May 30, 2012

First impressions

In Rome, that freezing snowbound winter of 1947 with no fuel to keep us warm, my parents took me to see my first film. I was unable to disentangle the screen from reality, without distance, I cowered in my seat. As the house in Kansas was blown through the sky I bolted down the aisle and was brought back by an usherette drying my tears. For the rest of the film I sat in terror on my seat, staring wide-eyed as Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man helped Dorothy brave the torments of the Wicked Witch on the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City ...

My second experience of the cinema was even more frightening -- Walt Disney's Bambi, in which nature is consumed by a raging forest fire.

Derek Jarman, from Chroma: A Book of Colour -- June '93 (1994).

May 24, 2012

Machine songs

I’m not the biggest Shihad fan but I can recognise that "Home Again" is a great song. Partly for its very New Zealand sentiments: the expression of homesickness, the lure of overseas and the tension of coming back, the awareness of sheer distance, of different time zones and seasons (put your clock back for the winter). In a way, these are the recurring sentiments of the surprisingly excellent Shihad documentary Beautiful Machine, which tracks their 23 years, from starting as a teenage heavy metal band in Wellington to their slightly uncertain position now: living in different cities, less ambitious, wiser but not yet cynical. New Zealand OE stories should always be stories of innocence and experience, as this is: the temptations of heroin in Berlin (Shihad tried it and didn’t like it; their manager, Gerald Dwyer, and the band Head Like a Hole, tried it and really liked it) and the temptations of commercial compromise in the bigger and more ruthless US industry (singer Jon Toogood was more tempted than the others).

About ten years ago, I watched the Flying Nun documentary series Heavenly Pop Hits and thought that New Zealand rock history was continually presenting itself as a series of failures for which someone else was to blame (radio wouldn’t play us, the label wouldn’t back us, someone left the bass guitar track off the mix …). In that sense, the current bFM series Extended Play is doing a better job than most retrospectives by going deeply into the moment of creation and not dealing too much with the usually disappointing aftermath. But the Shihad story is rare in that this is a New Zealand rock band whose story is not a failure – not yet, anyway. The band is still together and making a living and if they never conquered America and Europe, they weren’t destroyed by the effort either. So the film shows us the usual series of music industry trials, and some unusual ones – the death by overdose of their manager, the poor (in hindsight) decision to change their name from Shihad to Pacifier after September 11, the ill-fated joke in the Viper Room – through which the band have emerged with a kind of maturity and even insight.
The emphasis on family and home is a very New Zealand feature (we meet all of the living Shihad parents, plus partners and children). So is a lack of ruthlessness, which was ultimately a drawback, at least in international “career” terms. Prior to the film’s opening last week, there was coverage of its directorial problems – it was starting to sound like yet another rock business cliché, as though the Shihad doco was set to become an Alan Smithee film – but you wouldn’t pick up any of those issues in the final product. The interviews are candid and emotional, and the editing, by Cushla Dillon, is remarkable, considering how much material there must have been to work through – including some video footage of the band in late 80s and early 90s Wellington, and footage of the late Gerald Dwyer. It’s touching to see how much of Dwyer is in the story and how he is remembered (by contrast, I’m sure there was more to the Jaz Coleman episode than the film tells us) and, for me at least, it evoked that time and place, a moment when it was considered acceptable or even fashionable by long-distance NME readers and student radio tastemakers to listen to Slayer, Anthrax and Megadeth (we’d only admit to Slayer now), the only possible moment that a teenage metal band could have emerged from the suburbs and had broader credibility. When Jon Toogood talks about a “droog” with a stab wound at an early Shihad gig, he’s referring to a tribe of vicious Wellington skinheads who mostly ended up dead, in prison or both. You try to tell the kids these days – that’s what gigs were like back then. 

May 23, 2012

May 22, 2012

May 21, 2012

May 20, 2012

Cigarette, Paris

It is also important to understand that for Godard, good Bazinian that he was, a reduced crew increased the possibility of capturing reality on the run.
Colin MacCabe, from Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at 70 (2003).

May 17, 2012

Under your spell / under the influence

Three landmark experimental films are routinely cited as influential on David Lynch: Un Chien Andalou, Scorpio Rising and Meshes of the Afternoon. The last is perhaps the least well-known of the three. But its dream-like approach, its doubling of identities, its Los Angeles setting, have been important. From a recent piece on Meshes of the Afternoon director Maya Deren:
Down the years, this approach has continued to interest the likes of David Lynch – especially in Lost Highway, which made a meal out of characters in different forms, presented in time-hopping twists, identity swaps and reversals. To a lesser extent, Mulholland Drive toyed with the same devices ... The dots between Deren and Lynch have been connected in this 2002 essay:
Her influence extends to contemporary filmmakers like David Lynch, whose film Lost Highway (1997) pays homage to Meshes of the Afternoon in his experimentation with narration. Lynch adopts a similar spiraling narrative pattern, sets his film within an analogous location and establishes a mood of dread and paranoia, the result of constant surveillance. Both films focus on the nightmare as it is expressed in the elusive doubling of characters and in the incorporation of the “psychogenic fugue”, the evacuation and replacement of identities, something that was also central to the voodoo ritual.
Gordon Campbell, "Webs of Maya", Werewolf 29.

Marina Warner also nailed this voodoo aspect of Lost Highway in a 1997 Sight and Sound essay:

Lynch and [Barry] Gifford play here with a model of personality that far more closely resembles the beliefs of spirit religions as practised in Haiti, or elsewhere, among the Buissi people of the Southern Congo (as recorded this decade by the anthropologist Anita Jacobson Widding). In such schema of identity, the dream self can wander and perform independent acts or become possessed by the spirit and identity of a local stranger over whom the self has no authority. In Voodoo, as is well known, an animal spirit takes possession of the priestess or medium, and invites participants to "ride" her, to Tell My Horse, as Zora Neale Hurston entitled her pioneering work of ethnography from the 30s; the spirit can also evacuate personhood from a person, creating the walking shadow or "zombie" so loved by the horror movie tradition. The Buissi, on the other hand, express a more tranquil acceptance of the plurality of the self. "In the personal discourse," writes Mary Douglas, "metaphors for the person refer to body liquids and shadows. They evoke elusiveness, uncertainty, fluidity, ephemerality, ambiguity." The Salem witch trials reveal how profoundly at risk Christians can feel when they think those shadows are closing in and that they are losing their grip on their sense of self.
Possession was used much more obviously, or traditionally, in Twin Peaks (the ugly spirit). But maybe the Maya Deren influence is in other places too. Watching Blue Velvet again recently I was surprised to see how strongly the temporal lag between the 50s and the 80s – a crucial aspect of Twin Peaks – was here too, in that it was the present day outside Dorothy’s apartment and perhaps the 1940s or 50s inside her apartment (the furniture, the décor). Is her apartment really Maya Deren’s house in Meshes of the Afternoon? And then you wonder about Isabella Rossellini’s wig, and the knife. The keys in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive. Recorded music as possession or impersonation in both films.  

May 11, 2012

Derek Jarman and New Zealand

I already knew that Derek Jarman’s father was a New Zealander but until I read Dancing Ledge – Jarman’s mix of memoir and diary, written in 1984 – I didn’t know how deep the connections went. In fact, not just New Zealand but Christchurch (this blog’s current setting). This is from Jarman’s “A Short Family Mythology”, in Dancing Ledge:
Both my mother and my father, Lance, had an artistic bent. Dad’s father, Hedley, was the first violin and a founder member of the first symphony orchestra in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Jarman biographer Tony Peake provides a fuller account of those origins here.
With only two exceptions, the eight children of Elias’s and Mary’s third son, John, forsook Devon for New Zealand. The last to leave was the eldest, also John, who set sail in 1888 and eventually acquired a smallholding in Riccarton, now a suburb of Christchurch.
It was in this most English of colonial cities that the second of John’s four sons, Hedley Elworthy, met and married Mary Elizabeth Chattaway Clarke, a carpenter’s daughter. Hedley worked for the Tramway Board, first as a clerk, finally as general manager. In his spare time he played the violin in the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, sang in the church choir, acted as churchwarden. He was a Rotarian and Grand Master of the Riccarton Masonic Lodge, deviating from this civic-mindedness only to indulge his passion for dancing the waltz.
The second of Hedley and Lizzie's five children was a son, Lancelot Elworthy, born on 17 August 1907. Obliged from a relatively early age to make his own way in the world, Lance left school at fifteen to become an engineering apprentice with the Christchurch Tramway Board. Meanwhile he attempted to improve his prospects by embarking on a part-time course in mechanical and electrical engineering. In October 1928, underwritten by money scraped together by his family, he sailed for England aboard the SS Ionic to pursue his engineering career in the Royal Air Force.

Regular letters home provide a vivid picture of Lance’s first ten years away from the certainties of New Zealand. Of his first encounter with an official at the Air Ministry, he wrote: ‘They do not like New Zealanders being trained unless they are going to live permanently in England.’ Although he was almost immediately granted a temporary commission as a pilot officer in the RAF, at his second training school, where he acquitted himself admirably, the comment was: ‘A very conscientious and hard worker Colonial who has brains and power of application.’
Thanks to the miracle of Papers Past – the National Library’s newspaper digitising site – the trivia of New Zealand daily life is archived forever. These early Jarmans make brief appearances. A quick search for Hedley Jarman throws up a couple of references.

On December 20, 1890, the Christchurch Star reports that Hedley Jarman is awarded a proficiency prize at Ferry Road School (he was in Standard V). He gets another prize the following year – as do a Stanley Jarman and a Stewart Jarman.

More than 30 years later, the same Hedley Jarman makes one more appearance. The Ellesmere Guardian – another defunct newspaper – reports on February 8, 1922, that “Mr V. Hedley Jarman, accountant to the Christchurch Tramway Board, and brother of Mr F. S. Jarman, secretary to the local Electric Power Board, was in Leeston on Monday. He is enjoying a fortnight’s holiday.” It’s hard to know why that was news.

As for Lance Jarman – future RAF pilot and future father of the artist and film-maker – he makes just one newspaper appearance, again as a child receiving a prize. The Press on December 29, 1914, has him winning a first-class good attendance certificate at Wharenui School in Riccarton, where he was in Standard 1. At the same school, there is a Ronald Jarman, one year ahead (the school’s most famous ex-pupil is still Rewi Alley, who was there just a few years earlier).

As Tony Peake says, a key part of the Derek Jarman story was that New Zealander Lance Jarman had a tense relationship with the notion of Englishness, and its condescending attitude to colonials. Jarman touches on this in Dancing Ledge, when he writes about his education at Canford School:

That summer holiday my father told me I could leave the school if I wished. I realised that this was a considerable concession on his part as he took immense pride in the fact he was seeing me through a public school. But his attitude was strangely mixed; as a New Zealander who had worked his passage to England he could at times scarcely conceal his dislike for a system in which he was an outsider, and his correspondence with my housemaster was to say the least edgy. But I had already made my decision … and declared I would soldier on.
How much of the attitude of Jarman’s 1987 classic The Last of England – an attitude both oppositional and (in a good sense) conservative – started to take shape at those moments, and through the writing of the book more generally? The Last of England, of course, was named for a Ford Madox Brown painting of emigrants leaving for Australia in the mid-19th century, a few decades before the Jarmans left for New Zealand:


Dancing Ledge was written as Jarman waited and waited to get Caravaggio going. Behind him were three features – Sebastiane, Jubilee, The Tempest – and a series of more experimental, occult-flavoured Super 8 shorts (occasionally revived). The political and cultural climate of the UK was also influencing the thoughts – sad, angry, nostalgic – that were expressed so powerfully in The Last of England. In the 1980s British “heritage” cinema was gearing up – “… from the visually ugly vacuity of Brideshead [Revisited], to Chariots of Fire, a damp British Triumph of the Will,” Jarman writes – and the preceding decade’s British mavericks (excessive, personal, surreal, more European) Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg began to struggle.

Jarman collaborated with Ken Russell as a set designer on The Devils and Savage Messiah (“There was no better director to learn from, as he would always take the adventurous path even at the expense of coherence”), but turned down work on Tommy. In 1975, Jarman chatted with John Gielgud about a version of The Tempest that doesn’t resemble the film he made a few years later, but is closer to the eventual Gielgud/Greenaway version, Prospero’s Books:

[Gielgud] said if he did it he would film it in Bali. I’ve made a script of it. Prospero’s a schizophrenic locked into a madhouse – Bedlam. He plays all the parts – Miranda, Ariel and Caliban; the King of Naples, the Duke of Milan and the rest of them visit him and watch his dissolution from behind the bars. It works very well but uses less than one third of the play.
There are celebrity sightings and fascinating film-maker detail. It helps that Jarman was a terrific writer (Alan Bennett said that he liked Jarman’s writing more than his films). He meets Patti Smith in New York in 1972 – the Just Kids era – and gives her packets of Passing Clouds, “which I told her were Virginia Woolf’s favourite cigarette, which amused her”. In the same year, he meets Alice Cooper (“like a praying mantis in bondage”) and proposes a concert staging in which Cooper arrives “on a huge articulated black widow spider … with Alice at its helm holding a gold and leather harness, dressed in rubies from head to foot, like Heliogabalus entering Rome”. It appears that Cooper’s camp didn’t take him up on that idea. In 1979, Jarman makes a promo for Marianne Faithfull (“elfin, difficult to get to know”) and tries to get his apocalyptic, Bowie-starring script Neutron going – “A dream treatment of mass destruction.” (I wrote about Neutron back here). He works with Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV and, through them, films William S Burroughs on a visit to the UK in 1982 (Burroughs is “tortoise-like … he stoops like a cadaver in the catacombs of Palermo and talks of mummies and immortality … his readings are immensely funny”). The resulting film, Pirate Tape, is here.

Against the quaint and historic British film – your Bridesheads, your Chariots – Jarman argues for another tradition: THE CINEMA. He puts it in caps. You have heard of Antonioni, Godard, Pasolini, Fassbinder, etc, “but here it is quite likely you have not heard of Peter Watkins, Bill Douglas, Robina Rose, Terence Davies, Chris Petit, Ron Peck – and forgive me if I include myself – who are their counterparts”. There is also Roeg, there is John Boorman and there is the then-new Neil Jordan. And within this argument, there is also that healthy antagonism that his father would have recognised:
For the English, locked into their institutions struggling for preference, always kill with a smile; and the critics with nothing to write about will continue to replace THE CINEMA with the cinema. That which was made with love will remain a footnote until the Oblivion Digits are finally added up and darkness envelops our world.

May 9, 2012

The best film I've seen this year

Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret. Evidence that a film can be both imperfect and brilliant. Its troubled history is well-known and, in the last hour, visible, but still -- Paquin is magnificent in what was threatening to become the great lost performance of her career (shot in 2005, unseen until 2011), and in its early stages, her Lisa Cohen seemed to me like a more detailed, more complex, more compelling and infuriating version of her Lili Thorn in the roughly contemporary New York-set The Squid and the Whale.

May 5, 2012

"Perpetual boredom? At least we can take ourselves off to visit the planets for distraction."

"Tell me," I said, "these problems I've been having with the golf and the worrying. Do other people react like that?"
"Oh yes. We often get people asking for bad weather, for instance, or for something to go wrong. They miss things going wrong. Some of them ask for pain."
"For pain?"
"Certainly. Well, you were complaining the other day about not feeling so tired that -- as I think you put it -- you just want to die. I thought that was an interesting phrase. People ask for pain, it's not so extraordinary. We've had them requesting operations, as well. I mean, not just cosmetic ones, real ones."
-- Julian Barnes, "The Dream", from A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters.

May 4, 2012

Confinement (or, day of the iguana)

As in Offside, in Jafar Panahi's This is Not a Film, restrictions bend and break under the ecstatic force of public celebration; more than ever, he hopes it is prophecy.