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Monday, 15 January 2018

Streaming on YouTube - Rod Bishop discovers the doco CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER (Doug Nichol, USA, 2016)

In California Typewriter the musician John Mayer, probably too young for the analogue world, tells us how he exchanged his computer for a typewriter after seeing Don’t Look Back (1967). He was amazed as Bob Dylan played the typewriter keys like a musical instrument, before pulling out his typed page and scratching over and rewriting the lyrics.

The other day, my Foxtel box was fried by lightning in a Sydney thunderstorm. The techie who came to replace it would love California Typewriter. Originally from Hyderabad (“home of VVS Laxman!!”), he believes computer software has already taken over his life.

He showed me his tablet and demonstrated how a software program defines his day – the length of time scheduled for each job, the length of travel time between jobs, the wait-time for available software to ‘handshake’ and get the boxes started again, and the ‘live’ indicators that effectively rank his performance as he moves through the day. “I just drive, open boxes and connect leads. It does the rest of the thinking”.

Tom Hanks and his typewriter collection, California Typewriter
Tom Hanks owns 250 typewriters. Sam Shepard owns one – “When you use a typewriter, you have to feed it paper. There’s a percussion about it. You can see the ink flying onto the surface of the paper. But that puts you in a very different relationship to the modern world.”

The Boston Typewriter Orchestra has plenty of typewriters, but their Pete Townsend-style smash-up of the machines at the end of their set means they have problems replacing the now unmanufactured ‘instruments’. Undeterred, they are currently working on a version of heavy metal band Slayer’s Raining Blood.

"sculptures of people and animals from
discarded typewriter parts", California Typewriter
Artist Jeremy Mayer, inspired by multiple viewings of Metropolis (1927), constructs sculptures of people and animals from discarded typewriter parts. And the Permillion family who still run their California Typewriter repair shop in Berkeley are transiting to the internet to widen their customer base, ironically using the technology that has destroyed their business to save it.

All of them, and many others who appear in Doug Nichols’ charming documentary, would agree with my Hyderabad techie. Digital software is ruining our lives, eliminating tactile sensations from our word-to-paper creativity and losing that all-important trail of mistakes, new thoughts, cross-outs and corrections. How will historians in the future know the steps a Churchill might have taken before his final Darkest Hour oratory? Spell-check and grammar correction are your enemy.

And you can’t play Slayer on a computer keyboard.

You can find California Typewriter on YouTube if you click here
California Typewriter

Sunday, 14 January 2018

The Ten Best First Films (8) - Cinephile, Filmnews Editor and Life Member of the Sydney Film Festival Tina Kaufman meticulously searches the memory and the record

This has not only been a challenge, it's been a bit of a blow to my film knowledge, as I found when checking the filmography of directors I wanted to put on my list, that many had made one or two (or even more) films before the first one I saw, the film I had thought was their first.  So that ruled out Hou Hsiao-hsien, Kelly Reichardt, Edward Yang, Hong Sang Soo, Wes Anderson, Abbas Kiarostami, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Guy Maddin, Stanley Kwan, Jon Jost and Apitchatpong Weerasthekul.  And I would love to have  included Andzrej Wajda, but I remember seeing Kanal, A Generation, and Ashes and Diamonds all round about the same time, I'm not sure in what order.  I really wanted to put A Walk Through H, the shortish and amazing Peter Greenaway film we had at the Co-op (God knows how), but it's not his first anything.

Of the ones already listed by others, I'd especially like to add my agreement for Rebels of the Neon God, Badlands, Fists in the Pocket, Lola, Yellow Earth, Yesterday Girl, A Question of Silence, The Clockmaker of St Paul, and the wonderful Maborosi.  And Paul Harris has reminded me of how much I loved The Strange One.

Bill Hunter, Gary Foley, Backroads
I would have included the first features of Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton, except that I wasn't surprised by how good they were; having seen and loved their short films, I was expecting great things.   Having friends who were making short films back in the sixties and seventies, and then editing Filmnews for nearly twenty years, I saw the development of so many people, from their early short films on, so I  terrific first features like Phil Noyce's Backroads, Ken Cameron's Out of It, or Margot Nash's Vacant Possession, among others, came as no surprise.  At that time, too, I saw many of the early films by women filmmakers including Chantal Akerman, Agnes Varda, Margarethe von Trotta - but it was the accumulation of all that work that stunned me, and I can't remember in what order I saw their films.

BeDevil (1993) - Tracey Moffat's first feature, a stunningly beautiful, exhilarating and compelling trio of ghost stories, that shouldn't have surprised me so much, because I'd seen and loved her first short Nice Coloured Girls (and as editor of Filmnews was delighted by the most professional and beautiful production stills she supplied) and her next and longer short, Night Cries, but it still packed a powerful punch.   While her work is more in photography and video installations, she has a great cinematic eye.

As Tears Go By
As Tears Go By (1988)   I'd discovered Hong Kong cinema (well, been introduced to it by Adrienne McKibbins), and had started haunting the Chinatown cinemas, seeing lots of John Woo and Tsui Hark, and Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau flying through the air.  Then suddenly there they were together in Wong Kar Wai's quiet, subtle little gangster movie, dark but touching and personal, and quite different from most of the HK films I was seeing.

Chocolat (1988) Claire Denis' seemingly romantic and nostalgic remembering of a childhood in Africa  in which those memories are gradually undercut by a sense of loss and even betrayal was only a gentle hint of what was to come in her uncompromising and really diverse films.

Gates of Heaven (1978) In his first feature documentary Errol Morris looked at pet cemeteries in Southern California, and at first it's funny and quirky and even bizarre, but then it becomes sad and complicated and really moving.

Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980) Was this the first film where a group of friends just sit around and talk for most of the movie? In John Sayles' first feature (after writing scripts for Roger Corman) he reunites former student radicals for a summer get-together, reminiscing about their action-filled past while dealing with the pleasures and problems of adult life.  And it was funny, and touching, mad the first in a string of really interesting and diverse films from Sayles (who I met several times and interviewed).  

Near Dark
Near Dark (1987) Kathryn Bigelow's first solo film, a cowboy vampire road movie, and especially one that was so scary, seductive, and surprisingly romantic, was an absolute treat, especially with all its beautiful night-time shooting.  

Sherman's March (1986) Ross McElwee set off to trace General Sherman's triumphant campaign through the southern states of the USA after the Civil War, but got sidetracked, often by women, but also by a bewildering array of idiosyncratic characters; it's an enchanting, idiosyncratic filmic journey which the filmmaker subtitled "a meditation on the possibility of romantic love in the South during an era of nuclear weapons proliferation" - a perfect description.  This was the first of series of McElwhee's  lovely rambling documentaries to screen at SFF, and I loved them all.
Blood Simple (1984) This dark, nightmarish modern noirish tale of betrayal and double cross was a wonderful introduction to the work of the brothers Coen.  Made on a tiny budget, but somehow all the better for it, it was a subtle redefinition of a classic genre.

Cronos (1983). Having just seen The Shape of Water, I came out wondering whether the first Guillermo del Toro film that I'd seen was his first feature - and it was. This dark twisted, creepy fairytale about alchemy and immortality and a mysterious golden scarab beetle, absolutely intrigued me, and his films have continued to do so. 

Eagle vs Shark (2007) Taika Waititi's eccentric, charming, and very odd sort of romantic comedy about two self-absorbed characters was above all really funny - and it introduced the group that would go on to give us Flight of the Choncords and What We Do in the Shadows, and of course much more from this director. 

Jean-Pierre Mocky, Anouk Aimee, La Tete Contre les Murs
(I'm squeezing one more in as a not quite proper addition because of how I saw it.)

Heads Against the Wall (1959) Georges Franju's dark and claustrophobic tale of the horrors of post-war psychiatric institutional care was made even more murky and dark by turning up at the SFF without subtitles.  David Stratton gave everyone who stayed for the screening as careful an introduction to the film as he could, and I found it mesmerizing, if very mysterious.  He screened a subtitled version several years later and I was pleased to find the film as good as I had thought on that first strange and memorable viewing, although rather different to how I had first perceived it.  I had, of course, seen Eyes Without a Face in between.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Current Cinema - Supercinephile Barrie Pattison uncovers two new Jackie Chan movies playing the multiplexes

Well he’s done it again, after a thirty-year interval Jackie Chan had two films running simultaneously in down town Sydney again. Forget Tom Hanks. Chan’s the man.

I don’t know that I’d endorse Namiya (Jie Han, China, 2017) for any other reason than Jackie’s presence. He doesn’t appear till the piece is half over and they are playing with the audience having his entrance filmed from the back doing his old man act but the Chan body language is still immediately recognisable.

There’s a weird kind of plot where young hoodlums break into the rich woman’s flat, loot the place and, leaving her tied up and face painted, escape in her car. They then shelter in a deserted grocery store in an area they don’t know and find that the place is bewitched or haunted or caught in a time loop or something. Messages left in the milk delivery box twenty years back start falling through the mail shoot.

Turns out that the place was once run by elderly Jackie who doubled as agony uncle providing answers to life questions people left there.

This gets us into three flashback stories which prove to be related. Characters from one are glimpsed in the others and the letter writers are all connected to the House of Rainbows Orphanage. One is an aspirant musician whose now famous song and tragic fate the kids know. One is an artist obsessed with vindicated Michael Jackson (!) He progresses from daubing murals on the orphanage wall to prestige exhibitions and one is a bar hostess uncertain as to whether she should trust the customer who has taken an interest in her. Finally, the kids write an answer to her letter themselves.
None of this is particularly convincing or involving but it is mounted with Barbie Tung’s best production values including some elaborate digital composites - the one of the character bicycling past the Mao portrait in Tiananmen square is particularly striking. There’s a giant pop concert, a fire, a car crash and a few musical numbers. One transition as the light changes on the travelling shot of the shop facade to show time lapse is ambitious.  Throw in beautiful people and OK character bits.

The original Keigo Higashino novel apparently has a following in Japan where it was originally set and filmed. I can only speculate on the connection to Hyun-seung Lee’s Korean Siworae/Il Mare re-made by Alejandro Agresti with Sandra Bullock as The Lake House, all using this same letters across time format.

If you’re not a Jackie Chan completist or you’re someone who misses out on all the local references, with which the piece appears to be liberally studded, this one is at best a curiosity.

More interesting while still less than essential viewing is Bleeding Steel written and directed by  Leo Zhang/Lijia Zhang (2012’s cop movie Gei ye shou xian hua/Chrysanthemum to the Beast ). It kicks off with officer Jackie having to choose between rushing to the side of his leukaemia-victim daughter and his orders to join the squad giving Witness Protection to scientist Kym Gyngell from Callan Mulvey's phantom cyborg who is using the shiny black body armour  guys to blow up cop cars when not operating his digital space ship. They do manage to stage a few bits of action where our senior citizen hero can actually look as if he’s participating.

Well ten years later, the daughter has grown up to be Nana Ouyang who has only blurred flashbacks of her dad while she studies in Sydney where an unscrupulous author Damien Garvey (the Jack Irish films) has bought copies of her therapy sessions to use in his best seller book being plugged on TV by a giggly underclad blonde presenter Anna Cheney (McLeod’s Daughters) - a fine cross section of Australia’s own on display here.  His idea of fun is the transvestite in the scarlet stockings that it’s the security guy’s turn to feel up. Guess what? This one is not what she seems.

Enter menacing Tess Haubrich and shiny suit goons for some more biffo which puts Jackie on the roof of the Opera House for a spectacular but could be longer routine. Comedian romantic interest Sho Lo (Mermaid)  hoves into view with a speed boat.

Turns out that now teenage Ou-Yang is the living embodiment of Gyngell’s research, prized by Mulvey in spooky make up but protected anonymously by Jackie (one of those familiar obstacle routines of his great years). His decorative cop partner Erica Xia-Hou gets into the action showing some nice moves.

Jackie Chan atop the Sydney Opera House, Bleeding Streel
To perk this one up, it has the novelty of being filmed in Sydney, making it the third of Jackie’s Australian ventures. Glimpses of Sydney Town Hall, Sydney University, familiar street corners and the Opera House jostle studio constructions. The fluoro-coloured graffiti vice quarter slum where Ou-Yang repeatedly kicks the black mugger in the nuts is going to baffle anyone who is getting used to familiar sights.

What plays like dialogue balloons translated into sub-titles adds to the effect of the manga imagery making this a kind of weird entertainment. I’ve seen worse.