Reviews: The Night Porter

The Night Porter,
Directed by Liliana Cavani,
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Charlotte Rampling, Phillipe Leroy

Cult Films brings a sharp, 4K restored version of Cavani’s 1974 controversial classic to Blu-Ray, and the passage of the decades has not lessened its impact, the ability of this film to be simultaneously fascinating, compelling, provocative and disturbing. Max (Bogarde, an actor too often overlooked these days, I think), is working as a night porter, manning the desk in a hotel in 1950s Vienna, where he and several other old comrades meet regularly to plan how to keep their wartime records in the SS concealed and themselves safe from any possible justice for their actions as part of the Nazi regime. They ensure documents are destroyed and any potential witnesses dealt with to ensure their anonymous safety. There is no hint of regret for their part in the atrocities performed by the SS, only the ruthless desire to avoid ever being brought to account for it.

Max is quiet, not just a man keeping a low profile, Bogarde invests him with a real feeling of a damaged person who has retreated from much of the world, not only to hide his past, but because he feels self-revulsion, even preferring to work night shifts because the harsh light of day shines too bright a light on his life and guilt. He is tightly buttoned, quiet, fastidious in appearance, not rocking the boat with his old SS comrades but neither fully joining in either. When we see him in a scene in his apartment we see behind this quiet, impeccably turned out exterior, his hair awry, pulling his curtains against the coming day, shuddering and crying as wartime memories overwhelm him.

When a famous conductor arrives at the hotel with his wife Lucia (Rampling), the pair recognise one another, triggering flashbacks for both: Max as an SS officer in one of the death camps, Lucia as one of the inmates who captures his eye. It’s an interesting reversal – from the wartime camps where Max held all the power and could indulge in exploitation as he wished, with impunity, now he is the one who is frightened, his potential survival threatened as she now has the power over him.

Except Night Porter isn’t that simple – you might expect after the initial shock of encountering this former SS officer who used her, Lucia would be angry, seek justice, tell her husband and then the authorities who Max really is. But that doesn’t happen – both she and Max struggle with the rush of barely repressed memories, but what transpires, both the wartime events and the current events in the hotel, is a more complicated mix than oppressed and oppressor, there is a strange relationship here. A twisted, very damaged relationship, to be sure, but there is something there, and they feel its compulsion once more, falling into a strange, often sado-masochistic, dark form of romance.

A lot of the criticism of this film, then and now, is that it is basically Nazi sexploitation. And while, yes, it does feature a lot of very odd sexual scenes – a shorn-haired prisoner Lucia, half naked in an officer’s cap, singing Lili Marlene songs as she dances seductively for the SS officers in the camp, for instance, or vulnerable, naked prisoners being filmed by Max as they are interviewed – I don’t hold with the sexploitation label myself. Despite the sexual scenes and nudity it’s often not what I’d think of as erotic, more disturbing, an exploration of two fragmented , damaged psyches. Cavani always maintained that it wasn’t really about the sex, and I tend to agree, those elements are more visual symptoms of the trauma both have lived with.

I first saw this film many decades ago, and this is the first time I’ve rewatched it since – I found it a remarkable and unusual film then, and even more so today. Cavani frames some astonishing scenes – the half-naked cabaret scene I mentioned earlier is a visual that sticks in the mind – but the real standout here are the performances from Bogarde and Rampling, so much communicated through very small gestures, body language, tiny changes to expressions to indicate the whirling turmoil within Max and Lucia.

Cult Film’s 4K restoration does justice to this unusual, provocative movie, showing it off, and including extras such as new interviews with both director Cavani and Charlotte Rampling, both of whom have some interesting insights into this very unusual slice of film history.

The Night Porter gets its 4k Blu-Ray release by Cult Film on November 30th. This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Gamish – a Cultural History of Gaming

Gamish: a Graphic History of Gaming,
Edward Ross,
Particular Books

I first encountered Edinburgh-based comicker Edward Ross’s work in one of my second homes in the city, The Filmhouse, a local arthouse and Indy cinema that is also home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival (the oldest continually running film festival on the planet). Back then Ed was producing his Filmish comics, in the finest tradition of the home-made, small press scene, complete with staples holding them together, and on sale in the Filmhouse box office. I picked up each of them as they came out and reviewed them on the old Forbidden Planet Blog, then in 2015 SelfMadeHero published a large, expanded and re-drawn version of Filmish (reviewed here), greatly improving on the original mini-comics to give a longer, more in-depth look at the history of cinema and film and its place in our culture – not just the technical and artistic innovations across a century and more, but also how some films reflect the culture of their days, their preoccupations, worries, fantasies, fear, prejudices (race, class, gender and more).

It made for fascinating reading. When I interviewed him at the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival about Filmish I asked what he planned to follow it, and Ed replied that he was considering a similar approach to video games. And as we continue to stumble through 2020’s stormy seas, grabbing at good comics and books like lifeboats to help keep our spirits afloat (or simply to transport us away from the actual world for a while), Gamish arrives, and yes, before you ask, I think it was very much worth the wait. Gamish is very similar in format to Filmish, both in physical appearance (a smaller 235 by 170mm format instead of the larger “comic album” format, although in hardback this time) and layout, but also in approach, not least in a virtual Edward appearing in different settings to guide us through what is happening.

Filmish tackled the century and a bit of film history by taking themes for chapters, such as technology, and Gamish also has a number of themes to help explore the history and the culture of gaming, from the role of technological innovation and artistic interpretation to the portrayal of race and gender, of disabilities, of cultural norms (and blind spots) both in the games and within gaming communities too. And like the earlier Filmish, Ed has undertaken an enormous amount of research to try and place all of this within a historical context – this doesn’t just take a simplistic approach to video game history and evolution, Gamish also explores why human beings play, how that play has become more elaborate as humans moved from hunter-gatherer to early civilisations, and placed the modern video games within that millennia-long history of human culture.

Early in the book Ed asks why it is we play: in fact, as he notes, most animals, especially mammals, play, be it kittens pretending to hunt a piece of string or human children making up games to play in the park or with their Lego and action figures. Play is part of how animals, including humans, learn important skills for later life, of how to be and how to act and how to perform certain acts, but it is also often a bonding and socialising tool as well, teaching us how to interact with others (also helping us form relationships as well as skills), and, of course, it is often hugely pleasurable. Ed takes us to an excavation near Amma, where a new roadworks dug up a 9,000 year old village site. Within this the archaeologists discovered a stone board with rows of indentations, which some recognised as a gaming board. In fact it strongly resembled a version of Mancala, a family of similar games which were widely played around the Middle East and Mediterranean basin back in Antiquity, and is still played to this day, especially in parts of Africa.

Just as ancient cave art such as those in Lascaux, France, or the Aboriginal rock paintings on the Burrup Peninsula in Australia reminds us that our ancestors of thousands – even tens of thousands – of years ago were not some simple “ugh, ugh” brutish, apish people but modern homo sapiens like us, the same bodies, the same brains, the same desire for self expression and abstract thought and creation. And gaming. A few indents in a piece of stone, pavement slab or wooden board, nearby pebbles for playing pieces and human imagination, and we have games we can play with others. As Gamish makes clear, this is not something unique to modernity, or even the great civilisations of the Classical period, this is quite simply a facet of being human, and the first part of the book takes us from those prehistoric games to the slow evolution of more sophisticated games like Go and Chess, which travel around our world and different cultures, being played for pleasure but also as training for the mind in organisation, even in military strategy (think of Chess as battlefield command training).

In this early chapter we first get a glimpse of the technological games that are to come, and which will take the majority of the focus of the rest of the book: enter Wolfgang Von Kempelen with his astonishing Mechanical Turk, a robotic chess player that challenges humans across Europe then later the Americas, this automaton playing against such figures as Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin. As many of you will know, after more than a century of touring the globe with great success, the Turk was eventually found to be a fraud: it was not a machine intelligence, but a masterful chess player concealed cleverly inside the mechanism, working the Turk’s arm through pulleys and levers (if you are interested, Tom Standage did a terrific book on the Turk back in 2001 that I highly recommend, my review is here).

So this proved not to be the start of us using clever machines for gaming – but it did inspire much of what came later. Not just in the way Turing (also featured here) used chess as a way to test and try computer learning in the mid-20th century, or the numerous programmers who tackled chess as a way of improving computer learning (eventually leading to Deep Blue beating human grandmaster Kasparov), the very idea of a machine capable of the intricacies of a game like chess, with so many possible outcomes (increasing with each player’s moves) inspired the likes of Babbage, along with Ada Lovelace one of the father’s of what would evolve into modern computing, and computer chess remains a challenge tackled by many programmers and engineers from Turing to today, both in fact and in fiction (consider HAL playing his human crew-mates on the Discovery in 2001).

All of this is fascinating in its own right, and Ed continues to chart the evolution of computer gaming into forms contemporary readers would recognise – heck, some of us even played early versions of these, such as the now iconic Space War (I remember playing a version of this tweaked for amusement arcades in the late 70s and early 80s and loving it), the move from students using room-sized University computers to run games after hours to the first home games and the birth of what is now a multi-billion dollar industry with simple games video games plugged into the TV in your living room, from Pong to the cartridge-based Atari, the explosion of video arcade culture (at one point in the early 80s so popular that in Japan it lead to a national shortage of coins as they were all being rattled into Space Invaders and other games cabinets in the arcades!), and the evolution through those early, simple 8-bit games to today’s hyper-real, fast-paced, detailed graphics and richly visualised alternate realities, from text based dungeons and dragons games to massive, multi-player online fantasy worlds accessed from around the globe.

All of this is interesting in its own right, however what makes Gamish, as with Filmish, at least for me, is that Ed is at great pains to put the human dimension into this history. This isn’t just a straight, chronological history of technical development leading to bigger, better, more sophisticated games and virtual realities. As with Filmish, Ed is interested not just with how we increase the sophistication of our computers, programmes and gaming, but also the how and the why, and also how these have shown up many of our inbuilt social norms and prejudices, as well as how they can be used to tear those down. He looks at how many games for far too long offered only character avatars to the player who were male and white, or, as in World of Warcraft, we get non-human characters representing different cultures but which mostly draw on a very blinkered, European notion of what Native American or Asian culture is.

Gender and sexual identity, as well as ablism are also covered here – he notes how in the increasingly complex gaming worlds your on-screen character could follow multiple paths, even have romances with other characters, but usually those relationships were purely heterosexual. Despite modern games offering multiple options to players to navigate their character’s paths, it hadn’t occurred to the programmers to offer the choice of sexually different tastes, just as many hadn’t thought to include player avatars who had skin other than white, or more female options. Ed also touches on the hostility of a wretched (and thankfully small) section of the emerging gaming community, mostly young, white males, who became so possessive over games as belonging exclusively to them that they attacked female, LGBT or players of different skin colours on forums and in gaming worlds (sadly, as with GamerGate we’ve seen a similar bunch of utter idiots in the comics world too with very much the same notions).

However Ed also covers the more positive aspects of this gender, race and cultural disparity in gaming, bringing forth all sorts of examples where different groups have used the medium to empower themselves, be it refugees creating an idealised homeland they can dream of in cyberspace to transgender and non-binary players who found being able to inhabit any form of virtual avatar was therapeutic for them, and helped them explore their true inner identity in virtuality before making decisions and lifestyle changes in the real world, or Muriel Tramis creating a game where you had to play as a rebelling plantation slave as a way to highlight that dreadful period of history (and by implication its continuing influences to this very day in terms of how some people are perceived and treated even in supposedly free and equal societies).

Naturally this book also touches on that old bugbear of video violence and its possible effect on people in the real world. As Gamish points out, yes, there certainly has been a growth, especially in the 90s, of very graphically violent video games, not least the FPS or First Person Shooter, made famous by the original Doom (which I must admit I loved playing on my early PC, an hour of that would be my unwinding after spending hours on the same machine writing my college essays), and how an often rather lazy connection was made between these and real world violence (especially the dreadful problem of school shootings in the US). As the book points out though, while there should be some concerns, this moral panic was just the latest in a long saga of blaming different new media for societal ills – in the 50s it was rock music records, in the 80s it was “video nasties” and rap music, in the 90s it was video games. Always easier to simply blame those than actually try to understand where families and societies are going wrong to produce those real world problems (it also, as Ed observes, ignores the fact that if the games were indeed the cause of this real world violence then we would be drowning in such acts as millions plays them every single day).

Overall however, while Ed does explore the negative side of gaming culture, the tone here is bright and optimistically hopeful – while he details faults like sexism or ablism or cultural difference ignorance, he prefers to give far more space to positive stories, of individuals and groups who have challenged norms and used technology and gaming advances to their own advantage, to claim some of that virtual, shared cyberspace play realm for themselves, but also to share it with others and so educate us to new ideas and people and ways of being. And frankly I am glad he takes this approach – he’s far from ignoring the many problems, in fact he discusses them, but he chooses to highlight positive aspects of gaming and the power within games to help us make things better by building more understanding through shared activities, learning, creating new friendships with different people with different views on life.

Much as he did in the earliest pages of the book, when talking about our hunter-gatherer ancestors and their early play models that helped them learn skills and socialisation, Ed’s later chapters explore examples of how many today are using the modern, sophisticated gaming environments available to us right in our own homes to do the very same, with different sorts of people all over the world (the book takes pains to depict a wonderfully diverse arrary of characters in its pages, which I greatly appreciated). It’s warm, it has a sense of fun and humour and importantly it has a lot of optimism for the media and for the way it can empower all sorts of people, and right now that feels like a wonderful, uplifting notion to leave the readers on.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Dawn of the Dead Limited Edition Set

Dawn of the Dead Limited Edition Blu-Ray & 4K UHD,
Directed by George A. Romero,
Starring David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott Reiniger, Gaylen Ross

When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth

I’ve loved Romero’s movies for as long as I can remember liking horror films. Dawn of the Dead, the second of his original trilogy (which later grew into a longer series), still occupies a special place in my Romero Pantheon though, and indeed retains a special place in my favourite horror films of all time, an excellent mix of horror, both from the gruesome deaths waiting everywhere by the hungry, walking dead, but also from the rapid disintegration of civilisation and the way so many humans respond to it, often as bad or worse than the zombie threat itself, leavened with some humour (few zombie horrors offer us the delights of the classic cream pie in the face fight!), and, of course, Romero’s social observations and satire.

I would imagine most collectors willing to spring for this pretty magnificent limited edition set from Second Sight will already be more than familiar with the film, and all of Romero’s works, but for those less familiar, a quick recap. Following the events of Romero’s seminal 1960s, genre-defining class Night of the Living Dead, the plague of the dead reanimating and stumbling slowly but remorselessly in pursuit of living flesh to chew has spread, civilisation is collapsing. We begin with two different scenes which introduce the main character – one set in a news studio, desperately trying to remain on the air and issue emergency information to citizens as communications break down and people give up and flee, one by one (including news helicopter pilot Stephen “Flyboy” Andrews – David Emge – and his partner Fran Parker, played by Gaylen Ross).

The other sees a SWAT squad of heavily armed police backed up my army units storming a down-town building, encountering a mix of gun-toting gang-bangers, desperate civilians and reanimated corpses. This is where we meet Roger (Scott Reiniger) and Peter (the iconic Ken Foree), dealing with criminals, zombies and fellow officers losing the plot and going gun-crazy as the situation falls apart. Even the police are giving up, the city is lost, most are choosing to flee while they can, and Roger tells Peter that his friend, Stephen, is a chopper pilot and he’s meeting him and Fran to escape later, inviting Peter to come with them.

On the run we see encounters with other frightened groups of survivors and the ever present menace of the creeping undead – nowhere is safe, even a rural airstrip where they stop to refuel, seemingly deserted. It is here we see the infamous “head slicing” as a zombie lurches towards Roger refuelling the chopper, unable to hear it over the engine noise, turning as he sees it stand up on a pile of boxes to get to him, only for the whirling blades to slice strips from the top of its skull (bloody but quite amazing special effects by the now famous wizard Tom Savini, all practical effects, long before the dawn of CGI), a scene which manages to be stomach-turning and funny at the same time. A second scene in the small airport building, however, is far harder to take – Peter hears a noise, shoots through the door, only for it to open and two child zombies rush out at him, forcing him to shoot both in the head. They are undead zombies, but it’s still shooting a child, and Foree, to his credit, shows the toll this takes on Peter in a very quiet, understated but effective manner. The message here is clear: the world they knew, of rules and safety, is gone, they now have to commit acts they would never have dreamed of if they are to survive.

It is on the run that they spot a huge structure, which turns out to be an enormous indoor shopping mall – at the time a very new thing in the world. Originally planning to land and grab some supplies, they soon realise they could block the doorways with delivery trucks, clear the few zombies inside, and have a secure location to rest, which has everything they need from radios and TVs to listen for emergency broadcasts to clothes and every sort of food. The temporary stop soon becomes long-term, as what was a brief respite becomes a lack of drive to try and escape further north as originally planned – seduced by all the consumerist delights they make their new home comfortable with furniture from the stores, new clothes, an arsenal of weapons, drink and food. Fran, now several months pregnant, realises that they have essentially created their own comfortable prison, but it is one that will soon be shattered by the arrival of a marauding army of bikers who have been living on the road since the zombie apocalypse, pillaging where they can (and I will go no further for fear of spoilers for those who still haven’t seen this classic).

I will add, however, that re-visiting this film now, in the midst of our resurgent pandemic situation, added another layer for me as a viewer – the urge for our protagonists to hide inside and largely ignore the (unsafe) outside world, the sudden burst of pleasure after normal life is destroyed, in doing something as normal as shopping for stuff, half of which you don’t really need but just want the fun of shopping and buying and feeling normal. Oh yes, that took on a different meaning after all we’ve been going through this year. But then again that’s the mark of good storytelling, that it was written to speak about events of its own time but can still be re-interpreted decades on in a very different situation.

One of the aspects of Romero’s film-making I have always respected was his ability to take something different for each of his zombie films, something cultural and social from the era he made each in – Civil Rights being a huge influence in the original 1960s Night of the Living Dead, Cold War paranoia and apocalypse in the military bunker-set Day of the Dead, social media in Diary of the Dead and so on. Here in this 1970s offering with its vast, sprawling indoor mall of endless shops it is our lust for consumerism – a drive so strong that it attracts not only our fleeing heroes and distracts them with its baubles when they should be making plans to retreat somewhere safer, but also the zombies themselves. The undead have massed around this huge structure, struggling to get past the barricades our heroes put in place.

They are walking corpses, the items in the stores are of no use to them now (and in a dark mirror reflection we see that ultimately most of those shiny items we are so sure our life isn’t complete without are mostly of no use to Flyboy, Peter, Roger and Fran either, except as a dangerous distraction from the reality crashing in all around them). Flyboy opines that the reason so many are trying to get in is because they saw them enter and know they are still there. No, Peter argues, it isn’t them they are after, it is the building, the shops. They are us, or were us, and some dim spark in their decaying brains remembers this place as somewhere they liked to be, and it drives them on still in their undead existence, almost as strong an imperative as the urge for fresh flesh.

These limited edition 4K UHD and Blu-Ray sets are pretty damned impressive – we get three cuts of the film, from the original theatrical version, the slightly longer “Cannes” cut, and a third by the legendary Italian maestro of horror, Dario Argento, who wrote the story with Romero and was instrumental in getting international finance to allow the film to be made. There are CDs of the soundtrack by Argento regulars Goblin, newly commissioned artwork, a novelisation of the film and a hardback collection of essays, Dissecting the Dead.

Also among the extras, in addition to different commentaries on each of the various cuts of the film offered here (from Romero to Tom Savini to Ken Foree and others), there is an entire disc full of extras, which I have to say I really enjoyed working my way through. My favourite here was Zombies and Bikers, which talks to a whole slew of crew and cast, including many who gave their time to appear as zombie extras or the biker army, many of whom would be singled out by Romero for special close-ups and their own mini-arcs in the film. Memories of Monroeville sees Michael Gornick, Tom Savini, Tom Dubensky and Taso Stavrakis return to the original mall to explore some of the locations where they shot scenes and reminisce about the filming. Romero was friendly with people who ran the mall, and they allowed him to use it, but he could only shoot at night after the stores closed, which meant a long, arduous shooting schedule, having to wrap each morning as the automated, canned music and voice over ads on the speakers would come on by themselves (this is echoed in the film where the same music and ads for the stores continues to play in the now empty – save for our four protagonists – mall, another echo of the emptiness of trying to fill our lives with consumerism).

A common thread in these two documentary extras, apart from a nice feeling of nostalgia as those involve look back on the work they did and how they could never at the time have anticipated that decades on it would remain this iconic, landmark film, is the sheer warmth in their memories. Despite the hours, working through the night for little money, many joining the shoot at night after their day jobs, everyone genuinely seems to have wonderful memories of the film, and most especially of the late Romero and what a charming and delightful director he was to work with. It reminded me of the time Romero visited the Edinburgh International Film Festival with Diary of the Dead – decent enough film, not his best though, but the reception the man himself got from the audience was amazing, it was clear how much love there was in the room for this man, he was “Uncle George” to most of us, and I could see that in these recollections in the extras.

It was also very clear from these documentaries, and a previously unseen interview with Romero, that this film, a film that now has a secure place in cinema history, only exists because so many people like those featured in the extras here were happy to put in the time, working for a token fee, to help make Romero’s script turned into reality, while others helped with letting them use locations they could never have afforded to rent or recreate on a sound-stage. With many it came down to a combination of love for his Night of the Living Dead and also a lovely community support aspect – a sort of wow, we’re making a feature film right here in Pittsburgh, not Hollywood, yes, I want to help you make that happen. Again it is such a warm wave of enthusiasm and mutual support for fellow creators which is inspiring to see. All in all this is a terrific collector’s edition, with well-restored cuts of the film in different edits and jam-packed with extras, giving this iconic horror the respect it richly deserves.

The limited edition set Second Sight has put together is a cine-collector’s dream – three different cuts of the film, a whole disc full of extras, newly commissioned artwork, audio CDs (including Goblin’s soundtrack), novelisation and a hardback book, Dissecting the Dead. Dawn of the Dead is released in a special Limited Edition 4K UHD and Blu-Ray by Second Sight on November 16th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films