Saturday, September 27, 2008

Underground in the Arthouse: Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!

I’ve been featuring clips from Guy Maddin’s films nearly since the Funhouse began, and have been very gratified to see that as the years have gone by, Guy hasn’t “gone Hollywood.” I don’t think it would be possible for him to do so anyway, given the special eccentricities of his art, but it’s been particularly interesting to see the ways in which he’s moved further and further from the multiplex “model” of bad mainstream cinema.

If a Maddin fan attempts to describe his work to the uninitiated, the first phrase that always comes out is “he makes tributes to silent movies.” That he does, but in fact he makes movies in the primitive, low-budget ways that silent moves were actually made (one of the myriad of reasons we can’t see him helming a multi-million dollar cookie-cutter H’wood pic). He pays tribute to the silent style, but his plotlines have always been particularly strange and self-aware — the scripts constructed for his films by Maddin and George Toles contain quirks and (especially) kinks that exaggerate and transcend the sleaziness of even the great outrĂ© silent filmmakers (including a Maddin fave, the great “Von,” Erich Von Stroheim). Add onto these Freudian-symbolic storylines the editing style that Maddin has recently adopted — in which simple actions are repeated, sped-up, slowed down, or even completely elided — and you’ve got a very special, particular style that seems to have more to do with the classic American underground films of the 1950s and ’60s than it does with silent movies.

Maddin has made a practice of borrowing from, and seriously exposing, his own family mythology in his recent work. Thus his most recent picture My Winnipeg was an uncategorizable dream film in which Maddin reflected on his hometown through the crucible of his childhood, with historical details, local legends, and yet another portrait of a domineering but loving mother thrown in for good measure.

The film before Winnipeg, Brand Upon the Brain! has just been released in the Criterion Collection, and so Maddin fans have the unique experience of seeing Guy enshrined along with the classic arthouse directors, and for once not suppying an audio commentary for the feature — his past films have nearly all had Guy expounding in detail on his filmmaking methods, while imparting his own personal neuroses. In fact, I’ve noticed that as his public persona has become more self-deprecating, his art has become more assured, as if the “Guy Maddin” who publicly represents the films is a Woody Allen-type construct, concealing a dedicated artist who has a found a way to more than work through his Freudian dilemmas and can appear bashful, but must be secretly delighting in turning his relatives into wildly colorful characters (as his real-life beauty-parlor owning aunt was turned into a hot blonde Madam in his Cowards Bend the Knee).

As I’ve noted more than once on the Funhouse, and have mentioned to Guy in an interview, if there is a single more Freudian scene than the urinal moment in Cowards where “Guy” sees that his father has a much, much bigger penis than he, I’ve yet to see it.

While Cowards and Winnipeg seemed like broader cartoon shadings of his family, Brand is an out-and-out fantasy scenario that he contends in the accompanying featurette is “97 percent true” because the familial relationships reflect the Maddin clan. The plot, about a lighthouse where a domineering mother sucks brain juice out of tots to keep herself looking young (in consort with her dead naked mad-scientist husband), is enriched by a host of unusual plot threads, my favorite being the adventures of a teen girl detective disguised as a boy who is the groom in the silver screen’s first lesbian Fantomas marriage (the detective babe wears the eyemask of the legendary French master-criminal).

Guy’s fascination with silent movies led him to conceive of a live-performance aspect to Brand that was undertaken in several cities, including Toronto, NYC, and L.A. These performance featured the film being projected while a live team of Foley artists created old-radio style sound effects, an orchestra playing the soundtrack (accompanied by a “castrato” singer, more anon), and a live narrator for the pic.

We missed out on Udo Kier here in N.Y. (dammit!!!), but we did have the largest array of narrators, or rather “interlocutors” of the kind in Japan who used to “explain” the action in silent-movie houses (the explanations here being a torrid text by Maddin friend Louis Negin). Among those who appeared here were Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, poet John Ashbery, Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV on the Radio, Crispin Glover, and the woman who supplied the permanent audio track on the movie (permanent until this disc came along), Isabella Rossellini, who performed the narration at the NY Film Festival. The Criterion disc thus features a record eight variant soundtracks, as you can choose to hear Ms. Rossellini in the “finished product” mix or live, Guy himself, Negin, or from the live performances Anderson, Ashbery, Wallach, and Glover.

The most interesting aspect of Brand is that it actually works as a silent feature without the narration, but certainly the melodrama quotient was seriously heightened. To give you a taste of what’s on the disc, I offer the following two snippets, Guy holding forth on the lure of “melodramma” (I misspell on purpose to approximate Guy’s Canadian pronunciation of the word) and the opening half of his bizarro short “It’s My Mother’s Birthday Today,” starring the aforementioned “castrato” who is actually a male singer with a falsetto voice (and presumably a real set of teeth – sorry, too much Marx Bros. training). "Mother's Birthday" is one of two new shorts that appear on the Criterion disc (along with a deleted scene that has some wild action, but I could see how it needed to be cut out):

Here we have three of the narrators doing the same brief story told to the orphans in the lighthouse (oh yeah, the lighthouse is an orphanage, thus Mom has her pic of victims to get brain juice from). I chose to excerpt the versions done by the very placid and ironic Ms. Laurie Anderson, a slightly more frenzied version by the always quirky Mr. Crispin Glover, and a full-fledged “melodrammatic” live reading by Ms. Isabella Rossellini. Listen to the voice levels rise….

And, just for good measure, here again is a segment from my own interview with Guy, where he discusses his work appearing on YouTube and his unusual and amazing new editing style:

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Inside the Mind of Comics Genius Alan Moore

Comics-writing wizard Alan Moore is my Kilgore Trout. As I remember it in the Vonnegut novels (I haven’t read ’em in a few years now), Trout is a sci-fi author whose stories only see the light of day in the form of lurid paperbacks and as filler in porn mags. In the meantime, however, he’s a brilliant writer dispensing cosmic wisdom in his works, while remaining unappreciated and certainly unknown to the public as a whole.

Moore is certainly not unknown, he’s one of the best-regarded writers of (that phrase, again!) “graphic novels” and is one of the gents who elevated the comic book into the realm of true literature. His works have been made into some middling movies (kudos to V for Vendetta for keeping the radical politics, though dispensing with much of the poetry of the piece), so he therefore can’t be too obscure. Still, Moore is thought of by those who aren’t familiar with his work as a toiler in the vineyard of capes and costumes, a superhero scribe who did that Watchmen thing everybody was raving about back in the Eighties.

Moore’s writing has always been compulsively readable, and he has been working in different genres since his start with the cartoon “Maxwell the Magic Cat” and short sci-fi and comedy features in 2000 AD. However, the last decade and a half has seen him grow into one of the most intriguing writers in the medium (a fact begrudgingly admitted in one of those alternative-comix-are-the-only-kind-to-read articles in The New York Times magazine section a few years back). In interviews and in a series of experimental and fascinating (and, yes, compulsively readable) comic series, he began to pass on a truly developed worldview that encompasses culture, politics, religion, and sex. Still, he is conceived of by the vast majority of folks (most definitely those who see the middling movies being made from his works) as a pulpsmith with a talent for plotting, but certainly not a visionary or modern-day soothsayer. The further I delved into his works a few years back, from his titanic, brilliant From Hell to the mind-bogglingly inclusive myth/culture/religion commentary in Promethea, it became apparent to me that this reclusive comic book writer, legendary for having opted out of the fan-con and personal-appearance circuit, is one of the most talented writers around. Who happens to be working in… yeah, comic books.

And why do I bring all this up? Well, because there are a few British television documentaries on Moore that are up in their entirety on YouTube, and a newly made docu about him is coming out next week from the Disinformation Company. The film called The Mindscape of Alan Moore may not be for those who are not familiar with Moore’s work or life, as it plunges you straight into his ideas without supplying context for who he is and what he represents in comic (and pop culture) history; for the background, you would need the docus on YT (plus the knowledge that he took up at age 40 heavy research into the worlds of magic, the occult, and religion). For those who are familiar with Moore’s writing in any way, however, Mindscape is a heady dose of the shaggy shaman’s philosophy on a whole host of topics. The presentation is extremely trippy, as befits Moore’s appearance and garb, but the picture essentially functions like a very interesting illustrated lecture by Alan on everything from war, politics, and culture to fame, pornography, and… quantum physics?

Moore has a terrific way of linking up disparate subjects, and I am a massive fan of artists and entertainers who connect things that ordinarily aren’t connected, or speak about the “imponderables” in layman’s terms. Moore does a lot of the latter in the film, giving us the gist of what he’s learned in his exploration of the occult, which is not so much about the spooky side of things as it is the threads between ideas. He has previously spoken about the notion of “idea-space” in interviews, but here he develops it at length (and with pitchas!) so we have the equivalent of an Errol Morris treatment of concepts that could be as dry as dust, but are vibrant, and yes, just a tad strange, but are first and foremost comprehensible reflections on the world around us. And, yeah, he does talk about his comics too (although the director, the colorfully named DeZ Vylenz, seemingly didn’t have him touch on a few of his key works like Promethea and Miracleman).

The two-disc set of Mindscape comes with an additional disc that contains six interviews, one with a comic historian (who doesn’t really offer a contextual overview, just his own reflections on Moore’s work) and five artists who have brought Moore’s work life. Of the latter, Dave Gibbons of The Watchmen provides the most interesting information about the working process — the other four artists (the men and women who illustrated V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea, and Lost Girls) wind up discoursing on various topics and proving that, as smart and talented as they are, they are not as engaging speakers as Moore himself.

The trailer for Mindscape can be seen here:

Here’s the four –part1987 British TV docu “Monsters, Maniacs and Moore” from the show England, Their England.:

For the comics-minded, Moore provides background about four of his most famous series on the show “Comics Britannia.” The gent who put up most of these clips on YT maintains a Moore interview site here

A unique interview with Moore for a low-budget video (could this be the British equivalent of pub-access?) can be found here, and those who understand French can see a translated interview
here, plus listen to a radio interview here.

An excellent intro for those who want to delve into the spiritual/supernatural side of Mr. Moore is this “Comic Tales” interview, cut into a bunch of smaller pieces:

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Godard's latest short available online

Our hero Uncle Jean has once again produced a short film, weaving a "trailer" from old film, poetry, and classical music. I can’t tell you how happy I am that he is still around (a very young 77), providing us with gorgeous telegrams from his Swiss hideout, delighting our eyes, minds, and emotions. He is one of the finest poets the cinema has ever known.

The film is intended as a “trailer” for the Venice International Film Festival (click on the "Viennale Trailer 2008" link). For best visual quality visit their site:

If you just need a quick fix, it's up on YT from about five posters:

Friday, September 5, 2008

Flaming Creature: a new Jack Smith docu

When considering certain filmmakers whose work I haven’t gotten around to seeing, I always think of Andrew Sarris’s phrase in The American Cinema, “Subjects for Further Research.” In this case, I note that this week I got my first dose of the work of an American underground legend when I was given the assignment to review the excellent documentary by Mary Jordan entitled Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, which has come out on DVD from Arts Alliance America. I’m a massive fan of the Kuchar Bros. (especially the greatest complainer in the history of video art, Mr. George Kuchar) and their fan John Waters, but I confess to being a Smith-less film lover.

Jordan’s documentary offers a superb introduction to Smith’s work and his artistic allure (as well as his unrepentant eccentricities). Included in the documentary are interviews with a host of Sixties downtown types, including big George K. himself, Judith Malina, Mary Woronov, John Zorn, Richard Foreman, Tony Conrad, Ronald Tavel, Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, and John Waters (oh, and the further-researcher himself… Andrew Sarris!). Their comments on Smith and life in the Village film/theater scene are fascinating, but what I was particularly taken with (besides Jack’s all-consuming loathing of his landlords… yay, man!) were the scenes from Smith’s films, which have the layered beauty and costumed elegance of Kenneth Anger, with the playful satires of Hollywood (on no budget) of the Kuchar Bros. The trailer for Jordan’s docu:

In an earlier entry in this blog I presented YouTube and Ubuweb links to the works of George Kuchar, so herewith I present the only Smith film available on YT. Of course, you must keep in mind that what Jordan’s film reveals is that Smith made a practice of not finalizing any of his movies after his landmark Flaming Creatures (1963). This is an earlier item, Scotch Tape, which evidently showed up on the Sundance Channel at some point:

As a bonus, here’s a link to an “underground movie flip book” by Smith that can be found on Ubuweb.

Since there is so little Jack Smith work available on the Web, and because I am utterly obsessed with one-hit wonders, here’s a link to the amazing, and completely unrelated, Whistlin’ Jack Smith’s 1967 chronically hook-driven “I was Kaiser Bill’s Batman.” I would make a very strong bet that you ain’t getting this tune outta your cranium once you hear it:

UPDATE (9/8): Just this past weekend Anthology showed Flaming Creatures, so I finally was witness to the crazed genius of Jack S. Much has been said about the picture, and it remains (esp. in these tight-assed times) a work that is confrontational, by turns kinetic and reflective, ugly and beautiful, profound and extremely silly. And you still couldn't air the thing on any cable channel save Sundance (who slip in some exceptionally "challenging" images every now again, as with Pink Flamingos and The Purified).

In her "own natural element": Deceased Artiste Roberta Collins

Roberta Collins was not an exploitation star of the first rank, but she made her sexy blonde presence known in a variety of top-notch Seventies genre classics for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd. She played a tough babe in some extremely memorable Seventies sleaze pics, from the terrific roller derby saga (starring Claudia Jennings and edited by some film student named Scorsese) Unholy Rollers (1972) and Deathrace 2000 (1975, as Matilda the Hun!) to Three The Hard Way (1972) and Eaten Alive (1977). In her later career, she appeared some really sub-par but still watchably awful Eighties sleaze, including Hardbodies (1984) and School Spirit (1985).

Why would you know Roberta? Well, if you’re a fan of the finest sleaze genre there, is the Women’s Prison picture, Roberta distinguished herself as the “hot, mean blonde chick” in a number of chicks-in-chains features. Starting with Jack Hill’s seminal exercise in Filippino prison-camp joy The Big Doll House (1971), and then in Women in Cages (1971), Jonathan Demme’s transformative, revisionist masterwork (I’m serious about that, it is terrific) Caged Heat (1974), and the latter-day revenge-behind bars classic Vendetta (1986), Roberta was at her best when imprisoned.

To illustrate the allure of Ms. Collins in her short prison shift, I offer the trailer for Hill’s The Big Doll House

And just in case you’re still drawing a blank as to exactly which blonde prisoner Roberta was, I do think that this fistfight/mud wrestling scene from Doll House where Roberta meets to settle matters with the queen of Blaxploitation (and Jack Hill discovery) Pam Grier should remind you (or at least just brighten up your day). No one has offered the official vote on this yet, but this scene has to one of the Top 5 Movie Catfights, if only for its raw sleaze factor:

and we leave Roberta in actually the finest movie she took part in, Demme’s Caged Heat, which does for the women’s prison picture what mainstream mavericks Altman and Peckinpah’s films were doing for the Western, the caper movie, the hardboiled detective saga, and a host of other genres. It’s rare that a B-budget film included so much imaginative weirdness — warden Barbara Steele’s odd Blue Angel nod alone is worth the price of admission — but Caged Heat certainly showed Demme to be a consummately talented filmmaker, and I have to say… I actually prefer it over a bunch of his mainstream pics.

Roberta left us at 62. Farewell, hot, mean blonde chick.