The Rain People – New Waves (#18)

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James Caan died on Wednesday evening and since then many, many tributes have been paid. ‘A great actor, a brilliant director and my dear friend,’ Al Pacino declared in a statement. ‘I’m gonna miss him.’ Michael Mann, who directed Caan in the 1981 neo-noir heist thriller Thief, said: ‘I loved him and I loved working with him.’

Caan’s career spanned decades and he worked with many heavyweight directors over the years including Sam Peckinpah, Howard Hawks, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola. I first saw him in movies like Freebie and the Bean and Rollerball in cinemas as a youngster and later loved his performances in Misery, Bottle Rocket and The Yards to name three very different films almost randomly. Of course, he’ll always be best remembered as the combustible Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, but I thought I’d examine one of his less well-known films as my own tribute.

1969 was the year of Apollo 11, Woodstock, the Stonewall riots, and Manson Family slayings. Not surprisingly, big budget Hollywood movies like Hello, Dolly! and Paint Your Wagon were looking distinctly old hat and struggling at the box-office. 1969 was also the year of Medium Cool and Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider. And The Rain People, the last film made by Francis Ford Coppola before he directed The Godfather.

Secretly pregnant and disenchanted with her marriage, Natalie Ravenna, a Long Island housewife, wakes early and showers as her husband Vinnie sleeps on. She gets dressed and leaves a note for him saying that she still loves him and not to worry. And, in a recurring feature of the film, we see a brief flashback, this time to their marriage day, a joyful gathering if ever there was one. Coppola does like a wedding.

Natalie isn’t sure she’s ready to be a mother. She isn’t sure of very much other than she wants to think things out. Alone. She decides to head off in her car with no real destination in mind other than to head west.

The weather? It’s raining, of course.

Along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, she picks up a hitch-hiker called Jimmy, who tells her: ‘You can call me Killer.’ Hitching was far more common back then, but even so, what kind of guy would introduce himself as Killer to a lone female? There’s something different about Killer or James Kilgannon to give him the name on his birth certificate.

Natalie has an ulterior motive in giving him the lift. She’s looking to ‘make it’ with someone, some uncomplicated sex and Killer looks like a potential candidate.

In an anonymous motel room, she instructs him to take off his shirt. He complies, and she ogles his sportsman’s physique. They play a game of Simon Says – a 1967 bubblegum hit if you’re wondering – and Killer plays as if he’s a child. She learns that he’s an ex-footballer player, who has suffered a traumatic head injury on the field of play that has left him with severely reduced intellectual abilities.

With no family or friends to look after him, Killer complicates matters for Natalie. Instead of uncomplicated sex, the pregnant woman now finds herself acting as a de facto mother to a very large childlike man. He quickly grows emotionally dependent on her and Natalie realises how badly he will take it if she walks out on him – and knows he’ll have far less ability to cope with her desertion than her husband.

In Nebraska, she arranges for him to work at a roadside pet farm where birds are kept in grotesquely overcrowded conditions. She desperately attempts to kid herself on that he can be happy there, but complications soon arise as she drives onwards alone.

Another man enters her life in the shape of Gordon, a highway patrolman played by Robert Duvall. He books her for speeding but then asks her out for a coffee. He might not be a great catch, but she does like his uniform and, unlike Killer, he is obviously interested in sleeping with her. She agrees to meet up for a date that night.

Gordon’s wife and young son have died in a housefire, leaving him to raise a daughter as a single father. Rosalie (Marya Zimmet) is a handful, a girl who behaves like an adult. The opposite of Killer, in fact.

Not that much happens in The Rain People, although there is a lot of drama packed into its final ten minutes. If The Godfather could be described as operatic, then this intriguing character-driven is minimalist.

The pace is very slow in places but it feels real, and there’s never any sense that Coppola is trying to manipulate viewers – unlike the vast majority of preachy American studio movies being produced today. Natalie is far from one-dimensional. She does help Killer and she also says some truly horrible things to him. Caan’s great in a part that’s the polar opposite of the swaggering Sonny Corleone, and it remained a favourite role for the actor throughout his life.

James Caan: March 26, 1940 – July 6, 2022

Nashville: New Waves #17

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The question of what is the greatest music related movie is asked online regularly.

It’s tempting to answer with a film with a connection to music you love but some of my favourites feature genres that I have little or no interest in. The 2011 documentary Last Days Here tells the story of Bobby Liebling, lead singer of the heavy metal rockers Pentagram, as he battles his demons. It’s compulsively watchable but did I seek out any Pentagram music after seeing it? No.

Likewise, Robert Altman’s 1975 satirical drama Nashville is seeped in country and western balladry, the popularity of which as I’ll mention isn’t something I can readily fathom. It is, though, a great film which should appear on many more lists of best music movies. Here’s a review I wrote for Louder Than War for the Eureka Masters of Cinema release of the film in 2014.

Okay, firstly, Nashville isn’t the easiest film ever made to review – he says, getting his excuses in very early – and resides at the completely opposite end of the cinematic spectrum to the high concept movies beloved by Hollywood producers of the present day, ones that can be summed up in a single and easily understandable logline.

Sprawling and featuring many of Altman’s trademark – and for the time highly innovative – techniques such as his routine use of overlapping dialogue and improvisational shooting style, Nashville is an audacious and hugely ambitious ensemble piece with no real star unless you count the city itself.

Instead of focussing on a small cast of leads, Altman gives us twenty four main characters, whose lives we follow over a period of five days in the run up to the Tennessee presidential primary, where an unseen upstart candidate named Hal Phillip Walker of the fictional Replacement Party is attempting to record his fifth straight electoral success.

A number of themes also weave their way through the film’s very much less than straightforward narrative and Nashville can be viewed in a number of ways: as a biting satire of a country in crisis, a political parable (Nixon resigned as President during the shoot) or even as a musical, as Altman himself points out in his commentary, there’s about an hour’s worth of songs in the film.

Here I should really point out that if you’ve ever been put off watching the film due to its Country and Western backdrop then don’t be and I say that as someone who is just about allergic to the genre. Altman and screenplay writer Joan Tewkesbury weren’t fans either and on its release, the musical community of the titular city were far from enamoured of the representation of their scene which many felt the director had set out to mock.

Certainly, for this non expert, Ronee Blakley as down-home country queen Barbara Jean and Karen Black as her bitchy rival Connie White, appeared to be very convincing country stars from the era of Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton, while Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a little guy with an ego the size of several Southern states, also struck me as a very plausible Mister Nashville figure with his homespun philosophies and ridiculous late Elvis style wardrobe.

Some of his material such as the jingoistic dirge 200 Years that celebrated the United States Bicentennial and the cloyingly sentimental For The Sake Of The Children do walk a fine line between pastiche and caricature, but back then at least, the latter was something that Country and Western artists weren’t afraid to flirt with. In the same year that Nashville was released, Tammy Wynette scored two huge hits in Britain with Stand By Your Man and D.I.V.O.R.C.E, the latter a song that gave Billy Connolly a UK number one single when he parodied it, although it was surely already bordering on parody even before the Big Yin got his hands on it.

Hamilton could definitely be filed under what one out of towner dismisses as country crapola but Altman was aiming for a mix of good and bad songs and Keith Carradine, who is very plausible in the role of a manipulative womaniser called Tom Frank, provided the film with a track that I found an unexpected treat: I’m Easy, a country folk number that went on to win the Academy award for Best Original Song and also reached the Billboard top twenty chart.

In fact, the scene where he performs the song with several spellbound female characters in the audience clearly under the illusion that he’s singing it to them personally is a real highlight of the movie.

With so much great acting on display, it’s almost impossible to pick out favourite performances but Lily Tomlin is superb in the role of Linnea Reese, the one woman that Tom is actually delivering those lyrics to. She’s also the wife of one heartless husband, the mother of two deaf children and a member of a large gospel choir and what makes her turn even more astonishing is the fact that this was Tomlin’s feature film debut.

Another relative newcomer, Ronee Blakley, is equally fine as the afore-mentioned Barbara Jean, whose success is the envy of many but whose mental state is at best fragile, coming over at times like a cross between Loretta Lynn and Ophelia.

Gwen Welles delivers too as Sueleen Gay, a pretend name for a pretend talent. She has delusions of being the next big thing but no Auto Tune as yet to help her out with that ambition. It’s before the age of the Wonderbra too, so to catch some extra attention, she has to make do with a pair of socks to prop up her cleavage. Today, this gal would undoubtedly dream of the chance of appearing on X-Factor; here though the only time anyone pays any real interest in her onstage is when she’s tricked into attempting to strut her stuff during what is surely cinema’s saddest ever striptease in a club full of men gathered for a Replacement Party fundraising event.

Karen Black, maybe the most under-rated actor of her era, is predictably good. Finally, a mention too for Shelley Duval, who also excels as a brazen and shallow groupie who insists on being called LA Joan, a creature with a penchant for wigs and a talent for latching on to suckers – and if she was ever to catch something rather nasty from her regular bedroom romps then you really might still struggle to work up much sympathy for her.

As Nashville reaches its conclusion, each of the characters who have been zigzagging through the storyline and interconnecting along the way, at last converge together at an outdoor concert at the city’s Parthenon to promote Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign. Some will be onstage, some in the wings and many in the audience – and let’s just say that one is never going to be allowed the chance of vote for Walker or any candidate in the forthcoming election. If you’ve never watched the film, don’t worry, I won’t be spoiling the ending for you here.

Film critics of the day lauded Nashville. ‘It’s a pure emotional high,’ Pauline Kael raved in the New Yorker, ‘and you don’t come down when the picture is over.’ Roger Ebert declared it was the best American movie since Bonnie And Clyde and it was nominated for four Oscars, including for Best Director and Best Picture.

It’s remained highly influential since its release. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and Magnolia were both large cast, multiple storyline movies that clearly took inspiration from it, as did Paul Haggis’s Crash, which bagged a Best Picture Oscar win, although few film afficionados would judge it was in any way more deserving of that honour than Altman’s film. Here in Britain, Annie Griffin’s Festival from 2005 was also absolutely in debt to Nashville albeit here comedy replaced country with Edinburgh providing a memorable backdrop.

Nashville is not a perfect film. It does sag slightly round about its halfway mark and an argument could be made that Altman should have excised a couple of songs from the Grand Ole Opry show but it is right up there with his very finest works such as M*A*S*H and Short Cuts. Not only that, but in a period when American cinema was arguably at its creative peak, and intelligent and often provocative motion pictures like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver were all huge box office hits, Nashville was right up with the best of them.

If You Like Nashville, you might also like Altman’s The Player (1992), an absolute joy from the almost eight minutes long opening sequence without an edit to its final credits. Again, there’s a fantastic ensemble cast including Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi and Peter Gallagher, along with cameos from Andie MacDowell, Malcolm McDowell, Jeff Goldblum, Elliott Gould and many, many more.

‘Hold the Chicken’ (Five Easy Pieces: New Waves #16)

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Five Easy Pieces

Here Jack Nicholson stars as Bobby Dupea a complex malcontent, whose personality is equally magnetic and malign. He’s a character who is hard to admire but impossible to forget and this was the performance that deservedly made Nicholson a true star.

Bobby, when the film kicks off, is working as a rigger on an oil field in Southern California with his pal Elton. On his return home, he chides his girlfriend Rayette’s (Karen Black) taste in music, baulking at the idea of her playing Tammy Wynette’s sickly Stand By Your Man yet again.

When she suggests Bobby spin the B-side instead as if this might improve his mood, he tells her: ‘It’s not a question of sides. It’s a question of musical integrity.’

Bobby will never be happy for any prolonged period. He is what would today be called a commitment-phobe. He’s also downwardly mobile – although we don’t yet know it. And I should point out that there will be spoilers in the final paragraphs of this post.

Karen Black & Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

Bobby and Ray go ten-pin bowling with Elton and his wife Stoney and Bobby gets pissed off with Rayette’s inability to launch her bowling ball in anything resembling a straight line down the lane.

Her bowling balls might veer into the gutters but Rayette is at least occasionally looking at the stars even if her dreams of becoming a country and western star are entirely unrealistic She’s naive and clingy, and she’s also far from Bobby’s intellectual equal but Karen Black never reduces her to a dumb redneck caricature and Rayette always remains much more likeable than her partner.

Okay, this isn’t that difficult. Verbally abusive on a very regular basis, he’ll pick fights or battle with not only with his girlfriend but with Elton, some cops arresting Elton, and even a noisy dog during a traffic jam on the freeway. The latter frustration eventually leads him to jump on the back of a removal wagon to get a better view to assess how long the tailback is. There he spots a piano, and he begins to play away although it’s hard to tell how good he is as his tinkling is accompanied by a constant cacophony of honking car horns.

Most memorably, he engages in a war of words in a roadside restaurant with an inflexible waitress. Although not a dramatically pivotal scene, this is the one that many viewers recall most fondly. The argument revolves around a chicken salad sandwich and ends with a brattish Bobby scattering the glasses on his table onto the floor with an angry sweep of the hand.

An angry Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

By this point Bobby has been given a family update via his sister Partita (Lois Smith). Their father is seriously ill in the aftermath of suffering two strokes.

Bobby is advised that he should see him before he dies and he reluctantly agrees, taking Rayette with him. On the road, and with some amusing consequences, they pick up a pair of hitch-hikers heading for a new life in Alaska played by Helena Kallianiotes and Toni ‘Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, You’re so fine you blow my mind’ Basil. The former complains incessantly about the dangers of dirt and when asked why she wants to move north, she replies, ‘It’s cleaner.’

‘That was before the big thaw,’ Bobby remarks dryly.

Five Easy Pieces - On the Road

On the verge of reaching his destination, he dumps Rayette in a cheap motel, presumably ashamed of her, at best figuring that she might feel out of place in the social milieu there.

Back at the family home, he hits on a musician Catherine Van Oost (Susan Anspach), who is working with his brother Carl, played by Ralph Waite, later to be the head of the Walton clan. Indeed, Bobby spends more time in pursuit of her than in tending to his father, although he does at least share some time with the dying old man, hoping to achieve some kind of reconciliation with him. ‘I move around a lot,’ he explains, ‘not because I’m looking for anything really but because I’m getting away from things that get bad if I stay.’

The reasons for Bobby’s discontent are never explained. No flashbacks to his childhood being scolded by his perfectionist father (or similar) and if you’re looking for any explanation of why Bobby is the way he is then this is as near as you’ll get to it.

Jack Nicholson alone

He leaves with Rayette, saying goodbye only to Partita.

The film that began in an oil field ends in a gas station and the final scene is one of those endings that you desperately hope has become confused in your memory. Watching it for the first time since Alex Cox featured it in his Moviedrome series in the late 1980s, I began hoping that, as Rayette went in search of some coffee, Bobby wouldn’t have a word with the driver of a parked logging truck. That he wouldn’t step inside the truck, that instead he might get out and face his responsibilities. Head back to the family home with Rayette and, like a prodigal son, help care for his father and maybe even rekindle his career as a concert pianist.

Of course what an audience want doesn’t translate as what is artistically right.

There’s a big clue to the ending in the final location. At the gas station, a sign hangs advertising one of America’s best known oil companies, GULF. All along, there’s been too much of a gulf between Bobby and his respectable upper-middle class family for any great rapprochement, too much of a gulf between the former piano protege and the Tammy Wynette loving waitress for any relationship between them to realistically work. While Rayette is in the cafe thinking of the man she loves, Bobby sets off with the trucker to somewhere that’s ‘colder than hell’, probably Alaska.

Bobby won’t be any less restless or cantankerous there but least he’ll be clean.

Five Easy Pieces Gulf

The idea for Five Easy Pieces was conceived by its director Bob Rafelson, together with Carole Eastman. It’s surely no coincidence that Rafelson himself was born into a relatively wealthy family and also – before finding his direction – earned a living from a wide variety of jobs from breaking horses for the rodeo to drumming in a jazz band based in Mexico.

He directs his second feature beautifully. The cinematography is flawless. Nicholson is brilliant. Karen Black is also superb. Fifty years ago it might have resonated more and Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest might be better films but this is still a wonderful watch that everybody should see at least once, a key film in what became known as New Hollywood.

If you liked Five Easy Pieces you might also like Head.

Firstly – if anybody is remotely interested – my favourite group when I was a kid I’ve been told was The Monkees, although my memory doesn’t quite stretch back that far. According to my parents, I liked to argue that they were a much better group than The Beatles. All these decades later I still reckon they put out some cracking singles like Stepping Stone and Valeri – even if they might not have played all the instruments on them. The fifty-something me, though, would have to admit that they never recorded anything as extraordinary as Helter Skelter or Day in a Life.

How long my Monkee-mania lasted, I have no idea but I wish I knew if I’d stuck with both them through to the closing moments of the final episode of the series, when Tim Buckley performed Song to the Siren.

It was Bob Rafelson who initially hit on the idea of making something like A Hard Day’s Night into a madcap TV comedy show. An ersatz band was assembled, and the series proved a massive ratings winner.

After two seasons, and with the band wanting to shed their frolicsome four image and establish themselves as ‘serious’ musicians, they agreed to go further down the experimental route they’d always embraced for a film co-written and co-produced by Rafelson and Nicholson, 1968’s Head. This was a crazed attempt to deconstruct the pop band that owed as much to underground filmmakers like Stan Brakhage as Richard Lester.

I wouldn’t claim that it’s a great film but it does contain some startling moments. From it, here is Porpoise Song. Dig those psych flavoured solarizations.

Bande à part (Band of Outsiders): New Waves #15

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Bande A Part

This time round one of the best loved movies that starred 1960s cinematic icon Anna Karina. Sadly, Anna died on Saturday, with details of her death being released yesterday.

She’ll be best remembered for her collaborations with one time husband Jean-Luc Godard during the heyday of the Nouvelle Vague such as Une Femme Est Une Femme, Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou but most especially for Bande à part (Band of Outsiders).


‘We had fun. Lots of fun,’ Karina told Jason Solomans in 2016 after a screening of the film at the BFI. ‘I have to say we didn’t think about making great careers or things like that – we just wanted to be actors and play.’

Bande à part was shot quickly and certainly appears playful – even though Karina in reality was in a bad place at this time, suffering from depression. Bande à part looks as spontaneous as just about any movie ever made but this is often an illusion. Seeing for the first time, I might have guessed that the famous dance scene was entirely improvised. It wasn’t. Three weeks of one hour’s dance practice each night preceded Godard shooting it. It was by far the most carefully rehearsed scene in the film.

Godard incidentally claimed to have invented the Madison dance but was lying. It was already a craze in the land of a thousand dances just like the Twist, the Stroll and the Cha-Cha-Cha.

Bande à part can be spontaneous too. It was made cheaply and shot in only 25 days. Godard would write much of his dialogue at the last minute, meaning his actors would not have the time to rehearse as thoroughly as they normally would. Additionally, he would generally insist on only shooting one or two takes.

Released in France during the summer of 1964, Bande à part wasn’t the critical or box-office success that you might have imagined. Godard himself was far from fond of it. Over the years its reputation has grown though, and this owes more than a little to Quentin Tarantino repeatedly talking it up during the 1990s, together with his decision to name his production company Band Apart in homage.

With its range of cinema/literature/pop culture references and in-jokes throughout its ninety minute run time, it’s easy to see why he was such a fan.

Band a Part - Nouvelle Vague

These include the two male leads, Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey), jokingly re-enacting the gunfight between Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett; Arthur and Odile walking towards the Place de Clichy at night and passing a shop called Nouvelle Vague; and then there’s the man who bills himself here as Jean-Luc Cinéma Godard narrating early on: ‘The story till now, for people who’ve come in late. Three weeks ago… A hoard of money… an English class… a house by the river… a starry-eyed girl.’

If you want more detail, here you go. Odile (Anna Karina) stays with her adoptive aunt in a large, isolated villa on the outskirts of Paris and by a river, obviously. She’s naive and fragile and studies English in a night-school class with Arthur and Franz. Both predictably become besotted with her and continually compete for her affections. She mentions that a man who very occasionally stays at her home Monsieur Stoltz has carelessly stashed a pile of money in the cupboard of his room. Arthur and Franz being petty crooks, begin planning a burglary with her reluctant help.

Arthur, Odile and Franz

Our Band of Outsiders are far from the sleek thieves of many modern Hollywood movies who can audaciously rob casinos and banks with forensically detailed plans and high-tech gadgetry. This trio are incompetent to the extent that they might just manage to bungle taking candy from a baby. It’s probably best if the three people planning a robbery aren’t all part of a love triangle.

Bande à part can be great fun and exhilarating, as when the trio dash around the Louvre in an attempt to break the world record for the fastest time to run through the gallery. It can be melancholic too. ‘People always look sad and unhappy in the Métro,’ Odile observes at one point while sitting on a Métro carriage looking clearly sad and unhappy herself.

Quirky and inventive with well cast leads, this is Godard’s most accessible work along with A Bout de Souffle. The director has spoken of the three characters being equals – hence the rapidfire edits of close-ups of them that introduce the film but Odile is the heart of the film. The camera utterly adores her, just as much as Arthur and Franz do, even when she’s wearing a dowdy coat and looking utterly despondent.

Filming Bande à part proved therapeutic for Karina. She later claimed it saved her. She divorced Godard not long afterwards although she still happily agreed to star in his next film Pierrot le fou and says that this was the most fun she ever had while filming.

Band a Part - The Louvre

Of course, Karina didn’t only make movies with Godard. Over her long career, she also worked with Agnès Varda, Roger Vadim, Jacques Rivette, Volker Schlöndorff, Tony Richardson and Rainer Werner Fassbinder to name only six huge talents.

In 1973, she also made a movie herself, Vivre Ensemble (Living Together) which debuted at Cannes. Victoria was her second and final outing as a director came out in 2008. A French-Canadian musical road movie, she appeared in this one too, her acting swan song.

Anna Karina (Hanne Karin Blarke Bayer): September 1940 – December 2019

God Speed You! Black Emperor: New Waves #14

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God Speed You! Black Emperor

No, not anything to do with the Montreal post-rock band of the same name, this is the 1976 cult documentary by Mitsuo Yanagimachi that the Canadians took their name from.

Goddo supiido yuu! Burakku emparaa, to give it its Japanese title was director Yanagimachi’s debut feature length film. It was produced by his own independent production company, Purodakushon Gunrō.

Shot in 16mm monochrome, it examines a young Japanese biker gang and opens bang in the middle of a confrontation between the Black Emperors and the cops. The young bikers – or bōsōzoku, as motorbike gangs are known as locally – heavily outnumber them, so this is relatively easy.

Bōsōzoku roughly translates as ferocious speed tribes but ferocious might not be a word that would spring to mind in describing the young men here.

Gang names tend to be things like Pants and Vagabond and Beggar and at one point mention is made of a rival gang called the Pink Panthers. Not names that would even strike terror into the hearts of a bunch of bingo playing grannies.

God Speed You! Black Emperor - Bike

Decko claims to be their leader and to live in a tunnel. Cut to him eating breakfast and watching television in what I’d guess is his parents’ kitchen in a long block of brutalist apartments.

Education was never a priority for these bikers. One even claims he never went to school but it’s probably best not to believe everything they say. Teenage bravado is never far away as we observe them planning rides or discussing the future of their gang.

These bikers resemble their Western counterparts in many respects but there are just as many differences. For starters they have a very different look. While Hell’s Angels at this time favoured long hair and black leather, the Bōsōzoku often have short hair or pompadour cuts and nearly all shun leather. Rather than helmets they wear hachimaki headbands, the gang name written in English rather than Kanji, with a swastika decorating the space between Black and Emperors.

Maybe like earlier Hell’s Angels or early punks in London around the same time, this was adopted to piss off the older generation rather than as a way to signal their political allegiances. Maybe not, the swastika in Japan has many positive connotations and is commonly used on maps to denote Buddhist temples although with the upcoming Olympic games being held in Tokyo, this is to be phased out. I digress.

Anyway, the Black Emperors love being anti-social. They rev their engines at every available opportunity, the motorcycle’s roar being their favourite sound, possibly because it infuriates large sections of the public. Ditto tooting their motorbike horns.

They show off while riding en masse, swaying their bikes as they ride and weaving from one side of the road to the other. They get high. They fight. They goof around while listening to a morbid pop song on the radio.

If they watched the Roger Corman flick The Wild Angels, you could bet your bottom yen that they’d collectively nod their heads in agreement with the sentiment of Peter Fonda’s declaration: ‘We wanna be free. We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time.’

Some Bosozuku

Not that being in the gang is always a blast. Problems surface with parents and court appearances are always a possibility. Even among their own numbers, punishment beatings are common enough if a member is perceived to have broken gang rules. This takes in slaps, kicks and forced eyebrow shavings rather than the sort of gruesome retributions portrayed in Sons of Anarchy.

Although quitting the gang isn’t approved of, I’m guessing that rather than adhering to the biker code for life like many in the West, these youngsters were only seeking some camaraderie, rebellion and a sense of freedom before adulthood in the shape of marriage and responsibilities beckoned.

In Tokyo, when Yanagimachi was shooting his documentary, the Bōsōzoku were much more common than they are today. In Japan around this time home grown biker flicks were proving very successful at the box-office, with 1975’s Bakuhatsu! Bōsōzoku (Detonation! Violent Riders) starring Sonny Chiba being one of the most popular. And you just know with that title, this has to be something everybody should see. Numbers swelled as the film craze peaked.

Almost forty-five years on, they’re a vanishing breed.

Black Emperor's Rally

God Speed You! Black Emperor is slowly paced to the extent that modern viewers may judge that some scenes drag on. There’s no huge climax or revelation like so many documentaries today. At times the sound of camera whirr is clear and in the version I watched, the subtitles are poor. But it’s highly watchable. A fascinating glimpse into a world I knew little about.

This is one of the last films to be classified as Japanese New Wave, along with Nagisa Oshima’s controversial In the Realm of the Senses – aka Ai No Corrida. Both released in 1976.

Japan’s ‘Nuberu Bagu’ kicked off around the same time as France’s Nouvelle Vague but lasted longer and judging by those two films, rather than fizzling out, it ended on a real high.

The Leather Boys (1964)

If you like God Speed You! Black Emperor, then you might also like The Leather Boys. It was made in 1964, as the mods versus rockers feud was making front page news in Britain with the two competing groups being seen as the country’s latest folk devils.

It’s the only British new wave film to focus on youth culture – and would make a great double bill with Quadrophenia. I do much prefer the ‘mod’ film, although The Leather Boys is more authentic. The Ace Cafe in North West London, for example, is an important location. This was where many real Rockers spent time drinking coffee, smoking and spinning the likes of Gene Vincent on the jukebox, with rows of Triumph and Norton bikes parked outside. Many of the extras you see are real ton-up boys and director Sidney J. Furie was keen to ask them for their advice on the rocker way of life.

Lead leather boy Colin Campbell featured on the covers of a couple of releases by The Smiths and snippets from the film were superimposed over Morrissey in the video for Girlfriend in a Coma. Doubtless the singer was attracted to the film as he’s such a fan of British movies of this era and The Leather Boys, like A Taste of Honey and The L-Shaped Room, also features a gay character – a relative rarity in the first half of the 1960s.

Campbell died last year, and a convoy of bikers who were Ace Cafe regulars joined the funeral cortege of the London born actor.

Finally, some music from the band God Speed You! Black Emperor. This is East Hastings as used in the soundtrack of 28 Days Later, a movie made when Danny Boyle was taking risks rather than directing cosy high concept cop-outs like Yesterday.

Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind (New Waves #13)

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Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind

And now for a nihilistic movie released at the dawn of the 1980s, just as Hong Kong’s new wave was beginning to establish itself as a cinematic force to be reckoned with.

Also known as Dai yat lai aau him, Don’t Play With Fire and Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind, this was the third film directed by Tsui Hark, who would later be described as the ‘Hong Kong Steven Spielberg’. Spielberg might have made the similarly titled Close Encounters of the Third Kind but he certainly has never got remotely close to making anything like Dangerous Encounters.

If you’re wondering about the naming of Hark’s bleak – and then some – drama, yes, it consciously attempts to evoke Speilberg’s major box-office hit – and just look at that version of the original poster on the right hand side above. More specifically it refers to a 1956 Hong Kong law that decreed that explosives should be classified as ‘dangerous objects of the first kind’.

And there’s going to be many dangerous objects of the first kind in this movie.

Pearl in Dangerous Encounters - First Kind

It opens in a rain soaked maze of overcrowded apartments. We see an even more overcrowded cage, filled with white mice. A hand takes one out, then extracts a long sharp needle from a nearby candle with dozens of similar needles pierced into its wax. This is pressed into the mouse’s head, squizelling through its brain. This disorientates the poor creature, which is returned to the cage.

It’s a sickening way to start a film as the action does look like it might have been real. We’re then transported to some boys standing on the roof of a nearby building. They drop some kind of crude bomb which explodes next to an innocent bystander.

In an era when kung fu movies made by The Shaw Brothers and others ruled the roost, with chivalrous heroes as leads and happy endings, Hark’s ‘shock of the new’ vision would have made for, ahem, explosive viewing.

It was banned, though, by the Film Censorship Unit. This made headline news in Hong Kong in 1980, and Hark was forced to re-edit some of the more controversial scenes. Sadly, many were left on the cutting room floor.

Pearl (Chen Chi Lin), is a sadistic teenage sociopath – she was the one torturing the mouse. We see her at work where she pours a bucket of thick printer’s ink over a young girl for daring to criticise her, point her cop brother’s gun at neighbours and do something truly unspeakable to a cat.

After witnessing the three geeky young bombmakers (Ko, Loong and Paul) detonating a small bomb in a cinema, she blackmails them, forcing them to join her in the mayhem she has planned for society.

So is born our alienated and angry brigade or Gang of Four (the movie’s originally envisaged title) if you prefer.

Gang of Four - Dangerous Encounters 1st Kind

Events spirals out of control when, in the aftermath of a pointless confrontation with an American driver, Pearl finds a wad of Japanese bank orders worth millions of yen.

These cannot be cashed legally outside Japan, so Pearl and the boys seek out some local Triads, who might be able to launder them. The Triads offer a deal, but they’re not to be trusted. And the American and his friends, presumably Vietnam vets who enjoyed some leave in Hong Kong and decided to stay, desperately attempt to recover their treasure trove, no matter how many lives they have to end in the process.

The final section of the film is set in a vast and hilly graveyard and resembles the kind of violent climax of a spaghetti western. Even today the film is rated Category III in Hong Kong, their equivalent of an 18 in Britain.

Dangerous Encounters of the First Time still

Its nihilism also reminded me of two bleak North American dramas made around the same time, Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge (1979) and Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980).

Hark wasn’t in a good place when he shot the film. According to Pak Tong Cheuk’s book Hong Kong New Wave Cinema 1978-2000, he ‘transferred his discontent, accumulated over many years, to the images of this movie, producing scenes of blind, cruel massacres. The film is an intense, unrestrained expression of the film-maker.’

Despite this, it’s been called his ‘greatest contribution to the Hong Kong New Wave’ and over the years it’s picked up more and more of a cult following. But its commercial failure on release played a big part in persuading Hark to seek more mainstream friendly material.

It’s not a film for everyone – especially animal lovers – but it did lodge in my mind. Chen Chi Lin is excellent as Pearl, and repugnant as her character is, I did begin to root for her as the film progressed, albeit in a lesser of three evils way. The action sequences are handled expertly, and it’s never predictable.

I also generally liked the patchwork soundtrack. This includes a burst of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene (Part 4), extracts from Goblin’s work on Dawn of the Dead, and even the theme from The Warriors. No copyright infringements, I’m sure. Or maybe not.

If you like Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind then you might also like 1991’s Once Upon a Time In China, which was directed, produced and co-written by Hark.

The story of Cantonese folk hero and martial arts master Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), this franchise inspiring epic is essential viewing for kung fu fans. Li is at the peak of his powers and is involved in some of the most sensationally kinetic action sequences that you could ever wish to come across, including an audacious and extended fight on bamboo ladders that has to be seen to be believed.

A major box-office hit locally, this is one of the very few classics that spawned an equally good, arguably even better follow-up. This was also directed, produced and co-written by Hark, who since his early new wave days has established himself as one of the most important names in South East Asian filmmaking with his genre-spanning movies. He’s collaborated with John Woo, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung and Ringo Lam, to name only a handful of Hong Kong cinematic legends.

Paper Moon (New Waves #12)

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Paper Moon

For a while at the start of the 21st century, Peter Bogdanovich was best known to some as Lorraine Bracco’s shrink Dr Elliot Kupferberg in The Sopranos but in the early 1970s, when he decided to shoot an adaptation of Joe David Brown’s Depression era novel Addie Pray – renamed as Paper Moon – he was a Hollywood A-list director and on a roll.

In 1971, The Last Picture Show received fantastic reviews and gained eight Academy Award nominations, while the following year, he scored a box office smash with his screwball comedy What’s Up, Doc?

Ryan O’Neal, the co-star of the latter film was cast as Moses (Moze) Pray, one of the two central roles in Paper Moon and his real-life daughter Tatum, despite having never acted, was chosen to play nine year old orphan Addie Loggins, who as the film gets underway stands at the graveside of her mother as her funeral draws to a close.

The small gathering of mourners is joined by Moze, who arrives in a noisy jalopy and throws some stolen flowers into the grave. Moses is a low-grade grifter with a certain rascally charm and perhaps a resemblance to the child, although when asked if he is her father, he’s keen to deny it. Despite some major reservations, he agrees to escort Addie to Missouri, so she can go and stay with her aunt, as he is heading in that direction himself.

Paper Moon - Ryan and Tatum O'Neal

And so begins a road movie where you’re never sure if the pair will ever reach their destination. They’re certainly in no real hurry to do so, which is fine as this is a character driven rather than plot driven film and the two leads are both such fun to watch.

First stop on their (mis)adventures is a local grain mill, where Addie overhears Moze threatening the brother of the man who killed her mother in a car accident while drunk with a lawsuit. He accepts $200 to drop the matter.

And then we have a fantastically funny scene in a diner which consists mostly of the precocious and tomboyish Addie asking Moze if he is her father and demanding the two hundred bucks for herself and Moze repeatedly telling her to eat her Coney Island hotdog. He’s evasive as hell and she is one very persistent kid.

Is he her father? Well, that particular question is never answered although I’ve always believed he was, maybe influenced by the fact that he is in real-life. Actually, if Moze isn’t her father then this is one weird movie if you think about it.

Paper Moon - Tatum and Ryan O'Neal

Addie soon discovers and enrols herself into his main scam, which consists of studying obituary pages and then doorstepping the widow of someone recently deceased and claiming their dead husband ordered a ‘deluxe’ edition of the Bible – on which he has already embossed the widow’s name himself – which they are now under no obligation to buy.

Of course, they usually do want to buy it.

Yes, this is highly unethical, but Moze does have a good heart at times. After all he could have refused to help Addie in any way. And those bibles that he sells do appear to provide some comfort to the grieving women.

As for Addie, she might be happy to join in on the scam, but she employs an almost Robin Hood approach, giving away a bible free to a poor looking woman with a gaggle of kids to feed, while doubling the price to an obviously wealthy widow.

Interestingly, she soon proves herself more adept at swindling than Moze and her deviousness also helps engineer a split between Moze and his squeeze, Miss Trixie Delight, an exotic dancer and narcissistic chancer played superbly by Madeline Kahn, who he takes up with briefly around the midpoint of the film.

Paper Moon - Madeline Kahn & Ryan O'Neal

Paper Moon is a joy from beginning to the end and if has any faults then I’ve never noticed them. Okay, it’s not the funniest film ever made but it is maybe the most charming comedy I’ve seen and one of the most consistently amusing.

It’s also beautifully directed by Bogdanovich and with its crisp black and white cinematography it hasn’t seemed to age since the 1970s. The costumes and period detail are always fantastic, but best of all is the acting, although Tatum O’Neal is the one whose performance you will remember long after the end credits have rolled. She absolutely steals the show.

Don’t work with animals or children? Thankfully Bogdanovich never listened to that old show business adage.

Interestingly, the director has spoken about how he would have to bribe her during certain scenes to get her to cooperate with promises of money or new shoes. Apparently she hated the filmmaking process and while I can see how a child really would be bored stupid at times due to the length of setups and number of takes sometimes required on set, I like to think that maybe she was drawing on her onscreen persona at times and practising a little scam on the director herself.

Tatum O’Neal (along with Madeline Kahn) received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 46th Academy Awards, and I have no idea why she wasn’t included in the Best Actress category, as she is seldom off the screen. Bogdanovich opens the movie with a close-up of her face for a reason. Happily though she did win the award and is still the youngest actor ever to do so in any competing category.

If you liked Paper Moon, then you might also like Daisy Miller. Then again, you might not.

In Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the author claimed that Bogdanovich carried around rave reviews of Paper Moon in his pockets.

Life was good. Not only was he one of the most highly regarded young directors in Hollywood but he also was in a relationship with Cybill Shepherd, the radiant star of The Last Picture Show.

He cast her again in his follow-up to Paper Moon, 1974’s Daisy Miller.

Cybill Shepherd - Daisy Miller

Based on Henry James’ novella of the same name, this time round I doubt he would want to carry any reviews on his person, although Vincent Canby in The New York Times was a rare supporter of the film.

Branded a ‘dud’, with Shepherd mercilessly lambasted for her performance, Daisy Miller was also a commercial flop. In a Director’s Guild interview, Bogdanovich later admitted: ‘I remember watching dailies of Daisy Miller in Rome or Switzerland and thinking to myself, saying out loud, “This is beautiful, but I don’t know who’s going to want to see it.” And boy, was I right.’

He would go on to make more very good films such as Saint Jack and Texasville, but never anything as acclaimed as The Last Picture Show or quite as perfect as Paper Moon.


The above piece is a revised and expanded version of a review I wrote for Louder Than War for the Eureka Masters of Cinema dual format release of Paper Moon in 2015.

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

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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/

The Party and the Guests (New Waves #10)

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The Party and the Guests

‘When one lives in a society that is essentially not free, it is the obligation of every thinking person to attack obstacles to freedom in every way at his disposal.’ Jan Němec

O slavnosti a hostech*, to give the film its Czech title, isn’t that widely known outside of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and when it is discussed one fact is always mentioned.

But first a little background.

By Eastern Bloc standards, the Czechoslovakia of the mid-1960s was relatively liberal, though censorship in the arts was still very common.

President Antonín Novotný took a keen interest in this and is said to have been left apoplectic with rage after being given a private screening of Němec’s film, demanding it be withdrawn from circulation. Yes, that fact that is always mentioned when The Party and the Guests is discussed is its history of suppression.

The ban inevitably soon came into force – along with Vera Chytilová’s Daisies – at a meeting in 1967 of Czechoslovakia’s National Assembly. It was declared – as if this was a bad thing – that neither film had anything ‘in common with our republic, socialism, and the ideals of Communism.’

Never mind, as the then-country attempted to navigate their ways towards a more democratic future during the Prague Spring, the film was once again made available for screenings. It was even selected to compete for the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968, but due to the student and worker revolt in France, the festival was curtailed and then officially called off to show solidarity with the protesters.

Back home, three or so months later, Warsaw Pact troops and tanks rolled into Prague, reforms were crushed, and the country entered a period dubbed ‘normalisation’ by the ruling Communists.

For Němec, normalisation meant his film was banned for a second time.
And when I say banned, I don’t mean for a specific period of time after which the ban might be re-considered like the first time around. It went on to became one of four films (along with The Fireman’s Ball, All My Good Countrymen and End of a Priest) to be officially ‘banned forever’.

Idealogical orthodoxy wasn’t Němec’s thing, and he’d been considered an enfant terrible since his days at the lauded FAMU film school. Now he was being regarded as ‘politically undesirable’ and believed to be biggest filmmaking threat to the government and Communist system.

Blacklisted, he had his passport taken away from him in 1969 and he wasn’t given the chance to direct another feature film in his homeland until the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution.

The Party and The Guests -The Picnickers

The film is based on a novella written by Ester Krumbachová, a fascinating figure in the Czechoslovak New Wave, who at this point was married to Němec, both being credited with the screenplay.

This is a relatively short drama, just sixty eight minutes – few Czechoslovak New Wave films ever outstayed their welcome – and the plot is basic.

The following summary does contain spoilers.

A party of four men and three women are spending a pleasant afternoon enjoying a picnic on the edge of a pine forest. The weather’s good, as is the food, and the wine, which has been chilled in a nearby stream.

This could almost be some socialist realist propaganda borefest glorifying the wonders of Communism but it soon becomes apparent that it really isn’t.

Their little idyll is just about to turn sour. Very sour.

Jan Klusak as Rudolf

Some men, led by an obsequious looking figure in plus fours, accost and manhandle them. These men begin to play some kind of game. They won’t say who they are. They might resemble an absurdist street gang – if such a idea existed – but it’s easy to assume to represent the secret police.

We learn the leader is called Rudolf and everything about him seems slightly ridiculous. He takes great pains to appear polite but his faux-friendliness grates – like Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.

A table is laid out and the party are told to step inside a circle, marked out on a gravelly piece of land. Fed up with an inane interrogation, one man Karel dares to defy the interlopers and strides away. He’s roughed up.

Another man arrives who is obviously in charge of the interlopers. Dapperly dressed, he has a goatee beard like Lenin’s, and he apologises for the behaviour of his men. He invites the party to join an open-air banquet to celebrate a wedding and his own birthday.


One of the original group, who remains nameless but is played by well known dissident Evald Schorm, says little and displays no willingness to join in the charade. At an opportune moment, he vanishes, much to the chagrin of his wife.

The Lenin lookalike may appear jovial, but he is a stickler for order and the fact that they are a guest short makes him snap. A solution is suggested. The party guests could break from their meal and attempt to track down the missing man and bring him back, despite his wishes.


A hound is given a sniff at a slipper he has left and it picks his scent. The search party sets off in high spirits.

The other original picnickers decide to stay on, on the pretext that if their (former) friend should return on his own accord, they should be there to greet him.

They chat and eat, much as they did earlier and seem content with the situation.

And that’s about that. On the surface.

The Party and the Guests (1966)

The Party and the Guests comes over like a Luis Buñuel film with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.

The ruling regime clearly took it as an anti-Communist allegory, although Jan Němec has never claimed it was specifically aimed at them. Maybe it’s as much, if not more, of an attack on ordinary people who, rather than oppose the system, passively make an accommodation with it for the sake of a quiet life, like most of the characters here seem happy enough to do.

It makes you ask yourself the question of how you would behave under similar circumstances. Compromise and conform or confront?

No trailer online but here’s a clip:

If you like The Party and the Guests, you might also like Němec’s first feature Diamonds of the Night, the story of two young Jewish boys who escape from a Nazi transport train. This is another uneasy watch with some startling imagery – including a hommage to Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou.

* In America the film is known as A Report on The Party and the Guests

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: New Waves #8



This 1970 film comes from the surrealist wing of the Czechoslovak New Wave and would have made a great double feature with Daisies back when cinemas embraced that value for money idea.

Like its title partly suggests, this is a film about a thirteen year old girl called Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), and the first week she spends as a menstruating female. As for wonders, there are plenty of those, believe me. In fact, considering the film was made in the wake of the Prague Spring, when Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush recent reforms, the biggest wonder is how it actually came to be made.


Jireš’s previous directorial outing had been The Joke (1969), an anti-Stalinist parable adapted from a novel by Milan Kundera. This earned a twenty year long ban and has been named as ‘possibly the most shattering indictment of totalitarianism to come out of a Communist country’ by critic Amos Vogel.

Next up, Jireš set his sights on adapting a surrealist novel of 1935 by Vítězslav Nezval, who was also a poet, screenwriter and prominent Czech Communist of the interwar years. If he hadn’t been so highly regarded by the party, then the phantasmagoria that is Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders would surely have been a non-starter.

Valerie a týden divů, to give it its Czech title, is one of the most difficult films that I can think of to describe and any rundown of what happens onscreen is never going to be able to convey the magic of what viewers of the film can experience.

I’ll give you a flavour, though. It’s shot mainly around Slavonice, a gorgeous small town that belonged in 1970 to Moravia but which is now part of South Bohemia. It’s never stated when this is all taking place but if I had to guess I’d say maybe the middle of the nineteenth century.


Valerie lives with her Grandmother (Helena Anýzová), a pious woman, who has pure white hair which she scrapes away from her face into a very severe bun. She also has the kind of skin complexion that Goths would absolutely adore. This is not a woman whose list of hobbies would include sunbathing.

She longs for her past when she was young and beautiful (although she is obviously still strangely attractive and looks like she could still be in her early thirties). Luckily, for her at least, she will be presented with the chance of eternal youth in exchange for the house that Valerie was supposed to eventually inherit.

Valerie regularly meets up with a poet and minstrel named Eaglet who wears a boater and looks a little hippyish with his long sideburns and John Lennon style glasses. She also repeatedly comes across a grotesque looking character known as Weasel, a vampire who morphs into a constable and a bishop and has the kind of hideous pointy teeth that make Shane MacGowan’s nashers look like Tom Cruise’s. He’s maybe also the Devil and Eaglet’s father.


According to creepy missionary Father Gracián, who later tears off his cassock and attempts to molest her, Valerie’s father was a bishop, so maybe Weasel is her father, and therefore Eaglet might be her brother.

Identities here are fluid. Her Grandmother – who is also a vampire – might be her distant cousin Elsa or even her mother. Or maybe this is just the same actress playing a number of roles. Yeah, I happily admit that I’m confused by this not remotely coherent plot.

As I wrote in my previous post about Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky, for maximum viewing pleasure it’s probably best not to analyse events onscreen too closely as this would likely suck any enjoyment out of your viewing experience.

Just enjoy the startling imagery and the utterly enchanting pastoral score by one of Czechoslovakia’s leading composers, Luboš Fišer. This is a true marvel. Fragile and haunting, it’s the perfect accompaniment to such a beautifully dreamlike and disorienting film.


Influences would seem to include middle-European fairy-tales, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Lewis Carroll – like Alice, Valerie is oddly accepting of the constant hallucinatory craziness around her, even when she finds herself tied to a stake, about to be burnt publicly as a witch. The most important influence, though, is maybe dream/nightmare logic.

Jireš never makes it explicit if what we are seeing is really happening or only dreams or daydreams conjured up by Valerie. At one point she does say ‘This is only a dream’, which is fine by me.


Rudé právo, the regime’s propaganda filled newspaper, was far from happy, calling for ‘other films, films for audiences, films for today, films for a socialist person’, in a highly negative review. For the rest of the decade Jireš was forced into the the kind of thing that would find more favour with the Communist authorities, mainly arts documentaries featuring opera and ballet. A huge pity.

Valerie would be the only film of his that could be categorised as surrealist. He did, though, describe it as his favourite.

The film only made only a brief appearance in Czechoslovak picture houses but was the last New Wave film from that country to be met with international acclaim, deservedly being selected for screenings at a number of highly regarded festivals worldwide.

Since then, its reputation has slowly grown and today, it’s widely hailed as a cult classic.

If you liked Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, you might also like November (2017). Set in a barren and northerly landscape, this Estonian fantasy film has to be one of the most inventive and strangest dramas of recent international cinema.

In Rolling Stone, Peter Travis proclaimed it ‘a new midnight-movie classic’ and in Louder Than War, I called it ‘Midway between Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and an animation by Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer.’

There’s love spells, a day of the dead, human sized chickens, werewolves, a talking pig, plague and kratts – bizarre contraptions that look as if they’ve been mostly made from junk but which can speak and fly and cause all kinds of mischief.

For more on the film: https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/november/

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