Archive for July, 2010

RIP UK Film Council

Posted in FILM with tags , , on July 28, 2010 by dcairns


The news that the UK Film Council is to be scrapped inspires me with mixed feelings, all of them negative. It’s true that this organisation, which attempted to promote commercially viable British cinema, failed more often than not. But it seems a wretchedly British response to a good idea that’s not working: abolish it, rather than fix it.

Recently, The Irish Film Board came under threat. In financially tight times, support for the arts is a soft target, and art which is tainted by commerce, or seen to be “low,” is the easiest thing to slice away at. But it was pointed out that Irish film made a healthy profit for Ireland, not least in terms of tourism, and the threat was seen off. (Scottish Screen, with far less of a commercial record, has been folded into something called Creative Scotland and its commitment to production funding is in doubt.) Had the UK Film Council performed as successfully, it might have justified its existence, even as it ignored Britain’s most talented filmmakers (Terence Davies being the one we always point to on such occasions).

It all makes a black farce out of Matthew Vaughan’s asinine call at election time for the country to vote Tory. “My love for films and politics blossomed at the same time. I had seen Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark, perfect escapes from a miserable Britain. Under Labour we had strikes, nationwide discontent and economic meltdown. The country needed to change before we fell off a cliff. Sound familiar?” As has been pointed out in The Guardian, RAIDERS appeared two years into Thatcher’s Reign of Terror, and strikes, discontent and mass unemployment were the norm under Thatcher, the former only fading out after she aggressively broke the power of the unions with her end-justifies-the-means fascist approach. And it was Thatcher who abolished the Eady Levy, removing tax support for British cinema and causing a massive crisis in the domestic industry.

Under the Conservatives, British cinema steepened the decline it had experienced through the seventies, with only the blip of British Film Year in 1985 attempting to put our cinema back on the map. Predictably, it was the heritage cinema of Merchant-Ivory and Richard Attenborough and CHARIOTS OF FIRE and David Lean which was promoted. The one positive effect of Thatcherite policy was the cinema of protest which arose in defiance of it, although I was never enthused by MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (in fact, I regard Hanif Kureishi as a dreadful blight on cinema) or Ken Loach (most of whose anti-Thatcher efforts appeared, redundantly, under New Labour, although I suppose I can hardly blame him for being unable to obtain funding earlier).

New Labour, a largely bogus and repulsive organisation, all the more so for its fraudulent claims to socialism, did at least attempt to do something about the decline in production. Unfortunately (and intentionally), The Film Council became the only game in town after the abolition of the BFI, which aimed to support artistic expression and sometimes did, if you could get past the stifling political correctness, and British Screen, which was there for commercial cinema, but in fact supported a soulless middle-brow agenda which addressed nobody.

I have to struggle to recollect any films backed by the UKFC which actually struck me as particularly good. Ben Hopkins’ SIMON MAGUS was probably the most interesting, and showed the funders taking a chance, Jane Campion’s BRIGHT STAR is certainly impressive, IN THE LOOP is funny and opened up new possibilities for TV talent to make creative use of cinema, MY SUMMER OF LOVE is a near-masterpiece that should have been more heavily promoted. But of the others I’ve seen, I’m not hugely taken with the respectful literary adaptations and cosy Judi Dench films. But there’s acclaimed work like HUNGER, whose distribution they supported.

In Tuesday’s Guardian, Ronan Bennett provides the statistic that for every £1 spent by the UKFC, British films make back £5 at the box office. Which would be very impressive if not for the fact that the UKFC counts James Bond and Harry Potter films as British. So the films making most of that money were NOT supported by the UKFC. This kind of vague or dishonest accounting makes the UKFC harder to support — critically popular films are often trumpeted as successes, implying box office triumph, which is frequently not the case.

Overall, this seems like bad news. I’d definitely call it a dumb move by a government indifferent to British cinema. But great cinema and state support are not always companions — in Australia, government intervention arrived just as the vibrant cinema of the seventies collapsed, and while the higher rates of production in the UK over the last ten years were undoubtedly positive for the people who make their living in British film, I don’t think it resulted in anything like a Golden Age. But when even a relatively benign change in funding apparatus results in a drop in production while the producers get their heads around it, this act is pretty much the equivalent of kicking away a crutch.


A King in Paris

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on July 27, 2010 by dcairns

Textbook use of comedy chair.

LE ROI DES CHAMPS-ELYSEES got fairly short shrift from its star Buster Keaton, and one can see why. But, having finally tracked down a copy of the film, I thought it was a bit better than its slight reputation would have suggested.

Firstly, unlike the wildly off-tone MGM vehicles which had driven him to Europe, the movie uses Keaton primarily for visual gags. The bulk of the dialogue is distributed among the supporting cast — Keaton’s employers chatter incessantly, with a good bit of overacting. I should mention, by the way, that I don’t speak the French, and my copy is unsubtitled… but the movie was still perfectly comprehensible.

Perhaps the fact that Keaton couldn’t really speak French helped the film. Here, he mouths the French words, and a stranger’s voice emerges — not a perfect match for his uniquely rasping voice, but not bad. I’d love to know who spoke the lines. I’d have hired Louis Jouvet, who looked like Buster’s older, funhouse-mirror brother. The effect is often strange, as if the voice isn’t coming from his body — the audio quality is discernibly different from the other characters’ speech, and at times he sounds a bit like a Raudive recording of departed spirits of the ectopshere…

Buster’s visual bits are good, and I suspect he worked out some of them himself. The story is a string of loosely-connected devices, climaxing in Keaton, an actor playing a convict, is mistaken for the real thing, a doppelbuster, if you will. For me, the prospect of Keaton playing a dual role was the most exciting aspect of the movie: unlike in THE PLAYHOUSE, this isn’t a multitude of Busters, it’s two distinct personalities. Gangster Buster is a serious bad guy, which you can tell by the way he keeps punching people in the face.

Mean Mister Buster.

Director Max Nosseck (with Robert Siodmak as “supervisor”) seems more at home in the crime parts of the story, shooting and cutting a nocturnal car chase with manic energy, than in the comedy, but he frames the gags reasonably astutely. I guess the habit of using tighter shots appropriate to dialogue scenes in filming slapstick only really caught on, damagingly, in the ‘forties. Nosseck’s enthusiasm for gangsterism would pay off in his later Hollywood career, where he helmed DILLINGER and THE HOODLUM, both with Lawrence Tierney

The most unfortunate part of the film is the ending, where Buster and his cute leading lady, Paulette Dubost (looking kind of like Annette Benning — she’s best known for THE RULES OF THE GAME and she’s STILL ALIVE!) are reunited. Buster actually smiles. I guess the Europeans thought it would be a neat surprise. Buster says he only did it to show them it wouldn’t work, “And I was right.” He looks like he’s baring his teeth rather than actually smiling. Given Buster’s problems with drink, a collapsed marriage and a career in freefall, creative interference of such an intrusive kind (recalling his parting shot to Louis B Mayer, “You warped my character!”) must have been painful, so it’s not surprising he couldn’t make it convincing. Though Keaton is losing his looks and some of his grace, it’s the only bit of the film where the strain really shows. A shame they fade out on it.

Things I Read Off the Screen in “I, MADMAN”

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2010 by dcairns


Upon meeting Shadowplayer and now chum Randall William Cook, Fiona and I became fascinated to dig into his career and find out what he’d been up to before LORD OF THE RINGS. I’d heard of THE GATE, which had occupied the shelves of video rental places during my relatively early days of movie-hunting, but had never seen it. Nor had I seen director Tibor Takacs’ follow-up, intriguingly entitled I, MADMAN. I obtained both.

The film’s first onscreen text: The Hollywood Reporter. Headline: Box Office Tops in 1959. My thesis: films are stuffed with writing, some of it carefully placed by production designers, some of it accidental, forced into the film by the ad hoardings and signage peppering the locations. The two form a dialogue. If we could eavesdrop of this colloquy of scenario and city, we would learn… something.

THE GATE is practically an epic, even though it mostly centres around a single house and a few characters, but I intend to interrogate Mr. Cook in depth about its amazing effects. It has an unusual structure seen also in BRAIN DEAD (AKA DEAD ALIVE) and TITANIC — all build-up for the first half, all — and I mean ALL — action for the second half. Certified genius Alex Winter is currently prepping a remake…

I, MADMAN feels smaller, but packs in a lot of ideas, not quite coherently — and to our great delight, Randy plays a central role, titular madman Malcolm Brand, an author of pulp nasties who somehow has found himself living out his own depraved fictions. To my greater delight, I now realize that Randy is also in Stephen Sayadian’s surreal, dayglo, semi-porno DR CALIGARI, which I must watch again sometime.

But to return to MADMAN — it begins, extremely promisingly, with a vaguely period, Techinicolor noir sequence, exquisitely overplayed by Raf Nazario and Bob Frank (the character players are as consistently exuberant in this movie as the leads are colourless), and then a stop-motion jackal-boy jumps into view, causing Fiona to scream.

There ain’t a lot of stop motion in this movie, but what there is, is cherce.

Much of Madness, More of Sin, by Malcolm Brand.” Very nicely design pulp dustcover, the title a quote from Poe’s The Conqueror Worm, a phrase which fittingly concludes, “…and madness the soul of the plot.”

Turns out this opening is a scene from a paperback the heroine is reading, which means we’re plunged into the eighties, losing most of the flavour the forties/fifties stuff has. But Takacs does get some agreeable effects out of transitioning from one period to the other — as when Jenny Wright, our leading lady walks into the shadows in her regular duds and emerges in gown and big hairdo, all in one shot — an effect presumably inspired by Simone Simon’s transmutation in CAT PEOPLE. At first I suspected a split-screen effect, disguised by the heavy shadows, then I came to suspect that the heroine in red is a stand-in, who scuttles off-screen under cover of darkness, to be replaced by the leading lady: a low-tech approach that really appeals to me.

I also dig the fact that our lead still has on her contemporary specs, but takes them off. By the next cut, her glasses and cup of tea, vestiges of our modern world, have vanished! There should be awards for creative continuity like that.





Our heroine is a drama student who also works in a second-hand bookstore and is one of the few movie characters I’ve ever seen take a bus in LA (apart from in SPEED).  Since this is a horror film, a lot of the signs in it are warnings or commands, or intrusive questions. BOOK CITY is an incredibly apt name for the bookshop, since my thesis is that cities are full of words, and the film’s thesis is that books contain populations, some of them hostile.

For Malcolm Brand’s works apparently have the power to cross over into our reality. This is never explained, and for a long time it looks as if it’s going to turn out that the leading lady is crazy and is responsible for the series of gruesome homicides she attributes to the titular maniac of Brand’s second and final novel —

Meta-fiction hits the horror movie! I was slightly reminded of Scarlett Thomas’s novel The End of Mr. Y, which I enjoyed recently. In both, the heroine unexpectedly discovers the impossible-to-find and probably cursed book she’s been yearning for (initially it seems that our leading lady here is both terrified and turned on by Brand’s books, but nothing is made of this) and plunged into another world of craziness and menace. I, MADMAN is more generic, with fewer mouse gods, but the fact that the plot never fully resolves its mysteries leaves the door open to the creeping ineffable, which helps.

SEX FOR SWINGER! Slightly improbable book title for film.


SUBMARINE (name of a storefront) LOS ANGELES (sign on a bus) — both in the same frame, a promise of biblical deluge?

PUSH – WILL RETURN – OPENING HOURS (signs on bookshop door)

In I, Madman the novel, the narrator cuts off his face because the girl he loves doesn’t care for his looks, and then creates for himself a fleshy identikit fizzog harvested from the unwilling heads of the local citizenry. This character, played by Randy Cook in the expressionist manner, emerges from the book and starts culling the supporting cast, who were only there for that purpose anyway. A more economical writing idea would have been to have him target the heroine’s cop boyfriend at the climax, since he presumably has a face she DOES like.




You could certainly read this movie, even if you couldn’t see the pictures.

Cheekily, the movie marquee screen right advertises the director’s first film, cult obscurity METAL MESSIAH, which I’d love to see.




The first text startles the heroine when she finds it in the small print in her face-stealing pulp fiction, the second tells her where to look for answers, and the third tells us all what kind of neighbourhood the publisher operates out of.

And this is the office of Sidney “I only do smut” Zeit, publisher of I, Madman. Magnificent performance from Murray Rubin (the great actors for B movies are out there if you look!) which swings from broad grotesquerie to touching humanity as he recalls the tragic fate of his top author.

TELEPHONE – PUBLIC LIBRARY OF THE CITY — both signs in one shot.


ANGELS with swastika sign. These last two are graffiti at a crime scene.

Nobody notices that all the victims are connected to the heroine. Since there’s no “it was her all along” twist, it might have been nice if the cops suspected her, as they have every reason to do, rather than just thinking she’s screwy. The way society is, any crazy person connected to a murder is likely to be regarded as a suspect. And the cops could be turned into a threat rather than a potential rescue. And there’s no way they could NOT suspect her, to be fair to them — and remember Mackendrick’s wise words, “A character who is dramatically interesting thinks ahead.”

OVER 100,000 BOOKS









The above appear all in a single establishing shot! A connection is drawn between books and food.

Next, a flurry of book titles: THE POLITICS OF THE CENTURY, NATHANIEL WEST: THE ART OF HIS LIFE, ANSWERS TO EVERYDAY QUESTIONS. While, in the background, a hand-lettered sign reads SCIENCE FICTION.

The climactic struggle with Malcolm — books are falling all over the place! As he thrusts his arms through a set of shelves to paw the heroine, THE COURAGEOUS COMPANION falls through shot, and when the cop boyfriend with the designer stubble hurls him into some boxes, THE WOUNDED DON’T CRY drops into his lap: the most blatant gag title in the film, though not quite as funny as EVIL DEAD II’s use of A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

Then, the long-awaited return of jackalboy, summoned from the pages of Malcolm’s first book by the plucky heroine, who’s decided that the contents of Brand’s oeuvre tend to become real. Malcolm struggles with the half-human genetic experiment in a stop-motion battle to the death which sees Randall William Cook heroically animating a miniature version of himself. I’m not sure if that qualifies as masturbation or voodoo. Lots of motion-blur here, and the transition between human and puppet is pretty seamless, helped no doubt by the fact that Malcolm’s face is by now a mass of sutured tissue — lopsided nose, swollen lips, moulting scalp.

Randy was an actor first and an animator later, getting into the biz on the advice of no less a person than Bob Clampett, Termite Alley legend. A lot of animation has to do with acting, which isn’t generally understood… If you talk to Randy, you not only get great stories from his movie activities, you get all the voices too.

Jackalboy (who looks quite a bit like the excellent Harry Potter werewolf) is chopped down the middle by a sheet of glass, but rises again as a Johnny Eck-style man with half a body. A sign in the background reads THIS SIDE UP.

Then half-jackalboy pounces on Malcolm, they fly out the window, and all the loose pages somehow torn from, it feels like, Malcolm’s works (but there was only, like, one copy in the bookstore, so I guess it’s a lot of other books too) goes flying into the sky, and Chanson D’Amour plays us out (ra-ta-ta-ta-ta). What have we learned?

One last sign —



Sounds like a sequel to me!