Saturday, 25 June 2011
Having already reviewed a few of Jean Rollin’s more marginal and uncharacteristic films this year, I thought it was only fair that I should make time to cover at least one of his bone fide masterpieces before moving on to a few more oddities… not that Rollin’s masterpieces aren’t complete oddities by anyone else’s standards, but y’know what I mean. So where better to start than with perhaps the purest and most concise distillation of his particular approach to cinema ever realised – 1973’s ‘La Rose de Fer’.
Perhaps the most ambitious and personal work to emerge from Rollin’s creative peak in the early/mid ‘70s, ‘La Rose..’ also marks one of his only attempts to make a film outside of the constraints of the horror/exploitation industry. Entirely lacking in any of the usual genre signifiers whilst still staying true to the director’s established visual language, ‘La Rose..’ sees Rollin plunging headfirst into the kind of freely associative, imagery/poetry driven art film that his horror work had always hinted at - a move that sadly proved so commercially disastrous that he didn’t dare attempt another fully loaded avant/abstract film until 1989’s self-financed ‘Lost In New York’.
The set-up for ‘La Rose..’ is pretty minimal: a girl (Francoise Pascal) catches the eye of a boy (Hugues Quester) when he stands up to recite a poem at a boring wedding reception. Making each other’s acquaintance outside the event, they agree to go for a bicycle ride together next Sunday. Thus they meet amid abandoned locomotives at the fog-shrouded ‘old station’, and proceed to get cycling. They are full of beans and enjoying themselves, and everything is going swell. In fact it all seems far too affectionate for a first date, but hey - they’re French, I’m British, what the fuck do I know. Controversially, the boy suggests they enjoy their picnic amid the picturesque surroundings of a large, dilapidated cemetery they happen to be passing, and the girl, though initially reluctant, agrees. They decide to explore the cemetery, and spend so long mucking about that they fail to notice that it’s getting dark, and the caretaker has locked the gates for the night. Condemned to spend the night alone amid the graves, they go through some changes.
And that’s about it really.
Not much to work with perhaps, but ironically ‘La Rose..’ actually sees Rollin pushing his preferred themes of sex and death more relentlessly than in any of his sex or horror films, as the emblematic plotline quickly gives way to what is essentially an extended visual poem, exploring … uh, well… y’know - the fresh air and energy of young love contrasted with the constant erotic pull of the tomb, the shivery fascination of funereal imagery, life and sex and death and all that heavy shit.
As you can perhaps appreciate, ‘La Rose de Fer’ is an extremely difficult film to write about. It is capable of provoking a powerful reaction in receptive viewers, but that reaction can be a very fleeting and complicated one, almost impossible to describe or quantify without drifting inescapably into the realm of witless purple prose.
So, let’s try a different approach. ‘La Rose..’ is an unusually personal film, and as such, it seems only fair to respond with an unusually personal review.
Going back a few years, to when I was (cough) a younger man than the one you see before you today, for a short while I was really into those Richard Linklater movies, ‘Before Sunrise’ and ‘Before Sunset’. Y’know, the ones with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy traipsing around picturesque European cities exchanging a load of quasi-meaningful blather and so on. Nowadays, I’d probably be inclined to dismiss them in a heartbeat as a bunch of sanctimonious, masturbatory, half-assed indie-schmindie lamo wish fulfilment bullshit and get on with my life. Because, y’know, I’ve got better shit now, and more important, not at all lame or masturbatory things to do. Like watching ‘A Virgin Among the Living Dead’ again. But back then, when I was a bit dumber, a bit more earnest, a bit less cynical and judgemental, they… uh, well, like, y’know – they meant something, man.
If questioned at the time, I’d probably have come out with some claptrap about how these films presented the pure connection between two human souls, the act of falling in love as it should be, unfettered by ego or social constraints and yadda yadda yadda. But what I’d really have meant was: WOW, how much would I love to stride elegantly around some romantic old world city, exchanging deep n’ meaningful platitudes with some beautiful, intellectual French chick? That would be the BEST. And frankly, I’d be tempted to suggest that anyone who claims their enjoyment of those movies stems from anything other than similar base-level wish fulfilment is probably lying.
But the point I’m trying to make is: at one point in my life, those flicks seemed unique, and spine-tingling, and such. Then stuff happened, and I changed, and they don’t anymore. Now I watch ‘La Rose de Fer’ instead. Thanks Jean!
Similar logic of course applies though. It would be foolish to try to claim otherwise. How can I try to quantify the appeal of ‘La Rose de Fer’? Well…
Item # 1: if it is possible to say as much without immediately sounding like some teenage goth, I really like cemeteries. I liked them when I was a kid, visiting deceased relatives I was too young to even remember. Carrying the flowers and helping clean off the headstones, and running around picking up shiny stones from the paths between the graves, wondering whether they had some special power or something, but being very careful not to tread ON the graves, because that was bad luck, and just seemed, y’know… an inherently wrong thing to go around doing.
I still liked cemeteries many years later when I was moping around watching those Richard Linklater movies, and I still like them now. Whenever I’ve got some spare time and fancy a bit of a walk, I’ll often head out to one of London’s beautifully decrepit garden cemeteries. I like looking at them, I like being in them. I like the atmosphere, and I like the quietude. I like the sense of the past, the feeling of reverence. I like the strange architecture of the graves, and the overbearing imagery and… I don’t have to go on do I? You get the fucking point. I just really like graveyards alright, get off my case.
So when I watch ‘La Rose de Fer’, with Jean-Jacque Renon’s rich night-time photography (the way the couple’s red and yellow shirts stand out amid the dark green and brown hues of the graveyard is just lovely), and Pierre Raph’s almost subliminally low-key score (simple a cappella vocal melodies and ecstatic choral drones), I would be perfectly happily just watching a plotless documentary about the cemetery in Amiens for ninety minutes really.
I would say that the fact there’s a story of some kind going on often just seems like some added bonus, but that’s not really fair. In fact, one of the weird ironies of ‘La Rose..’ is that, for all that Rollin films tend to be labelled as nonsensical or surreal, the almost total lack of a story here actually inspires him to construct quite a gripping narrative from the elements at hand. The film’s thematic consistency creates a strong sense of internal logic, and the screen is full of action and movement at all times, the soundtrack given over to near continuous dialogue, helping the couple’s journey toward their strange fate avoid the kind of exquisite boredom one might have reasonably expected of a film like this. There are even some pretty funny bits, if you can believe that.
Anyway, Item # 2: I also like going camping in remote places and walking around after dark, breathing in the night air, and stuff. Yeah, that’s the best. And as for Item # 3, it should be noted that I’m still far from adverse to the company of dreamy, poetically-inclined young French girls.
So basically, when about halfway through the film the boy starts getting all angry and agitated and kicks up a fuss, I just feel like shouting, ferchrisake, what are you doing man? This is about the best way to spend an evening that could possibly be imagined! Give in and enjoy yourself, you idiot! You’re the guy I’m supposed to be identifying with here as I take vicarious pleasure in this exquisitely lyrical situation your character has got himself into – stop screwing it up!
If most of the action in the film is, as it seems, at least semi-improvised, then perhaps Hugues Quester’s irritating refusal to get with the programme is fitting. None of the backstage stuff I’ve read about 'La Rose..' has anything very kind to say about the actor. Pascal says she hated acting opposite him (see Jeremy Richey’s interview here), whilst Tombs & Cathal note in ‘Immoral Tales’ that “..Rollin also had a lot of trouble with the male lead” (p.152). Some kind of disagreement led to Quester insisting his name be removed from the posters, and he is credited as ‘Pierre Dupont’.
But no matter, Quester’s apparent belligerence never becomes a major problem, as Pascal holds the fort with an incredible performance, variously ignoring or tormenting her wouldbe lover as the film progresses, as her character finds herself moving inexorably from the reluctant innocent who initially wants to leave the cemetery into a wild and ecstatic participant in the world of the dead that surrounds her, as, in some sort of atavistic revelation, a concept of a wholly different relationship between life and death seems to explode in her mind fully formed, an absurdly romantic, anti-materialistic celebration of the mystery that lies beyond that strange horizon…
Sheesh, what was that I said about purple prose..?
The majority of the world’s populace would be forgiven for considering ‘La Rose..’ an insufferably pretentious, confounding exercise in god knows what. Sure, fine, whatever. It goes without saying that I love every second of it.
The film’s standout sequence comes when Pascal’s character experiences a vision of herself, naked in the surf on – where else? - the beach at Dieppe, the instant transition from funereal darkness to bright (ok, actually it looks a bit overcast) daylight creating a striking visual reflection of the girl's instinctive and weirdly compelling 'death = life' revelations. Wielding the wrought-iron funeral cross of Gallic tradition as the waves crash against her, she recites the Tristan Corbière poem that helped inspire the film. It’s really breathtaking. It is the heart of all of Jean Rollin’s body of work, the perfect distillation of his vision, from which all of the symbols and ideas that compose his cinema flow. It is near insanely beautiful, enough to stop the breath in your throat, to make you want to sign of the dotted line and join the girl in death’s loving embrace.
As you might imagine, people in 1973 didn’t quite see it that way.
To quote ‘Immoral Tales’ again;
“Rollin decided to present the film in person at the 2nd Convention of Cinema Fantastique that April in Paris. […] Patiently, he explained to them the genesis of the film and how he had tried to do something different, which he hoped they would receive in the right spirit.
The film had hardly begun before the walk-outs commenced. Pretty soon it was obvious that he had a disaster on his hands […] Cinematographe recounted how both he and his film had been roundly booed by the audience, in a way that the writer had never seen a director booed before. So much so, in fact, that for the next few days whenever Rolin was spotted he was given a wide berth and the comments and catcalls repeated. Ecran Fantastique […] in particular noted how the dialogue had given much cause for general hilarity.
Rollin was devastated. The film was now unlikely to find a distributor willing to take a chance on it. All the money he had made on his earlier films was invested in ‘Le Rose De Fer’. Now he had probably lost that too. Eventually the film was picked up by an arthouse distributor, but failed to find an audience amongst the devotees of the ‘cinema d’auteurs’, while its status as a film permissible to anyone over 13 made it anathema to the horror crowd.”
Those goddamn small-minded snobs. Fuck ‘em. They wouldn’t know great art is it punched them in the face. Henry Miller and Anais Nin and Baudelaire would have fucking LOVED this movie. For the moment, I love it too.
Maybe I’ll look back in a few years and cringe. Maybe I won’t. But for the moment, I can throw this in the DVD player and go exactly where I want to be. That is all.
Thursday, 23 June 2011
Hey, look what I got in the post today!
Infernal Hails (that's a good thing) to Tom Farris and VHSflix, for they are legend. I can't wait to experience "Blood On Satan's Claw" as nature intended. With Bill Murray in it.
Oh, and I'm still here in case you were wondering. Got pretty sidetracked in the past few weeks, as stupid stuff like work and travel and having a social life has cut viciously into the time I'd naturally prefer to spend sitting in the dark watching stupid movies and writing about them on the internet, but plenty of stuff in the works I hope, so, uh.. watch this space.
Wednesday, 8 June 2011
£1, I think? From the used furniture shop up the road from my old flat, I think?
THE BOX SAYS:
“Fear meets hilarity head on as two less than competent reporters attempt to unravel the mystery of modern day Transylvania. During their search they meet a bizarre assortment of loonies and throwbacks.”
THE FILM DELIVERS:
Before we get going on the slightly more highbrow VHS haul I wrote about last week, time to take out the trash. And if you can honestly say you don’t have room in your life for a mid-80s horror comedy starring Jeff Goldblum and Ed Begley Jr, well, you’re a better man than I. If you can actually make it to the end of this thing though… well I guess that makes us about even.
The set-up is thus: Goldblum and Begley are reporters for a supermarket tabloid. Jeff is the wouldbe suave, wisecracking one who wants to be a serious journalist. Ed is the bungling son of the editor, eager to impress his dad. The paper has acquired a videotape that shows some dudes apparently being attacked by Frankenstein’s Monster (this footage is actually one of my favourite parts of ‘Transylvania 6-5000’, if only for the fact that it kinda reminds me of Jess Franco’s ‘Dracula, Prisoner of Frankenstein’). So, the editor wants to dispatch Jeff and Ed to Transylvania to come up with a front page expose on Frankenstein in three days, or else.
At this point, some questions will invariably trouble the inquisitive viewer. Why would a tabloid editor order his staff to make up a nonsense story irrespective of the facts, and then insist they travel halfway across the world in order to achieve this? Why would you go to Transylvania to look for Frankenstein anyway? And most pressingly, why does the film’s sub-Huey Lewis & The News theme song, in which the name of the film is frequently repeated, completely fail to make any reference to the Glen Miller composition from which the rib-tickling pun is taken? I mean, that would seem like the obvious thing to do, right? And if the reference was deemed too old-fashioned or esoteric for the movie’s target audience, well WHY DID YOU NAME YOUR FILM AFTER IT?
Anyway, I realise this sounds kinda alright so far (ok, it sounds completely stupid, but y’know what I mean). Before we go any further though, I should make clear: ‘Transylvania 6-5000’ is terrible. I guess I’m usually not too demanding when it comes to screwball comedies, but rarely have I encountered one as comprehensively unamusing as this. Blame it on a combination of corny script, woefully poor timing and actors clearly losing the will to live, but suffice to say, every attempted witticism, every moment of slapstick japery, falls straight to an undistinguished death. And, this being broad Mel Brooks/Zucker Bros style humour, when the gags fail, there’s nothing left. Just an eerie silence, and occasional moments of accidental weirdness to stop us losing interest entirely.
Following our obligatory plane flight montage credits sequence, Jeff and Ed arrive in Transylvania. Apparently back in 1985, Transylvania was a sovereign state that existed outside of the influence of the Soviet Union, and had a populace who all spoke perfect English. The ‘capital’ of Transylvania also looks a lot like a small town in rural France. Crazy stuff, huh? Anyway, at the very least we can give thanks to the filmmakers for choosing to forego the obvious notion of portraying Transylvania as some kind of spookshow monster paradise, largely sparing us the pain of ninety minutes of soul-withering claptrap about vampires with toothache and werewolves going to the barbers and such. Unfortunately however, they instead opted for the next-worst idea, populating their whimsical Eastern European locale primarily with sub-normal comic relief characters of the most odious kind, each of them determined to batter us with their one joke shtick until blissful unconsciousness sets in.
When Jeff and Ed arrive at the castle/hotel where they’re staying, they are greeted at the front gates by the goofball butler character who, in what might just be an inspired bit of meta-commentary, is an incompetent slapstick comedian whose shtick is that he is constantly trying to impress the American guests with his poorly-conceived, prop-based routines. When he opens the door for them, he is clowning around with a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy. “Ah, hahaha, you see, it is funny, yes?” he yells desperately, as our protagonists look on silently – a perfect microcosm of the whole experience of watching ‘Transylvania 6-5000’.
When this butler guy was first introduced, I thought he was just about the most obnoxious character I’d seen in a movie for some time. But as the film progressed, his senseless enthusiasm and sheer bloody-minded persistence actually began to win me over, until I ended up thinking he was just about the best thing in this movie. At one point, he physically attacks a terrified looking Begley, dragging him across a courtyard in order to force him to take part in a banana skin slip-up routine. Later, Begley is searching the castle in search of a secret passage when he opens a door and finds this inexplicable cretin confined in a closet-sized space, riding a mechanical bull. “What the hell are you doing?”, asks Ed, not unreasonably. “Meditating”, the guy replies. I wouldn’t go so far as to say any of this is funny, but at least it’s really weird, which counts for something. I thought that butler-guy looked pretty familiar, and the endearing oddness of his character began to make perfect sense after I looked him up on IMDB and learned that he was none other than Michael Richards - Kramer from ‘Seinfeld’. But of course.
Trawling my memory for other positive things to say about ‘Transylvania 6-5000’, it is probably pertinent to mention a memorable cameo by Geena Davis as a vampire lady in a sexy Vampirella-esque outfit. I, uh… I thought she was pretty hot. Which is an admission that’s alarming on all kinds of levels, now that I think about it. Let’s pretend I never said anything. Also, much of the film is shot in some cool, dilapidated Eastern European locations that are sometimes quite atmospheric, if you can ignore the stupid stuff that is actually happening in them. I guess it’s much like a latter day Charles Band film in that respect.
Towards the end of the movie, assorted monsters turn up – a Frankenstein monster, aforementioned vampire lady, a mummy, a wolfman, a mad scientist – and for fifteen minutes or so they all run around causing light-hearted havoc… which is fine, depending on how much you’ve had to drink, and how much you like early ‘60s-style ‘monster mash’ antics. Naturally, it transpires that all these monsters are simply misunderstood individuals suffering from unfortunate conditions of one kind or another, and that the mad scientist is merely a nice guy trying to help them. Oh, such heart-warming hilarity. As you might expect, all these final reel ‘explanations’ are pretty cringeworthy, the most uncomfortable being that of the mummy, who under the bandages is – get this guys – an UGLY GIRL, who the philanthropic doc has helped out via the application of full body plastic surgery, so that now she’s popular with the village yokels who previously shunned her, and thus happy. Ha ha - it is funny, yes?
Tedious, annoying and morbidly chuckle-free throughout, if ‘Transylvania 6-5000’ achieves anything, it is probably to remind us how lucky we are to have both ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘The Man With Two Brains’, and to increase our admiration for the way those films actually manage to do this kinda thing really well. Still though, there is a certain inept enthusiasm to ‘Transylvania 6-5000’ that makes it difficult for me to really hate it as such. Partly I guess, it’s just the fact that, as a fan of numerous directors whose work most of the world would tend to write off as incompetent and/or incomprehensible, I’d probably prefer to reserve my bile for films that are cynical or conceited or nasty, rather than ones like this that at least seem to mean well, no matter how badly they fail.
I don’t know much (or indeed, anything) about director Rudy DeLuca, but watching his efforts here, I sorta got this notion that maybe his own story mirrored that of Ed Begley Jr’s character – like, maybe his dad was an old time bigshot in the movie industry, and Rudy was the failing son desperately trying to get a foothold in the business. And his dad said, “well if you want to be a part of it so badly, why don’t you just go and make a picture?” So Rudy went off and hired some reasonably well known actors… and made this misfiring screwball comedy in which a bunch of guys in monster suits run around for fifteen minutes at the end. Then maybe, a few months later, he approached his dad at some industry event.. and his dad just walked away.
Probably it didn’t go like that. But I’d like to imagine it did, if only to add some underdog pathos to the 100 minutes I spent in the company of this tape.
The only genuine laugh I got out of the script came from the mayor/hotel manager, whose one joke shtick is that he’s constantly attempting to use American phraseology and getting it slightly wrong. “So d’you expect to get a lot of business here?”, Goldblum asks him. “Yes, we will be beating them off with rakes, as you Americans say!”
Yeah, that’s about as funny as it got.
A New World teaser trailer for… wait for it … GODZILLA 1985! It was awesome.
Friday, 3 June 2011
Supplies for the weekend I brought home today: milk, coffee, bread, beer, butter, orange juice, and 27 VHS TAPES.
The library at the university I work at has finally decided to start clearing out its collection of ‘obsolete’ visual media, which is being deposited bit by bit on the clearout trolley for 20p a pop. 20p! That’s ridiculous! For those of you unfamiliar with British currency, that’s what? Like 30 cents? Half a Mars bar? You do have Mars bars in your country, right? No? Well you get what I mean.
Belonging as it does to an educational establishment, it stands to reason that we’re mostly looking at arthouse/avant garde/classic Hollywood fare from this collection rather than horror/exploitation shit, but still, as of 17:00 hours today there were still copies of “Sante Sangre” and “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” sitting unclaimed… and I thought the students round here were meant to be hip! Jeez!
Anyway, I don’t know whether anyone out there has a particular fetish for watching international art cinema on fuzzy mono VHS, but if you do, check out the haul I just picked up for roughly the price of my lunch:
The Red Desert (Antonioni)
The Outsiders (Coppola)
Help! (The Beatles one)
Blood Simple (big box!)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger)
Dreams That Money Can Buy (Hans Richter)
Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
The Dead Zone (Cronenberg / Stephen King)
Videodrome (how could anyone POSSIBLY watch this on any other format? I think I already have a copy somewhere, but, uh, I liked the cover art for this one..)
La Samourai (Melville)
The City of Lost Souls (Takashi Miike)
Hard Boiled (John Woo)
The Exterminating Angel (Bunuel)
Bad Lieutenant (Ferrara)
Day For Night (Truffaut ; Warner Home Video big box! I love black & white era Truffaut more than I can possibly express, but saw the trailer for this one at the BFI and thought it looked pretty bad actually – like, the point at which he completely lost the plot or something; but hey, Nike Arrighi from The Devil Rides Out is in it!)
Juliet of the Spirits (Fellini)
Fellini Satyricon (Warner Home Video big box! Smells like an old man’s armpits..)
Treasure of Sierra Madre (Bogie! John Huston! Warner big box! Man, I love this movie, I’d buy it any time…)
The Trial (Orson Welles ; Thorn EMI big box!)
Gimme Shelter (Maysles Bros)
Woman of the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshihahara)
Suture (Scott McGehee / David Siegel – remember reading some good stuff about this some place..)
Klute (what the hell is this movie again? Donald Sutherland / Jane Fonda, some kinda ‘70s movie about… I have no idea what it’s about. The blurb on the back features the phrases ‘high-class call girl’ and ‘vicious, psychotic killer’, and it’s another funky Warner big box, so yeah, 20p well spent I hope…)
Some of these are movies I saw when I was younger, studying film in FE college and watching just about everything they had in their very-similar-though-smaller library, so it’ll be interesting to see ‘em again, but many others are completely new to me. I’ve already been trying to make ‘classic movie Sunday’ part of my weekly routine… might have to extend it to Monday, Wednesday and Thursday ‘til I get through this lot. Maybe I can start some kind of rating system, judging how each one stacks up in comparison to two hours of my life and half a Mars bar? If only I had more time.
Anyway, more to come next week I hope – I just KNOW they’ve got some horror/weirdness buried in there somewhere…