Tuesday, October 25, 2005


This weeks KBT is a cautionary tale of the power of personal belief and the spiritual consequences when two opposing viewpoints clash. The Beáltaine fertility rituals of an isolated small Scottish island offend the devout Christian police officer there to investigate a missing girl. It seems the Island's simple country folk and Lord Summerisle (played by an intellectually menacing Christopher Lee) are not unwilling to sacrifice one of their own children to make the crops grow better. The film has the power to unsettle from the conviction of Lord Summerisle and the fact that all the strange events are taken by the locals as 'normal'. Even the most unsettling scenes in the film take place in peaceful, scenic broad daylight, to the calm (corny) lyrics of Paul Giovanni.

Officer Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) begins to quickly realize he is out of his depth when he cannot get an ounce of truth from anyone with whom he speaks and is sexually tempted to the point of cold sweats by the innkeepers daughter, at her fathers request. Willow (a sultry and zestfully naked Britt Ekland who married Peter Sellers and appeared two other iconic 1970s British films, Get Carter and The Man with the Golden Gun, around the same time as The Wicker Man) doesn't have much to do in the film, but her thru-the-wall song of seduction is a fantastic sequence, (it was memorably covered by The Sneaker Pimps in the late 1990s, and is also used effectively as a reference in Eli Roth's forthcoming Hostel).

The 1973 film, which was written off as B-grade shlock at the time, has achieved well-deserved cult status, cropping up in a 1980s Iron Maiden Single, various film references (besides Hostel, see also Joe Dante's The 'Burbs and Roger Avery's The Rules of Attraction, Nicolas Widing Refn's Bleeder and Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave) and as an icon for several UK Music Festivals. There is a sequel of sorts in production (from the director of the original) , and also a remake (every classic horror pic is getting one these days) which went with the truly bizarre director choice of Neil LaBute. I'd be curious to know whether or not it has come up in the sermon of a progressive minister or an edgy bible study worn down from too much C.S. Lewis.

The Wicker Man hasn't so much as aged, as taken on a life of its own. The music, the eerie investigative structure, creepy imagery and the final shocking scene still have the power to disturb more than 30 years later. People remember this film, it stays with them. The insight into pagan ritual and belief make it perfect Halloween cinema, even if the Beáltaine festival is May 1st.

Note: KBT is back to the usual start-time of 8:30, on account of us keeping our kids up later to adjust for the upcoming time change. Come by at 8pm for a drink and a nibble is you like.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

KBT Presents: ALIEN

"The perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. I admire its purity. A survivor... unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. "

I can't think of more apt words for Ridley Scott's sublime cinematic blend of hard science fiction and haunted house horror. Absolutely a perfect Halloween film.

For many years now, fanboys have been weighing in with what Alien picture is the best of the expanding franchise, which now includes 5 films of widely varying quality. While I feel the third film is over-maligned and unfairly hated, a choice for best picture really does boil down to just two films which are as different as two franchise films can be. (And I don't mean Highlander vs. Highlander II: The Quickening). James Cameron's Aliens is all action, black humour, testosterone loaded bravado, and intense emotion, capped off with an momma-bear estrogen chaser. I find it fun and well made, but not iconic. It just doesn't hold a candle to the first big-budget masterpiece, the original Alien whose the perfect tagline proclaimed: "In Space, Nobody Can Hear You Scream."

In this film, it is really just a few working-stiff professionals who have limited means to understand both what is happening, and how to deal with it, but go about the task with a determined (if fear-laced) professionalism. The heart and soul of the film lies somewhere between the scientific method and common sense. (In fact you could read that Aliens is a corporate and military arrogance warning and Alien³ is a spiritual crisis...the fourth (sadly, considering it is J.P. Jenuet at the helm) and fifth (which I have not seen precisely because of it's hack director) entries in the series are not even worth bothering.

I also like the gradual pace of the original. There is a certain sense of craftsmanship in the deliberate set-up in the first hour of the film. The crew wakes up, grabs a cup of coffee, and goes about mundane tasks before finding that they are not in fact home, and now have to investigate a distress beacon on a planet none of them wish to visit. ("Let's discuss the bonus situation.") The slow decent on the dark seemingly uninhabited moon and the creepy abandoned space ship. These locations have depth, weight and a sense of presence that is just lacking from most modern science fiction. And while I'm on the subject, other than the computer monitors, this movie hasn't aged a bit. It looks as simultaneously futuristic and run-down as it did in 1979. Choosing to make the Nostromo essentially an inter-galaxy 18-wheeler (Harry Dean Stanton's Brett even wears a trucker hat) was an interesting move which has really helped the film age gracefully. The story and the science hold up as well, a tough thing for a 25 year old sci-fi flick.

Ridley Scott wisely kept the creature hidden during most of the film. It unfolds its graceful body, which exists in the H.R. Giger-world of sexually melded flesh and machine, deep in the shadows, and reaches out to claim a victim then practically vanishes into the moist pipe-encrusted bowels of the Nostromo. It was refreshing (and probably a bit surprising to the 1979 audience) to see a woman be the voice of reason and the most coldly competent character, even if the film started a modern cliche that a genre heroine must at some point nervously strip down to her underwear while battling whatever has to be fought (see also Deep Blue Sea). Ian Holm, John Hurt, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton and Yaphet Kotto all make up one of the finest ensemble casts to ever grace a genre film, giving further weight to the film in that it is the hardened adult working class which will be exploring space, not hee-haw farmboys (Star Wars), white collar suits (2001: A Space Odyssey) or manly matinee idols (Star Trek).

Come see the original Alien, certainly a classic in both horror and science fiction, how it was meant to be seen, with a very nifty 5.1 remastered THX certified soundtrack, and on a big screen (It is criminal to try to view it pan & scan on a TV set, which can somehow make this fantastic film look cheap and boring). Also, there was a directors cut released in 2003 with some extra scenes added, and several of the 'slower' scenes made shorter. It was a bit ill advised, and ultimately inferior to the 1979 theatrical release, which will be the version being screened.

Note the slightly earlier schedule: Come by for Drinks at 8pm, I've got a lot of new trailers, so I'll show a few of them starting at 8:15. Showtime at 8:30pm

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Punishment Park

“What seems quite clear now is that instead of trying to bring the estranged and exploited Americans (such as these people) back into the national community, the administration has chosen to accept and exploit the present division within the country and to side with what it considers the majority. Instead of a politics of reconciliation, it has chosen the politics of polarization”

It is impossible not to have a political reaction when watching Peter Watkin’s superb faux-documentary Punishment Park. The film features approximately two-dozen people, which are not so much fully fleshed out characters, but rather political positions. The film makes no bones in being clearly allegorical. This in no way stops it from being an intense emotional ride over the course of its tightly edited 88 minutes.

Filmed in 1970 and set somewhere around 1975, the film depicts a future America that is still at war in the region of Vietnam, and is also bombing Seoul in South Korea. Domestic unrest has increased to the point where almost as many enforcement officers are required on the home front to keep the youth and counter-culture movement under control. Prisons are overcrowded, and more and more local police officers are required as are National Guard and federal Rangers. The solution to this problem is found by President Nixon in an obscure piece of government legislation called the McCarran Act. This allows for the country to hold political prisoners and draft dodgers in detention camps without charges or evidence. The prisoners are then sentenced by a Senator (not a judge) and a tribunal of citizens to a lengthy prison sentence. Or they can spend 3 days in Punishment Park.

Punishment Park is a survival game of sorts; involving an 80 km hike through the scorching California desert of Bear National Park. The destination is an American flag. Any of the prisoners who reach the flag are (presumably) free to go. After a few hours head start, law enforcement officers pursue the prisoners and attempt to arrest them. Being arrested means the prisoners do their previous prison sentence. If, however, there is any resistance to arrest, the officers are allowed to use whatever force they deem necessary. Punishment Park is the brilliantly disturbing solution to the nations problems, as it frees up prison space and simultaneously provides a training ground for the various branches of law enforcement to quell the very problems that put the prisoners in the Park in the first place.

The film opens with no credits or titles. A dry voice-over narration (done by the director, Peter Watkins) identifies that this is a British TV documentary on Punishment Parks. An American flag flaps solitarily in the desert wind. The very officers who will soon be hunting them down are trucking Group #637 out to the starting point of the course. Radio news reports give updates on the 100,000 American soldiers being activated from the reserves (notably only 20,000 are going to South East Asia). The prisoners are given the ground-rules for the game before being sent off without any food or water.

Over the course of the chase, prisoner Group #637 forms into factions, the pacifists, the militants and a group somewhere in between (billed in the end credits as the semi-militants). Initially, this is intercut with the head cop, Officer Edwards, giving the trainees a firearms demonstrations (while they wait allow for the prisoner head start). It is compelling and chilling material. But Punishment Park is quite a bit more ambitious than just this. It was filmed completely (and seamlessly) with non-professional actors, and shot with a single camera in a flawless vérité style. Things get more complex when another layer of editing is added: Group #638 is shown as they come up in front of the detention tribunal. Each individual in the group is allowed to say a few words before sentencing. These comments, which often end up in shouting matches between the convicted and the tribunal are further spliced amongst the police hunt for Group #637. The whole package has such a complex back-and-forth, multi-thread structure with in-the-moment, face to the camera interviews of the hunted prisoners and the pursuing cops, that it feels like it was made in 2000, not 1970. There is a flair for subtle manipulation that is way ahead of its time, making Michael Moore look like a kindergartener.

Punishment Park has sadly been completely ignored over the years (And Watkin’s as a justifiable chip on his shoulder about it if you watch the interview included on the DVD). It is interesting that a similarly themed film, Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor’s Billy Jack, was released the same year, 1971, around the time Watkins’ film was screening at Cannes. Billy Jack was a massive popular success, and Punishment Park couldn’t even get a single booking at an American cinema for longer than a day or two. At one point in both films the same quotation from Adolph Hitler is used as a climatic talking point. Billy Jack’s story of a pacifist hippie school defended by a spiritual tough-guy is dated to the point of ridiculousness, while Punishment Park barely shows any age at all. Some references to the Chicago Seven trial contained within the hearings of Group #638 are probably lost on a modern audience, but the politics of civil liberties and free speech contained therein, and the sophistication of the films execution are probably as relevant today than they were in 1971. The cynical 21st century take would probably be to televise the trials and the hunt in reality television form. In fact, if there is one weakness in the film, it is the established right-wingers on the tribunal and the lefties on trial getting into rhetorical shouting matches that would not be too far off daytime talk show if the politics were not so highfalutin. Both speakers are always talking past one another. This is underscored in a scene where the tribunal folks are on lunch break and the chatter exasperatedly to one another about the ‘crazy youth.’ One hilarious interviewee compares young people today like racehorses that have to be whipped into shape, lest they run right off the track.

While Punishment Park offers the illusion of fair and balanced by giving equal screen time to the repressed and the establishment, it is clear that Watkins sides with the youth. It is fascinating (and clever) to watch the documentary film crew slowly lose their objectivity as the game gets more and more out of hand and the cops get more violent. The British director/narrator begins angrily shouting at the cops that all of this is going to be seen all over the world (the cops could care less). It is ironic and tragic that in fact Punishment Park the film has not.

Notes on the DVD:

Eureka! Video has included Punishment Park in their Masters of Cinema series (#21), and done a bang-up job with the release. The DVD is PAL, but has no region encoding. The video transfer is sharp (to the point of graininess, but this is probably more from the 16mm blow-up to 35mm stock). There is a compelling 31 page booklet which describes just how much of a film experiment it was at the time, and offers an in-depth view of the politics as put in context with the times. There is a 30 minute video introduction by the director filmed in 2004. Peter Watkins is unsparingly hostile with his views on the state the modern mass media (his axe to grind is pretty darn justifiable though), and is particularly annoyed with the treatment most of the world has given not just this film. Cinema Professor Joseph Gomez, who wrote a book on Watkins’ career and offers a feature length audio commentary on the disc describes him as one of the most overlooked masters of cinema, and I’m certainly in agreement with that statement. Punishment Park is worth the effort to track down.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Cowards Bend the Knee (aka The Blue Hands)

How to approach this cinematic oddity? Folks familiar with the works of Guy Maddin will already be familiar with his primordial soup style cinema: Full frame, black and white, nearly silent and often extremely grainy or out of focus. Cowards Bend the Knee is part noir, part melodrama, part Greek tragedy and part opera (with score, occasional sound effects, and inter-titles, but no dialogue or singing) all wrapped up in a frenetic Freudian fever-dream. You enter the story by looking through a microscope into a drop of semen, and the film is at least as dense that particular bodily fluid.

Structured like a matinee serial*, complete with cliff hanger finishes and chapter titles like “Sperm Players,” “The Blue Hands of Vengeance,” and “Fisty,” the story follows hockey player Guy Maddin (not played by the director, but by one of his regular actors, Darcy Fehr), and all the trouble he causes himself and those around him by being spineless, guilt-wracked and a patsy to a feisty femme fatale.

When Guy finds out his girlfriend Veronica is pregnant, it is off to The Black Silhouette, a beauty salon which looks like it belongs in a silent German horror film. The salon is also a brothel by night, with an abortion clinic in the back room. Awaiting the couple is Dr. Fusi, an aged man with saggy skin and large eyes, looking like a cross between Jimmy Gator from Magnolia and Dr. Caligari. He is the hockey-doctor, but moonlights here as the abortionist. The proprietress of the salon/brothel/clinic, Lilliom and her Asian daughter, Meta, are on hand to observe. Guy is immediately smitten with Meta and leaves his girlfriend right in the middle of surgery to have a tryst with Meta. Meta is one of the great temptresses of noir cinema. Her smooth and expressive face can go from flirt to vengeful declaration in a heart-beat. She lights up the screen every moment she is on it (and Cowards Bend the Knee is Melissa Dionisio’s only film credit). She is unwilling to have sex with Guy until he kills her mother. Liliom, with her clawed talon of a left hand and a voracious sexual appetite (not to mention a fondness for apple pie) is a femme fatale not afraid to do her own dirty work. She murdered her own husband and business partner (and Meta’s doting dad) so she can have sex with Shakey, the Captain of the Hockey Team and also local Police Chief. If you think I’m in spoiler territory here, I assure you this all happens in the first 10 minutes alone. What follows is a melodrama constructed of love triangles upon love triangles (love polyhedrons). To discover how tightly everyone meshes together, like a hair net or a hockey net, is one of the chief joys of the film.

The locations and characters are drawn from Mr. Maddin’s childhood memories. His real-life dad was the Coach of the Winnipeg Maroons hockey club and much of the action takes place on the ice of the arena, but also in the dressing room (with many a penis on full display) and a macabre wax museum up in the rafters of the arena (his dad in the film is the arena’s announcer who has a fondness of ice-breasts and ghosts – Take that Sigmund!). His mother and aunt ran a beauty salon out of the family home where sounds carried well though the ductwork. His interpretation of a family’s co-existence under a single roof is as an elaborate (and vaguely sinister) spy game. Combine the aural voyeurism (listening at vents) and one knock-out scene of nearly every major character in the film spying on one another via the elaborate optics of the beauty salon (wall mirrors, hand mirrors, even pair of scissors) and you get the idea. Another large element in the film is hands. From touch-less sex on a pile of hockey gloves, to a bizarre limb-transplant to Scandinavian hand-charms, hands are the chief form of expression (and the ultimate doom) of nearly all the characters in the film. Lady Macbeth has yet to experience the lasting effects of hair-dye.

The characters here are primarily archetypes found in various genres the director likes to mine, but they are so tragic and out of synch with any sense of real world behavior they (paradoxically) somehow end up more human. Maddin is plumbing the darker nature of humanity (and himself) which he makes explicit in the final title card, a statement which is the evil-twin of Kim Ki Duk’s 3-Iron. Guilt, fear and anxiety give rise to cowardice, lust, and ultimately failure of miscommunication. The entire story is told with such visual gusto and at such a break-neck pace (see also Maddin’s 6 minute short “The Heart of the World” to witness how much narrative can be packed into so small a time span) that you are never, ever bored. The editing structure is as close to MTV as he will likely ever get, even to the point of inserting subliminal imagery within rapid-fire sequences.

Cowards Bend the Knee is in many ways the ultimate entry his quickly growing canon thus far. Maddin has a particular talent at flitting lightly from the playful to the macabre and from art to camp. And the film walks the line between feature and short film, two forms the director actively still makes (how many other established directors are making short films these days beyond the occasional BMW film). It is also perhaps the best introduction to the eclectic filmmaker as it brings many of the elements of his previous films together in an autobiography fractured through a broken mirror and told as if drowning in the subconscious. It is also great, wacky, Canadian fun!

*The film was originally commissioned, in 2003, as a 10 part peep-show art installation for the Power Plant, a Toronto Art Gallery.


Video/Audio/Inter-titles: It is always hard to assess the video quality of a DVD transfer of one of Guy Maddin’s films. Since they are made to look like something excavated from an old attic after 80 years in rusty film cans to begin with, any bungling of the video transfer (i.e. the Canadian release of Saddest Music in the World) merely blends in with the visual style. Nonetheless, Zeitgeist did a great job, keeping the quality of the intentional 1.33:1 image and the animated menus are appropriate to the films genesis. The audio consists of only occasional sound effects to enhance the silent film. You hear the occasional scissors snip, a door-bell, or hockey arena ambient sounds which accompany the image. There is a pastiche of vintage film background score which changes to match the tone of each chapter. The intertitles are usually out of focus, way out of focus in some cases. Listen to the commentary (where you will find out this is mainly due to laziness on the directors part, rather than stylistic) if you have trouble reading them!

Commentary Track: Guy Maddin gives good commentary. His tone over the course of the film he shifts from casting notes and impressions of actors to an artistic confessional to a droll sense of humour. Lots of imagery that may seem quite bizarre while watching the film are explicitly connected to Guy’s psyche and memories; so if you want to retain the aura of mystery (or absurd non-sequitor), you may want to avoid the commentary. Since the film is almost completely silent, watching it with the commentary on is quite a pleasant experience. It dials down the melodramatic impact of the film, but offers a lot of insight into the creation.

The Extras: There are two big extras on the disc. The first is a twenty minute featurette on the upcoming The Brand Upon The Brain! It is narrated by Guy Maddin and promises more autobiographical cinema. There are a few scenes from the movie included which only offer the briefest of tease (still pictures from these scenes were previously posted here). The second is a series of fragments and auditions from Love-Chaunt, an abandoned Guy Maddin project. What was most striking from the collection of these pieces was actor Louis Negin’s audition. Negin plays Dr. Fusi in Cowards Bend the Knee as both an overlord and a grim architect. The overlord role he also played as the fortune-teller character in Saddest Music In the World, as well as toga-wearing Patron in Sissyboy Slap Party. In the latter two films it is played broadly and over-the-top. In his audition sequence for Love-Chaunt and Cowards Bend the Knee, he brings a both a sinister and melancholy to the table. His presence I found visually riveting in the film, which makes this extra a nice underscore of that performance.