Long Shot (Scottish Connection #4)

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Long Shot 1978
Director: Maurice Hatton
Cast: Charles Gormley, Neville Smith, Anne Zelda

Today marks the start of the 72nd Edinburgh International Film Festival.
This year’s programme promises some real cinematic delights including the American Dreams strand which will showcase some of the most fascinating new films from independent cinema across the pond including Unicorn Store, the directorial debut of Brie Larson. What I’m most looking forward to, though, is Hal, a documentary portrait of director Hal Ashby (of The Last Detail, Harold and Maude, and Being There fame).

Also being screened on the 40th anniversary of its premiere at the 1978 Festival at the Calton Studios is an obscure micro-budget film about filmmaking shot mainly in Edinburgh during the ’77 Festival.

Long Shot will be shown again this year on Sun 1 July at the Filmhouse 2 and here’s an updated version of a review (with a little added flavour of the Edinburgh independent music scene of the era) originally available here.

Long Shot

1977 proved to be a key year for independent music in Britain, The Buzzcocks’ Spiral Scratch EP proving to be the catalyst for what would become a boom period for the D-I-Y ethic. All of a sudden independent labels began springing up around the country with Edinburgh well to the fore, represented by such fondly remembered imprints as Fast, Zoom and Sensible; labels that gave the world The Human League, Rezillos, Mekons, Valves and many more.

The idea of setting up a record label and bringing out a few thousand copies of a single suddenly struck many as easily achievable. The Desperate Bicycles could even sing ‘It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it’, but in the pre-digital era, for budding independent filmmakers hoping to shoot a feature, it was often a gargantuan task scraping together enough money to buy film stock, pay actors and crew and all those other inevitable costs.

And while the head honcho of a label could bring a bag full of singles to be sold along to a local record shop like Bruce’s on Rose Street or Hot Licks on Cockburn Street, or go down the mail order route, small film production companies faced major problems setting up deals for distribution at any of the major British cinema chains.

Mithras Films, the London-based production company behind Long Shot, was certainly far removed from the studio system while the film’s director, Maurice Hatton, was once dubbed ‘the most incorruptibly independent’ of British filmmakers.

Shot on some super grainy film, mainly short-ends and stock that was on the brink of expiring from what was then East Germany, the film illustrates the struggles of Charlie Gormley (played by Charles Gormley). He’s a small-time producer touting around a script by his pal Neville Smith (played by – you guessed it – Neville Smith). A likeable Glaswegian, Charlie’s passionate but never too in-yer-face when delivering his spiel regarding Gulf and Western, a ‘movie about oil’ set in Aberdeen and he elicits interest from one distributor, who promises to front some money if Gormley can land a name director, preferably Sam Fuller, to helm the film.

Long_Shot_-_Charlie_Gormley_&_Richard_Demarco

Most of Gormley’s time is spent on wild goose chases, desperately trying to track down the veteran American director, who is due to make a guest appearance at the Edinburgh International Film Festival as well as persuading typists to update the screenplay, and hustling his script to any exec, agent or possible investor prepared to listen. Who will then – if they judge the project has any merit – insist that compromises will have to be made.

I’m not sure how much easier it is to get a feature film made today but at least in the age of smart phones, Microsoft Word and the internet, the majority of hopefuls will at least spend less time being rejected.

Long_Shot-_Wim_Wenders

Fuller is a no show and in a meeting with Wim Wenders, Gormley brings up the idea of him becoming involved – something which Wenders doesn’t totally rebuff. Later it will be the turn of John Boorman to be courted, and he shows genuine interest in working on Gulf and Western, albeit with no guarantees.

As for stars, Susannah York (who Neville confuses with Julie Christie and then Lynn Redgrave) and Sylvia Kristel are both apparently in the frame for the role of the lead female – knowing how popular softcore porn and sex comedies (which featured not very much sex and even less comedy) were with British audiences of the time, the latter might have been the better choice purely in terms of the box office.

In real life, Charlie Gormley co-ran an independent production company, Tree Films, in Glasgow along with Bill Forsyth around this time, the pair earning their money mostly by shooting sponsored documentaries for local tourist boards and large businesses. Forsyth is seen briefly in a cameo here where he discusses what I’m guessing is an authentic project that the pair worked on together.

Yes, fact and fiction blur incessantly in Long Shot – most of the cinematic luminaries here play themselves (or versions of themselves) although a few others are morphed into completely invented characters: Alan Bennett provides a turn as a hapless and hopeless doctor while Stephen Frears is a nameless biscuit salesman whose car is hijacked by Neville and his new pal Annie – incidentally, Frear’s debut directorial effort, Gumshoe, had been penned by Smith.

Long_Shot_-_Neville_Smith_&_Alan_Bennett

Long Shot is episodic, fading in and out and utilising a plethora of title cards throughout. Shot mostly in black and white (with colour only making an appearance very late on as things finally start looking up for Charlie and Neville) the film, despite its obvious financial limitations, is a fascinating watch and might just be the most insightful fictionalised look at what would later become known as lo-fi or guerrilla filmmaking that I have seen.

The performances are solid and naturalistic with particularly enjoyable turns from both Gormley and Smith. I know I was rooting for their project to be green-lit. It’s also very amusing with some strong farcical comedy, and it undoubtedly deserves to be more widely known, having only ever been screened once on British TV, on Channel 4 over thirty years ago.

Luckily, last summer Long Shot finally gained the chance to been seen more widely via a British Film Institute dual format release as part of their Flipside series, dedicated to rediscovering cult British films. Previous entries having included Bronco Bullfrog, Deep End and Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling. Long Shot is a valuable addition to the list.

The extras included are generally very strong, the best of the bunch being Hooray for Holyrood from 1986, an enjoyable and informative look at the first forty years of the Edinburgh International Film Festival (with a couple of brief detours to Cannes) presented by a delightfully caustic Robbie Coltrane.

There’s also Scene Nun, Take One, a short and almost silent comedy directed by Hatton that comes over as a love letter to the French New Wave; Sean Connery’s Edinburgh, a 1982 TV documentary that does exactly what it says on the tin and an enlightening 22 page booklet with new writing by Dylan Cave, Bill Forsyth (whose award winning Local Hero could also be called a movie about oil) and Vic Pratt.

The real life Gormley went on to direct a couple of films, the best-known being Heavenly Pursuits, which starred Tom Conti and Helen Mirren. His TV work includes 1993’s Down Among the Big Boys with a cast that included Billy Connolly. Sadly he died in 2005.

For more information on Long Shot visit the film’s page on the BFI site.

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How To Talk To Girls At Parties (Soundtrack Sundays #5)

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How to Talk to Girls at Parties UK poster

The Damned: New Rose (1977)
Xiu Xiu, Elle Fanning & Alex Sharp: Eat Me Alive (2017)

Back in 1977, I would buy or borrow a copy of NME or Sounds and read through them: the news items, interviews, reviews and letters pages. I would also diligently scan along the live listings, seeing who was playing across the country as if it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that I might just decide to dog off school for a couple of days and travel down to see some band like Wire or Slaughter and The Dogs play Canterbury or Bristol on a Tuesday night.

One name that would repeatedly crop up in these listings was The Greyhound in Croydon. This venue would regularly advertise shows, usually with cool acts like The Adverts, Buzzcocks and local favourites Johnny Moped. Seeing their ads convinced me that Croydon must be a bit of a hotspot for punk rock and that anybody living there was lucky.

Enn, Vic and John, the three schoolboy punks we’re introduced to here don’t feel the same way about their home turf. But, even during the brouhaha of Jubilee Day, they still manage to get at least some teenage kicks as they wind up their parents, local royalists and teddy boys, while somehow managing to make their way around town on a bicycle definitely not made for three.

All this soundtracked by The Damned – an act with a big Croydon connection – and the first, and some might argue, the best British punk single ever recorded:

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Shortbus) and based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, How To Talk To Girls At Parties is a coming-of-age science-fiction romcom that also attempts to straddle a few other genres while it’s at it.

The film starts off like a punky version of The Inbetweeners with Enn, played by Alex Sharp, in the role of Will. Enn (short for ‘Enry) contributes cartoons to a fanzine called Virus, that he and his pals put together.

They also like to visit a nearby Greyhound like bar to see local punk wannabes The Dyschords.

Afterwards, by accident, they gatecrash into a party (of sorts) where everyone is humming, dancing or performing gymnastic routines while wearing Vivienne Westwood meets the Teletubbies latex outfits. They look like some weird performance art collective rehearsing for a stint at the Edinburgh Festival.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties still

The boys speculate on who these strange people could be, guessing they might be kooky Californians involved in a cult. I doubt I’m giving anything away here but they are from much farther away and even more alien to teenage punks than yer average 1970s American hippy-dippy west coaster.

Enn meets and immediately likes Zan, played by Elle Fanning. She’s fascinated by his interest in ‘the punk’ and its anti-authoritarian attitudes. She displays a rebellious streak herself to her fellow extraterrestrials, an antiseptic bunch in the main, as conformist as Enn’s neighbours waving their Union Jacks earlier at their neighbourhood street party.

Unfortunately, Zan’s only allowed twenty-four hours in Croydon. In this time she makes a big impression, not only on Enn and his pals but on punk sculptor Queen Boadicea. Played by Nicole Kidman, who looks like a cross between Cruella Deville and Siouxsie Sioux out for a night in some New Romantic club of the early 1980s rather than a punk in the blistering summer of 1977.

This friendship results in Zan and Enn replacing The Dyschord’s singer for a show. Here’s a clip of what is supposed to be an entirely improvised performance:

After this, the film nosedives like a punk band that kick off live with all their best material but when they should be climaxing instead play a bunch of B-sides, bad cover versions and filler tracks from their album, never recovering the initial promise.

How To Talk To Girls At Parties becomes increasingly batshit crazy but not in a good batshit crazy way. Self-indulgence reigns. The Kidman character looks shoehorned in, and I suspect she’d maybe agreed to the part as an old pals act for the director. She’d previously worked with him on 2010’s Rabbit Hole.

By the time the punks, led by Boadicea, storm the townhouse where the aliens are staying, things have become even more excruciating than Kidman’s take on a Cockernee accent.

This is the film’s nadir and it never recovered. It’s probably significant that Gaiman’s short story ended long before any of this.

The debate between the aliens confused me. Or maybe by this point I was just too bored to make the effort to follow it. As for the soundtrack, after New Rose there are no punk classics, most of the music being electronic in nature and mediocre at best.

This is a shame. I liked the director defiantly choosing not to go down the dreary social realist path. This is definitely more Phantom of the Paradise than Rude Boy, believe me although not nearlyas good as that De Palma oddity. Actually a more ‘glam rock’ setting would have been more appropriate. Sci-fi and space travel being a much bigger part of that era. Just think of all those singles like Starman and Space Ace.

Much of the movie is shot beautifully too.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties - Sharp & Fanning

Easily the best thing about it, though, are the two leads even though Enn is obviously a fifteen year old with a particularly long paper round. I did look up his age online and wasn’t too surprised to discover he was well into his mid-20s when the film was shot. I also liked Abraham Lewis as Vic. He even reminded me at times of Tom Hardy.

On the whole the accuracy of the punk backdrop struck me as reasonably accurate if Boadicea is taken out of the equation. Okay, I’ll nitpick a little. Enn has a copy on the Never Mind the Bollocks cover on his wall months before it came out. I guess if you can accept visitors from another planet travelling to Croydon on a reconnaissance mission, then a little faux pas like that is the least of your worries.

File under: Probably sounded like a good idea at the time.

How To Talk To Girls At Parties is just out on DVD & Blu-ray.

To read the short story click here.

Suspiria 2018

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Suspiria_2018

The upcoming remake of Suspiria isn’t something that I’ve been getting too excited over.

If you read my previous post you’ll know I’m a Dario Argento fan and like most fans, I tend to balk at the idea of remakes of films that I’ve cherished for years – I first saw Suspiria during a short run in Glasgow at the tail end of 1977. Although my memory might be faulty here I think I can just about remember it being part of a X certificate double bill with Black Christmas. Oh and me still underage! Those were the days, my friends.

Despite my completely predictable reservations about the reboot, I was curious enough to have a gander at the trailer when it was released earlier tonight.
Surprisingly enough, it does look promising enough. If I hadn’t known it was for the remake of Argento’s supernatural horror classic, it might even have sold me on the film. And I can confidently predict that, if nothing else, the ballet this time round will be more authentic.

Notably, it looks as if Guadagnino has completely ditched the neon primary colours of Argento’s original – which is very possibly the reddest movie ever made – and doesn’t seem to be following the original script too closely either. Indeed, Guadagnino has voiced his opinion that while his movie is ‘inspired by the same story… it goes in different directions, it explores other reasons.’

Trailers, of course, aren’t the most reliable indication of whether a film will be any good or not. At this stage pedigree is more important.

Directed by recent Oscar nominee Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), the remake stars Dakota Johnson (Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash) and Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass) together with frequent Guadagnino collaborator Tilda Swinton. Jessica Harper, the star of the original, also appears in a new and much smaller role. Thom Yorke is providing the score.

So, a very decent pedigree. Well, if we ignore the fact that Johnson also starred in that 50 Shades nonsense.

Okay, here I have to admit that despite the talent involved, there’s next to no chance that this film will match the magic of Argento’s masterpiece.

Hopefully, though, a decent percentage of younger cinema-goers who have never seen the original will be persuaded to seek it out.

Currently in post-production, Suspiria should make it to British cinemas around November of this year.

Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli: Tenebrae (Soundtrack Sundays #4)

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Tenebrae (1982): Directed by Dario Argento

Tenebrae Sleeve

Newly released on Waxwork Records is the complete soundtrack to Argento’s giallo masterpiece Tenebrae together with a number of related bonus tracks.

This is one of those very special vinyl releases that have obviously been put together with a whole lot of loving care. Befitting for a hyper-stylised movie where even the murders somehow look almost artistic.

The design here really is superb and includes a die-cut style gatefold sleeve, with disc 1 being coloured ‘Blood Red’ while the second disc is in ‘Straight Razor Silver’. Oh, to die for!

Tenenbrae_Inner_Sleeve_Art_by_Nikita_Kaun

There’s also the inner gatefold sleeve above, illustrated by Nikita Kaun. The woman depicted is Jane McKerrow, played by Veronica Lario, the former wife of Silvio Berlusconi. You can say what you like about the man’s politics (and I’m certainly not a fan) but you really can’t argue with his taste in women.

It’s been said that when the couple married in 1990, the Italian mega-mogul wasn’t pleased with his missis being in such a controversial movie and attempted to use his power to suppress it.

Veronica_Lario_-_Tenebrae

He wasn’t alone in trying to make it impossible to see. In Britain it even made the infamous Video Nasties list, a daft idea supported by Mary Whitehouse and her moral majority cronies together with The Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch papers. A Private Member’s Bill was introduced by Tory MP Graham Bright in 1983 and a year later the Video Recordings Act 1984 was passed by parliament.

Sadly, a victory for censorship and I remain in the camp that says if you want to ban anything why not make a start on the religious texts that encourage extreme violence? This attitude being pretty common at the time of the whole video nasties furore. Not that anyone believed this would ever happen.

Had a single MP watched Tenebrae? I doubt it. Did anybody murder anyone as a result of seeing it? I’ll hazard another guess here – NO.

The bill did at least give rise to some comic moments.

Bible thumping Manchester Chief Constable James Anderton’s officers immediately increased the number of raids on local video stores, at one point seizing a copy of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, a musical comedy starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds, thinking – possibly hoping or even praying – it was a potentially prosecutable porno.

Of course, many a filmmaker actively sought a ban, using the subsequent publicity to gain media publicity in other countries. The distributors of one infamous Italian cannibal flick even complained anonymously to Mary Whitehouse about their own film.

Cannibal Holocaust really didn’t need any additional attempts to hype up it’s notoriety. In Italy, its director Ruggero Deodato found himself arrested on obscenity charges and accused of making a snuff film due to an idiotic idea that some actors might have been killed onscreen. Which, of course, proved groundless. The whole incident could even be seen as more disturbing than his movie, which to be fair, was pretty out there. And which remained banned in Italy.

The clip of Tenebrae below – like much of the film – is also admittedly gruesome. If you don’t want to see any gore then cheerio, cheerio, cheerio but you’ll be missing out on one of the most inspired ever uses of the vocoder, grandiose drums, magnificently supple 1980s bass, as well as some scintillating baroque disco touches – the band had certainly departed radically from their prog origins by this point.

You’ll also miss out on some virtuoso directing from Argento in the form of a very long and continually fluid tracking shot that begins from below a woman gazing out through a window before creeping up and across the building where she lives, giving an eerie indication of an unseen presence that we can only assume has murder on his (or her) mind. Well, it is a Dario Argento film after all.

This scene also amuses me because what everyone initially assumes to be part of the score turns out to be a character playing Tenebrae on her record player. On black vinyl in case you’re wondering.

Goblin, incidentally, had split soon after working on Dawn of the Dead, with Claudio Simonetti going on to create some of the best Italo disco records of the era in a number of guises such as Easy Going and Capricorn.

Argento was desperate for them to reform in order to supply the music for Tenebrae. Three of the four agreed to the idea, so although often attributed to Goblin, for contractual reasons, at the point when they recorded the music they were instructed not to refer to themselves as Goblin, so chose to string together their three surnames, hence the rather pedestrian sounding Simonetti-Morante-Pignatelli album credit although on Tenebrae – or Tenebre as it is sometimes known, or even Unsane as it was titled on its initial American release – the music is listed as Simonetti-Pignatelli-Morante. Got that?

Anyway, here they are playing Tenebrae in Oran Mor in Glasgow, a slightly different line-up to the Goblin I’d seen in 2011 at The Arches, their first ever show in Scotland and a highlight of that year’s Glasgow Film Festival. If you want to see a couple of tracks from that evening, you’ll have to buy a copy of Arrow’s dual format edition of the film released in 2013. I’d recommend you do so and make sure you hear the audio commentary from Kim Newman and The Sex Pistols’ old pal Alan Jones.

The band will be in Edinburgh in August for the Fringe Festival. They’ll be performing their their classic Suspiria score live to a screening of Argento’s legendary supernatural horror and, to celebrate its 40th anniversary, they’ll also be performing to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead.

Suspiria: 5 Aug, Summerhall, 5.30pm
Dawn of the Dead: 5 Aug, Summerhall, 8.20pm
Dawn of the Dead, 6 Aug, Summerhall, 5.30pm
Suspiria: 6 Aug, Edinburgh, Summerhall, 8.50pm

For more information: www.summerhall.co.uk

For more on the release: https://waxworkrecords.com/products/tenebrae

 

For Those in Peril (The Scottish Connection #3)

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Winner of Scottish BAFTA for Best Film and a BIFA (British Independent Film Award) for Best Debut Director, Paul Wright’s For Those in Peril was premiered at Cannes in 2013 as part of the Critics’ Week strand and also screened at the South by Southwest Film Festival where it was also warmly received. The Hollywood Reporter later described it as ‘hauntingly atmospheric’ while Variety declared it ‘A visually arresting poetic reverie.’

A version of the following review was originally published here in March 2014.

For Those in Peril Quad

Filmed entirely in the isolated coastal village of Gourdon in Aberdeenshire with the North Sea as its backdrop, the film is an often bleak, even harrowing watch, but also a worthwhile one and its good points undoubtedly outweigh any flaws.

Aaron, played by rising star George MacKay, is a young misfit and the sole survivor of a tragic fishing boat accident that saw his brother Michael (Jordan Young) perish along with four young crewmates in circumstances that are never fully explained and which Aaron has no memory of.

This is the kind of village where if you aren’t employed on a trawler then it’s likely you work in a factory gutting the latest catch and, of course, everyone is devastated by the five deaths, none more so than Aaron and his mother Cathy, played by the always excellent Kate Dickie (Red Road & Prometheus).

Gradually, though, sections of the community begin to turn against Aaron and treat him as a pariah, although he does, crucially, receive support from Jane (Nichola Burley) the onetime intended fiancé of Michael, which infuriates her belligerent father (Michael Smiley).

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On occasion Aaron’s behaviour doesn’t help matters and even without the post-traumatic anguish, he would still clearly lack the kind of easy going self-confidence and ability to socialise displayed by his brother, who appears repeatedly in flashback. Had Michael been the one who’d survived, he would never have been as naive and tactless to plead with a local fisherman to let him get back to sea on his boat without thinking to mention the man’s own loss, his son being one of the deceased.

Even so, it is hard to comprehend why so many of the villagers aren’t more sympathetic towards Aaron’s plight.

This is the type of community usually lauded as close-knit. It might display few signs of being part of the 21st Century world but in the age of the internet and TV shows that openly discuss the kind of issues that Aaron (and presumably others) are bound to be experiencing, it remains a mystery why no one bar his doctor seems to be familiar with the idea of survivor guilt.

Perhaps the story would have worked better if it had been set at least three or four decades earlier, though I should point out that Wright did research comparable real-life incidents, speaking with people affected by loss and he has explained that the animosity is due to the character being a constant reminder of those who didn’t survive, a kind of ‘walking ghost.’

Wright, incidentally, was himself born and brought up in a remote spot on the east coast of Scotland where the mythology of the ocean was relayed to him as a child, although the bedtime fable that Aaron fixates on – recited to him in childhood by Cathy – about a devilish monster living at the bottom of the sea that curses the town and eats all its little children is an amalgam of myths and superstitions from around Europe.

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A number of filmic approaches are utilised by Wright to plunge the audience into the increasingly disturbed state of Aaron’s mind: we see a collage of old Super 8 films and home videos of himself and Michael growing up, and more recent footage shot presumably on a mobile phone along with pixelated TV news reports.

Likewise, sound design is vital to Wright, another layer he uses imaginatively to reflect the mental imbalance of Aaron – his voice-overs are interweaved with snippets of anonymous dialogue that might belong to villagers or possibly come via radio vox pops, there’s some intriguing choral music too. Wright works with contrasts, distorted noises together with clean, sometimes even beautiful sounds, and the whole sensory experience is often disjointed and contradictory.

This is a singular and, in places, a very effective technique.

Another area where Wright excels is with his actors and he coaxes some exceptional performances from them. Some scenes will linger long in the memory. Cathy’s turn at a local karaoke night is utterly believable and almost unbearably poignant as she dedicates The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face to her ‘boys’ and then struggles to complete the song.

For_Those_in_Peril_George_Mackay_&_Kate_Dickie

As with many first-time film-makers, influences aren’t always difficult to detect and here the debt to Terrence Malick is conspicuous. Additionally, the subject matter brings to mind one of Wright’s favourite films, Nic Roeg’s masterful study of grief, Don’t Look Now, while one scene in which children don masks and parade along the high street as part of some local gala day tradition recalls the film that was originally paired with Don’t Look Now in cinema double bills – The Wickerman. And this procession has a wonderful twist that certainly took me by surprise.

For Those in Peril won’t be to everyone’s taste. It is self-consciously experimental at times and lacks the narrative drive that is generally expected in a modern-day movie. The story’s daring ending, too, will likely divide viewers. There’s a number of ways that it can be read; magic realism, surrealism, as a poetic and allegorical dream or even as an extraordinary piece of realism, but it failed to entirely convince me.

I’ll predict here that Wright will go on to make better feature films but as debuts go, For Those in Peril is a very promising start to his career and an impressive industry calling card.

Update: George Mackay stars in The Secret of Marrowbone, the directorial debut from Sergio G Sánchez, which will be premiered as part of the European Perspectives Strand at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival.

For more information click here.

Soundtrack Sundays #3: Tangerine Dream – Sorcerer

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While promoting The Exorcist in West Germany, director William Friedkin was introduced to Edgar Froese after being recommended to take in a Tangerine Dream show performed in an abandoned church in the Black Forest.

Despite the band having never scored a movie before, Friedkin asked them to have a go at doing so for his next film. Although at this point he had no specific idea on what his next film would be.

On the 40th anniversary bluray release of Sorcerer there’s a very informative and often highly amusing extra – Nicolas Winding Refn (yep, that man again) interviewing Friedkin. Here the American director speaks of being inspired by the music and how he first heard it while filming in the Dominican Republic. ‘It was mean and tough and rhythmic and powerful. What I had expected. No sentimentality.’

He cut the film to the music, and it proved absolutely integral to the project. Later, he wrote in his liner notes for the Sorcerer album that if he’d heard Tangerine Dream sooner he would have asked them to score The Exorcist. A tantalising thought.

Sorcerer quad poster

As sonic backdrops go, this is one of the best, an impeccably-crafted and mesmerizing accompaniment of chilly synths with that pulsing sound that Tangerine Dream perfected and which has remained influential to this day. It provides in some ways an unexpected heartbeat to the story – the music on its own suggests the autobahns of Germany or big city American streets late at night rather than the twisting, remote roads of the inhospitable jungle region where much of the movie is set.

It certainly ramps up the tension as the four lead characters undertake a high-risk journey, carrying a cargo of unstable dynamite – due to storage problems the nitroglycerin is prone to leakage, meaning any sharp movement could set it off. Not a comforting thought for anybody driving it through such a treacherous terrain.

While Sorcerer the film failed to win over too many admirers on its initial release, the soundtrack album went on to become one of Tangerine Dream’s biggest successes, spending seven weeks on the British album charts, where it peaked at #25.

It’s often been suggested that Sorcerer failed at the box office due to it being released at the same time as Star Wars but I doubt that tells the full story.

As I mentioned on here a few weeks ago, in the 1970s movies weren’t released the way they are today.

Annoyingly in Britain, American films would take maybe around six months to make their way across the Atlantic and when they did finally arrive here, even a potential blockbuster like Star Wars wouldn’t open and blitz cinema screens across the length and breadth of the country like today.

Instead, big releases would open in a select few London cinemas where they would play for a number of weeks before rolling out to other screens in London as well as other towns and cities, although even at this point, screenings would be initially limited to a single cinema chain.

Again using Star Wars as an example, when Lucas’ pop culture phenomenon eventually opened in Glasgow at the tail-end of January 1978, it was originally shown at only one cinema, the Odeon in Renfield Street.

So people like me with no interest in Star Wars had a big choice of alternatives on offer. And did filmgoers desperate to see the film somehow decide if it wasn’t playing locally that nothing else would do?

Other films like The Deep (which was the second highest grossing film in the States when released on these shores) seemed to perform well enough at the British box office.

At my local picture house incidentally, there was choice between Crime Busters and Mayday 40,000 ft. No I don’t remember any of these but they might well be better films than Star Wars.

Sorcerer certainly is. And I’ll also take some hypnotic and futuristic Tangerine Dream synth soundscapes over John William’s throwback score any time.

I reckon the main problem with Sorcerer was the lack of star names in the cast. Okay, still relatively fresh from the massive success of Jaws, Roy Scheider enjoyed a high reputation at the time but he didn’t open films. The other three main characters were unknowns by American (or British) standards.

Friedkin had originally offered the part of Jackie Scanlon to Steve McQueen, who loved the script but didn’t want to leave his new wife Ally McGraw for an extended period to shoot the film abroad. Having one of the world’s biggest stars in a lead role would have helped commercially although my guess would be that artistically, Roy Scheider was pretty much perfect for the part.

Another problem is that, even the standards of the 1970s, Sorcerer is bleak and the four main characters are deeply flawed to the extent that it’s difficult to imagine audiences strongly identifying with any of them.

Scanlon’s background is that of a New Jersey mobster; Nilo (Francisco Rabal) is a coldblooded Mexican hitman; Manzon (Bruno Cremer) is a crooked French stockbroker; while Kassem (Amidou) has just taken part in a bombing of innocent civilians in Jerusleum.

Another problem is the multi-language prologue of the film, where subtitles are used extensively. Not something that certain sections of the public ever seem happy about.

William Friedkin considers Sorcerer his finest work. If you’ve never seen it, I’d advise you to seek it out.

For more on Tangerine Dream: http://www.tangerinedream.org/

Nightbirds & The Neon Demon

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Nightbirds & The Neon Demon

The Neon Demon (2015) Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Nightbirds (1970) Director: Andy Milligan

In his foreword to the BFI Flipside’s release of Andy Milligan’s Nightbirds, Nicolas Winding Refn wrote about coming across Milligan biographer Jimmy McDonough’s collection of Milligan film materials on eBay. This haul included many very rare prints, including the sole surviving copy of Nightbirds.

The Danish director forked out $25,000 for the lot.

Refn and Milligan are very different filmmakers and I was a little surprised when I discovered NWR was such a fan. Refn’s movies are as glossy as Milligan’s are grungey. When Refn actors speak, their words tend to be sparse and sometimes enigmatic while Milligan characters are verbose and their dialogue is exposition heavy. Refn employs Hollywood royalty like Ryan Gosling and Keanu Reeves while Milligan tended to utilize friends and contacts from his early off-off Broadway theatre days.

Dubbed ‘Times Square’s Militant Auteur’ by Bill Landis, who devoted a whole chapter to him in his book Sleazoid Express, Milligan was amazingly prolific, punting out a movie every couple of months during his heyday. Despite being associated with New York’s 42nd Street scuzzy grindhouse circuit, he did make a move to London in the late 1960s. Here he shot five films in a period of a year and a half.

The first of the batch was Nightbirds, which until salvaged by Refn had largely been forgotten. It only made its debut on DVD/Blu-ray in 2012 on the always interesting Flipside label.

Nightbirds was shot in 1968 but this was far from the Swinging London of Carnaby Street and Chelsea’s King’s Road. Set in the East End around Spittalfields – an area where Jack the Ripper once operated – this resembles Bronco Bullfrog and Up the Junction rather than the pop art paradises of the capital often portrayed around this time. Smashing Time here? Not very likely.

Dink (Berwick Kaler) is a hapless and homeless twenty year old man. When we first see him, he’s disoriented, staggering down a street. Soon he is puking openly but rather than ignoring him, passer-by Dee (Julie Shaw) tries to help. Good looking and with a verging on posho accent, she takes him to a local cafe and then back to her uber-dingy bedsit. This must be Dink’s lucky day. Later he even describes her as ‘a Florence Nightingale of the streets’ but it doesn’t take too long before we discover that she might have ulterior motives.

Nightbirds - Dink & Dee

Almost inevitably, a relationship ensues. This will be one of the most lopsided cinematic couplings I’ve ever come across. Dee is dominant in every conceivable way. She’s more sexually experienced than Dink and she’s smarter too. She’s also as manipulative as Dink is vulnerable and this points to a possible reason why she should choose him. He’s also naive to the point of being childlike for much of the time. A perfect victim.

To some extent, this relationship parallels the friendship between Ruby (Jena Malone) and Jesse (Elle Fanning) in The Neon Demon. Both Dee and Ruby display a vampiric viciousness when they fail to get their own way.

Nightbirds didn’t polarize critics. Critics never got to see it. Milligan’s work generally was often seen as a joke, unintentionally funny at best. Stephen King once went as far to dismiss The Ghastly Ones as ‘the work of morons with cameras.’

The Neon Demon also attracted plenty of flak from reviewers. The Daily Mail wanted the British Board of Film Classification to take action on the ‘sadistic horror show,’ calling it: ‘rancid, pretentious and downright creepy.’

You might reckon that would be the perfect recommendation to go out and see it for yourself but many liberal publications despised it just as much. According to the Observer it was ‘dumbfoundingly awful’ and Refn couldn’t direct traffic.

No mention of his great eye for composition or his startling use of super saturated colours – Only God Forgives from 2013 must be the ‘reddest’ movie since Dario Argento shot Suspiria – or his ability to conjure up an unforgettable scene: a mountain lion leaping around a cheap Pasadena motel, some stomach churning moments in a mortuary and the notorious shot involving an eyeball.

And could any other director have coaxed a better performance from Elle Fanning?

On balance, the Observer review somehow managed to be even more ludicrous than the Mail’s. At least the latter got it right with its ‘downright creepy’ description.

Neon Demon still

The Neon Demon is set in a world of equally narcissistic and superficial young women with the personality of automatons, all chiselled cheekbones and the kind of cadaverous bodies that look like they could do with a good plate of sausage, egg and chips.

‘I would never call you fat,’ Christina Hendricks, playing an demented but influential agent, tells Jesse during an early audition. ‘Others might, but I never would.’ This is surely both a very pointed putdown of the whole vacuous fashion industry and a comment on the real life, bizarre idea that Christina Hendricks is a chubster.

As I’ve written on here before when I chose the film in my 2017 Best Films of the Year list, agency heads and high end photographers uniformly adore Jesse and the more she is fêted the more she lets the flattery go to her pretty little head. Her looks, though, attract just as much jealousy as praise – rather than an exploitation film this is a film about exploitation. Mainly of Jesse.

Macabre and menacing, haunting and hypnotic, The Neon Demon is a far better piece of work than Milligan’s movie.

Discussing the merits of Nightbirds in the film’s commentary, Berwick Kaler noted: ‘It’s weird. It doesn’t really say much. It’s not that exciting but it sort of grips you.’ He’s certain that with more time and more money at his disposal, Milligan could have significantly improved Nightbirds.

I would guess he’s right. Maybe Milligan just tried to do too much himself and was unable to listen to advice. For his films he would generally write the scripts, cast the actors, scout locations, direct, assemble the soundtrack and edit. Even the outfits credit for Raffine is a reference to the boutique he owned back home in Staten Island. I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that he did his own catering but apparently he would send out for sandwiches between takes.

Oh the glamour of micro-budget filmmaking.

What unites Milligan and Refn is the fact that they both developed idiosyncratic directing styles early in their careers. In that aforementioned foreword, Refn speaks of how when you watch any of Milligan’s work you’re in no doubt whose film you’re watching and how he might not have been a conventional talent but how being unique is actually always more interesting.

Nightbirds is admittedly a tough watch at times. The sound is sometimes choppy, and the music selected by Milligan is never anywhere near appropriate. Kaler and Shaw put in decent, naturalistic performances but some of the other actors are amateurish. At times it closely resembles a play that’s been filmed.

During a 2015 interview with the Daily Grindhouse, Refn mentioned that he would be transferring his Milligan films to 4K and planned to bring more of his oeuvre back into circulation. Despite my reservations, I’ll likely seek some of these out. I’m sure any movie with a name like The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! or Fleshpot on 42nd Street can’t be any worse than the tsunami of summer blockbuster dross about to clog up my local multiplex.

For more on Nightbirds: http://www.bfi.org.uk/blu-rays-dvds/nightbirds

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