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The Chicken Won’t Stop: Stroszek (New Waves #6)

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May 17, 1980. Britain has only three TV channels and one of them, BBC2, is screening Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. I can’t remember what I was doing that night but as it was a Saturday and I was in my late teens, I would likely have been out drinking or maybe seeing a concert. David Lynch, working in London on The Elephant Man, did tune in. So too, more famously, did Joy Division singer Ian Curtis.

It would be the last film he would ever see before hanging himself.
When this fact emerged, it made me search out Stroszek. I wasn’t disappointed when I finally got to see this unforgettable 1976 release by one of the most important German New Wave directors, Werner Herzog.

As the central character Bruno Stroszek, Herzog chose Bruno Schleinstein (styled here as Bruno S.), a man who had spent the bulk of his early years in mental institutions and had been perfectly cast two years earlier in Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, at which point he had no acting experience of any kind.

The script was penned in just four days. According to Herzog anyway, who you might want to believe or not on the matter. The film had been written specifically for Schleinstein – partly due to Herzog’s guilt at ditching him for the lead role in Woyzeck in order to accommodate Klaus Kinski at the last minute.

Stroszek would have a huge biographical element. The messy Berlin flat with the piano and glockenspiel was Bruno’s. The bar he drinks in was his local at the time. The courtyard where he plays his accordion is where he would often busk.

Bruno Schleinstein is the most fascinating actor to appear in any films of the New German Cinema era. He was the illegitimate son of a prostitute, who hit him so savagely that he had problems with his hearing. At one point he even lost the ability to communicate. The beatings did eventually stop. But only when she dumped him into an asylum. The young Bruno was then subjected to a number of Nazi experiments and punishments. He recounts one of these ordeals, about being caught bed-wetting, in the only improvised scene of the Stroszek.

It’s almost inevitable that Joy Division fans will speculate that Bruno must have reminded Ian Curtis of at least some of the individuals that he helped find employment or access benefits when he worked as a Disablement Resettlement Officer in what was then known as a labour exchange. Not that I’m pointing any blame in the direction of Herzog and his film for the tragic end of Curtis’s life.

‘I wish this singer was still alive and hadn’t seen Stroszek at that moment,’ Herzog told Jason Parkes in a Q&A for BBC4. ‘Deep at the bottom of my heart I do believe that Stroszek was not the reason that he killed himself. I do believe that he must have had some very, very serious deeper other reasons and he may have, and I’m very cautious, he may have used the film as a ritual step into what he was doing.’

Stroszek -Bruno & Eva

Bruno prepares to leave prison and is warned by a well meaning warden to avoid alcohol and, if he should enter a bar, to order coffee and cake instead. Once free, he heads straight to Beer Himmel (Heaven) where he doesn’t order coffee and cake.

Eva Mattes (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant & Effi Briest), a future wife of Werner Herzog, was given the role of Eva, a prostitute beaten and humiliated by two thuggish pimps whenever her takings drop below their expectations. She takes up Bruno’s offer of refuge at his flat and begins an undefined relationship with him. Additionally, she befriends Bruno’s neighbour Herr Scheitz, a frail and elderly man with a passion for offbeat science, played by early Herzog regular Clemens Scheitz.

Herr Scheitz’s nephew Clayton has invited his uncle to join him and live in Railroad Flats in Wisconsin, and he has agreed to the idea. When Eva takes another brutal beating from her pimps, the trio hatch a plan to move together to the States. Clayton soon sources work for both Bruno (working in his garage) and Eva (who can become a waitress). Considering they are currently in Berlin, one of Europe’s biggest cities, they seem strangely excited about a move to the Midwest.

Stroszek - The Trio

This exodus of eccentrics arrives with their soon to be confiscated mynah bird and spend a day sightseeing in New York City. Using guerrilla style methods, Herzog managed to get arrested three times for filming without a shooting permit. Later, he became adept at forging this kind of thing.

They buy a wreck of a car to drive to Railroad Flats, a truck-stop town that is in reality called Plainfield. It’s no coincidence that this is the hometown of the serial killer Ed Gein, the man who inspired both Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

There are many scenes in Stroszek that will likely sear into your memory and never leave, like when a sympathetic doctor takes Bruno to visit a ward for prematurely born babies and demonstrates the astonishing strength of one baby’s grip. It’s almost disturbing and then oddly beautiful.

Then there’s the foreclosure sale where the auctioneer doesn’t just motormouth his way through proceedings but launches into some kind of bizarre hyper-speak that has a touch of Mongolian throat singing about it. Apparently he was a real-life world livestock auctioneering champion.

What makes this even weirder is that the auction is for the repossessed mobile home and belongings of Bruno and his friends. Ian Curtis is shown watching this scene in Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control.

Stroszek - Mobile Home

Most memorable, though, has to be the legendary final scene, shot in a Cherokee run tourist trap in North Carolina. I’ll have to warn you at this point that the following paragraphs may include spoilers.

Here Bruno causes chaos. He vacates his truck and leaves it turning round and round in circles as it catches fire. He visits a very odd animal arcade with performing pets in metal exhibition cages. There’s a drumming duck, a rabbit fireman, a piano playing chicken and a dancing chicken who displays some nifty footwork as it tidbitts across its tiny circular stage, accompanied by some tinny and repetitive arcade music.

Next, Bruno takes a chairlift up to the nearby steep hill carrying a gun that until recently had belonged to Scheitz. As he ascends, Herzog pans his camera upwards. With Bruno below the frame, a shot is fired and presumably, he kills himself.

The last dialogue we hear is from a Cherokee officer who radios into his headquarters: ‘We’ve got a truck on fire, I have a man on a lift, and we are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off. Can’t stop the dancing chicken. If you send us an electrician, we’ll be standing by. Over.’

Words that inspired the run-out grooves on the 1981 Joy Division double album Still.

‘The chicken won’t stop’ (A1); Chicken tracks across the grooves (sides A2 & B1), and ‘The chicken stops here’ (side B2).

Herzog then cuts back to the dancing chicken and its epileptic little stomps soundtracked not only by the arcade din but by a manic version of Lost John by whooping bluesman Sonny Terry. With the rabbit’s fire brigade siren, the other chicken pecking its piano and the rabbit’s random drumbeats, this builds into one truly delirious cacophony.

What the significance of this final section is I cannot say for sure. It’s utterly preposterous but absolutely works. In his audio commentary, Herzog claims that everybody on the shoot hated the sequence. He can’t explain it. ‘It contains some part of me that escapes my own analysis. It’s this dream moment, like in soccer, when you score a goal from an angle that is theoretically impossible… I don’t ever regret filming these sequences.’

After both his collaborations with Schleinstein, Herzog ‘demanded’ an Oscar for Bruno. Predictably, the Academy ignored him.

Schleinstein died in 2010 and, in tribute, Werner Herzog remarked that ‘in all my films, and with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best. There is no one who comes close to him.’

If you like Stroszek, then you might also like Fata Morgana. Although you might not.

Shot in the late 1960s and premiered in Cannes in 1971, this is ‘a science-fiction elegy of demented colonialism in the Sahara.’ According to Herzog anyway.

This is one of those obscurities that became popular with the hippy crowd whenever it was shown on the midnight movie circuit or student union film societies in the 1970s. Think Zabriskie Point and La Vallee. And imagine that audience happily puffing away wherever these screenings were taking place. And not all of that smoke being of a legal variety.

Fata_Morgana

Fata Morgana is a near abstract film. Herzog and his three-man crew shot footage with no real idea what this would ultimately become. Interpret as you like.

There is certainly some startling cinematography, particularly of desert landscapes with occasional striking images, often of abandoned vehicles and machinery, and dead and rotting animal carcases. There’s also some narration – reciting Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh – that only served as a distraction.

The most enjoyable aspect of Fata Morgana for me is the music, in particular, Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and So Long Marianne, as well as The Third Ear Bands’ Ghetto Raga.

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The L-Shaped Room (New Waves #5)

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the l-shaped room

The L-Shaped Room: Bryan Forbes (1962)

As the film opens, we see Jane, a French woman in her twenties, wandering around a West London that is equally seedy and dilapidated, in search of somewhere to stay.

She rents a top floor room (L shaped obviously) from an obnoxious landlady called Doris (Avis Bunnage). Its walls are paper-thin, the meter swallows up pennies at a rate of noughts and worse still, an infestation of bugs scurry around the mattress of her bed at night-time.

There are a couple of prostitutes ensconced in the basement flat – one, Sonia, played by Coronation Street legend Pat Phoenix, the other also named Jane, a young Hungarian who’s fled Communism. Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge), a washed-up music hall entertainer also rents a room, as does Johnny (Brock Peters), a young man from the Caribbean, and Toby (Tom Bell), an easy-going writer, who’s fond of a quip and is instantly attracted to Jane.

tom bell & leslie caron - l-shaped room

At this point none of the residents know that Jane is pregnant and she’s in no hurry to make the fact common knowledge. This is pre-pill, pre-Abortion Act Britain and there’s still a stigma surrounding single mothers from the unenlightened.

She visits a condescending private doctor who assumes that the father of her child doesn’t want to marry her. She has no desire to marry him. The doctor also jumps to the conclusion that she must have already decided to definitely have an abortion. Wrong again.

On the plus side, she befriends her flatmates to the extent that they begin to resemble a surrogate family. Most significantly, she embarks on a relationship with Toby but this brings out a prudish streak in Johnny that, up till now, had been disguised by his cheerful disposition. He reveals Jane’s secret to Toby and this leads to complications. Toby’s insecurities and occasional temper surface as he struggles with the idea that the woman he loves is having another man’s baby.

The L-Shaped Room is unusual for what is often termed a kitchen sink drama. Its London setting is in contrast to the provincial Northern settings favoured by the likes of Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz around this time.
The main protagonist is notably not only middle-class but foreign too. And Leslie Caron was already an established star when cast. Forbes – who was originally only adapting the book into a film to be directed by Jack Clayton – welcomed the decision as it would lift the film out of what he called in his autobiography, ‘the parochial kitchen sink rut.’

It does challenge the social conventions of the day, though, and like the defining films of the British New Wave it had recent literary antecedents – in this case, the 1960 novel of the same name by Lynne Reid Banks. It also displays a freshness and urgency that was a feature of the era, features young lead actors and certainly embraces many types of characters who had been largely ignored or stereotyped in British cinema previously.

The L-Shaped Room is overlong, but it’s a shame that it is sometimes overlooked.

It did witness a revival in interest in the mid-1980s, when The Smiths incorporated a clip of Mavis’s Christmas Party turn Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty into the title track of their The Queen is Dead album. I seem to remember the film being shown on British TV a year or so before, so would guess Morrissey must have been taking notes. More recently, it was screened at the London Film Festival in 2017.

cicely courtneidge l shaped room

The two leads deliver very strong performances. Caron picked up a Bafta and Golden Globe for her efforts, while many might have been tempted at the time to put money on Bell emulating the success that contemporaries like Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Alan Bates would go on to enjoy. Sadly, he didn’t, although he did have a very solid career in both film and TV.

A special mention too for Cicely Courtneidge. She’s a vital presence here too as Mavis and the scene where she explains why she never married and speaks about her ‘friend’ is especially poignant. ‘It takes all sorts, dear,’ being the closest she can get to admitting that she’s a lesbian.

If you like The L-Shaped Room, you might also enjoy The Whisperers from 1967, also directed by Bryan Forbes, who since The L-Shaped Room had helmed a further three films and turned down an offer of £800,000 to produce, adapt and direct Casino Royale.

Set in Oldham, this is a real antidote to the cycle of Swinging London movies that had by this point become more fashionable than the kitchen sink/new wave genre. This was released during the Summer of Love but don’t expect a Smashing Time.

You might not know this film. An unflinching exploration of senility, poverty and loneliness, it flopped at the box-office to the extent that it failed to even recoup the cost of its prints and advertising. It did, however, earn lead actress Edith Evans a Bafta and a Golden Globe for her performance as well as her third Academy Award nomination.

Forbes forged his filmmaking career with Whistle Down the Wind, a film with a cast consisting primarily of children but he certainly had the knack too of getting the best from older actors. Evans is staggeringly good here. You could argue it’s one of the finest pieces of acting in 1960s British cinema.

If you begin watching the film and feel it’s just too bleak, I’d advise you not too switch off as it just might slowly draw you in (although I couldn’t guarantee it). The Whisperers doesn’t appear to be available to buy anywhere which is a pity but it can be viewed on YouTube.

Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961) – New Waves #4

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Une Femme est une Femme

And now something from the Big Daddy of cinematic new waves, the French Nouvelle Vague, and a movie I mentioned last week.

‘It was my first real film,’ Godard once declared, although during the 1970s he also denounced it as a ‘bourgeois experiment’. I disagree with him on both counts. Breathless (À Bout de Souffle) was his first real film and if Une Femme est une Femme really was a ‘bourgeois experiment’ then I’ll take it over any of his output from his interminably dull and often impenetrable political period.

My initial interest in Godard was perked through being a fan of punk band Subway Sect and learning that their singer Vic had taken his stage surname after the French-Swiss director. When I discovered that a film by him was being screened at the Glasgow Film Theatre, I decided to investigate. This was Une Femme Est Une Femme.

Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard, Une Femme Est Une Femme opens in attention grabbing fashion. It announces that it won two major prizes at the Berlin Film Festival and then elongated words flash up in red, white and blue and dominate the screen. These include cast members, influences, genre and more.

Godard Opening Credits Typography

A voice off camera (which we’ll soon recognise as belonging to the star of the film) exclaims: ‘Lights! Camera! Action!’ And we’re off.

That star was Godard’s new wife Anna Karina. She plays Angela Recamier, a Danish striptease artist who works at a dowdy Parisian club called the Zodiac. Early on and dressed as a sailor, she performs a coquettish routine, singing:

‘People always wonder why / People stare when I pass by / But it isn’t hard to see / Why the boys all go for me.’

It certainly isn’t.

Anna Karina - Une Femme Est Une Femme

Une Femme Est Une Femme is usually said to be Godard’s tribute to the Hollywood musical, but don’t expect Singin’ in the Rain or anything resembling a musical in the traditional sense. This little number is as close as you’ll get to that.

Don’t expect a complicated plot either. Angela suddenly decides she wants a baby, and she wants one fast. Her boyfriend Emile (Jean Claude Brialy) also wants a baby but not so fast. He’d rather wait and get married before even starting to think about children. Waiting in the wings is Emile’s pal Alfred, who is also in love with Angela and who she might just think is father material too. You wouldn’t blink an eye if the same scenario was played out today in some kooky indie drama or sitcom but before the 1960s started to properly swing this might have been considered somewhat contentious.

Alfred Lubitsch is played by Jean-Paul Belmondo and the Lubitsch part is his name is intended as a little homage to German director Ernst Lubitsch, best known for his sophisticated comedies like Design for Living (the plot of which resembles Une Femme Est Une Femme). This is a movie with levels of cinematic self-referencing that might even make Quentin Tarantino raise an eyebrow.

Alfred mentions that he wants to watch À Bout de Souffle on TV, while later he just happens to be standing in a bar next to Jeanne Moreau. ‘How goes it with Jules and Jim?’ he asks the star of that film. ‘Moderato,’ she replies, Belmondo and Moreau having recently starred together in Peter Brooks’ Moderato Cantabile. Marie Dubois from Shoot the Piano Player by Godard’s fellow new wave pioneer François Truffaut also makes a cameo appearance as a friend of Angela. And guess which film they discuss?

Like À Bout de Souffle, this is very playful. It breaks the fourth wall repeatedly. Sometimes explanations of the film’s narrative are superimposed onto the screen and, as Alfred and Angela walk along a Paris street, Angela announces that she’d like to be in a musical and suddenly she is, although without Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly with choreography by Bob Fosse, which she also wants.

Anna Karina with red umbrella

Emile rides his bike around the flat. After an argument with Angela, the pair refuse to talk to one another and instead thrust books with insulting titles like Monster and Get Stuffed! into one another’s faces. There are sight gags and non-sequiturs and everything is charming bar when Alfred and an ex-landlord hurl abuse at one another.

Cahiers Du Cinema summed it up as ‘Cinema in its pure state’. It says little but says little so stylishly and in such a innovative manner that it’s still very enjoyable. Few actresses have ever looked as luminously beautiful as Anna Karina and, while smoking is a highly addictive and unhealthy, Jean-Paul Belmondo proves conclusively that it can also look amazingly cool. Well, if you’re Jean-Paul Belmondo anyway.

Belmondo & Karina

This are many highlights although but my favourite scene is Alfred and Angela sitting together in a bistro listening to Tu t’laisses aller by Shoot the Piano Player star Charles Aznavour on the jukebox. There’s no dialogue as the song plays, just close-ups of the pair and shots of the record revolving. Alfred blows smoke upwards towards the ceiling. Angela fidgets, sips Dubonnet, looks into a mirror and contemplates a photo that Alfred has decided to show her. The acting here is understated yet superb.

Decades after seeing my first Jean-Luc Godard movie at the GFT, Vic Godard was invited to select a movie for a Monorail Film Club presentation at the same venue, before taking part in a Q&A about Jean-Luc Godard and European cinema.

He chose to screen Pierrot le Fou, which is a better film than Une Femme Est Une Femme but really, all his early work should be seen if possible. If you’re thinking of seeking out anything he was involved in after he embraced Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book, then be prepared to be bored and baffled rather than breathless.

* If you like Une Femme Est Une Femme you might also like the work of François Truffaut. Very roughly speaking, Godard and Truffaut were to French cinema in the 1960s what The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were to British music.

If asked what would be a perfect introduction to the Truffaut filmography, I would choose either The 400 Blows or Jules and Jim.

Fin

 

Daisies (New Waves #3)

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Daises 1966 poster (Unknown Artist)

Věra Chytilová’s Daisies came out in 1966, the same year that The Velvet Underground recorded their debut album. Each was seen as absolutely radical on their release.

Nowadays The Velvet Underground & Nico is much revered, a staple of Greatest Ever Albums lists and the subject of near unanimous critical accolades. Daisies? Well, even all these years later the jury is still out on it. For the British Film Institute it’s ‘undeniably a masterpiece’ while Time Out London moaned: ‘As an allegory it lacks any resonance, as a movie it stinks.’

Dedicated to those who ‘get upset only over a stomped-upon bed of lettuce’, it’s certainly a film that once seen will never be forgotten.

From its opening credits featuring footage of devastation such as aerial bombardments and collapsing buildings juxtaposed with images of some metal shifting gears in motion to the soundtrack of stop/start drums accompanied by a bizarre bugle call, Daisies demands attention.

Daisies_-_Tree__of_Knowledge

This is dizzying stuff, a dazzling and frenetic film that makes even an early Jean-Luc Godard French New Wave movie like Un Femme Est Une Femme look almost conservative. Sedmikrásky, to give it its Czech name, comes over like some Dada performance from the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 crossed with a drug fuelled psychedelic happening.

Yeah, I feel the director could have been reined in at times and found the frequent changes of colour a little tiresome – some scenes were shot in luscious colour, other scenes in black and white, others were tinted various colours by a number of filters. Almost as if the director wanted to use every single camera effect she had at her disposal for the sake of it. Sometimes arbitrarily within the same scene.

Daisies_-_Red_Filter

Maybe this is to parallel the infantile way the two leads behave throughout the film. Certainly if they were given access to a camera, this might well resemble the kind of movie they might make.

By any standards, though, it’s a remarkable work and even more remarkable when you consider the backdrop to its making. Okay, I’m no expert in Eastern European history, but here’s a little background.

After being occupied by the Nazis, Czechoslovakia had Communism foisted upon it in the wake of WWII. Inevitably, the film industry suffered through censorship. Even though the authorities did like the idea of their films being feted internationally (and the subsequent hard currency this would bring into the country), they couldn’t stomach anything that might be seen as critical of the regime.

The Nová Vlna (New Wave) directors were typically far from pro-Communist but as Geoffrey Nowell-Smith put it in his book Making Waves: ‘Rarely were films made which were a deliberate provocation to the authorities, but they gave offence none the less.’ Even their non-confrontational stance could prove controversial. ‘Film-makers were trying to be apolitical in a situation when being apolitical was not an option.’

Daisies, though, did obviously set out to be confrontational. As Chytilová explained in Journey,Jasmina Blažević’s documentary portrait of her: ‘I was daring enough to want absolute freedom, even if it was a mistake.’

A salvo against the dogmatic brand of bureaucratic government imposed on her country, Daisies tells the story (of sorts) of two girls, Marie I and Marie 2, played by non-professional actors Jitka Cerhová (brunette) and Ivana Karbanová (strawberry blonde with floral headband & also seen in the right hand side of this blog’s header). Without any real discussion, the girls conclude the world is bad and, therefore, they should be bad themselves. Equally coquettish and irritating, the Marie characters – who assume many different names throughout – are given no depth and could even be interchangeable.

Daisies_-_Marching

The girls behave badly. They lead older men on then abandon them once meals have been paid for. They visit a cabaret bar where a vaudeville act is performing and steal alcoholic drinks from everyone around them and cause havoc before being thrown out by the manager. They steal from a woman who is shown to be friendly towards them. Most famously, they stumble into a banquet hall where a mammoth array of delicacies has been laid out on platters and plates, presumably for a gathering of bigwig party dignitaries.

The Maries mush up the food and devour it with their hands. With the gargantuan appetites they display throughout the film it’s a wonder they’re not absolutely obese. They slug back wine and glug Johnny Walker Red label. Plates are broken. Bottles are smashed. They parade over the tables, stepping directly on to the feast – ruining more than just a stomped-upon bed of lettuce with every step.

Daisies ends with a spectacular food fight.

Daisies_-_Banquet

The Communist authorities were never going to approve of content like this, but the climax somehow riled them more than any other aspect of the film. Labelled as ‘depicting the wanton’, this ensured that it would earn a ban.

Jitka Cerhová, interviewed in French newspaper Libération years later, recalled: ‘You can’t imagine how these scenes, where we threw down the table and the platters of a sumptuous banquet, were shocking in a country where people waited on line for hours in front of grocery stores.’

Sadly, Chytilová struggled to find any approved work as a director in her homeland for years. At one point in the mid-1970s, the woman dubbed the ‘First Lady of Czech Cinema’ even resorted to writing to then President Gustav Husak, begging for her right to direct. She pledged her allegiance to ‘socialism’ and argued against criticisms of her work including Daisies, which she described it as a ‘morality play’, suggesting that her film should be interpreted in a completely different light – the bad behaviour of her two leads reflected the lives of apathetic young people when they’re ‘left to [their] own devices’. The two Maries and their ‘malacious pranks’ could be due to their lack of work and undeveloped political consciousness.

Yeah, right.

The letter worked. In 1977, she was allowed to direct The Apple Game, which I have yet to see and which isn’t currently available to buy in Britain.
Daisies, though, has just came out as a region free Blu-Ray from Second Run.

Extras include two separate audio commentaries (which I haven’t yet heard), a 20-page booklet, and Journey – the aforementioned documentary.

For anybody interested in the Czechoslovak New Wave, groundbreaking female directors or experimental cinema of the 1960s, this is something you’ll want to get your hands on.

* If you like Daisies then you might also like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, which also displays a strong surrealist influence. The screenplay was adapted by director Jaromil Jireš, along with Ester Krumbachová, who also had a hand in writing Daisies. Oh, and the score is one of the magical you could ever hope to hear.

For more on Daisies: http://www.secondrundvd.com/release_daisiesBD.html

The Boys from Fengkuei (New Waves #2)

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The Boys from Fengkuei

Around the time of the release of this film, I was following a similar route to the boys depicted. An ordinary teenager migrating hundreds of miles south with some pals to find work in my case. And personal independence.

Immediately on seeing The Boys from Fengkuei many years later for the first time, I was reminded of how universal great cinema can be. It might have been set on the other side of the world where everyone speaks a language I don’t understand a word of but the characters could have been me and my friends, acting daft, getting drunk, showing off in front of girls.

Hou Hsiao-hsien directed only four full-length works that are usually considered Taiwanese New Wave (or New Cinema as it is also known as). These are The Boys from Fengkuei (1983); A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984); The Time to Live, the Time to Die (1985) and Dust in the Wind (1986).

As James Udden put it in No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien: ‘Collectively these films can be seen as the definitive works of the Taiwanese New Cinema before its semi-official end in early 1987, the year of his next film, Daughter of the Nile.’

As you can tell by the dates, Taiwan was later than most with its cinematic New Wave, a reaction in part to the slightly earlier Hong Kong New Wave, that by the beginning of the 1980s was meeting with much critical and commercial success, as well as generally outperforming home-grown efforts at the box office in Taiwan.

The 1982 Taiwanese anthology film In Our Time – with one segment helmed by Edward Yang – proved groundbreaking, departing radically from those home-grown martial arts flicks and sentimental dramas that young audiences in particularly were finding increasingly stale.

New and younger directors began pushing their way to the fore, and, as with previous New Waves, collaborations flourished. Hou, for instance, co-scripted Wan Ren’s Ah Fei in 1983 and played the lead role in Edward Yang’s excellent Taipei Story a year later, by which time he’d filmed The Boys from Fengkuei.

The_Boys_From_Fengkuei_-_still_2

Three of Hou’s earliest films were released earlier this year by Eureka, two of which I’d never seen before. These were like discovering that your favourite indie act had once been boy band wannabes. Indeed, Kenny B, a lightweight Hong Kong pop star starred in both Cute Girl (1980) and The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982). They’re both reasonably entertaining albeit fluffy. By the time of the latter film though, Hou is already demonstrating an amazing capacity for technically imaginative camerawork, and displaying a striking ability to coax some very fine performances from the (first time) child actors who play such a crucial part in the film.

His method for directing these youngsters was soon adopted for directing adults too. Rather than insisting on blocking scenes precisely and demanding lines be delivered exactly as written, he instead favoured the possibilities offered by improvisation, suggesting moods and atmospheres that scenes should be inspired by.

As plots go, The Boys from Fengkuei is slim. A group of teenagers from a small fishing village hang around shooting pool, scooting around on mopeds; they drink and stray into trouble with other local young men. Bored, they decide to try their luck elsewhere, moving to the bustling port city of Kaohsiung where one of their sister’s lives and works.

Once installed there and sharing an apartment, one of the boys develops a crush for a neighbour, although he doesn’t let on as she is living with – and presumably in love with – her nonchalant and reckless boyfriend, who’s employed together with her and the Fengkuei boys at a nearby electronics factory.

These characters are flawed although Hou has no interest in flagging up to an audience how they should be judged. They resort to violence too easily. They all struggle to express their emotions. They are naive. Moving to a thriving big city certainly doesn’t shield them from the harsh realities of life. In many ways it only adds an element of alienation into the emotional mix.

The Boys from Fengkuei still

At a time when Taiwan was transforming itself rapidly, with industrialization on the rise, movies like this were a big deal and far more realistic than what had gone before. As a comparison, think how fresh kitchen sink dramas in the late 1950s and early 1960s like A Taste of Honey and A Kind of Loving must have struck audiences when they first hit British cinemas.

Cinephiles soon took note too and considering the size of the island (its population at the time was only around 17,000,000), it managed to make a real impact globally with films by Hou, Edward Yang, Chen Kunhou and others and then with what became known as the Second Wave, when new directors like future Oscar winner Ang Lee emerged.

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s career has continued to flourish since his breakthrough film, inspiring many aspiring filmmakers along the way, Jim Jarmusch, for example, called Hou his ‘teacher’. Hou scooped the highly prestigious Golden Lion prize for best picture at the 1989 Venice Festival for A City of Sadness and is recognised today as one of the world’s greatest auteurs.

The BFI suggest the ideal introduction to Hou is 1985’s The Time to Live and the Time to Die but I would go for The Boys from Fengkuei.

Hou hsiao hsien - The Assassin

If you like The Boys from Fengkuei, you might also enjoy The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterful wuxia drama that premiered at Cannes in 2015. Described as ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’ by The Telegraph and voted best film of the year by Sight & Sound, The Assassin is a dazzling spectacle that lingers long in the memory. I’d guess that even Stanley Kubrick might be impressed by Hou’s attention to detail here. Just about every shot looks to be as carefully composed as a painting by an old master.

What else can I say? Well, I could admit that I also found it difficult to follow at times and if I’m being completely honest, I would have liked to have seen some more spectacular swordplay along the way but I would still absolutely recommend The Assassin.

 

Easy Rider (New Waves #1)

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Easy Rider Quad Poster

As I mentioned in my last post, The Wild Angels kickstarted an outlaw biker movie craze. Some were very enjoyable like Hell’s Angels on Wheels, which starred Jack Nicholson, but there was only one truly great biker film and that was Easy Rider, directed by Dennis Hopper.

Hopper was a fascinating man. He arrived in Hollywood as a teenager believing he was the best young actor in the world. He landed a part in Rebel Without a Cause and changed his mind. James Dean was the best young actor in the world. Hopper also began an affair with Natalie Wood. He was hired again to work with Dean on Giant. When Elvis Presley branched into an acting career, making his debut in Love Me Tender in 1956, he sought out actors with a Dean connection including Hopper. The two hung around together, Hopper passing on some acting tips. Though maybe not enough of them.

On the downside Hopper also quickly earned a reputation for being a difficult actor. Influenced by Dean, on every set he stepped on to he would rail against ever becoming a ‘director’s puppet’. One argument with Henry Hathaway led to the director telling Hopper that he would never work again in Hollywood (although Hathaway did later employ him again).

The roles did begin to dry up, though, to the extent that Hopper had to earn money from his photography for many high-end magazines. He shot celebrities such as Jane Fonda (and her brother Peter), as well as a number of bands, most notably The Byrds, The Grateful Dead and The Jefferson Airplane.

Smiths fans will certainly recognise his Biker Couple from 1961.

Dennis Hopper, Biker Couple, 1961.jpg

Managing to secure some minor roles in films like Cool Hand Luke and The Sons of Katie Elder, didn’t stop Hopper from regularly launching into lengthy diatribes against the studio establishment, accusing the old order of being dinosaurs and claiming he would save Hollywood from big budget conservative family fare like Paint Your Wagon and Doctor Dolittle.

Significantly Hopper also acted in an AIP biker flick The Glory Stompers and together with another Hollywood rebel Peter Fonda, he attempted to get a project called The Last Movie off the ground.

He preached what he called a socialist model of filmmaking and envisaged a future for himself directing independently made features. When Fonda offered him the chance to helm a film about a couple of freewheeling bikers, that Fonda would produce and both would star in, Hopper was ecstatic.

So would Easy Rider usher in a revolutionary new era with a generation of young directors, producers, actors and crew all working in a spirit of co-operation, leaving their egos behind to concentrate on the bigger picture?

In a word: no.

With his long hair, headband and hippy threads, Dennis Hopper might have looked like his world revolved around the whole peace and love ethic of the day but in reality he was pugnacious and paranoid. More Raging Bull than Easy Rider.

‘I am Frank Booth,’ he later told David Lynch, after being sent the script for Blue Velvet.

He would guzzle alcohol by the gallon, smoke Cheech and Chong levels of pot and trip on peyote and acid as well as sniffing Amazonian tree frogs.

Okay, I made that last one up but it might just be true.

While filming, Hopper often went ballistic. He argued furiously with actors and even brandished a handgun at times.

Whatever his faults, he did go on to prove he was an inspired choice to direct Easy Rider.

In Easy Rider, Dennis is Billy (the Kid), while Fonda is Wyatt (Captain America). Billy in beads, fringed buckskin jacket and bushy tash; Wyatt in black leather and shades.

The plot of Easy Rider is simple.

Billy and Wyatt make a drug deal (cocaine) and head out on the highway, lookin’ for adventure, riding from Mexico across America on a pair of Harleys, the coke cash stashed inside the fuel tank of Wyatt’s chopper. They intend to travel to Florida and retire on the profits made from the deal.

En route they smoke a load of dope (and of course the actors did inhale); dine with some poor ranchers; encounter a boozy but perceptive lawyer named George Hanson (a show-stealing Jack Nicholson); pick up a hippy hitch-hiker and visit a commune; get hassled by some rednecks who despise their non-conformity and drop some strong acid during the Mardi Gras with two high class hookers played by Karen Black and Toni Basil.

Easy Rider - New Orleans sequence

With its manic and murky out-of-focus camerawork often displaying lens flares, the New Orleans footage is especially remarkable. It includes a sequence where Fonda improvises a monologue, verbalizing his thoughts on his mother’s suicide to a statue of the Madonna in a graveyard. This was absolutely against his wishes, but he was forced into it by Hopper.

The pair argued throughout the shoot and the animosity continued afterwards as Easy Rider became an instant bonafide counterculture sensation, picking up a number of awards and ending 1969 as the third highest grossing film in the States.

Since then it has been called the definitive statement on the death of the 1960s and is generally credited, along with Bonnie and Clyde of 1967, as a vital part in heralding in the New Hollywood era or the American New Wave if you prefer,* a movement that would lead to the successes ofThe Godfather, The Exorcist and Taxi Driver during its heyday.

The soundtrack has often been called groundbreaking too, one of the first to extensively utilise found music (in the form of popular current rock and country rock acts like The Band, The Electric Prunes and Steppenwolf) rather than a orchestral score. The accompanying album made the Billboard top ten and by January 1970, it had been certified gold.

Written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, here is one of those tracks, The Byrds and Wasn’t Born To Follow:

Since its release, much has been disputed about the making of Easy Rider. The initial idea is disputed. The budget. The length of the shoot. But it’s the screenwriting credit – officially shared by Terry Southern, Hopper and Fonda – that is the most contested.

Hopper has alleged Southern didn’t write a line of the screenplay while Southern maintained the only reason that Hopper and Fonda received credits was as a favour from him. Hopper liked to claim complete responsibility and asked Fonda and Southern to give up their claims to it though neither agreed to his demands. Since then, Hopper has occasionally been more magnanimous. On his director’s commentary, he even gave Fonda and Southern some credit.

So, did Hopper and Fonda ever kiss and make up?

Sadly, no. When Fonda discovered that Hopper was dying, he made several attempts to see him but Hopper always refused any request to meet. Fonda did fly in to Taos in New Mexico for the funeral but wasn’t allowed into the service.

IF YOU LIKE EASY RIDER THEN YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue from 1980 (this is where Primal Scream came across their ‘Kill All Hippies’ sample for the opening track on their XTRMNTR album) and River’s Edge, a 1986 cult hit that featured an uber-intense Hopper as Feck, a former biker who lives with an inflatable sex doll he calls Ellie. Possibly the bleakest teen film I’ve ever seen.

* When applied to music, the term New Wave takes on negative connotations for many – although Malcolm McLaren, for instance, favoured the term over ‘punk’. While discussing cinema, being labelled as New Wave is generally looked on much more positively (more on this in the coming months).