Saturday, 26 September 2020

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace

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Do you like reading and/or cult British comedy shows and horror? If so, you might have the time to leaf through this incredibly long critical study I wrote on the spoof horror series Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004), which has been published by Horrified Magazine. Titled – with tongue partly in cheek! – "Hell Hath Fury: The 'horror illuminatum' of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace", the essay aims to explore the potential influences and ways in which genre and horror fiction are used and referenced as part of the show's conception and delivery. You can read it here.

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace [Richard Ayoade, 2004]:

Writing this has occupied quite a bit of my free time over the last couple of weeks, so I'm hoping now to get back into the habit of updating the blog as regularly as I'm able to. I've noticed that since blogger changed its interface recently, the font sizes for some of my older posts have been affected. The text on some posts is now incredibly small, as small as footnotes! I'm hoping to fix some of these issues shortly, mostly because they irritate my OCD. The text on "Darkplace" is a bit of a long ramble, so it's much appreciated if you do take the time to look at it. Stay safe.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

After Darkness Light

Performance in the age of Covid-19

One of the best filmed performances of recent years, Taylor Swift, live from the 2020 Academy of Country Music Awards, shows us everything that's wrong with the way TV producers and directors have traditionally recorded live music. Forced by restrictions around the Covid-19 pandemic to rethink the usual conventions, the producers of this year's event have embraced minimalism as necessity, recording performers on stage for an audience of no one, holding the gaze of the performer in shots that last for more than a fraction of a second, and in the process creating something that allows musicianship, songcraft and personality to rise to the surface. The result pushes musical performance towards something approaching great theatre; studied, dramatic and visual.

Since I don't pay much attention to Award Shows and competitions around art, I can't say how consistently the approach and aesthetic was carried over the course of the entire evening. This clip caught my attention primarily because I'm quite fond of Swift and found her recent album, "Folklore" (2020), a brilliant collection of songs and stories. In watching the performance here, you can appreciate Swift as both songwriter and storyteller. It's not just her words and voice that take us on a journey into the lives of these characters, which she sketches across the song in question – "Betty", a narrative that continues across two further songs from the "Folklore" album – but her body language, vocal intonations and facial expressions as well. It's a complete performance.

Taylor Swift, live from the 55th Academy of Country Music Awards [2020]:

Appearing relaxed and clearly enjoying the opportunity to perform and to bring her song to an audience, even a "virtual" one, Swift is charismatic and charming. As she sings, she's able to capture both the voice of her teen-boy protagonist, as he moons and whines over a girl who (rightly) doesn't want to know, as well as projecting her own withering contempt and amusement for this poor narrator, his chauvinism and entitlement picked apart with a subtle glance or a cold shrug of the shoulders. It's always been apparent that Swift had talent, but with "Folklore" she really shows potential to be one of the great troubadours, a singer/songwriter able to move effortlessly between both narrative and confessional-based songs.

However, what's most remarkable about this is the way it's filmed. As a music fan, the main thing that has always bothered me about live coverage of musicians and performers is the frequent cut away shots to members of the audience. While an establishing shot of the audience to begin and end a performance is good for creating context, TV directors will often cut to a crowd shot simply to enforce a sense of excitement or atmosphere; in the process, denying us the sight of the musicians on stage. Similarly, how often have we seen performances where a director cuts to a wide shot of the band performing during a great solo, excellent bass run, or a rhythmic drum fill, instead of going in close? It's like the people charged with filming live performances have no idea how music works or is created. We don't need to be reminded of the audience every three seconds. For those not fortunate enough to be attending live, the drama is on the stage, not looking up at it.

The approach adopted by the producers of this year's Academy of Country Music Awards is reminiscent of director Jonathan Demme's approach to his landmark concert film with the Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense (1984). There, Demme made the decision to keep audience shots to a minimum, holding the camera on the performers and cutting between shots only when necessary to emphasize a musician, a new song, or a change in staging. This way, the director was able to preserve the integrity of the on-stage performance, which the audience is there to see.

Stop Making Sense [Jonathan Demme, 1984]:

While not as clever as Demme's staging of the Talking Heads concert, the way the performance of Swift has been recorded is nonetheless similar in its attitude and approach: keeping the camera fixed upon the artist and her unseen harmonica player; backlighting the whole thing to give the performance a distinct and entirely visual "look"; highlighting the performer – her words and music – against the blackness of the backdrop, and in doing so, creating a visual implication of the light emerging from the darkness: post tenebras lux. Along with the sight of the empty auditorium that begins the clip and the resounding silence that closes it (no audience means no applause), this aesthetic aspect, born from necessity, provides a powerful reminder of where we are as a culture as we approach the final act of the year 2020.

This is the first example I've seen of one of these new, post-Covid showbiz events, where audiences and excess have been banished in the name of social distancing. I know there have been other Award shows, premieres and festivals conducted in a similar way, however, not having a lot of time for such things, I can't say whether or not these recent examples have resulted in anything as fresh and exciting as this. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see how these institutions have been forced to adapt to the challenges of maintaining a thin veneer of normalcy, while at the same time protecting people against a global pandemic, and how this has resulted, at least in this example, in a new and better visual language for recording. As the first films and TV shows produced under conditions of Covid begin to appear over the next six to twelve months, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, such restrictions and limitations will have on the kind of images and scenarios we see.

Saturday, 12 September 2020


"Midday. I've gone for croissants and married the baker in despair."

Notes on 'the Auteur'

When people discredit the "auteur" theory, it always seems to be based on an assumption that it implies a director is the only person responsible for the making of a film. This is obviously not true. As we're often told, film is a collaborative medium. And yet, even the most democratic of creative endeavors still has someone leading the project, acting as the funnel through which ideas are channeled, shaping the work from the ground up. Admittedly, having read very little critical theory, my conception of the auteur theory never seemed inherently specific to the role of the director. Yes, many directors are, or at the very least will be seen as "auteur" filmmakers, especially those that also write or conceive their own work. However, this isn't to say that the director is always the auteur.

For me, when we claim a film is the work of an "auteur", we're really saying, in the most plain and mundane terms, that it has an author. That despite the countless number of individual crew members, performers, producers, and financiers that may have contributed to the making of a film, that there was someone at the center of things, shepherding the project through to completion. This "auteur" could be the director, the writer, the producer and even the lead actor.

Think of the films of action stars like Tom Cruise, Jackie Chan, Sylvester Stallone and Jean-Claude Van Damme, among others. They may work with directors that have a reputation for being "auteur" filmmakers, but there is nonetheless a consistency to the kind of subject matter these performers return to, an autonomy to how they're filmed and presented, a level of control over how the material is shaped and distributed, all of which go beyond the familiarities of their directors' prior or subsequent works. These actors are the authors of their respective films, their image and, to a large extent, their own legacies.

By contrast, in the modern Hollywood, the author of the work is often the studio and its army of executives. In the films of Disney®, including works by Pixar and Marvel Studios, the role of the writer, producer and director is to facilitate the creative wishes of the studio executives. They're not creating their own personal vision; they're creating a product that the studio has the power to approve or decline. In television, the series creator, or showrunner, is generally the "auteur." For instance, everyone recognizes a Ryan Murphey production when they see one – from Nip/Tuck (2003-2010) and American Horror Story (2011-present) to the more recent Netflix distributed Hollywood (2020), they have a consistent style, politics and casting – regardless of who writes or directs the individual episodes.

A good example of what I'm getting at here can be found in the film in question. Taxi (1998), a knockabout French action movie with aspirations to Hollywood, is directed (and directed well) by the veteran film and commercials director Gérard Pirès. Pirès's work on the film cannot be discredited. While Taxi isn't a great film, it is nonetheless well-acted, the story, thin as it is, remains frequently engaging, and the action sequences, particularly the way the numerous car chases have been filmed and edited, are never less than thrilling. But Pirès's isn't the author of the film, but rather fulfilling the vision of his writer and producer, Luc Besson.

Taxi [Gérard Pirès, 1998]:

From the ground-up, Taxi is characteristic of Besson's own work as director, specifically his earlier films, such as Subway (1985) and La Femme Nikita (1990), and it sets the tone and template for many of the subsequent action movies the author would go on to write and produce, including The Transporter (2002), District 13 (2004) and Taken (2008), as well as those films' later sequels. In each of these works, Besson takes typically French characters, humor and settings, and juxtaposes them with very American themes, genres and storytelling devices, and the same is true for the film in question. Taxi is one-part "cinéma du look", one-part Hollywood buddy movie (à la 48 Hours [1982]), and one-part precursor to the "Fast & Furious" franchise.

Like Subway, the film begins with a burst of action. A vehicle speeding through the daytime streets, piloted by our central character. The camera, almost at ground-level, trails behind the vehicle, with loud music used to set the tone for action and excitement.

Subway [Luc Besson, 1985]:

Taxi [Gérard Pirès, 1998]:

In both films, the opening chase sequence is used to establish character and setting. Subway shows off the familiar Parisian settings recognisable from countless films before and since, while Taxi showcases the less familiar, though more exotic highways and byways of suburban Marseilles. However, these opening sequences, or title sequences even, also provide a more important function in expanding but also subverting the expectations of the viewing audience and our perception of the contemporary French cinema.

For a populist like Besson, the intention with films like Subway and Taxi, as well as later films like the aforementioned District 13, is to recreate the idea of the "French film™." To break apart the loftier or more highbrow expectations that audiences outside of France had come to associate with their national cinema, typified as it was internationally by the classic early exports of Jean Vigo, Jean Renoir and Henri-Georges Clouzot, or the subsequent films of the "New Wave" and works by serious "auteur" filmmakers, like Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda.

International audiences tend to think of French cinema in these terms: small apartments, relationship dramas, black and white cinematography, poetic ruminations, loneliness, existentialism, and joyless sex. In reality, the French cinema has almost always produced mainstream comedies, low-brow farce, action films, cop movies and gory horror; films that generally made huge amounts of money at the domestic box-office but rarely travelled outside of French-speaking territories. Given an international platform through the success of his earlier work, Besson continued onwards in his attempts to create films that were accessible to the broadest of audiences, forging an image of a new French cinema that was young, dumb and full of fun; where fast cars and fast women (usually with guns) engaged in scenes of full-bodied action; and where there were enough moments of eccentricity and childlike whimsy intercut to give the impression that the films were perhaps more individualist than they really were.

In its best moments, Taxi recalls the legacy of the "cinéma du look": the brief and contentious film movement coined by critic Raphaël Bassan in La Revue du Cinéma issue n° 448, May 1989, which lumped together the works of directors Jean-Jacques Beineix, Leos Carax and Besson himself. The characteristics of the "cinéma du look" was an emphasis on youth and subcultures, on alienated characters in a state of rebellion against the modern world, and on the conflict between the lasting legacy of the films of the French new wave and the burgeoning influence of the new Hollywood movies produced during the 1970s and early 1980s. Films like Diva (1981), Subway and Mauvais sang (1986), while markedly different from one another in their attitudes and intentions, were seen to take recognizable Hollywood genres like mystery, film noir and science fiction, and dismantle them, populating them with bored but beautiful characters, self-reflexive allusions to popular culture and a glossy contemporary style.

We see that here in Taxi, specifically in its earlier sequences, which finds in its central character, pizza delivery driver turned taxi driver Daniel Morales, the kind of laid-back, directionless but streetwise dreamer that we might have found in films like Boy Meets Girl (1984) or Betty Blue (37°2 le matin, 1986). That he lives out of a converted garage full of car parts and vehicles in states of repair and works out of a weird brutalist pizza restaurant on the edges of the docks, also helps evoke the further influence of Beineix and Carax, specifically The Moon in the Gutter (1983) and the aforementioned Diva and Mauvais sang.

Taxi [Gérard Pirès, 1998]:

Mauvais sang (Bad Blood) [Leos Carax, 1986]:

The Moon in the Gutter [Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1983]:

However, the moment the titular taxi inexplicably transforms from anonymous cab to tricked-out hotrod, effectively signals the moment both the film, and Besson's career, shift from quirky "cinéma du look" to brainless DTV action. While the film remains well-made and entertaining, it seems to signal a definite change in direction for Besson, who would never really recapture the same adoration and respect that he'd commanded as a filmmaker during the 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s, with later works, both as director and producer, failing with both audiences and critics.

While Taxi attempts and largely succeeds in creating a French film with a Hollywood outlook and a greater emphasis on entertainment and spectacle, it's never quite found the same creative success or cultural legacy as Besson's own action cinema that preceded it, specifically La Femme Nikita and the problematic Léon (aka, The Professional, 1994). Taxi is full of moments of great action, stunts and thrilling chase sequences, but it's also marred by Besson's deficiencies as a screenwriter. Chiefly, the film is shamelessly sexist, with female characters providing no real function to the plot beyond reinforcing the heterosexual masculinity of the central characters, or worse, being mercilessly leered over and harassed by both the protagonists and the camera itself. There's also the usual crass stereotyping and actual racism that frequently turn up in Besson's scripts, as if jokes about all people from South East Asia looking alike will somehow engender sympathy between the central characters.

Taxi [Gérard Pirès, 1998]:

Despite these various shortcomings, the film wasn't without interest. Again, it's perfectly entertaining, often amusing, with great car stunts and thrilling action sequences, and a great affinity for character, and the natural atmosphere of its south of France locations. It also features moments that point towards an even better film that might have been: specifically the earlier sequences, which are more preoccupied with the relationship between characters; the subculture of young people that converge on this strange and deeply cinematic pizza restaurant; and the feeling of vibrant, nocturnal worlds existing on the fringes of society. Ultimately however, the film is of most interest in marking and defining the evolution of Besson's career as it developed from respected cult filmmaker to entertainment entrepreneur, and how it illustrates the role of the "auteur", not as the director, but the person shaping the material from the ground-up.

Thursday, 10 September 2020

The Crystal World

Thoughts on the book by J.G. Ballard

"By day, fantastic birds flew through the petrified forest, and jewelled crocodiles glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline river. By night, the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown..."

-The Crystal World, J.G. Ballard, 1966

"In his second novel J.G. Ballard drowned the Earth, in his third he burned it, and in his fourth he turned it to crystal. Between 1962 and 1966 he ruined the world three times – though he later made it clear that these works were not to be understood as 'disaster stories', but as 'transformation stories.' 'The geophysical changes that take place [in them],' he said in 1975, 'are all positive and good.'"

- Introduction to the Fourth Estate publication of "The Crystal World", 
Robert Macfarlane, 2014

In many ways "The Crystal World" is a transitional work for Ballard. On one hand, it features enough surface similarities to his preceding novels, "The Wind from Nowhere" (1961), which he disowned, "The Drowned World" (1962) and "The Burning World" (1964), also published as "The Drought", to be taken as an evolution of a specific theme; chiefly, the destruction of the natural world, and the evolution that these ecological catastrophes bring about in characters forced to evolve or regress to either more elevated or primitive forms. However, it also features several elements that mark the direction that Ballard's writing would take in subsequent years, with the interest in physical deterioration, injury detail and the transformation of the human body through decay and destruction recalling the corporeal obsessions of "The Atrocity Exhibition" (1970) and "Crash" (1973) respectively.

Like many of Ballard's novels, "The Crystal World" finds a character arriving in a strange and exotic destination and finding themselves immediately embroiled in a mystery that connects the personal circumstances of the central character to the wider uncertainties plaguing the modern world. In this sense, it can be seen as an earlier, more outwardly science-fiction themed take on the same narrative machinations found in his later, more forensic novels, such as "Running Wild" (1988), "Cocaine Nights" (1996) and "Super Cannes" (2000). There, the mysteries connected to personal and political atrocities, the collapse of the modern consumer society with its order and conformity, and the performative aspect of violence and degradation as a new kind of designer entertainment, whereas the situation here is more markedly phantasmagorical and surreal.

The Crystal World [J.G. Ballard, 1966]:

The central concept of "The Crystal World" is genuinely ingenious and results in some of the writer's most startling and original imagery. As the description on the back cover puts it: Through a 'leaking' of time, the West African jungle starts to crystallize. Trees metamorphose into enormous jewels. Crocodiles encased in second glittering skins lurch down river. Pythons with huge blind eyes rear in heraldic poses. Most flee the area in terror, afraid to face what they cannot understand. But some, dazzled and strangely entranced, remain to drift through this dreamworld forest: a doctor in pursuit of his ex-mistress, an enigmatic Jesuit wielding a crystal cross, and a tribe of lepers searching for Paradise.

Already the description evokes similarities to "The Drowned World" and the wider influences of writers like Joseph Conrad; where the journey down river and the leftover specters of Colonialism bring to mind a book like "Heart of Darkness" (1899) or Nostromo (1904). However, the jungle adventures of Ballard's story are ultimately less accessible, as the book returns again and again to ecstatic descriptions of vitrified forest canopies turned into celestial stained-glass cathedrals radiating rainbow light, where prolonged exposure to the environment causes wounds to crystalize into jewelled lesions, and where a diamond frost forms on the clothes and skin of those left to wander the crystal world. As such it often pulls in two different directions, on one hand attempting to tell a conventional science-fiction adventure story with a varied cast of characters, each with their own interpersonal motives and agendas, and on the other hand concerning itself with a poetic, often stream-of-consciousness exploration of the world and the circumstances that transformed it.

While the book has never been brought to the screen, "The Crystal World" contains such a visceral and singular approach to both its concept and delivery that an attempt to turn it into a film would no doubt result in something truly extraordinary, if only in terms of its visualization. Some have found parallels and similarities to the imagery and conception of the Alex Garland directed science-fiction horror film Annihilation (2018), which was based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer's book has also been compared to the H.P. Lovecraft story "The Color Out of Space" (1927) and the 1972 book by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, "Roadside Picnic", as well as it's celebrated film adaptation, Stalker (1979). While I've yet to see Garland's film, there's no denying that it's imagery, even stripped of context, is incredibly redolent of situations and transmutations described in "The Crystal World."

Annihilation [Alex Garland, 2018]:

While I wouldn't hesitate to call "The Crystal World" a work of genius – its conception and imagery is without precedent, and the prose that Ballard develops to bring the world to life marks a quantum leap in the evolution of his writing – it isn't the most accessible or compelling of Ballard's stories, and can often collapse under the weight of its lengthy evocations. Too often the human drama at the frosted heart of the book feels vague and underdeveloped, and the characters thinly sketched and lacking personality. It's simultaneously a better written and more imaginative book than Ballard's earlier "The Drowned World", and a less engaging one.

While its storytelling and general approach can often seem as ice cold and glacial as the image of the petrified forest that Ballard works to explore, there does seem to be something more personal, even inherently human at the centre of "The Crystal World" that is perhaps easy to overlook. While it's pure conjecture on my part, I did wonder if it was significant that Ballard's wife Mary died of pneumonia in 1964, two-years before "The Crystal World" was first published. In creating a story about a man willing to return to a place that is slowly dying, or transforming into a place of cold, loveless beauty, to reclaim the woman he loved, is Ballard in a way retelling the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and relating it specifically to the loss of his wife? In this sense, the jewelled forest becomes a kind of phantom underworld: a personification of a state of grief, where life no longer grows.

Following "The Crystal World" Ballard would publish several volumes of short science-fiction stories, among them "The Disaster Area" and "The Overloaded Man" (both 1967), however, he wouldn't produce another full-length novel for four years. When he returned, he did so with the aforementioned "The Atrocity Exhibition", a work that marked a significant change in the author's subject matter and approach. As such, "The Crystal World" is something of an ending, bringing to a close the author's early, more conventional science-fiction period, while at the same time heralding the beginning of Ballard's most creative and controversial peak.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Landscape Artist

A Question of Aesthetics?

Unicórnio [Eduardo Nunes, 2017]:

I saw a couple of the above images – taken here from the Eduardo Nunes directed film Unicórnio (2017) – posted in a movie-related discussion group on Facebook and was inspired enough to seek out a copy of the original trailer. Surprisingly, I'd never heard anything about the film previously, and have so far been unable to find a copy of it to watch, either through the usual streaming platforms, or conventional physical media.

I could probably live without the bespoke aspect ratio, which, without context, seems like a gimmick, however, the command and presentation of the landscape is extraordinary, finding an affinity for both the romantic imagery of Caspar David Friedrich, whose famous painting, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818), shows a similar contrast between human figures left awed and overwhelmed by the majesty of nature, and the dream landscapes found in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, such as The Mirror (1975), or Nostalghia (1983).

It's increasingly rare that I find myself enticed by film trailers, but this was a good one. Even watching it in un-subtitled Portuguese, and not entirely grasping what the film is even about, the imagery spoke, and seems especially captivating at a time when so many new films are entirely monoform in presentation, as if produced to fit a pre-existing template.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Sans Soleil

The Image of Happiness
or: 'the black leader'

"The first image he told me about was of three children on a road in Iceland in 1965. He said that for him it was the image of happiness, and also that he had tried several times to link it to other images, but it never worked. He wrote me: One day I'll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader. If they don't see happiness in the picture, at least they'll see the black."

Chris Marker begins his film Sans Soleil (Sunless, 1983) with the above quotation. It is accompanied first by the image itself: three children on a road in Iceland in 1965. A second image, unremarked upon by the narrator, shows fighter planes on a naval ship undergoing maintenance. The first image, and Marker’s characterization of it as "the image of happiness", seems like a provocation; one of several that occur throughout the film. Is the filmmaker challenging the audience to find happiness in the image? Or is he challenging us to find what signifies this as an image of happiness in the context of the film, or indeed, in the life of his fictionalized avatar, the photographer Sandor Krasna?

Admittedly, I've never seen happiness in the image itself. The image for me looks like one of fear and discomfort; three children reacting to the intrusive appearance of a stranger, who films them without permission. As they move through the frame, their pale skin and blonde hair turned silvery by the low sun, they seem incongruous against the green of the surrounding landscape; out of place and out of time. Marker's camera dehumanizes his subjects throughout Sans Soleil, as he studies objects and individuals with the detached curiosity of an alien anthropologist trying to make sense of a culture and its customs beyond his understanding. As the children move, they do so like trapped animals, retreating, clinging to the edge of the road, unsure of the intentions of this photographer, who records them without consent.

Sans Soleil [Chris Marker, 1983]:

While it's perhaps irresponsible if not ableist to force a developmental diagnosis onto someone based only on a slim understanding of their personality, I do speculate whether there was something almost autistic about Marker. It would explain his way of bending the world to meet his various interests and obsessions, his ability to find meanings and connections in signs and symbols, the unerring gaze of his camera and the need to make sense of actions and interactions, as if straining to understand the deeper nuances of a glance, a stare, a gesture. Of course, it's possible that this was simply a result of his background in journalism, which had perhaps conditioned an approach to people as subject-matter, rather than as individuals. For Marker, people and places pose questions to be probed and explored. In turning his camera against them, he finds different ways of telling his own story, but never theirs.

The approach presents a barrier for many viewers. While Sans Soleil remains an acclaimed and singular work, feted and debated by film scholars the world over, there are many critics, especially on social media, that have found Marker's depiction and discussions surrounding other cultures and people to be both racist and colonialist in nature. The argument being that the filmmaker speaks on behalf of his subjects; that he denies them a voice; that he takes their images without consent and uses them in a context they could never agree to.

Throughout Sans Soleil we see people flinch at the sight of Marker and his camera. We see them pull away, turn, cover their faces. The images Marker captures are often of people showing discomfort, made anxious by the presence of the camera and the intrusion of the lens. On one level this creates an inherent truth, revealing personal and private moments that are authentic and real, but it does so at the expense of individuals who didn't agree to this exploitation. It presents a moral conundrum for many viewers more sympathetic to invasions of privacy and the loss of personal agency, especially those we now face with our own images in the age of the internet and social media.

Sans Soleil [Chris Marker, 1983]:

In discussing Marker's later film, Tokyo Days (1988) – a work that functions on some levels as a postscript to the film in question – I remarked upon the voyeuristic nature of Marker's cinema. How life, once viewed through a lens that both records but transforms its true reality, becomes a spectacle of performance, to be viewed and interpreted in the same way that we interpret a photograph or film. There's an element of this present in Sans Soleil, which moves between ethnological studies of modern Japan and the islands of Cape Verde, but also the phantom studies of the imagined San Francisco of Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo (1958) or the cultural footprints left by writer and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

There is a sense that for Marker there is no clear delineation between the reality of the modern Japan and the unreality of Vertigo's San Francisco; that there's no line between his observations, both of and on the dock workers at Guinea-Bissau (recorded here by the filmmaker Sana Na N'Hada) and his later observations on the fictional characters of Scottie Ferguson and Madeleine Elster from the aforementioned Hitchcock film; that everything is part of a more intricate system of memory and human consciousness (or even subconscious), which, like a foreign territory, is there to be explored.

Personally, I find Sans Soleil to be a remarkable, genuinely profound work that defies categorization. Many have called it a documentary, or cinema essay, and yet I feel both terms misrepresent the film and only worsen the problematic nature of some of Marker's observations, or the charges of Orientalism. The film is as much a documentary as "Alice in Wonderland", operating instead on a level of fantasy, or science-fiction. It's a film that demands the viewer to adjust their perceptions and understandings of the world and its people to the same wavelength of Marker, where an obsession with cats and TV commercials, sleeping commuters and the realities of Kamikaze pilots, entwine with the influences of Jules Verne, Hitchcockian mystery, computer systems, natural disasters and the supposition that there is a layer of hidden reality that exists between all things and all times. For Marker, this hidden layer is called "the Zone"; an elevated state of being named in tribute to the metaphysical, extraterrestrial territory seen in the film Stalker (1979) by Andrei Tarkovsky.

Stalker [Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979]:

Sans Soleil [Chris Marker, 1983]:

Like the image at the beginning of the film, of the three children on a road in Iceland, we end the film with another provocation, and another admission of happiness. When Marker asks us to find "happiness" in the picture, it's a personal challenge. But are we seeing a depiction of happiness in the conventional sense, of smiling faces and arms outstretched, or are we being asked to find happiness in our own reading of the image, in the projection of our own personal thoughts and experiences upon it? Perhaps we find happiness in the memories and associations of our own childhood innocence, in the relationship between siblings, in the landscape, or the sense of home? Perhaps the real answer is in the Zone?

The "Zone" for Marker is not the sentient, metaphysical space that it is for Tarkovsky, but the space between images, between past, present and future, between reality and memory. Here, Marker shows us the same images we've seen before, only this time they've been run through a video synthesizer. This transforms the image into a second image. One that exists between reality and something else; not pictorial, nor documentary in nature, but a kind of projection, a phantom image, an image in decay. This brings us back to the implication of the first sequences of images and the significance of the black leader.

When Marker, via his female narrator, challenges us to see happiness in the picture of the three children, or be satisfied with only seeing the black, he's effectively asking us, in retrospect, to see the layers between images: the "zone" itself. In showing the two images concurrently, he isn't creating a juxtaposition: it's not an either/or. It's about seeing both pictures at the same time, one on top of the other, and finding the image that lives in-between. The image that exists in the blackness, and the blackness as an image itself. It's in these distinctions and the images between images that the secrets of Sans Soleil are revealed.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

The Wild Boys

Projections on the (unmade) film by Russell Mulcahy

It's one of the most curious 'what if's in pop cinema history. Russell Mulcahy, the Australian director who, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, pioneered the art of the music video, approached his frequent collaborators, English new-wave band Duran Duran, with a unique proposition. Mulcahy was looking to expand his range into the mainstream cinema and had set his heart on an adaptation of the cult 1971 novel "The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead" by William S. Burroughs. Mulcahy was keen to have the group provide a soundtrack for this potential film adaptation and asked them to create a kind of anthem to help promote the idea. Suitably energized, the band went off and recorded their title song, The Wild Boys, which was released to huge success in July of 1984.

Despite Mulcahy's ambition and the enthusiasm of the group, the planned film adaptation never came to fruition. However, a music video did, and it provides a rare and fascinating insight into what might or could've been.

Duran Duran: The Wild Boys [Russell Mulcahy, 1984]:

Produced on a then unprecedented budget of £1million, with both elaborate robot and monster effects, wirework and acrobatics, all filmed on an enormous purpose-built industrial set covering the vast 007 soundstage at Pinewood Studios, the music video for The Wild Boys interprets the surreal text of Burroughs's dark dystopia through a combination of the post-apocalyptic horrors of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), the rag-tag pirate band of outlaws found in the portrayal of Peter Pan and The Lost Boys, and the balletic, ultra-physical, dancing-as-fighting stylizations of the musical West Side Story (1961). In the process, the clip redefined the possibilities of the music video at a pivotal moment in its development, and ushered in a new era of artists being given enormous budgets to create promotional films that in many ways overwhelmed the creative merits of the song itself.

The Wild Boys was a far cry from the kind of videos Mulcahy had previously shot for Duran Duran, or indeed any other group from the same period. Most music videos, then and now, are about promotion. On one level, they're selling the song, but what they're really selling is the artist, their image, and the general aesthetic they're trying to convey. This was most apparent in the earlier videos Mulcahy had directed for the group, where the look and style was defined by exotic locations, icons of affluence and decadence, and the image of the band itself as handsome, fashionable, and upwardly mobile. They were a proper band, as proficient with their musicianship and instrumentation as U2, or as committed to the art of song-craft as The Pet Shop Boys or Roxy Music, but too often discredited as a lightweight boy band because they put the celebration of the surface, fun and fashion, at the forefront of what they did.

You only have to compare The Wild Boys to Mulcahy's still dazzling video for Duran Duran's earlier song, Rio, to see what a marked contrast the director had brought about in this later work. By introducing the influence of Burroughs and the intention to create something that stood outside of their own work and interests, the director pushed the band's style and image to strange new places, creating a work that attempted to sell, not their own vision, but the vision of the subject matter; this phantom film.

Duran Duran: Rio [Russell Mulcahy, 1982]:

From quick-cuts and canted angles, from sharp suits and peroxide hair, from pastel shades and body paint, we leave the exotic shorelines and romantic misadventures of Rio and arrive instead at this pop video "Interzone", with schoolboys wrecking a classroom in syncopated cuts, horror footage played out on Orwellian TV monitors, half-naked figures locked in combat by firelight, and a stranger emerging from the shadows like a gunslinger from an Italian Western, albeit one transposed onto this post-apocalyptic scene.

While much of The Wild Boys is steeped in 1980s silliness, including the "Starlight Express" style choreography of Arlene Philips, the belching fire motif, the bad video effects work and lead singer Simon Le Bon pouting his way through the lyrics as he's tortured on a giant water wheel, the visceral nature of the video, the physicality of the background performers and the syncopation between the choreography and the cutting, creates some incredibly compelling moments. The earlier sequences in particular help to draw the viewer into the world that Mulcahy and his collaborators are both creating, but also to a large extent adapting from the lyrics of the group. As Le Bon sings: "The wild boys are calling, on their way back from the fire. In August moon's surrender to, a dust cloud on the rise", it's matched by the image of the stranger emerging, silhouetted, from the dusty, desolate planes of the soundstage.

It's in these moments that the audience gets a sense of what Mulcahy's vision for his film of The Wild Boys might have been, with the mix of iconography, ripped as it is from westerns and post-apocalyptic science-fiction cinema, and the greater emphasis on the relationship between physical performance, sound, music and the cutting between shots, creating an aesthetic that was very much characteristic of the period and the influence of films like The Warriors (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Liquid Sky (also 1982) and the aforementioned Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior.

Had the film been released, it could've been a disaster; pilloried and lampooned as an example of the MTV aesthetic infiltrating the mainstream cinema. Conversely, it might have proven to be a singular work. One, which following in the wake of films like those aforementioned, could have provided a key example of the new cult cinema of the 1980s. We'll never know. However, there are further hints and relics to Mulcahy's never-realized film in his subsequent and analogous works, with the markedly more surreal, homoerotic, Cocteau-inspired video for the Bonnie Tyler song, "Total Eclipse of the Heart", perhaps providing some of the missing pieces to The Wild Boys puzzle.

Bonnie Tyler: Total Eclipse of the Heart [Russell Mulcahy, 1983]:

While a full adaptation of The Wild Boys would fail to materialize, Mulcahy would nonetheless go on to make his mark on the cinema with two back-to-back cult films produced during the 1980s. Razorback (1984), an "Ozploitation" horror film about a murderous pig terrorizing the Outback, and Highlander (1986), a high-concept fantasy about warring immortals battling for supremacy. Highlander remains perhaps the most highly regarded and well recognized of the director's filmography, popular with fans of the actors Christopher Lambert and Sean Connery, as well as devotees to the rock band Queen, who provided the soundtrack. Highlander would go on to spawn several sequels and television spin-offs since its initial release, including Mulcahy's own ill-fated sequel, Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)

From here, Mulcahy's film career is spotty and inconsistent. Of the other films of his that I've seen, The Shadow (1994), an Art-Deco influenced comic book fantasy, is one that carries a large degree of childhood nostalgia for me, as does his cult horror film, Tale of the Mummy (1998). Less successful was the serial killer drama, Resurrection (1999), which reunited Mulcahy with his Highlander star Christopher Lambert and featured a supporting role for the cult filmmaker David Cronenberg. The film has an interesting directorial aesthetic that places it squarely in the late 1990s, but it's horribly written and hugely derivative of David Fincher's superior psychological horror film Seven (1995). Mulcahy also directed the third Resident Evil film, Extinction (2007), which is the best of the first three installments, and features some visual throwbacks to the iconography and post-apocalyptic world-building of The Wild Boys video.

Resident Evil: Extinction [Russell Mulcahy, 2007]:

Mulcahy has also directed several well-received films outside of the fantasy and action movie genres, including On the Beach (2000), The Lost Battalion (2001), Swimming Upstream (2003), Prayers for Bobby (2009) and several episodes of the American remake of the Russel T. Davies series Queer as Folk (2000-2005). His most recent film, In Like Flynn (2018), about the early life and adventures of the Hollywood actor Errol Flynn, is currently available on Netflix.

Ultimately, The Wild Boys would prove to have a definite legacy. Along with the video for Thriller (1983) by John Landis and Michael Jackson, its scope and ambition would change the way filmmakers and record companies approached the idea of the music video as both a promotional tool and as a way of generating conversation. From here, budgets would become bigger, the subject matter would become more cinematic, more provocative in nature, and the success of the video became entangled with the potential chart success of the songs themselves. Other directors, like Mary Lambert, Bernard Rose, Tim Pope, Steve Barron, David Fincher and Jean-Baptiste Mondino to name a few, would continue to push the limits, injecting eccentricity, provocation or glamour into their respective videos, and inspiring the generations of music video filmmakers that followed in their wake. The Wild Boys may never have become a movie in its own right, but it endures as a strange piece of 80s pop-culture.