race of Olivers — they’re all alike, those Olivers! – inviting them to her home and cutting their throats as they sleep (there’s an understated grisliness about this film). Learning this, but locked in the house, Stan and Ollie must try to stay awake and defend themselves.

This is where the film really begins for me. The plot set-up is fine, an engaging tall tale kind of thing, and the business with the screwy butler (playing solitaire with imaginary cards, serving imaginary soup and crackers at dinner) is kooky and provides a great excuse to linger on the details of performance — like the individual ways Stan and Ollie and Mae crumble their phantom crackers, humouring the nut who waits on them. But once the real suspense kicks in, it’s a perfect excuse for Ollie’s slow-burn reaction and the painstaking methodology of the usual Laurel & Hardy destructiveness to play out with a ticking clock of serious suspense underneath. Unusual!

Stan keeps falling asleep, so Ollie fixes up a primitive Rube Goldberg contraption to keep him alert. The circumstances leading from that little ploy, to Ollie’s sitting unconscious in a chair with a sheet over his body, throat exposed, while Stan is trapped in a closet with the shotgun which is their only weapon, as Mae advances upon Ollie with grim determination and mesmeric trances expression, stropping her giant blade — well, I want to say that those circumstances have the logic of a nightmare, but actually it’s better than that. They have the impeccable logic of reality, or the L&H version of it anyhow, combined with the TERROR of a nightmare.

At a scene of high tension, reaching a peak, with a “get out of THAT” plot problem closing on the heroes like a steel trap, I am always reminded of my maternal grandmother’s reaction to suspense climaxes in movies — maintaining a sitting position, but her arms and legs would magically RISE INTO THE AIR and WAVE ABOUT, animated as if by invisible wires. It’s my ultimate mental image of unbearable tension, and my dream as a filmmaker is to make everybody in a 500-seat auditorium do the same.

Anyhow, through what is basically a hackneyed cliche, but suddenly seems to me fresh and brilliantly structured, Ollie awakens at the instant of death and finds himself back in his old barber’s chair. “I just had a terrible dream,” he declares, redundantly, the end credits music already starting to hurry us out of this delightful nightmare.

What’s great about this is that it’s cunningly prepared for, and the dream can easily be seen as motivated by Ollie’s guilt at hiding Stan’s letter (this could be the most Freudian of L&H films), but this doesn’t need to be explained. Nor does the film need to go into what’s going to happen next. Ollie might decide to post Stan’s letter, or he might be so freaked out by the dream that he thinks it best not to, and will refrain from replying to any missives from that rich widow…

Also nice — there’s a loud crash as Ollie awakens, which presumably is Stan, in the closet, with the shotgun, but (a) we never see him fire it and (b) the sound carries on into the next scene, which is a wholly different reality. So it feels like on of those Bunuel moments, where the great Don Luis will play a sound which is perfectly recognisable but has no obvious diegetic source in the scene, and only the most allusive meaning in symbolic terms.

In fact, while Bunuel may have enjoyed Chaplin and Keaton, he feels more similar to L&H in some ways. Use of offscreen noise; extremes of cruelty enacted with ritualisitic politeness, simplicity of framing which is neither stagy like Chaplin nor super-composed like Keaton. The “clutching hand” that terrifies Stan in O8 has a counterpart in the crawling, or rather gliding hand that sweeps across the living room in THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, Mae Busch is could almost be a distaff version of ARCHIBALDO DE LA CRUZ, and the mimed meal the characters “enjoy” is like a foretaste of the many frustrated or skewed dinners served up in the Spanish surrealists films.

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