Girl Power: American Indie (#5)

Leave a comment

Sadie Benning Girl Power

Girl Power, I was once told, was a slogan coined by The Spice Girls.

‘Which one?’

The question was met with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘I’m not sure, think they might’ve came up with it together.’

No, no, no. Before The Spice Girls persuaded a big chunk of the world’s CD buying public that what they really, really wanted was manufactured pop dross, there was brattish bubblegum punks Shampoo with their Girl Power single and album, and before them Milwaukee born Sadie Benning called one of her early short videos Girl Power after the Bikini Kill: Girl Power fanzine.

So, within about five years Girl Power went from feminist riot grrrl slogan to being appropriated as marketing tool used to promote a global phenomenon – who liked to cite Maggie Thatcher as an influence. As Geri Halliwell put it in 1996: ‘Thatcher was the first Spice Girl, the pioneer of our ideology—Girl Power.’

Beware Girl Power

It’s said that the fifteen year old Benning spent most nights alone in her bedroom, where she would narrate the events of her life while gazing into the lens of her Fisher-Price PXL2000, a kid’s black-and-white camcorder that used a compact audio cassette as its recording medium and possessed only about half the resolution of most basic camcorders on the market at the time. Its images were high contrast and were surrounded by a thick letterboxed border.

Back in the first half of the 1990s, the idea of shooting films on a PXL2000 exploded, after Richard Linklater included a short sequence shot in PixelVision in his 1990 debut feature film, Slacker.

Inspired by directors like Linklater and Steven Soderbergh, independent filmmaking in America was on the rise at this point, as was the grunge music of bands like Nirvana and the Riot Girrrl movement. These influences all collided in the work of Sadie Benning, helping her forge her unique lo-fi aesthetic that quickly began attracting attention.


One early piece was the aforementioned Girl Power from 1992. Here Benning creates an urgent visual collage, incorporating scrawled text on paper and some cut-out lettering similar to The Sex Pistols’ ransom typography; there’s brief clips of TV ads; old home movies; music by The Sugarhill Gang, Blondie and Bikini Kill’s Revolution Girl Style Now; shots of strange and shocking material lifted from a number of sources – these include an old lady shooting in a gun range and a snippet of an interview with the American Nazi Party leader of the time George Lincoln Rockwell; as well as highly pixelated black and white footage. The PixelVision was certainly accurately named.

All this, and much more, is accompanied by close-ups of Benning’s face and her rather flat voice over giving us accounts of her alienation as a child and thoughts on her lesbian identity. A constant camera hum is part of the package too.

Girl Power still.png

It’s much nearer to a punk or underground fanzine than watching a standard American studio movie*, although of course, whereas making a fanzine has always remained a relatively easy and cheap, making any kind of film in the pre-smartphone 1990s, was a more expensive area of creativity to become involved in.

As Benning explained in an interview with Jigsaw fanzine: ‘I have a 8mm camera, and an 8mm small little deck that cost like 400 dollars, and an editor controller that cost a hundred dollars, and I edit between the deck and the camera.’ She went on to explain: ‘I have only one channel of sound, and if I want to have music and voice over, I have to have my boom box and be turning it up, and saying the lines, and then be turning it down.’

I saw some of her work at the CCA in Glasgow and immediately wanted to get my hands on a PixelVision. Already, though, they were being considered a much sought after cult item. They were only on sale for around a year, with only 400,000 of them ever being manufactured worldwide. So I couldn’t join in the fun. Maybe this was for the best.

Benning’s camera, incidentally, would have cost around $100. Before the 1990s were out, they were selling for over ten times their original price.


Even early in her career Benning began appearing in prestigious art shows like NYC 1993: Jet Set, Trash and No Star at the New Museum and that same year, she became the youngest artist to show at long-running American art survey the Whitney Biennial, when she was only nineteen – her filmmaking father had been shown at five previous Biennials (and Sadie’s camera had been a Christmas gift from him).

In 1998, Benning joined Le Tigre, a feminist dance-punk band with singer/guitarist Kathleen Hanna (previously of Bikini Kill) and fanzine editor Johanna Fateman.

This century has seen her being awarded several solo exhibitions, including at the Walker Art Center in 2005 and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2009.

No trailer exists for Benning’s Girl Power – well it does only last fifteen minutes – but here’s likely where I first heard phrase Girl Power, mentioned here as a lyric on a fragile ditty by Ramones obsessed Helen Love, a Welsh singer/band that John Peel played a lot in the 1990s.

From 1993, this is Formula One Racing Girls:

* Asked in a 1993 New York Times interview, she was asked if Hollywood had ever come calling, she replied: ‘Yes, but it’s too weird to talk about.’

A Kind of Loving & This Is My Street (New Waves #11)

Leave a comment

A Kind of Loving

Among the special features on the Vintage Classics blu-ray of A Kind of Loving I’ve been watching, there’s an interview with Stuart Maconie, where he speculates that The Beatles might have been encouraged to write tracks like Penny Lane by watching films like A Kind of Loving. It’s an excellent extra but I wasn’t entirely convinced by this idea.

Being Stuart Maconie, he also manages to bring up music by later Northern English bands like Joy Division and The Smiths that obviously watched this cycle of dramas too.

Based on Stan Barstow’s debut novel of 1960 and adapted by Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, this is a simple story. Boy meets girl. The boy is Vic Brown (Alan Bates), a draughtsman in a northern English factory. The girl is Ingrid Rothwell (June Ritchie), a typist in that same factory where Vic works. At the wedding of Vic’s older sister Christine, Vic catches Ingrid’s eye. Soon he’s smitten. She likes him too.


Ingrid is a good-looking blonde named after Ingrid Bergman, although her life certainly lacks the glitz and glamour of the famous Swedish star. She lives at home with her widowed mother played by Thora Hird. A poisonous old biddy, she constantly bumps her gums about any subject you could care to name, without demonstrating a single insight into any of them as she does so.

Vic can be selfish. Ingrid can be demanding and unimaginative, almost like a representative of everything Richard Hoggart railed against in Uses of Literacy. She fanatically watches soaps and game shows and loves buying clothes, especially coats. Vic’s held onto his Northern working-class roots to a greater extent – he’s more brass bands than rock’n’roll.

He can be foul tempered, such as his reaction to Ingrid bringing her headnipping pal along to what was supposed to have been a date but he’s more a frustrated young man than a permanently angry young man like Look Back In Anger‘s Jimmy Porter or Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

He’s also more ambitious than Ingrid, with a desire to see a bit of the world before settling down. But as you likely know, this doesn’t happen. The pair have sex and Ingrid becomes pregnant. Although this was an X-rated film on its release, we don’t see any sex. Instead, we see only its aftermath. And I reckon it’s safe to assume that the earth failed to move for either of them.


This is a world of Brylcream, Woodbine, half pints of bitter and taking rattles to the football and it’s the same world that Barstow grew up in.

When the novelist first started out in his writing career, he still worked in a draughtsman’s office like Vic. His own father played cornet in a brass band (as Vic’s father does), while like Mrs Rothwell, his mother disapproved of strong alcohol. It would seem he also experienced a number of difficulties during his marriage.

As a middle-class gay Jewish intellectual from Hampstead, John Schlesinger might not have struck many as the ideal director to bring Barstow’s nuanced tale of working class life to the big screen but what an exceptional job he does. A Kind of Loving is poetic and lyrical and funny but entirely realistic too.

Alan Bates & June Ritchie in A Kind of Loving

The acting from Bates (even if he’s a little too old for his role), Ritchie and Hird is uniformly excellent and there are a number of actors like James Bolam and Jack Smethurst in smaller parts, who also manage to shine, albeit more briefly.

A Kind of Loving was a box-office success in Britain, ending the year as one of the top ten grossing films, and it scooped the Golden Bear at the 12th Berlin International Film Festival. It’s one of the best British films of the 1960s, and maybe Schlesinger’s finest ever although Midnight Cowboy might just edge it and Billy Liar is a delight too.


If you like A Kind of Loving, you might also like This is My Street (1964).

This is My Street quad poster

My copy of Robert Murphy’s Sixties British Cinema has a photo of June Ritchie and Alan Bates in A Kind of Loving on its cover but This is My Street, which also starred Ritchie, wasn’t deemed important enough to merit a single mention in the book.

This largely forgotten slice of kitchen sink is set on an estate in the shadow of Battersea Power Station, which Ritchie’s character Marge Graham calls ‘a hovel’, although it’s not as grim as many of the northern settings in British New Wave films.

This is an interesting watch, a time capsule of 1960s London on the brink of starting to swing. The women do all the skivying while the men pay for the drinks and meals. It’s the 1960s and Beatlemania must have been happening while it was being made but don’t expect females in mini-skirts or men with longish hair.

Ritchie here teamed up for a second time with Ian Hendry – after 1962’s Live Now Pay Later proved there was a good chemistry between the pair. Both perform credibly again here although unlike A Kind of Loving, the plot veers towards the melodramatic on a couple of occasions.

June Ritchie in This is My Street

June Ritchie does a good job, but she would not go on to enjoy the same success in acting that Alan Bates did, largely due to her decision to concentrate on raising her children. But she did take part in some interesting projects including 1963’s The World Ten Times Over, which the British Film Institute described as ‘the first British film to deal with an implicitly lesbian relationship.’ In 1974, she appeared on one-off Granada TV drama Starmaker opposite Ray Davies and soon afterwards she sang on The Kinks’ album, Soap Opera – which was based on Starmaker.

Ray Davies, incidentally, brought up a similar point to the one made by Maconie. Talking about his time in art school in the early 1960s a few years ago, he noted: ‘The kitchen-sink dramas did show that people responded to subject matter that wasn’t purely about the leisure classes. It also allowed bands like The Beatles, The Stones and The Kinks to come through.’

For more on June Ritchie: https://juneritchie.co.uk/

Too Old To Die Young (Soundtrack Sundays)

Leave a comment

Too Old To Die Young Soundtrack

If you ever happen to switch on your TV and come across a movie that you don’t know which has moody, damaged characters who say very little, hypnotic scenes with colourful palettes with red to the fore and plenty of visceral ultraviolence, chances are it’s been directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.

The chances are also that you will experience a strong reaction to what you’re seeing.

‘Polarization, to me, is the key,’ Refn explained in a recent interview. ‘That’s the definition of success.’ He also claimed that creativity is not about being likable, which is good to hear in an age where many virtue signalling filmmakers seem keener on providing an inspirational message that promotes social justice and diversity than telling a fascinating story. Not that social justice or diversity are bad obviously. But characters behaving horrendously do tend to make for better drama. And there are plenty of characters behaving horrendously here.


In Too Old To Die Young, dialogue is sparse and the pace slow. Frustratingly slow at times. I watched Refn’s Pusher trilogy recently and it was striking how fast moving it was in comparison. And that characters spoke as near as dammit naturalistically. Another big difference was the lack of a Cliff Martinez score. And of the scores he’s composed for Refn: Drive, Only God Forgives and The Neon Demon being the first three, this is very probably the best.

Here, though, I want to feature some existing tracks used in the series.
In the final episode, one of the main characters decides that it would be good to dance to Goldfrapp’s Ooh La La. On her own, for the complete length of the song.

Ooh La La is certainly a great synth glam stomp to shake your stuff to. Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky is sampled, and there’s a strong echo of Canned Heat’s On The Road Again. Some early Giorgio Moroder and T.Rex have been thrown into the mix too, and I reckon I can detect a trace of Elvis in places and even an echo of Suicide in the keyboards. And I adore those disco angel vocals from Alison Goldfrapp.

Here’s the song live from Later… with Jools Holland:

Refn’s latest work is a sometimes brilliant and sometimes exasperating ten part series that explores the seedy underworld of crime in LA, and which occasionally takes up the story in Mexico with a drug cartel bigwig called Jesus (Augusto Aguilera). I’m sure Nicolas Windup Refn took a great delight in giving a brutal killer with a (dead) mummy fixation that particular name.

And believe me, you won’t have a friend in this Jesus.

If there’s a central character, though, it would be LAPD sheriff Martin Jones (played by Miles Teller), who is in a relationship with a seventeen year old high school senior, Janey (Nell Tiger Free). Janey has a brilliant mind, and according to creepy father Theo (William Baldwin), she’s a ten in the looks department too. Oh, and as this is California, having sex with Martin is illegal due to Janey’s age, although this doesn’t overly concern Theo.

Outwith his police work, Martin is also forced to carry out hits for Damian, a Jamaican American gangster, who loves vintage ska. Martin later comes into the sphere of Diana DeYoung (Jena Malone) a victim’s advocate, who feeds former FBI agent Viggo Larsen (John Hawkes), information about paedophiles that she has learnt about through her law work.

Viggo acts on this by killing the names he is given. Martin discovers this and luckily for Diana and Viggo, he believes that if a child abuser is killed, it’s a victim-less crime.

Does Martin believe in Homicide? Yes, he does. Absolutely. Does Theo like dad dancing to 999’s Homicide at a party for Janey’s eighteenth birthday? Yes, he does.

Produced by Martin Rushent (Buzzcocks, Human League), the sixth single by 999 was released by United Artists in October 1978 in Britain. Here it is live on The Old Grey Whistle Test, just as the craze in Britain for tight pink trousers apparently reached its peak:

Sadly, Homicide isn’t a part of the soundtrack album. Neither is Prince Buster’s ska classic Ten Commandments (okay, the lyrics are far from classic). Barry Manilow’s Mandy didn’t make the cut either – hurrah, but a nostalgic dirge called Elvis and Marilyn did – boo.

The Leather Nun are included, so hurrah again.

The Leather Nun were one of those acts whose name suggested that mainstream success was never very high on their agenda. The Sound of Young Sweden in the late 1970s/early 1980s, the band specialized in causing offence, especially with their live shows, where they were often accompanied by strippers with live adult movies being projected.

TOTDY utilises F.F.A, which doesn’t stand for Fast Filmic Action. If Grace Jones had teamed up with Bowie’s Lodger era band, they just might have come up with something not unlike this.

That’s Jesus with the whip, incidentally, in the video below and the brunette in the red leather trousers is Yaritza (Cristina Rodlo). Death follows Yaritza around to the extent that she proclaims herself ‘The High Priestess of Death’.

Maybe death is only following her around due to her cartel connections. But this theory doesn’t somehow seem to have occurred to her.

Here is a clip of F.F.A as it was used in episode 8. I didn’t mention the slow pace, didn’t I?

If you’re coming to Refn for the first time, then I’d recommend that you try Drive first. This series does resemble Drive in many ways, although Miles Teller is marginally less magnetic as Ryan Gosling and Jena Malone is nowhere near as good an actor as Carey Mulligan. But if you like Drive, you at least have a chance of enjoying Too Old To Die Young. If you dislike Drive, then watching this series will be a waste of thirteen hours of your life.

Nicolas Winding Refn could do with ditching the idea of letting himself be influenced by tarot readings from Alejandro Jodorowsky, but there is much to enjoy in the series from a psychedelic shooting rampage to a surreal skit on the crucifixion of Jesus (no, not the cartel Jesus) through to Monkee Puppet, a real cheeky little monkey who believes that ‘peace is only for hippies’.