Sunday, 5 July 2015

Chuck Norris versus Communism

This HBO documentary, presented via Brett Ratner, presents an account of the distinctive video culture that emerged in Romania in the final years of the Ceacescu regime via a combination of interviews and reconstructions with both ordinary people and key figures in the samizdat video scene.

Up until the mid-1980s Romanian audiences had little access to western media. What was available was heavily censored by the authorities, sometimes for reasons that made sense only to them. One reconstruction, for example, presents the screening of a breakfast scene from a Hollywood film. The scene is cut because the amount of food on the table was in excess of what would be found in a comparable Romanian scenario and painted communism in a negative light vis a vis capitalism.

The VCR – imported and costing about the same as a car – changed this as a clandestine network of dubbing, duping, distributing and front room home screenings developed. Sometimes the multiple-generation copy would be so bad that viewers had to rely upon the dubbing track to tell what was going on, while the threat of a visit from the authorities was ever-present.

The main weaknesses of the documentary are the over-use of reconstructions and some failures of explanation. For instance, was not clear how everybody of a certain age seemed to know the name of one of the most prolific video dubbers, Irina Nistor, when the authorities apparently did not, all the more so since in her day job she worked for the regime.

I would also like to have had a bit more contextualisation and comparison. We see that the Romanian dubbing culture was one where an individual, male or female, would do all of the voices, providing a running translation of the English dialogue, but are not told whether this was standard practice. We also see that swear words would be replaced – which makes for amusing viewing when the film in question is De Palma’s Scarface – but are not told if this mirrored official practice and/or was a means of attempting to make the films family-friendly.

These things said, Chuck Norris versus Communism is worth watching for anyone with an interest in global video cultures. One parallel with the British case, for example, is how the act of banning something – Hollywood product there, the video nasties here – serves only to make it that more appealing.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

That Sugar Film

It’s impossible to watch That Sugar Film and not think of Supersize Me as an obvious progenitor and reference point.

Both are documentaries that see their director subject himself to a different diet for a period in order to chart the effects this has on his physical and emotional well being.

This said, there are sufficient differences between the two films to allow for the existence of both. In Supersize Me Morgan Spurlock took it upon himself to eat only at McDonalds and to always take the Supersize option if it were offered to him. As such he was taking in a lot more calories than he had under his pre-film diet. Here Damon Gameau, who had previously switched to a diet free from added and processed sugars, takes it upon himself to consume the same quantity of these as the average Australian. As such he takes in the same amount of calories as he had before, but just shifts the proportions of fats and sugars in particular.

If neither man’s new diet is one that the nutritional and other experts they respectively interview would recommend, Gameau’s is arguably more in line with dominant discourses. The film’s contention is that due to the debate over whether sugar or fat in the diet is (more) harmful having been won by the former lobby fats were removed from processed foods and replaced with sugars.

This leads on to another couple of points of differentiation. That Sugar Film goes into the science of food a bit more than Supersize Me, and increasingly brings in other voices besides the filmmaker’s.
So, for instance, Gameau visits an aboriginal community which began with its inhabitants following a traditional diet and then saw the introduction of western processed foods; as he community was alcohol-free changes in morbidity could not be explained away using that framework.

The science aspects are presented, like the rest of the film, in a light, breezy and undeniably slick way. This all keeps the film accessible, but also possibly a touch light on fibre.

Makeup Room

Makeup Room presents a classical unity of time, space and action, of one day behind the scenes on the shooting of a Japanese adult video (JAV).

The backstage aspect is important: though there are a number of (female) AV performers playing the roles of AV performers Makeup Room is not itself an AV. All of the filming of the sex scenes occurs off screen such that what’s said and heard, including discussions of rape and incest scenes, is more pornographic than what is seen, which amount to a few, naturalistic, flashes of breasts and buttocks.

Most of the comedy is based around the premise that anything which can go wrong will. If it is necessarily exaggerated it also comes across as having groundings in the experiences of the filmmakers.

So, for example, the performer cast in the Lolita/schoolgirl role did not anticipate having so many lines to learn for the part. She and the performer cast as the mother, who has considerably fewer lines, have been made up and costumed for their roles when the matter of the schoolgirl’s having a tattoo comes up. It turns out to be a back-piece impossible to conceal with makeup, such that the performers have to swap roles, appearances and costumes – the last of which, of course, don’t fit...

Or then there’s one performer having unknowingly been cast for a ‘lesbian’ scene and being reluctant to have her long fingernails cut seeing as she’s just spent several thousand Yen having them done. Her partner for the scene is correspondingly reluctant to be fingered by those nails...

The performers and, through this, the director’s handling impress.

Even if the film is maybe slightly over-long you also feel that this is deliberate, thought and worked through. A powerful dramatic scene between the makeup artist and one of the AV performers felt like a natural point of climax, but is followed afterwards by an anticlimactic coda as the community that has come together over the course of the day dissolves itself. Just another day at the orifice for most of those involved.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD

No film or book should ever be described as the story or history of its subject, whether as a title or a subtitle. There is not The Story of Film, nor The Story of 2000 AD. Rather there are stories, histories, accounts, necessarily incomplete and intentionally or unintentionally biased.

One demonstration of this here is the absence of Alan Moore as one of the interviewees. His presence is felt, perhaps as a structuring absence, through comments from others, including his daughter Leah Moore and Neil Gaiman, on The Ballad of Halo Jones in particular.

Another, which makes Moore’s absent presence that bit more surprising, is that the filmmakers provide others associated with the comic plenty of scope to be critical of others, of one another and of themselves.

This, crucially, is in line with the anti-authoritarian mindset typical (or presented as such) of 2000 AD’s writers and artists. An irony here is that 2000 AD is shown as coming from the banning of its predecessor Action, whose mistake was to present its anti-authoritarianism in a contemporary rather than science fiction/fantasy guise. (Here I’d hope that in an extended DVD version Martin Barker was included amongst the academic commentators and that Battle's Charley’s War was mentioned.)

The most important question for 2000 AD’s creatives is presented as one of recognition. For whatever reasons -- likely worthy of a documentary in their own right -- most of those working in the comics industry were historically not acknowledged as the authors or given the rights according with this designation.

2000AD’s crediting of its creatives proved a triple-edged sword. For the creatives it meant the ability to move onwards and upwards to the USA, Marvel and DC if they wanted to. For the comic it meant talent increasingly using it as a stepping stone towards greater audiences and remuneration. For comics, especially in the US, it meant a greater breadth. (The influence of Japanese comics on 2000 AD, and/or vice-versa, if there are such, are not mentioned.)

The critical theme, and self-criticism, re-emerge. (In the spirit of self-criticism I don’t know if there is a chibi Dredd, say, but would like to.) One of 2000AD’s, and the comics industry’s failings, is given as the masculine focus. Halo Jones excepted the other key characters from the early days discussed -- Judge Dredd, Nemesis the Warlock, Rogue Trooper, Johnny Alpha -- are male.

So too, however, do the limits of the critique: the 1995 Judge Dredd film is bad, the 2012 film good. Rebellion Developments, the current owners of the brand, are good.

Overall, though, a good documentary -- if you were not around in 2000 AD’s first decade you’ll likely learn something and, if like me, you weren’t around for much after that, you’ll likely also do so.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Remake, Remix, Rip-Off

This German documentary on Turkish popular cinema impresses in many ways, from the number of behind and before the camera personnel interviewed and allowed to speak for themselves by the self-effacing filmmakers in this age of the celebrity documentarian; the insightful remarks of well-selected academics, critics and fans; the wider context given and, above all, the number of films cited and expertly edited together.

The narrative begins with a number of luminaries from the Turkish popular cinema of the 1960s through 1980s commenting upon the finite number of plots that exist. They disagree on the exact number but together set up the titular three-R’s approach as inevitable and universal. There’s nothing new under the sun, indeed, though together those three R’s lead to others -- recombination, reinterpretation, reinvigoration, reflexivity -- when considered through an industry making 300 films a year on extremely tight schedules and low budgets.

What does it mean to watch a Turkish version of The Exorcist, Seytan, for instance, when the religious context is that of Islam rather than Christianity? Or Dracula in Istanbul, when there is the historical context of the Ottoman Empire and the Romanian Vlad Dracul? Or a superhero romp in which Spiderman, albeit in a green and purple costume, is a sadistic killer? Clearly in each case it’s going to be a very different experience from what the viewer is used to.

This said, there are plenty of reference points outside the hegemonic frameworks of Hollywood popular cinema and European/World art cinemas, with Bollywood, Italy, and Hong Kong being three that immediately come to mind.

The elements that suggest themselves, in varying quantities, from these reference points include the importance of the family film, of melodrama, and of pleasing the audience, and the unimportance of elite critics and copyright.

The discussions of the material realities of film-making in Turkey even into the 1970s are fascinating. Filmmakers did not have daily rushes and would instead only see what had been filmed after shooting had concluded. Film stock was in short supply, often only allowing for a one shot/take approach. If a filmmaker was supplied with 30 reels for each of five films, he might well opt to use 25 reels to enable him to make six films. If stock was bought on the black market it was liable to have different chemical characteristics, making colour matching an unpredictable business. Cinematographers rarely had filters to compensate for these vagaries and might improvise by using coloured gels derived from sweets -- which would then tend to melt under the heat from the lights.

In sum, improvisation was the name of the game with the real triumph that of actually being able to get films made full stop. Or, rather, not just to get films made, but also made without regular fatalities when untrained stars were generally performing their own stunts.

Though both a great introduction to Turkish popular cinema and a valuable guide for future viewing for those who’ve already seen some of the better known examples, such as Turkish Star Wars/Rambo/Star Trek/Wizard of Oz, there were a few niggles.

The dates given occasionally seemed off. For example there are clips from what is identified as a version of Dillinger, credited as 1971. The clips are also used an illustration of another important aspect of the Turkish approach, namely the re-use of existing scores, in this case that for The Godfather. However the Godfather wasn’t released until 1972 and John Milius’s Dillinger until 1973.

The discussion of how the political situation impacted Turkish filmmakers was a bit confusing. Though this could well be a consequence of the 1960s through early 1980s seeing a series of military coups and re-esablishments of civilian government, beginning this part of the narrative with the 1980 coup probably didn’t help.

Still, any film that can supply you with the frisson of Enter the Dragon’s John Saxon being mistaken for Kriminal’s Glenn Saxson, only for the interviewee to correct himself and the filmmakers happily including this, cannot but be considered a must see, if you know what I mean...

Friday, 2 January 2015

Hammer's Film Legacy

This 408 page book by Wayne Kinsey covers every Hammer production made between The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955 and To the Devil a Daughter in 1976 (including the is-it-or-isn’t-it Hammer The Shadow of the Cat) in chronological sequence.

There’s thus next to nothing on Exclusive/Hammer in the periods immediately before and after the Second World War, nor on the likes of Terence Fisher’s Three Sided Triangle and Stolen Face from the early 1950s, nor on the present-day Hammer revival.

Each of the 106 films included is approached in the same way: An image of its title card; listings of the crew and cast; distribution details; discussions of pre-production; casting; production; post-production and release.

For the most part Hammer’s Gothic Horrors are given the longest and most detailed write-ups, their television sitcom adaptations the least.

Besides reflecting the likely interests of the assumed reader, this is often a consequence of the back-and-forth between the studio and the British Board of Film Censors over script content at the pre-production stage. Mindful of costs, Hammer’s management could see no point in shooting material deemed too horrific or otherwise censorable.

Discussions of these negotiations were also one of the major strengths of the author’s previous volumes on Hammer’s Bray and Elstree periods. This, in turn, raises the question of how necessary Hammer’s Film Legacy is for those who already own the two now out-of-print collections. Similarly, some of the details of the contributions of those behind the camera and behind the scenes may overlap with Kinsey’s more recent book on Hammer’s Unsung Heroes.

For those owning neither of the Bray and Elstree volumes this is undoubtedly a worthwhile purchase considering the information it contains and the prices its predecessors now fetch. For those with them I would also argue that it is a worthwhile purchase, whether as an investment (as I write this the limited hardback edition of 500 must be nearly gone, mine being #412), for the material that hasn’t hitherto appeared elsewhere, or just to keep Kinsey and his publishers doing more of this stuff.

In case my comments appear too gushing I’ll finish with a negative. There are some places where I wondered if what the author wrote was what he meant. Early on, for example, he characterises the purchase and establishment of Bray Studios as a “false economy”. While Bray was certainly an economic decision I don’t believe it was a false one, i.e. a decision that cost more than it returned. Similarly a reference to “sort solace” rather than “sought solace” seems a malapropism.

Overall, however, well worth getting.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Amicus Anthology

Compared to some of the subjects of author Bruce Hallenbeck's previous books, most notably The Hammer Vampire and The Hammer Frankenstein, The Amicus Anthology likely provided a greater challenge -- one that he thankfully rises to.

For the Hammer Frankenstein films, excepting the one-off spoof/parody Horror of Frankenstein, are unified by the constant presence of Peter Cushing in the title role and, barring The Evil of Frankenstein, Terence Fisher as director/auteur. The Amicus anthology films, by contrast, were directed by Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker in approximately equal numbers and had no recurring characters.

The history of Amicus is intrinsically linked to that of its rival. Milton Subotsky presented Hammer with a script for a Frankenstein film. Hammer's bosses didn't like it, but learned that Mary Shelley's characters were out of copyright and thus made their own treatment. This became the epochal Curse of Frankenstein.

Subotsky and other Amicus mainman Max Rosenberg responded to Hammer by employing Christopher Lee for the atmospheric City of the Dead. While not an official Amicus film its present-day setting would emerge as something differentiating Amicus and Hammer horror on aggregate.

There are, in my opinion, three key reasons why The Amicus Anthology works.

First, Hallenbeck provides historical context to the horror compendium film in his opening and closing chapters, which reference the likes of Waxworks, Dead of Night, and Creepshow.

Second, he contextualises Amicus's anthologies in relation to their single-story horrors, such as The Skull, and their non-horror films, such as the Amicus in all but name Dr Who adaptations with Cushing as (a) Who. (This Amicus/Who nexus is worth noting, with third and fourth Who's Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker both appearing in Amicus anthology horrors.)

Finally, Hallenbeck makes you think: Do you prefer to see Amicus's guest stars or Hammer's character actors? Do you prefer segments or wholes? Do you prefer humour as punchline or intermittently? Does a great segment outweigh a good film?