December 24, 2011

Mobile phone pictures, September 2010-December 2011

September 6, 2010: the Moorhouse Avenue clock tower has stopped at the time of the first earthquake.

September 6, 2010: Alice in Videoland, High St.

Newcastle, New South Wales. October, 12, 14 and 15, 2010.

The courtyard of the now ruined Peterborough building, Christchurch. December 5, 2010.

Spectral poster, Christchurch. January 26, 2011.

Campbell Kneale as Our Love Will Destroy the World, Chicks Hotel, Port Chalmers. March 25, 2011.

Christchurch. July 2, 2011.

November 8, 2011. Signs in the Heathcote river.

Unintended Planet of the Apes tribute in post-quake sandwich bar wreckage, New Regent St, Christchurch. November 25, 2011.

Band names. December 17, 2011.

Nearly a still from Robinson in Ruins. Harewood, Christchurch, December 22, 2011.

Updated advice, St Martins, Christchurch, December 24, 2011. (formerly this).

December 15, 2011

"The afternoon that stretched into evening": films of 2011 (and books, music)


1 The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick). More to come on this in the new year, but here’s one thing: rewatch Godard’s mid-80s Hail Mary and you see a similar evoking of “spiritual” mysteries through searching voice-over and wind-in-grass shots – nature and holiness – only it’s that much more emotive and even sensual from Malick despite Hail Mary’s nudes. Also, wasn’t it a little inspirational to see an experimental film get such a profile and start so much discussion?
2 The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr). The opening scene is "a remarkable five minutes in which we see the horse driven by a grim, bearded man like a ship through a storm; this is all caught in one long, smooth take by cinematographer Fred Kelemen as mournful music rises and falls on the soundtrack and horse and driver battle a head-on, howling wind. Both look as though they are gripped or driven by guilt, or shame." More here.
3 Melancholia (Lars von Trier). "A potentially destructive planet hidden behind the sun – such a great metaphor for depression." More here.

4 Robinson in Ruins (Patrick Keiller). The long-awaited third part of Keiller’s Robinson series – after London and Robinson in Space – is sparser and more contemplative than the preceding two, and less bitter. But his fictional Robinson, reported on now by Vanessa Redgrave as the narrator, replacing the late Paul Scofield, is still obsessed with the genealogy of capitalism in Britain, tracking back to the enclosure of the Commons, and observing some contested, haunted landscapes – Greenham Common and Harrowdown Hill among them. As in 1994’s London, much of what passes for British heritage seems parasitic to Robinson, as fake or invented tradition that serves someone else’s purpose – here, he observes 19th century neo-Gothic architecture and says, “It seemed strange that so much effort should be devoted to its preservation”.
5 Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn). The action movie and its attendant clich├ęs rendered as romantic yearning, lit by sodium lights in city streets. As a whole, it sits just this side of parody.
6 Inside Job (Charles Ferguson). In this thorough catalogue of crimes and moral failings, who comes out looking the worst? Hard to say, but the complicit academics are definitely up there.
7 Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek). "The wistfulness of an epilogue." More here.
8 When a City Falls (Gerard Smyth). "Smyth’s version of the afternoon that stretched into evening, with the fires that kept burning in the CTV building, the armies of rescue workers, the silent crowds waiting in Latimer Square, is startling, pieced together from his own urgent footage and other sources, and playing out unmediated by reporters or news readers." More here.
9 The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne). The Dardennes have reached such a level of consistency that they risk being taken for granted. This effortless neo-realism owes more – title aside – to Bresson (films like Mouchette are in the background) than De Sica, and also offers something much closer to hope than usual.
10 Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog). Most nature documentaries peddle an optimistic vision – the natural world is knowable, all motivations can be uncovered and understood, progress is not illusory – but Werner “the jungle is obscene” Herzog, an arch-pessimist, has a different vision, which gives his nature documentaries (this, Grizzly Man) an unusual tension: there is discovery, sure, but there is also a vast gulf between us and them, now and then. Even in 3D, the cave-art footage didn’t move me as I thought it should and I liked the albino crocodile coda that everyone else seemed to hate – that probably makes me one of the pessimists.

11 Monsters (Gareth Edwards). Ultra-low budget and very obviously allegorical (the misunderstood monsters are kept behind a wall on the other side of the Mexican border), this widely overlooked sci-fi debut was also imaginative and eerie.
12 Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan). The early scenes, hazy as a dream, as they drive through the empty landscapes at night, looking for where the body was buried.
13 Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky). “I confess that I meant to grow wings and lose my mind. I confess that I’ve forgotten what for. Why wings and a lost mind?” (Leonard Cohen, from “A Cross Didn’t Fall on Me”). Or, "Not quite horror and not quite camp; more an oppressive, phantasmagorical melodrama that blends both." More here.
14 The Orator (Tusi Tamasese). How often does this happen – a film showing you lives you’re sure you’ve never seen before? Tamasese’s mature debut was said to be the first feature shot entirely in Samoa and in the Samoan language – meaning it also got to be the first ever New Zealand entry for the foreign language Oscar.
15 Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (Sophie Fiennes). "The muddy grey and brown fields, and equally dismal skies, in some Kiefer paintings could double as Tarr’s landscapes, just as both share a kind of Gnostic sensibility. 'I can’t reach the core,' Kiefer says in his interview, in words reminiscent of Tarr’s darkness-habituated characters. 'I can’t reach the law that holds the world together.'" More here. Since this doco wrapped, the subject – artist Anselm Kiefer – has expressed interest in buying a shut-down nuclear power plant. Sequel?

Honourable mentions: Meek’s Cutoff. Operation 8. The Kids Are All Right (almost entirely because of Mark Ruffalo). Sleeping Beauty.

DVD only: Carlos (Olivier Assayas) – the full, five and a half hour/three disc version. In its rise and fall, glamour turning into cynicism, youthful promise into bloat, this Ilich Ramirez Sanchez biopic runs like Euroterrorism’s Raging Bull.
Acting: Claire Danes in Temple Grandin, Fa’afiaula Sagote in The Orator, Christian Bale and Amy Adams in The Fighter, Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit, Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia, Carey Mulligan in Never Let Me Go, Ryan Gosling in Drive, Gwyneth Paltrow as a good-looking corpse in Contagion.
Duds: Crazy, Stupid, Love. No Strings Attached. The Devil’s Rock (giving Nazioccultsploitation a bad name). The King’s Speech.


Live: The Clean at CPSA, Christchurch, November 26 – yes, that night (for about two hours, you forgot). Our Love Will Destroy the World at Lines of Flight 2011, Chicks, Port Chalmers, March 25 (plus Wellington’s Sign of the Hag and Dunedin’s Eye – same festival, previous night). Swans at Powerstation, Auckland, March 6. Both Swans and OLWDTW were mind emptyingly-loud (a good thing). Shayne P Carter at Kings Arms, Auckland, May 14, and at CPSA, Christchurch, November 18. Yeah, twice – the second time as thanks for the first, but more that I needed to see this back catalogue show twice to really process it. The first time – in Auckland -- you’re caught up in the celebratory nature of it all (we’re celebrating him, ourselves, these songs – and what these songs have said to us, about us), the second time – in a quieter Christchurch, following an erratic Ghost Club set – you actually get to hear “Dawn’s Coming In” and “Randolph’s Going Home” and you really take in the shape of the set, his curated nostalgia trip and your own (perceptions vary -- the likes of “Needles and Plastic” and “Joe 90” were already old songs when I first heard them; for others, the Straitjacket Fits songs will always have been old – and so, maybe, all of the post-1996 songs, like the 14-minute Krautrock sex song and set closer “Seed”, will always be new. These nostalgia shows can get emotionally and temporally complicated).

Some recordings: Cyclobe, Wounded Galaxies Tap at the Window (CD edition). Earth, Angels of Darkness, Demons of Light 1. Radiohead, The King of Limbs. The Caretaker, An Empty Bliss Beyond This World. Six Organs of Admittance, Asleep on the Floodplain. Torlesse Super Group, s/t. White Saucer / Currer Bells – split cassette. Wooden Wand, Death Seat. The Fall, Ersatz GB (hated on first listen, liked on the second – that seems to happen a lot with the Fall). Rediscovering the 3Ds’ “Meluzina Man” (“The song I still believe to be their best” – Bruce Russell in the liner notes) through various takes on We Bury the Living: Early Recordings 1989-90. You can never have too many versions of “Meluzina Man”.


Pip Adam, Everything We Hoped For. Paul Auster, Sunset Park. Jane Bowron, Old Bucky and Me. Hamish Clayton, Wulf. Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age is in Us. Guy Debord, Panegyric. Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street and Running Dog. Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Volume One. Terry Eagleton, The Meaning of Life and Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Martin Edmond, Dark Night: Walking with McCahon. Laurence Fearnley, The Hut Builder. Peter Graham, So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder that Shocked the World. Owen Hatherley, A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain and Militant Modernism. Werner Herzog, Conquest of the Useless. Christopher Hitchens, Arguably. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker. J Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies. Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child. Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day. Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian. Greil Marcus, Bob Dylan: Writings 1968-2010. Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table. Charles Portis, True Grit. Chad Taylor, Electric. David Vann, Caribou Island and Legend of a Suicide. Ian Wedde, The Catastrophe. Tim Wilson, The Desolation Angel. Rob Young, Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music. Slavoj Zizek, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce.

November 30, 2011

When a City Falls

What kind of film would Gerard Smyth have made had the February 22, 2011, earthquake never happened? That question might come to you a few times as you watch Smyth’s feature-length (106 minutes long) Christchurch quake doco, When a City Falls. Smyth, a Christchurch cameraman and documentary-maker (he did the Alun Bollinger film, Barefoot Cinema), got started on this straight after the September 4, 2010 quake – the surprise 7.1 quake that did plenty of damage but killed no one – and the narrative of the following five months is preserved in When a City Falls. That period is now prelude, mined for poignancy in hindsight: the Catholic Bishop of Christchurch, Barry Jones, shows off the intact interior of the Basilica, so wisely quake-strengthened some years earlier; a Christchurch resident remarks that the city must be blessed, that someone is watching over us. Then the really bad one hits: no one feels blessed anymore; the Basilica is seriously damaged and must be dismantled. Other architectural treasures that were marvelled over in the previous section are equally ruined.

So Smyth might once have made a shorter, happier film, full of stories of good fortune and miraculous escapes, keep-calm-and-carry-on responses to the city’s mountains of silt and the flooded streets, Kiwi humour in adversity, and so on. And then the bad one came – which means that Smyth has already communicated the most important truth about the February quake, which is that it seemed unthinkable because we thought it had already happened. More than 100 people died in the CTV building alone; 185 people died in total. This was all exhaustively covered at the time, but Smyth’s version of the afternoon that stretched into evening, with the fires that kept burning in the CTV building, the armies of rescue workers, the silent crowds waiting in Latimer Square, is still startling, pieced together from his own urgent footage and other sources, and playing out unmediated by reporters or news readers. Did you ever see the blocks of stone come off the Anglican Cathedral, like a rockfall? That was new to me.

Covering the aftermath was always going to be harder for Smyth (or anyone). How to balance the complex tasks, the sensitivities involved in interviewing surviving family members about their losses, while also surveying the ways that the disaster affected different parts of town and documenting both the progress over weeks and months – in the post-quake timeline, demolitions are a form of progress – and the shifts in the general mood? It would require you to have several different perspectives at once, to work on several different scales at the same time.

Smyth doesn’t try to get all that in. His film is largely an individual response not a comprehensive one. Like columnist Jane Bowron – and there is some overlap with her book of columns, Old Bucky and Me – Smyth starts from his inner-east Christchurch neighbourhood and works out. His – and Bowron’s – Christchurch is one where Piko and its surrounding shops were central and Merivale and Riccarton go unmentioned. Smyth weeps off-camera at the sight of the ruined Basilica, where he had once been an altar boy, and we note that his Christchurch is more Catholic than Anglican, generally bohemian and working class, or at least egalitarian. From a Press feature on the film (by Bowron):

The Film Commission flew down a few days after February to look at Smyth's footage and quickly saw it was something that wasn't being shown on mainstream TV. From the rushes, initially the Film Commission thought it a political film because the people seemed to be working class with the middle to upper classes of Christchurch absent from the footage.

"They didn't take into account that people were looking grubby and unshaven till I said, 'That person there's the wife of the Crown prosecutor, that man employs 43 people, that guy's a doctor'. We all got levelled to the same person," Smyth says, at pains to describe the film as grassroots and very much "of the people".
Smyth is not reporting the official lines or following the official timeframe. His is an earthquake story largely free of CERA, Bob Parker and Gerry Brownlee, one that focuses instead on community responses and individual ways of coping. Beyond Smyth’s inner-east neighbourhood, the emphasis is on Avonside, Bexley, Aranui, Linwood and Lyttelton, with trips to Sumner and Kaiapoi. It is the Christchurch of Lianne Dalziel and Garry Moore, rather than Peter Beck and Christ’s College. The bigger picture, as reported in most media – events like the "share an idea" expo, or the red-zone land offers and insurance wrangles – has been deliberately overlooked in favour of smaller stories. And there is a good chance that in the years to come, personal accounts like these – Bowron’s book, too, and Fiona Farrell’s The Broken Book – may ultimately matter more than the stories composed in the clean and neutral language of most journalism.

The film is personal in both choices and style: Smyth stays off-camera but we get to know him from his quiet responses and his gentle questions. He appears to be a sensitive interviewer, and some of these stories are – no surprise – very tough indeed. There is the young woman whose father was killed by rocks above Lyttelton (she found his body). There is the widow of architect Don Cowey, who was killed in his garden. There is – and this might be the strangest and most affecting of all – the story of how elderly people comforted rest home workers.

The structure is loose, the events of September 4, December 26, February 22 and June 13 are the natural chapter breaks, and the ending was always going to be problematic (at what point will we say that the event has ended?). Not all critics have been convinced (see Peter Calder) by a trip to the US with urban designer James Lunday to see how San Francisco, New Orleans and Portland recovered – Portland from a post-manufacturing slump not a natural disaster – but these scenes seem to both summarise and extend the endless conversations that Christchurch has had about its rebuild since February. People outside need to realise that the utopian daydreaming of such conversations – will we be the green city, the safe city, the creative city, the new model city? – can often seem like a way of coping.

November 12, 2011

Parker and Hulme go to the pictures

So Brilliantly Clever, Peter Graham's book about the 1954 Parker-Hulme murder, its build-up and its aftermath, is published this week and the book is pretty much essential reading for anyone interested in this unendingly fascinating murder case. Graham got hold of a copy of Pauline Parker's diary and scattered within it were the titles of some of the films she and Juliet Hulme saw. Central Christchurch at that time was packed with cinemas, and the girls were obsessed with Hollywood in general and some male movie stars in particular, so you can imagine that there were quite a few titles. At some point I started taking down page numbers every time one turned up in the text ...

All the Brothers Were Valiant (Richard Thorpe, 1953). They saw it at the Majestic on Manchester St when it was still a cinema (in the 70s, it became a nightclub called Moby Dick's and then a church).
Beat the Devil (John Huston, 1953). Possible source of Pauline's "Gina" nickname -- Gina Lollobrigida is in it.
Dangerous Crossing (Joseph M Newman, 1953). They saw it on April 29, 1954.
The Desert Fox (Henry Hathaway, 1951) and The Desert Rats (Robert Wise, 1953). Juliet liked James Mason as dashing Nazi Erwin von Rommel.
The Great Caruso (Richard Thorpe, 1951). With Mario Lanza as Caruso.
Hans Christian Andersen (Charles Vidor, 1952).
The Highwayman (Lesley Selander, 1951). A swashbuckler that Peter Graham suspects influenced Pauline's short story, which featured "bedroom scenes ... highway robberies" and "more than one violent death a day".
Ivanhoe (Richard Thorpe, 1952). Because of actor Guy Rolfe.
Julius Caesar (Richard L Mankiewicz, 1953). With James Mason as Brutus. Mason was "almost too wonderful to be true ... I was much pleased to see how young [he] looks ... superb physique", Pauline wrote.
King of the Khyber Rifles (Henry King, 1953). Guy Rolfe and Michael Rennie were "utterly divine", thought Pauline.
Mogambo (John Ford, 1953). Apparently they hated Clark Gable but loved Ava Gardner.
Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Albert Lewin, 1951). Pauline saw it with her mother about six months before she killed her. "It is the most perfect story I have ever known," Pauline wrote afterwards, and James Mason was "far too wonderful to attempt to describe".
Prince Valiant (Henry Hathaway, 1954). With James Mason sporting a beard (they approved). Pauline thought the picture was dreadful but Mason "was wonderful". 
The Prisoner of Zenda (Richard Thorpe, 1952). Opened at the Majestic in April, 1953. Said to be the beginning of the girls' James Mason obsession and influential on their imaginative world.
A Queen is Crowned (Christopher Fry, 1953). A QEII coronation doco that was shown at school. "Rather boring as a picture," Pauline thought but she liked the pageantry.
The Robe (Henry Koster, 1953). Pauline saw it at the Savoy on the Square in January 1954; in this Biblical epic, she observed that "Caligula was exactly like the Devil".
Scaramouche (George Sidney, 1952). Because of actor Mel Ferrer. Pauline: "Absolutely superb ... thoroughly divine." It's unclear whether she means the film or Ferrer. Or both.
Secret Mission (Harold French, 1942). More James Mason.
The Spider and the Fly (Robert Hamer, 1949). More Guy Rolfe.
Trent's Last Case (Herbert Wilcox, 1954). The beginning of a short-lived obsession with Orson Welles. "He is dreadful ... but I adore him." -- Pauline.
The Wicked Lady (Leslie Arliss, 1945) More James Mason.

Inevitable caption to the above picture -- Twentieth Century Fox: James Mason as Rommel.

October 28, 2011

Foreign city

"... and even if he is home again, this New York is not his New York, not the New York of his memory. For all the distance he has travelled, he might just as well have come to a foreign city, a city anywhere else in America." -- Paul Auster, Sunset Park, 2010.

From the top: the Victoria, Devonport, Auckland (1912-  ); the Capitol, Balmoral, Auckland (1922-  ); the Majestic, Christchurch (1930-1970, then converted); the State, Christchurch (1935-1977, then converted); the Regent, Christchurch (1930-2011).

October 20, 2011

Life as a death sentence

My piece on Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go is in the new Werewolf (link). Above, the film's poster in Polish.

October 19, 2011

Waking Life was ten years ago (2001-50AD-2011)

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over 30 novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.


I have gazed at a constantly changing world and declared that underneath it lies the eternal, the unchanging, the absolutely real. But how has this come about? If the real time is circa AD 50, then why do we see AD 1978? And if we are really living in the Roman Empire, somewhere in Syria, why do we see the United States?

Philip K Dick, How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later, 1978.

Waking Life was ten years ago (2001-2002-2011)

The US reviews of Waking Life started appearing in October 2001 Jonathan Rosenbaum's in the Chicago Reader was published on October 26, 2001, and was later collected in Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (2004). In both cases, it was headlined "Good vibrations". I don't know when my review ran in the Listener, although it's likely to have been sometime in 2002 -- the Listener's online archives don't go back that far and I've never kept scrapbooks. Nor do I know what it was headlined. But when Waking Life turned up on Sky TV I re-ran a chunk of the original review on the TV films pages:
How do you like your dream logic? Among other far-out events in Richard Linklater’s superb animated feature Waking Life, a chimpanzee projects a movie that appears to be footage of righteous punk rock action. “Doubt became our narrative,” the chimp says. It was all about, the chimp adds before eating the script, “the quest for true communication”. Later, we meet the lonesome cartoon ghost of Situationist philosopher Guy Debord. Besides absurdism, then, Waking Life has the heartfelt utopianism and nostalgia that has run through Linklater’s best work: “No matter how degraded the world seemed, we knew that anything was possible.”

It may seem that this is a film unlike any other, which is certainly true, even if it also flows naturally from Linklater’s stunning early-mid 90s trilogy Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. It’s inhabited by the same thoughts and the same people. A passive narrator moves through a series of random encounters in Linklater’s college town of Austin, Texas, which was mapped in a similar way in Slacker. That actor is Wiley Wiggins, who appeared in Dazed and Confused. Before Sunrise’s romantic team of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke are seen talking about reincarnation, the collective unconscious and a theory that the brain dreams an entire life in the six to 12 minutes between the body dying and the brain dying. Waking Life takes place within that kind of time.

Loosely structured, with themes that emerge clearly only on repeated viewings, the film follows Wiggins as he dreams, wakes from dreams into other dreams and listens to professors, ranters and theorists talk about life, God, free will, films and, of course, dreams. Besides the pop philosophy and pop science, there is also a thread of anti-capitalist rhetoric that feels both sad and urgent. And it’s funnier than it sounds, partly because the animation (from original video that Linklater shot with actors) allows for a shaky, woozy acid-trip quality, but also because Linklater sometimes sends up his own meaningfulness. In one scene, four anarchists walk down a street reciting slogans. They happen upon an old man stuck up a lamp post. Why is there? He can’t say. The anarchists look doleful. “He’s all action and no theory,” one says. “But we’re all theory and no action.”
When I was thinking yesterday about Waking Life ten years on, I was wondering about whether the film's attitudes to activism and action as vital but somehow thwarted or subdued in that era -- somehow anticipated the moment we are now in. Also, amazed and pleased that the Listener's TV pages could ever have talked about the lonesome ghost of Guy Debord ...

October 18, 2011

Waking Life was ten years ago (October 2001-October 2011)

"Our critique began as all critiques begin: with doubt. Doubt became our narrative. Ours was a quest for a new story, our own. And we grasped toward this new history driven by the suspicion that ordinary language couldn't tell it. Our past appeared frozen in the distance, and our every gesture and accent signified the negation of the old world and the reach for a new one. The way we lived created a new situation, one of exuberance and friendship, that of a subversive microsociety, in the heart of a society which ignored it. Art was not the goal but the occasion and the method for locating our specific rhythm and buried possibilities of our time. The discovery of a true communication was what it was about, or at least the quest for such a communication. The adventure of finding it and losing it. We the unappeased, the unaccepting continued looking, filling in the silences with our own wishes, fears and fantasies. Driven forward by the fact that no matter how empty the world seemed, no matter how degraded and used up the world appeared to us, we knew that anything was still possible. And, given the right circumstances, a new world was just as likely as an old one."

October 15, 2011

Expelled from the academies for crazy (Howl/A Man Within)

Illuminated tenement roofs

Novels become films every day, but poems -- how many poems have become films? There have been some biographical films about poets – TS Eliot (Tom and Viv), Verlaine and Rimbaud (Total Eclipse), Keats (Bright Star), Sylvia Plath (Sylvia), Jim Carroll (The Basketball Diaries), Dylan Thomas (The Edge of Love), Miguel Pinero (Pinero), Stevie Smith (Stevie), Pablo Neruda (Il Postino), William Blake, very loosely (Dead Man) – but poems? A film is coming of Paradise Lost (with, reportedly, Crow auteur Alex Proyas directing Hangover star Bradley Cooper as Satan). Films have been based on The Raven and Beowulf – and The Iliad. But Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film Howl must be unique in the way it which it simultaneously illustrates a poem, sets out the context of the poem’s creation and also outlines its reception – unique partly because few poems have had the kind of reception that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl did.

Epstein and Freidman’s backgrounds are in documentary. Epstein made The Times of Harvey Milk (1984) and the pair made Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), The Celluloid Closet (1995) and Paragraph 175 (2000). These were stories of gay history and, in the case of Harvey Milk, a gay hero. The Howl project began in the same way: in 2002, the Allen Ginsberg estate approached the pair about making a documentary to mark 50 years of Howl. Ginsberg’s poem was written and first performed in 1955. Howl and Other Poems was published by City Lights Books in 1956. The book was put on trial – or, more precisely, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was put on trial –for obscenity in San Francisco in 1957.

The resulting film – which missed all three possible anniversaries – evolved from a routine documentary idea into something else. The 1955 debut reading of the poem – in the Six Gallery, San Francisco – was reconstructed, with James Franco as Ginsberg reading his new text aloud and actors playing Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Peter Orlovsky et al hoisting their flagons aloft at key moments. A Life magazine interview was restaged, with Franco delivering the now bearded Ginsberg’s words – autobiographical background, the poem’s genesis – at the camera or some unknown journalist in New York in 1957, while over in San Francisco, a judge, lawyers and expert witnesses discuss the literary merits and/or obscenity of Howl within a deliberately dry and borderline absurd courtroom drama (the straight-faced, white-bread prosecutor: “What are angelheaded hipsters?”). Then, a fourth strand, which may be the most controversial, arguably even superfluous: the poem is illustrated via animation by Eric Drooker, who worked with Ginsberg on a book called Illuminated Poems. In the animated Howl, you see plenty of angels, hipsters, jazz, sex, the skyscrapers standing in the long streets (“Moloch!”), the highway across America, the western night …

James Franco came to the project via Gus Van Sant, who was onboard as executive producer. Van Sant had cast Franco in Milk, which partly drew on Epstein’s Harvey Milk doco. With Franco attached, the thing was becoming bankable. Franco set about teaching himself to reproduce Ginsberg’s fast, slightly anxious speech patterns and his physical mannerisms in both the nervous first reading and the more relaxed interview setting – and he does a pretty good job.

So, it can feel a little like an interactive educational resource – here’s some text, now some context, now some history, all fact-checked and as close as possible to how the actual moments looked – but another comparison might be a British TV drama called The Chatterley Affair (2006), which dramatised the 1960 obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and – how to put this delicately? – explored the book’s themes within a (fictional) relationship between two jurors. There is an earnestness to Howl, too – not a bad thing – in claiming the victory of the book over the censors and squares as historically important because the poetry itself, as the film tells us, was the result of Ginsberg overcoming his internal and external obstacles and censors (“The beginning of the fear for me is, what would my father think of something I would write?”). He resisted the asylum and enforced heterosexuality and the soul-deadening world of work. Now he’s another cultural hero – one whose story panned out more happily than that of Harvey Milk.

The film is relatively short at 1 hour, 20 minutes. Ginsberg singing “Father Death Blues” in his old age appears on both the DVD menu and over the closing credits. The first scene is that San Francisco venue on October 7, 1955. Imagine being in the crowd that heard this for the first time: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …” When Ginsberg gets to the angelheaded hipsters contemplating jazz, Epstein and Friedman cut – a little obvious, this – to some jazz, and then the opening credits and some scene-setting: “In 1955, an unpublished 29-year-old poet presented his vision of the world as a poem in four parts.”

Things get more complex. As well as the four strands, there are flashbacks within the restaged interview: Ginsberg writing, Ginsberg in trouble with the law and being sent to the madhouse, where he meets Carl Solomon (“He was thinking about the void also”). The solemn David Straithairn as the prosecutor is light relief – “All these books are published in heaven. I don’t quite understand that but anyway … ” – while Mad Men’s Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is counsel for the defence, perhaps just for added period resonance when we get to that bit in the story when Ginsberg put on a suit and went to work in an advertising agency. In the animation, there are crowds of workers in formation on Madison Avenue, like Eliot’s “I had not thought death had undone so many …” while Moloch – modelled on the same in Metropolis – chews them up and spits them out.

In the courtroom scenes, there are expert witnesses for and experts against. Luther Nicholls (Alessandro Nivola), literary critic at the San Francisco Examiner is for: “I think it is a howl of pain.” Another expert, played loftily by Jeff Daniels, argues that Howl fails on form, as a weak imitation of the form of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Yes, such matters really were discussed in court. You could almost screen this to your high school English class except that the lines about being “fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and scream[ing] with joy” have not only stayed in but lead to Franco as Ginsberg telling us why it was important that he said joy and not pain.
You know what happened next: the book got off. Along the way, Howl becomes an unconventional Ginsberg biopic – which is a vast improvement over the conventional biopic. In its reworking or resetting of the text to say something bigger about the author, it actually resembles David Cronenberg’s imaginative, clammy Naked Lunch – although that was a relative downer where this is about, in the end, joy. Or at least self-acceptance. Once, he was in love with Jack Kerouac, as the gay man in love with the straight man – Kerouac helped him to break out of his body and confess “the secret tenderness of his soul”. That’s life experience as the shaping of the writer. By the time he has written and performed Howl, he has met Peter Orlovsky, and the film tells us they were together until the end. Along the way, the figure of Carl Solomon is made central again too (“I’m with you in Rockland”). Most forget that the poem’s full title is Howl for Carl Solomon. Of all the whatever-happened-to freeze frames at the end of Howl, the one telling us that Solomon lived to 64 might be among the happiest. But I was always fond of the bit about the guy “who jumped off Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer” – that was Tuli Kupferberg, later with the Fugs, and he only died last year, aged 86.

Last words, anyworld

In Slate this month, Bill Wyman – the critic not the Rolling Stone – coined the word “schlockumentary”, specifically to have a long-winded go at Martin Scorsese’s new George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World (plus, glacingly, Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam film PJ20): “They aren't real documentaries: There's never anything in them that any of the interested parties (stars, director, the producers, the studio) don't want in them — and in the end, they're being used to sell product.”

It’s that air of being authorised and approved, of accentuating the positive, of presenting the official version, of acting as the publicity arm of the artist and his or her estate. The Howl film mostly avoids this by becoming a different kind of movie, even though there is nothing in it that might potentially embarrass Ginsberg fans – like, say, his later association with Nambla.

Such schlockumentaries tend to take artists at their word and present a redemptive view of the relationship between art and life (making the likes of Walk the Line a dramatic cshlockumentary, and the proposed Elton John one possibly the same). The new William Burroughs doco A Man Within has aspects of this. It began as a project by art student Yony Leyser, but once Burroughs’ former secretary and literary executor, James Grauerholz, got wind of it, it became closer to an official project. Leyser got access to unseen home movies and celebrity friends and followers who were happy to say a few words about Burroughs and what he meant to them – Patti Smith, John Waters, Laurie Anderson, John Giorno, Iggy Pop, Victor Bockris, Genesis P-Orridge, Gus Van Sant, Peter Weller. Some of these voices do complicate the picture – P-Orridge saw Burroughs as inspirational but also registered the deep sadness and loneliness in him. But Waters retails the usual story that the 1950s were horribly conformist until the likes of Burroughs – and Ginsberg, and the rest – blew everything wide open (or was that the plot of Hairspray?). That’s to reduce Burroughs to just a player in social history. His personality and his writing – sarcastic, pessimistic, anarchic, occult, even extraterrestrial – was that much weirder and further out than the other anti-suburban, anti-conformist Beats. When Victor Bockris says that Burroughs “stood up for what he believed in”, it makes him sound like a politician. Burroughs doesn’t exactly fit the standard biopic model.

Punk rock pioneer? They try to pin that one on Burroughs too. But it doesn’t really stick. Iggy Pop: “I think he thought rock’n’roll was bullshit. Which it mostly is. But so are most novels.” Speaking of rock’n’roll bullshit, Sting is in one still photo and U2’s The Edge is in footage but Bono is absent (one of the most reliable schlockumentary tests is whether Bono makes an appearance talking about how much whoever-it-is meant to him).

Maybe Leyser is just focusing on the wrong Burroughs. I never liked the gun-love stuff – it has the air of Hunter S Thompson survivalism about it. I didn’t rate the painting – and if you look at the DVD extras, you get Wayne Propst deflating the art era in a sequence not included in the main film. Another extra gives you a 50th anniversary of Naked Lunch party in Chicago. It’s a little cringeworthy. Peter Weller reads and performs part of the novel; Bill Ayers – formerly of the Weather Underground and friend of Barack Obama – says that Naked Lunch “invites us to wake up, pay attention and do something”.

John Waters sees Burroughs lasting as a saint for outcasts and rebels – but there is no equivalent literary assessment. Mostly, A Man Within treats the writing as just an artefact of the more famous life. At least Howl gives us the text. A Man Within is one for the completists, but there are better places to start.

It has been reported that Grauerholz was keen on A Man Within partly because he felt he was unfairly treated in an earlier doco, Howard Brookner’s Burroughs (1983), in which it appeared he was competing with the author’s troubled and doomed son, Billy Burroughs, for the affections of the old man (watching the footage, I thought more of Mr Burns and Smithers).

You can find the Brookner doco on You Tube, split into eight parts. If you watch it via Dangerous Minds, you get it with the intro that the BBC put on in 1997 after Burroughs died – “a revolutionary both in his life and in his writing”. Ah, yes, the writing: Burroughs reading from the then-new The Place of Dead Roads and exploring the streets of St Louis, where he grew up, showing how the nostalgia and fantasy of the amazing late trilogy – Cities of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, The Western Lands – connected with his memories. Of course, you get Burroughs alive and surprisingly open in interviews. You get his brother, Mortimer (not a big fan of Naked Lunch, it turns out). You get the close and comic relationship with Allen Ginsberg. You get versions of Patti Smith and John Giorno, 25 years younger than in A Man Within. You get the sad son Billy Burroughs and even some Brion Gysin. You get Grauerholz as an example of influence in that John Waters sense – a 14-year-old kid whose life was changed by William Burroughs. The writing and the life are well-integrated, and Burroughs features the A-team of those who knew him not the B-team.

Curse go back

For me, the most fascinating part of the Burroughs mythos was the early 60s era, working with Brion Gysin and Antony Balch on the dream machines, cut-ups and experimental films. Things like Towers Open Fire from 1963. The cut-up and looped film, the grey 60s London streets, the notion of their curses affecting the world, their anarchism – sonic warfare, hieroglyphs, dream machines – presented as though it was serious and secret research into unknown or magickal forces. This was the condensed vision, expanded in the disorientating, 18-minute-long The Cut Ups and the even longer Ghost at No 9, which have the same sense of Gysin and Burroughs engaged in something secretive and revolutionary (“guerrilla conditions”, terror plans, espionage language and phone booths). The colour Bill and Tony, from the early 1970s, is weirder and creepier, its identity switches and repeated phrases running like an excerpt from a cult indoctrination video, working on breaking down the subject’s defences. It gives you a strong sense of what he was up to in his fiction.

That was seen by few at the time, but more now than it’s all moved out of the underground video-swapping era and gone online (this ubu web page has a full selection; this piece at Bright Lights is a good overview of the experimental films). But in terms of the mainstream, I still remember the shock of sitting in a Washington DC movie theatre in about 1990 and seeing William S Burroughs turn up here (Drugstore Cowboy) …

Multiplying Ginsbergs

Howl might be the closest thing so far to an Allen Ginsberg biopic but Ginsberg has been a character in other people’s stories. David Cross plays him – bearded, beatific – in Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan film I’m Not There. Tim Hickey played him, same era, in the Edie Sedgwick biopic Factory Girl (where Hayden Christensen was – unbelievably – a version of Bob Dylan). In films about political action in late 60s Chicago, he has been played by Hank Azaria and others, and in a recent movie about Neal Cassady – “secret hero” of Howl (poem and film) – by Yehuda Duenyas. There was also an appearance as Martin (played by Michael Zelniker) in Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, where Kerouac was called Hank and the pair were just a couple of New York goofballs before Peter Weller’s Bill Lee headed into Interzone – actually, that movie had me wondering about a Paul and Jane Bowles biopic; in Naked Lunch, they were Tom and Joan Frost, played memorably by Ian Holm and Judy Davis.

There will be new versions of most of these guys next year when Walter Salles’ film of On the Road appears. If Naked Lunch, Howl and On the Road were the three Beat texts, who would have predicted that the least accessible – Naked Lunch – would be a movie first and the most accessible and best-known, On the Road, would go last? For whatever reason, there have been delays – Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights back in 1979, although as far back as 1957, Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando, suggesting that the pair star in their own version, “with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak”. Brando never answered.

Where Cronenberg’s hallucinatory and heavily metaphorical treatment of Naked Lunch was less about fidelity than interpretation, and only partly for artistic reasons (Cronenberg famously said that if he had filmed the book faithfully, it would have cost $400-$500 million and been banned everywhere), Salles seems to be about fidelity – remember, he made the not dissimilar Motorcycle Diaries, where it was the journey of discovery, self-awareness, politicisation. Also, it appears that the pseudonyms are staying, so to your movie Kerouacs you can add Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, to your movie Ginsbergs you can add Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx, and to your movie Burroughs you can soon add Viggo Mortensen – now there’s good casting -- as Old Bull Lee.

By the way, I’m pretty sure it’s this version of “Father Death Blues”.

October 14, 2011

Earthquake humour

A stencil in Sumner, yesterday afternoon. I was out there -- and doesn't the drive from anywhere else in Christchurch seem longer than ever? -- to see The Orator (more on that later). This was on a nearby wall, facing an empty lot. Just out of shot: a National Party billboard, "Building a brighter future".

October 6, 2011

Unexplained disappearances

This first account is an excellent case in point because it defies any rational explanation for one simple reason: it occurred in full view of witnesses. The year was 1815 and the location a Prussian prison at Weichselmunde. The prisoner's name was Diderici, a valet who was serving a sentence for assuming his employer's identity after he died from a stroke. It was an ordinary afternoon and Diderici was just one in a line of prisoners, all chained together, walking in the prison yard for the day's exercise.
As Diderici walked with his prison inmates to the clanking of their shackles, he slowly began to fade - literally. His body became more and more transparent until Diderici disappeared altogether, and his manacles and leg irons fell empty to the ground. He disappeared into thin air and was never seen again. -- from Among the Missing: An Anecdotal History of Missing Persons from 1800 to the Present, by Jay Robert Nash.

We discovered (very late at night such a discovery is inevitable) that there is something monstrous about mirrors. That was when Bioy remembered a saying by one of the heresiachs of Uqbar: Mirrors and copulation are abominable, for they multiply the number of mankind. -- from "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Jorge Luis Borges.

[Brion Gysin] next decided to experiment with mirror-gazing. He had in his room two high armoires with heavy plate-glass mirrors on the doors. He told Burroughs that he would gaze for 24 hours if he had help in being handed food and No-Doz pills and cigarettes and joints. The idea was that you could see your former incarnations and be in better touch with yourself. You had to keep staring without closing your eyes, paying no attention to the tears streaming down your cheeks.
Brion at first saw 19th century scientists in their laboratories. Obviously something momentous was happening in their experiments. Then the scene shifted, and he saw much more ancient figures, like a horde coming off the Asian steppes, great chieftains wearing amazing headdresses, with deeply scarred and tattooed faces, fierce warriors, hundreds of them, perhaps from Siberia. Finally they disappeared completely, and Brion found himself looking into a space that was at the same time limiting and limitless -- was it an enormous room, or was it a landscape? There was a layer of blue-gray cloud about waist-high, breathing, moving, pulsing, and that was the end -- it was like looking at the void. -- from Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs, by Ted Morgan.

All but die-hard fans had checked out by this point – a pity, because David Lynch’s Twin Peaks prequel contained some moments of blood-curdling horror and ineffable strangeness that marked it as a much darker, spookier enterprise than the often whimsical TV series. The strangest bit of all is the largely irrelevant prologue: FBI agents invisible to the closed-circuit cameras, Lynch’s odd cameo, David Bowie’s slightly less odd cameo, the suddenly ominous words “Let’s Rock” across the windscreen of an abandoned car … -- from my capsule review of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, sometime in the late 1990s.

Characters are introduced and disappear for no special reason, not even mystical. It seems more likely that actors of the caliber of Kiefer Sutherland and David Bowie could spend only a limited amount of time on the picture, and that Mr Lynch accommodated them and himself by introducing into the script intimations of the occult. He can't get off the hook that easily. -- from Vincent Canby's review of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, New York Times, August 29, 1992.

Most disappearances do not have witnesses, yet there is sometimes circumstantial evidence that is no less puzzling. This is the case for the vanishing of Charles Ashmore. It was a cold November winter night in 1878 when 16 year old Charles went out into the dark with a bucket to fetch water from the well for his family on their Quincy, Illinois property. He did not return.
After many minutes, his father and sister became concerned. They feared that Charles perhaps had slipped in the snow that blanketed the ground and was injured, or worse, had fallen into the well. They set out to look for him, but he was just gone. There was no sign of a struggle or fall ... only the clear tracks of Charles' footprints in the fresh snow that led halfway to the well, then abruptly stopped. Charles Ashmore had suddenly disappeared into the void. -- from Into Thin Air, by Paul Begg.

October 3, 2011

This should have happened

When Bunuel and I were working on The Milky Way -- which explores the heresies of the Christian religion -- I dreamed up a scene we both loved, but that would have been too expensive to shoot and so doesn't feature in the film. A flying saucer lands with great fanfare. The cover or cockpit opens and an antennaed green creature emerges, brandishing a cross upon which another antennaed green creature is nailed.

-- Jean-Claude Carriere, 2009. From Jean-Claude Carriere and Umberto Eco, This is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, translated from the French by Polly McLean. Harvill Secker, 2011.

October 2, 2011


One is from the Eternal Gardens and the other is from the lower depths. The future city is lit like an ocean liner and then the lights go out. " ... the inter-titles tell us that the mob rushes toward the Moloch Machine, the powerhouse of Metropolis, leading to flooding, crashing, and great flashes of light ... " In the flooding, water seeps upwards and children are rescued in the panic. Moral: the mediator between the head and the hands/the heart must go on.

October 1, 2011

He won't be coming back, and he knows it

For 25 or 30 years, my generation thought Italian cinema was the best in the world ... And what from those 30 years of laughter and excitement has stood the test of time? I still find Fellini enchanting. It seems that Antonioni still has a great reputation. Have you seen his final short, Michelangelo Eye-to-Eye? It's one of the most beautiful films in the world. Antonioni shot it in 2000. Not a single word is spoken for the whole 15 minutes. Antonioni directed himself, which he'd never done before. We see him enter Rome's Church of St-Peter-in-Chains, alone. He slowly approaches the tomb of Pope Julius II. The whole film is a wordless dialogue, an exchange of glances between Antonioni and Michelangelo's Moses. Everything we have been talking about, our era's obsession with appearances and words, its senseless agitation, is put into question by the fact of this silence, by the film-maker's gaze. He has come to say goodbye. He won't be coming back, and he knows it. The departing man has come to pay a final visit to the impenetrable masterpiece that will remain. As if trying one last time to understand. As if trying to solve a mystery that is beyond words. Antonioni's final glance at Moses is moving in the extreme.

-- Jean-Claude Carriere, 2009. From Jean-Claude Carriere and Umberto Eco, This is Not the End of the Book: A Conversation Curated by Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, translated from the French by Polly McLean. Harvill Secker, 2011.

September 30, 2011

Viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything

Recently I sat in on a master class given by the filmmaker Luc Dardenne. He spoke of how viewers of his films should not assume they understood everything about the characters. As members of an audience we should never feel ourselves wiser than they; we do not have more knowledge than the characters have about themselves. We should not feel assured or certain about their motives, or look down on them. I believe this. I recognise this as a first principle of art, although I have the suspicion that many would not.

-- Michael, the narrator, in The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje. Jonathan Cape, 2011.

September 28, 2011

The shock of that moment

David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone (1983) is better than I remember -- or better than its reputation (I first saw it maybe 20 years ago, on US television or video -- somewhere sub-obtimal). In the Cronenberg take, it's forever winter, there are unexpected similarities to A History of Violence two decades later (a threatened small town/rural setting, a gentle everyman protagonist driven to violence), the psychic aspect is taken as real from the moment it appears, there are two Cronenbergian suicides (a gun, a pair of scissors) following similar in Videodrome, an unexpected relationship with Christianity and a related discussion about assassination ethics (if you could go back in time and kill Hitler ...) and of course a charismatic, young and mostly pre-weird Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith, who senses murder. For Robin Wood, in Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan in 1986, only here and in The Deer Hunter could Walken fully display "those properly human qualities which our culture chooses to label feminine: sensitivity, vulnerability, the overt display of emotions, gentleness, grace, a physical beauty divorced from any macho traits". The shock of that moment when he cries behind the door; the equally great shock -- a scene so rare in a Hollywood movie -- when he turns down the opportunity to have sex with his girlfriend. This sexual denial leads to his accident; his accident saves the world.

"Sexuality doesn't surface in The Dead Zone in the same way as it does in my other films, but it's certainly there. It's a very repressed, restrained and frustrated thing. Personally the movie's just like me, but filmically I suppose not ...

"The folks in The Dead Zone tend to be God-fearing characters, whereas in my other films they are not. Because many of the scientists in my early films are absent from the films themselves, although their influence remains, I think you could make a good case for saying that in The Dead Zone, God is the scientist whose experiments are not always working and that the Johnny Smith character is one of his failed experiments." -- David Cronenberg in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, edited by Chris Rodley, Faber, 1992.

September 23, 2011

Ruins of a Masonic Temple (1923-2011)


Back in March, I wrote about the post-quake state of the Crown Masonic Centre in Sydenham (link). This is what remains of it this morning.