Arizona International Film Festival – The Art Of Storytelling
Be Calm and Count to 7, 2008, Iran
Psycho Guru, 2009, USA
The Crimson Mask, 2009, USA*
The cool thing about film festivals is that one can discover hidden, rare, and very innovative films that might not otherwise be widely seen. Along with feature-length films, tons of short films are shown and some are experimental and non-narrative. Unless you search out such films on the internet, you probably won’t see them. It’s good to give them a venue. It’s also good to give indie dramatic features a chance to find an audience and be reviewed… and maybe pick up prizes and distribution.
Feature-length dramatic films are the dominant form of commercial filmmaking around the world from Paris to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Bollywood to Hollywood. Most narrative films follow a fairly rigid set of conventions in terms of storytelling. They offer viewers the easily understood dramatic formula of a three-act structure– set-up/complications/ climax-resolution. They feature a protagonist or a small group of protagonists (eg. The Wild Bunch) who move through the entire narrative, often overcoming obstacles to achieve some worthwhile goal. Their obstacles usually include various antagonists, sometimes super villains.
One of the great failings of low-budget films created outside of mainstream production and distribution channels, and even big-budget ones from the major studios, is that they suffer from skewed, failed storytelling. Viewers feel peeved when characters do things no one would do in real life just to make the story more interesting. Viewers also get annoyed when writers/directors create convoluted plots intended to create a fascinating and complex Tarantino-like puzzlebox narrative which instead causes the story to drag and become confusing.
Despite the disappointments and frustrations, most viewers are forgiving. We will suspend disbelief to a fairly large extent if the ride is fun. I loved the convoluted storytelling, complete with a few plot holes, in the film The Hangover. A lot of other people did too: it was nominated for an Oscar for screenwriting. I also like surreal stories such as those by Bunuel or Lynch and so do a lot of other people. But for the most part, audiences enjoy the well-told story with plenty of continuity and a coherent, well-structured plot. In a sense we are all psychologically like grown-up kids who want to hear familiar fables and fairy tales told over and over. Stories satisfy some primal need humans have to see find order in the world and to believe things will work out.
I attended the Arizona International Film Festival that ran in Tucson from April 15th to April 25th of this year and, overall, had a fun experience. The festival included 90 films from 16 countries, many of them shorts. All were professional-level films, fascinating in their own ways. One of the features that I saw really stood out as a favorite while the others had some strengths yet they also had storytelling or narrative construction weaknesses that detracted enough to make them less than totally satisfying.
My favorite film was called Don’t Let Me Drown, 2009, 105 minutes, directed by Cruz Angeles. He was raised in Los Angeles but now lives and works in New York. The entire film was vibrant, entertaining, and touching. It was highly effective in using the New York setting and a street energy to tell the story of a high school guy of Mexican descent who struggles to connect with a high school girl from a different background—the Dominican Republic immigrant community. The story takes place in the aftermath of the 9/11 events, and the tension of that time helps shape the dramatic elements and mood of the story.
In an interview with Indiewire.com Angeles said that early on in his filmmaking career he learned that “…it’s all about the script.” In short, it’s about the story. It’s about working out the entire plot so it flows seamlessly, characters actions are well motivated, and there are no huge holes or unlikely or stupid actions by characters that would ruin the credibility of the story. Don’t Let Me Drown is a great example of cinematic storytelling and Cruz’s skill as a storyteller is a key element in why the film is so satisfying.
The film chosen as the best in the festival is called Be Calm and Count to 7, 2008, Iran, directed by Ramtin Lavafipour. It’s set in a small, arid, rather undeveloped and poor fishing village on the Persian Gulf. The film is about a kid who gets involved in a smuggling operation to help his family after his father vanishes at sea. While the film had many beautifully filmed scenes, offers a look at life in a place that is exotic by Western standards, and has a realistic feeling, the main problem was, you guessed it, the storytelling.
The film lacked a clear dramatic focus. What is the kid’s goal, his main emotional concern? The kid’s father is missing but we don’t learn a lot about that and it’s definitely not the central element in the story. Is the smuggler the kid hangs out with supposed to be a substitute father figure? Mom’s having a baby—surprise! None of the story elements seem to be fully or clearly developed. The story meanders, drifts. If we’d had a clearer sense of story, the film would’ve been far more satisfying.
Alfred Hitchcock said that a film is a slice of cake, not a slice of life—meaning it’s a heightened, carefully constructed entertainment or mythic tale, meant to transcend the dross of everyday life. We seem to need a strong story to feel satisfied by a film—unless it’s an experimental film, surrealist art film, or a purely abstract art film. Be Calm and Count to 7 but lacks a strong central story. It has a realistic, documentary feeling but feels disjointed dramatically.
Psycho Guru, 2009, a feature-length documentary directed by the Tucson filmmaker, Jonathan VanBallenberghe, tells the story of a motivational speaker whose personal life is a mess. He’s suicidal, has impulse-control problems, tends to indulge in junk food and drugs, is fat, has problems maintaining relationships with his girlfriends, and so on– in other words, he represents about half of the adult population of any given Western city.
The idea of someone who is good at helping others improve their lives but can’t help himself is intriguing. However, once again we are confronted with a slice of life, not a slice of cake. The film moves in a clear, linear, chronological way, but it goes on and on, a vast slice of life without much to say except, “look—here’s a guy who is helping others but he’s a mess himself.” Perhaps if the filmmaker broadened his search for understanding of such a person and had interviewed other self-help gurus about their lives and asked some highly trained psychologists to analyze the psycho guru, the film would’ve been lifted beyond being just a slice of life.
The Crimson Mask, 2009, directed by Elias Plagianos, really intrigued me when I saw a few clips online. It looked like a cool neo noir about a boxer and the seamy world of fight promoters and the criminals who linger around the edges of the boxing world. However the actual film loses dramatic focus because the filmmaker felt the need to develop — extensively – the backstory to key character’s lives. One of them is a boxer on the skids, the other a troubled financial investor. We really don’t need to see, via flashbacks, lots of information about how they had gotten themselves into trouble. Their motivations and situations could’ve been established far more economically. The flashbacks stop the forward momentum of the story. In addition, characters behave in bizarre ways. Turns out the boxer on the skids has a bundle of money stashed so he has a way out of the town where he’s in trouble. He even says he’s going to leave. Does he then split the way most people would? Nope, he sticks around and gets into deeper trouble. This film has a lot going for it in terms of atmosphere, but it’s frustrating to watch because of the weak storytelling.
As Cruz Angeles said, it’s all about the script, which is to say the story. We’re looking for slices of cake – something where the ingredients are perfectly blended to produce something delicious and satisfying. When it all comes together, even a low-budget film shot on the streets with fledgling actors, as in Don’t Let Me Drown, ends up being a very satisfying emotional and cinematic experience.
For some all of MDJ writing & other palaver check out some links:
We who love the work of Jim Thompson and film noir hope this film will be one more entry in the distinguished line of neo-noirs that includes, to name just a few, The Killers (1964), Point Blank (1967), Bullit (1968), Chinatown (1974), Pulp Fiction (1994), The Limey (1999), and Mulholland Drive (2001). Note that all except the first are set primarily in California, the setting for many classic noirs including The Maltese Falcon, the Postman Always Rings Twice, and Touch of Evil (a border-crossing noir set in Mexico and California, a story element that added a meaningful dimension to the film). We won’t know for a while, perhaps a year or more, what kind of film this is, but let’s hope the 50-odd year wait is worth it.
The lineage of this film, and all films, is curious, though some are far more labyrinthian. This one began with the strange, somewhat tortured collaboration of two tortured men—the brilliant, alcoholic, middle-American pulp-fiction writer, Jim Thompson, and the brilliant, reclusive control-freak and visual stylist par excellence, Stanley Kubrick, a New Yorker who began his career as a still photographer.
Kubrick and Thompson collaborated in the 1950s, at a time when Kubrick was emerging as a critically acclaimed if not yet commercially successful director of films. They worked together on two of Kubrick’s early successes in Hollywood, the noir heist film The Killing (1956), and the noir war film, Paths of Glory (1957). If you detect a slight mocking tone in my comments about Kubrick, it’s because I can’t help but feel annoyed at him for his treatment of Thompson—he more or less stole credit for the writing on both of the films they worked on, especially the first. Despite the conflicts they had over this, Kubrick commissioned Lunatic at Large from Thompson, but then lost the one copy of the extensive treatment, just another bit of mistreatment of the writer in Hollywood, and in particular Thompson, who seemed to get kicked around a little more than most by the gods of the Dream Machine in LaLaLand.
To be fair to Kubrick, a big part of why the treatment vanished was that he became involved in directing One-Eyed Jacks for Brando and then, after leaving that film due to conflicts with Brando, he replaced director Anthony Mann on Spartacus, at Kirk Douglas’s request. He had major conflicts with Douglas and left Hollywood, choosing to work and live in England from then on. No doubt the move overseas didn’t help him with keeping track of Thompson’s manuscript.
Luckily, the story was discovered after his death in a trunk full of his papers by his son-in-law, Philip Hobbs.
That was 1999. In November, 2006, Ben Hoyle, an arts reporter for the London Times, wrote that Lunatic at Large was going to be made: “Colin Farrell has been offered the lead role. The director will be Christopher Palmer, one of Britain’s lead directors of commercials…. The script has been fine tuned from Kubrick and Thompson’s original by Stephan R. Clarke, a veteran of British television.”
Charles McGrath wrote a long article about the potential production of Lunatic at Large for the New York Times (Oct. 31, 2006). He wrote: “There were a couple of false starts. Mr. Hobbs originally approached the French company Pathé — partly because the French hold Jim Thompson in the same esteem as Edgar Allan Poe and Mickey Rourke — and after that arrangement fell through, he formed a partnership with Edward R. Pressman, a New York-based producer, and the London producers Finch & Partners. Mr. Pressman, who is expected to announce the completion of the deal today, said the film would be directed by Chris Palmer, from a finished script by Stephen R. Clarke.”
Zoom forward from 2006 to April 13th, 2010. On Twitter, Production Weekly broke the news that Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson would star in Lunatic at Large. IMDb lists Stephen Clarke as the writer and Chris Palmer as the director– same director as announced in 2006! Thing is, Christopher Palmer is mainly known for directing commercials. That’s a cinematic form that tones down the shadows and tends to be nothing if not audience-friendly– and Jim Thompson’s fiction isn’t family-audience oriented at all.
Before booze and Hollywood destroyed him, Thompson wrote some creepy classics. His novels The Killer Inside Me, The Grifters, Hell of a Woman, and others were fast-moving thrill rides of noir lowlife criminality, nuttiness, and perversity. He knew the world he wrote about, having lived on the edges of the criminal world at times in his life. He wrote for pulp paperback publication, was reviewed with awe by a few of the lit-crime reviewers, but his novels were mostly as quickly forgotten as last month’s magazines. That’s because they were considered disposable entertainment—cheap paperbacks sold on rotating wire racks in dreary 1950s train stations and truck stops, or on flyblown shelves in bus stations and all-night news stands. The readers were mainly men who lived lives of quiet desperation (cf. Auden), the hollow men (cf. Eliot) of the 20th century, like, let’s say, a lonely shoe salesmen who might be a highheel fetishist and submissive who liked to be trampled on by big-breasted women in boots, a kink he couldn’t share with his bowling-league chums. But a guy like Thompson understood. His characters are mostly psychologically tormented fringe types who get sucked into a vortex of crazy desires and criminality. The kinky shoe salesman felt some solace in these dime-store dramas of savagery and slithering ickiness. Perhaps they helped purge some of his torment over his strange needs. Or they were warnings of what might happen if he slipped over the edge… and became a Lunatic at Large ! Often Thompson’s characters were driven to such extreme behavior by strange and unacceptable drives and desires that Thompson had to resort to a deranged stream-of-consciousness surrealist narration to convey just how over-the-top his characters had gone in their nuttiness.
For those curious about Thompson, there’s a great bio of him called Savage Art by Robert Polito (Knopf, NY, 1995). He died in 1977 at the age of seventy. Near the end he told his wife, “Just wait. I’ll become famous after I’m dead about ten years.” He was right. The writer Barry Gifford brought some of his work back into print as part of his Black Lizard imprint at Creative Arts Books in Berkeley, CA, in the 1980s. Then Hollywood got interested and quite a few films have been made based on his novels including The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, The Getaway, and Hit Me. Recently a 2nd adaptation of his book The Killer Inside Me was made.
All of Thompson’s books are in print and his work continues to inspire filmmakers. Let’s hope that Lunatic at Large, with the great cast and awesome Thompson story, is true enough to his vision to satisfy fans of his work… and perhaps even join the ranks of the great neo-noirs.
For some more of MDJ writing & other palaver check out some links:
If you go and see the Oscar award winning Kathryn Bigelow film ‘The Hurt Locker’ do not miss the start. Bigelow’s beginnings tell you a lot about what is to follow., but I am not just talking about setting up a narrative to go in a certain direction, or telling an audience what genre of film they are watching. Certainly not the latter, Bigelow is all about exploring the borders of genre – her vampire/western (one genre devoted to what happens at night, the other devoted to what happens in broad daylight) was somewhere in between those lightings. Bigelow’s singular writing with light, (the etymology of cinematography) was both there within the genres but beyond them at the same time it was Near Dark – maybe it was even a film noir! She is also concerned with narrative play, Strange Days for example has about 3 or 4 beginnings and about the 3 or 4 endings. The Hurt Locker restarts too – but you should view and review the start.What is it with these beginnings? Let’s take Blue Steel from 1989. It opens with new cop Jamie Lee Curtis being called to a disturbance in a blog of flats. We begin in media res with her stalking the corridor, gun in hand, entering the apartment, confronting the drama and bang! Bang! And cut! This all turns out to be a simulation of a drama, the new cop (we are told) is on a training exercise and is being tested about her responses to trauma situations. Some critics have seen this opening simply as a quasi-Brechtian distancing technique – as if saying that we should watch out as the rest of these images are just images. But they are not just images either, Bigelow relishes the cinematic possibilities of film making, images are powerful and powerfully used here. We should think about the use of the power of images just as we relish their potency.Strange Days, set on New Years Eve, 1999, also starts with images that are just images and yet more than that. The cinematic machine is creative of new kinds of human experience, new ways of apprehending the world. In the case of Strange Days the SQUID device takes identification with character to the utmost degree – it’s an empiricists dream, using the SQUID/cinema we can at last have the very experiences of the other. What possible uses could this be put to?In the context of the decaying capitalist world of fin de siècle USA, it’s porn and snuff. But in the interstices of that world it has truth telling power – it remakes the world anew – we can begin the twenty first century with some hope – the SQUID device/cinema exposes the reality of the horrors of rape and of institutionalised racism.So now to The Hurt Locker. Do not miss the start. The film begins with an explicit demonstration of the cinema as a machine for seeing. The first shot is point of view – from the machine’s point of view! In this case a bomb disposal reconnaissance device, remotely controlled by its soldier cameramen stalking a bomb site. There really is great suspense as we wait to see what will happen.The bomb goes off. Bigelow uses a magnificent array of cinematic technique to expose the violence of the power of explosion: the metal roof of a nearby car contorts and bends; the very earth, (and it seems as if it’s the planet earth itself) shakes and breaks, the soldier’s protective helmut fills with red. The body in slow motion is propelled through the air. It falls. Dead. This opening is a promise made in all seriousness that we are about to have new experiences that will make us think. We will think, and then think again about this war. This is of course what Bigelow wants her film to do. Her speech at the BAFTAs after picking up award for best film culminated in her wish that we never abandon the way to find a resolution for peace. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIqw8OZ6SGEIs the film political? It obviously is. The American forces treat the Iraqis with contempt and are treated in turn with suspicion and disdain by the Iraqis. But the politics goes deeper, let’s look at the start of the film.
What’s the genre? It’s sci-fi. Look at the start. Here we have a compliant R2D2 or Wall-E trundling over a lunar landscape. Look at the moon landing footages. Look at the shadows of the US spaceships. Look, in this film, at the shadows of our bomb disposal machine, our camera. See? The light and the shadows rhyme.
When the vehicle reaches the bomb the soldiers say ‘we have touchdown’. They are astronauts too! Cut to a nearby shop called ‘The Butchery’. Cut to the bomb disposal expert in his protective suit that looks just like that of our lunar walkers, taking one small step for man, as they planted the American flag on surface of the moon. Isn’t this an exposure of imperialisms? The new frontier: the West, the moon, Iraq. Boooom!
Bigelow’s next film is called The Triple Frontier. Watch the start.
Dirty Harry, 1971Taxi Driver, 1976Vice Squad, 1982Ah, the gap between art and exploitation, how great or small is it? Art liberates, exploitation diverts. To divert one’s attention from problems is not a bad thing. We all need to forget problems now and then be it via booze and weed and dance and bowling (Jeff Lebowski) or trekking to a new land or viewing a good film. But exploitation can be spectacle. And, as Bertolt Brecht said, spectacles (like the Roman circus) tend to put us to sleep. They make us forget that we are being exploited and oppressed. Art helps us remember. It helps us be mindful, like wise Zen dudes who pay attention to what’s going on and are always poised and graceful, even under duress.Taxi Driver, 1976, featured an alienated urban figure, played brilliantly by Bobby De Niro. Guy was clearly nuts and on a crusade to CLEAN UP the sleazy human behavior in the sordid city in which he lived. Written by a guilty middle-American Catholic, Paul Shrader, and directed by an Italian-American Catholic, Martin Scorcese, it was all about torment and alienation and taking the sins of the world upon ones self and then, well, losing it. (Maybe Travis Bickle needed to forget his problems a little more often with a good film or some bowling.) The film does not play up the titillations so much as take us inside the torment they cause our hapless anti-hero, Bickle. Thus it’s art because it helps us see more deeply rather than just titillating us with cheap thrills.Vice Squad, 1982, features an alienated urban figure, a psycho pimp named Ramrod, played brilliantly by Wings Hauser. He goes on a one-night spree of psychopathic behavior and crime that would’ve made Bickle shudder and Frank Booth (Blue Velvet) feel impressed. He wasn’t trying to clean up Los Angeles, nor his corner of it (Hollywood’s seamier side), but rather he was ineptly trying to run a small business: acting as an agent for hookers. He’s a white pimp in Los Angeles, and apparently that’s generally a very nasty breed, according to the director, Gary A. Sherman, who did considerable first-person research on the topic with the L.A.P.D as a guide. (This according the director’s extensive commentary on vice in L.A. on the DVD released by Anchor Bay.)Let us digress for a moment into the sociology and psychology of Los Angeles pimping. Whereas, according to Gary Sherman, African-American pimps get into that line of work because it’s a way out of the ghetto and other job opportunities are not readily available, white pimps get into because they have deep psychological problems and issues revolving around sex and women. Consider that Charlie Manson was an L.A. pimp before and, in some sense, during his brief stint as a cult leader. One could argue that Manson’s role as a cult leader has strong parallels to being a psycho pimp daddy.Now a quick digression into larger social and cultural forces that produced these and related films. Vice Squad, like Taxi Driver, was part of an artistic and cultural (and political) response to the upheavals of the 1960s. Many people in the U.S. had a sense during the sixties that all the protest and countercultural behavior had caused society to spin out of control into drugs and sex and outright criminality. (The Manson killings were seen by some as evidence of the direction in which the counterculture was moving society.) Thus we see post-Vietnam-war films in which the nuts are taking over, and, dammit, something has to be done about it. They portray a society in which vice and corruption and psychopathology are given fairly free reign. (Soon Ronald Reagan would appear on a public-relations-staged white-horse crusade to clean up the whole mess.)
The films of Clint Eastwood about the avenging rogue (going rogue anyone?) cop, Dirty Harry, who gets things done with an oversized gun, a .44 magnum, not rule of law, were also part of the reactionary cultural response I just mentioned. Oddly, there is a line Vice Squad – “Go ahead, make my day” (when egging on a criminal to make the cop pull a trigger) — that became a classic Dirty Harry line a year later when spoken by Eastwood in the film Sudden Impact, 1983. (President Reagan, a professional actor sensitive to good dramatic lines, quoted Eastwood’s Dirty Harry line in an address to Congress: “I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers: Go ahead, make my day.” March 12, 1985).
Vice Squad and Dirty Harry are urban thrillers that tended to play up a classic dramatic paradigm of melodrama and exploitation art: build up a guy to be revoltingly nasty so we hate him and give us a rugged hero who can stand up to this guy and then, finally, give us the pleasure of vicariously purging the world of evil by blasting the bad guy at the end of the film. We see this tale told over and over in big and small ways in cheesy stories and even artistic ones, but stories in which art dominates often do not give us easy satisfactions and resolutions. Hamlet kills the evil king who killed his pop, but he and just about everyone else dies as well. Jesus is confronted with the Devil, and turns down an offer to rule the world, but their conflict seems to have no easy resolution and is slated to continue until end times when evil will rise to such a point that Jesus will come back and wipe the slate clean. But that’s for later. For now, as far as staged drama goes, we can find resolution to the classic conflict of good and evil in Dirty Harry films and similar films like Vice Squad, where a good and hard-working heroic cop finally rams Ramrod with his car and pins him to a wall, then pumps a few rounds into him for good measure. (In the first cut of the film only one round was fired. Director Sherman said on the commentary track that in test screenings the audience cried out for a second round to be fired at Ramrod, so Sherman complied, making Ramrod’s demise that much more satisfying to audiences.)
But here’s the rub: in becoming avengers, the cops in Vice Squad and the Dirty Harry films become dangerously close to being a psychopathic anti-hero like Travis Bickle – after observing the awfulness of human criminal behavior, they finally lose it in a binge of violent behavior. And that’s one way in which those films border into exploitation and away from art. Only Bickle is seen by audiences as a tormented, Christ-like figure whereas Dirty Harry and his “make my day” brethren are, to a large extent, vehicles for audience thrills and easy resolutions. Spectacle provides a momentary escape but can leave us somewhat queasy and simple-minded. The films that leave us poised as a Zen master, our awareness of our world heightened, are more difficult to achieve, but then how many Zen masters are found among the many directors and actors and writers working in the film business? For those who are not of that caliber, sometimes bigger guns and more rounds are substituted as compensation.
Anne B) I wasn’t a professional writer at the time; I was a photographer, struggling to earn a living wage (plus ça change) and filling in for a holidaying friend in the listings section of the short-lived London magazine Event (started by Richard Branson as a rival to Time Out) which must have been around 1980/81. Jonathan Meades was editor at the time, and in retrospect I doubt anyone else would have even dreamt of publishing my very first article, which was a piece about inflatable rubber sex-dolls.In fact, I used to have a blow-up doll; when I went to live in Japan for a year I lent it to a couple of gay friends, and when I came back the only thing left was her head, like Albert after he’d been eaten by the lion. God knows what they’d been doing to her. Poor dolly.PDB) Was Salman Rushdie’s praise of Suckers a blessing or a curse?Anne B) Both a blessing and a curse, really. I guess it led to a lot of people reading it who might not otherwise have done so, and since one always likes to be read, that can’t be a bad thing. But I suspect it also put the idea into people’s heads that I might have had literary aspirations, which wasn’t true. I’m not interested in either reading or writing so-called literary fiction, which with very few exceptions has always struck me as a complete waste of time; with Suckers I set out to write the sort of book I’d always wanted to read – a fast-paced potboiler, with vampires.Rushdie describing my novel as a “satire of the 1980s” became an easy crutch for lazy literary commentators who wouldn’t normally have touched a vampire novel with a barge-pole. And after Rushdie’s remark, hardly anyone looked on Suckers as anything OTHER than a satire on the 1980s. Suckers WAS about the 1980s – but only because I’d started writing it then, and to a certain extent I was describing what I was seeing around me at the time (minus the fangs, of course). But I’m a slow writer and didn’t finish it until the 1990s, by which time it had turned into a period piece.PDB) You’re novels have a trace of the Ealing Comedy about them.Stiff Lips especially. An influence?
Anne B) Ealing, eh? Maybe. If so, I would think more Dead of Night than Passport to Pimlico. I do think my novels are very English; I was a little surprised when Suckers was bought for publication in the United States because I used terms like “gazump”, which still baffles non-Brits.There are a couple of British films I think must be influences, since I’ve watched them so often. There’s The Rebel, in which Tony Hancock quits his 9-5 job in the City and goes off to Paris, where he founds the Infantile School of painting. Best film ever made about modern art. There’s also A Matter of Life and Death, which I could probably quote by heart now.
And there’s also Launder & Gilliat’s wonderful comedy-thriller Green for Danger, which I quoted on the title page of my third (self-published) novel, a ghost story called The Ex. In the film, Alastair Sim plays a Scotland Yard detective investigating a murder in a rural hospital during WW2, and says in a voice-over: “When I took my departure that evening, it was not with the feeling that this had been one of my more successful investigations”. I loved the idea of this smug detective thinking he’s so clever, but actually doing everything wrong, so it’s his own actions which bring about the very disaster he’s trying to avert. I tried to carry that through into the novel, which had a psychic investigator as narrator, though not as smug as Sim’s character. He thinks he knows what’s happening, but he doesn’t. Not at all. My first male narrator, incidentally.
PDB) Hows the campaign for you to be the new Jonathon Ross going?
Anne B) We’ve got around 200 “fans” on the “Anne Billson Should Host Film 2010” Facebook page (which I didn’t set up myself, honest) which is pretty amazing considering none of them are my relatives. I don’t for one second think the BBC would offer me the job – my case is somewhat weakened by the fact that no-one, including the BBC, has ever heard of me – but I definitely think there should be more fiftysomething female presenters to break up the boys’ club and airheaded dollybird thing. They don’t necessarily have to be me.
In any case, there should be more programmes about cinema on TV. More arts programmes in general, in fact, but I suspect it’s all wall-to-wall reality shows nowadays. Last time I turned on the TV in a London hotel it was showing a programme about penises.
PDB) What made you move to Paris? Was it the famous warmth, hospitality and sense of humour of its citizens?
Anne B) I wanted to go to Paris and write novels. It was kind of an absurd adolescent dream, except that I was 47 at the time. I went to Paris, I wrote the novels, but what I didn’t foresee was that no-one would publish them, partly because Stiff Lips didn’t do too well – possibly something to do with no-one knowing it existed. I stil get people saying to me, “I loved Suckers. When are you going to write another novel?” I always thought it would be difficult getting one’s first novel published; it never occurred to me I’d have problems with the third.
I detect a note of irony in your question, by the way. Parisians get a really bad rap; they’ve always been good to me. The helpfulness and patience shown to me while I was still struggling with the language was astonishing. But what British visitors to Paris often fail to note is that the French are INCREDIBLY polite (strange but true) and so you MUST preface every interaction and transaction with a “bonjour” (or “bonsoir” if it’s the evening). You say bonjour to the waiter or barman as you go into a bar, before you give your order. You say bonjour to shop assistants before you ask them for something, you say it in banks and post offices, and you say bonjour to people in the street when you stop them to ask for directions.
Thing is, if you DON’T say bonjour, and launch straight into your demands without preamble, you come across as rude and boorish, and the French will then treat you as such. It sounds rude and boorish even to me now. So remember – bonjour! I swear it’s like the Open Sesame to life in France.
PDB) You’ve been called the best film critic since Pauline Kael. Was she an influence on you?
Anne B)I have? Who said that? I guess I should be flattered except that – in answer to your question – she hasn’t been an influence at all. Started reading a collection of her writing in the 1970s – I think it was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – and quickly lost interest. Found it unfunny and not very perceptive, and I didn’t like the style. Perhaps I’d think differently if I read it again today, but I’ve avoided her ever since, and suspect it would be counter-productive to start reading her again now.
Would say I’ve been more influenced by David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema (the early edition; he goes a bit doolally in the updated one) though I don’t agree with all his opinions. Also – Joe Bob Briggs and my friend Kim Newman have both been influential. I don’t read many film critics nowadays; I try to avoid reading too much about a film before seeing it. I don’t like film blogs, on the whole, because the writers go on and on, and life’s too short. In retrospect, it was useful having to write 200-word reviews for Time Out in the 1980s. Today’s bloggers have no concept of being edited for space, and consequently they don’t edit themselves.
PDB) If your novels were to be made into films who would direct them?
Anne B) On the strength of Let the Right One In I would plump for Tomas Alfredson, since that’s pretty much a perfect book-into-film adaptation. Plus it was set in the 1980s, like Suckers. Though you’d probably have to get John Ajvide Lindqvist (who adapted his own novel) to do the screenplay. Not sure how they’d get on with the London settings; maybe they could transpose the story to Stockholm.
Otherwise, I would go for Edgar Wright, who showed with Shaun of the Dead that he knows how to balance comedy with horror. Before Doomsday I might have considered Neil Marshall as too, but Doomsday was such a huge disappointment after Dog Soldiers and The Descent.
Christopher Smith’s another possibility – he seems to be getting better with each film; wasn’t keen on Creep (though since it pays homage to Death Line, at least it proves he’s aware of his heritage), but I really liked his last one, Triangle. Also, I’m keeping an eye on Steve Bendelack; I liked The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse a lot more than most, and was impressed by Mr Bean’s Holiday – and I HATE Mr Bean.
PDB) Whats on the card for you in 2010?
Anne B) Blood, sweat and tears. It’s not a terrific time to be a journalist or writer. I’m still getting freelance work, thank God, but my income has effectively been slashed in half and I’m struggling to pay the bills, which doesn’t leave much time for personal projects.
In a perfect world, I would like to finish at least two of the three novels I’m working on, even if there’s not much prospect of getting them published by traditional means: a sequel to Suckers, a teenage vampire saga which I started writing as a riposte to Twilight, and a devil-baby novel called The Coming Thing, which I finished years ago, but which needs rewriting. I have a great idea for a short film I’d like to develop. I recently started my own blog, and I’d like to try and make some even shorter films to post on that, perhaps finding a way of combining writing, film and photography to tell a story. Preferably a ghost story, or one about vampires.
But I haven’t had a holiday since 2006. I’d like to take one of those in 2010.
Anne Billson’s blog MULTIGLOM is here: http://multiglom.blogspot.com/
MINICRIX is her film review database here: http://minicrix.blogspot.com/2010/01/sa-sy.html
You can buy her books here: http://stores.lulu.com/billson
“Are you still working Sir, or do you just do the writing now?”
Charlie Bubbles was the great Albert Finney’s directorial debut and is, in fact, the only film he has ever directed.
Charlie is successful writer; an ageing angry young man who – jaded and cynical, drunk and disorderly – decides to go home again to revisit his ex-wife and child in the North Country, where he was born, dragging along his wraith like and waif like secretary, Liza Minnelli.
Charlie roams the frozen wastelands of post WW2 Salford in Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III convertible – CB 1E looking like a fish out of water, unable to find the ‘roots’ that he was once so keen to free himself from.The ‘false values ‘ of the South are thrown in Bubbles face by old friends although for me the key scene takes place in a swanky Manchester hotel room when an ageing waiter says: “I used to know your father sir. We’re all very proud of you. Are you still working sir or do you just do the writing now?” Bubbles retorts “No. Just the writing.
The film’s writer was the splendid Shelagh Delaney who also wrote A Taste of Honey and Lindsay Anderson‘s 1967 film The White Bus and indeed it straddles the kitchen sink drama of Finney’s classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and the more psychedelic British films to come such as Anderson’s If…. (1968)
Charlie Bubbles the film, like Charlie Bubbles the man, is bittersweet and not to everyone’s taste but personally I love it.
Oh, and the names are great too.
“A heathen, conceivably, but not, I hope, an unenlightened one” – Lord Summerisle
The devout virgin Christian policeman is close, so close to finding her. He knows that she is alive and that if he does not find her she will be sacrificed.
Human sacrifice! In this day and age!
There is so much evil on this remote island. The Old Evil has reared its head once again. Sexual licentiousness. Teaching superstitions. Magic. Paganism.
Such Darkness in this time of reason.
He must find the young girl, Rowan, and he must save her. Save her from this place. It is now his Holy mission.The Wicker Man is a unique film. Literally, there is no other film like it. It is an Occult Suspense, a Horror, yet there are songs. It informs us of our past, yet it shows us the natural amorality of the Post-Christian and Post-Free Love generations.
It is an unnerving and highly sexual spectacle.The premise is a simple one.
A pious policeman receives an anonymous letter from an inhabitant on a remote Scottish island telling of the disappearance of a child. The policeman dutifully goes to investigate and is shocked by he finds. The Old Ways are alive and thriving there. In all their symbolic cock-ed and flowery lady garden-ed splendour.Besides the re-enactments of Old rituals, inspired by The Golden Bough, the characters are what makes this film such a joy to watch.The King of them all, Lord Summerisle played with aplomb by the one and only Sir Christopher Lee. A devilish gent. Pan in tweed. Sir Lee himself has stated that this was his favourite role to play in his film career and that The Wicker Man was his best film.
Even if it’s up against some tough competition, I can’t help but agree.Then there’s the policeman, Sergeant Howie played by the recently late Edward Woodward. His pompous flustering, blustering, impotence and general headless chicken-ness is so self righteous that you can help but side with the fertility loving nutters. He was perfectly cast.
R.I.P.The rest of cast are equally impressive.
Diane Cliento as the naughty school mistress teaching the children the good things in life.
The Queen Of Hammer Horror, Ingrid Pitt as the saucy librarian.
Britt Eckland as Willow, The Landlord’s Daaaaaaughter. A deflower-er of young men and witchy temptress.
As well as Lindsay Kemp as the dodgy Landlord and Aubrey Morris as the giggling Gardener.
The stories that surround this film are almost as mysterious as the film itself. Lost tapes. Curses. Britt Eckland’s refusal to show her arse. They all add spice to make this one of Britain’s best and most unusual flavoursome bloody feasts.
The end scene is still genuinely disturbing.
I’ll not spoil it but let’s just say the heat of Howie’s investigation gets turned right up.
If you have never seen this film and wonder what the bloody hell I’m going on about as that BLOODY AWFUL Hollywood remake was a complete TRAVESTY then please rent the original; buy it; illegally download it; steal it off a pagan chum; but do watch it. I’ll guarantee whether you love or hate it, you’ll never forget it.
Btw: I believe that Hardy is filming a follow up, based on the book “Cowboy’s For Christ” and going under the title – The Wicker Tree.
Hail the God of Sea!
This is the Reverend Harry Powell and he is a pyschopathic misogynist.
The film, TNOTH, is nothing more than a dark and twisted cautionary tale disguised as a film noir.
The story is a simple one: a poor man named Ben Harper is put in prison for robbery in which two men were killed and is sentenced to hang. The money is still unfound as Harper hid it in his daughter’s rag doll. In prison he shares a cell with a crazed preacher, who is waiting to be released and who tries to worm the whereabouts of the mislaid cash out of him. Harper refuses but while he sleeps he quotes from the Bible and mutters “And a child shall lead them”. This leads Powell to believe that the children know the secret of the stash and when he gets out of prison he ingratiates himself into the family of the dead man, as a good man, a moral man, a religious man. The only one who feels uneasy around Powell is Harper’s son, John. And with good reason. Their mother is murdered and they set off on a journey to save their lives, pursued by the hymn singing Powell.
And that’s it. But it’s not. Not Really.
For a start, this film has produced one of cinema’s great icons, the Rev. Harry Powell. The LOVE/HATE tattoos, the austere Southern Protestant, the madness. Powell, played by Robert Mitchum, is up there with Max Cady(again played in the original Cape Fear by Mitchum and played better than even De Niro in the remake), Travis Bickle, Johnny from Naked and Colonel Kurtz as one of films great villians/anti-heros and his performance is electrifying. A Bible-thumping lunatic straight out of a marriage between the wasteland imaginations of Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’ Connor and Nick Cave. The director, Charles Laughton once descibed him as “a diabolical shit.”
And then there are the scenes.
The scene in which Powell is watching a burlesque show with a look of derision and contempt, thinking to himself as his knife slices phallically through his jacket pocket. “There’s too many of them. I can’t kill the world”, he muses.
The scene when Harper’s ex-wife, played by a youthful Shelley Winters, is sitting in her car at the bottom of the river with her throat cut as the reeds flow gently by is genuinely chilling and surreal.
The scene where the children are floating down the river in a little wooden boat watched by the animals is as perverse as one of Walt Disney’s nightmares.
The scene and dialogue in the battle of LOVE and HATE have gone down in cinematic history.
The feel of the film is a chiaroscuro of motifs. Love and hate, light and shadow, altruism and greed, good and evil, these are all potrayed here by the director Charles Laughton with aplomb and a subtle sense of humour, poking out the ignorance and desperation of us all.
Some people dislike the happy ending, they find it sugary sweet and a touch too “Christian”, but I think the kind Mother Hen character collecting lost children, played by Lillian Gish, balances out the selfish Powell. It’s Old Testament versus the New. One kind of madness versus the other. Compelling stuff.
This was the only film Laughton ever directed as it was not a commercial or critical success at the time, yet it has had an influence on everyone from Scorsese and the Coen Brothers to the mighty Alan Moore and the heavy metal band Fantômas and it has made its mark as one of “those” films that “they” don’t make anymore. Put it this way, even The Simpsons gave this film a nod and wink.
Now, I ask you, dear reader, would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand/left-hand?