Tuesday, January 5, 2010


As threatened, I will be presenting a series of films between the monthly Core Program nights, as the Gallery's calendar permits. Celebrating those who fought the big one against the mainstream as it evolved, anime-like from a number of privately owned businesses into Megaplexor and swallowed the little uns. These pre-SBS2 portals to other worlds served the imaginations of the adventurous moviegoer for decades, providing canvas chairs, mono soundtracks, a selection of foyer-made choctops, and a sense of community for the curious.

In memoriam:

The Valhalla
The Carlton Movie House
The Trak
The Brighton Bay
The Lumiere

Here are the first few:

(Michael Ritchie, USA, 1976)

The first film shown at Melbourne's Valhalla when the film was a new release back in 1976. The rest was the history of marginal cinema exhibition in Melbourne. Happily, it's also a knockout film.

Bruce Dern and Barbara Feldon (in a rare post-Get Smart appearence) head the cast (including a teenage Melanie Griffith) in this tale of morality going elastic during a teenage beauty quest. Perhaps a subtler, closer to sober cousin to Robert Altman's epic national biopsy Nashville, Smile plays less for quick laughs than a thoughtful gaze at this most American of rituals.

The more recently made Drop Dead Gorgeous does have its moments but it looks flat and try hard beside this entry from Hollywood's golden age of social satire.

(Slava Tsukerman, USA, 1982)

Aliens vs designer punks! 1982, Manhattan. The earth sustains an alien invasion. But this is not the day the earth stands still. The invaders are so ethereal that they are invisible to the human eye, being less bodies than impulses. Previous and future cinematic visitors have variously wanted conquest or resources and these ones do too. But it's neither gold nor water they're after, it's good old fashioned smack. Yup, ethereal they might be but their spirit-hands are out and they're chasin'!

But this is sci-fi and needs some science. It comes (future pun warning) in their discovery that the endorphins released in the brain during human orgasm the high to end all highs. Where better to make such a discovery than through the life of Margaret, a country girl awash in a tide of drugs, affected nihilism, real nihilism, rotten synth pop, execrable dancing, high fashion, plain human vileness and easy easy sex. She ain't in Kansas anymore but, as she observes with a quiet strength in a striking monologue: "I can kill with my c**t."

The time capsule element in this film is not the look and copped feel of the new romantic scene in New York in the early 80s as much as the mood of independent film making at the time. Following the decade of the midnight movie (El Topo, Eraserhead, Pink Flamingoes) independent filmakers had a newly established public tradition to mine but this time also had a newly powerful indy music force that had made a virtue of intensity over formal skill. Liquid Sky is made very much from the latter spirit. Glimpses of conventionally assured cinematic skill surface throughout from the openly cheap execution of most of what's on the screen. This is self aware trash but it bears a real gravity and delivers a real saddening blow in its extraordinary closing sequence.

(Hal Ashby, USA 1971)
Harold is a teenager who's trying to get and keep his mother's attention. His mother is actually doing a lot to get her son out into the world but her methods seem designed to play out without his involvement. Harold's idea of bridging this communication gap is to stage highly authentic looking suicide attempts. His psychiatrist asks what he does to reach out to the world at large and join society. "I go to funerals," says Harold.

At one of those his attention is agressively pursued by an old lady who is curious at seeing him at all the funerals she goes to. This starts an end of winter start of spring romance like no other. Harold's death wish steadily erodes under Maude's raging life force, and he embraces the beauty of the world, knowing that it doesn't have to be as stifling as the one his mother uses all that valium to navigate. But the bony guy with the scythe isn't going anywhere.

That's why this film works. As quirky as it gets, as airily whimsical Ruth Gordon's rhapsodies become, this film never descends to a series of goofy scenes gaffer taped together in the hope that the sum of them works. There is a committed narrative here borne by strong performances and textured characterisation.

If there was any justice in this world people like Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson would be forced to watch this film and learn how it's done. Here is the range of themes celebrated by those two and almost every other indy film maker from the 1970s onward. Anti-conformity and the strength of the outcast form the centre of this film and they have seldom been examined as well (and never bettered). But this was made in 1971 why haven't those other directors learned anything is this old thing is so good, haven't they seen it? Oh they've seen it, they just can't reproduce it.

Oh, and using pre-existing songs by one artist to add to the experience isn't cloying here. Like the earlier The Graduate with Simon and Garfunkel tracks, Harold and Maude's use of Cat Stevens works more effectively than an orchestral score ever could. They just sit right. Hey Wes, don't just throw your record collection at the screen, think about it.

Best. Rom com. Ever.

(Alan Arkin, USA, 1971)

Alfred, a young self proclaimed apathist, is wrenched by an overachiever girl into society. He goes along with this, suffering one of the most intimidating meet-the-folks scenes outside of the one in Eraserhead. He even accepts her proposal of marriage. The city they live in is breaking down, power outages take on a kind of rhythm, victims of assault fall down subway steps like litter, and the homicide rate is rising to epidemic levels. Flight or fight? The choice has never been less obvious in a film, even a comedy as black as this.

Directed by Alan Arkin (gloriously over the top as a detective soaring into hysteria)and featuring a young Donald Sutherland as a hip priest. Arkin had starred in Catch 22 the year before and Elliot Gould and Sutherland in MASH (also 1970). These two films heavily criticised U.S. involvement in Vietnam through the filter of other wars. Little Murders might well be thought of as the home front version of those.

Absurdism verite? Romblacom? You decide.

(Michelangelo Antonioni, USA, 1970)
Having reduced Swinging London to an essential oil in Blow Up Michelangelo Antonioni turned his deep gaze to the student protest raging in the USA. Mark, a student who restlessly exits a student sit-in soon becomes politicised when he is arrested at a demonstration. In a series of scenes that Michael Moore would green up from Mark and a friend assemble a small arsenal of weapons without licences but a truckload of smooth talk from legitimate gunshops. Then something really really bad happens and Mark is on the run. Well "takes flight" might be more apt.

As this is happening, Daria, a young woman, decides to drive across the desert to get to her boss' grand late 60s sci fi house on top of a mesa. Her path is crossed by Mark's and one of the oddest and most exciting mating rituals ensues (and that's before you get to the desert love-in).

The sparseness of the dialogue, plot and landscape are intentional and effective. This is not an examination of youth culture or the protest movement (like the contemporary Punishment Park or Medium Cool) it's mythmaking. Antonioni is interested in legend rather than politics and seeking a new American one to extend those of the old west. Just as steadily as he built up the Cockney star in Blow Up ony to deflate him fully Antonioni wants to suggest a path to hope in the turmoil. The sequence that expresses this, a series of spectacular cinemascope explosions is justly celebrated.

Warning: with contemporary Pink Floyd, Stones and the Youngbloods on the soundtrack this film can get seriously groovy.

(Alex Cox USA 1984)
A highway cop stops a car driven by a nervous nerdy type. He checks the boot and instantly distintegrates in a flash of intense light, leaving only a pair of smoking knee high boots. Back in desert bound nowheresville, L.A, Otto is drawn into the repossession business and is soon caught up in an intrigue involving aliens, religious loopiness, the local punk scene and a battered old Chevy that everyone seems to want. This film would have been pitched with one word: cult!

Brit Alex Cox took his love of American movies and spaghetti westerns to the United States of A. to fashion a film "for today". Perhaps I'm sounding harsh but I'm only trying to do it justice. See, this movie isn't so much dated as traited. If you surveyed the themes of mid 1980s independent cinema and dropped anything uncommon to all of them what you'd have left is this one. This is from the era when new films were described as cult before their release (bugger having to slave away being projected in fleapits at midnight for eight years before that honour could be bestowed). Much in the same way you could follow a recipe for a rock song from a previous era and create a perfect Syd Barret or Monks track (oh wait, people do do that) Alex the C. looked around him and dressed his satirical agenda with the trappings of the today of 1984. Absurdly first marketed as an actioner this returned from its flop to ride the arthouses o' the world. Everyone saw it and you were no one if you didn't love it.

So is it any good? Yeah, pretty much. Take the context away and it roars along. Emilio Estavez (then Martin Sheen's more famous son) sneers and winces through a nice turn in nihilism. Harry Dean Stanton, fresh from "cult" superstardom in (the execrable) Paris Texas is a must. The sci fi story is fun (if less profound than Liquid Sky's) and well sustained. Depsite what I've written here, I'm showing this one because I do think it's worth seeing.

Cox went on to the embarrassing but successful Sid and Nancy (which at least brought Gary Oldman to the world's attention) and a fraying string of further efforts. He's slated to helm a film for release this year entitled Repo Chick. Don't do it, Alex!

But come and see this one as it's a hoot.

(Neil La Bute USA 1997)
Two white collars travel to a marginal centre to set up a local branch of their unidentified business. They get to talking about career and women and one step at a time arrive at a vague plan to find a woman and destroy her. The woman they find is beautiful, accomplished and to round off the checklist for a perfect victim, disabled. She is deaf, assuring one of them at one point: I can't hear you when you lie.

This is interpersonal politics at its most frightening and sophisticated. Like the Restoration comedies it was inspired by, it examines what it would condemn to the extent of sometimes appearing to be indistinguishable from it. There is a one liner that shocks through its severe misogyny and sheer wit. This is a writer who understands that names can break bones far more efficiently than sticks and stones. Based on director Neil La Bute's own stage play, this film made for about $10.50 in the late '90s, never feels stagey. Aaron Eckhart reported that a woman approached him after an early screening and told him that she hated him. He corrected her, saying, "No, you hate my character, Chad." "No," replied the woman, "I hate you."

La Bute was softened by success in Hollywood, however modest it was, and reached a career nadir with a pointless remake of The Wicker Man. He's since returned to writing for the stage. Perhaps he'll find his way back with something like this. We can only hope.

(Jaromil Jires, Czechoslovakia, 1971)
Stills or extracts from this film make it look like an extra stylish euro-pudding gothfest but it isn't. Valerie is entering puberty and it's scary: there's blood, confusion, pain and the attention of males, particularly the members of the very creepy clergy, all mix in to make the time pass strangely and dangerously.

Instead of using the by then worn devices of cinema verite to illustrate such a kitchen sink subject, Jires instead started with Valerie's emotional state, took it literally and provided cinema with one of the most surreal representations of the rites of passage. Daywalking vampires are variously extended family members or preach from the pulpit and other monstrosities mix with achingly beautiful imagery. This film is told in emotional rather than narrative sense despite some recognisable conventions of narrative cinema perceptible throughout. This is a celebration conducted by its own rules as much as were Alice in Wonderland or Maldoror.

Screening dates as they become known to me. More to follow, over....

Friday, January 1, 2010

2010 Core Program

Oh my God! The Lumiere and other cinemas have closed, leaving only the megaplexes that screen nothing but the same few films under ever changing titles. Our only hope is to plant the surviving seeds and see if they take.

Dvds projected on to a white wall in a gallery rich with the paintings of Milos Manojlovic who will serve anything from a cappucino to a shiraz or scotch at decent prices and a word or two of worldliness. Stay for opinions, music and imbibing after the film. Go on, dare ya!

Oh my God 2! For anyone who revealed their poor maths in previous programs and thought they were dominated by horror, this and the next half of the core program contains none, not one horror movie. Now, satisfied?

NO? You still want a weekly screening of strange and unavailable film? Click here and see.

Still NO? Alright how about an occasional series of films from the lightless margins o' the mainstream called Lost Valhallas! This won't start until it's ready to but confirmed titles include Smile (first film shown by the Melbourne Valhalla), Liquid Sky (punk sci-fi and addiciton morality), Repo Man (the first slacker comedy? add sci-fi), In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute's first and still strongest feature film might have been his last good one), Harold and Maude (available locally but still unseen by people who should see it) and so on...

Not satisfied YET? I am open to suggestion for titles to screen including those missed last year (The Beguiled and Little Murders sparked a lot of interest by those who missed out on it) or encore performances of others (Spirit of the Beehive had a lot o' post screening buzz). These will be a lot fewer in number as time will be more limited this year. But lemme know...

ABC Gallery 127 Campbell St Collingwood (See map at end of post or follow link to Google Maps with street view picture of the Gallery)
Melway Ref. 2C G8

Last Friday of every month.

January 29th 8.00 pm
MY WINNIPEG(Guy Maddin, Canada 2008)

Guy Maddin takes his perception-warping mix of silent cinema look and contemporary mores from fable to memoir as he recounts the story of the region of his birth and upbringing.

Maddin finds the look and feel of silent cinema not just irresistible but a personal compulsion. Whereas any other filmmaker using this look might be considered gimmicky, Maddin lives in the world of Murnau, Lang and Buster Keaton and doesn't care who has a problem with it. That said, his films are resolutely contemporary, containing no nostalgia beyond the very surface.

So, when we come to My Winnipeg a history and intensely personal memoir of Maddin's birthplace, are we really still free of dreamy recollection? You betcha. The longing for some of the subjects in this film and the yearning for the departed world are but brief inaudible sighs compared to the omnipresent spectre of his mother and her thorny domination of the family. Maddin even sees the mother in an aerial view of the landscape of the province. She is inescapable. Even as the weary traveller endlessly trying to leave town on a train heads out towards the real world, he fears he can never really leave.

From the cheeky mismemories of local tv shows to stunning set pieces like the field of frozen horses, Maddin serves up a real feast that reminds his viewers of the hazards of nostalgia but also invites us all to remember our lives with a sense of justice as well as whimsy.

Screens with TBA.

February 26th 8.00 pm
(Lina Wertmuller, Italy 1976)

This tale of Pasqualino, a small town spiv, trying to marry his dowdy sisters off might have rested in Fellini territory and stayed there keeping everyone happy. The sharp turn into the war and the nightmare he is enveloped by finds him in a cruel realm where life and death form a choice for the amusement of the guards. Can he use his charm and talents as a lover to survive Hell? The answer might surprise you.

Lina Wertmuller's tale of missed opportunities and the importance of an examined life carries all the colour and grotesquerie of a lavish Italian film from the 70s (see also Fellini's Roma and Salon Kitty) but adds the grimness of the back stage view of the German occupation of Italy and finally a quietly powerful sobriety at the conclusion.

This screening was scheduled last year but the screening was bumped. There was a swell of interest from the regulars about seeing this one and disappointed at missing it. So here it is.

Screens with TBA

March 26th 8.00pm

(Martin Scorsese, USA 1969)

Scorsese's first feature offers a blueprint for the best of his later work from Mean Streets to Goodfellas. Harvey Keitel is J.R. a young gun in New York's Little Italy who is drawn out of his cultural cul de sac when he meets a WASP girl while waiting for the Staten Island ferry. J.R. is transcendent! Things go pretty well and it looks like he's headed out of the dead end. Then, when The Girl (that's what she's called in the credits) shares a difficult truth about a date rape in her past, J.R.'s Catholic macho mores freeze him into an uncontrollable disgust. Scorsese's courage here has to do with telling this story during the rise of the Love Generation where such morality was considered passe. The assertion that the statements of a few high profile hippies were no match for the reality on the streets was an unusual step (especially for someone who helped bring Woodstock to the big screens of the world!).

People only familiar with Harvey Keitel as the urbane leonine cool father figure that his 90s career ressurection depicted him (Bad Lieutenant aside) might even be shocked to see how beautiful he was in his twenties. Those good looks come with a ton of gravitas beyond his years.

And all the Marty goodness is here, film quotes, contemporary pop music, fetishistic Catholic imagery, Little Italy writ LARGE, realistic overlapping dialogue, machismo shown critically. The influence of the Nouvelle Vague looms large here but crosses over to later Scorsese pretty clearly (J.R.'s heart visibly races when The Girl reveals her mutual love of John Ford Movies!)

If you haven't seen it you need to. If you have you need to see it again, if only to recall Gangs of New York with shaking head and ask: Marty, what the hell went wrong?

Screens with TBA

April 30th 7.30 pm
(Kyoshi Kurosawa, Japan 2003)

Maturity, youth and jellyfish are on the table in this story about the generations to come in contemporary Japan.

Two friends serve time in a clock watching job at a laundry that washes towels for restaurants. One of them, Mamoru has a pet jellyfish that at first just looks beautiful and scary in its tank. He has big plans for it, as it happens. But then something goes wrong. His friend, Nimura, already holding in a tide of undirected rage commits an atrocity. Mamoru who has unsuccessfully attempted to guide Nimura in the harnessing and uses of rage steps in to save his friend. It is a very dire salvation but as events develop, Mamoru's legacy is fulfilled and the bigger picture of his plan is revealed.

An extraordinary modern fable from the always (or mostly) extraordinary K. Kurosawa (Cure and Seance both shown at Shadows previously) and one rendered far more accessible than any of his other non-horror outings (eg Charisma). Kurosawa has said that this story contains no irony and is a straight-up vision of the state of things in Japan but I'd trust that assertion as far as I could throw a sumo wrestler.

Screens with TBA.

May 28th 7.30 pm
(Michael Sarne, USA 1970)

The most fascinating trainwreck outside of Ishtar, Myra Breckinridge is the film adaptation of Gore Vidal's smirking look at Hollywood in Decay at the end of the 60s. Man about Swinging London, Michael Sarne was imported by Twentieth Century Fox to inject the kind of psychedelic pizazz into the story whose title character held all hippy culture in icy contempt. A kind of mashup effect is achieved through the rhythmic use of clips from vintage Hollywood cut into the main narrative, even taking part in the dialogue here and there. There really are some good, sharp ideas here but at the time they were heavily overshadowed by the casting choices.

John Huston, rugged and craggy veteran director and action man, was chosen to play Buck Loner, rugged and craggy veteran western star and head of a film school. A reanimated Mae West as a sassy and monstrously libidinous talent agent. Queen Bimbo Supreme Raquel Welch in the title role and Queen Bitch of the New York Observer movie review Rex Reed as her alter ego, Myron.

It was commonly joked that Reed's inclusion in the cast was insurance against bad reviews. But then his performance is fine, having real screen presence and natural youthful beauty. Mae West refused to appear on screen with Raquel Welch or even work in the set on the same day. She wasn't threatened. Welch, better known in the loincloth of A Million Years B.C. or in the cat suit of Fantastic Voyage, here delivers both intelligence and bitchiness in a role that offers opportunity for some payback for an industry that trivialised her (to say nothing of a million dollar costume change for every scene). Huston fits his character but he pushes himself to a respectable self-parody. Mae West ... Mae West was not informed by anyone that she hadn't been a sultry siren for some decades. To her credit, though, her big number at the film's heart includes what might be the first rap song (but maybe she was just rekindling memories of seeing Cab Calloway at the Cotton Club for real). Aficionados of 70s and 80s prime time tv might be tickled pink to see young and natural incarnations of Farrah Fawcett and Tom Selleck.

As to the plot? After all that you still care about the plot? Ok, Myra B. goes to Hollywood to take up a position teaching at her deceased husband's uncle's acting school with the intention of destroying the new Hollywood from within, having first failed to secure her inferitance. She is taken with a shiny young couple among her students and picks them for grooming as her chief weapons in a dream factory that has become more Hugh Hefner than Howard Hawks. Weird hilarity ensues.

So why does this film work? Who said it did? This is a film that is best viewed as a record of a dream recounted by someone sky high on acid when he was told it. That said, the ending does provide a kind of logic to the proceedings. But the thrill is in the ride. Roll up! Roll on up!

Screens with TBA.
Raquel Welch talks to Dick Cavett at the time of the movie's release while janis Joplin looks on.

June 25th 7.30 pm
(Bela Tarr, Hungary 2000)

Leonard Maltin once ingeniously described Night of the Living Dead as a cinema verite record of a nightmare. I'll steal the thought and describe Bela Tarr's epic as the cinema verite record of a middle European folk tale.

Valushka, innocent lad about the village who can get a barroom full of belicose drunks to perform a ballet that explains what happens during a solar eclipse is still unschooled in the ways of men. He is a kind of gopher to his uncle, aunt and various authority figures of the village (even the local postman get him to deliver some mail) and while he likes his life well enough is pursued by a restless curiosity about the universe he inhabits.

The sun and the moon and the stars generally have to do to provide him with questions to answer, the village life itself offers little more than drunkenness and shiftless boredom. Then one night his path is literally crossed by the longest lorry he has ever seen. It parks in the village square and contains a wonder, a taxidermised blue whale.

Valushka is speechless at the sight of it (his eye off with the great mammals big dead peeper is a modern classic scene) but then, lingering in the darkness of the truck he overhears the lesser trumpeted attraction, a circus freak known as the Prince whose tirade against reason and order is strident and terrifying. Emerging from the darkness of the exhibit, Valushka learns that this ranter is the real attraction, a messianic figure whose rumoured advent has drawn the men of the village to surround the lorry in the square in a single angering mass.

Is this a fable about the end of religion, the decline of Soviet domination of the Hungarian homeland and its subsequent fatherless status? Maybe, but it doesn't have to be. Tarr's mesmerising style (using long takes to involve rather than alienate the viewer) takes us into Valushka's world, we easily share his worries and sorrow at the world he finds he lives in. This is great storytelling that doesn't have to go a mile a minute nor have an edit every thirty milliseconds to draw you in. One of my favourite films of the noughties, if not THE favourite.

Screens with TBA.

Trailer (French subtitles but that's the only one on Youtube)

Gallery Location