Posts Tagged With: BFI

JD Sports… COSH BOY Reviewed.

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“Boys like you are bad, through and through…”

BD / DVD Dual Format. Regions B / 2. BFI. 12.

Starting Big School is a challenge at the best of times, but I remember my first few weeks of Secondary Education (circa 1970) being haunted by spectres considerably more troubling than such run-of-the-mill anxieties as making new friends and keeping on the right side of teachers given to doling out beatings as readily as snarky put downs. Playground gossip played up the constant threat we were under from… The Green Jackets! The desperadoes in question were a gang of disaffected black youths (though I imagine they were referred to by a more politically incorrect collective noun back in those days) who would swoop on random unsuspecting schools (especially those considered a bit posh) and form a double line outside the gates at kicking out time. One by one, hapless school kids were forced to run a gauntlet of blows and insults from green jacketed assailants until they reached the end of the line, where a leading proponent of verdant violence would ask them… if their Mum could sew. When a kid replied in the affirmative he’d be dismissed, his face carved with a Stanley knife, to ask her to “sew that up, then!” Those who denied any such needle and thread expertise on the part of their maternal relatives fared no better… they too got slashed up a treat and advised to “get her to practise on that, then!” History doesn’t record whether those who professed ignorance of their Mum’s tailoring skills escaped, or what fate befell anyone sassy enough to question The Green Jackets’ right to pry into their family’s domestic arrangements. Probably just as well…

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You’d better believe we were paralysed by fear of them Green Jackets, despite the complete absence of any corroborative reportage in local TV, radio or print news. Nor did we stop to ask ourselves why no staff members at any of these educational establishments had ever intervened or why the police were so tardy in arriving to break up the alleged gauntlets and subsequent Q&A sessions, allowing the culprits to repair back to whatever urban sink hole they hailed from and plot new outrages. Clearly The Green Jackets were a particularly colourful urban legend, an especially f*cked up figment of somebody’s fevered imagination and you’re probably thinking my peers and I were dopes to fall for it. C’mon, we were 11 years old! Furthermore successive, allegedly more savvy generations have continued to fall for this kind of baloney and social media, in supplanting playground chit-chat, has only made matters worse. It’s not so long, I seem to recall, since we endured a mass panic about killer clowns planning school yard massacres… The extent to which such grass roots memes influence or are influenced by mass media is an argument that will go on long after we’re all dead (slashed to ribbons by Green Jackets or massacred by Killer Clowns, only time will tell). Suffice to say, cinematic exploitation of juvenile delinquency (the JD genre) has never let any sense of perspective hamper the depiction of yoof running wild as box office bait.

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Groovy Juvies have regularly wrecked havoc in Hollywood, ever since the first zoot-suited reefer addict flipped out, daddyo. Marlin Brando rebelled against anything you got, James Dean tore himself apart and bikers rioted on Sunset Strip, anticipating more recent offenders such as the perpetrators of the Purge phenom.

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Here in Blighty, ill informed moral panic over youth cults has been reflected and indeed festered in, e.g. the bizarre depiction of Teddy Boys in Joe Losey’s (These Are) The Damned (1962) and Nicky Henson‘s plastic Angels, dabbling with the occult in Don Sharp’s Psychomania (1973, above). The depiction of edgy youth in Michael Reeves’ (otherwise excellent) The Sorcerers (1967) has to be seen to be believed. Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia (1979) celebrated the spiritually uplifitng aspect of Mods and Rockers kicking the shit out of each other on Brighton beach. More recently, the prospect of machete mayhem at screenings of Andrew Onwubolu’s gang saga Blue Story have had tabloid editors drooling, while the intolerable TV twaddle of Peaky Blinders continues to exercise its mystifying grip on the nation’s imagination.

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Occasioning even more outrage and unease among the habitually concerned than John Clowes’ universally reviled No Orchids For Miss Blandish (1948), Lewis Gilbert’s Cosh Boy (1953)  was one of the first British productions deemed worthy an ‘X’ Certificate, a device first introduced something like two years previously. Adapted from Bruce Walker’s orginal stage play Master Crook (which had enjoyed a successful run in the West End), Gilbert’s film reaped the bonus publicity / censorship hassles attendant on its release coinciding with the notorious real life Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley murder case. In response and underlining the film’s moralistic (and arguably cop out conclusion), producer Daniel M.Angel appended a rolling prologue caption deploring  “the post war tragedy of juvenile delinquency”, expressing the pious hope that Cosh Boy could do its little bit to help stamp out “this social evil”. Unimpressed, several local authorities ignored the BBFC’s ‘X’ and banned screenings of the film in their bailiwicks.

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“Roy Walsh” and “Alfie Collins” (played respectively by James Kenney and Ian Whittaker, the only cast holdovers from the story’s stage incarnation) do indeed present eerie parallels with (respectively) Craig and the doomed Bentley. The latter in each coupling is a mentally underdeveloped loser, easily manipulated by his sawn-off psychopathic “mate”. The film opens with Walshy slipping a cosh to Alfie and sending him to beat some money out of an unfortunate old biddy, staggering home, blind drunk from the pub.

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Anticipating the way Malcolm McDowell controls his “droogs” in Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971), this guy likes to load the bullets for others to fire (literally, by the time his petty crime spree has escalated to armed robbery). It’s easy to see how he could control the half-witted Alfie, but what about the rest of his gang (at least one of whom seems conspicuously too old for this JD lark)? Walshy’s about as charismatic as a piece of plasticine, nevertheless he manages to lure the succulent Rene (Joan Collins, on loan from Rank) away from her goody two shoes boyfriend, knock her up and abandon her. Will she go for a risky back street abortion or is she doomed to continue the cycle of delinquent degeneracy with yet another latch key kid?

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Throughout the film, authority figures are presented as powerless to curb Roy’s amoral roving, relying on the improving effects of youth clubs and credulously swallowing his vows to mend his ways. The police struggle to pin anything on him and when he is nabbed, magistrates hand out laughable sanctions. HIs weak, well-meaning mother Elsie (Betty Ann Davies) buries her head in the sand and there’s no moderating paternal influence (perhaps Dad was lost in the War). When the rozzers finally finally arrive to collar Walsh for murder, his new stepfather Bob Stevens (Robert Ayres) pleads for time out to whip off his belt and give the kid a good leathering (a gag revived in Robert A. Endelson’s 1977 “video nasty”, Fight For Your Life)… and no matter how Woke you consider yourself, it’s hard to begrudge Roy this long postponed reckoning.

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“Beat him step-daddy, eight to the bar!”

The expected compliment of interesting extras on this BFI Flipside release includes Johnny On The Run, a 68 minute Children’s Film Foundation production that Gilbert directed in the same year as Cosh Boy. In this charming effort, orphaned Polish refugee Janek (Eugeniusz Chylek) gets up to all sorts of adventures in the Scottish Highlands after finding himself not welcome in Edinburgh. Speaking of which, I wonder if – in the absence of those ludicrous Brexit bongs – the Tories will dig up Gilbert’s Harmony Lane (also on this set) for their sad assed Festival Of Brexit. Originally filmed in 3D and screened at the Festival Of Britain in 1951, this 24 minutes (it seems longer) collision of variety acts includes the Beverley Sisters, assorted hoofers, trick skaters, fire-eaters and a performing dog, alongside the comedy stylings of Max Bygraves (don’t worry, Deck Of Cards is conspicuous by its absence). Anybody mourning the death of Variety should be forced to sit down and actually watch this thing. Gilbert’s illustrious career kicked off even earlier and more obscurely than this, with the likes of The Ten Year Plan (1945), a Public Information Film announcing postwar plans to end homelessness, which are even less convincing than ace reporter Charles Hawtrey’s asides about trying to get some lovin’ out of his girlfriend. Sure thing, Charlie! Stranger in the City (1961) is Robert Hartford-Davis’s 22 minute guided tour through the tawdry glamour of 1960s Soho… could that be a young Paul Gadd (= “Gary Glitter”) caught loitering at one point? Looks horribly like him… Teddy Boys is a short excerpt from a 1956 episode of ITV’s current affairs strand This Week (from a time when ITV involved itself with more elevated material than glorified talent shows and relentless ropey “reality” programming) that actually manages to elicits a little pathos from its gormless subject. Speaking of gormless, There’s a brief 2019 interview with Ian “Alfie” Whittaker, reflecting on his participation in the film (no mention of his subsequent success as a set-dresser on films as varied Alien and Under A Cherry Moon… four times Oscar-nominated, he actually won one for Howard’s End in 1992). You also get the US opening sequence (as “The Slasher”), with a more explicit rendering of the baboochka’s coshing and, in the first pressing only, a fully illustrated glossy booklet stuffed with new writing about the film, its troubled time at the BBFC, Teddy Boy fashion, the contemporary Soho jazz scene and full film credits.

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Dunno about you, but I’m bricking it…

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A Squirt Of Grease From The Nether Regions… Paul Verhoeven’s Scandalous SPETTERS Reviewed.

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BD / DVD Dual Format. Regions B / 2. BFI. 18. 

Like many of our antisocial media pals, I imagine, we at The House Of Freudstein held the obligatory November 2019 rewatch of Blade Runner and played the definitive game of “spotting all the onscreen stuff that didn’t actually make it to November 2019″… a list which now includes Rutger Hauer. That was a sad one… I well remember (how could I possibly forget?) the current Mrs Freudstein and I enjoying our very first snog to distract ourselves from a particularly rancid Rutger vehicle, David Peoples’ Salute Of The Jugger (1989). A much better film (albeit one in which Hauer plays a secondary, if not exactly minor, role) is Spetters, directed in 1980  by Paul Verhoeven.

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Verhoeven is a director whose career has paralleled that of Brian De Palma, both in the way that it has oscillated between auteurhood and the budgetary luxury / artistic compromises of big studio properties and the controversy it has often generated on account of its unabashedly sexual, violent and generally non-PC content (though, as with De Palma, history has tended to vindicate Verhoeven). PV’s previous hit, the Dutch resistance epic Soldier Of Orange (1977) had premiered in the presence of Holland’s Royal family but God only knows what Queen Juliana and co made of Spetters, a film which seemed to unite gays, women, the disabled, the religiously inclined and just about everybody else in a chorus of condemnation on its domestic release (one contemporary review even suggested that you could contract an eye disease from watching it), making the subsequent hoohah over Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) look like a comparative storm in a D cup. Maybe Her Majesty was sufficiently steeped in Dutch culture to recognise the parallels between Spetters’ vulgar vitality and the  more picaresque canvases of Pieter Bruegel the elder. Did this cautionary tale of ambition (never mind hubris) punished by nemesis remind her of Breugel’s masterpiece The Fall Of Icarus (below)? Perhaps she reacted favourably to the film’s update of the “three questing princes” theme? Perhaps not…

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… especially as the behaviour of Rien (Hans van Tongeren), Eef (Toon Agterberg) and (Hans (Maarten Spanjer) is anything but princely in the traditionally accepted meaning of that term (though I gather the concept has been subject to a major recent recalibration). “There are also heroes in blue collars” insists Verhoeven and the (anti)heroic attempts of these guys to escape grinding routine (and in one case, stifling religious fundamentalism) centre on motocross and the desire to emulate their dirt bike hero Gerrit Witkamp (Hauer), with plenty of partying thrown in. It would be fair to say that their sexual antics in this Satyricon by the Zuidersee are, er, frankly presented.

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They literally measure their dicks to establish who gets first crack at greasy spoon Aphrodite / Venus on the taco shell Fientje (Renée Soutendijk) but she has her own ideas. Like it says on the American poster, “Three men with dreams… one woman with a plan”. In other words, behind every great man there’s a great woman (because that’s the best poisition from which to stab him in the back, right?) Fientje works her way through Rien (until his dreams of sports stardom are shattered, along with his spine in a traffic accident) then Eef (until he discovers – under rather extreme circumstances – his true sexual orientation) and finally settles for the plodding but devoted Hans, with whom she calculates she can build a life a few degrees more comfortable than the one to which she has been accustomed. Perhaps her expectations have undergone adjustment (albeit along significantly less drastic lines than those of the male principals)… perhaps, like the true Sadean woman she is, she’ll abandon Hans as soon as somebody more promising comes along.

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Director Verhoeven ends his commentary track reflecting on the final shots of Fientje’s brother Jaap (Peter Tuinman), “the only character who has not changed in any way and disappears in the anonymity of the freeway… and the cars… and the landscape… and nature… life goes on”. Is that the sound of Icarus hitting the water… or somebody discarding a glob of deep fried dog food?

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In terms of Life imitating Art, Renée Soutendijk made a big impression in Spetters (and was also great in Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man, 1983) but never fulfilled her international potential in quite the same way as Hauer, co-star Jeroen Krabbé (who plays unscrupulous sporting mister fixit Franz Henkhof) or indeed Verhoeven himself. Soutendijk was most recently seen in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake, which says it all, really. Hans van Tongeren was similarly tipped for great things but soon after finishing Spetters emulated his character Rien by taking his own life.

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The main feature has been scanned in 4k for this handsome Hi-def UK debut, on which it’s accompanied by a string of supplementary materials spanning Blu-ray and bonus DVD discs. In his interview Verhoeven talks about his own brief period of religiosity and how it influenced some of the imagery in Robocop (1987). Writer Gerard Soeteman discusses the “slice of life” philosophy under which Spetters was conceived, wondering why people need to fabricate stories when everyday existence is so compelling. He recounts as an example the exploits of his family members in the Dutch resistance (“That’s not a small cup of tea!”) A Dutch TV documentary from 2002 includes interviews with many of the principals and also those who originally opposed the film (one guy still detests it but the lady who fronted up one of the “anti-Spetters” action committees now finds the film “touching”) before concluding with the observation that its mercenary, self interested characters were a timely anticipation of the marketised society to come. There’s also a lengthy interview with DP Jost Vocano. Nederbeat fans already thrilled by Kayak’s main theme will be doubly delighted to glimpse former Focus bassist Bert Ruiter (then a member of Earth And Fire) turning up at Spetters’ Rotterdam premiere.

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Amy Simmons presents a sympathetic audio visual essay but perpetuates the notion that  Eef’s gang rape and his reaction to it are somehow “problematic”, seemingly unable to grasp that without these scenes, the film would degenerate from a critique of the gay-bashing mentality into an endorsement of it. She does point out that among the newer crop of directors, few can hold a candle to Paul Verhoeven’s habitual use of sex and violence to make important social points rather than as an end in itself. Indeed, Gaspar Noé would probably give his right arm to be Verhoeven… not to attain the same level of regard (because in this fucked-up world he’s probably at least as well regarded as the Dutchman in trendier circles) but to have a fraction of his integrity, talent and brains.

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When Dow Chemicals Steered The Stars … Milos Forman’s HAIR Reviewed.

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Dance, you fucking hippies, dance!

BD / DVD Dual Format. Regions B / 2. BFI. 15.

Naive Okie Claude (John Savage) is invited to Vietnam by Uncle Sam and before reporting to his draft board in NYC (maybe I’m… er, nit-picking but didn’t they have any draft boards in Oklahoma?) he decides to take in a few of The Big Apple’s sights. In Central Park he is confronted by various designer hippies doing elaborate dance routines, drawn into the picaresque antics of Berger (Treat Williams) and his drop out mates, but most distracted of all by rebellious deb Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo)’s impressive booty as it bounces imperiously up and down on horseback. An acid-fuelled, production number enhanced odyssey through late ’60s America’s class / racial / sexual / political / cultural divides ensues, en route to a bittersweet, allegedly uplifting and highly improbable conclusion…

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Combing through this 40th Anniversary edition of Milos Forman’s 1979 film adaptation of “The American Tribal Love Rock Musical” unfolds a kaleidoscope of interrelated  questions, over and above its own intrinsic worth as a piece of entertainment or Art. Notably, how faithful (in the era of My Sharona and Reaganomics) was it to the original stage vision of Gerome Ragni / James Rado (book and lyrics, pictured above) and Galt MacDermot (music), as brought to the New York stage 12 years earlier? How well did that original reflect the turbulent times on which it aspired to comment? And how much progress has subsequently been made in the social issues addressed by Hair?

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Ragni and Ragno themselves decried the film’s radical narrative departures but something had to give in the transposition of their freewheeling storyline from stage to screen, somebody had to do it and  screenwriter Michael Weller manages an acceptable job of it. Czech emigré Forman (directing his cast in Central Park, above) had established his countercultural credentials with his landmark 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and would continue to embellish them in the likes of The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996). He’s comfortable here (with significant assists from choreographer Twyla Tharp) extracting an eminently watchable movie from a musical that’s always gotten by on one sublime number (you know the one I mean), a couple of OK tunes and several disposable duds. Personally, I’d always continue to hold Milos Forman in high esteem if the only stuff he’d ever committed to celluloid had been Elizabeth McGovern’s nude scenes in Ragtime (1981)…

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… I know, how very sexist of me, but completely in keeping with this cinematic incarnation of Hair. D’Angelo’s character is subjected to various unsolicited fumblings and sexual humiliations throughout the course of the film, all of which she accepts without protest. This is by no means the full extent of the political incorrectness here. Apparent attempts at Civil Rights statements invariably degenerate into wince-inducing racial stereotypes (I mean: “Black boys are delicious… chocolate flavoured love”? Puleeze!) Most jarringly of all, there’s a line in one song earnestly enquiring why “pederasty” is considered “nasty”! They don’t write ’em like that in 2019 and it’s probably just as well. What of the stage play’s commentary on the industrial degradation of our environment (a subject which now seem more pertinent than ever)? Well, all of that has gone conspicuously AWOL from the film, in which Dow Chemicals was allegedly a prominent investor. You don’t need a degree in Chemistry to work out that equation…

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The BFI’s characteristically generous compliment of bonus materials include a brace of psychedelic amalgamations of animation and music, reminiscent of the stuff that used to appear on early ’70s editions of The Old Grey Whistle Test, Anthony Stern’s award-winning 1968 impressionistic documentary short San Francisco (whose seizure-inducing visuals are accompanied by a very early version of The Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive which makes explicit the debt owed by Barrett and co to Love’s reading of the Bacharach – David standard My Little Red Book) and an NFT audio interview with legendary director Nicholas Ray, who appears as a General in Forman’s film. If you shell out for the first pressing of this release you’ll also be getting a fully illustrated booklet with new essays on the film and its director and an interview with screenwriter Michael Weller. My favourite extra on this set though has to be Oscar Riesel’s 1979 short (i.e. 24 minute) Disco mania, a succession of disco footage in (vain) search of a plot, showcasing the terpsichorean and thespian talents of the dynamic former world disco dancing champion Grant Santino. Hope you enjoy Grant’s performance of disco classic Dance Reaction (below) as much as I do…

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Holding Out Against The End Of History… Pier Paolo Pasolini’s TRILOGY OF LIFE On BFI Blu-ray.

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BD. Region B. BFI. 18.

In 1992, shortly after Stormin’ Norman and co had kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, cultural commentator Francis Fukuyama declared The End of History in a briefly voguish book of that title. Fukuyama’s thesis (into which subsequent global developments have poked several significant holes) was that The Washington Consensus / Neoliberal model had triumphed  over all other forms of economic, political and social organisation and would be the only game in town for the remainder of mankind’s tenure on planet Earth. Not everybody believed this when Fukuyama said it and among those who suspected he might be right, not everybody was wildly enthused about the prospect.

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Even before he got side tracked into film making in the early ’60s, Italy’s (then) foremost living poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, as well versed in the works of Antonio Gramsci as he was in those of Petrarch and Dante, had been decrying the degeneration of Italy’s Popular Culture into Mass Culture. “Italy’s post-War economic miracle”, as far as he was concerned, was turning out a generation of dead-eyed, dollar-chasing drones.

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After a decade of cinematic and personal provocations, Pasolini conceived and executed his Trilogy Of Life, here gathered in a new BFI Blu-ray set. By (rather freely) adapting classic story cycles from Boccaccio, Chaucer and the various compilers of The Thousand And One Nights he offered glimpses of lost worlds, uncorrupted by consumerism, where unalienated people, in all their crapulent, flatulent fleshiness, lived lives of innocent sensuality in defiance of their own poverty and contemporary restrictive social mores.

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The Decameron (1971) and Canterbury Tales (1972) are expressions of PPP’s contemporary faith in the common people (or his picaresque vision of same), in all their lustful, acquisitive and roguish “authenticity” (a quality which Pasolini, on account of his homosexuality and genteel antecedents, felt that he lacked)… the great unwashed, whose ribaldry and very zest for life could yet recapture the pre-capitalist, essentially pagan idyll for which Pasolini pined. This, however, was looking less and less likely. In 1973 Allende was overthrown in Chile and the country turned into a prison camp / lab for the development of the neo-liberal policies that were subsequently rolled out internationally and have been rolling over the backs of the 99% ever since.

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Arabian Nights (1974) unfolds with the kind of narrative complexity that Quentin Tarantino would give his right hand (or maybe his girlfriend’s right foot) to attain and showcases the ravishing natural beauty of Yemen, Iran, India, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Nepal. In this film (and e.g. his 1970 documentary Notes For An African Oresteia) Pasolini was pondering the possible beneficial cultural influences that these Third World countries could exert over The West. No doubt he would have wept if he’d lived to see the scars inflicted by the proxy wars of “more developed” nations on some of those landscapes and their unfortunate inhabitants.

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These are unalloyed gems of European Arthouse Cinema, guaranteed to significantly lift your spirits even if they don’t propel you to the nearest barricade. The fact that they didn’t was a big problem for Pasolini. Even worse, the box office success of his paeans to pagan innocence “inspired” an interminable cycle (“a circus” in the words of trash film producer and prolific participant, Gabriele Crisanti) of lowest common denominator, smutty “Decameronesque” imitators, examined and analysed in David Gregory and Alberto Farina’s  35 minute bonus featurette Pasolini And The Italian Genre Film. In that, PPP biographer Serafino Murro posits that the alacrity with  which the Italian public gobbled up this garbage (in addition to the political passivity of the Italian youth in whom he’s invested so much revolutionary hope) was Pasolini’s direct inspiration for a notorious banqueting scene in his next (and final) film. Read backwards, the fierce joy that characterises his Trilogy Of Life could be construed as softening us up for the sickening sucker punch of Salò (1975). Indeed, in a dialectical twist that the director, as a convinced Marxist, must surely have appreciated, the sheer scatology (which peaks in the gobsmacking vision of Hell at the conclusion of Canterbury Tales), duplicitousness in relationships and casual attitude towards life and limb evidenced by his unalienated, sensuous salt-of-the-Earth types are the germs of the outrages perpetrated by De Sade’s libertines. Just chew that one over for a minute…

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Extras include a collectors’ booklet (which, as usual, I haven’t seen yet) and trailers for all three films. You might well have seen some of the bonus stuff on previous editions. On the Decameron disc you get Notes For An African Oresteia, which would possibly have made more sense accompanying Arabian Nights, but there you go. The latter film is complimented by 21 minutes of footage that were excised after its award-laden screening at the Cannes Festival in 1974. The aforementioned Pasolini And The Italian Genre Film can be found on the Canterbury Tales disc, along with an all new (to me, anyway) interview with Robin Askwith. Boy, he’s aged well… barely looks any different from the way he did in his ’70s heyday and some of his distinctly non-PC asides suggest that his attitudes haven’t changed much since then, either. RA suggests that Pasolini cast him because of their mutual aversion to Franco Zeffirelli and his account of an audition, most of which the director spent mocking the appearance of Askwith’s penis, corroborate that given by one of his Canterbury Tales co-stars in the latter’s riotous autobiography, Who On Earth Is Tom Baker? Pity nobody thought to interview Adrian Street (assuming he’s still interviewable).

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The new transfers look and sound pretty good. Some grain is evident on The Decameron, somewhat less on Canterbury Tales and least of all on Arabian Nights, though I counted at least three subtitling howlers on that one (not sure if they’re being corrected for street copies). If you don’t own these films already, here’s the perfect opportunity to rectify a serious deficiency in your collection.

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Pro Boner Publico… Derek Jarman’s SEBASTIANE Reviewed.

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“One hundred and eighty!”

BD. BFI. Region B. 18.

Sebastiane (Leonardo Treviglio) is a senior officer in the Praetorian Guard, in fact you could say (if you’re one of those people who endlessly recite Monty Python routines) that he wanks as high as any in Wome. Unfortunately the Emperor Diocletian (Robert Medley), whom we see enjoying a bukkake dance performance from Lindsay Kemp in the company of an anachronistically clad Jordan (the punk rock one, not the “glamour model”) takes a dim view of Seb’s recent conversion to Christianity and exiles him to a remote desert outpost to serve under the aptly named Commander Severus (Barney James), alongside several resolutely gay squaddies and Max (Neil Kennedy), a homophobic brute with no nose. How (I hear you ask) does Max smell? “Terrible!” is the stock music hall answer but Max probably smells pretty good, spending as much time as he does in the bath house with his butch buddies. Severus develops a serious case of the hots for Sebastiane, who rejects his lustful pagan advances. Using Seb’s pacifism as a pretext, Severus subjects him to ongoing torments and humiliations, which seem to be equally enjoyed on each side of the SM equation. Ultimately Severus orders the guys to string Seb up and dispatch him with arrows, an order with which they eagerly comply… after all, you can’t beat a bit of Bully!

Unfortunately, Jarman chose not to depict the sequel to these sad events in which, according to hagiographical tradition, Sebastiane was miraculously revived by Saint Irene and returned to the court of Diocletian to plead with him to change his Christian-bashing ways. Instead, Diocletian had him cudgelled to death (for good this time) and chucked into Rome’s main sewer (depicted below in the 1612 painting by Lodovico Carracci). We also gather that Sebastian’s cranium turned up, silver coated, in Ebersberg, Germany during the tenth Century, and was used to dispense Communion wine to the faithful on the Saint’s birthday. His various relics are, moreover, reckoned proof against outbreaks of plague and pestilence.

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Aside from the reverence in which he is held in both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the figure of Sebastian has long been regarded as a gay icon if not, er, pin-up boy. In Richard A. Kaye’s words: “Contemporary gay men have seen in Sebastian at once a stunning advertisement for homosexual desire (indeed, a homoerotic ideal), and a prototypical portrait of tortured closet case.” Artists as diverse as Andrea Mantegna and Yukio Mishima have tapped into this myth…

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The BFI’s press blurb describes Sebastiane as “a glorious hymn to the very real, living and breathing male body”. Indeed, Jarman and Peter Middleton (responsible for this film’s truly ravishing cinematography) dwell lovingly on the body in question and its workings, to the point where I found myself shouting: “Careful mate, you’ll have somebody’s eye out with that!” at the screen several times (and I wasn’t always talking about the arrows!) As such, Jarman’s uncostumed drama, which grafts bits of Melville’s Billy Budd and Laurens van der Post’s The Seed And The Sower (filmed by Nagisa Oshima as Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence in 1983) onto Christian tradition, enjoyed a brief success de scandale before much of its Roman romp thunder was stolen by Bob Guccione’s Caligula (1979). By having the dialogue spoken in archaic Latin, Jarman was presumably deploying and / or lampooning the convention by which you can get away with more in “Art” films, though I gather that he was originally planning (before distributors put their collective foot down) to have Sebastiane screened without benefit of subtitles. You can take anti commercialism too far, you know…

The male body, however real, living or breathing (they left out “arse-winking”), has never held any erotic fascination for me (frankly, on the cusp of my sixth and seventh decades, even the female body agitates me significantly less than it used to) but I enjoyed this opportunity to see Sebastiane again for three reasons. 1) It’s not Jarman’s excruciating Jubliee (1978), whose “punk rock” pretensions date it more horribly than any of The third Century shenanigans depicted here. 2) House Of Freudstein Hall-Of-Famer David Warbeck once told me that he’d put up much of the film’s finance. 3) Having suffered a Catholic education myself, I’m always glad to see the iconography of repressive religion subverted to the ends of irrepressible Desire.

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The Ecstasy Of St Teresa. Gian Lorenzo Bernini. 1647-52.

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Sebastiane. Derek Jarman. 1976.

Extras wise, you get Jazz Calendar (1968), 36 minutes of the Royal Ballet in rehearsal with the scenery and costumes by Jarman that impressed Ken Russell sufficiently to appoint him production designer on The Devils (1971) and set designer on Savage Messiah (1972)… film maker John Scarlett-Davis remembering how he was roped into the proceedings and subsequently mortified to see himself and his boyfriend snogging away on the cover of Time Out… and 62 minutes of an incomplete, black and white, un-subtitled work-in-progress cut, featuring different music from Brian Eno’s ambient noddlings as heard in the released version.

One thing that neither this disc’s bonus materials nor its fully illustrated booklet (featuring liner notes by William Fowler) shed any light upon is the role of long forgotten one-shot co-director (and editor) Paul Humfress (who also co-wrote Leslie Magahey’s BBC 1979 adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken The Painter). It would be interesting to learn how he and Jarman divided the work between them.

The behind-the-scenes Super 8 short The Making of Sebastiane, shot by Jarman and  sound assistant Hugh Smith… or at least that part of its 25 minutes not taken up with footage of Sardinian mountain roads shot through the window of a moving car… capture a singular historical moment, in which a repressed minority were starting to flex their muscles, joyously. Who could have known that another pestilence was coming, one against which saintly skulls would afford scant protection?

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Here Comes The Mirror Man… Cocteau’s ORPHÉE On BFI Blu-ray.

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BD. BFI. Region B. PG.

Despite (or perhaps on account of) his celebrity status (really?) as a feted poet, Orphée (Jean Marais) is fated to a discontented and moody existence, devoting more time to his poetry than to his devoted wife Eurydice (Marie Déa). His eye is taken, though, by another young poet, the dissolute Jacques Cégeste (Edouard Dermithe) who has barely enough time to register his degenerate credentials before he’s run over by black clad bikers (archetypal emissaries of Death who will recur in films as diverse as those of Kenneth Anger, Freddie Francis’s Tales From The Crypt, Anthony Balch’s Horror Hospital, 1973 and Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy, among others).

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Orphée is roped into a phoney attempt to save Cégeste by the black presence of Death herself (Maria Casares) with whom, as a moody artist, he naturally develops an obsession (a mutually felt one, as it happens). Increasingly preoccupied with deciphering cryptic radio messages that are apparently broadcast from The Beyond, he neglects Eurydice even further, until she is felled by those bikers and carried off to Hades. Under the guidance of Death’s ambiguous chauffeur / PA Heurtebise (François Périer), Orpée passes through the looking-glass into The Underword (cue can-can music…)

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Stating his case to a tribunal of judges who appear to be Death’s employers, Orphée reclaims his bride, with the proviso that if he ever looks at her, he will lose her again. After some comic bits concerning the convoluted domestic arrangements entailed by this, the inevitable happens, but Heurtebise puts an additional spin on the original Greek legend (which might well have influenced Mario Puzo when coming up with the climax of Superman II, 1980). Heurtebise  and Death (compliant in this reversal of the ordained order of things) are led off to their punishment by the bikers and Orphée is permanently reunited and reconciled with Eurydice in marital bliss…

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Jean Cocteau was, among other things (many, many other things) a gay film maker. Having taken the opportunity afforded, by this characteristically lush BFI restoration, to re-watch his spell-binding Orphee (1950), I was left wondering about the distinction between a gay man directing a film and a man directing (if indeed there is such a thing) a gay film. In one of the supporting extras on this disc, John Maybury director of Love is the Devil and The Edge of Love argues that as homosexuals don’t have children (not necessarily true, these days), the works of artists such as Cocteau constitute part of the “Queer Family Tree”.  Cocteau, however, was working in an era whose prevailing mores obliged him to be more reticent about revealing his orientation than might be the case in present day France and as such the choice of Orpheus, a figure of multifarious mythic manifestations, was a particularly useful one from which to take an oblique tack…

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Orpheus doesn’t appear in Hesiod’s seminal Theogony but in Virgil’s classic telling of the tale, his poetic mastery of the lyre and the beauty of his singing voice wins over animals, plants and yes, inanimate objects. Simonides adds that he even managed to charm Charon, Cerberus and Pluto into surrendering Eurydice, back to the land of the living, though his regard for her does not extend to complying with the instructions that will prolong her revival. In Cocteau’s film, moreover, Orphée makes a similar journey through The Zone in search of the handsome young poet Jacques. Apollonius of Rhodes tells us that Orpheus played his lyre for Jason to neutralise the feminine lure of the Sirens’ song and one version of his death, as recounted by Ovid, is that he was torn apart by female celebrants of the Dionysian rites, enraged by his renunciation of the love of  women for that of young men. In Cocteau’s film Juliet Greco (below, with the director) plays Aglaonice (a name associated with witchcraft in Greek mythology), who stirs up the local rabble against Orphée under suspicion that he has plagiarised the work of Cégeste and might have something to do with his disappearance. Perhaps the implication is that he has in some other way “outraged” Cégeste?

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Developing the theme of his 1932 short Le Sang D’un Poète, Cocteau presents the otherness of The Poet / “Artistic Type” as virtually interchangeable with that of the homosexual, to the point where “poetical” becomes as much of a euphemism as “earnest” or, indeed, “gay”. As for that happy hetero ending… well, I’m not old enough to have any way of knowing how that went over at initial screenings of Orphée, but I do remember reports of riots breaking out in cinemas during screenings of Nancy Walker’s Can’t Stop The Music (1980) when allusions were made in it to The Village People having girlfriends!

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Apart from the aforementioned extra, you get an audio commentary, courtesy of Roland-François Lack and interviews with such Cocteau associates and collaborators as Jean Pierre Mocky, Pierre Bergé and Dominique Marny. Cocteau’s AD Claude Pinoteau discusses the director’s many ingenious, in-camera effects in the featurette Jean Cocteau And His Tricks, which deploys many of those itself. La Villa Santo-Sospir is a 1951 short directed by Cocteau, revealing the walls he “tattooed” for a friend’s villa on the Côte d’Azur. Plus original and re-release trailer, reversible sleeve with new artwork by Edward Kinsella and fully illustrated booklet containing an essay by Ginette Vincendeau, an interview with Jean Cocteau from 1950 and much else.

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Despite Cocteau’s up and down relationship with Andre Breton and co, this is sheer Surrealism (no doubt informed by the copious amounts of opium that JC was imbibing at the time) of the kind that David Lynch could never begin to approach with his meretricious wannabe outpourings (Peter Gabriel came considerably closer with his whole Lamb Lies Down On Broadway concept).

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As for that distinction between “film made by gay man” Vs “Gay Film”… well,  check out the rumble at the Café des Poètes, just before Cégeste gets run over and note the pale youth who keeps withdrawing from the fray to arrange his lank locks. Orphée is A Gay Film and gloriously so.

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Oxytocin Trumps Testosterone… Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST on BFI Blu-Ray

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BD. BFI. Region B. PG.

One of the sustaining myths of civilisation building is that of the women dragging their men folk out of the saloon bars and into the church pews… of the latter ceasing to spread their wild oats and getting down to some serious husbandry… of love overcoming lust and oxytocin trumping testosterone. The taming of male libido and aggression has been an ongoing theme of fantasy cinema, from any amount of readings of Dr Jekyll And Mister Hyde to King Kong, Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man and assorted Paul Naschy knock-offs… from films as bland as Disney pablum and the pap of the Twilight franchise to those as seditious as Borowczyk’s La Bete…

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Jean Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête (1946) comes as close as any of these to presenting a definitive take on the “Beauty and The Beast” theme by sticking, straight-faced, to the source whereby Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (in 1740… subsequently abridged by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756 and Andrew Lang, 1889) distilled this wisp of folklore into formal fairy tale.

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Josette Day is Belle, the beautiful and virtuous daughter of a penurious father (Marcel André), ridiculed and over-worked by her acquisitive sisters (shades of Cinderella). When Papa rides off in hope that his ship has finally come in, the Ugly Sisters place their orders for jewels and finery while Belle (to their haughty amusement) requests but a single rose (shades of King Lear). That ship duly fails to come in and her dad compounds their misfortune by picking the requested rose from the enchanted garden of La Bête (Jean Marais), who demands one of his daughters in recompense, as an alternative to taking the old man’s life.

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The dutiful Belle takes his place and The Beast is duly smitten with her. The balance of the picture is taken up (along with her ghastly family’s mercenary machinations) with the accommodation which the title characters come to and the revelation of Monsieur Bête’s finer features, by dint of which he ultimately wins her heart and transforms, in the process, into Prince Charming, the maskless Marais (the French Brad Pitt of his day).

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Cocteau coaches Marais in the Droopy Nipple World Championships of 1946.

So many factors contribute to making La Belle Et La Bête such an off-kilter classic… the idiosyncratic, fourth wall-breaking title sequence, the atmospheric black-and-white photography by Henri Alekan, Christian Bérard’s other worldly production design (he’s credited as “illustrator”), the costumes courtesy of Antonio Castillo and Marcel Escoffier… not to mention such surreal features as the animated furniture and fittings and oneiric moments like the one in which Belle blossoms through her bedroom wall (after donning a magic glove, obviously).

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Cocteau intended La Belle Et La Bête as a welcome and necessary injection of fantasy after the horrors of World War II (its prologue requests a mindset of “childlike simplicity” from prospective viewers), but the cachet of his Surrealist associates, who had sat out the German occupation in foreign exile, inevitably waned in comparison to that of the Existentialists, who had stayed and resisted. The reputation of Cocteau, who had stayed, fared worse still… he was later accused (though acquitted) of collaboration. Myths prevail, though and sampled at this remove, the dreamlike qualities of his furry fairy tale enchant the palate like a sparkling glass of Crémant de Loire while the contrived intellectual conceits of Godard, Robbe-Grillet, Melville et al are about as appealing as yesterday’s croissants.

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Looking suitably princely and charming in a 5K scan from 2013 (5K? Expect all your favourite titles to be re-offered to you yet again in the near future), the BFI’s La Belle Et La Bête is handsomely appointed with a predictably lavish coachload of extras. Aside from the obvious trailer, a stills gallery and an illustrated booklet of essays (which I haven’t seen), there’s a commentary track from the always compelling Sir Christopher Frayling, film and audio clips of scenes that were deleted from the film (to its benefit, it has to be said) and two short documentaries, the first of which deals with the difficulties the polymath poet / director laboured under during the production of LB&LB and also those faced by its restorers, drawing on the invaluable pages of Cocteau’s film making diary while dodging the question of the extent to which René Clément actually co-directed the proceedings. The second documentary paints an engrossing if not always endearing portrait of Christian Bérard, whose vision drew from the paintings of Vermeer and the engravings of Gustave Doré while in its turn exerting an undeniable influence over the likes of Jim Henson, Terry Gilliam and Ridley Scott (keep La Belle Et La Bête in mind next time you watch Blade Runner, in particular the scenes in J.F. Sebastian’s apartment).

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Best of all is the inclusion of René Bertrand’s 13 minute claymation epic Barbe Bleu, (1938), an appropriately beautiful and brutish rendition of the associated Blue Beard myth that’s virtually worth the price of admission on its own.

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Plastic Bertrand…

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The Singular Vision Of Identical Twins… INNER SANCTUMS – QUAY BROTHERS: THE COLLECTED ANIMATED FILMS 1979 – 2013 Reviewed.

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BD. Region B. BFI. 15

“To enter the impossible, haunted night of a Quay Brothers film is to become complicit in one of the most perverse and obsessive acts of cinema.” Michael Atkinson, Film Comment.

“As an American, I always wanted to be seduced into this strange decadent, rotting idea of Europe, and the Quays have created that world in a manner which hypnotizes me, but which I don’t fully understand.” Terry Gilliam.

Me neither. This splendid double disc set has been in heavy rotation here at The House of Freudstein for some weeks now but the prospect of reviewing it has been a daunting one, not only by dint of the sheer volume of stuff packed into it (Inner Sanctums does pretty much what its subtitle says on the tin, clocking up 305 spell-binding minutes of screen time) but also due to the sheer ineffability of much of its subjects’ phantasmagorical vision…

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The identical Quay (pronounced not “Key” but to rhyme with “Kray”) Twins, Stephen and Timothy, having considered and discounted possible careers in gymnastics, studied illustration (Timothy) and film (Stephen) at the Philadelphia College of Art before relocating to London in the late ’60s to further their studies (and start making films, now lost) at The Royal College Of Art. Falling under the spell of Polish artists Walerian Borowczyk (yes, that Walerian Borowczyk) and Jan Lenica, they followed their heroes from poster collage into stop motion animation. The East European connection continues and is reflected in the co-production status of much of their filmography and more overtly in such titles as The Cabinet Of Jan Svankmajer (1984.) The Quays most high-profile work was contributed to Peter Gabriel’s celebrated Sledgehammer video, though they subsequently disowned their involvement in it. What they will own up to is on these discs…

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… and include such firm family favourites as Nocturnia Artificialia (1979), Street Of Crocodiles (1986), Rehearsals For Extinct Anatomies (1988), In Absentia (2000), Songs For Dead Children (2003), Eurydice, She So Beloved and Alice In Not So Wonderland (both 2007)… the very titles clueing you in to the kind of austere spiritual terrain they traverse.

The Phantom Museum (2003) effectively anticipates the far frothier (and of course infinitely more lucrative) Night At The Museum franchise and the Quays returned to mine this rich psychical vein again in 2009’s Inventorium Of Traces (a salutary true tale and warning that not even the liveliest mind is proof against melancholia) and Through The Weeping Glass: On the Consolations of Life Everlasting (Limbos & Afterbreezes in the Mütter Museum) (2011), a potent portmanteau of pathos, dread and devotion beyond death.

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Harry Eastlack Jr (1933-73), fibrosyspladia ossificans progressiva sufferer who donated his mortal remains to the Mutter Museum, College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia

I didn’t get the booklet (apparently containing Michael Brooke’s updated “Quays Dictionary” and the 2013 dialogue “On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets”) but elsewhere among the generous compliment of extras there are some fascinating “behind the scenes at the College Of Physicians Of Philadelphia” stuff… indeed, quite enough glimpses of The Twins at work to dispel any lazy depiction of them as “reclusive artists.” The Quays are hiding in plain sight, sufficient unto each other (perhaps interested, in a way only identical twins can be, in how spirit populates and animates flesh)… and anyway, does it really matter or not if we understand? Rather like the narrator of Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick, it’s easier for them to make us feel than make us think. The Quays’ Inner Sanctums remain obdurately impenetrable…

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Admitting defeat, like Terry Gilliam before me, I’m going to resort to an expedient to which I’ve usually loath to indulge, demoting myself to the role of puppet (or at least ventriloquist’s dummy) in quoting you a chunk from the BFI blurb that accompanied my screener discs…

“Filtering arcane visual, literary, musical, cinematic and philosophical influences through their own utterly distinctive sensibility, each Quay film rivets the attention through hypnotic control of decor, camera, lighting, music and movement, evoking half remembered dreams, fascinating and yet deeply unsettling in turn.”

Still not convinced? Put it this way, you’ve probably already seen the Quays’ style frequently and clumsily plagiarised on MTV and elsewhere, so here’s a chance to immerse yourself in the real thing and take from it what you will. I found a day pole-axed and febrile on the sofa with the proverbial “flu-like symptoms” particularly conducive to getting my head around their lovingly crafted, wistfully melancholic oneiric mind scapes… against which, regrettably, there is no effective inoculation.

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Wild In The Aisles… PSYCHOMANIA Reviewed

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BD. Region B. BFI. 15.

Square dude: “Just what is it that you want to do?”

Peter Fonda: “We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do! We wanna be free to ride. We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man… and we wanna get loaded… and we wanna have a good time… And that’s what we are gonna do!”

Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966)

Cut to 1973 Walton-on-Thames, where local outlaw biker gang The Living Dead are on the rampage. After running a van driver off the road to “blow his mind” (yeah, right through the windscreen of his car!), their leader Tom (Nicky Henson) is making out with girlfriend Abby Holman (Mary Larkin) in a graveyard (when, that is, he’s not taking time out to catch toads.) He suggests that they “cross to the other side” by killing themselves. “Oh no, not that again…” complains Abby: “I can’t. I promised my mother I’d help her go shopping tomorrow!”

Tom won’t be put off by such humdrum, diurnal considerations. Having wheedled the secret of immortality out of his medium mother (Beryl Reid) and her sinister (possibly Satanic… maybe even Satan himself) butler Shadwell (a bizarrely cast George Sanders), he rides off a bridge into the river, dies, is buried astride his bike in a mound in the local park (Mrs Latham gave her permission, but didn’t the environmental health department have anything to say about this?) and returns (running over a hapless passer-by in the process) to tell his gang (Hatchet, Chopped Meat, Gash, Hinky and, er, Bertram) the glad tidings… namely that if you commit suicide, secure in the belief that you can “cross over” and come back, you will. Furthermore, that having died once, there’s nothing  on  earth that can kill or even hurt you. “Oh man!” cries his evil lieutenant Jane Pettibone (Ann Michelle): “What are we waiting for?” Hey ho, let’s go…

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Cue a series of ludicrous and surreal suicides (played out to furiously wicky-wacking wah wah guitar)… leaps from motorway bridges and tower blocks… RTAs… best of all, the eejit who chains himself to an anvil which he then chucks into the river… and before you can say “wankel rotary engine”, an undead biker army has suburbia at their mercy.

Although a contemporary review in The Times considered Psychomania to be ideal viewing “at an SS reunion party”, Henson and co’s antics during their alleged reign of terror is more reminiscent of The Bash Street Kids than anything that went on at the Spahn Ranch. Cornflake packets are knocked off of supermarket shelves, women in hot pants are chased around shopping centres (lacking only the Benny Hill theme music), the gang attempt (and more often than not fail) to kick over traffic cones and anyone reckless enough to carry a cardboard box is jolly well going to have it jostled out of their hands. Christ knows how Tom manages to cajole these wimps into suicide and beyond. “Today we do the ton!” he announces at one point (though the clapped out machines on display look scarcely capable of that), only for one of his acolytes to bleat:”It’s suicide!” It really isn’t… I’ve done it (as a pillion passenger, anyway) and lived to tell the tale. Don’t start me on their drippy hippy funerary practices either, though admittedly Harvey Andrews’ rendition of Riding Free is pleasing stuff, a darkly deft psych-folk offering conceived with at least one ear on Paul Giovanni’s Wicker Man OST.

All this weediness notwithstanding, Tom’s declared intention to kill a long list of establishment figures (the kind of squares who want to stop our anti-heroes from doing what they want to do) prompts his Mum to reconsider her pact with “superior powers”, even if it means that she’ll be turned into a toad while he and his gang are transformed into monolithic stones. Well, these are the breaks when you deal with The Devil…

Psychomania gleefully mines the occult, anarchic, homo-erotic and thanatonic overtones (The Coffin Cheaters, anyone?) of the biker lifestyle previously delineated in films as diverse Cocteau’s Orphee, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Freddie Francis’s Tales From The Crypt, not to mention Easy Rider and all those AIP programmers. Ted Moore’s beautiful photography of Henson and co’s quaintly sanitised biker antics is enhanced no end by John Cameron’s atmospheric, nay doomy death-prog score.

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Don Sharp directed (perhaps “perpetrated” would be more appropriate) Psychomania at a time when American money was draining out of the British film industry. A series of early ’70s films which suggested that the groovy mores of the swinging ’60s were finally embedding themselves into mainstream consciousness actually disguised the desperation with which the trend conscious bread heads and bean counters were trying to keep bums on British cinema seats. Even the stumbling giant of Hammer was dipping its toe into youth rebellion, juvenile delinquency, biker gangs and plastic psychedelia with its last gasp Dracula flicks. If small British producers couldn’t compete with MGM, aping AIP was much more feasible and while Sam Arkoff and co had a hand in many UK-based co-productions during this period, Psychomania (in which they didn’t) follows the AIP formula more slavishly than most of those.

As prestige productions dried up, unlikely names got dragged into the ensuing schlock fest… Beryl Reid already had The Killing Of Sister George and Entertaining Mr. Sloane on her resumé. Hollywood’s Mr Suave, George Sanders had been in (to name but one) All About Eve, fer chrissakes, but was dogged by personal problems at this point in (and very close to the end of ) his life. Both of them shape up like troupers, indeed it’s the resolution with which the whole cast keep their faces so admirably straight during the preposterous proceedings that accounts for much of its oddball charm. Ann “What are we waiting for?” Michelle was a girl whose leather trousers adroitly straddled the zeitgeist, sandwiched as she is here between her roles in The Virgin Witch (1972) and House Of Whipcord (1974)… after two 1977 roles in The Cruel Passion and Young Lady Chatterley her film career pretty much petered out (though she has continued to work on TV)… no wonder she didn’t want to hang about!

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Young Vic alumnus Henson (who took a significant role in the zenith of UK horror cinema, Michael Reeves’ Witch Finder General, five years earlier) hoped that nobody would ever see this film and, disappointed in that hope, has slagged it mercilessly throughout the decades, though he seems to be reconciling himself somewhat to it in his old age… surely a more measured response than that of Sanders, who – legend has it – killed himself immediately after watching Psychomania! Robert Hardy is wheeled in as an oddly accented police inspector investigating the gang’s skid marks and you’re also treated to an early Dot Cotton cameo.

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You can see Henson’s attitude towards Psychomania mellowing over the course of two of the bonus featurettes on offer here, Severin’s “Return Of The Living Dead” retrospective from 2010 (in which there’s some nice reunion stuff with co-star Larkin… see below) and a more recent interview devoted to him. He rightly praises the film’s stunt work and recounts various stunt mishaps, along with anecdotes focussing on the cheap skate nature of the production and the cringe-inducing treatment of fallen star Sanders.

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Other extras carried over from Severin’s own release of the film include interviews with John Cameron and Harvey Andrews, the latter shot by James “Birdemic” Nguyen… a stark reminder there for Nicky Henson that Psychomania is nowhere near the worst film ever made!

New on this BFI disc is an interview with Derek Harris, proprietor of legendary outfitters Lewis Leathers (who supplied the biker gear for Psychomania) and they’ve dug up an old Shell-sponsored short in which John Betjeman encourages us visit the standing stones of Avebury, Wilts (and presumably use lots of Shell petrol in the process), similar to those that The Living Dead spend much of their time riding around in slow motion. You have the option to watch the main feature with a Wilson Bros Trivia Track (an option I haven’t chosen to exercise yet) and there’s a micro-featurette on the BFI’s pains-taking restoration of Psychomania (it looks pretty good considering the paucity of available elements, though colours get a bit flickery in places.) The accompanying booklet contains informative, amusing and nostalgia-tinged essays by Vic Pratt, William Fowler and Andrew Roberts. Pratt’s reminiscences of trying to stay awake during late night TV screening of horror films such as Psychomania in the pre-VHS era struck a sympathetic chord with me and I imagine there are many readers of this blog who’ll know exactly where he’s coming from.

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The most astonishing aspect of this set, though, is the inclusion of Roger Wonders Why, a 16mm Christian biker propaganda film (indeed An Apostle Christian Venture Film), the contents of which are probably more gob-slapping than anything in the main feature. Its stars are listed as the eponymous Roger Abbott, Derek Jones, The Gang, The Scouts and Father Shergold. In it, young Roger is unwinding with his pals after a church service with an enthusiastic spot of conga dancing when he notices that a moody, leather jacket wearing youth (Jones) isn’t joining in. Derek convinces Roger to visit The 59 Club, where he observes that he’s never seen so many rockers altogether at one time in his life, before being introduced to the genial, pipe-smoking Father Shergold, who dreamed up this whole wizard wheeze to co-promote the twin joys of Jesus and biking. Now I’m sure that Father S was a stand up guy and everything about his club was on the level, but what we now know about some of the dodgy things that have been going on under cover of the cassock and the confessional make you wonder if any similar club, initiated today, might more appropriately be named “ten higher” than its predecessor. Anyway, our mild-mannered Marlon Brando graduates from the club to a scouting holiday in Wales, where we finally learn exactly what it is that Roger wonders, namely why more people don’t make the connection between trusting your abseiling trainer and “my faith in God and Jesus Christ as our guide and instructor across the rugged face of life to the frontier of heaven. So many people miss this point… I wonder why!” Dunno, Rog… beats the hell out of me!

Was Don Coscarelli influenced, when making Phatasm (with its characters’ casual acceptance of an out-of-whack world-unto-itself) by a previous exposure to Psychomania? Who can say. Together they’d make a cracking double bill, though…

… and while somebody is sorting that out, here’s the BFI’s Blu-ray release of Psychomania. To paraphrase Ann Michelle: “Oh man! What are you waiting for?”

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P.S. Yes, as well as haunting late night TV schedules (and Nicky Henson’s nightmares) for many years, Psychomania did play The Scala on several occasions.

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La Repulsion… SYMPTOMS Reviewed

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Blu-ray / DVD combi edition. Region Free. BFI. 15.

Do you remember, dear reader, when ITV (in its various regional incarnations) was actually worth watching? Before it was completely overrun with talent contests, reality programs and shit films, ITV was synonymous  with World In Action, The World At War and… late night screenings of really cool, obscure films. I distinctly remember Lucio Fulci’s “lost” meisterwerk Beatrice Cenci (1969) turning up in the graveyard slot on Granada during the late ’80s, round about the time we were cooking up Samhain… ditto Symptoms (1974) by Jose Ramon Larraz. The latter broadcast became the source of innumerable VHS bootlegs which were the only way to see and appreciate Larraz’s film for about thirty years, as all negatives seemed to have disappeared. Now you can chuck your bootlegs away because, after featuring it for some time on their “75 Most Wanted” list, the BFI have finally tracked down the required elements for Symptoms and issued this all-singing and dancing Blu-ray edition, on their more exploitation-oriented “Flipside” imprint… this, mind you, for the film which managed to bump Ken Russell’s Mahler as the UK entrant for the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1974.

The first thing to say about Symptoms, the thing you really can’t avoid mentioning, is the obvious debt that it owes to Polanski’s Repulsion, 1965 (though that’s probably too simplistic a statement of the relationship between the two films… no less a pundit than David Pirie has argued that Larraz actually outdoes his avatar here.) In Repulsion Catherine Deneuve’s alienated young manicurist comes unglued amid the isolation of the big city, her repressed sexuality erupting into unconscionable violence before she retreats irrevocably into catatonia.

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Symptoms unfolds as though Larraz and his co-writers (Stanley Miller and Thomas Owen) have been pondering whether she might have achieved a more positive outcome by heading for the sticks and honouring the early ’70s tradition of  (in the vernacular of the time) getting her shit together in the country. The answer they arrive at seems to be… no! The shit hits the proverbial fan when this notional rural idyll turns out to be every bit as oppressively agoraphobic as any urban milieu. Perhaps this jaundiced take on our green and pleasant land is a particularly Spanish phenomenon… in the same year as Symptoms, Jorge Grau turned in his surreal and utterly alarming twist on English gothic, The Living Dead At The Manchester Morgue.

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Helen (Angela Pleasance) invites her friend Anne (Lorna Heilbron) to her old lake-side house so that the latter can get over the trauma of a romantic bust-up. It will transpire that Helen is getting over an even more drastic sundering, but for the time being it’s as well to note that she’s a bit odd…. intense. Presumably a classic screen beauty like Deneuve would have been beyond Larraz’s budget anyway, but Symptoms benefits immensely from the casting of Pleasance, whose peculiarly puckish presence draws the viewer into an ongoing guessing game regarding just WTF her problem is.

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Whatever it is, it’s got something to do with the disappearance of her “friend” Cora (briefly glimpsed in the shape of Marie-Paule Mailleux during intermittent flash backs)… nor do the vaguely sinister attentions of lurking handyman Brady (Peter Vaughan) in any way alleviate the growing tension, which builds beautifully for about an hour before a final third which maintains the film’s supremely creepy atmosphere while punctuating it with an escalating series of grand guignol eruptions. In Symptoms, Larraz reiterates Polanski’s point about sexual self-loathing and the potential it has warp the self and damage others, a concept whose relevance to real life is all too readily apparent at the time I sit here typing these words….

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I reacquainted myself with Symptoms during a thunderstorm which complimented the on screen events quite beautifully… then again I remember how wonderfully evocative and engaging the film was, viewed late at night in my parents’ lounge, all those years ago. This perfectly orchestrated chamber piece will  probably weave its disturbing magic in whatever circumstances it is seen. Larraz is exceptionally well served here by sympathetic collaborators… his cast, his DP Trevor Wrenn, his art director Ken Bridgeman and composer John Scott… also by his own polymath grounding  in comic book art, fashion photography and art history. There are frames of Pleasence’s face that suggest a Vermeer portrait. Elsewhere, some of the house’s William Morris interiors are echoed in the fronds which embrace the corpse of a woman discovered in the lake, a scene which itself strongly suggests a pre-Raphaelite rendering of Ophelia.

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Symptoms failed to garner anything like a feverish reaction at Cannes Festival or indeed anywhere else, but its editor Brian Smedley-Aston was sufficiently impressed by Larraz to remortgage his house to fund the directors’s Vampyres the same year, an altogether more lurid take on the “rural lesbian violence” schtick that also comes highly recommended. The witty Smedley-Aston is interviewed for this set’s generous compliment of bonus features, as are Pleasence and Heilbron. As well as his work with Larraz, he discusses editing (and being obliged to re-edit) Performance with Donald Cammell and his experiences on the  Jeff Lieberman films Squirm and Blue Sunshine. To her Symptoms reminiscences, Heilbron (now working as a psychotherapist) adds her reflections on Freddie Francis’s The Creeping Flesh (1973) and rhapsodises about acting alongside Peter Cushing. Pleasance is interesting, insightful and funny (e.g. when she reveals that her “perfectly circular head” saved her life when a heavy light fell on it during the making of Symptoms.) For all of these new interviews we have to thank our old mate Pete Tombs and the From Barcelona… To Tunbridge Wells episode of his 1999 Channel 4 series Eurotika! is also revived here (remember, dear reader, when Channel 4 was actually worth watching?) Pride of place though, must go to Celia Novi’s award winning 2011 feature On Vampires And Other Symptoms, an impressive, impressionistic mash up of JRL’s two most celebrated pictures, his autobiographical comic strips and what turns out to be a trip to the 2009 Sitges Film Festival (four years before his death) where the Catalonian director received an honorary award and was treated to a surprise reunion with Vampyres stars Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska…. those scenes alone were worth the price of admission.

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… it’s better than bottling it up! Larraz’s El Periscopio, 1979.

 

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