Where Evil Dwells: superficially slight and crude slasher flick packs a heavyweight wallop

David Wojnarowicz and Tommy Turner, “Where Evil Dwells” (1985)

Loosely based on an actual American court case in which 17 year old youth Ricky Kasso killed another teenage boy during an apparent Satanic ritual, this film is very unusual. There is a very loose and jerky narrative in which a ventriloquist’s dummy acquires a life of its own and either carries out its own murder projects or influences naive teenagers to gang up on lone innocents and rape or torture them in extreme ways. The film is silent save for a constant soundtrack of heavy rock / industrial music / screechy vocal babble (the end credits are accompanied by US singer Diamanda Galas’s distinctive glossolalic singing) that at times is deliberately sped up or slowed down to disorient viewers.

The hair-raising incidents don’t appear to have much in common other than that they’re performed by the same kids but Wojnarowicz and Turner might have had to compromise on the number of wannabe long-haired teenage serial nut-job actors and used some of the youngsters to perform different roles twice. The activities can be repugnant: in one scene, the kids throw a dead companion of theirs off the edge of a bridge onto traffic below them and in another, they are sitting around a camp-fire mutilating animals and beating up and killing a friend of theirs.

Watching the film the first time, I found the narrative jumpy but on second viewing, it started to make much more sense and I could see that beyond the violence and horror there is actually a moral message pointing to the hypocrisy of political, economic and cultural elites, the source of real evil, in our society who divide and rule the citizens and decree who is “evil” and who is not. There is a lot of jumpiness in the camera shots which viewers may not like. Editing looks adequate enough and one quite memorable section in the film’s first half (it can be seen on Youtube.com in two equal parts) is the juxtaposition of shots of a front-row rider’s viewpoint on a rollercoaster ride with shots of a man in a business suit with smoke and explosive flashes suggesting machine-gun fire coming out of his body. Throughout the film the rollercoaster sequences suggest rises and falls in people’s emotional states and scenes with a priest performing a ritual and a laughing business-man suggest that religion and the corporate world have a stake in encouraging and exploiting the youngsters in their debased behaviour.

Although less than half an hour long, the film does run out of puff in its second half, due perhaps to the relentless killing sprees in which the murderer or murderers have a particular taste in obtaining human eyeballs. There is satire in the film with Wojnarowicz perhaps taking the time to add private jokes: the ventriloquist’s dummy, exulting in the mayhem with his hammy raspy voice, is comic and sinister at once – he provides both relief from the violence and a commentary on it.  There’s a hilarious part where a slob in something that might be a Roman-toga outfit gorges himself on rich food and flings it around and this might say something about the corruption and wastefulness of Western political and cultural elites. This impression is reinforced by the Satanic mass sacrifice ritual that follows into which shots of a laughing cigar-smoking corporate type are inserted. If you can grasp the symbolism in “Where Evil Dwells”, then you’ll find this superficially crude-looking effort a worthwhile watch.

Rabbit’s Moon: two very different films in mood and themes in spite of superficial similarities

Kenneth Anger, “Rabbit’s Moon” (started 1950: long version 1972, short version 1979)

Based on a Japanese myth about a rabbit on the moon, this film comes in two versions: a longer 15-minute version released in 1972 with a soundtrack of love songs laid over the action and a short 6-minute version with just one song “It Came in the Night” by a group called A Raincoat playing twice. The short edited version is quite cute with the bouncy song but I prefer the longer version as the songs seem more appropriate to the story-line and their mood aligns readily with the emotions of the main character Pierrot. The film is done in shades of almost neon blue and purple-blue in the long version and in a narrower range of blues in the short version.

The story is fairly basic: Pierrot (Andre Soubéyran) is enraptured by the full moon and tries to capture it. A friend, Harlequin (Claude Revenant), tries to dissuade him by dancing, juggling and somersaulting and then by bringing over a delectable fairy, Columbina (Nadine Valence), onto the scene to distract the clown. At this point the two versions diverge: in the long version, Harlequin claims Columbina for himself and Pierrot resumes his quest, only to be thwarted violently; in the second version, Pierrot is shocked to discover the object of his desire has been mutilated. Both versions are completely without sound save for the music soundrrack.

As with his other films, there is a lot of symbolism especially in the long version in which mediaeval illustrations of the moon and an eye are inserted into the film as though to convey an esoteric message.  The characters possibly represent archetypes that demonstrate some aspect or aspects of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy, possibly a lesson in the use of magic to achieve certain goals. The use of blue filters puts the film into dreamland territory which suits the actors’ miming and lifts it into the experimental film realm for adults to watch without feeling they are watching a film for children. Characters are borrowed from Italian Commedia dell’arte and conform to that genre’s stock roles of master (Harlequin), servant (Pierrot) and lover (Columbina). The drama that plays out is stagey but very beautiful to watch.

The short version is a light-hearted piece with rapid action and the looping soundtrack and might be considered a family-friendly copy; the long version is darker in tone and message with Pierrot undergoing a major soul-changing transformation. Elements of horror and possibly sadomasochistic homoeroticism can be found in both films, particularly in the longer film where Harlequin assumes a demonic appearance at times. That the same material is used for two very different films in spite of their superficial similarities demonstrates Anger’s skill as a story-teller and educator of sorts as well as his technical abilities in telling a story visually.

Fireworks: an ambivalent and powerful celebration of sexual attraction, submission and sadomasochism

Kenneth Anger, “Fireworks” (1947)

Quite a remarkable debut film this is from a 17-year-old Kenneth Anger which is a coming-of-age piece recreating a dream he had: the film explores homosexual attraction, submission and sadomasochistic violence. A young man (Anger himself) wakes up from a dream about being saved by a sailor in a large room of objects: among other thing, several photographs of a sailor carrying an unconscious man who could be Anger’s character himself, a hand with its middle finger amputated, a clay figurine. He dresses and goes out into the night; at a bar, he picks up a sailor who struts and poses for the enthralled youngster. The sailor beats up our man who then goes back outside but is accosted by a group of sailors who strip him, gang-rape him and thrash him with chains. The scenes of violence are extreme and painful to watch but are skilfully done so that the viewer imagines the worst being done to Anger’s character, but not actually see any torture or punishment.

The 14-minute film appears to be ambivalent about celebrating gay sexuality: Anger’s character experiences liberation but it looks extremely degrading and you wonder how much suffering he undergoes is necessary. Sure, scenes at the end of the film suggest the youngster is fulfilled – the photographs can be disposed of, the hand is mended and the visual narrative hints at an important rite of passage being completed – but all the same, you feel the young man will keep going back for more of the same punishment. Still, the depiction of raw sexual attraction, willing submission, violence and pain leading to transformation and fulfillment is very powerful, even beautiful at times, especially as it’s coming from a very young film-maker. There is humour both bawdy and witty, particularly in scenes featuring the pouring of milk over the young man (hint, hint) and some fireworks being set off from an unusual launch-pad!

The piece looks conventional enough and Anger hadn’t yet learned how to layer images one over the other and edit shots to enhance the narrative and bring the film to a climax. Instead the orchestral music score, sounding very typical melodramatic Hollywood of the period (1940s), is put to work creating the appropriate moods, ratcheting up tension, bringing suspense and celebrating the protagonist’s sexual awakening. Though there are a couple of scenes where the joins in the musical soundtrack are awkward, overall the marriage of music to plot and mood is well done. Close-ups at critical points in the film, taking place during the rape and torture scene, bring out the protagonist’s pain and the brutality of sailors beating him with chains as he suffers without protest. There’s a little bit of a religious element here: the young man is Christ-like in his willingness to suffer and the pouring of milk over his body could be construed as a resurrection.

Even at this early stage of his career, Anger was demonstrating a unique vision and a style of filming quite unlike what his film-director contemporaries were making. Sound is completely unnecessary: the protagonist is never named and so he might be considered representative of all young sexual novices who must undergo necessary ordeals to become fully adult and sexually aware.

Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness: a fair documentary on car culture and its effects on American economy and society

David M Edwards, “Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness” (2008)

Stumbled across this very pertinent documentary on the consequences of Western societies’ dependence on cars as the dominant form of transport for most people on cities, life-styles, economies, public health and even government policies, in particular foreign policies. “Sprawling from Grace, Driven to Madness” was made at a time when Peak Oil warnings – the concern that global oil production would soon hit its maximum and thereafter decline as major oil fields in Saudi Arabia and Mexico were depleted – were attracting much attention and a significant part of the film revolves around the effects that long-term oil production decline and the depletion of other fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal will have on societies and government energy policies. Although the film was made mainly for an American audience, it has relevance for Australian audiences, most of whom live in cities and their sprawling suburbs along the south-eastern Australian coast, and people in other countries living in flat cities also spreading out far and wide from their urban cores so much so that the idea of commuters spending up to 2 or more hours in their cars travelling from home to work each day is common.

The film divides conveniently into two parts thanks to an off-screen Kate Bush warbling “Hello Earth” over a CGI animation of the planet right in the middle of the documentary: a really whimsical moment in an otherwise po-faced feature. The first half of the film concerns itself with the problems that over-reliance on the car poses for American people and the economy: having been touted by advertising as a symbol of freedom, independence, individuality, adventure and exploration, the car comes to enslave Americans in their mobility and life-styles. Commuting to the city for work and other reasons takes up ever greater amounts of time in people’s lives and exposes them to more air pollution which endangers their health. Traffic engineers trying to solve traffic jam problems by adding extra lanes or building more freeways quickly find that drivers adjust their behaviours to the technological fix with the result that there is more traffic on the roads and the old bottleneck problems return on a greater, more intense scale. There are economic costs as well: as the road infrastructure ages, the cost of maintaining roads and bridges in a time when US government debt levels are already high becomes a headache; but ignoring the problem and allowing roads and bridges to deteriorate will result in major disasters like bridge and road collapses that claim people’s lives. At the same time, growing middle classes in China and India desire to emulate the Western life-style which includes driving cars.

The dependence on cars and the depletion of once reliable oil fields such as al-Ghawar in Saudi Arabia and Canterell in Mexico start to influence US energy policy and foreign policy as well, with the result that the US is now intervening in (and interfering with) many areas around the world known to have large oil and gas fields: Libya, southern Sudan, the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Albania and western Africa come to mind. Many if not most people around the world suspect the real reason for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was due to greed for that country’s oil; ditto for Libya which has Africa’s largest oil-fields. (I rather think that the two countries not belonging to the Bank for International Settlements was the main reason they had to be punished.) So it could be said that over-reliance on cars for transport is literally killing other people in other lands.

The second half of the film emphasises how American society can be weaned away from oil with the use of renewable energy sources and rethinking the design of urban communities: the rethink might include mixing residential, commercial and industrial functions in the same neighbourhoods so that these areas can acquire their own distinctive and attractive characteristics; greater density in housing which itself will be mixed, catering for individuals and households in varied stages of their life-cycles; and privileging public transport above private forms of transport.

Structure is straightforward with a mix of 1950s advertisements, cityscape shots, excerpts from the movie “Mad Max” and interviews with city government officials, energy consultants and commentators such as James Kunstler who has written books on issues about suburbia and residential land use. The film is strong, determined and straight to the point early on but as it ploughs through its second half, momentum drains away and the documentary becomes a boring series of endless talking heads and pretty scenes of light rail and families enjoying leisure activities in public parks in cities that have adopted solutions approved of by the film-makers. The music in the film’s second half becomes ever more hopeful and uplifting to a point where it starts to grate on the ear.

Fixing cities so that they are less petrol-dependent sounds so easy according to “Sprawling from Grace …” but the truth is there are vested interests that may want to keep cities the way they are; developers and corporations may influence and/or bribe city government officials to ignore the public interest and favour the people lining politicians’ pockets. The film fails to consider the power corporations may have over city and suburban planning. Corporations may also block government efforts to develop alternative sources of energy in often ingenious ways: for example, they may buy up the alternative-energy competitors, strip them of their assets and use them as tax shelters; again, the film fails to mention that there could be problems in achieving a desired state where society relies on multiple sources of energy rather than just the one.

In all, this is not a bad documentary but it’s also not the really great, hard-hitting gutsy film it could have been.

 

Lucifer Rising: a heartfelt expression of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema philosophy

Kenneth Anger, “Lucifer Rising” (1981)

Begun some time in the 1960s but not fully completed until 1981, with the music soundtrack having to be revamped completely, Kenneth Anger’s “Lucifer Rising” is an eye-popping visual cornucopia of ancient Egyptian and Celtic Druidic mythological figures and ideas mixed with elements of the natural and the supernatural to detail a lesson about the cycle of birth, death and rebirth and the transformations that occur therein. The ultimate message is that all such myths and the forces of nature and beyond-nature are emanations of the power of Lucifer, in this film portrayed as an Angel of Light. The actual workings of the film’s plot, if such a thing exists, are a mystery to me, I who have very little knowledge of Aleister Crowley, that English occultist, astrologer and magician who founded the religious belief system known as Thelema. Even though for many years I was a Led Zeppelin fan and my favourite member of the band was Jimmy Page who was much impressed by Crowley’s life and works and even owned Crowley’s Boleskine House estate from the 1970s to 1991, Crowley’s philosophy largely passed me by; I frankly wasn’t interested in something that to me seemed a hodge-podge of bits and pieces of various unrelated religions bolted on and stuck together with nails and duct tape. Crowley was a rebel against many of the religious, moral and social restraints in early 20th century English society, a society still struggling under 19th century Victorian conservatism, and in some ways his life-style and the philosophy he practised and preached with its slogan “Do what Thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law” are phenomena that can still resonate with people tired of contemporary social, political and economic hypocrisies in a new century.  It has to be said also that Aleister Crowley worked for intelligence agencies, in his case specifically British intelligence units MI5 and MI6 and British naval intelligence – meeting future spy thriller writer Ian Fleming along the way – and possibly had ties with secret elites in the British and US governments who may have an interest in spreading Thelema philosophy with its notion of an elite ruling over the masses through Western mainstream popular culture media such as the music and film industries.

There is a vague narrative starting with spectacular volcanic eruptions leading into scenes of a priest and priestess in pharaonic garb welcoming the dawn of a new day. A woman (Marianne Faithfull) is killed by a young man (Chris Jagger, brother of the more famous Mick) and while he purifies himself of his act, the woman is reborn with bluish skin in a forest. Images of nature at its most beautiful, savage or repellent are inserted into the story structure in which rituals are performed, UFOs start to appear and the way is prepared for the arrival of Lucifer on Earth. The style of filming matches the narrative: fairly relaxed at first with several static images, steady tracking or panning of the camera and slow edits. The camera pauses over postcard scenes of Stonehenge and Egyptian pyramids and sphinxes. Any layering of two or more images is done very sparingly and close-ups of nature scenes emphasise colour or texture. As the film progresses, the scenes get shorter and the editing speeds up in anticipation of the great event. Somehow the appearance of spaceships doesn’t seem all that incongruous in a film that whacks together Egyptian and Druidic myths and symbols regardless of whether the two belief systems have anything in common.

Faithfull and Jagger do fine as non-actors in a film that doesn’t demand much of them or of the other actors who appear. One of them is Bobby Beausoleil who also wrote the music for “Lucifer Rising” and an outstanding work this is, perhaps the best part of the film overall, when I consider that while composing the music he was in jail for his role in the murders of Sharon Tate and four other persons in 1968 by various people under the influence of Charles Manson. The music is a psychedelic orchestral opus with layers of organ, synthesised brass and electric guitars, the last of which become more obvious in the last half of the film; it’s a rich tapestry of shimmering sounds that suits the film’s subject matter. I have heard the original music soundtrack that Jimmy Page, who also briefly appears in the film, composed while I watched an early 20-minute version of “Lucifer Rising”: the music is a dull droning affair devoid of guitar so Anger was right to reject it.

The film might be loopy to most people but it does have an inner logic and power. It might not be totally serious and there are scenes of high camp but overall “Lucifer Rising” is heartfelt and passionate about the Thelemic philosophy it illustrates.

Din of Celestial Birds: exploration of evolution and development of consciousness in short film

Edmund Elias Merhige, “Din of Celestial Birds” (2006)

Astonishing little film – it’s just 10 minutes long – about evolution and the development of consciousness, “Din of Celestial Birds” is the second episode of a trilogy of experimental films that began with “Begotten”; like the first film, “Din …” is black and white with a grainy look that helps make objects blurry or downright fuzzy. There is no dialogue so viewers who know nothing of this film are best advised to find some information about it (Wikipedia can help in this respect) to understand its plot. There is musical accompaniment so the whole piece can be viewed as an extended music film clip separate from the trilogy if viewers so desire.

I do wish Merhige had made it as a colour film; he could have kept the grainy aged quality and it would still look esoteric and underground. The film could have started off black-and-white and acquired colour progressively with red being added first, then yellow and other colours as Merhige wished. It might even have ended up looking like something Kenneth Anger made in his younger days and forgotten about. As it is, the constant riot of imagery coming at you from the middle of the screen, like the opening credits of 1970s-era Doctor Who episodes (only more bleached out and psychedelic) with the wailing electronic music, or certain spiralling screensavers that you can download from various websites, is wonderful though not very confronting. The images are controlled enough that a definite narrative is obvious: continents and oceans appear, life blooms in a suspiciously bilaterally symmetrical way that appears to replicate human female genitalia, and multi-cellular organisms in their spectacular variety and complexity colonise the planet. Time passes qucikly and finally the Son of Light (Stephen Charles Barry) is born and becomes conscious of his separate existence from Nature. Whether the Son of Light rejoices in his separate and individual consciousness or not is something viewers will have to decide for themselves.

The music is rather a let-down and doesn’t do the visuals justice: it’s highly rhythmic and is mostly dark ambient / near-industrial in style with a fair amount of reverb to give it a cavernous tone. Ghostly choir tones pass in and out and the ambience is quite dark and sinister. Towards the end the music becomes a near-angelic one-tone sound hymn. I would have preferred a sound sculpture piece with a bit of a sharp electronic edge from people like Maryanne Amacher or KTL (Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg) in parts, or even something noisy and melodic from Masami Akita / Merzbow. A few instructions from Merhige to incorporate musical highs and lows and some emotion here and there and I’m sure a good electronics / drone / noise music act would have delivered an appropriate soundtrack.

Still “Din of Celestial Birds” is worthwhile watching at least until the third film in the trilogy is released. I hope some time in the future Merhige revisits the film and decides to make something more substantial out of it with a soundtrack that suits the theme and the visuals.

Begotten: film explores Christian and pagan myths of fertility in cycle of birth, death and rebirth

Edmund Elias Merhige, “Begotten” (1989)

A remarkable student film that explores Christian and pre-Christian creation / fertility / life cycle myths, “Begotten” was inspired by a near-death experience director E Elias Merhige had after a car accident at the age of nineteen. For a 72-minute film, “Begotten” has a straightforward plot: a suffering god, alone in a derelict building, sacrifices himself and from his remains emerges an earth goddess who impregnates herself with his semen. She gives birth to a son and abandons him. He is soon found by ragged nomads: the son dispenses largesse to them and they gladly take it. They torture and burn him and leave him for dead. The mother returns for the son and starts taking him away but the nomads return and overpower them both.

With regard to plot, the film is very slow and often repetitive and viewers must decide for themselves what the motives of the nomads might be. Why would they want to kill something that helps them, does them no harm and even offers no resistance when they beat it? Logic and rationality would have no place here. It’s only at the very end of the film that everything that’s gone before starts to make sense. Death is required for the cycle of life to renew itself. This lesson must be learned again and again and so perhaps that’s why the film labours over the initial suicide scene, the birth of the son and a later scene of sexual violation. The film is deeply immersive and viewers who are prepared to take the mickey when it comes to plot and character development will find themselves transported to another realm altogether, especially if watching the film late at night.

The outstanding feature of “Begotten” is its cinematography and look of the film. For a moment early on I thought this might be similar to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film “Vampyr” in look (Dreyer used bleached film-stock to achieve a bright and unnatural psychedelic effect). Merhige’s treatment of the film to produce something that looks so aged as to resemble an archaeological artefact breathtakingly original: he photographed his work on 16-mm B&W reversal film and then rephotographed it frame by frame on B&W negatives through density filters (Phil Hall, “Begotten Not Forgotten” http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.12/streetcred.html?pg=14). The flickering twilight result has mysterious two-dimensional shadows and much shadow play, looks incredibly abstract in style and partakes of a strong sinister Expressionist poetry in its scenes of full-moon night-sky and needle-like birch trees.

In addition to the deliberately aged look of the film-stock, Merhige uses slow-motion tracking and movements in several scenes to bring out the weird, unearthly aspects of the plot and the cast of characters. In some scenes, images may be layered over one another and animation might have been used. Scenes tend to look very staged with characters not usually facing one another and repetition and slow movements suggest a ritualistic aspect to sections of the plot. A mix of scenes filmed from far away and close-up with some tracking and panning of the camera is usual: the close-ups can be very in-yer-face – that early scene in which the goddess impregnates herself will sure blow away a lot of male viewers!

Dialogue is non-existent which also enhances the Expressionist tone of “Begotten”; instead what we get is an eerie soundtrack, reminiscent of a black metal / ambient / musique concrete soundscape, of night crickets, a tinny guitar rumble, grunting, found sounds and other ambient noises relevant to the scenes against which they appear. The lack of dialogue helps to turn its main characters into symbols or stereotypes and makes the film representative of various creation myths that revolve around gods giving of or being forced to give up their material being for the benefit of humankind: I think of how Aztec gods had to sacrifice their blood to get the sun going across the sky, of Osiris being cut up by Set and being put back together again by his wife Isis, and of Lemminkainen’s mother having to drag her son’s dismembered body from a river and singing him back to life in the Finnish epic “Kalevala”. In Greek mythology, Gaia castrates Uranus to allow their children room on Earth; later, one of these children, Kronos, swallows his children to avoid being usurped by one of them but the youngest child, Zeus, escapes Kronos’s appetite and ends up overthrowing his father anyway. Zeus himself swallows his first wife Metis to thwart a prophecy about Metis’s first-born child overthrowing Zeus if it were a boy. Needless to say, the first-born turned out to be a girl.

Pain, suffering and death occurring over and over yet the life-force continually resurrecting and reasserting itself is a major theme: no matter how depressing “Begotten” gets, no matter how dreadful the violence or ghoulish and unthinking the ragged nomads are, there’s always hope of new life, a new beginning, at the end. Perhaps it’s this aspect of the film that gives it its unique flavour and force. Film lovers must see “Begotten” at least once for its intense vision, beauty and imagination.

 

 

Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria: an ingenious look at how a country’s history is made, remade and reinterpreted

David Blair, “Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria” (2010)

After finishing “WAX or the Discovery of Television among the Bees”, director David Blair set about picking up some of the themes of that film to work into a new project which was originally tentatively titled “Jews in Space” and which would trace the wanderings of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel to Japan. “Finding the Telepathic Cinema of Manchuria” forms a bridge between “WAX …” and “The Lost Tribes”, the latter of which also forms a major theme of the short. Half-documentary / half-drama, “Finding …” traces the journey of an unseen narrator from Austria and Berlin to Shinkyo aka Hsinking in the Japanese territory of Manchuria some time during the 1930s or early 1940s, to find a famous telepathic cinema. There the narrator finds that a lost movie “The Lost Tribes” was made there to be screened and experienced telepathically. In case viewers don’t quite get the point, the narrator goes into some detail about how the human brain will process the information received while its owner views and experiences the lost movie (should it ever be found) with its unique sights and sounds. The narrator is eventually informed by his gracious hosts that he has come to fulfill his destiny to create the finest and most important of the telepathic films – “The Lost Tribes” itself!

Mixing live action, computer-generated and traditional animation forms and archival footage, this is quite a convincing and witty film that calls into question accepted notions of what is historical truth and where fact ends and conjecture and rumour begin. Contrary to what people are usually taught at school, history is revealed as never fixed or static but instead is constantly re-evaluated and reconstructed by each succeeding generation of people. New questions are asked, new connections made or discovered and a new aspect of the history of and knowledge about a territory comes into being to embellish the current narrative of the subject.

The film is calm in tone and Blair’s voice is measured and detached without sounding soporific throughout. In most scenes small groups of silent frog people (created by frog people who in turn were created by movie-talkers) dance in individual or group formations in odd places around the screen. The pace travels at a steady-to-fast clip. Cleverly put together with sharp edits that jump from one piece of footage to a cartoon-style animation piece to visual computer-based graphics, the film looks completely authentic with many cartoons styled in ways popular in the ’30s – ’40s period. Some delicately beautiful layered juxtapositions of exotic Manchu writing over diagrams and illustrations catch the viewer’s eye. The music soundtrack is a whimsical mix of popular Chinese and Western tunes of the same period played on traditional Chinese stringed instruments. Another whimsical feature is the way the title credits are put together: capital letters fall slowly into their correct order as little frog people skip and cavort in circular group dances. Strange white tapeworm things rotate on the screen and the viewer meets two strange groups of triplets, the all-male Toyoshis and the all-female Amepures.

Not so ambitious or complicated as “WAX …”, this is a neat little breather that should keep keen viewers occupied long enough (but please, Mr Blair, not too long!) until “The Lost Tribes” is released.

(The film can be found at the Waxweb site http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/wax/.)

Zoetrope: Kafka short story inspires a film about how science, industry, bureaucracy and politics oppress a victim

Charlie Deaux, “Zoetrope” (1999)

Based on my favourite Franz Kafka short story “In the Penal Colony”, this is a stunning-looking short piece about a man’s last hours in prison. The title refers to a toy that first appears out of smoke and which could actually be the spaceship in which the plot proceeds; after the first few minutes in which we are introduced to the unnamed protagonist (Michael Bradley), we catch glimpses of the zoetrope’s monstrous outlines popping in and out of the rest of the short. Our man is held in a prison for reasons unknown; we learn he has suffered incarceration for a long time, is clearly deranged as a result and continues to suffer humiliation and torture from his jailers of whom the main one (Nigel Bonfield) taunts him with portentous mumbo-jumbo philosophy. The chief jailer counts down slowly to the prisoner’s final punishment: the question is whether the prisoner will willingly submit to his torturers or try to escape once and for all.

The acting ranges from minimal to slightly campy as Bradley either paces his cell madly and desperately or freezes in periodic cataleptic trances and as Bonfield prowls his stage around a tattooing machine, all the while purring his threats. The film’s technical chops are its highlight: filmed in sharp B&W film-stock, it has a definite steampunk style with images of a watch’s internal operations regularly flashing up on screen. Live action and animation are blended together to give a strong sense of the victim’s desperation and fear. Editing ranges from slow to super-fast and in-between these extremes; after the halfway point, the editing becomes frenetic and lovely if minimal images flash up and down repeatedly while your mind struggles to register their presence. Hundreds of clear objects zip past your eyes until your orbs hurt but unfortunately blinking is no option, else you’ll miss a lot of very beautiful and poetic imagery.

The film’s look is crisp and the art direction and cinematography are done well. Although the victim is naked, his nudity is shown tastefully with judicious use of contrasting light and shadow. The haunting and sparse atmospheric industrial-style music, created by Brian Williams of the British one-man dark ambient band Lustmord, suits the film’s oppressive style and theme perfectly.

It’s clear that science, politics, red tape and industry have combined to destroy Bradley’s man with no pangs of conscience; that’s ultimately its horrible premise. Bradley is left with no chance of escape from a ground-level Hell. Once the shocking climax has spent itself, Bonfield turns his attention onto another prospective death-row victim. Perhaps this is the real horror of “Zoetrope”: the prisoner’s dilemma turns out to be one of many such tortures Bonfield’s jailer visits on various similar victims as he chooses. What kind of monstrous society could have given birth to such an institution in which prisoners on death row for no good reason are selected at random to be tortured and driven relentlessly to madness and existential pain before dying?

As for the “In the Penal Colony” inspiration, it’s used very sparingly though chillingly. I must admit to not feeling altogether happy about the way it was used; I did feel “Zoetrope”, good as it is, could have been even better if it had drawn on more of the themes of the original short story and its perverted black humour. I am surprised not many film-makers have taken up this short story as an inspiration for a film. As of this time of writing I had heard that a young Iranian director Narges Kalhor, the daughter of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s political advisor, had made a film based on the story and I am keen to see it if and when it becomes available.

Zoo: film teeters gingerly around its subject and suffers for that

Robinson Devor, “Zoo” (2007)

Based on the case of a Boeing employee who died from a perforated colon while being anally penetrated by a horse in Enumclaw, a town in rural Washington state, “Zoo” (the term is short for zoophilia, the sexual love of animals) is a brave attempt to address a highly controversial and polarising issue in a dispassionate way that neither condemns nor sympathises with the people involved in bestiality. The film recreates the events leading up to the man’s death and its aftermath in a way that’s part documentary / part drama with re-enactments of scenes and emphasising a soft, dream-like mood with delicately muted, wafting music. Director Devor uses four narrators, talking to an unseen listener, to retell the events from the point of view of the people who knew the man, referred to in the film as “Mr Hands”, and this approach thrusts (um) the viewer right into the twilight world of zoophiles: how they found each other through Internet contacts, how they organised their tryst and their reactions when the man was injured and when their secret activites became known to the outside world.

The film has the air of a noir mystery: the majority of scenes are filmed in shadow, at night or in dark colours with blue being predominant. The story unfolds slowly and elliptically and anyone who is unaware in advance as to what the film is about may be puzzled at the indirect way “Zoo” tiptoes around the subject until near half-way when a news report drops its headline in deadpan style. The pace is very steady, perhaps too steady and slow, and the film often dwells on several still camera shots which look deliberately staged as if for static display purposes. Close-ups and landscapes often look very abstract with washes of blue across a background; an orchard looks like a misty fairyland beneath a light coating of rain. The mood is even and quite blank until a scene in which police investigators viewing a DVD recording appears; the police react with horror and shock watching the act of buggery and only then do viewers feel something creepy crawl up their spines.

For all its delicacy, “Zoo” gives the impression of something much bigger than its subject matter struggling to make itself seen and heard: the zoophiles give the impression of wanting companionship, a sense of belonging, a need to share something special that gives meaning to their lives, and thinking they have found it. They seek a utopia in which everyone is equal and no-one is judged by how much money s/he earns or how educated s/he is. The places in rural Washington where many of them live look impoverished and some zoophiles may well be drifters or marginalised people barely managing to make a living and survive. (Difficult to tell as many scenes are recreations of actual events with actors playing the zoophiles.) If the film had directly addressed the need of the zoophiles for meaning, for companionship, it might have been able to gain more co-operation from the people involved; as it is, the level of co-operation it got is very restricted. The dead man’s family refused to be interviewed for the film which is a pity as the wife and child might have presented him as more well-rounded than he appears in “Zoo”.

The film also suffers from subjectivity and could have done with a more objective view of its subject. Interviews with psychologists and psychiatrists on zoophilia and perhaps other conditions such as lycanthropy (identifying oneself as an animal rather than as a human) might have shed light on why some people are sexually attracted to animals and to some kinds of animals in particular. The goals of the project would still be met: the issue would not be sensationalised and viewers might come away with a greater understanding of zoophilia and other bizarre philias. Instead the film can only concentrate on the horse-trainer, Jenny Edwards, who took charge of the horses after the incident became public: she admits that after having followed the case in its detail and ordering a horse gelded (gee, why punish the horse for that? – it’s reminiscent of what people did in mediaeval times, when animals involved in bestiality were put on trial and given the same sentence as the perpetators), that she’s “on the edge” of understanding the zoophiles’ obsession. It appears also that the director and film-crew were as much in the dark as Edwards was while making the film; even after its completion, the film-makers still were scratching their heads trying to make sense of what they’d done. Not a good portent for a film.

Yes, zoophilia is a difficult subject to talk about, let alone film, without making it look disgusting, degraded or ridiculous and pathetic. “Zoo” tries hard not to take one side or the other but with a subject like this, the attempt to be “balanced” is a tough act indeed to pull off. Some viewers will be irate that the film advocates no position at all, as if it’s the film-makers’ duty to tell them what they must believe. I think though that to achieve the “balance” that “Zoo” strives for, the film-makers should have pulled back from their subjects and taken a more generalised view of the issue of zoophilia; the police officers, the courts, psychologists and medical staff who dealt with the dead man and his friends should have been consulted for their opinions about zoophilia.

Until Daniel Radcliffe (the Harry Potter star) agrees to make a film version of “Equus” – he has already done the stage play – “Zoo” remains the only film to seriously tackle a difficult subject minefield.