Reviews: new Brit horror-comedy in Double Date

Double Date,
Directed by Benjamin Barfoot,
Starring Danny Morgan, Georgia Groome, Michael Socha, Kelly Wenham

Fresh from a good reception at FrightFest (always a good sign), this new horror-comedy with a strong gender element, Double Date arrives on home screens this month. Jim (Danny Morgan) is quiet, awkward socially, especially with women, and facing his imminent 30th birthday as a virgin. His best mate, Alex (This is England’s Michael Socha) is the polar opposite, cocksure, always on the pull, a jack-the lad and boy around town. For all his teasing of Jim, though, it’s also clear that under the cocky, laddish banter he actually cares about his friend, and in the tradition of many a movie, he’s determined he’s going to get his friend laid before his birthday.

Meanwhile we’ve already had a glimpse of sisters Kitty (Kelly Wenham) and Lulu (Georgina Groome), going home with a pair of men from a nightclub to a huge country home, the men delighted, thinking their luck is in, as they split up, one going with each sister, Kitty taking her partner upstairs. There’s music and a lot of body on body action, but not quite the sort of penetration the young man was hoping for as Kitty goes to work on him with a knife and a mad stabbing frenzy.

The next evening they are back out on the prowl at the nightclub, the same club where Jim and Alex are cruising (well, Alex is cruising, Jim is just ambling along). And they notice Jim, much to his surprise, in fact they seem to be inviting his attentions, more interested in him than self-proclaimed stud Alex. But Alex pitches in gamely, trying to advise Jim on the “perfect” pick up line and techniques (their regular barmaid tries to dissuade him from this awful, corny approach), even going so far as feeding Jim text messages as he talks to the girls, trying to give him prompts, which of course Jim makes a mess of. And yet, somehow the girls are still interested and agree to meet both men again the next evening for a date.

Are they serial killers who get their thrills seducing hapless, hopeless young men like Jim and then leading them to the slaughter? There are signs that there is more than just thrill-killing going on here, there are elements of ritual – however bizarre and deranged – that hint there is a deeper and darker purpose to the murderous crime spree the girls are indulging in., possibly something supernatural…

This is a very enjoyable Brit comedy-horror, right from the start it is clear both director and cast are having some fun with this movie. Sure, the sisters are lethal, seductive killers, but there’s a lot of humour here, much of it as the expense of poor Jim, and there is good use of the difference between both pairs, between Kitty (seen training for the violence to come, seeming to embrace and even enjoy it) and Lulu (who appears more to be going along with her sister’s plans but isn’t really happy with them), and Jim, hopeless yet nice, constantly putting his foot in it, and Alex, the cocky lad who under it all really actually has feelings and cares about his buddy.

It’s a nice combination of elements, creating a fun ride, a nice mixture of horror, some gender-inversions, humour and even some delightfully inept but well-meant romantic moments. A good Friday night slice of viewing.

Double Date will be released on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital platforms by Sparky Pictures from September 9th

World on a Wire

World on a Wire (Welt am Draht),
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder,
Starring Klaus Löwitsch, Barbara Valentin, Mascha Rabben, Karl Heinz Vosgerau, Wolfgang Schenck
Second Sight Films

The world in a nutshell...”

Here’s a remarkably unusual 1973 film by famous (and often infamous to some) film-maker Fassbinder, an intriguing slice of science fiction that’s very much ahead of its time. Based on the novel Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, this German language film (originally made for television and shown in two parts), a production I’ve heard mention in discussions about science fiction history, but never seen. World on a Wire (Welt am Draht, to give it its original title). The German government (or the West German government as it would have been back then) funds a cybernetics research programme which has developed a next-generation computer, which they intend to use to model events and trends in society.

That may sound fairly normal to our modern-day sensibilities, given organisations and governments have used detailed data on computers to run predictions, trends and modelling to help predict what resources may be required in the future – are birth trends indicating we will need more schools and teachers in a few years, for instance. Simulacron, however, is indeed some next-generation level modelling – this computer has created a virtual world, a small town of around ten thousand digital inhabitants (“identity units” as the programmers refer to them), all effectively living their lives, the programmers able to observe them, tweak their personalities and world. Modelling the real world, combined with some unusual anthropology.

The programme is a high priority for the government, but hits a stumbling block when the main creator, Vollmer, dies in mysterious circumstances (is it an accident or something more sinister?), his friend Dr Stiller (Klaus Löwitsch) is asked to take over the project, reluctant at first but soon persuaded by the oily Siskins (Karl Heinz Vosgerau). It’s just the start of his problems though – a a party hosted by Siskins his friend Günther Lause (Ivan Desny), the head of the project’s security vanishes, just after talking to Stiller about his misgivings about Vollmer’s death not being an accident. And I mean vanishes – one minute he is there in a chair in the middle of the crowded room at the party, Stiller turns away for something, turns back and he is gone.

It becomes increasingly peculiar after this – Stiller reports Lause’s disappearance to the company and the police, but only a few days later nobody even remember the man existed, and he is introduced to another man who is the head of security, and has been for years. Even the police detective he reported it to has no memory of Lause or of Stiller telling him of his disappearance. His regular secretary takes ill and is moved away, to be replaced by a new assistant appointed by Siskins, played by Barbara Valentin (one time paramour of Freddie Mercury), and he can’t help but feel despite her being very friendly to him, that she is perhaps there to keep an eye on him.

As he continues to investigate the death and disappearance while working on the Simulacron project, Stiller becomes increasingly agitated and disturbed – he has himself linked into the simulation, effectively riding one of the virtual people’s lives, to observe, but while there the entire street blanks out on him several times. A glitch or something else? A colleague discusses the “reality” of the virtual lives lived in the simulation, commenting on how Vollmer spent so long programming every aspect of humanity into them, wondering if it could create something akin to actual consciousness. And then he finds a record of Lause – not by name in the database, but by searching through descriptions, there he is in the Simulacron database, programmed by the deceased Vollmer himself.

This is a real slow-build into a series of increasingly disturbing concepts (it’s over three hours, you can see why it aired over two evenings, originally!) – Stiller starts to lose his grip on what reality could be. Is he the puppet master, the god of this virtual construction and the digital lives within, or is he another puppet, but a puppet who is starting to see some of the strings? Is he even real? He is so sure at the beginning that he is in the real world, crafting Simulacron, but as the discrepancies pile up he starts to wonder if the digital beings from Simulacron are somehow crossing over to the real world, taking over the bodies of the programmers who enter the simulation. Or is it even more complex, can he be sure he is the one running the simulation? What if he himself is in a simulation (and running a simulation?). It sounds like psychotic delusion, but really, how do any of us know, much less prove, that the world we see around us is real?

Bear in mind this is some three decades before the Matrix introduced the wider cinematic audience to concepts like this, this is pretty high concept for 1973, and really it’s still high concept today, in my opinion, because it is a great piece of drama laced with philosophy, and that philosophical question about the nature of reality and perception is, as the Matrix and others have shown, still one which perplexes us to this day, and is the subject of scientific debate too as our computing abilities become ever more powerful, it is a legitimate question to consider if a more advanced species could be running what we perceive as the real world and our lives as a vast simulation. How would we know? Imagine if that thought got into your head as it does with Stiller, how would it affect you? Would anything matter anymore if you thought none of it was real?

I can’t be alone in thinking nothing really exists.”

 

While the concepts are both disturbing and perplexing, the visuals are highly stylised – many of the actors move in a very unnatural manner, posed in scenes almost like carefully arranged mannequins in a display, many conversations are shot with one actor reflected in a shiny surface or through a distorted lens, scenes are framed in non-realistic ways (one actor on top of the stairs talks to someone below rather than walk down to talk to them as you’d expect). At first I thought this was mostly Fassbinder choosing a deliberate, non-natural style of acting and framing for his cast, but as the film goes on I started to feel perhaps it wasn’t just a style but a deliberate move to create a feeling of wrongness, that the people and places simply aren’t quite real, and it does add to the increasing sense of disconnection and confusion Stiller is experiencing.

This is a very unusual, thought-heavy slice of 70s science fiction, and while the look – many of the offices are designed to look ultra-modern, except what was ultra-modern in 1973 looks unbelievably kitschy and dated now – has not aged well, the concepts and the depiction of a man losing his grip on reality, and perhaps even discovering that there is no reality, remains very powerful and compelling, even in our post-Matrix world (the film even boasts a scene where Stiller exits Simulacron via a phone booth – sound familiar??). Here is a remarkable piece of German film and science fiction history by a major cinematic figure, lovingly restored by Second Sight, collaborating with the Fassbinder Foundation, and being issued in a limited edition packed with extras (featurettes, interviews, documentary, booklet and more), this has clearly been designed for the serious lover of cinema.

The limited edition Blu-Ray of World on a Wire is released on February 18th.

The Boys in the Band

The Boys in the Band,
Directed by William Friedkin,
Starring Kenneth Nelson, Robert La Tourneaux, Frederick Combs, Cliff Gorman, Laurence Luckinbill, Keith Prentice, Peter White, Reuben Greene, Leonard Frey

If there’s on thing I’m not ready for it’s five screaming queens singing ‘happy birthday’.”

Here’s an unusual slice of cinematic history for film fans: an early work from a director who would go on to be one of the major American helmers, William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist). The Boys in the Band also stands out as one of the first mainstream movies about gay culture, with an all-gay cast of actors, still not exactly a regular occurrence today, remarkable for 1970. Adapted from Mart Crowley’s hit Broadway play (Crowley adapted it for a screenplay himself), it also boasts the original stage cast. The film was, unsurprisingly, controversial at the time (and since), not just with more conservative audiences uncomfortable with gay culture being so openly displayed, it also split some of the gay community, with some angry at the way it portrayed gay men, others were delighted to see gay lives being portrayed on the big screen.

The plot revolves around a birthday party for Harold, one of a circle of friends, all gay men in New York, with Michael (Kenneth Nelson) setting up his apartment for the party and welcoming his other friends who arrive one by one. Birthday boy Harold is the last to arrive, fashionably late (one can’t help but feel deliberately so, especially given his prickly character), and a good bit of the running time actually passes with the friends exchanging gossip and small talk, mixed with barbed comments, until he arrives. Despite being a circle of friends it is clear there are a lot of cracks and a lot of tension in this group too, and those are heightened by Michael’s straight friend Alan appearing during the party (he has known Michael since college and doesn’t know – or claims not to know – that Michael is gay).

And Harold arrives. Harold the thirty-something gay Jewish man in his green velvet suit and tinted glasses, a tongue barbed like a rose bush and with a dry, often cruel wit that’s like Oscar Wilde lines shaped into a rapier, perhaps the one person in the group who has an even sharper (and oft-times nastier) wit than Michael, and he takes savage delight in reminding him of that fact as the evening progresses. The party passes through stages rapidly, from a happy period as they prepare for the evening (comments are exchanged, but they feel like banter rather than nasty at this stage), then it starts to become uncomfortable with Alan’s arrival, then when Harold appears the comments become sharper, nastier, confessions come, arguments, secrets revealed.

In many ways the film shows its theatrical roots – the vast bulk of it is all set in Michael’s apartment, and you can see how that worked well for a stage performance. The thing is that apartment is essentially a crucible in which the different friends and their simmering passions and resentments can come to the boil, there is no need to open it out to other locations that cinema can use, and it is to Friedkin’s credit that he understands this and resists any attempt to insert unnecessary settings or imagery, he shoots around the apartment and the cast, putting us right in there with them.

It can be argued that despite the all-gay cast the film (and play) suffer from having too many stereotypes (the sashaying overly effeminate one, the straight acting one, the super promiscuous one, the gorgeous but dumb one etc), and while there is some truth to this, as Mark Gatis notes in one of the disc’s extras this was one of the first times these types were shown so prominently in mainstream cinema (Gatis is interviewed in the extras as he is acting in a revival of the play), and as he further points out, those characters aren’t claiming to represent every different kind of gay person, but they do make a good selection to try and shine a light into a group that hadn’t been featured much outside of underground cinema till then. And of course this pre-dates the awful horror of the AIDS crisis a decade or so later, and even pre-dates the events of Stonewall, and we have to take it in that context.

Those barbed one-liners and comments are one of the jewel’s of Crowley’s script, they flow pretty much from the start – Michael showing Donald to the guest room, pointing out he got him his own toothbrush as he’s sick of Donald borrowing his. “How do you think I feel?” retorts Donald. “Oh, you’ve had worse things than that in your mouth…,” replies Michael, archly. Or Michael commenting about “tired fairies” and “screaming queens” at the party night, Donald asks good-humouredly “Are you calling me a screaming queen of a tired fairy?” “Oh I beg your pardon, there will be six tired screaming fairy queens and one anxious queer,” responds Michael.

The lines just keep flowing like that and had me smiling and laughing at their tartness, but as the party goes on the comments become increasingly cutting and painful, it almost seems like they hate each other (in one very emotional scene Michael sobs that they have to learn to stop hating themselves so much), and yet… And yet there is far more going on here; while those vicious, bitchy lines escalate from nasty barbs to poisonous harpoons there is also a feeling that they are all still connected, still friends, that they need each other, that they can only be this dysfunctional around each other in a way they can’t in the rest of society (and isn’t that the case with many of us and our friends? Only around them can we really be that vulnerable or wrong-headed and yet still be accepted). Each of them exposes their weaknesses and wishes, and for me that took them past any “stereotyping” and made them real people that I could emote with and empathise with.

This is a delight of sharp-toothed wit, a rare early mainstream cinematic exploration of queer culture and lives, and an important entry on the film-roll of a major director (Friedkin says that it is one of his films he is still very proud of), and for all those reasons it’s great that Second Sight are bringing it back to film lovers. You’ll find yourself saving some of those biting one-liners to use yourself at some point.

The Boys in the Band is released by Second Sight on Blu-Ray (with a bunch of extras, including the aforementioned Mark Gatis interview, and commentary from Friedkin and Crowley), on February 11th, some fifty years from the debut of the play.

“It’s only a movie…” – Reel Love

Reel Love: the Complete Collection,
Owen Michael Johnson,
Unbound

I first heard of Owen Michael Johnson’s Reel Love project quite a while back when it became an Unbound project, looking for backers. Given it combined two of my favourite things in the whole world, comics and cinema, I joined the group of people backing the project. As with many of the best movies, Reel Love is arranged in three acts, each taking in a different part of our film-obsessed protagonist’s life, starting off with his very first memories of a trip to the cinema. This is before the massive multiplexes that dominate today, and as we follow the wide-eyed and nervous wee boy walking in with his dad, there will be a rush of nostalgia for many of us of a certain age – the heavy curtains that pull back to gain entrance, the ushers with the wee plastic torches.

Sadly it is not an auspicious start – the darkness, the noise, the special effects, they are all too much for a young boy, he gets more and more upset until, bawling his eyes out, his dad has to take him home. But the siren song of the cinema will not be denied, and he returns. And returns. An enjoyable day out starts to become a way of life then an obsession. Friendships develop, always seen through the lens of movie characters and stories, he grows older, his small town is boring, doesn’t look like there is anything much for him to look forward to as he gets older, but the movies are always there, an escape, and naturally he gets an old camera and tries to make his own.

After school comes getting a job and unsurprisingly he gets work in a nearby cinema – his favourite old fleapit of a cinema is on its last legs, the old man who runs it and knows him well from all his visits knows his time is limited in the face of the giant, new multi-screen multiplex cinemas and that’s where he gets his job. The total newbie, no real drive or qualifications or career path, like so many of us he falls into something he has a love for, but working in a multiplex isn’t quite the stepping stone into the film industry. He does make some new friends though – the “Monster Squad”, the late-night shift of other misfits around his own age, each of them with a strong obsession with cinema. He’s found his tribe and even finds first love among their number.

But nothing lasts forever, friends drift apart, each has their own life and has to move on at some point, to a new job, new town, college, and Johnson captures that odd mixture we’ve all been through growing up, friends you were so sure would be your best pals forever and ever, but life – your own and their lives – just gets in the way, things change; it can be exciting, but it is also scary, a feeling of being left behind, left alone, that you’ve somehow been a non-starter, and again the book captures that mix of emotions that growing up and change brings to all of our lives, again reflected through the prism of film. First loves leave, both people and places (there goes that first girlfriend, there goes that first cinema he loved so much). By the third act our protagonist is an adult, now lecturing about film in a small college, looking at his students, young, dreams of taking on the world and making their Great Film, while he has grown cynical and jaded, until a new student shoves his way into class.

There’s much to love here – the three acts, corresponding to a Three Ages of man is a good one, from wide-eyed youth to teen desperate for connections and a place and not knowing how to achieve those, to the adult looking back and wondering how did I get here in my life, what happened to those dreams of youth? These scenes are beautifully handled by Owen, they don’t shy away from embarrassing details (of the sorts of things we all probably did at some point growing up) but they are also depicted with sympathy, and they will echo with so many of us.

The flashbacks to the early cinema trips are a delight, and the way it shows how deeply some of those stories embed themselves into our minds, especially at a young age, will again chime for so many of us – watching the original Star Wars as a kid in the cinema is beautifully rendered, the glimpses of the action on the screen with the wide-eyed looks of wonder on the faces of the kids, the way lines from those movies becomes a part of your life; an early, important friendship and its later break-up is shown through Hobbit characters from Lord of the Rings. The film imagery bleeds into the everyday, which is as it is for a lot of us – the films we love, the books and comics we read, the music we listen to, they all embed themselves into our lives in both good and bad ways. Reel Love celebrates that through a mix of coming of age and dealing with grown up life, all embroidered by the stories, characters and imagery of cinema, from Star Wars to Bogie.

Stan and Ollie

Stan and Ollie,
Directed by Jon S Baird,
Starring John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Steve Coogan, Nina Arianda, Danny Huston

This is one of 2019’s films which I have been eagerly awaiting. I should explain that my father ensured as a youngster that I was brought up in The Faith: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Tom’n’Jerry and of course, Laurel and Hardy. We still watch their films together today. So you will understand that while in some ways I may be predisposed towards a film about one of the greatest filmic double acts of all time, my lifelong love of Stan and Ollie also means I could be more critical of how anyone portrays them. I imagine that for many of us that will be the case, L&H have engendered life-long love in us, it’s not easy to see someone else portray them. Well, friends and Sons of the Desert, you can breathe easy, for Coogan and Reilly are clearly like us, in love with Stan and Ollie, and it is obvious this is a great labour of love for both of those actors, determined to do justice to their cinematic heroes.

While the film mostly circles around the events during Stan and Ollie’s final tour, through post-war Britain (their final performances together), it opens in 1937 in the legendary Hal Roach Studios, with the pair getting ready to film the dance scene from the brilliant Way Out West, while arguing with Roach (the always excellent Huston) about money and control of their films, hinting at the break which will come soon when Stan, his contract finishing before Ollie’s, tries to break out and set up in control of their own films, but Babe doesn’t follow for various reasons, causing a personal as well as professional rift just as the pair are at the peak of their global stardom.

Moving forward to the post-war era we find the pair being dropped off at their hotel in Newcastle for the start of their UK and Irish tour (the one which would finally prove to be their last). It is clear from the start that their star has fallen – the hotel is just a general inn, not one of the fancier, big hotels you’d expect Hollywood royalty to be staying in, and then they find that the smooth stage impressario arranging their UK tour has them booked to play small venues, not the big theatres. And even those smaller venues are not exactly packed. While they are still a beloved act, it has been many years since they performed in a film together, and it seems the fickle public demand and attention has slipped away from the duo. Fortunately some PR stunts (you can see many of those in newsreel footage on YouTube) helps to whip up interest and leads to a boom in ticket sales.

The film, however, isn’t really about a pair of stars trying to continue years after their heyday, however, that is just the backdrop; the real story here is about friendship and love, the stresses and strains of a long relationship. We all know from our own personal experiences that even our oldest friends can sometimes drive us crazy or upset us (and we them), and how much harder are those strains when you add global fame to the mix? There are sparks of the old magic, laughter mixed with a tinge of melancholy, moments of bitter recrimination and regrets voiced to hurt, but most of all there’s a feeling of two men who for all of that remain closer than close, their personal timing (that hallmark of all great comedians) so beautifully attuned to one another’s rhythms. “I love him,” Stan tells his wife, simply. In another scene after Ollie falls ill Stan lies down next to him in the bed, like one of the film scenes, comforting his old pal, his other half, arguments forgotten.

Coogan and Reilly’s performances are simply outstanding. It isn’t just that they re-create the look and mannerisms (even the expressions) of Stan and Ollie, it’s deeper than that. This was a partnership that flourishes for years, the two perfectly attuned to each other’s beats, the sort of partnership that comes out of years of being together, and somehow Reilly and Coogan summon up that feeling here, they really come across as if they are a couple of pals who have known each other for decades, their timing and interaction is that convincing. The film itself made me both cry and laugh, it is touching, in places reflective, but it also celebrates one of the great filmic partnerships, it celebrates their work, work which has lasted it through the test of time, it celebrates the pure joy that Laurel and Hardy brought to millions.

The recreations of some of their classic scenes in the film still reduced the audience I was with to gales of laughter, they still worked, they still made the audience roar. There are so many hard trials in life, but there are also those moments of delight and joy, and for many of us Laurel and Hardy were there to be one of those sources of joy the world needs. They still are, and this film celebrates that legacy.

The Favourite

The Favourite,
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos,
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone

My first film of the New Year and, oh boy, it was a damned good one too! You wait ages for a good historical, period film with strong female leads to come along, then January delivers us two, Mary Queen of Scots and this, Lanthinos’ rather excellent The Favourite. I’ve been itching to see this since I first saw the trailer a while back – Olivia Colman, here playing Queen Anne in the early 1700s (just before the Act of Union) is, for my money, one of our best UK thesps. Colman can play anything, from broad comedy to tragedy to kitchen-sink, emotional heavy drama, and here she uses her formidable acting skills to craft a layered performance where some others may have settled for something less complex, and it plays remarkably in the favour of The Favourite.

A synopsis of the plot makes it all sound rather straightforward and predictable: Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), the powerful and influential wife of the war hero the Duke of Marlborough (Mark Gatis) has made herself the favourite of the often emotionally vulnerable and fragile Queen Anne, becoming so beloved by the Queen and so indispensable that her “advice” is often little more than her pushing her own agenda on the Queen and getting it through Parliament, while continually conspiring and scheming to ensure her own place.

Enter Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill, a cousin of Sarah’s fallen on hard times (the family fortune gone). Abigail appears sweet and innocent, but it is soon clear she is anything but, and she is determined to use her cunning to learn from her cousin and work her way up from lowly servant back to being a lady of society. Sarah, of course, is unlikely to simply let anything threaten her position with the Queen, leading to a battle of wits and changing conspiracies and alliances made in dark rooms, all concealed behind courtly protocol and polite masks, as we watch to see which can manipulate their way to a winning hand.

Except that really, really doesn’t do The Favourite justice. The complex webs of plans and blatant emotional manipulation practised by both Sarah and Abigail, and the way they dance around each other is a delicious delight to watch, and avoids the simplistic approach of one being good, one bad, both are conniving, ruthless, determined and others, including nobles, MPs, the Prime Minister and even Queen Anne herself are simply part of their Machiavellian scheming. The interplay between the two is just fabulous to watch.

Colman’s Queen Anne, a woman marked by loss (seventeen pregnancies, seventeen lost children, stillbirths or miscarriages, quite terrible) starts off like a moody child, Weisz’s Sarah knowing how to cajole, persuade (or even slightly threaten) her to get her to behave, but as the film goes on Colman’s superb acting gives glimpses of far more emotional complexity, of a real person with real emotional and health problems, and, quite possibly, one who is not the innocent victim in this tug of war between the other two, but is perhaps well aware of their goings-on and maybe even secretly encouraging it and enjoying it…

The interplay between these three women is wonderful to watch, and the ridiculously complex court protocols and life are humorously undercut by humour, often quite bawdy (the C word features more than a few times and I was reminded of the poetry of Lord Rochester from that period several times). And how refreshing to watch a film not just with three very powerful and nuanced female leads, but females leads who totally (and rightly) dominate this story – the men, even historical heavyweights like Gatis’s Duke of Marlborough, are very secondary, there to move parts of the plot along but always behind these three formidable women characters.

Talking silent movies: Saving Brinton

Saving Brinton,
Directed by Tommy Haines, Andrew Sherburne,
Starring Mike Zahs

Saving Brinton is one of the movies that leapt out at me when I was busy circling the movies I most wanted to try and get tickets for at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival: a documentary about a man, Mike Zahs, in a tiny Iowa farm town, who just happened to have collected, protected and shared some gems from the very, very earliest days of cinematic history. It’s an irresistible subject for those of us who love film.

William Franklin Brinton was an itinerant showman, he and his wife travelled up and down the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, from Texas to Minnesota, with shows which included music, gadgets (some of the existing music boxes are preserved in the collection as well as film), attempts at heavier than air flight (several years before the Wright Brothers managed several seconds in the air), some truly enchanting magic lantern slides and, always a sharp showman with one eye on getting those bums on seats, but another eye always on technological innovation, which fascinated this intelligent, curious man, he was an early adopter of the new miracle of the Victorian era: moving pictures. Some, even innovators like Edison who would contribute to the development of the medium, saw film as a passing fad. To be fair, he was not alone, few could have predicted film would grow to be one of the great art forms and mediums of the following century and into the next, let alone that it would become so entangled with our own lives, our dreams, fears, aspirations and hopes.

Brinton saw more in this infant medium, and in a later, more settled part of his career he managed the Graham Opera House in the small town of Washington, Iowa, which has been showing film pretty much since the birth of the medium, and has now been recognised by Guinness World Records as the oldest continually operating cinema on the planet. There is something rather pleasing that such an accolade goes not to some historic old cinema in Paris, or London or New York, but a wee town in the middle of the great farming fields of Iowa, right in the heart of the vast American continent. Once every town had such palaces of delights, but most are long gone in the US, as here, long since converted to other uses or ripped down and built over. Here though, a slice of entertainment history still lives, still serves its community, and for around three decades it has also seen some of the rarest early film works from the Brinton collection projected on its venerable screen.

Zahs, an incredibly genial, modest and charming man with a mighty beard (he looks like Gandalf crossed with Father Christmas, perhaps), a teacher, historian and collector, has been saving and documenting this collection for years, trying to interest the wider world in these treasures. There is a delicious irony that the small community here has been watching films, some of which cinema historians had, for years, lamented as lost, totally unaware of Mike’s collection. But eventually perseverance pays off, local academics from the University of Iowa work with Mike, and as academics do, they bring in other experts, including the Library of Congress. It’s soon recognised that the collection has remarkable works, such as rare moving images of Teddy Roosevelt, the first known film from Burma (how astonishing and exotic would that have seemed to an 1890s audience in an era before television, internet and easy international travel?), absolute gold: works by the first true genius of our beloved cinematic medium, Georges Méliès. Actually scratch that, Georges Méliès is not so much a genius as a wizard.


(above, Brinton projecting one of his shows, image from University of Iowa’s Brinton collection; below, Mike Zahs and the film-makers at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pics from my Flickr)
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 02

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 03

All of this “lost” cinematic history being rediscovered as academics finally take notice, increasingly enthusiastically, of what Mike has been trying to show them for years, would be fascinating enough, and the triumph, from only local folks watching to international recognition of the importance of this collection (complete with showbills, photographs, glass slides for the magic lanterns, projectors and more along with the actual nitrate films) is satisfying: Mike goes from showing the works to his local friends and community to an outdoor film festival screening in an ancient square in Bologna, and the international film festival circuit. But there is much more to Saving Brinton than the rare works saved from vanishing into history: this is a film which is as much about people and about community as anything else.

It’s to the credit of the film-makers that they spend quite a bit of the running time on Saving Britnon exploring this small local community, and Mike is their way into this small farming town. As well as putting on shows with Brinton’s films, magic lantern slides (some very sophisticated, allowing for overlaps and dissolves which are still gorgeous looking even to modern eyes used to CGI wonders), we see Mike planting peach trees on the family farm close to others that go back generation in his family, Mike delighting young kids at the local school showing them all sorts of odd-looking historical artifacts from his collection and engaging them into learning without even realising it (always a good trick to play on kids to enthuse them), even giving a talk to some of the local Amish families on local history. As Mike said himself at the Edinburgh screening, the most important part of the world “history” is “story”, and stories are about people. And Saving Brinton shows how that remarkable collection is more than preserved celluloid frames and ephemera, it has been woven into the local communities since 1895 when Brinton took it from town to town.

At the Edinburgh Film Festival screening we were lucky enough to have the film-makers Tommy Haines and Andrew Sherbune present, as well as Mike himself, who seemed utterly delighted to be showing this work at the world’s oldest continually running film festival (quite an appropriate venue for such a subject, surely), and in person he was as delightful and fascinating as he was to watch in the film. As a bonus, after the film and a Q&A we were treated to ten minutes of these very short works – works that, as is said in the film, were made when the people we now think of as the stars of the silent era, the Chaplins, the Keatons, would still have been children, they are that early. These included the “flying machines” which many in the UK will recognise (created by Brinton’s contemporary Sir Hiram Maxim, still flying at Blackpool today), some truly glorious early 1900s colour film (each frame painstakingly hand-tinted to produce the effect, which still looks magical), and treasure upon treasure, a Georges Méliès film which was thought lost for most of the last century, and here Mike and his small town had been enjoying watching it for the last thirty years…

This is just an utterly enchanting, beautiful film about shared history, community, art, lives. Mike and his wife have donated the collection to the University of Iowa Libraries, where it is being carefully examined, conserved and digitally copied so it can be shared. There is a dedicated site for the Brinton Collection run by the university, which I highly recommend visiting for more information and also to find links to watch some of these incredibly early films online, such as the hand-coloured Serpentine Dance and other little gems that were so nearly lost forever, and the official Saving Brinton site has more information. This is an absolutely magical, warm, smile-inducing documentary that is a must-see for anyone with a passion for film.

Lights, camera, music! Score: a Film Music Documentary

Score: a Film Music Documentary,

Directed by Matt Schrader


Music and cinema, two of my favourite things in life, and when combined those visuals flickering on the screen, the narrative, the actors, the dialogue and the music create something which is, when it really works, far greater than the sum of its parts. Can you imagine Star Wars without John Williams’ score? Or the magic he brought to Jaws (Spielberg often remarked with all the effects problems with the mechanical shark models Williams’ iconic theme became the shark the visual effects couldn’t give him)? Or that Superman theme, that dum de de dum dumm dumm building rapidly to that triumphant, suitably heroic theme that makes you want to “do the Superman”, rip open your shirt to show that big S, so empowering, magical, inspiring, so perfectly in symbiosis with the visuals. Just a few bars from any of those themes is instantly iconic, we hear it and the magic of that film moment fills us. A few notes of it added to a comedy sketch works the same magic, it’s instantly recognisable and comes with a built-in recognition and series of memories and emotions.

And that’s only three examples from one – albeit masterful – composer. Score talks to, well a score or more (sorry) of contemporary composers, and this includes a large number of have worked on some of our favourite sci-fi, horror, fantasy and comics-based movies, from Bear McCreary to Hans Zimmer, about their work, their inspirations, how they collaborate with directors and other musicians, from rousing themes like Gladiator or Pirates of the Caribbean to musicians who are generally seen as working outside the soundtrack composition world but who have been invited in, like Trent Reznor, bringing fascinating new ideas, rhythms, energies and passion to the world of film music, to its betterment.

(Hans Zimmer discussing his craft in Score)

That notion of change and evolution is strong in Score; while much of the running time, understandably, talks to contemporary composers – John Williams, Danny Elfman, Trent Reznor, Quincy Jones, Rachel Portman and many more – about their craft, and commenting on the works of others they admire, past and present, the film also takes in the ever-changing nature of film music. From the mighty King Kong in the 1930s, a pioneer not just in visual effects but in using a full symphony orchestra to score the movie (that fabulous music as Kong scales the Empire State Building) – bear in mind at that point the “talkie”, the sound movie, was only a few years old, this was inventing new ways of storytelling for a new medium (although as the film also points out, even the preceding “silent” movies were never truly silent, there was always at least a piano playing along to them, or the famous Wurlitzer organ, or a small chamber orchestra in some cinemas, while some silent films had visual cues for those musical accompaniments – think Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr, for example).

Like many things today we are so used to the notion of a film with carefully composed music being part of its fabric that it is easy to forget someone had to come up with these ideas originally, then others developed them, they became the standard approach. Then others would come along and shake that approach up with something new and fresh – that fabulous, then contemporary jazz score for A Streetcar Named Desire replacing the notion of the symphonic suite to huge effect, a burning, modern, sexual, jazz that went with the story and visual so perfectly evoking and enhancing the mood, the feeling on levels that work beyond those paired with the visuals.

(the Air Studio in a converted London church)

The methods used for inspiration, for creation and recording are discussed, from hearing natural sounds and wondering how they might translate into music for a piece to feeling their way through how to translate that sound in their head into something tangible, experience and artistic intuition telling them how to continue, be it a simple, short piece that may be best on a solo piano to some great, iconic theme that requires a full orchestra (and then how to set up and record that orchestra, which space to use, how to deploy it, the changes in post production, so many choices that can make totally different sounds and feeling to the resulting music), or something new, digital electronica or contemporary jazz or rock or dance beats. There’s technical discussion, but mostly what comes across from all of these musicians is passion for their work, for what it adds to the cinematic medium, and the respect and admiration many of them show for the work of other musicians, contemporary and those who went before.

(Bear McCreary experimenting with different instruments and sounds)

This takes in a huge swathe of film music history, and of course it includes many of our beloved fantastical genres that have featured score which have become iconic – think on that intricate music for Inception, the big, brassy, sassy, swaggering music for James Bond, that Jaws theme, Mad Max, Close Encounters, Psycho, the Avengers movies, that great, swelling Lord of the Rings theme (and all the smaller character themes that weave through key moments). I play a lot of soundtracks when working in the Blogcave, and even divorced from the film they still inspire me, enthuse me, play with my emotions and the best ones, even played on their own, evoke memories of some of my favourite film moments, from Star Wars to Dunkirk. Score captures that feeling the music creates in us as the audience, how the finest soundtracks live in our heads afterwards, and that wonderful magic that happens when amazing musicians and remarkable film-makers come together.

I could easily have sat through much more of this, Score is by turns fascinating and inspiring, a glimpse into some of the creative processes that bring out favourite films to life, to the power of music to enhance the emotional experience.

Score: a Film Documentary is out on DVD and  available via Video on Demand from Dogwoof on April the 2nd

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Manhattan

I claimed a bit of owed time back and left work slightly early to catch a classic screening of one of my favourite movies at the Filmhouse on the way home from work, Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan. I have it on DVD at home in my (probably way too large) film collection, but it’s a different experience watching a movie in the cinema than it is at home. Not just the obvious screen size difference – you concentrate more on the film in the cinema, you’re there in the dark, with an audience all reacting to the scenes alongside you, not at home, pausing the DVD to go and put the kettle on or check your Twitter feed.

And it was still wonderful after all these years – I think Manhattan has one of the greatest openings in cinema, Woody’s dialogue, his writer trying out lines “he adored New York, he idolised it…” over a montage of all sorts of views of the city, from the expensive fashion stores to the family neighbourhood, that iconic skyline and then, as the Gershwin soundtrack soars that skyline erupts with fireworks, all of this in glowing black and white cinematography. New York has rarely looked more beautiful on film, it’s a magical movie moment (what I call a Triple-M, just perfect scenes in a film that live in your mind’s eye ever after and always raise that reaction no matter how often you see it). And then there’s that perfectly composed scene of Woody with Diane Keaton, sitting by a bench by the river next to the Queensboro Bridge, as dawn starts to break. Sublime.

I had a little time before the early evening showing, so I parked myself in the Filmhouse cafe-bar for some food and drink before the screening. The Filmhouse is one of my “happy places”, it’s been a second home for me since I moved to Edinburgh as a student a long time ago, and being there for a movie, the film fest or even just in the cafe-bar makes me content. As I was having my drink I was, of course, reading (always a book in my bag), in this case Simon Garfield’s On the Map, a history of cartography which I picked up in a charity store recently. And right before it was time to close the book and head up to the auditorium what do I read but a paragraph on the first appearances of America on world maps, and the first mention, in the mid 1600s, of Manhattan on a map, here referred to as “Manhattes”, just as I was about to go in to see the film Manhattan. I love little meaningless coincidences like that…

Magic Lanterns

Magic lantern 01

During the Edinburgh International Film Festival last week I saw a film called Cinema, Mon Amour, a documentary about a group trying to save an old cinema in Romania. Afterwards the Filmhouse very kindly gave us a short tour of the main projection booth – we had to be quiet and I couldn’t use the flash as another festival screening was going on below us (we could see it through the wee rectangular window in the booth). The pair of decades old cine projectors are named Kenneth and Sid – even in this bastion of arthouse and international film, the Carry On movies have influence!

Magic lantern 02

Quite nostalgic for me to see these and hear them – the whirring sound of anaologue projectors is part of my childhood memories of cinema, and at home we had a Super 8mm cine camera as well as our 35mm still cameras, and we screened them quite often on long winter’s nights for the family. There’s something satisfying about old analogue tech like this, you can see it moving, see how it works. The Filmhouse must be one of the last cinemas in the city that retains the ability to show actual film prints as well as digital and properly trained projectionists. They were telling us about their skills, from being able to change from one projector to the other seamlessly mid-film, fixing broken celluloid to adjusting focus, ratio and even speed for different formats and eras (early films shot on hand-cranked cameras require a lot of skill to adjust the film speed, since their shooting rate varied as cameramen’s arms got tired. Lovely to see these magic lanterns which paint stories on a screen using nothing more than light…

Magic lantern 03

Magic lantern 04

Film fest time

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 05

I’m enjoying a few days off for my annual Edinburgh International Film Festival fun. Last night at the Traverse Theatre as part of the film fest they had an “in conversation” with French actor Dominique Pinon, who has appeared in a number of my favourite films over the years. One of those evening that reminds me one of the reason I love living here so much is that with our festivals everyone comes to Edinburgh at some point, writers, directors, actors, musicians, they all come here. I took a few photos with the new camera – sitting several rows up and back in a theatre so not the best place for taking photos, but out of the batch I shot a handful came out passably.

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 07

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 08

Comics on cinema: Filmish

Filmish : A Graphic Journey Through Film,

Edward Ross,

SelfMadeHero

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Cinema. Comics. Two media which have, essentially grown up together through the 20th century, both still evolving today. And both have been intertwined for the best part of a century; today comics characters dominate the top end of the mega box office with films like The Avengers, while the vibrant Indy comics scene feeds into the equally vibrant Indy movie scene (think the wonderful Crumb biopic or Ghost World). It’s not a new relationship – in the earliest days as both comics and film were finding their way as mass media, still inventing what they could do, early comics genius Winsor McCay was dabbling in some of the first animated films. By the 30s and 40s Hollywood would already be mining comics for ideas: Flash Gordon, Batman, Dick Tracey. Cinema and comics have evolved a lot over the last century and a bit, and I find it deeply satisfying that one strongly visual medium, comics, is here being used to discuss another visually rich medium, film.

I first encountered Edward Ross and his Filmish series as a wee A5 self-published mini comic in the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and I loved it straight away. Each issue over the next few years would pick a theme to explore, using clever visuals and some very well-done research to explore various ideas and theories about cinema, some technical, some artistic, some ideological and sociological, taking in a wide variety of topics, from the power of the image and how much we can trust it (or manipulate it for effect) to the technology (both the tech used to make film and also the movie stories often explore our relationship with technology) to sociological and psychological implications, such as social hegemony, celebrating or vilifying the Outsider, the representations of class, gender, religion, race, and, something cinema is remarkable at, discussing what John Berger called our “ways of seeing”.

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Appropriately enough the first themed chapter is The Eye, looking at not just the human eye, but that wonderful mechanical (now digital) eye invented by human ingenuity: the camera. We’re surrounded by visual imagery today; pretty much anyone can shoot a video clip on their phone and upload it within minutes to share online. But in the first few pages here Ed capture brilliantly the sheer magic of early cinema and the astonishing notion of being able to see moving pictures. Think about it for a moment; through all the long millennia of human civilisations we’ve had art – from cave paintings 30, 000 years ago to the seemingly eternal carvings of the Egyptians to the glories of the Renaissance. And yet in all those thousands of years it was only in the closing years of the 19th century that human beings could see the world around them – animals, the sea, trains, other people – in moving images, recorded for posterity, images they could return to and re-watch. How astounding must that have been to those first audiences? Even today there is a magic in this, from that moment when the house darkens and the first images start to appear on a cinema screen, the feeling of going on a journey, or the simple pleasure of home movies, from the old 8MM to modern hi-def videos, moments of time preserved, which we can go back to again and again. Decades on we can go back and see loved ones long gone, but on film they are still moving, walking, smiling, living. Magic.

But there is much more to the act of seeing than just observing, and Ed touches on this topic numerous times, not just in the chapter on The Eye but in later chapters – there is how we see, and how the camera sees. How early on there was more trust, the adage of the “camera never lies”, a naïve assumption of course, every image ever shot will contain some deliberate elements from the photographer. Sometimes it is as simple as what they chose to show in the frame and what they omitted. At other times, as Ed discusses in later chapters on Power and Ideology, it is more sinister, more thought-out, a planned use of imagery, edits, cross-cuts and other techniques carefully used to create a specific message, be it blatant propaganda films beloved by Goebbels or the more insidious messages which many mainstream movies carry, some in an obvious, heavy-handed way (think of the ‘anti-red’ messages blatant in some McCarthy era movies in the US) or mainstream movies which celebrate military achievements and actively collaborate with the armed forces to make the film (giving the authorities direct influence over the making of the film and its message), or more subtle messages, such as supposed societal norms being reinforced (marriage, family, heterosexuality, gender roles) and how some films transgress these notions, often to powerful effect.

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Time and space are essential qualities in cinema – the imagery can show us an endless variety of spaces, from galaxies far away to the sweeping, iconic landscapes of a John Ford Western, while also recording specific moments, thoughts and actions in time, held forever in the camera’s eye. And of course cinema can manipulate those aspects of reality in a way we poor humans cannot – we’re forever stuck in a linear timeline, able to look in one direction at a time. The film can show us multiple viewpoints, long panoramas or intimate close-ups and do so rapidly, or even merge scenes in a way the human eye cannot. And it can play with time; early film genius Georges Melies discovering the edit through a glitch, a camera jam, a technique now everyday but a century ago revolutionary. You could pause the camera, cut to other scenes, use it for effects (like making a person seemingly disappear), you could have slow-motion, you could reverse the flow of images, you could show events happening at the same time or different times within a few moments of filmic sequence, powers of time and space manipulation we don’t have in the real world but which film frees us to explore.

These are not just cinematic and storytelling techniques, they also suggest to the human eye and mind different notions about how we perceive the world around us and why we do – as if the invention of the film camera had added an extra sensory layer to those given to our bodies by natural selection. And that is another strength of Filmish – Ed doesn’t just examine some aspects of film-making and how we view cinema, he goes into how these processes have affected our thinking. Filmish is replete with references and quotes to numerous academic theorists throughout. This is a book which celebrates movies but also questions the medium and it offers up some of the academic tools to help with that process of thinking and questioning not just what we se,e but why we see it, why the film-makers decided to show something in a specific manner and more, to develop that critical faculty while still retaining a simple love for the moving image as well, and in this I think Filmish succeeds spectacularly.

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Having read many of the same theorists cited here back in my college days I can say I am impressed not just with the depth of research Ed has put in here, but how wonderfully accessible he makes it using the comics medium, and the book comes complete with an extensive bibliography and filmography for those wishing to explore some of those topics further. And given we live in such a media-rich environment, a media which is hugely influential, it is no bad thing to have more of us thinking critically about what that media is being used for and how it is made and consumed. And the filmography will leave you with a list of movies you really want to seek out, or perhaps old favourites you will feel compelled to revisit again. And this time perhaps you will look at those films a little differently.

But I don’t want to give the impression this is all about academic theorists in comics form, stroking their chins and talking about the intertextual nature of the postmodern image (yes, I have had lecturers use sentences like that). While Ed presents the film studies side of things very well and accessibly, he never lets it get in the way of simply revelling in the magic of the medium, of the power of the moving image, how it can inspire us, horrify us, make us sigh, weep, laugh and dream. While this is a more text-heavy work than most comics, the artwork is still important here, and there are multiple delights to be had, from lovely splash pages (Melies mastering his early techniques, the amazing cityscape of Metropolis) to many smaller, intimate panels using scenes from so many films across more than a century, Ed often adding his own comic avatar into some scenes in appropriate stance and costume (I think he enjoyed doing that!). And for those of us forever in love with cinema there’s the simple delight of recognition of films from Ed’s panels, the flash of memory at seeing art depicting a scene from the movies we’ve loved, from the nightmarish twisted angles of Doctor Caligari to Goddard’s oh-so-cool Breathless or Kubrick’s 2001, and the memories they stir in us because those images are powerful, woven into our collective culture but also into our personal thoughts.

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It’s a beautifully realised work, both celebrating and questioning cinema, richly illustrated with art that any film lover will recognise right away (and there is a simple film geek “trainspotting” pleasure to noticing the references – go on, admit it, you’re probably already done it just with the cover, haven’t you, how many did you spot right away?), while the structural idea of having themes for each chapter, a device carried over from the original mini-comics (although even the elements which made it from the originals have been extensively expanded and re-worked and re-drawn) gives a flow to the reading here. It’s a rich read, both in imagery and ideas, one medium used to cleverly explore another, and it offers pleasures to both the film-lover, to those of us who’ve waded through film-studies academia and also to those who have never given film studies a thought it is so accessible and friendly a read that they won’t be put off in any way (and indeed they may find themselves thinking a bit more about film and wanting to explore some of the references in the bibliography).

Ultimately Filmish is a book simply in love with cinema – not unquestioningly, it looks, it examines, it encourages the reader to do likewise – but it also remembers to just let ourselves go, to marvel at the magic of the movies and to re-experience that sense of wonder. A film-lover’s delight.