Sunday, 31 January 2021

'Secondhand Xperiments' - Buck Theorem covers album

And here is my second lockdown release, although I started this a long time ago. It's a collection of cover versions called "Secondhand Xperiments"featuring covers of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kate Bush, Kylie Minogue, Jerry Goldsmith, Depeche Mode and of my friends Poet and the Loops and Miodes

Made 2020-2021. These just caught my attention, although some are total favourites.

The 'Seconds' cover comes from my attempting to it in my teens, cribbing the dialogue undoubtedly with some dodgy drone from some eighties kid's keyboard. I have been disturbed and loved the Frankenheimer film since I was a kid, and recently read the James Ely novel, which is a great downer.

Wen I was at teenager, I remember my mum walking in and quietly smirking when she caught me singing along to 'Never Let Me Down Again'. These were the days when I would replay my 7-inch purchases over and over, in succession, and I am sure I did that to this. How annoying that must have been to others in the house.

Speaking of which: I am not a Kylie fan, necessarily, although I don't object, but 'I Believe in You' is one of those mainstream tracks that periodically get into me and I can't deny. A few times I played it too loud and had the neighbours knocking. How annoying that must have been for the neighbours. I seem to have re-imagined it through 'The Covenant, The Sword and the Arm of the Lord' era Cabaret Voltaire.

It included field recordings of my local park during my lockdown walks in the summertime.

Thursday, 28 January 2021


Writer & Director: Mitchell Litchenstein

2007, USA

‘Teeth’ doesn’t dress up its vagina dentata as a hulking monster.  She doesn’t turn into a big cat either. Nope: this is the most direct example of vagina dentata horror, with an excellent poster design making it obvious but not crude (well, the poster above). And that’s how the film plays out: clear but not vulgar. It has a lot of sleaze, but the film itself is not sleazy. It’s not a revenge fantasy, it’s not controversially feminist treatise against the patriarchy. ‘Teeth’ rides from a generation of extreme horror that means there’s no need for analogy, but black humour undercuts grimness and polemic. There’s melancholy and sadness instead of rage and comic book craziness.

Jess Weixler is Dawn O'Keef, a high school spokeswoman for abstinence, wearing her “purity ring” with pride and, it seems, a little out of fear of sexuality. There’s the overly familiar high school setting, a slightly heightened reality, the kind of colour palette familiar from 80s teen comedies – but it feels a little more muted after the cave. The feel is more akin to Bea Grant’s ‘Lucky’: there’s a sadness here. The performances and attention to character are more akin to indie sensibility than John Hughes. They could all be caricatures, and the gynaecologist and the lewd old man certainly verge on that – for comedic effect – but Jess Weixler gives Dawn full-bodied respect rather than just a prudish judgementalism. Similarly, John Hensley as her irredeemable brother Brad manages, through the scuzziness, to project a lost defeatism beneath the nihilism. Even The School Lesson Of The Film’s Theme doesn’t feel too, too obvious… even as the nuclear plant looms over the town.

One of the themes is the insufficient protection given by piety and/or Faith. The “purity ring” is no safeguard against rape. After the attempted rape in the cave, Dawn is forced to confront her sexuality, and there’s also no real room for support at home, what with her dying mother and obnoxious brother. But, you see, it’s not sex that is the problem, but how the boys treat the girls. A little respect will save us all. Although through duplicitous means, when Dawn believes that sex is consensual – he even asks her if she wants to stop, and there is no reason to think he wouldn’t listen her if she said no – it is enjoyable for her and it’s all wonderful. This is not an anti-sex film and one of the subtle enjoyments is seeing whatever fears and reservations dawn has about sex falling away and a new vibrancy comes into her character. It is only when he answers his phone during sex and confesses that he had a bet that reprisals come. The other subtle enjoyment is Dawn realising that she is in control, that her apparent curse is in fact a weapon.

Its successful restraint means this is funny and nuanced where it could have been broad and bluntly vengeful. ‘Teeth’ is an easy watch, even at its darkest and most provocative, doing a fine job of mixing tones of the humourlessly outrageous with grimness and empathy, never short-changing the focus on respect for its young protagonist.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The Sweet Smell of Success


  The Sweet Smell of Success

Alexander Mackendrick, 1957, USA

Screenplay: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman

Coming from Ealing, Mackendrick went to America and made this vehement attack on the noxious shwbiz gossip journalism scene. Moving stateside, the wit is less satirical and more acidic. Full of memorable put-downs and one-liners that are just desperate to punch you. The pace is at an authoritative stride and you’d best keep up. 

Elmer Bernsteins’s score keeps up the jazz dizziness and cool, never overpowering the dialogue but always paralleling the sense of characters constantly riffing. And with that heavy-hitting script and actors at their best, with that agile camera following and gliding through James Wong Howe’s wonderful black-and-white photography, it’s definitely a film where everyone is at the top of their game.

The screenplay is by Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets from Lehman’s novel, and it’s a legendary script. It’s film noir with the nihilism and wisecracks transported to column writers rather than private dicks. And even if there is the implied gloss of the entertainment industry and we’re visiting high end clubs and restaurants, we’re firmly in the gutter and underbelly here. Tony Curtis practically sweats self-loathing as Sidney Falco, the press agent trying to simultaneously suck up to and siphon some power from columnist J.J. Hunsecker. Burt Lancaster as Hunsecker seems to turn the very air around him to cruelty. And boy, Lancaster and Curtis know just how to deliver those zingers. The former’s sleaziness and the latter’s ever-present ominous threat are palpable essences. Falco avoids the conscience-pricking of his secretary whilst Hunsecker connives to destroy his sister’s romance (Susan Harrison) to the decency of a jazz musician (Martin Milner). That’s the plot that barely hints at the poisonous flow of character and scheming, the hints of the incestuous and moral vacuity. All for the sake of personal weakness, cynicism and show business.

And of course, these men would never think they might be beaten at their own game.

A cold classic.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021


Lorcan Finnegan, 2019, Ireland-Belgium-Denmark-Canada

Story by Lorcan Finnegan and Garret Shanley; written by Garret Shanley

I went into ‘Vivarium’ with a vague sense of its premise and that it seemed to be met with a kind of indifference that intrigues me. In fact, ‘Vivarium’ ticked many of my genre boxes: the unreliability of reality, unfairness, leaning on the abstract and unanswerable, the unknowable. Of course, the title is a major clue, but I certainly got the most by knowing so little.

 Like Finnegan’s short film Foxes’, the identikit nature of deserted suburban streets creates an eerie, otherworldly backdrop. Finnegan’s previous feature ‘Without Name’ sets the central idea that some places tend to the eerie, that they are bad news for those who find themselves susceptible to their influence (rather than the threat of the locals). But in ‘Vivarium’, it is a little different: these people are the kind of genre protagonists that don’t deserve to find themselves locked in a horror scenario. Add unfairness to the horror elements. Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg give insular, fine performances and this grounds the film as the craziness sets in.

This new and seemingly unpopulated community looks like a plastic display unit at the Real Estate Office. Supplies just appear, like in a game (and surely even more relatable in a lockdown world). Then a baby is delivered into the mix. Imprisoned in a baffling situation that they cannot escape, this scenario starts to wear away the couple. He becomes obsessed with digging a hole – just something to focus on – and her maternal inclinations are grazed, however much she resists. It resonates as a disturbing satire on the conservative demands to conform by an abstract, external force. Men: slave away senselessly for nothing attempting to get out. Women: play the role of motherhood. And the boy (Senan Jennings) is supremely eerie and unsettling, with his sweet looks and not-right voice, reciting the adults’ incriminating dialogue back at them – parroting that is surely recognised by any parent. And the screaming.

All there is becomes a fake existence at the hands of an uncaring omnipresent, abstract force. The force isn’t even being deliberately malign: it’s just doing what it does. This is the kind of concept that implies that all our existential crises and rumination is just an anomaly of the human race in the wider scheme of lifeforms just carrying out their existence. In this instance, it goes beyond being a mystery until it just grinds the couple to the nub. It doesn’t drive them to arguments or acrimony: they just drift apart, which is just as cruel.  

There are casual comments on Amazon that the third act fails, but I disagree: all the clues are there from the very opening. He was digging his grave all along, tying back to his burying the bird at the beginning. Cronenberg would be pleased: it is just a parasite taking its course in this nightmare without intentional malevolence. Whatever it is, as with everything, existence is purpose. The end revelations and reservations, the final madness where the surreal lets rip, are much needed after the measured build-up, but doesn’t forsake mystery for exposition.

‘Vivarium’ is a film whose creepiness reached far down in me to take root in a way that doesn’t happen often. A prime example of the uncanny.

And the screaming.

Thursday, 7 January 2021

The Third Man - and the humbling of another


The Third Man 

Carol Reed, 1949, UK

Screenplay; Graham Greene

‘The Third Man’ is a tale of an American pulp writer Holly Martins in the post-war ruins of Vienna, trying to solve the mystery of the death of his friend Harry Lime. He does this mostly by initially stomping around and barking his privilege and entitlement. He’s often insulting to the British authority investigating the death too, for Lime was apparently mixed up in some shady business – but Holly’s not having it. He’s going to ignore the officials and their incompetence and solve it on his own.

Except what he really does is fall for Lime’s girlfriend, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli). But he does ruffle some feathers and uncovers inconsistencies in accounts and reason to suspect that Lime’s death was faked. But by then, Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) steps in to stop him barking around to show the evidence they have that Lime was indeed guilty of what they say. Now, usually it undermines my sense of the film’s credibility when the authorities seemingly hand over the investigation to a writer/journalist or whoever: this is a recurring trait in giallo and a plot feature I often just can’t take seriously. But in ‘The Third Man’, it’s the turning point for Holly: besides, they are telling him to stop stirring things up and maybe to get him on their side. He is proven wrong and all his entitled bolshiness is hobbled. From then on, his confidence is broken. He is not very good when he gives his lecture on the contemporary novel. Even when he finally finds and meets Lime, he hasn’t the imagination or smarts to counter Lime’s famed sociopathic “cuckoo clock” speech. Most bullish dupes crack wise right to the end, lamenting fate and desire, dominating the story with their self-pity, but there is no voiceover here for that. Harry becomes more and more speechless and overwhelmed by circumstances far bigger than him and that he doesn’t really understand. By the end, where he doesn’t really get the girl, he is silent. Just patient and hopeful.

In fact, it is the silences that impress most. Or rather, how the film knows when to let silences speak. Whereas many genre pictures will talk and talk – and not that it’s lacking in that department because Graham Greene’s script is classic, sharp and memorable: the debate about morality and human worth between Holly and Harry; a fleeting “striptease” gag. But with the final chase, the ‘The Third Man’ goes into the sewer system and lets the sound design take over. Not even Anton Karas’ unforgettable Zither score – which is one that haunts every second, even when it’s not playing – intrudes on this subterranean cat-and-mouse. It’s like the film is holding its breath.

There is the leading feeling of resignation that overwhelms everyone, and it just takes Holly a little time to catch up. It’s the post-war milieu where we go from sumptuous interiors to bombed buildings with just a few footfalls. Joseph Cotten is apt for the role, going from obnoxious belligerence, to out-of-his-depth, to soulful and bruised square jaw machismo. And:

“In Vienna, Martins is constantly at odds and out of step, never able to forget that he is in an alien place where everything seems upside-down. This wasn’t too far away from how Cotton felt himself when making the movie. The star complained of a endlessly shifting schedule that he was afraid as going to keep him in Vienna far longer than the two weeks he had anticipated: ‘This method of making a picture,’ he complained to Selznick executive, Daniel O’Shea, didn’t make him feel at home in a location so far away, so cold and dirty and so uncomfortably occupied by such a variety of peoples.’”

Charles Drazin, “The Third Man: Mixing fact with fiction”, Studio Canal Vintage Classics booklet, page 9. Quotes from original documents […] taken from the files ‘The Third Man’ in the David O. Selnick Collection, Harry Ranson Cemter, the University of Texas at Austin. 

If you are one of those that find constant annoyance at characters walking into other places and assuming their dominance and privilege, watching Holly’s assurance being dismantled during the unravelling of the mystery is satisfying. It’s a pleasure to see Cotten getting progressively more soulful, speaking with eyes rather than wisecracks, despite the actor’s apparent reservations.

The film turns every character on their side when it can. Anna’s loyalty to and love for Harry doesn’t quite seem unblemished romanticism when we know how manipulative he is, and that she knows the truth of him. Is she just foolish? She’s not stupid. Is there a hint of Stockholm Syndrome here? The Major becomes an increasingly decent sort the more he comes to light. Holly isn’t so bone-headed and simple when his privilege is challenged and found wanting: he doesn’t launch into denial. And so on. 

The pace is fast and so some of the nuance may not be so apparent on a first watch. Even in supposedly more minor works like ‘A Kid for Two Farthings’ and – a personal favourite – ‘The Fallen Idol’, Reed’s camera always feels like it’s moving with the story, not simply observing and serving exposition. For example, a plethora of Dutch angles tells you all the time that this is an off-centre world. It’s speedy, smart, fully entertaining. And there’s that unique Viennese location of a certain time and place and a wealth of brilliant character actors.

It’s as much a tale of the humbling of one man, who’s likely all the better for it, as it is a mystery being solved.

And, of course, that Zither score.