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Thursday, 23 February 2017

A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies - A book review and some memoir

Author Dennis Bartok does an intro at the
2016 TCM Classic Film Festival
In the introduction to the book A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies by Dennis Bartok and Jeff Joseph* it describes the book as "a sort of mad Irish wake for an underground sub-culture of often paranoid, secretive, eccentric, obsessive and definitely mad film collectors and dealers, who made movies their own private religion." The book, it says, is about "the often strange, and strangely compelling, lives of film collectors and dealers, many of whom are dealing with their own issues of ageing and morality as they approach or reach retirement." Well, that writes its own review.

Twenty chapters follow containing interviews and memories of the cinephiles, and the rogues, believed to be no more than 4,500 at its most prolific period, who collected, sold, traded, stole and otherwise acquired movies, mostly out of love and affection. Some famous names get dealt with or mentioned - Leonard Maltin, Roddy McDowall, Rock Hudson, Bill Everson, Billy Wilder, Joe Dante and more. It's a great read and I'm grateful to Simon Taaffe of Badger Books, Sydney's greatest but most secret source of fine second hand books on every subject, for passing a copy to me.

Roddy McDowall
Serious collector and the subject of some 
severe action
by the LA wallopers
Which brings me to tell you the story of one Jim Ness, a Melburnian whose passions for the movies, similar to many of those mentioned in the book, knew no bounds. I think, indeed in the light of what I'm going to say, I hope, he's long gone from this planet.

Some time in 1969 word was suddenly spread that at an appointed time in the next week there would be a screening of Flash Gordon, a by then legendary 13 part serial, made in 1936, starring Buster Crabbe in the title role and running about four hours all up. Sightings of this movie were unknown for decades and by the appointed time a small group maybe thirty or forty people had assembled in the then drab and run down foyer of the Astor Cinema.  Time dragged on well past the scheduled starting time and nobody had been admitted to the auditorium. Then there were some loud voices in the foyer and it turned out that, like Houston, we had a problem. The print was a nitrate copy and the man in charge of it, (I wouldn't know if he 'owned' it) would not allow it to be screened unless he personally attended the projection in the bio box. The projectionist objected to this insult to his professionalism and a standoff occurred. The argument continued for half an hour or so. Both parties were adamant. Meanwhile some of the punters in the foyer continued to be excited. Not having ever seen the film I had nothing to go on but others were thrilled at the prospect. "I don't know how I'm going to cope seeing Dr Zarkov again!" was one memorable bit of overhead conversation. In addition, the faithful looked forward to the re-appearance of Flash, Zarkov and the other characters of yore - Ming the Merciless, Princess Aura, King Kala and the rest.

The upshot of the discussion was that the screening venue was shifted. The remaining crowd, down to about a couple of dozen but still including myself, Michael Campi, Alan Finney and the legendary Colin Bennett, jumped into the available cars and headed for a Toorak mansion. There we were ushered into a screening room theatre/with red velvet seats for a couple of dozen, a curtained screen and a fully appointed 35mm dual projector bio-box. Eventually the screening got under way and at the end a lot of those attending stood around talking. It was way past midnight.

The man pulling all the strings for the crowd turned out to be a small guy in his mid-forties named Jim Ness. Engaging him in conversation revealed him as somewhat coy about just what else he had. However by the end of the evening somehow or other he agreed to put on another show. This would be his own unique collation of mostly musical numbers from films, focussing on items presented on stage. Jim had some theory about this. When we re-assembled a few weeks later we were presented with an evening of sequences from movies which took place on stages and theatres. Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and on and on, culminating with the "Born in a Trunk" sequence from Cukor's A Star is Born. How that number could actually be fitted into any known stage in the world was of secondary performance. Throughout the presentation Jim's voice boomed out via a microphone in the bio-box making announcements and advancing his theory that the cinema's greatest moments occurred when it recorded musical (and other) items on representations of the stage and the theatre. It takes all kinds.

I was most impressed when Jim included the famous comedy routine with Phil Silvers from the film Top Banana wherein Silvers and an accomplice try and climb a ladder while a strange little man wanders in, grabs hold of Silvers hand and won't let go no matter how much shaking, prising loose and uncoupling is attempted. It is, I kid you not, one of the greatest pieces of slapstick you will ever see and if you don't believe me you can find it on YouTube here. Don't hesitate to tell me if you agree. When I asked him about Top Banana  Jim went defensive.  "Who says I have a copy of Top Banana?". "Well you just showed a sequence from it." "Aaah." End of discussion, and it took me years before I saw Top Banana again.

That was the end of my personal contact with Jim Ness but stories about him and his unique methods of collecting abounded. One of the best concerned Jim's readiness to be of the assistance to the organisers of film weekends, small festivals and other nostalgic events. Jim would be on hand offering to take the film back to the exchange the next day, always the worst part of the organiser's life. Often that would mean that the opportunity was then taken to add to his collection of musical numbers and other elements. For hardcore collectors a certain ruthlessness had to be employed to get the desired product into one's hands.

It seems, as the book says, the collector days whereby people brazenly swiped everything from new  70mm prints to the odd 16mm reel, are all but over. The advent of the DVD and then Blu-ray brought out the collector's instinct in millions more people and the trade was legitimised and monetised by the studios. Win win. The days of derring do roguery, outright theft and misfeasance are just about over though not before one famous collector managed to inadvertently be the cause of putting O J Simpson into the slammer for what will probably be the rest of his life.

Much of it is recorded in Bartok and Joseph's beaut book. A great read and a necessary recording of a minor but very droll bit of the history of the movies.

*University Press of Mississipppi Link here

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

On Blu-ray - Adrian Martin welcomes the return of Philip Brophy's BODY MELT (Australia, 1993)

Body Melt Then and Now

Adrian Martin

Body Melt, December 2016 Blu-ray cover (details below)
It must be strange for filmmakers to experience all the hopes, expectations and agonies that accompany the making and release of any movie that, in its day, ‘does not perform’ at the box office, and then slips into an awful, twilight oblivion … only to then find that same movie, 20 or 30 years later (that is, if they are still lucky enough to be alive), recycled or even restored as some kind of ‘cult classic’.

I’m not sure if Philip Brophy’s Body Melt (1993) yet constitutes a cult classic, but it should. I vividly recall (as a friend of the director and many others involved in its production) all the thought and energy that went into its making, and the tremendous vibe at the Melbourne Film Festival premiere. I remember being on a Radio National panel discussion that same month, declaring Body Melt to be (as was subsequently quoted in publicity) “the best Australian film of the year!” – and being scoffed at by a few rather conventional industry-types on that panel (no names). And I can still see the expression on Philip’s face when he told me, some time down the track, that – various international sales and screenings aside – the film just seemed to vanish after that MIFF premiere, especially within Australia itself.

Maybe 1993 wasn’t the right time for Body Melt, which I happen to enjoy as much now as I did 24 years ago. But how can anybody ever know what the right time is, or will be? What the most propitious cultural conditions are? As Philip himself might say: you make what you make, what you are compelled to produce and what you can manage to produce, and you put it out there. The rest is history.

So let’s talk history: then and now. Australian film culture is different – a little bit different – in 2017, compared to the early ‘90s. Today there is some muscle behind the campaign to make genre films – especially horror films – in this country. After all, there are worldwide (albeit unexpected) successes to prove the case, like Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014). And there’s a tremendous groundswell of activity and goodwill associated with an event such as Tasmania’s wonderful Stranger With My Face festival, encouraging women to take up the fantasy-horror-thriller genres with a righteous vengeance.

Body Melt
This pro-genre campaign, in fact, started a long way back: in the 1980s, at least, as I remember it. Philip Brophy was one of the first voices in the pack, long before the miserable Melbourne Underground Film Festival with its proto-fascist bleatings, and intriguing one-offs that drew some attention like Sean Byrne’s The Loved Ones (2009). You only have to hear the enthusiastic support that Body Melt cast members including Vince Gil express for the project in the ‘making of’ bonus features from the time, included in Umbrella’s superb new Blu-ray release of the film: against Australia’s own dire ‘tradition of good-taste quality’, here was a movie connecting not only with the most vital trends elsewhere (the 1980s had been the great horror years of George Romero, David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Larry Cohen …), but also that suppressed Aussie tradition represented by the Mad Max films and many other culturally disreputable items – the tradition that (at least back then) seemed always to be gingerly erased from the official histories of our national cinema, or treated at arms length (if acknowledged at all) by mainstream, middlebrow critics of the Neil Jillett/Keith Connolly/Evan Williams ilk. These actors on the Blu-ray say it well, and not just because they feel they are obliged to: Body Melt will be a rude but necessary shock, the start of a new era in Australian cinema, a confrontation with all kinds of taboos reigning over subject-matter and film style …

Body Melt
Some things change, and some things don’t; or, at least, some things take far longer to change. When I think back today about the fact – the miracle, almost – that Body Melt really happened in 1993 and made it at least to the MIFF screen (and, subsequently, to many VHS and DVD shelves around the globe), I imagine what it must have been like to ‘pitch’ this project, to justify and explain it, to funding bodies such as Film Victoria and the then-named Australian Film Commission. In fact, we don’t need to imagine it: the Umbrella Blu-ray contains many priceless preparatory documents of this sort, raking over the budget (which is, of course, a tiny fraction of what Scorsese gets to spend on a ‘small’ project like Silence), the screenplay structure, the casting … (This type of ‘extra’ is a godsend to any serious student of Australian cinema.)

Philip Brophy (2014)
I had worked closely with Philip on projects such as the DIY publication Stuffing: Film: Genre (1987), and analytically pored over many of the same, inspiring film-texts (everything from Dario Argento’s Suspiria to the avant-garde fictions of Alain Robbe-Grillet) in classrooms and elsewhere, so I think I know what Body Melt is centrally about: it’s a film about “the body”, the human body in all its states, but particularly within the new world of the ‘90s – an age of designer drugs, burgeoning health-and-lifestyle TV formats, and queasily free-floating sexualities – and especially all that as refracted in pre-fab Australian outer-suburbia.

But let’s just stick, for the sake of our historical comparison, with the body. In the early 1990s, the statement “this film is about the human body” would not have made much sense to almost any bureaucrat in a government-funded film office. It still may not make much sense to them now. Funded projects usually glide along rollers that are greased with familiar, humanist, Manchester by the Sea-style formulations like: this is a film about adolescent coming-of-age; or the separation and reconciliation of a longstanding couple; or a family reunion at Christmas. Even today, movies like The Babadook, genre-trappings and all, are given this kind of reassuring, psychologistic gloss: it’s a film about a woman overcoming grief, facing her fears …

Philip Brophy’s sensibility – and I think this is true from the first manifesto I read of his from around 1977 – starts from a completely different baseline premise: on the one hand, there’s the rich materiality of a medium like music or film, its images and sounds, and all the sensations they can prompt in us; and, on the other hand, there’s the murky pool of real-life culture in which these objects swim – as well as the ideas we can grab to formulate how this culture works, where it’s come from and where it’s going. So, there’s a concrete side and an abstract side to Body Melt – but nothing in that realistic-plot-and-character middle-ground which mainly defines Australian film (and indeed, most ordinary films everywhere).

There are two separate audio commentary tracks on this edition of Body Melt. The first is a three-hander featuring Philip, Rod Bishop (co-writer/co-producer) and Daniel Scharf (co-producer); it offers a valuable recollection of the production process. The second commentary is Philip alone discussing matters of the soundtrack: its composition (for the music score), its construction (and technical reconstruction in 2016, no easy task given all the intervening changes in technology), and its mix. This track is packed with analytical insight into many kinds of filmmaking issues. Along the way, Philip makes clear his approach to characterisation as a matter of “ciphers and stereotypes”; he explains why he refuses to write conventional music ‘cues’, or to underline the scripted feelings in a scene (putting him at odds with all current, ersatz, industry wisdom about how music is supposed to “emotionally involve” you in character interactions and situations that are pretty darn obvious, anyhow); and he illuminates the process of his arriving, at last, at his preferred, initially envisaged mix, scraping away the typical ‘softening’ and conventionalising techniques in order to arrive at a “visceral, physical” experience of the senses for the spectator’s ears.

One label that Body Melt could not quite shake in 1993 – and probably, in truth, did not entirely wish to shake – is “trash”. As Philip explains in one of the making-of bonuses, if someone is not into horror cinema, and never watches it, then that cinema is liable to be always the same thing to them; and, most likely, they will assume it to be always, one-dimensionally disgusting, vulgar and trashy. Horror aficionados, on the other hand, know that the genre runs a wide gamut from sophistication to (non-pejoratively) trash. Body Melt absorbs many aspects from across this horror spectrum. It is at once a fine-grained, intellectual essay-film, and a gleefully childlike, sensational exploitation of every anti-social and anti-human thing a movie can imaginably show.

And I can’t think of too many other Australian films which could fit that description, then or now.

Editor's Note:
Umbrella have released a 4K Blu-ray restoration of Philip Brophy’s notorious Body Melt, a film described by Quentin Tarantino as “the best Australian film of the 1990s”.

The Blu-ray extras include two “making of” documentaries and interviews with Gerard Kennedy, Vince Gil, Ian Smith and Andrew Daddo. There are two full length commentary tracks - one with Brophy, Rod Bishop and Daniel Scharf discussing the production and the other with Brophy doing a forensic description of his soundtrack construction. There’s also a complete storyboard, a stills and props gallery and more. The Blu-ray is limited to 2000 copies and is available at JB HiFi for $24.98.

Check back for re-publication of Philip’s essay My Dreadful Failure as an Australian Filmmaker. It will be posted shortly.

Body Melt , earlier DVD cover

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (7) - Encounters with Alfred Hitchcock - Six - Two late masterpieces made at Universal-International

The Birds
Having gone thus far with Psycho, Hitchcock’s next film The Birds (1963) represents an even greater attack on audience/spectator complacency. A film whose special effects are executed on a breathtaking scale in the scenes where the birds attack, it is in the end an apocalyptic masterpiece. The disruptions to the flow of narrative and center of audience identification is carried a step further in The Birds where the stability of the characters’ known world is engulfed by a natural disaster (act of God?) through progressively intensive and baffling bird attacks.

Each of the film’s leading characters is confronted with moral/personal dilemmas coinciding with these attacks. Hitchcock invests the visual device of the fade-out with an almost moral beauty at several key points in the narrative which leave each of the characters grappling on the horns of these dilemmas. These interior struggles, externalized and expressively underlined through the device of the bird attacks, are impressively realized by ensemble playing of a very high quality. Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette and particularly Jessica Tandy all create faultless, finely shaded characterizations. Tandy is one of the most impressive of a long line of dominating mother figures in Hitchcock’s work. Hedren’s debut is astonishingly committed.  Quite aside from the physical rigours and dangers of subjecting herself to dealing with the preternatural bird attacks, the sequence in the attic being terrifying enough for the audience observing her ordeal, Hedren brings just as much intensity to her beautifully realized conflicts with the human characters as well, especially in her scenes with the formidable Tandy.

Finally note that The Birds contains one of the most stunning images in any Hitchcock film, the justly celebrated high-angle bird’s-eye view of Bodega Bay township, a concentrated picture of a world falling apart.

Marnie (1964) was the last great Hitchcock work. I hated it initially and went along with those short-sighted critics who excoriated it for its so-called naivety both on a formal level (the oneiric back-projection, old-fashioned sets mingling with location work, direct use of red filters to signify an emotional block, reminiscent as it is of the patterns that trigger Gregory Peck’s disturbed responses in Spellbound (1945), and of course the use of zoom lenses for melodramatic emphases). On a script level, its psychological explanations hadn’t progressed very far from the kind of simplistic explanations characterizing 40s movies like Hitch’s own Spellbound and Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (1948).

Based on the fetish idea that a man is obsessed by the desire to go to bed with a thief, the film now appears to this viewer far more unsettling than is suggested by its detractors. Indeed, from this historical perspective it looks better with every viewing. The formal elements of Marnie are not na├»ve but consciously and sophisticatedly thought out; the back-projection, for example is another of Hitchcock’s subjective techniques instrumental in portraying the dream-like atmosphere surrounding Marnie herself and establish her dislocation and distance from the real world. The use of filters and zooms further express Marnie’s subjective responses to reality. They also signal to the spectator the complex moral dilemma of a victim turned victimizer. Tippi Hedren is again perfectly cast in the role: her chillingly glacial expressions of alienation are central to the film’s impact. Sean Connery joins James Stewart as one of Hitchcock’s frighteningly unwavering obsessive males. Like Scotty in Vertigo (1958), he is determined to rescue and “recreate” Marnie whom he employs, is robbed by and finally marries. Even her frigid responses on the honeymoon are no deterrent to this man who is determined to solve the mystery of Marnie or go down in the attempt.

This is one of the most visceral of Hitchcock experiences with its lush romantic Herrmann score, its slick (sometimes a little too slick) soap operatic screenplay, and its highly emotive set-pieces: “Just wait until you’ve been victimized”, an irate Martin Gabel utters just as Marnie enters the house, white as death, having just had to destroy her beloved horse Forio. Indeed, Marnie’s victimization is very moving at all levels. Outside of Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt (1942), I think it’s the most perfectly realized and sympathetic role written for a woman in a Hitchcock film. Right up to the final confrontation with Marnie’s mother and what is revealed in the flashback it triggers, Marnie is a wholly engrossing and morally complex work that rewards multiple viewings.

Hitchcock's personal appearance in The Birds