Archive for Stalin

War Stars

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2021 by dcairns

Then There Were Giants is a thing I picked up back when the charity shops were open. I was attracted to it because the director is Joseph Sargent and I like his THE FORBIN PROJECT and THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 a lot. It’s also shot by John A. Alonso (CHINATOWN) and I was certainly intrigued by the casting of John Lithgow, Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine as Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin.

The disc presents itself as a film, but is really a miniseries originally called World War II: When Lions Roared, an equally bad title.

It’s a product I guess of the reckless early days of HD video. It’s extremely cheap-looking. The impulse is to give a history lesson disguised as drama, with famous actors playing famous leaders, with a lot of stock footage to fill in the blanks. Splitscreen is used wildly to link the action occurring in Washington, London and Moscow. I don’t hate splitscreen but it combines with that cheap video look to create something you really can’t watch — like THE HOBBIT in Higher Frame Rate. Well, you can watch it, but only in the same way that you can gnaw your own leg off.

Lithgow is delightful as always but the show’s hagiographic approach, broadly winked at in both titles, robs Franklin D. of some useful humanity. Bob Hoskins tries hard at being Churchillian and does better than you might expect, but not well enough to make you stop seeing and hearing Bob Hoskins, and Michael Caine has never been exactly a man of a thousand voices…

He proves to be a ludicrous Stalin, I regret to say. Since Uncle Joe would have been speaking Russian, doing him in English with a Russian accent is a silly approach, but doing him Cockney would have been, I guess, unacceptable. So he tries his hand at something vaguely Russian, which blends with his undisguisable and familiar tones to summon up the shade of an East End immigrant from Sir Michael’s dim youth, and suggests that it would be lovely to see Caine play such a character, but not Stalin, whose spirit remains stubbornly unchanneled.

Sargent and Caine also did JAWS: THE REVENGE together so maybe their collaboration was jinxed. Maybe if Caine had played “Hoagie” in the JAWS sequel as Stalin, and vice versa, it would have worked better. I assure you it couldn’t be any worse.

The worst of it is, everybody’s THOUGHT about this thing. Stalin is introduced silently, to allow you to get used to the idea. Caine has noted the impassive affect Stalin presents in film footage, and mimics it accurately, his face becoming a mask, as inexpressive as his moustache. Alonso has attempted to subtly differentiate the different continents with lighting. All the good choices look bad and make the bad choices look worse. Blame it on HD, miscasting, and Rio.

The solution for this show would be at the same time easy and impossible — claw back some of the budget by hiring cheaper, less famous actors (maybe Ed Begley Jr and Jan Triska could be promoted). Spend it on celluloid and better sets: don’t waste it on stock footage, unless you have a plan as weird as HOW I WON THE WAR’s to integrate it. Go for stylisation rather than unsuccessfully attempts at authenticity (the House of Commons is basically some tables in this one). I guess they ARE attempting to achieve stylisation with the splitscreen and stock footage, but what they’re achieving is just cheapness.

Play it on empty, black sets.

Stay in closeup as much as possible. Embrace the televisual!

But the makers of this piece probably had to cast big, inappropriate actors in order to get the thing made. After all, I picked up the disc because I recognised the star names.

Tijuana Bible Bashers

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2009 by dcairns

paris_01Tijuana Bibles, for those not in the know, were little tiny small-press comic book pamphlets of a pornographic nature, popular particularly in the ’30s. They generally featured caricatures of figures from popular culture, movie stars and so on, making them the depression-era version of today’s slash fiction.

History is silent on this, but I’m pretty sure they were produced by the state, like the prole pornography in 1984, only with the purpose of turning the nation off sex, thereby reducing the excess population. Warning: what follows is not pleasant. In the interests of taste, I’m not reproducing any of the full on erection and penetration images, since Shadowplay is a blog intended for family entertainment, and in the interests of sanity I’m not going to show you the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy or Popeye engaged in risque byplay — some things are sacred, or, viewed from another angle, nauseating.

But how about this?


It’s a catchy title, I’ll grant you. And if you’re wondering if the anonymous author is going to explore the rhyming potential of the lead character’s name and species, I can answer that question. He is. This is also the only Tijuana Bible I’ve perused to feature male-on-male action (drake-on-drake, to be precise), with a plot that basically has a horny Donald D (with Pluto as pimp) test the limits of his heterosexuality with a dragged-up ladydrake, establishing beyond doubt that performing anal sex and receiving oral sex are fine, but performing oral would make him a queer. I’m glad that’s all straightened out.

And aren’t you glad I’m presenting this in synopsis, rather than in blow-by-blow panel reproduction? Trust me, the image of a rampant Donald with outsized humanoid member is one that would haunt you to your collective mausoleums.


Ingrid Bergman. I never knew she was a sort of human bust, truncated at the ribcage, and mounted on a brick. I guess all her walking and gesturing was done by stand-ins. It’s Hollywood’s best-kept secret. This is the story of how “Reberto” Rossellini makes Ingrid a star — in stag films. It’s the kind of ironic twist of fate one would never see coming, but for the fact that this is a Tijuana Bible and therefore it’s the only thing that can possibly happen.

1_c_charlie01The idea of a ventriloquist act becoming a smash hit on the radio sounds like a surreal joke, and not even a very good one, but it actually happened. The idea of the dummy, possessed of an animating consciousness of his own, being fitted with a vast phallus hewn from oak, and going forth to test it on living human beings, sounds like something from Michael Redgrave’s deepest, gin-sodden nightmares. Fortunately it never happened, except in this literary effort by ‘Feelma Box.’ Perhaps related to Edgar Box, the pseudonym used by Gore Vidal when writing crime novels? Do pseudonyms have families? Do monocled dummies have a chance with Carole Lombard?

I’d like to think the answer to both questions is “no,” but this T.B. says different.

1 (165)Don’t know who Evelyn is meant to be, but the girl under the car is Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and the dapper chap with the gun is John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). What follows could have made an entertaining DVD extra for Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES, except for the disturbingly horrid artwork and even more appalling dialogue. In the world of the T.B., you’ll want to know, a large (or “brutal”, or sometimes “butal”) penis, is known colloquially as a “kidney disturber.” Ain’t that sweet. Excuse me while I disinfect my eyes and rub Germolene on my soul.

1 (193)A South Sea idyll with Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. What could be nicer, more innocent, more… oh. The dialogue isn’t exactly Mankiewicz, is it? Or at least, not prime Mankiewicz. What else do we have to torture you with? Oh yeah.

x (107)

x (109)

Inevitably: Jean Harlot. Sometimes the stars would be identified by spoofy nom-de-guerres, like Mae Breast, or Sylvia Kidney. This was clearly not to avoid lawsuits, since the T.B. merchandisers were strictly under-the-counter operators anyway, nor was it to protect the innocent, since these guys inhabit a mindset where such a thing cannot exist — innocence would appear as a black inky nebula upon the page, an unknowable nothingness into which smut vanishes as if into a deep well — but simply to show off the riotous glee in language of these unsung Voltaires of the funnybook.

1_c_stalin02I particularly like how this guy spells “commuist” in a funny way, for no reason. And then does it again, like he really believes that’s how you spell it. You would only get that kind of genius in the kind of author who thinks the world really wants a pornographic comic book starring frickin’ STALIN.

Tijuana Bibles open, as they say, a window onto history, through which we can see that history is a foetid heap of rutting morons. In honour of those nameless, giftless artists, and their important work sterilizing a great nation, I’m opening my doors to similar works, starring the movie gods and goddesses of today. My only rule is that any submissions should be the kind of thing that such stars might reasonably be expected to chuckle over, rather than stare at, glassy-eyed with terror. I know you Shadowplayers are a talented bunch, let’s see your fan-fic!


Return to Monkey Island

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2008 by dcairns

Following one of Shadowplay’s Golden Rules — “ANYTHING WITH A MONKEY” — we ran recent documentary feature THE LOST COLONY, by Astrid Bussink. Ulterior motive: Astrid was a student at Edinburgh College of Art, where I teach, and is one of the most talented people to have moved about in my professional vicinity.


My first encounter with this slightly eccentric Dutchwoman was seeing a short she had made that got her onto the course. I forget the title, BUT:

A beauty queen, in full bathing costume and sash regalia, is driving a car and sobbing. The radio announces the build-up to the prize-giving at a beauty contest, and remarks that two of the contenders have not turned up. As the announcer burbles on, the weeping contender parks her car and drags a slain opponent from the boot.

Obviously we were in the presence of insanity/greatness.

It was kind of weird that I had so much to do with teaching Astrid, since I’m not a documentarist, but we had lots of fun chats anyway. She started by telling me that in her previous career as a photographer she had taken pictures of a notorious Amsterdam gangster, which had been published in a true crime mag, possibly leading to the guy getting whacked. I could see why she fancied a change of profession.

She then admitted to a fascination with female serial killers, which is always a slightly worrying thing for a man to hear, but this lead to her desire to make a movie about that town in Hungary where the women all killed their husbands. It seemed a tricky proposition, since it would involve travelling to the dead centre of a distant-ish land and trying to find living people who could talk knowledgeably about events that took place in 1929. Dauntless, Astrid made the trip and uncovered enough material for several different movies, honing it into an incredibly assured and beautiful piece, THE ANGELMAKERS, reviewed here, coincidentally, by regular Shadowplayer John Seal (whose column is well worth investigating, especially for those with access to US cable, but actually for everyone else too).


Although the same historical facts were the basis for the bizarro silent art-film HUKKLE, Astrid’s film gives us the straight poop on Nagyrev, where oppressed wives, long used to employing the local midwife to rid themselves of unwanted foetuses, took wholeheartedly to the less respectable practice of retroactive abortion, granting a slow death by arsenic poisoning to unproductive husbands disabled by the war, drunken and brutal husbands, and husbands whose presence was inconvenient for the pursuit of more attractive prospects. It’s a defining characteristic of Astrid’s work that extreme situations and behaviour are observed in a non-judgemental, oddly amused way, allowing the audience to make up its own mind, discover it is entirely wrong, reach a new conclusion, discover that’s wrong too, and so on.

This even applies to Astrid’s most Scottish project, RÜCKENLAGE / UPSIDE DOWN, which recreates the flight of Rudolph Hess to Scotland, in a doomed attempt to make peace between Britain and Nazi Germany. The plan was to let Hess’s own words seduce the audience and then whip the rug away when he reveals his enduring love of Hitler and pride in his “achievements”. Astrid asked me if I thought the scheme was working. “I think so. At first we sort of feel he must be one of those nice Nazis we’ve all heard so much about.”

So to THE LOST COLONY. Come with Astrid, your silent yet sagely observant guide, to Abkhazia, a place I’d never heard of and which sounds like one of those Ruritanian phantasies like Fredonia and Klopstokia, or my own contribution to the genre, Slabovia*, but is a genuine place on the map, a republic fighting for its independence and recognition.

The title of the film refers literally to a tribe of monkeys from a primate research centre, escaped into the Russian forests, and perhaps, just conceivably, still out there eking (and eek-eeking) a fragile living from the hostile landscape. But the “lost colony” could also be the troubled would-be nation of Abkhazia itself, or the film’s true subject, the primate centre.

Having survived a war (soldiers would stop by and abduct monkeys as mascots for their tanks), the centre is still experiencing hard times, with funding minimal and many of the staff and monkeys absconded to Moscow. The centre’s director, a quite literally hopeless optimist, wants to turn the centre into a tourist attraction, with all Russian wildlife roaming the grounds, and visitors riding around on the backs of bulls.

I remind you: this is a documentary. This shit is real.

During the early scenes, we grow to admire the fortitude of the staff who have kept this historically important site open through impossible times. Then, through their testimony and some frankly disturbing stock footage, we learn the terrible fates of many of the monkeys kept at the primate centre. For this is no animal sanctuary, but a laboratory that produced research leading to the eradication of some of the world’s deadliest diseases. What do we think now? The noble staff are struggling to save an institution that tortures animals in the name of science and for the benefit of mankind.

By the time we discover that, during Stalin’s reign, attempts were made at the centre to produce a strong but mentally inferior slave race by cross-breeding humans with apes (artificial insemination was the method, I assume you’ll be glad to hear. And it didn’t work, in case you’re wondering) it’s clear that we’re truly on the other side of the mirror.

And once again, I remind you. Shit. Real.

As always, Astrid’s symmetrical, Kubrickian longshots impose an emotional distance, yet the characters are observed with warmth as well as humour. It’s almost maternal.

And through it all, one staff member, a traumatised survivor of the war, keeps up a lone vigil for the lost colony, playing a cassette of monkey noises in an attempt to lure them back to the welcoming claws of civilisation. Although the monkey professors are convinced that the lost primates must have surely perished in the winter cold, as far as this man is concerned they are DEFINITELY still out there, somewhere in the great Abkhazian wilderness. After all, if they’re not out there, who is eating the monkey food he leaves out?

*Bit of a sore point. I named Slabovia, the last communist country in Europe, and created most of its population for Channel Four Education’s surprisingly unenlightening THE KNTV SHOW, but have no further involvement with the thing, which has now become a website/multimedia brand/whatever. I wouldn’t have minded being asked, since I think ideally things like that should actually be funny. But the EXCRUTIATING PAIN OF REJECTION is fading now and I wish the thing well.