Now Nic, though God-like, is of the world and the world is a hard thing to encompass. God knows he tries! This is to say, there are (gasp ye heathens) non-Nic films which inspire, provoke and alarm me, not merely through their notable absence! Such a list is never perfect, but I hope you enjoy these short reviews none-the-same and feel compelled to watch these delightful, remarkable films that I set down before you:
One director per film for now!
1.) Braindead – Peter Jackson (1992)
A film so giddy and boisterous in its execution (ha!) that the viewer is swept along on a corn-syrup river of blood in spite of any aversions they may have! Phenomenally bloody, yet somehow surprisingly sweet, almost gentle in spirit, due to its 1950s setting and good natured, winsome protagonists. It’s a massively foregrounded Freudian tale of a grotesque Bad Mother and the Return of the Repressed, with enough globsome, gristly, ‘orrible stop-motion and puppetry to fill the London dungeons! Structurally, it’s perfect, with the ludicrous scenario escalating to hysterical levels… the action, when it gets going, proceeds up from the basement, up to a final monstrous show-down on the roof of the house, in which a zombie laden party is in full swing. The cinematography is deliciously inventive with lots of those canted close-ups on faces that Jackson would go on to make such great use of in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films. Also, despite being a zombie film (albeit of a parodic and blackly humorous variety) the whole exercise is infused with with a wonderful light-heartedness and sense of fun. It’s as much about rebirth as it is about death, in the true tradition of the carnivalesque! Also, essentially, endlessly quotable: “Your mother ate my dog!”
A chirpy scene in which our hapless protagonist Lionel attempts to socialise zombie baby Selwyn by taking him for a jaunt in the park. Hilarity ensues:
2.) Alice (Něco z Alenky) – Jan Švankmajer (1988)
Since I wrote much of my MA dissertation upon this remarkable piece of filmmaking I could go cook-a-hoop in revelry over the greatness that the Czech alchemist of puppetry Švankmajer exhibits here. It’s less of an adaptation of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, than it is a remembrance, filtered through the neuroses and curiosities of childhood. Almost aggressively non-pastoral in its setting, Alice’s travels instead take her through cramped rooms in a dusty warehouse where the inhabitants of Wonderland crack into wheezing, clackity life. The White Rabbit, a cadaverous taxidermist’s nightmare constantly spilling sawdust out from its belly which it shovels back through its mouth, is a malevolent figure, snipping at Alice with his scissors and terrorising the other inhabitants as a stooge of the Red Queen. Some characters are more charming, such as the caterpillar, self-assembled from a darned sock, dentures and swivelling glass eyes. The sounds that echo through the dark hallways are hyper-real and resonant, as though they issue from the very materials themselves, or from deep in the belly of the building. The pacing is slow and dream-like, as though we were recounting our own memories of Alice under hypnosis. Subtle political sub-texts about the political repressions of later Communist period Czechoslovakia are interwoven throughout the film, but never to the detriment of the text. Importantly, there is no Cheshire Cat to befriend Alice or guide her on her journey – this discovery is all her own and ours too.
Here’s some clackity little skelebobs who want Alice (Alenka) out of the house:
3.) Eraserhead – David Lynch (1977)
Eraserhead and Wild at Heart vie for my attentions, but Eraserhead was one of the first films I bought on vhs back in Sixth Form (and doesn’t include Nic!) when I’d been staying up and discovered Jan Švankmajer late on Channel 4 and an entire world of troubling, compulsive cinema was opened up to me. Eraserhead strikes me as a very pure film, free from the irony that later refracts Lynch’s works into complex, contradictory forms. It is a simple story. Henry, who lives in an industrial wasteland (a grimily distorted version of Philadelphia, where Lynch was living when he conceived of the film) discovers that his girlfriend is pregnant. The baby that is born is a tragic, shrieking thing, deathly ill, needy and nightmarish. Henry is abandoned to look after the baby and the walls slowly close in around him. However, such a simple plot recap does no justice to a film, which plunges us within Henry’s phenomenological experience of this dark world in which he lives. Music – the tinkling, sadly optimistic, jazz piano of Fats Waller – always sounds as though its being played from some deep Victorian underpass. Smoke, steam and smog are ever present, clouding our view of the outside world, which seems dirty, deserted and derelict. Humans are dysfunctional and confusing and scare and bemuse us and our protagonist in equal measure. The horrors of childbirth are felt inside us, as though the film saddled us with the same ungodly responsibilities that are Henry’s own.
The only respite is a cherubic, puffy-faced lady who seems to live in Henry’s radiator, who sings assuringly “In Heaven everything is fine”… never has mumps seemed so comforting and yet so troubling!
WARNING: PLOT REVEAL (erm, sort of):
4.) The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser – Werner Herzog (1974)
Herzog is so entertaining in interview, with comments like chickens “…are the most horrifying, cannibalistic and nightmarish creatures in the world” and “The trees here are in misery; the birds are in misery… I don’t think they sing, they just scream in pain”, that it is almost easy to overlook his films, but when we do come to them, they are often gentler and more poetic than we might expect. Sure, there is a great deal of Will and Sturm und Drang that rages away against the landscape, but there are also long takes of nature bubbling away in silence as the wind rocks the trees. The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser is perhaps the most touching of all of Herzog’s works and the most haunting. It tells the sad tale of Kaspar Hauser, a 19th century German man who grew up among extraordinary privation so that he was barely able to speak and walk. Entering into German society at Nuremberg, nearly mute, with a letter that proclaimed him to want to be a cavalryman as his father was, Kaspar was socialised by well-meaning, rationalising men of the Enlightenment, but in doing so caused him as much sadness as they did joy. Herzog tells the story simply and sympathetically, but with a quietly jaundiced eye, though never closed to the wonders of the world. Nature speaks through the film, whispering more sense that do the eminently capable men. Bruno S, who grew up in situations not dissimilar to Kaspar’s own, inhabits the role with a beauty and commitment that is perhaps unparalleled within the history of cinema and his performance, augmented by Herzog’s delicate cinematography, can reduce me to tears.
The beginning of the film, which is sublime. “Don’t you hear? Don’t you hear the dreadful voice that screams from the whole horizon, and that man usually calls silence?”
5.) A Room for Romeo Brass – Shane Meadows (1999)
A very hard film to place generically, which shows through in its not-quite-right dvd cover, which suggests that it’s merely a boisterous coming of age tale with eccentricities – this barely tells the story, which is far sadder, richer and more complex than that. It is about the friendship between boys, but also how this is warped and elbowed out of place by a man who is very, very troubled. The three – the two boys and the man – form a friendship for a while, until anger and jealousy starts prising them apart. People in the film do their best. Parents are ineffectual and teachers dose asleep in bedside chairs. Friendship does find a way through, but it’s a difficult struggle and it leaves you feeling both touched and drained, because what one has seen has been very beautiful and very ugly all at once. A deeply under-appreciated film, I think, possibly because it has such an usual tone and the solutions it provides are deliberately compromised and uneven. Paddy Constantine, as the man Morell, provides a performance which is hilarious, endearing, heartbreaking, loathsome and wretched by parts, while still very much showing us one, distinctive, utterly individual, deeply flawed human being. Not a hero, or an anti-hero, just human.
Here he dances for the boys or maybe for himself:
6.) The Fly – David Cronenberg (1986)
Never before or since has a film been so relentlessly gloopy, icky and gristle laden and still remained utterly, imploringly romantic. That Cronenberg could make such a convincingly tragic film out of such B-movie source material is a testimony to the way that he can see the latent content within what might seem crude, shlocky or pornographic on the outside. A lot of sci-fi films merely sketch their premise, gesture towards its implications and throw in a lot of special effects… The reason The Fly is so brilliant is that its a remarkably intimate film, mostly taking place within our doomed hero’s apartment as he undergoes his wretching, disfiguring body transformation. Cronenberg teases us with the idea that this might be an evolutionary leap which endows Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) with superhuman power and indeed, for a while, his human dna splicing with that of a fly provides exactly that. As he becomes more abject however he feels his humanity slipping away from him. What makes the film so effective is that we aren’t presented with a binary, like with Jeckell and Hyde, but with a decent man slowly becoming brutal and inhuman, struggling against the insectoid impulses that are buzzing ever louder within his brain. As Seth asks his girlfriend, “Have you ever heard of insect politics? Neither have I.” Cronenberg’s script is gloriously witty and inventive. “A deep penetrating dive into the plasma pool” indeed!
The oarsomely 80s trailer… Be afraid, be very afraid!
7.) My Winnipeg – Guy Maddin (2007)
Like Cronenberg above, Maddin is a Canandian, but one forever in thrall to his native Winnipeg, which holds him in a cold, sleepy grasp, which he never seems able to escape. Returning once again to his home city, Maddin seeks to question this return in a phantasmic documentary filmed, as is his wont, in the style of the 1920s avant-garde, that floods us with truths and half-truths about the city with the highest sleepwalking population in the world. Peppered through the films like bad seeds are recreations of the most potent childhood encounters with his mother, played by camp icon Ann Savage, which are ludicrous, ecstatic displays of gothic melodrama. The film flits into colour for its most impassioned sequences, but mostly remains in a crisp black & white, occasionally fogging over with the remembrance of things past. My Winnipeg is very funny in parts, but none the less personal for it. The critics who claim that Maddin is a charlatan do not feel their past as acutely as we who love him do.
The extremely popular series LEDGEMAN in which Maddin’s mother starred:
8.) Coraline – Henry Selick (2009)
Adapted from the modern day fairy story by Neil Gaiman, this is a cavalcade of stop-motion wizardry that barely lets up! This represents the culmination of Selick’s considerable talents displays through his career – the spindlestick, balletic, lightfooted animated form of Jack Skeleton from ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is resurrected in the bulkier form of circus mouse trainer Mr. Bobinski; the cubism-inspired facial designs of ‘James and the Giant Peach’ and his early ‘Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions’ provide the subtle slanting of Coraline’s face and the oddly cocked heads throughout film; the carnivale darkness of ‘Monkeybone’ is lightened, but does not lose its colour. It’s an adventurous film and certainly strong stuff for young children. A great deal of the film’s power to unnerve derives for Selick’s sophisticated play with the notion of ‘anima’. Much of Coraline takes place in an uncanny, ‘other’ world, like her own home, but not. Here, everything is simulcra conjured up by the evil Other Mother to snare Coraline and transform her into an eyeless ghost child, along with the unfortunates she has already trapped. Since this world is not real, the landscape can morph and fragment into pixels; a character blows his hand away like so much dust; by the end, any vestiges of this world have fallen away and we find ourselves in the void of white space. The film makes the best use of 3D I have ever encountered in the cinema. Coraline’s real home is flattened in its drabness, while the exciting “other” home is given dramatic depth-of-field, as though sprung to three dimension life (despite its hidden, essential flatness). There is a great density of thought on display here – so much has been thought through so thoroughly and I have barely touched upon the sheer craftsmanship of the animation, tastefully augmented with GCI, that just delights and enraptures me again and again as though I too were a little child braving the film.
Frankly almost every scene strikes me as remarkable, but I’m particularly fond of the ghost children:
9.) Being John Malkovich – Spike Jonez and Charlie Kaufman (1999)
Speaking of density of thought, Being John Malkovich is like a hypertext, so rich it is in symbolic and thematic meaning. As soon as you have clocked it as a meditation on the nature of celebrity, it reveals itself as concerned with the very nature of self – a multifaceted thing for sure, displaced and mediated by advertisement, creative acts, love and celebrity itself and we are brought back full circle. It is a hard film to get a grip on intellectually, yet a clear film to follow narratively, despite complexities. This may be due to the fact that the performances are all so clear sighted and individualised through their mannerisms and demeanours. We have the pretentious, self-pitying puppeteer; the cruel and manipulative office worker; the animal loving wife; and finally Malkovich himself. Purportedly, Malkovich was a bit disturbed when he first read the screenplay about a portal being discovered that allows journeyers privileged access into his head. What had he done to piss screenwriter Kaufman off, he wondered! Yet, he enters gamely into the role, sending himself up as a precious, slightly schmucky actor, who is misrecognised by almost everyone he meets. He then has to perform himself being puppeteered by, firstly, another human being lodged within his brain… then finally, about 50. The fact that he pulls this off is one of the great feats of cinematic acting.
I wouldn’t normally direct people to the endings of films, but this is my favourite ending of all time. It takes a silly idea and makes it richly poetic and haunting. To quote Adam Cadre; “Being John Malkovich is a story in which the protagonist gets physically and emotionally beaten up for an hour and a half and then is essentially sent to hell for eighty or ninety years. And it’s complex enough to convey that horror through beautiful shots of an innocent little girl swimming.” I can’t find the exact clip and one should really watch all of it, so here’s Cartel Burwell’s (my favourite film composer) music from it:
10.) Crimewave – John Paisz (1985)
A recently discovery which I am so glad I have made. It is the closest thing to a film I would make if I had the time and resources. It tells the story of a quiet man, Steven Penny, played enigmatically by Paisz himself, who is trying to write the greatest colour crime move ever told, but is having problems with the middle. The film repeats itself through interpolated sequences of his botched attempts. The film is manic, yet filmed in a very understated manner with long, still takes and a manner that recalls kitschy educational documentaries from the 50s. Increasing its charm manifold is the eager-eyed, slightly stilted and cheery performance by Eva Kovacs as the screenwriter’s perpetually inquisitive neighbour. Their friendship is one of the loveliest things about the whole wonderful mad enterprise. I get giddy just thinking about the film.
Here is how it opens. Once upon a time…
Obviously 10 is an arbitrary number. One a different day Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974) otherwise known as something like ‘Fontane’s Effi Briest or Many of Those Who Have an Idea of Their Capabilities and Their Needs and Still Accept and Conform to the Ruling System in Their Heads by Their Deeds and Thus Strengthen it Thoroughly” would have made the list as I love its way of interrogating the late 19th century novel from which it is adapted. The cinematography is rigorously beautiful and makes the greatest use of mirror shots that I, for one, have ever encountered. Also, Fassbinder was wrong to criticise the glorious Hanna Schygulla for her sympathetic and nuanced performance, which brings real life to melodrama in the most memorable of ways.
Others worthy of laudation: Heavenly Creatures, Repulsion, Videodrome, Mulholland Drive, The Elephant Man, Aguirre: Wrath of God, Fata Morgana, Woyzeck, Hausu, Dead Man’s Shoes, Once Upon a Time in the West, Ghosts Before Breakfast, Nosferatu, Tartuffe, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, Deep End, Ghost World, Tetsuo: Iron Man, Closely Observed Trains, Faust (Svankmajer’s and Murneau’s), Little Otik, Annie Hall, The Shining, Paths of Glory, Full Metal Jacket, Weekend, Le Mepris, Chinatown, Susperia, Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, Bigger Than Life, In a Lonely Place, Chinatown, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Cat Soup, Mind Game, Angel’s Egg, Ikiru, Rashomon, A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death, Jules et Jim, Idioterne, Withnail and I, The Falls, Zed and Two Noughts, Prospero’s Books, Night of the Hunter, Metropolis, Brazil, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sedmikrásky… I could go on.