Saturday, 29 December 2012

Slade in Flame (1975)

In 1974, Slade were at the height of their powers and popularity, with six number 1 singles under their belts, so, like Elvis and The Beatles amongst others before them, the next logical step beyond music was to break into films. However, unlike Viva Las Vegas and A Hard Day's Night, they chose to make a movie that takes a cynical and unflattering look at the music industry, and the villains and victims who work in it.

The story of Flame charts the rise of four working-class men from an unnamed part of 1960s England (the locations look like the North, but the band speak in their native Black Country accents). Picked up by a marketing company, headed by slimy Robert Seymour (played by Tom Conti), and pushed as the next big thing, they quickly go from poverty, dead end jobs and run down houses, to mansions, Bentleys, and screaming fans. However, along the way a sinister figure from their past reappears, their former manager Ron Harding (Johnny Shannon, largely reprising his role in Performance), and he is looking to claim a slice of their success, by any means necessary.

By using non-actors as the main characters, and keeping to a low key, almost documentary style, director Richard Loncraine is working in the same league as many of his British contemporaries, such as Ken Loach and Mike Hodges, in particular, the latter's Get Carter, with its grim post-war housing estates and grimy social clubs.

The script is, according to Slade singer Noddy Holder, pretty much based on anecdotes and incidents that happened to the band or other musicians that they knew. Slade, while not great actors, come over as believable and not too wooden, probably due to the fact that they are largely playing themselves, and in situations they are more than used to, such as playing in front of huge crowds, playing in front of small crowds, getting ripped off by dodgy agents etc. The dialogue is sharp, with some good one-liners (“I'm not the vocalist, I'm the singer”), emphasising the fun loving (at the start at least), unpretentious nature of the band.

What is most surprising is the growing air of pessimism throughout the film, something in total contrast to everything Slade appeared to represent. I have always assumed that one of the reasons for their huge UK success in the early to mid-70s was that their music and image provided a bit of relief and escapism to a country caught in the middle of the Three Day Week, power cuts, strikes, and assorted other grimness. Flame, while not overwhelmingly bleak, constantly undercuts any happiness with a scene of people being hurt (physically and emotionally), ripped off, or humiliated.

I also think it is interesting that out of all of the live performances we see from Slade/Flame, by far the best is the very first time they play together for an audience in a small smoky club. After warming the crowd up with some X-rated banter, they race through a great raucous, high-energy song (“Them Kinda Monkeys Can’t Swing”). After that, the music gets slicker, the crowds get bigger, but nothing ever recaptures that raw power and fun, both for the audience and the musicians.

By the end, nobody comes out as a winner. Harding is left with a pyrrhic victory; he has his band back, precisely at the moment they split. The band have had enough, the simple fun of four friends playing music, crushed long ago by an industry interested in everything but that music. Seymour has had his family traumatised and their cosy home life ruined.

Given the aforementioned gulf between Slade’s image, and their downbeat film, it might not be surprising to hear that Flame was not a box office success. However, the soundtrack was a commercial and critical hit, getting to number six in the UK album charts and appearing on a list of the top 50 film soundtracks ever. This is not a jolly uplifting film by any means, but highly recommended for fans of Slade, and of gritty British cinema.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

The Camerman (1928)

The Cameraman is Buster Keaton's last truly great work,charming, hilarious, and an indication of how far the medium of film had come in a relatively short time

Here, Buster, once again, is trying to win the heart of a pretty girl, the secretary at a newsreel production company. Trading in his tintype camera, he tries to make it in the world of moving pictures, battling, amongst other things, a jealous rival Cameraman, his own lack of experience, and an interfering monkey.

The plot moves along at a brisk pace, with more than enough of the three vital ingredients for a Buster Keaton movie; plenty of memorable scenes, particularly the trip to Yankee stadium (“Aren’t the Yankees playing today?” “Sure – in St. Louis”), where,in the absence of an actual game, Buster mimes an imaginary one against himself;brilliant physical comedy (such as Keaton being squeezed into a small changing room with a huge man); and jaw dropping stunts (watch how he loses and regains his seat on the bus next to his date)

Special mention also must go the real co-star, an Organ Grinder’s monkey, whom Keaton adopts. Apart from providing some vital plot strands, she gives an excellent funny performance, as full of pathos and well-timed comic moves as her human co-star.

I recently saw The Cameraman on the big screen as the second half of a double bill with the 1910 silent version of A Christmas Carol. Watching them back to back provided a fascinating insight into how the language and techniques of cinema had progressed in two decades. In A Christmas Carol, the camera does not move, as if filmmakers cannot yet get past the idea that film should be a static record of a performance. By the time we get to The Cameraman, not only does it move, but also the movement helps tell the story and at times, by forcing the audience viewpoint, helps set up visual jokes. The wildly different running times of the two films also demonstrates how the makers of the latter had learned to be unafraid to take time to tell a story. These are all techniques Keaton had refined and introduced into film, often against the wishes of nervous studio heads, and because of this, I don’t think it is unfounded to call him a cinematic pioneer, along with his comedy contemporaries Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin

The Cameraman was the first of a three-picture deal with MGM, after years of working as an independent producer. This does seem to have had any great impact on the making or content of this film, other than the endless product placement for the MGM brand name and some of its product.

Unfortunately,this state of affairs was not to last, as studio head Irving Thalberg seemed unwilling or unable to understand Keaton's working methods, namely, using the same small crew, and keeping an air of spontaneity in the creative process. The result would be control over the personnel and product wrenched away from Keaton, leading to a steep drop in the quality of his films, and his eventual decline into poverty, obscurity and alcoholism, before his rediscovery in the1960s, a few years before his death.

However, this was all much further down the line, and The Cameraman still gives us “The Great Stone Face” in his prime, risking everything for the girl and the laughs, somehow always keeping both his body and his deadpan expression in one piece.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Thrill Of It All (1963)

The success of the TV show Mad Men triggered some interest and debate fairly recently over mid 20th century attitudes towards gender roles and advertising. The Thrill of It All is a film dealing with both themes, but as it was made nearer to the time Mad Men is set in, it does not have the safety net of ironic detachment to fall back on.

Doris Day plays housewife Beverly Boyer, who, after a chance remark at a dinner party, ends up doing TV commercials for Happy Soap - much to the chagrin of her husband, obstetrician Gerald, played by James Garner. As her fame and earning power grows, so does Gerald's jealousy. Will have Beverley have to choose between her career and her marriage?

Despite being written by two genuine comedy legends, Larry Gelbart and Carl Reiner, the script never raises any real belly laughs, and does not really rise above the level of the domestic TV sitcoms of the time, with cheesy dialogue and predictable situations, although some of the sexual innuendo is good for a chuckle. Thankfully, the seemingly effortless charisma of the two stars, who take up the majority of the screen time, make the film a very enjoyable watch. The rest of the cast go for a rather exaggerated, almost cartoon style of acting, that grates after a while.

The main message of the woman gaining, and then giving up her vocational and financial independence could be problematic, but it is difficult to take as misogynistic given the lightweight, insubstantial nature of the film.

Rather than the "Battle of the Sexes", the more interesting conflict is that between TV and cinema. The Thrill of It All is set in the time when TV was, relatively speaking, still in its infancy, and still a fairly crude and unsophisticated medium, both in technology and form. The dramas sponsored by Happy Soap are depicted as being poorly made, with a running gag of about them literally churning out the same scenes each week. Nevertheless, the public are entranced by it, perhaps as much by the novelty as by the content.

This leads to a slightly sneering, dismissive tone in the script, as if television is a medium driven primarily by commercial concerns, providing mindless, cheap entertainment to the masses, but never able to reach the sophisticated heights of more established forms. Which is of course exactly how, in it's early days, cinema was perceived.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Room 237: Being an Inquiry into The Shining in 9 Parts (2012)

All works of art should be open to interpretation and debate, but how important is it to be able pin down a definitive meaning? Moreover, to what extent do we have the right to say what an artist’s intentions were? The fascinating and compelling documentary Room 237 explores these issues via some weird and wonderful theories about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, from supposed Holocaust symbolism to the seemingly impossible geography of the Overlook Hotel.

Director Rodney Ascher takes the decision to let the people with the ideas talk without interruption, and let the audience make up their own minds. Keeping the interviewees all off camera, the screen is instead filled with a mix of images, mostly from The Shining, (although there is miscellaneous stock footage, and scenes of people sat in a cinema, taken from Lamberto Bava’s Demons), which have been re-cut, played backwards and forward, with certain scenes looped, and certain images emphasised. For anyone who has seen the film several times, this makes for a slightly disorientating experience, watching familiar source material in a completely new context.

Some of the speakers make interesting points regarding the layout of the hotel or the blatant continuity errors, but seem happy to conclude that, if they are deliberate errors, their primary function is to disorientate the viewer and add to the feeling of the world of The Shining being an unreal one.

However, the words of those that claim to see a coherent and definitive layer of symbolism in The Shining quickly start to sound like the kind of poorly constructed arguments that float around things like the September 11th attacks. The proponents often start by fixating on one element (A German typewriter/The collapse of the Towers), blend elements of the real (footage from the film/footage from news broadcasts) with the fictional or speculative (Kubrick wanted to highlight the /the US Government demolished the Twin Towers, or maybe the Jews did it), and the latter is used to as the context to interpret the former.

The "Moon Landings" theory is a classic example of this approach. Start by fixating on one element 

then take bits of dialogue from the film, particularly Jack's "Have you ever thought, for a single solitary moment about my responsibilities to my employers?" speech, mix with something completely baseless, in this case the idea that Kubrick helped fake footage of the first moon landing, and interpret: The Shining is Kubrick’s way of saying sorry to his family for getting involved with the deceit of the US Government.

Where they lack imagination is being unable to believe that someone/something as powerful and organised as Kubrick/The Government, could possibly NOT have some overarching plan, or, even more unthinkable, could be capable of simple human error. They also seem unable to accept that the primary function of The Shining is simply to disorientate and disturb the audience, an opinion I am inclined towards, based both on my viewings of the film, and a quote from Jan Harlan, who was not only the Executive Producer on the film, but also Stanley Kubrick's brother-in-law:
"The audience is deliberately made to not know where they're going. People say The Shining doesn't make sense. Well spotted! It's a ghost movie. It's not supposed to make sense."
Room 237 does raise an interesting question of to what extent the audience can take control of the meaning of a work from an artist, especially one who is no longer alive to confirm or deny the more outlandish theories. It certainly sounds, at the very least, presumptuous to say definitively “well what Kubrick meant was…”, but if you can see the story of the decline of the Native Americans in The Shining, fine. Marvelling at how people join up the disparate dots of their ideas is a fun game, and part of what makes the documentary so enjoyable. As each absurdity was trumped by another, the audience I saw it with frequently laughed aloud. However, it did not always feel they were doing so in a mocking way, as sometimes it felt more like the laughter produced when you are shown a particularly baffling magic trick.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The Beast in the Cellar (1970)

With a nicely lurid title, and the knowledge that this film is brought to you by Tigon, the same company that produced bona-fide classics like Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan's Claw, my hopes were high for the Beast in the Cellar. Unfortunately, flat direction, wooden performances, and a dull, confusing, and overly talky script derail an interesting premise.

Soldiers at an Army base near a village in the north of England are being gruesomely murdered, and while the police think the culprit may be a leopard, two elderly sisters think the real solution may lay closer to home, and may have links to a terrible story from their past, and a terrible secret in their cellar.

After an effective if pretty standard opening, where the first hapless victim is dispatched, and we see everything from the (unseen) killer's point-of-view, the script then settles into a long, virtually uninterrupted scene of sisters Ellie (Beryl Reid) and Joyce (Flora Robson) discussing, well, just about everything, from vegetables, to village gossip, to World War 2, and murder. After roughly 15 minutes, any hope the dialogue might start to take on Pinteresque dark undertones had evaporated, but thankfully, the film cuts to a soldier and his date getting interrupted mid-coitus, and the poor man meeting a gruesome end at the hands of the still unseen killer.

By this time, I did start to wonder if during production there had possibly been a clash of intentions. Maybe writer/director James Kelly had wanted to do a creepy psychological drama, and the producers had wanted something with more flesh and blood in, but if that was the case, the end result is a failure for both sets of ambitions.

The drama simply falls flat, with every aspect mishandled. The dialogue is pretty dire, as mentioned, or ridiculously portentous, ("You two have a healthy appetite" says a man while making a grocery delivery that largely consists of enough meat to feed an army), but even a talented, and normally reliable actress like Beryl Reid can't breathe any life into it, and her one note performance, as the slightly more comical and less intelligent of the sisters, soon becomes grating. Flora Robson does better as the sterner, more sinister (and more intelligent) of the two, but the rest of the cast performances range all the way from wooden to cardboard.

The sex and violence aspect is also a failure, mostly because there is not enough of it to compensate for the other facets. The murders are competently staged, with the killer kept out of sight and some fast montages of blood, skin, and eyes, but they just do not happen often enough to liven up the flaccid script. There are Freudian undertones in the way that Ellie talks with rapt, dreamy eyed admiration about her father, but these not expanded upon, either for serious or titillating purposes.

In addition, while I do not often carp too much over plot holes, there are a couple of points about the story, one unexplained and one explainable, that I found just too distracting. Firstly, how, without the aid of a supernatural curse, mad scientist etc., does an emaciated cellar bound creature get so strong and violent? Secondly, why does the sight of a soldier in uniform send said creature into a Pavlovian rage, when the sight of one of the sisters in one seems to calm him down?

The music score and cinematography compound the other problems; the former is over-emphatic at the wrong times, often undermining any attempts to build up suspense; the latter has too much outdoor footage, buried under murky day-for-night. This is surprising, considering the film had not one, but two perfectly talented directors of photography, Harry Waxman (responsible for The Wicker Man, amongst many other classics) and Desmond Dickinson (A Study in Terror). However, without knowing what sort of time and budgetary constraints they were working under, it would be wrong to criticise them personally.

Given the role that war and its aftermath on people plays in the origins of this very dysfunctional family, it might be possible to read The Beast in the Cellar as an attempted anti-war statement, and in the hands of a better writer/director it may well have been. Instead, the end result is a bore, bereft of drama, chills, atmosphere, or even titillation.