Monday, 13 July 2020

Antfarm Dickhole (2011)


Director: Bill Zebub

Cast: Mike Nastri as Ant-Drew; Jessica Mazo as Ant-Drea; Bill Zebub as Ant-Thony; Miss Lyss as News Achorwoman; Rachel Bulisky as Ant-Marie; Lindsey Jones Winter as Mary-Ant; Erin Anne MacDonald as an Antomologist

Abstract List Candidate

 

[Major Spoilers Throughout. Also this talks about a lot of tasteless content so just be aware]

 

We shouldn't even call this a park, we should call this a stolen.

Yes, that title speaks so much about what to expect. This is not surprisingly however since Bill Zebub is a micro budget filmmaker who since 2002 has made over sixty films up to the 2020s at least, with a tendency to make at least four films a year from the start of his career onwards. Figures like Zebub, who has titled films with for more offensive names or ones like Dickshark (2016)1, thrive on what is meant to be shocking, offensive, or funny in the sense of being tasteless and ironic, something which has become more difficult to accept as a defensive force field entirely out of his hands, but has not stopped him from continuing on as he is still making films and clearly able to sustain enough funds to do so.

To those who think this is just going to be another review saying why the film is bad, there are those who have gone out of their way to watch this film and those who have not, even if they have major issues with this type of content.  Also, Bill Zebub would hopefully be amused this review exists next to those for Straub-Huillet art films I have also covered, and that I watched Antfarm Dickhole whilst drunk as probably intended to be. And even if it was not an issue here, Antfarm really never gets around to actually following that premise to its fullest either.

Shooting fishes in a barrel would be pointless, but for a film which begins with a man named Ant-Drew (Mike Nastri) being beaten up by a bully in the woods, and getting fighter ants colonise his "pee-pee", Zebub was clearly more interested in other things. Coming from a heavy metal background, as a writer and radio host on extreme metal, he clearly from metal's world of deliberate provocation. He also really loves puns, as every character for the most part has a name he can add "Ant" to the beginning of. In fact, the amount of ant related puns, whether they actually work or not, could fill a book for children.

Antfarm Dickhole is actually tamer than it appears, in context to the extremity of cinema I have never really something gross or mind bending. Yes, do bare in mine I am a rare case as a few of us are as, if you told a work colleague you watched a film like this, and they have no previous history of weird cinema, that title alone would get a reaction from them. This film promised to be weirder than it appears, an intro montage of ants and avian life scored to female voices layered over each other, talking about colours in repetition. No, it's not Einstein on the Beach, actually a film whilst very adult in content instead having a very juvenile air, from the leads Ant-Drew and Ant-Thony (Bill Zebub himself) acting like boys, talking about their "pee-pees" and trying to make pun jokes about everything. The film is also not very interested in actually being a horror film or actually a film most of the time, even if it has a premise most would be fascinated to see play out about a man armed with literal ants in his pants.

That Ant-Drew, already with problems with premature ejaculation even when he masturbates, accidentally kills his girlfriend when, oral sex, the ants reduce her to a prop skelton, this in another person's hands could have been a really perverse but inspired take on the petty male ego, as he decides to go on a rampage against the bullies who have tormented him but targets their girlfriends, and eventually loses his mind when both the ants leave and a firecracker in the (fake) penis makes him impotent. But beyond that, from Bill Zebub instead, this is definitely an extreme in how micro-budget and outsider cinema allows for non-narrative tangents to be indulged in.

Zebub was more interested in writing jokes, even if they never have anything remotely connected to a plot, such as a problematic sweetener named "Butt-partame", just to have the pun, or having a woman in a bikini reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion for reasons never connected to anything, possibly just to show his approval to atheism, but even that is making a rash judgement call to the intent of the scene.

I am definitely able, one hundred percent, to predict that his call to have all his female cast, maybe except a couple, wearing bikinis even if does not make sense to comes from the same reason why Antfarm Dickhole has an insane amount of female nudity throughout. Even if it leads to irrational moments like a female reporter in the woods, claiming you can sunbathe under the trees and the leaves will block out UV rays, it is clearly for titillation. The nudity is surprising to consider as, for a micro budget film, you might not be able to pay for actresses willing to do nude scenes. If anything it leaves me with a respect for the female cast in this film willing to, especially as, when I mean nudity, I mean willing to bare all to the extent, to be polite, a very private body piercing is actually visible, whilst another actresses, when it is considered to fight (fire) ants with (fire) ants, has to produce a vile of them naked, and it is very explicit and real where it is produced from.

It is prurient, and it is the only really strong detail to the film as, as the horror is merely some blood and many prop skeletons, this is not extreme. Even the dickhole is a fake prosthetic, closer to the pegs you use in the modern version of the Game of Life board game, those you add to your plastic automobile, in shape with pound store plastic ants sticking out of a hole carved into its top. Beyond this, Zebub's interest in jokes, even breaking the fourth wall by leaving in the scene where his own chair breaks under him unintentionally, is so more a concern that this being consistent, leading to the results becoming a random grab-bag of vignettes. The only time this film ever considers its premise, in its full tasteless yet perversely intriguing idea, is when Ant-Drew humps a car tailpipe to get his legion of killer ants into a locked car where a bully's girlfriend is, or when the colony try to drag a whole banana back into their new nest. There are also scenes, in their ineptness, which are accidental surrealism, such as the plot point about acquiring an anteater leading to just a) a rucksack claimed to have one inside, and b) a cut out image of an anteater superimposed into one shot.

A lot actually happens, but it is never with anything truly happening, like the pieces of random puzzles. A detective chasing the trail of the murders never has any point to his journey. A female scientist, and love interest to Zebub's character, called Ant-Drea (Jessica Mazo) becomes a major character, but even all her and Ant-Thony's attempts to rid the ants, including insecticide being confused for moonshine, come off as pointless. There are many pointless scenes with that aforementioned news reporter in the woods, also claiming murders do not happen near trees. Many scenes in the woods happen in general, the free zone which micro budget films thrive upon using. Also, there are scenes, even with a fake penis, of the lead actor looking like he is exposing himself, causing one to wonder how no one got into trouble as there are shots in parkland where, not that far away, there are bystanders with their children in the background clearly oblivious to a film being shot in the far foreground.

The term "fag" is used a lot, and there is a lot of gay humour which is the one unpleasant detail of the film. Antfarm Dickhole does bring up the question of political correctness and its place within culture does as, whilst I have as much concern about PC culture cancelling debate rather than tackling tough questions on language and representation for progressive ideals, advocates for the politically incorrect into the mid-2010s onwards have chosen some ill-advised hills to die on, worse as it became a political factor at that time from alt-right wing groups. You do not even have to factor in the people who just want to be derogatory to minorities and hide behind the term "free speech", but people who like to deliberate tread over the line for provocation, who seem more childish in the modern day.

Zebub is not from the political area with this film, clearly meant to be funny and just so, something however which whether it is acceptable to or not, is in itself a hill you may regret planting a flag on if that landmark becomes lame to the culture the decade it had just be occupied in2. It is strange to as, to give him credit, Zebub actually as a performer has a charming charisma, a big teddy bear of a man, yet it feels so out of place even by 2011 to have jokes about Ant-Drew panicking that Ant-Thony is gay, all because his friend is secretly trying to dispose of the ants out of Ant-Drew's pee-pee. Oh, and "pee-pee" and such euphemisms for the penis are used a lot, a lot of childish language between the male characters used.

The sense of the film's tone can just be found in the music, where for all the heavy metal tracks used, including death metal over sensual stripping scenes for some reason, there are also out-and-out comedic songs too. Antfarm, as I deliberately did, is clearly meant to be watched with a few drinks in you inebriated. Bill Zebub is someone in the position that, able to work on so little, he can make the films he wants to a fanbase, to this idea and for his own amusement. Unfortunately, that also means that he is perilously in the area of self indulgence, both in the tasteless humour but also not following sensible routes. Such as ending this film not on the punch line of where the ants next go, but the film as a tale told within another story. That of an anti-bullying lecture which somehow leads to a nude woman being raped by a spider, an actress under a fake giant spider in a corridor as a bored cat cameos, and the introduction of their progeny, a young man who is half man and half spider. The film actually ends setting up for a future Bill Zebub film called "Manspider" which never came about.

Yeah....that concisely shows the problem with Antfarm Dickhole. It is not even weird, just very random, not likely to be for many, offensive in a few ways but also quite inert. None of this is a slight to Bill Zebub because, quite frankly, he is still making films, probably will not see this review, and will not care even if he does. Or he will use the argument that it is intentionally meant to be random, but again, one should never presume a creator's intent. The man goes to horror conventions, sells t-shirts as merchandise for his films, and has even published a book of poems and short stories, so a negative review is about as effective as those rival ants against the antfarm dickhole. What watching the film and reviewing does instead, from the outsider's perspective, is show the likely template of his entire career and that this is likely to be encountered with everything else you could cover in his career.

 Abstract Spectrum: Eccentric/Random/Tasteless

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None

 

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1) One, Loving a Vegetable (2015), is sadly from its premise of a woman being permanently disabled into a vegetable state, suggests a really crass film. That title however offers a far more pleasant and surreal tale of a romance with a carrot or that episode of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004) I did actually like of one of the male doctors falling in love with a female patient slowly turning into alien broccoli. Zebub could have had a career as a title creator just by itself.

2) It evokes heavy metal's history of deliberately being provocative even for a joke, a great example being the late Peter Steele, lead singer for Carnivore and one of my favourite bands, Type O Negative, where the question of what is just meant to be ironic offensiveness and what is not is a big issue to deal with. This is not a random example to pluck out of the ether either, as for a film Bill Zebub made also in 2011, called Rap Sucks, the DVD release includes an extensive interview with Steele.

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Sex: The Annabel Chong Story (1999)


Director: Gough Lewis

Writer: Kelly A. Morris

Cast: Annabel Chong, John T. Bone, Ed Powers, Walter Williams, Charles Conn, Dick James, Monica Moran, Steve Austin, Jim South, Al Goldstein, Ron Jeremy, Lanisha Shanthi Easter, Mr. Quek, Mrs. Quek, Allenina W.

Ephemeral Waves

 

If Armageddon's going to hit the world, it's going to be in L.A.

This documentary is one I knew of for a long time, back in the early era of DVD when it became popular in the United Kingdom as a film storage medium. Ironically, likely the first time I learnt of said film was a DVD review section of a Playstation 2 magazine, one for the newly released console in a time, talking of its launch titles, when both pieces of tech were brand new. This trivial ancedote is useful to keep in as, whilst that was of the early 2000s in my youth, a time long ago, likewise this 1999 documentary is a time capsule.

Set around a porn actress' most infamous production in 1995, this is a snapshot of the nineties passing us by. The film starts with another standard bearer of nineties culture, beginning with a segment of the Jerry Springer Show. The woman being interviewed, who has had 251 men have sex with her within one day's shooting in ten hours, is Annabel Chong, an Asian porn actress with her perfectly cub bob of black hair and makeup playing up to a glamorous, hyper sexualised image, all whilst she talks of this act, The World's Biggest Gangbang, with complete pride. The pride will still be there, but the hair is a wig, hiding very short dyed red hair, the makeup will be wiped away, and Annabel Chong peels away to show Grace Quek a gender studies student at the University of Southern California, born of a Protestant Singaporean Chinese family and also a gender studies student at the University of Southern California. Why she came to also be a porn actress varies per the testimonies of her fellow students, but Quek proves a much more complex and interesting figure than the film will allow.

Tragically this documentary, which I was optimistic to return to, is one she would disown publically with good reason, leaving a fascinating woman without a good chronicle of her life. But the little we get points nonetheless to a picture of note, or else this opinion would not be found either. Certainly it shows that, for the entire conflict adult cinema has had to struggle through in representation, including clearly using that term over pornography for respectability, it is also still a banal day job with as much cheese as there is sleaziness. With the film structured around the filming of The World's Biggest Gangbang, you see the banality of porn filmmaking. This era, the production in the mid-nineties, is the VHS era. Quek, as Chong with two other Asian actresses, are seen in cheerleader outfits in one clip, about to act out a sex scene together, in a small locker room for a film called I Can't Believe I Did the Whole Team (1994). The head of her fan club is a modest balding man appropriately named Dick James, head of the Annabel Chong Fan Club, even if he is the more sympathetic male in the entire documentary. The film, in one of its good moments, has the absurd image in the midst of a shoot with Chong and another actress pegging a male actor, as female prison wardens punishing a rapist, stood around as a trio. They are all naked, baring strap-ons daggling off the actresses' waists, drinking from disposable cups and smoking, all whilst the other actress talks to the male actor about certain sex positions which are painful for them as female performers. Adult cinema, porn, has to fight both the moral image but also whether it can be artistic, and whilst scenes like this one are humbling in a positive way, such scenes also show the absurdity of the work too.

In the middle of this, you have Grace Quek herself. From a country, Singapore, established in the film of immense religious conservatism and conformity, you see her rebellious nature as well as the fact she is a very intelligent woman. She was already open-minded about sexuality before her career, talking to a teacher of the ancient customs of "temple prostitution" with admiration for the shrine maidens. On The Girlie Show in the United Kingdom, which definitely evokes the nineties, she is seen wearing glasses and a bob hair cut arguing her gangbang has her skewer the image of men being studs, believing they could bed many women at once, whilst she herself has managed to be more of a stud, physically able to actually bed many men at once. Considering how that fantasy from the male perspective is always with a problematic view depending on the context, whether it is from the desire to please the female participants equally or from a desire to dominate, the entire question of endurance and whether it would be physically possible also comes to mind here, something which makes Quek's act more subversive than it already is still.

The shoot itself does look tacky, jarring to witness and looking like the lobby of a casino with its ancient Roman pillars. Many naked men have been herded along like cattle, occasionally stroking themselves, many of which are members of the public offered to come participate, all on a set which also reminds me of a low rent version of the Bob Guccione production of Caligula (1979) if hosted by Ron Jeremy. The film avoids actual shots of real sexual penetration on camera but is still showing the work Grace Quek had to do as Annabel Chong physically, sandwiched in the middle of many men at once in performance, reinforcing that question of whether men would have the endurance to do what she had filmed over ten hours, as well as underlying the complacency of how much the actresses in this industry have to be the faces and do the heavy lifting. It can be problematic as an image, again, depending on the perspective of the images of Quek, as this character, having real sex with many men at once, but there should still be admiration for the women willingly able to bend themselves and act out real sex acts like this, when it is someone like her who is even in this documentary still a person proud of her sexuality and participating as a driving force.

Far more problematically for this production as well, and worthy of thinking about as is continually brought up, is the issues of trying to shot a production with un-trained male participants. Not only does the shoot have to end due to someone's long fingernails scratching her internally, even though they were warned ahead of time, there is a far more serious concern of whether the men were properly tested for sexually transmitted diseases, especially HIV and AIDs. Considering how much the adult industry rigorously tests its participants, and that a decade before in the eighties AIDs and HIV were phantoms which scared society and tragically killed many people, that this is still something not thought about carefully in the mid-nineties is a really inexcusable blunder for Quek and many others involved.

Quek throughout this is utterly sympathetic. Her sexual desires and view to be proud of them are sincere. It is also clear she has been alienated by her background, embracing her desires when she came to the United States and even having grown from originally being uncomfortable with her own body, changing over time this opinion including after a stint of nude modelling for art classes. Without the facade, she is a tomboy who is awkward at times, at times emotionally affected by the world around, but also proud. The real Grace Quek, seen waking up and doing what every other man and woman does, including going to the bathroom, is a real person, someone has had male and female relationships, is for more stronger and charismatic away from the archetype of her Annabel Chong character. Especially when you meet Andy, a trans/gay male friend who does his interview in woman's clothes and a long haired wig like a champion, you see even her friends outside the porn we briefly see are more memorable characters, completely comfortable in his own skin as well as in the scene where Andy and Grace dress in drag just for fun.

In contrast, whilst it never really comes up, Annabel Chong is very much the stereotype of the exotic Asian woman. Slightly simple, and one unfortunate moment (for the promo video asking for men to join the gangbang) calling herself the "newest fortune cookie". The men around her, all men, are usually much older or sway with cocky bravado. The banal truth, that porn is still work that has to take place in offices and be negotiated over phones, is contrasted by the creepy weirdness of interviews where she is asked to peel clothes off at a whim. John T. Bone, the British born director of The World's Biggest Gangbang, comes off as well spoken but the film says he never paid Quek her fee for the film, whilst his choices of words makes him also a hypocrite.

Beyond this, not a lot is actually told to the viewer. The documentary is under ninety minutes which leaves a lot on the table. We get some responses from other adult actors like Ona Zee and Michael J. Cox who are scathing about Chong making their work look bad, but not a lot of whether Chong was actually a big figure at all in this area. Her parents do not know about her career, and whilst this leads to the very real and uncomfortable moment when her mother does find out, this is merely a fragment. Few in her family or old teachers in Singapore do know of her career, and those who do hide the fact, and again that is merely a little fragment. There is however much of this undiscovered or elaborated upon - there is a lot that is left about a cultural divide, between the United States and Singapore, the later with very negative views of pornography and having ideas of "saving face". There is also the entire fact her record would be broken by Jasmine St. Clair a year later. Looking completely alien to St. Clair, with insane amounts of enhancement and visually more exaggerated, St. Clair is barely dealt with either. This is of note as, in contrast to the simple figure here, St. Claire including her weird and constant connection to professional wrestling is a lot more fascinating than what we are provided with here when her shoot is tackled.

There is a suspicion of the film in structure when a phone call between a porn producer and Quek has intercut scenes between both, as unless you could have two cameras at two locations, it would be entirely or partially constructed. Then the film, when dealing with the darkness of the business, crosses a line. Around the time of Jasmine St. Claire taking her record, the film abruptly skips t a scene of Quek cutting herself in a lounge, the act of self harm (to the arm). It is without context, expect as shorthand to show her depression, but as someone (without discussing personal details) who has seen this and depression from a personal place, I question filming this material, especially with the abruptness it is depicted with and how casually it is never brought up again. Just as one morally problematic moment happens, as if to enforce this, the film in its trip to London abruptly tackles how she was sexually assaulted by multiple men one night during an incident. Never tactfully talked of, but with footage of her at the location, with the subtitle "Rape Site Revisited" actually used, and never elaborated on in a meaningful way.

In fact, when you dig a little deeply into the film's background, Quek's own disownment of the documentary includes the details that she and the director Gough Lewis were in a relationship at the time. On one hand, it explains some of the intimate sequences, of her in the bath at her parents' home or dressed down by herself, but it rises some uncomfortable issues of what Lewis intended with the footage, including the fact he creates a work only with the bare essentials from a fascinating figure. Instead, it goes to the generic old hat conclusion of the perils of porn as it ends with Grace Quek going back to work as a depressed ending.  

As a result, everything when you learn of this is tainted. Returning to the film an era later for me, without this context initially Sex was already problematic for how the director paints the same story of porn chewing out actresses without any sense of weight to it. It returns to her donning the wig, the makeup too, out for another shot, but when you consider it, is this just instead redundant. The only detail which success with Sex, now a relic, is the paradox, one what Grace Quek is happens to be an honest-to-God a pro sex feminist, whose act (when you get to the conclusion of the shoot) to have sex with two hundred and fifty one men in one day is still subversive, but is put together by a group of heterosexual older cis-white men, not really thinking subversively at all about the concept let alone any unsavoury details to their business practices.

It is also a relic because Grace Quek's story has a better ending now. That, retiring in 2003, she would kill off the character of Annabel Chong, rarely discussing her career after becoming a web developer of yore baring 251, a 2007 play written by male LGBT writer Ng Yi Sheng and directed by Loretta Chen based upon Quek's story, leading to some communication to the outside world if not a great deal1. Within recent years, she has thankfully softened her views on her past as a certain quote below from her Twitter attests too...

 

I am digging myself from a deep hole in terms of my ability to be a #hardcore athlete and a software engineer at a high level – I am not there yet. I am working on it. And I will make it because being #hardcore is fun – and I like fun.2


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1) HERE.

2) HERE

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Casa De Lava (1994)

Director: Pedro Costa

Screenplay: Pedro Costa

Cast: Inês de Medeiros as Mariana; Isaach De Bankolé as Leão; Edith Scob as Edite; Pedro Hestnes as Edite's Son; Cristiano Andrade Alves as Tano; António Andrade as Kilim; Daniel Andrade as Nhelas; Manuel Andrade as Tcheka; Raul Andrade as Bassoé

Abstract List Candidate

 

It's strange. No one comes back. Every day I see them leave, but they never return.

For his second feature film, Pedro Costa originally wanted to remake Jacques Tourneur's I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Likewise however, this is the film when you see the schism unfold from his debut Blood (1989), a good film but one with is very conventionally told, whilst Casa De Lava plants the seeds for his future career, immediately seen as the film progresses. On camera you can see this but even behind it, it was his interactions with the locals of the Cape Verde Islands that would eventually lead him to Fontainhas, the real life location back in Portugal where people he met in Cape Verde passed him gifts to take to the Lisbon based community. It is also in the film itself, as one of the major subplots has male musicians soon travelling to Portugal to become labourers, all in spite of Mariana (Inês de Medeiros) warning them there is no life there. This feels as a result like a prologue, the origin story, of his later films as it was for his career, beginning in the location where these figures originally came from.

Bluntly, Costa would jettison the white outsider character we have here as a protagonist, a nurse named Mariana who comes to the islands with a local Leão (Isaach De Bankolé), left in a deathless coma for two months after a fall at his work at a construction site as a labourer. She is like in so many films the white stand-in in films from the West meant to be our safety net and introduction to other peoples' worlds. This is harsh but a truthful comment to make, especially as Pedro Costa drastically shifted this film from its initial premise as a remake of a Val Lewton production, which was originally meant to have been his genre film with ghosts and the looming volcano the location is built upon. This would begin where his later films like Horse Money (2014) would come from, collaborations with their casts about their actual lives, and with no need for an outsider figure.

Even in Casa De Lava Mariana does not dominate the film though her character is of importance. She comes to the islands from Portugal, and begins to change. It is also explicit how she is an outsider, frankly out of custom to the world she has set herself up in. Her contrast is Edith, played by the legendary actress Edith Scob who has been there to the point she has forgotten Portuguese and only speaks Creole, part of the world fully as a local. Notably as well, whilst we follow the story of Mariana, waiting by Leão's side as he lays still in his bed, this film does not make the same decision to marginalise its local cast in their own story like other productions have, but enfolds their own narratives alongside Mariana's. Again, Costa would drastically change his cinema over a couple of decades, but the DNA of this change can be found here.

What was also clear was how much was distinct to this production. Beginning with grainy footage of a volcano erupting, in this community living under its presence and in places beneath their feet, this world comes off as an idyllic place even if under a still, contemplative eye by cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel, whose work includes Robert Bresson's final film L'Argent (1983). Mainly because, whilst the film shows this world to have many problems, the vibrancy of the community is seen in just how colourful the clothing is, in all the colours of the rainbow, or how mainly set in the day, there is a drastic shift in tone from the future films "chiaroscuro" cinematography with this one's light filled setting. Arguably, it is one of Pedro Costa's most colourful films for how the environment and creative decisions like Mariana's red dress, to aspects naturally of the locations like green painted houses with painted doors.

Likewise, there is more emphasis on brightness to these lives even as the film hints at far more troubling issues along the way. A lot more lightness is to be seen in spite of everything, alongside the greater emphasis on music but having characters being musicians. If darkness is still there, it is deliberately vague. Leão's coma is unexplained, and there are incidents like Mariana being attacked by a young boy on the beach which are startling, warning you not all is what it seems. There are forms hiding in the community, and where people are found injured or in a state of deathless sleep, it slowly burns to a point. That this region was a former Portuguese colony is felt as an undercurrent - Edith has immersed herself in this country as an outsider, conversing with the local women as one of their own and a close friend, secretly stronger than her initial appearance suggests. Her adult son looks out of place and is hostile to the locals like an outsider.

Casa De Lava, whilst not what it was, arguably still has the tension of a horror story, particularly with the tone that is as much a veil over real life human complexity. Something is not right in this place, whilst still more idyllic than the slum community men from this community will move to another country. The environment has layers felt both from that night time attack on the beach and a beloved dog being found dead on the beach. Cape Verde is still a beautiful place but it has problems, where young boys are drinking and there has been a lot of men sleeping around for decades, as many of the women (even as teenagers) can have up to twenty children. Mariana is not exactly the knight here to help either, the film negative to the credulous idea of the white saviour. Built on volcanic land, the geography is itself an apt metaphor for the problems under the surface, that like an actual volcano no one person is able to fix by himself or herself.

As the prologue to the later Fontainhas films, you have a tale explaining why people migrated to Portugal, but then there is not necessarily the tonic to heal oneself either, leading to those future films having a theme of perseverance despite how bleak they can become. Even in terms of this film's plot, the sense of a greater existential pain is felt far before those later films. I mean, played by a young Isaach De Bankolé, we never know Leão ended up in the coma. He fell from a great height at a construction site but never why. As a result, Casa De Lava hides a lot, pretty much signposting the fissure between Costa's debut Blood, which was admirably subtle already in depicting its plot points, to fully rejecting commercial storytelling in the future. The actual ending, whilst with obvious points, is elusive and the only real point learnt is that Mariana finds herself having been manipulated. Edith's son is [Major Spoiler] snatched away, whilst his mother Edith lives in the community happy as ever, bonding with the women in feminist sisterhood. Life has to go on, as the men migrate to find paying work, and we never have any real answers, the horror origins of the production in that whatever force leaves children injured or collapsing in the wilderness in a daze is mysterious. Costa's story, in vast contrast, was clear and growing layers as this great film in his career was a catalyst for a drastic shift in his work too.

Abstract Spectrum: Elusive/Quiet

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None


Friday, 3 July 2020

Our Man (2010)


a.k.a. O Nosso Homem

Director: Pedro Costa

Screenplay: Pedro Costa

Cannon Fodder

[Cannon Fodder covers work by creators that have had entries on the Abstract List, or of immense worth for myself, to which we delve into this short film from Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa]


A hang out for rats and lizards.

Our Man begins with a mother and an adult son discussing about moving back to Cabo Verde. The mother is wrapped up and sat up in bed, the son with dreadlocks and wearing a red shirt and coat, and they end up on a discussion about a creature, a man who slips a letter into a person's pocket. They have to go with him then, to which he will bore a hole in their head and suck out their blood. This evokes M.R. James' Casting of Runes, an evocative short story from the English author, adapted as Night of the Demon (1957), in which a slip of symbolled paper slipped onto a person's being without them knowing will curse them to being pursued by a horrifying demon. Knowing Costa's love for classic Hollywood cinema, I would not be surprised he knows of the film adaptation at least, directed by Jacques Tourneur who also helmed I Walked with a Zombie (1943), a film he had planned to remake as Casa de Lava (1994) before it became his own creation.  

Suffice to say, jumping to the ending, he turns James' premise to a profound final image, an expulsion letter to leave Portugal, nailed to a pillar with a knife in a striking final shot. If Costa ever felt he could make an actual genre film, which he nearly did with Casa de Lava originally, he would make one now that would deal with the lives of the poverty class and migrant communities from this perspective of a world that acts aliens to them.

Our Man can be seen in itself an epilogue to a trilogy of films set at the Fontainhas quarter, an area in Lisbon slim that Costa came to and has to the modern day held in such respect. The opening, set in a small shack near the city in the distance, eventually cuts to the face of regular cast member Ventura, Costa's key figure here encountering a friend who has been kicked out the house and divorced because he lost his work, and cannot make any money. Desperate enough to bring home an old, wounded dove for dinner, the segment (and most of this short) is Ventura helping this friend, Our Man a snapshot of ordinary lives playing out.

One where there is no major plot, just snippets. Where Suzete, the wife who got her husband to sign a divorce bill without him realising, is lamented over by her ex-husband slumped over a table whilst drunk with Ventura and another male friend who works in a school kitchen, not able to gave them anything else but soup as they only have enough food for the kids. Both stories do cross, as the son, Jose, meets these older men, all whilst witnessing the failed attempt to catch rabbits by hitting bushes with a stick whilst drunk. The banality of life is witnessed, that for these immigrants to Portugal they still have to live, even if anecdotes include being beaten by a group of white men, or being in an open prison when one's father had died, allowed out to help bury the body. Life must still go on regardless.

In fact, befitting the reference to M.R. James, it becomes apparent Ventura has been communicating to a ghost, conversing of not having his gold tooth used to pay for his funeral or joking a passing cat is a rabbit. Costa, as mentioned, has never made a genre film, but he has not either shied away from the unnatural and surreal, even describing the future film Horse Money (2014) as a horror film in its own right, even having Ventura trapped in a lift talking to a living statue alive with countless voices challenging him like a Legion demon.

Our Man offers in itself a fragment of Pedro Costa, these short films in danger of being marginalised in a creator's career but, especially in this case, as worthy to witness as this feels like a piece that interconnects to the others. Whilst not as evocative aesthetically, and with the surprise of how bright open environments stand out in his cinema from his usual nocturnal locations, this does show how Costa was moving in style. The film before this was Colossal Youth (2006), the first for the director with cinematographer Leonardo Simões.  The pair, alongside actors like Ventura who contribute to these films as much, would follow up with two films in the 2010s (Horse Money and Vitalina Varela (2019)) which took this film's empathetic worldview but also include an even greater sense of nocturnal atmosphere. Our Man as a result is able to exist as a chapter in this vast book known as Pedro Costa's entire filmography, as well as be the building blocks from a pre-existing veteran to work from for his new stage of work.


Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Trash Talking (2006)


Director: Jacob Ciocci, Jessica Ciocci and Ben Jones (as Paper Rad)

Screenplay: Jacob Ciocci, Jessica Ciocci and Ben Jones (as Paper Rad)

Cast: Screenplay: Jacob Ciocci, Jessica Ciocci and Ben Jones (as Paper Rad)

Abstract List Candidate

 

Your fourth dimensional shadow is crying 

If you want to access a time period accurately, you look at the pop culture, but there are factors worthy of consideration. That 1) you should consider that the most popular examples are not always the best representations, as they can obfuscate the technology and aesthetic of the era. There is also 2 there being cases which can confuse this idea, particularly when a) technology and aesthetics for a production can be behind the newest trends, and b) that nostalgia when it had became more prevalent drastically shifted how we contemplate this material, now you have to factor in works that deliberately replicate older eras with their resources.

Trash Talking is definitely of its period, just from the use of the software used to draw some of the characters, but you have to wade past the eighties references, from troll dolls and American cartoons from that time, and the fact some of the micro budgeted aesthetic, in its awkwardness, might have been as much intentional as it was what the production could access. What should be noted is that its "director", Paper Rad, was an art collective from between 2000 and 2008 which were multiple people, worked in multiple art formats, and even worked on music videos for the likes of The Gossip and Beck. With its main members being siblings Jacob and Jessica Ciocci, and Ben Jones, Trash Talking was originally a DVD release for the experimental music label Load Records.

With that in mind, it in itself comes in a fascinating moment just after YouTube appears in 2005, where art (that covered in magazines like Juxtapoz) was absorbing the post-postmodern pop culture influences, and DVD was still strong as a format. All the references to Garfield immediately evokes that Lasagna Cat, a famous web parody, was just about to arrive in 2007. This also immediately evokes the likes of Everything Is Terrible!, who started in 2000 but set up a website in 2007, who dig through the obscurities especially of VHS era pop culture for weird non-sequiturs. This project, a one hour or so audio-visual compilation, even evokes EiT in their use of licensed footage in peculiar ways, like the wedding between two mice puppets. In fact, the obsession with puppets in American culture in general is something to ponder as it is a reoccurring aspect of Trash Talking.

It is a home brewed compilation, a syringe of day-glo to the eyes whilst deliberately referencing pound (or dollar) store toys aesthetics right down to a montage of colouring book content. Made at home, I would not be surprise Paper Rad even used an old version of Microsoft Paint from this era on purpose, considering the collage of flash animation art to the rapid success of block colour backgrounds reminiscent to actual doodles I used to do on Microsoft Paint to kill time. Whether it was deliberate or not, in-between the psyche out montages there are two story based segments, ones where you can audibly hear the voice actors feel unconfident in their line readings, stumble or even (deliberately?) use "ums" and awkward phrase words, emphasising this sense of the creative process of Trash Talking. It also, frankly, means that your tastes will have to be prepared for this presentation. For myself, for disclosure, I initially came to this production out of curiosity, and I will be the first to admit it is far from great, and also is very indulgent, but with always a sympathy for these micro-budgeted productions, there is a bit of interest.

The work also has a clear sense of the absurd and awkwardness to its humour. This can be summed up in multiple segments, one built as "the one you have been waiting for", a build up only to show a CGI cat's backside as it defecates, or at the beginning when the mascot of a nineties Windows CD-Rom finds himself talking directly to at the camera to a viewer he eventually loses his temper at in curse filled annoyance. Much of the work is just entirely fixated with American pop culture from the eighties, which is quite frankly bizarre when witnessed here. The tangent in one plot segment alone gets weirder the more I think about it, which turns into a parody of the Muppet Babies with the characters added which abruptly appears, has baby Kermit the Frog learn what a rave is, only to abruptly end in a new scene in an entirely different context. As someone born in 1989, I saw the swash of eighties culture in my upbringing, but when I could develop solidified memories, the nineties culture and entertainment for children was what I was entrenched with, making the obsession with eighties culture and how long the nostalgia for it lasted into the 2010s really perplexing.

Trash Talking's structure as a result is difficult to detail as it is unpredictable and erratic, between a live action scene of two men playing a very atonal version of Alice in Chains' Man in a Box to Garfield watching Garfield. You can argue it is indulgent without point, a production which I would view as having times when it is both funny and also drags on with unintentional messiness. The main segment extrapolates this in its tale involving three flatmates, two humans and who looks like the humanoid older brother of Elmo from Sesame Street (red fur and no clothes). In a scenario that never really ends, it begins where a nuclear war has broken out, or the character of Alfie presumes is taking place, and the biggest concern is that they have run out of "sauce enablers" in the fridge. With the voice acting being shaking and the low budget animation feeling crude, the segment does feel like a nod to the type of YouTube animation that would appear and also evolve quickly into spectacular content. Yet...honestly, I found this segment, having seen Trash Talking charming for all this whilst admitting the issues at hand.

Some of the language I have used may come off harsh, but beyond this, we have a production that can be accused of indulgence and flaws but is at least around an hour long, and never ever drags a scene out for too long. Some of the jokes could have been ran with further, such as an obsession with troll dolls into a reference to a "Great Troll fire" in 1984, whilst others like an exact recreation of the Korova Milk Bar from A Clockwork Orange (1971)  seem random. Some of the montages are unnecessary, but there are so many that they never become a struggle to sit through, whilst one even becomes existential and weird as two pig-like humanoids (with subtitled text onscreen) talk of existential things of life.

The entire tone of nostalgia and pop culture is the blatant theme of the project, as whilst Trash Talking is deliberately placating to its generations' obsessions, it is also toying with them. The other dramatic segment about Mr. Maggiccaall is entirely about this subject. Done almost in video game sprite graphics, at least before the 16-bit era, it is about various groups searching for the next pop culture of the future. The jokes have dated - the two predictions are "Black Adam Sandler" and "Da Da Vinci Code", but it manages to have some dynamic weight as, between scanning all of Adam Sandler's back catalogue and converting it through into a "Russian Nintendo bootleg file", the comments on details like being too old to understand what kids are into now or ending up with a U2 iPod show that the creators were pondering through this ridiculous scenario about nostalgia. That it ends with people arguing, accidentally damaging the iPod, and a robot's heart running away devastated and sad pretty much sums up their conclusion on this idea. They never reach a conclusion, but in real life, many don not reach a conclusion too and they usually argue as well, thus leading to no ideas coming about or being discovered.

Definitely, the term "acquired taste" is needed to sum up Trash Talking, and it is not abstract, closer to deliberately weird and burning one's eyes with the colour palette. As an obscure cultural item it is definitely fascinating, in the sense that whilst I have raised issues, I admire this production's homemade qualities and the clear sense, when you realise its creators were an art group, of them effectively creating what could have been a video installation but providing it for the public to access if they found that original DVD release. The border between trying to be weird on purpose or a sincere eccentricity is blurred in this case, but particularly with some of the dialogue that transpires and the pace, Trash Talking has been winning me over with the kind of curious and entertaining ponderances of this culture.

 

Abstract Spectrum: Eccentric/Gaudy

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None


Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Cinema of the Abstract 2019-2020 Awards Part 3

For Part 2, follow the link HERE.

And now for the long and final post.


The Duck Wandering into the Void Award for Least Expected Moment

There are no major plot spoilers but if you want to see any of these without any context, skip this award. For those staying, this and the next one will be more light hearted, beginning with those scenes in productions whether good or bad which will cause me to scratch my head and wonder about the fact they even came to be. Oh, and before anyone asks, the award's title comes from On the Air (1992), which could have gotten many mentions in this award and the other.

 

The exorcism of Coca Cola in How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal (2018)

 

Honourable Mentions:

The many appearances of ducks in On the Air (1992), including one entering a darkened void that is never explained.

The episodes of Serial Experiments Lain (1998) where in one is a montage of various real life conspiracy images with voice over, the second involving another montage set to a guitar solo symbolising a computer being downloaded into a brain.

The Baby Merchant song from Cop Rock (1990)

A young man defecating a knife into a toilet in Hallucinations (1986)

Eating humanoid dancing cockroaches in Cats (2019).

A woman giving birth to a full sized man in Xtro (1982)

Chicken head guitarists and Satan crooners in Showgirls 2: Penny's From Heaven (2011)

An apple appearing near your bed, then telling you it intends to kill you and your roommate in Hobo with a Trash Can (2015)

Mahatma Gandhi's psychedelic freak out on raisins in Clone High (2002-3)

The comically extended end credits of Wicked World (1991)

Mermaid sex in The Lighthouse (2019)

Puppet deer attack in Rise of the Animals (2011)

Caveman shanking in Surviving Edged Weapons (1988)

 

The winner is also a nominee in the next, but it deserved the award: literally in the middle of Eugene Green's "short feature", this very dry and sweet film suddenly has a Portuguese priest, under the belief with government officials that the American import of a brand of cola is evil, exorcise a bottle. Green is a very idiosyncratic and very dry director, but if there ever was a sense of his humour, this was perfect as well as being legitimately weird.

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Moment of the Year

I decided to not include Psycho (1960) and the shower scene, because that would be unfair. Also this award is for all the interesting and memorable moments (and one MVP) that deserve a nod, more designed for moments that amused me or come from work which. Likewise before, there are no major plot spoilers included or only vaguely alluded to, but if you wish to come to the work I have covered this year blind, skip this award:

 

The locker room death in Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987)

 

Honourable Mentions:

The final shoe pun related conclusion in On the Air (1992) with avant-garde dissonant jazz, Ian Buchanan with a robot voice and shoes being waved aloft in a mass dance.

Camelo Bene as two monks from Our Lady of the Spheres (1968)

The exorcism of Coca Cola in How Fernando Pessoa Saved Portugal (2018)

"Who Killed Captain Alex: The Musical" in Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010).

Otley (1968) and the driving test car chase

Richard Dean Anderson convincing a gunslinger to not shoot him by offering to introduce him to his publisher in the pilot episode of Legend (1995)

The bloodbath that ends the remake of Suspiria (2018)

The final episode of Point Pleasant (2005) when the shit hits the fan.

Cop Rock (1990) breaking the fourth wall and admitting it has been cancelled.

Petscop (2017-2020) when it reaches Episode 11 and introduces the "Demo" segments

The bedroom disturbance in The Phantom of Liberty (1974)

 

Created clearly to cash in on the phenomenon that was the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the first sequel to the 1980 Prom Night, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987), could have easily been a cheap dream logic horror move with no creativity. So much however was, enough that it could have easily been in the weirdest category if it was not against such strong competition, and it deserves as well to have this award because, for one of its sequences, the execution and content have been permanently etched into my mind. It does start with a slight sense of gay panic, so be warned as that might upset some viewers, in which the lead character (a girl possessed by the vengeful ghost of a prom queen from the fifties) flirts with the female victim. Thankfully, this can be brushed aside for a scene which is legitimately creepy, and borders into the area of the erotic-grotesque. Involving someone being stalked in the women's changing room, first you have to credit lead actress Wendy Lyon who, when it was never written as such in the script, was willing instead to play the scene with full frontal nudity, which changes the tone of the scene and makes it creepier. Then you thank everyone who created the denouement, including a riff on a roll n roll song lyric and a gruesome moment involving lockers, which ends the scene as one of the most distinct and effective scenes from the eighties era of horror cinema for me. The film itself was a huge surprise to return to, and this sequence showed why.

 

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The Most Underrated Project

O Fantasma (2000)

Honourable Mentions: Tetsuo The Bullet Man (2009), Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987), Xtro (1982), Youth Without Youth (2007)

Sadly not every film will get a prominent place in these awards, so this one is designed for everything that I covered, an "Abstract" work or not, that was accidentally ignored.

Honourable, honourable mentions include: the IMAX 3D spectacle film Haunted Castle (2001), which is a long forgotten piece of spectacle entertainment I cannot help but still think of with its dated CGI and being a literal ride in first person form; Plan 10 from Outer Space (1995), the first encounter with American independent director Trent Harris who has won me over with his eccentric take Mormonism and aliens, followed by his very micro budget but utterly entertaining Welcome to the Rubber Room (2017); and Epidemic (1987), a fascinating first step for Lars von Trier in what would become his Dogme 95 movement in the next decade after, a micro budgeted meta apocalypse film where von Trier himself and screenwriter Niels Vørsel accidentally cause the end of humanity when researching for a post apocalypse film about a virus ending the world.

Whilst von Trier's film is the better work, I have to give the first slot however to Francis Ford Coppola's completely strange and unique period magical realist tale Youth Without Youth (2007), his return after a long absence in which his technical craft is still exceptional, whilst his tale of Tim Roth being struck by lightning and acquiring super human gifts is as emotional rich as it is as mad as a box of frogs. And whilst the first sequel was terrible, the original Xtro (1982) was great. Also as equally bizarre, but whilst Youth Without Youth was an auteur with creative control, Xtro is a rare case of the producers influencing its weirdest and most interesting details among other factors. Like a curious, really screwed up metaphor for divorce and when an absentee father returns and destroys the family, Xtro has depth to it and a lot of other material that is mind boggling. Since I am at it, I admit to that I enjoyed Xtro 3: Watch the Skies (1995) though it is not on the list.

In the same camp, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) looked at the original film, a Canadian slasher, decided to instead become a follow on to the popularity of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise and become a strange, mind boggling spectacle of weirdness, a really startling locker room pursuit and Michael Ironside. Sadly the second sequel, Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990), whilst only available in a cut form for the most part and worthy of a re-evaluation in respect of this, missed the tone entirely.

Definitely following the ideal of this award, as a huge fan of director Shinya Tsukamoto, I finally got to the divisive Tetsuo The Bullet Man (2009), and whilst the flaws are visible, I argue that even as the weakest of the Tetsuo trilogy it is still proof of his talent. Showing his transition to the 2010s, whilst it does come off like a silly monster film at points, it still has the intensity, the Chu Ishikawa score and enough in its form that it still stands out proudly.

Beating it to the top spot however is a film that sadly was marginalised from the other awards and needed some credit, João Pedro Rodrigues' O Fantasma (2000) was the Portuguese director's debut, following the curious sexual obsessions of a male garbage truck employee, and did not pull back his punches in being explicit in the sexual content, in being provocative (such as our lead finding a police officer handcuffed in his own car and decided to wank him off in a prone state), and being even grimy. The film is a character piece not necessarily driven by plot, somehow ending up with our lead in a homemade gimp leather suit crawling around a landfill, and how you get to that point is entirely for the viewer to learn of. Rodrigues is definitely a director of interest to me now, and whilst his films have sadly been unavailable, films have (wink wink) been available on MUBI's Library service, created in May 2020, and hopefully means his work will become more easily available to explore for the blog.

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Music of the Abstract:

As is part of my other blog 1000 Anime, music is a very important aspect of the Japanese animated medium, and likewise to ignore for cinema and other motion picture media this important piece of their construction any longer would be embarrassing. For this award, I am being open to pre-existing music being chosen, and also including an adaptation of an opera as well.

And there are many admirable honourable mentions. We Are The Strange (2007), whatever you think of it as a micro budget animated film, had a great score nonetheless. Serial Experiments Lain (1998), one two television series to be talked of, is known for its opening theme by British rock band Bôa, but its eerie industrial and electronic score by Reichi Nakaido also fits material just on the cusp of horror. The 2018 remake of Suspiria may be a divisive production, but alongside falling in love with it, it wisely never attempted to remake Goblin's incredible score either, instead letting Tom Yorke of Radiohead carve his own unique take on the material. Finally, one should mention Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010), entirely for the fact that the panpipe rendition of Seal's Kiss of a Rose is as iconic as many other factors within the Ugandan epic for its fan base.

 


12. Death Metal Zombies (1995), a no budget zombie film, managed to get some pretty good music from Relapse Records in spite of its no existent homemade production, and even the bizarre tracks stand out. It also introduced me to Amorphis, which is a huge success on the film's part.

Track to Listen to: In the Beginning by Amorphis

11. Whilst an infamous production in Trent Reznor's career, one whose grotesqueness feels ill-at-ease to the version of Nine Inch Nails I have come to them as in terms of a band, the short film Broken (1992) is nonetheless backed by the titular EP. By itself, it is likely more known of even for people with limited knowledge of the band and Reznor due to how, even as an EP, it has carved a popular reputation in his career. Songs like Happiness in Slavery are huge hits, and when the short works like that song's accompanying segment, the effect is startling.

Track to Listen to: Gave Up by Nine Inch Nails

10. One of the secret weapons of YouTube series Petscop (2017-20) was its score, a work that was made available in part of creator Tony Domenico's finale for the series, a challenge to have created in both trying to replicate a Playstation One era videogame but also suiting what becomes a complex psychological drama in a very unconventional format. He succeeded well.

Track to Listen To: Listen to the Whole Album (It's the epilogue to Petscop on its YouTube page)


9. For any flaws Tetsuo The Bullet Man (2009) has in context of Shinya Tsukamoto's trilogy, no one would hopefully complain about Chu Ishikawa's soundtrack, the audio equivalent of an industrial nightmare that is as much part of the trilogy's power. An additional bonus, and befitting a previously mentioned inclusion, is the main theme by Trent Reznor with is arguably his first collaboration with Atticus Ross. Those two would go far afterwards.

Track to Listen To: Main Theme by Nine Inch Nails

8. Arguably the most divisive film in Jim Jarmusch's career, the soundtrack to The Limits of Control (2009) is a perfect accompaniment to how you should treat the film. Mostly drone metal, including a cameo by LCD Soundsystem, it is a sub genre of metal about pushing a single guitar riff as prolonged as possible, once compared to raga being played during an earthquake. For a film which takes an assassin film and stretches it to a minimalist extreme, this type of soundtrack with its who's-who of drone metal innovators is befitting the material.

Track to Listen To: Farewell by Boris

7. The Needle (1988) was a vehicle for Viktor Tsoy, an iconic figure in rock music in Eastern Europe, tragically dying at a young age not long after the creation of this film. The Needle if nothing else was a testament to his charisma, a figure probably not known in the slightest outside that region sadly, especially with the fact that, with his band Kino on the soundtrack, the film is also a testament to the great music he created.

Track to Listen to: Gruppa krovi (aka. Группа крови) by Kino

6. One of the reasons that I have allowed use of pre-existing music is because, well, most would be baffled Lasagna Cat (2007-2017) is on the list, but in one of its creators Fatal Farm's best and cheekiest moves, they used the entire Philip Glass composed soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's Kundun (1997), which raises questions of "borrowing" another project's entire soundtrack but was bloody inspired to say the least.

Track to Listen To: Escape to India by Philip Glass

5. Don't Hug Me. I'm Scared, a YouTube success that has scared and fascinated many, also happens to be an admirable project by creators Becky Sloan and Joseph Pelling. A pastiche of puppet shows, with production value that few online videos have, it also decided to have musical numbers which are as iconic as the horrifying material inside. The music has been made available separately on the likes of iTunes, but they work fully when next to the visuals, so watch the series if you have not. Watch it again after reading this if you already have.

Track to Listen To: The Love Song [Don't Hug Me Episode 3]

4. Thankfully for John Zorn's soundtrack to The Golden Boat (1990), whilst it is not available to stream, he made it available alongside most if not all his career through CDs and on iTunes, his unique and odd soundtrack to one of Raul Ruiz's only American films part of the compilation Filmworks 1986–1990. A unique film in the Chilean director's career for just the amount of important figures on and behind the camera in the film - Zorn, Katy Ackey, Jim Jarmusch etc. - the score is an appropriately strange jazz piece to match a deeply strange film.

Track to Listen To: Main Theme to The Golden Boat by John Zorn


3. Cop Rock (1990) is sadly seen as an exceptional failure in television history, a notorious attempt by Steven Bochco, King of cop dramas, to make one that was also a musical but without losing the dark and adult subject matter. Chances of an actual soundtrack being available are slim, unless secretly snuck online, but for every song which was terrible, I can think of a lot that were successes. Not just the Baby Merchant song either but just for those created by Randy Newman including the title theme.

Track to Listen To: Cop Rock (Under the Gun) by Randy Newman

2. Moses and Aaron (1975), at least the version that Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet made, more than likely does not have an original soundtrack album, which means anything I will link to would not really match in the slightest their interpretation of Arnold Schoenberg's original unfinished opera. As a production, it is unique in context to this list, Schoenberg's three act opera set after the Book of Exodus when Moses comes into conflict with Aaron, his original representative to help push his ideals of God, over what that message and ideals should be, before you even get to the fact the directors created an actual ending to their version too. As also one of the most idiosyncratic films in these directors' career, which is saying something for how difficult and unique their work was, likewise this is unique music that you experience as much as the film is in itself. Especially with the chosen cast, the opera is thunderous and startling to hear.

Track to Listen To: Best to investigate the entire opera, be it online or in one's preferred form, then link to any specific piece of the composition.


1. Psycho (1960) is not my favourite Alfred Hitchcock film in the slightest, which is why controversially it will not top many of the lists. But only a madman would however give the award to anyone else but Bernard Hermann's iconic and startling score. The list itself is hilarious to consider - only here would you have Arnold Schoenberg and Philip Glass against music by the notorious shock metal band Anal Cunt and Randy Newman - but it just proves that, between heavy metal to opera, pre-existing music to original compositions, the choice of a score is a difficult task but one that can succeed if you chose it rightly. Psycho is the best example of this. We never view showers since 1960 without thinking of Herrmann's strings.

Track to Listen To: Prelude by Bernard Herrmann

 

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Best [Not Abstract] Film/Project

Antigone (1992)

Honourable Mentions: Otley (1969); The Needle (1988); Psycho (1960); Swept Away (1974)

 

Not everything I have covered qualified for "abstract", so for those titles, they deserve their own moment in the sun. There are a few titles worth mentioning. Three television series - Point Pleasant (2005), Clone High (2002-3) and Legend (1995) - come to mind. Who Killed Captain Alex? (2010) has already gotten a bit of love already. Two have yet to be mentioned however. Benzina (2001), an Italian LGBT crime drama about two women having to try to hide the body of the mother of one of them, is of its time aesthetically, but is a film that if uncovered today should get a lot more love. Hell House (2001), a film that definitely should be rediscovered, is a documentary on the Evangelical equivalent to the haunted houses found on Halloween, meant to scare people to God and in cases have been controversial, especially the one we see here ran by a Church that once reinterpreted the Columbine High School shootings for one of the exhibits. Having to open the assortment of problems of their ideals, their thoughts, their controversial ideals like their anti-gay views, but also their moments of humanity and weakness, this open minded documentary, where the one openly confrontational attack on the hell house is from young patrons rather than the production itself, is very good.

Also tackling a really controversial subject, most will only know Swept Away (1974) for its terrible 2002 remake with Madonna. The original by Lina Wertmüller, a prominent female director in the seventies who sadly has never had any of her work released in the United Kingdom baring this one, is uncomfortable as it deals with politics, misogyny, power roles and even sexual violence, but it is compelling and morally dark in a way, from a female director-writer, where you are aware she is making these difficult choices to make the viewer uncomfortable. 

Psycho (1960) is a film most people will know of. I personally find it is not Alfred Hitchcock's best, especially as there is a period in the middle act where it does feel flabby due the plot structure, but it is still an important film and when it is good, its reputation is deserved. The Needle (1988) is tragically a film most will not be able to see, a Soviet era post-punk film that, from the end of that era before the Iron Curtain fell, feels distinct and bursting with rebellious passion. Otley (1969), from that odd and rewarding era of British cinema between the late sixties and the seventies, until and even after the funding from American studios disappeared, would have encapsulated the great BFI Flipside label if it had not been released by another Blu-Ray/DVD company Indicator instead. A James Bond and spy film parody, baring one single line which has not dated well at all it is still sharp and stands out considerably in the present day as an underrated gem, for its dark sense of humour, sense of absurdity among real London locations, and a cast full of heavyweights including Tom Courtenay and Romy Schneider that won me over.

The winner however was one of the last I covered for this year, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet stripping away all artifice for Antigone (1992) but still keeping a dramatic weight to the material. The film is arguably one of their most assessable films, whilst very unconventional, for the mere fact that it tells a full tale of dramatic weight, based on Ancient Greek legend, but keeps the directors' attitude to not compromising in their aesthetic and filmmaking craft. Within the recent years, especially through MUBI and an American distributor Grasshopper Films, we have been thankfully had the duo's films become more readily available, so hopefully one day this particular title among others will be easier to see. [Such as MUBI at least in the United Kingdom if you are subscribed to their streaming service.]

 

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The Abstract Hall of Fame (Class of 2019-20)

Winners:

Raul Ruiz

Jean Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet

 

This, like the Honorary Award at the Academy Awards, goes to the figures who have contributed to the "Abstract" (or at least the ideals of this blog), and have been covered a great deal. In the future, I hope to expend this beyond directors to other fields - actors, writers, even figures in areas like production design and music - as long as they hit a requisite qualification (i.e. at least one film on the Abstract List or enough special about them) to qualify. Especially as I have more interest in themed runs of films and productions being covered, more names added to the ballots until I have to actually create a post for them all.

This year is devoted to three very high brow art cinema creators who have plenty of films and productions left to cover. Straub and Huillet are thankfully having their day in terms of their cinema being restored and made available. Raul Ruiz is sadly maligned in my honest opinion, one of my favourite directors but barely available baring VHS rips you have to track online. Any promotion of his, and the trio's work in general, even on this tiny blog is worthy. Straub and Huillet, whilst very strict and extremely minimalist, showed completely experimental bravery with their work. Ruiz's cinema, and everything else he touched, is very unpredictable at its best, a fever dream where nothing is to be predictable. He is arguably even now a sacred figure for the blog in terms of true abstract and unique cinema and motion pictures....and he made over a hundred productions according to his IMDB (and still counting), so I have a lot to cover.

 

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Best Abstract Film/Project

And here we are...the last award, for titles which even if they did not get on the Abstract List itself, were all candidates, all together in one final category. There were many titles which missed the list. That Most Important Thing: Love (1975), Suspiria (2018), Not Reconciled (1965), A Paper Tiger (2008), In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Petscop (2017-2020), Moses and Aaron (1975), In Fabric (2018) and The Limits of Control (2009) all missed out to heavy competition.

 

10. First on the list, Rubber's Lover (1996), has embarrassingly been ignored throughout the entire series of blog posts which I can only blame on myself. Shozin Fukui's monochrome cyberpunk film, about underground and illegal experiments on psychic powers, is an uncomfortable and dark production to watch, at times gruelling in its willingness in sound and imagery to pummel the viewer senseless. It is however, because of this why it is also such a spectacular production to witness. It deserves, if anything, a re-discovery.

9. Horse Money (2014) is also difficult, but for very different reasons. Finally getting worldwide attention, or at least availability, in the 2010s, Pedro Costa changed drastically in his work from his debut Blood (1989) to this, a minimalist tale worked on with the real life occupants of Fontaínhas, reinterpreting their real lives stories (acted out by them, like with his regular star Ventura) in a dreamlike haze here in Horse Money with shadow drenched set pieces. It is gorgeous to witness, and rewarding when you unpick its pieces.

8. Two for the price of one, Raul Ruiz's The Wandering Soap Opera (2017) and The Golden Boat (1990), which have been covered earlier on equally in these lists, are a fascinating pair worthy of being seen. Raul Ruiz is one of my favourite directors, tragically one difficult to actually see, so any encouragement to have films like this released is virtuous for this goal. They make a perfect duo anyway, as The Wandering Soap Opera was first shot in the same era of The Golden Boat only to be fully constructed a long time afterwards, both a piece of his career interlinked.

7. The Phantom of Liberty (1974) is not a film as talked about in Luis Bunuel's later career compared to his other work, but from the later surrealist period in France, Liberty is definitely one of the strangest of them. Like an anthology of interconnecting absurdities and scathing ideals, it begins in the Napoleonic Era, and yet ends in the seventies with the French police storming a zoo with fired shots. How you get there is the magic and black hearted humour of the film.

6. On the list of productions that need to actually be made available to the public again legally is On the Air (1992), David Lynch and Mark Frost's failed comedy sitcom about a fifties variety show which goes wrong every live broadcast. Seeing Lynch, even if he only collaborated partially, have a very silly sense of humour is humbling, to know that even the man who made Lost Highway (1997) really likes a Dad pun, and his collaborators from the Twin Peaks era, having to try to copy him, fell onto some of the deeply strangest material they could ever produce.


5. Also in dire need of availability, though screened on Amazon Prime of all places, is Our Lady of the Turks (1968). Again, Carmelo Bene's work needs to be made available, with this, his debut, utterly alien to a lot of modern day world cinema, but captivating both when it is sincere and also insane.

4.  Hukkle (2002) is also captivating as a production, György Pálfi's audio-visual mystery standing out as something to admire.

3. Also proudly an Eastern European production, On Body and Soul (2017) takes a romantic drama, and through very unconventional plotting and circumstances, creates one that is even more beautiful and sweet as a result.

2. The Lighthouse (2019) is a popular film, but with good reason, a rare hit that even intrigues someone like me. Again, as mentioned previously, that Robert Eggers managed to get a film like this made from a mainstream studio is a rare and mercurial thing, and that it has succeeded enough that parodies appear on even the newest Animal Crossing video game is a blessing. Certainly you could not go wrong with what is part cautionary tale of being stuck on an island with only booze to keep you company, also a strange nautical horror film I would argue is supernatural, but of the weirder sort that skulks of the side. Most of the film does not even need to evoke the unnatural in the slightest to crawl down your neck, whilst drunken madness unfolds and Willem Dafoe breaks out words rarely used in modern English just in response to Robert Patterson criticising his cooking. And, whilst "jellicle cats" appearing in my brain has silliness to it, "never kill a seagull" occasionally pops into my head but with greater weight and glee to it in comparison.

And yet, in this case, the winner is a television series. Not a film, but the animated television series Serial Experiments Lain (1998); when I first saw the series as a young adult getting into anime, I did not like it at all, but a decade later I finally came to appreciate this mysterious gem. It is not quite horror, but has plenty of uncomfortable moments of tension and body horror, and it is science fiction but with a premise grounded in urban reality that, dealing with the internet back in a period where concepts like web forums were in their infancy, are amazingly relevant still alongside its existential ideas. It also looks unique in context, even if an early adopter of the computer assisted animation, thankfully just before the 2000 or so period where many television series looked awful, but eerie and cool in its aesthetic. We also have to thank Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995) as, being also a cross over hit that gets picked up on Netflix, its success in its home land of Japan is arguably responsible for these brave little experiments in television anime, Evangelion's own idiosyncratic (and controversial) moments allowing the likes of Serial Experiments Lain to exist. It was an early work covered last year, the second covered actually behind The Phantom of Liberty, but thinking about it, as someone who had grown fond of the show over the years already, it deserves the title even over some strong competition. That a television show dominates over the list of films I have covered is not a detriment to cinema, but that the moving pictures for the open minded are rich and diverse in abstract gems.

 

And with that, Year Two ends, and Year Three soon begins...