Allegro Non Troppo: a suite of animation shorts of breath-taking imagination and originality, and much food for thought

Bruno Bozzetto, “Allegro Non Troppo” (1976)

A spoof of and tribute to Walt Disney’s famous “Fantasia” film, “Allegro Non Troppo” is noteworthy mainly for its six animation shorts set to short works of famous composers in Western formal compositional music linked by a live-action narrative of slapstick comedy. The black-and-white live-action sequences are insincere, painful to watch and utterly forgettable; they feature dull and dated comedy skits that mock the elderly female characters in them and viewers can dispense with these interludes. The animation sequences range from surreal and playful to almost realistic and painful, with plenty of room for director Bozzetto to give his views on human evolution, the nature of love and the effects of materialism, conformity, capitalism and industrialisation on human societies and possibly the future of humanity itself.

Of the various animated sketches, the best ones are those attached to Jean Sibelius’ “Val Triste”, in which an aged cat lingering about a ruined mansion remembers the comfortable life he had in the building; to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird”, in which a snake fails to persuade Adam and Eve to taste the forbidden fruit it offers and as punishment must experience all the ills of capitalist society; and to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”, detailing the evolution of life from primitive one-cell origins to the triumph of humanity. The animation is highly imaginative and inspired, frequently bizarre and mind-blowing, and always colourful. Each sketch has its own style of animation and colouring. The music is not bad though the choice of pieces might leave something to be desired as not all the music is equally good and the animated pieces, taking their cues from the music, are also uneven.

The Sibelius sequence is very moving and tragic: the cat tries to remember the humans who cared for it, and the warmth of the mansion in its former glory – but memory eventually fades and the cat also fades with it. Finally what remains of the mansion is destroyed by a wrecking ball. The Vivaldi piece (featuring “Concerto in C major for 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, Strings and Continuo RV 559”) is light-hearted and bright in colour, yet sympathetic to the tiny bee inconvenienced by the two large humans romping and making love in her garden.

While the animation can be stunning, and some of the messages contained within individual segments invite thoughtful examination, the film as a whole is very uneven and the mockery in the live-action sequences is unnecessarily cruel and may appear alien and strange to contemporary audiences.

 

The Man Who Fell to Earth: a satire on US cut-throat capitalist society and how it alienates, controls and dehumanises people

Nicholas Roeg, “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976)

For a film with hardly much plot and maybe too much soft-core pornography, “The Man who Fell to Earth” manages to be an intriguing satire on American society and capitalism. An alien who has studied Earth through its radio-wave transmissions and whose planet is dying for lack of water farewells his family and travels millions of light-years to crash-land on Earth. Disguising himself as humanoid Thomas Jerome Newton, our alien (David Bowie) insinuates himself into US society as a wealthy if reclusive inventor, patenting original inventions that earn him and his company World Enterprises Corporation loads of moolah, some of which he uses to rebuild his spacecraft. In this project, he relies heavily on patent lawyer Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry) who becomes his business partner. In the meantime Thomas pines for his wife and children who appear to be the last survivors of their kind and are slowly dying in severe drought conditions, and tries to communicate with them by watching multiple TV channels; some of the TV programs mesh in their messages and through that connection he can send a message through the break in the space-time continuum to his wife and receive answers from her. His loneliness leads him to New Mexico where he meets Mary Lou (Candy Clark) who introduces him to alcohol and sex, and before long poor Newton is hopelessly hooked on trash TV culture, the demon drink and all the other sensual pleasures of the lowest common denominator in human culture.

Poor Mary Lou can’t provide much intellectual stimulation so Newton turns to Dr Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a former womanising college professor whom he employs as his technician on the space-ship. Bryce senses Newton’s alienness so he invites him to his home and secretly photographs him with a special X-ray camera. Bryce passes on his information to the US government whose agents arrest Newton at the very moment he is about to board the space-craft that will take him home. Newton is held captive in a luxury apartment deep within a hotel, supplied with drink and endless television, and subjected to rigorous medical tests and experiments that injure his body and fuse his disguise with his own features. As for the people he trusts, Farnsworth is defenestrated by government agents and Mary Lou and Bryce fall into a loveless marriage. Eventually Newton escapes from his prison but faces the rest of his life alone – his family back home having died – and is depressed and hopelessly drunk.

The film’s plot survives by being fractured with various subplots, most of which don’t amount to much. (The whole narrative only exists because of this cut-n-paste fragmentation, and through the fragmentation the film’s underlying themes, ironic in themselves because of what they are, appear. William S Burroughs would surely have approved.) All major characters in the film are lonely and unhappy in some way, and seek connection with others through unfulfilling romance or sex or some other equally unsatisfying substitute activity. Mary Lou yearns for Thomas in spite of his alien nature and Thomas yearns to be back with his family. Bryce wants recognition but never quite gets it: he is rewarded handsomely for his services to the nation (ha ha) but he feels some guilt over Newton’s incarceration and uncertain fate. The atomised society in which they live caters to and encourages their neediness but there is a price they have to pay: they must conform to its demands if they want connection, comfort or wealth. Thomas pays the heaviest price for his manipulation of US corporate culture and self-enrichment by being forced to conform to human physical norms and being made dependent on alcohol and television so he himself can be manipulated and controlled. At the end of his imprisonment, having been made over from alien to complete human (and presumably with all the secrets of his alien physiology fully harvested by the US government), he is abandoned as a lonely drunk, left to his own devices and not even told that he is “free”.

As all the characters are essentially alienated from one another, and all are groping in their own darkness in their own ways, they are basically flat and blank, and so the action can be as dull as dishwater especially in scenes where Bowie does not appear. Roeg makes this point about the blankness of these people quite literally in the scene in which Newton strips off his human form to Mary Lou and reveals himself as a literal tabula rasa. That this is the only really interesting thing about Newton or indeed about any of the people he meets demonstrates how far dehumanised they have become. Bowie alone delivers an excellent performance as an alienated individual with a fragile mind who in the process of becoming human, whether through disguise or under manipulation from others, ends up truly blank, fragmented in mind and literally trashed. (Although Bowie was grappling with a severe cocaine addiction at the time, he was able to lay off the white stuff during filming and he actually looks healthy enough and beautifully ethereal for a scrawny 28-year-old English kid in the scenes that really matter, nudge nudge.)

The film works on a number of different levels that Roeg might not have realised at the time he made it: it works as a metaphor for individual alienation in a cut-throat manipulative and atomised capitalist society interested only in its inhabitants for whatever qualities they have which can be mined for profit; it’s an exploration of the loss of connection among humans which they try to fill with sex, and unfulfilling sex at that; and it shows, however superficially, how capitalist culture exploits people’s desire for connection, meaning and purpose with trash products and cultural forms to which they become addicted and are easily controlled as a result.

In style the film seems to mimic the breakdown of a person’s mind and at its end it is very flat and bleak. Along the way though there are scenes of beauty, natural and expansive as well as surreal and bizarre, and viewers should enjoy the journey even if they don’t understand what it’s about or what the final destination may be.

The Man We Want to Hang: a subjective if not very experimental homage to Aleister Crowley

Kenneth Anger, “The Man We Want to Hang” (2002)

After over 20 years in which he made no films, the American cult underground film director Kenneth Anger released a visual homage to British occultist Aleister Crowley. The homage consists of a tour of drawings and paintings made by Crowley plus other artwork featuring Crowley, all of which were exhibited in The October Gallery in London in April 1998. Several if not most of these works came from British rock musician Jimmy Page’s private collection of art. In common with Anger’s other films, there is no spoken word soundtrack, only more or less continuous orchestral music by Anatol Liadov, and the film is short at just under 14 minutes.

Anger’s camera pans steadily over the paintings and for most of them he zooms in on a particular feature, such as a face, a group of figures, an erupting volcano or a scene within the painting that means something to him and which he wishes to share with the audience. The erupting volcano in one painting ties the whole film to earlier Anger works like “Fireworks” and calls attention to homoerotic themes that often flavour Anger’s films. Of course with the film being soundless, viewers might feel rather put upon having to view the paintings and drawings the way Anger does. There is not much scope for viewers wishing to see and interpret Crowley’s work for themselves. Crowley admittedly was untutored and his style of art is naif; he was rather better at landscape painting with lots of yellow shades than portraiture.

Seeing the paintings in close-up is intended to immerse the viewer in Crowley’s world, to see things the way he might have done (as interpreted by Anger). Though there are objects or figures in the paintings intended to reveal aspects of the Thelema religion that Crowley conceived and elaborated on, there are very few such things (like a group of devils) that appear sinister or malevolent to the adult viewers who see them.

It would have been good if Anger had given viewers some information about the paintings and why he chose to film some works and not others. What was the significance of the paintings for him, did they relate to something that occurred in his life, did they inspire him to do something special … these are questions some viewers may want to know. But it’s not Anger’s style to explain himself or the films he makes: whatever value the audience derives from his films depends very much on what viewers themselves bring to the film-watching experience. That the film is a very subjective one though comes across in one scene in which Crowley’s Law of Thelema, reduced to its first four words, suggests that Thelema is no more than a philosophy of self-interest and self-aggrandisement: the actual Law is “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law. Love is the law, love under will” and is intended to encourage people to discover their true purpose and will in life, free of manipulation and oppression by external actors such as conventional organised religion, governments and institutions working to maintain conformist societies in thrall to unseen and opaque agendas.

As an experimental film in Anger’s oeuvre, this visual montage makes no major demands on viewers and is the quietest and most accessible of the works of his that I’ve seen. The layering of images associated with Anger is reduced to an absolute minimum. He really does love the colour yellow too.

Oldboy: arthouse film trappings cannot disguise a flimsy plot, flat characters and an empty message

Chanwook Park, “Oldboy” (2003)

When I saw this film the first time over a decade ago, I was impressed with its style and colour and the way it was filmed but now that I’ve become familiar with Chanwook Park’s little bag of tracks, on second viewing  I can see all the surrealism and the artfulness can’t quite disguise the lame Swiss-cheese plot. Adapted from a Japanese manga, “Oldboy” follows the sufferings of one Daesu Oh (Minsik Choi) who one evening has one drink too many and ends up in police custody. He is freed only to be kidnapped by unseen assailants and he ends up imprisoned in a hotel apartment for 15 years. During this lengthy time, he learns from watching TV that his wife has been murdered, their daughter taken into foster care and he is the prime suspect in his wife’s killing. He passes the time learning to shadow box and writes copiously, plotting revenge on his kidnappers.

He is released unexpectedly and spends the rest of the film trying to pinpoint the place where he was imprisoned and who might have jailed him. He meets a young girl Mido (Hyejung Kang) who tries to help him with his investigations. Eventually a wealthy man Woojin Li (Jitae Yu) meets him and admits that he was the kidnapper; he then gives Daesu five days to find out why he, Daesu, was abducted and held for so long against his will. If Daesu succeeds within the 5-day period, Woojin will commit suicide, if not, Mido will be killed.

The second of Chanwook Park’s revenge trilogy – “Sympathy for Mr Vengeance” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” being the other films – “Oldboy” is a sly examination of revenge and how it can consume people so much so that after they’ve achieved their vengeance and forced others to suffer the pain they suffered, they discover there’s not only no purpose left for them in life but vengeance itself doesn’t bring the satisfaction and closure they thought it would provide. This is a theme of “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” as well.  Whereas the initial reason for the main character in that film to seek revenge was a school-teacher’s abuse and killing of children in his care, here in “Oldboy” the rationale that sets off the chain of actions seems trivial, at least to Western audiences.  You punish a man for fifteen years because he spied on you and your sister up to no good and he tells the entire class at school about you both, and your sister flings herself off the top of a bridge and drowns? You might at least be a little thankful you weren’t reported to the Department of Community Services. The film seems to say that some family secrets should be kept secret – one might raise an eyebrow at the ethics of covering up certain forbidden or illegal acts.

The climax and the denouement come as a surprise: on learning of his role in the sister’s suicide, Daesu becomes completely craven and suppliant towards Woojin; Woojin for his part finds Daesu’s self-abasement hilarious (as no doubt some viewers will) but the other man’s reaction does not satisfy Woojin’s desire for vengeance on the man who as a teenager did something childish and thoughtless. Woojin then has to cope with the consequences of pursuing an unsatisfying vengeance that still eats at him.

Surveillance is a theme threaded right through the film and its destructive effects on both the spied and their watchers are noted, usually very brutally. Daesu stops at nothing to get the information he needs that will lead him to Woojin while Woojin plays puppet-master and stays one step ahead of Daesu most of the time.

While the film is well-acted and Choi and Yu acquit themselves admirably in quite arduous and intense roles, their characters essentially remain flat, undeveloped and quite bestial in morality. There is something odd about Woojin and how his cosseted life-style seems to have made him asexual. His penthouse is absolutely spotless, antiseptic and sterile, hinting at the emotionless robot beneath the youthful leering face. Choi’s Daesu is a desperate man on the edge: he appears to repent of his earlier indulgent and hot-tempered ways during his incarceration but once free, he goes all-out to punish to the extreme the people he finds who contributed to his torment over the years. No mercy is shown to anyone or his (rarely her) teeth. The fact that very little character development takes place or supposedly takes place off-screen throws the weight of plausibility entirely on the insubstantial and hokey plot.

While Park undoubtedly has great technical ability and attracts good actors and crew to create a stunningly beautiful and artful movie, he is unable to overcome a brutal plot in which cartoonish characters basically compete to see who is the more lacking in insight, grace, understanding of the human condition and maturity. The film ultimately seems to say that humans are bad and brutal through and through, and no redemption or escape is possible. Daesu is forced to live with his punishment and self-abasement for the rest of his life: a chilling and despairing conclusion that reeks not a little of the too-clever manipulation, not on Woojin’s part, done to reach that finale.

 

 

A Tattooed Life: underrated yakuza character study expressing anti-nationalist nihilism

Seijun Suzuki, “A Tattooed Life / Irezumi Ichidai” (1965)

A surprisingly touching and quite emotional drama, told in a traditional way, this is an underrated yakuza film from Seijun Suzuki in which he explores honour and loyalty between two brothers. Hit man Tetsu and his much younger art-student brother Kenji are forced to go on the run when they are suddenly ambushed by rival killers and Kenji, trying to defend his big brother, kills an important yakuza. The two men try to catch a ship to Manchuria but a sleazy hustler fleeces them of their money and they go to work instead for a man, Yamashita, in charge of a construction company trying to build a tunnel. The brothers are accepted by the work crew but it’s not long until Kenji falls in love with Yamashita’s wife Masayo and Masayo’s teenaged kid sister Midori falls for Tetsu. At the same time, one of Yamashita’s employees, a not-very-nice piece of work, has the hots for Midori so there are a couple of very complicated love triangles here. Add to those linked romances the police and the yakuza linked to the man murdered by Kenji hot on the brothers’ trail and you’ve got one slowly yet steadily simmering revenge drama that erupts into a brief but highly intense bout of violence.

The bulk of the film is basically a character-driven straight narrative that establishes the context for the violence for which Suzuki pulls out all the stops for the precious four minutes that underline his reputation for stylish direction: the traditional Japanese house structure provides an unforgettable setting for the interplay of shadow and light, what is seen versus what remains hidden behind paper screens, the use of colour as a dramatic device in its own right, and even the unusual angles at which the camera is held to emphasise the visceral nature of the sword and gun fights. As the fight proceeds, the camera pans along to the left, zooms in on a character running away from the camera lens through a series of rooms, then shifts position to film from above and abruptly jumps to film characters from below! The actual fighting is unforgettable to watch as men slash at one another with swords; it looks precise and graceful thanks to the lighting Suzuki used and the minimal backgrounds in which one colour predominates among the shadows.

Apart from the film’s set piece, the rest of the narrative is not bad to watch: the brothers improbably build up a rapport with Yamashita’s work crew which includes plenty of oddball characters who, even after they learn of Tetsu’s yakuza background and of Kenji’s crush on Masayo, rally behind them both. The brothers have a close relationship which is often strained by Kenji’s impulsive actions and his deeply felt loss of their mother which translates into a desire for Masayo. Kenji’s thoughtlessness leads to tragedy and Tetsu’s reaction is one of the most moving I have ever seen a male actor perform. The brothers provide a strong counterpoint to each other in characterisation. The two sisters are also contrasted in character: Masayo accepts that her marriage is a loveless one and is resigned to living within the strictures of convention while the young Midori ardently declares her love for Tetsu, yakuza or no yakuza, and tries to run away with him in defiance of social convention.

The natural landscape settings are often beautiful and scenes of rolling beach waves appear to suggest something of the impermanence of life and love. There is a nihilism present in the film: Tetsu does what he does for his younger brother’s sake only for the younger, naive man to throw everything away; at the end of the film (spoiler alert), Tetsu leaves Midori for a bleak future and the young woman is inconsolable. What happens to the Yamashita couple is uncertain.

Suzuki expresses a distaste for authority figures and Japanese corporate values throughout the film – the police are no better than the yakuza, the yakuza spread their corruption into legitimate business and corporate loyalty is called into question when it’s directed towards unworthy individuals and causes – and its historical setting in the 1920s hints at Suzuki’s own cynicism about the Japanese government and its conduct in the decades leading up to Japan’s invasion of China and southeast Asia and its attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. The common people are hearty, honest, jovial and down-to-earth while their “betters” are suspicious and untrustworthy characters. The sleazy hustler, always wearing a white three-piece suit, turns out to be an ultra-nationalistic thug.

Perhaps “A Tattooed Life” is not quite as flamboyant or wacky as Suzuki’s later films but its plot is more highly developed and plausible than some of Suzuki’s later, better known works and deserves wider attention.

 

Tokyo Drifter: surreal pop-art gangster flick riffing on corporate loyalty and surviving in a corrupt world

Seijun Suzuki, “Tokyo Drifter / Tokyo nagaremono” (1966)

A tale of larger-than-life characters grappling with their consciences and their loyalty to their superiors and the life they have known since youth – even if it is a sordid life of gangland killings and unrelenting violence – against a background of surrealism and pop-art excess infused with improvised and experimental filming methods and techniques, all set off with a rebellious attitude: this is the quirky “Tokyo Drifter”. Employed as a hack director by Nikkatsu film studio which expected him to churn out formulaic flicks, Seijun Suzuki set out to snub his bosses by adopting a maximalist style of telling the story of young yakuza Tetsu determined to leave behind his life of beating up and killing people, shaking up bystanders for money and enforcing mob rule among the seedy night-clubs of Tokyo … only to find that his past keeps following him around like a mangy dog. Tetsu’s boss Kurata has just disbanded his gang and Tetsu decides to go straight. Rival boss Otsuka tries to recruit Tetsu but, failing that, sends a hitman after him to stop Tetsu from interfering with a building ownership scam that involves Kurata.

After one shoot-out, Kurata, desirous of benefiting from Otsuka’s scheme, sends Tetsu away and the young man travels by train to Sasebo in Kyushu, but not before Otsuka’s best sniper Viper Tatsu has tried to kill him. Tetsu arrives at a Wild-West saloon club owned by Kurata’s friend Umetani and quickly makes himself at home when a group of drunken sailors try to harass the singer there and mayhem breaks out. Viper Tatsu is killed and Tetsu is warned that Kurata is seeking to kill him. Another ex-gangster, Kenji, tries to befriend Tetsu, warning him that the life of a drifter can be very lonely indeed. Tetsu returns to Tokyo where he takes on Otsuka and his men in a final gun battle. So far Tetsu has led a very charmed life, escaping death in ways unexplained and most improbable, but will he survive the bullet-storm and will he renounce the life of a masterless ronin and claim night-club Chiharu as his bride?

The threadbare and inconsistent plot has more holes than the many rooms where Tetsu and his enemies waste never-ending rounds of bullets. Continuity is often awry and Tetsu himself is blessed with more lives than your average cattery has cats. Characters are one-dimensional stereotypes that parody corporate notions of hierarchy and loyalty in 1960s Japan, then on the ascendant as a country emerging from the ashes of World War II and vaulting its way into First World status with manufacturing ships, cars and other machinery, and claiming the Olympic Games in 1964. For all the service Tetsu has given to Kurata, he ultimately turns out to be a disposable retainer and it’s no wonder that he cuts himself off from all his old ties to the underworld to forge a new life.

The look of the film is stunning: Tokyo is a hyper-idealised city of bright lights and mean streets that promise the fulfillment of dreams but turn out to be cruelly capricious. Many are those who come with stars in their eyes and end up broken and disillusioned. The film sets burst with colour, youthful energy and bubbly zest: the scenes in the night-club, usually bright yellow and white save for those velvety black scenes near the climax just before Tetsu enters, when Otsuka is threatening Chiharu, resemble a beautiful dream-world. Indeed, every scene in the film, whether it takes place in a snowy countryside criss-crossed by railway lines, or on the streets at night, or in traditional wooden houses, seems to have a high-gloss sheen over it: outlines are crisp and clothes, no matter that their styles are 50 or so years old, always look fresh and youthful. Interior sets boast of having been fussed over by the film crew: one nightclub has several friezes of Roman artwork across its walls. Young women parade in bright Sixties fashions, their hair in bouffant style and often impossibly long. The men slouch about in bright suits with sharp tailoring and even Tetsu’s mortal enemy Otsuka looks suave and uber-cool in his bright red suit and black shades.

The music plays a significant role in the plot: Chiharu sings the theme song early on and parts of it are repeated throughout the film – Tetsu whistles it in the saloon scene and sings it while jumping from train to train on his journey to Sasebo. The swanky, sometimes acid-toned music helps to establish the film’s mood and its suggestion that in the modern Japan, the old ways are dying out, notions like loyalty and love count for nothing, and everyone has to reconcile himself or herself to the new culture with its obsession with surface gloss and shallow values. Being and looking cool and hip serve to mask over the alienation people might be feeling in the new Japanese society. The film draws inspiration from the Western genre, celebrated in the saloon fight scene where everyone is engaged in punch-ups, furniture is tossed about, a balcony collapses but no-one actually dies, not even characters shot in the back.

Avant-garde filming techniques are used to emphasise the urban environment – the film makes use of photographic stills to establish mood – and there is plenty of zooming backwards and forwards as the camera follows the action closely. Gunfights are choreographed and Suzuki pays a lot of attention to stylising the action. Artifice becomes a normal part of the film’s universe. The final scene takes inspiration from old German Expressionist films of the 1920s with its angular Gothic set and the shadows cast by the lights in the corridor. Colour is employed for shock and to help shape the film’s ambience and its insouciant attitude.

The film deliberate disregards conventions of genre, plot narrative, characterisation and style, adopting what it wants from different genres for visual effect and fun, and crafts from its eclectic selection a fun and engaging cartoon film noir classic.

 

The Adventure of a Good Citizen: a plea for tolerance, celebration of eccentricity and relating to the world in new ways

Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, “The Adventure of a Good Citizen / Przygoda czlowieka poczciwego” (1937)

Experimental film-making got off to an early start in Poland in 1930, the year that the writer-painter couple Franciszka and Stefan Themerson made the first of five short experimental films together before travelling to Paris in 1937 and settling there. “The Adventures of a Good Citizen” is the fifth of these films. There is a strange little narrative in the film: a man discovers that if he walks backwards, the sky won’t fall on him so he adopts his new backward-walking habit into his daily routine. A remarkable adventure results – he collides with two men carrying an empty wardrobe with a full-length mirror on the door and he ends up replacing one of the work-men. The two carry the wardrobe, walking backwards of course, into a forest. Some irate citizens protest at this act, fearing the new gait will become an unwelcome fashion trend, and follow the two men.

There’s a message about how changing one’s routine even in mundane ways can result in a completely new and different way of seeing the world and appreciating its beauty and joy. The centre-piece of the short film is in a series of nature shots for which animals were filmed through a translucent glass covered in paper: the effect is to create lively silhouettes of a squirrel and various birds flapping their wings. Some silhouettes are black against white backgrounds and others are white against dark or changeable backgrounds. The effect is often painterly and abstract. This photogram technique was developed by Stefan Themerson. There is also a general theme of reversal and mirror effect throughout the film as ways of enabling people to step outside their comfort zones, to think laterally and to see familiar things in a new light. Early shots of people walking in one direction, left to right, and their mirror images walking in the opposite direction, often in film negative, illustrate the theme.

The wardrobe and its mirror are distinctive characters in their own right: the wardrobe becomes a companion for the Good Citizen and a portal to another world, as the protesters discover when they pass through the door and see the Good Citizen literally flying high over them.

For its time, the film was highly inventive in plot, filming techniques and visuals. The music by Stefan Kieselowski does not sound very original or experimental to modern ears and can be very intrusive. There’s not much dialogue and what there was, was in Polish with no English sub-titles so a part of the film went over my head when I saw it. It’s worth seeing for the photograms that Themerson used to stunning effect to encourage people to take a renewed interest in familiar objects in nature. There is some animation used in the film as well.

A plea for tolerance of eccentricity, to question old and accepted ways and habits, and to renew and re-energise one’s relationship with the world as a result might well be the film’s ultimate message to viewers.

 

A Clockwork Orange: a political and social comedy satire relying too much on audiovisual shock tactics

Stanley Kubrick, “A Clockwork Orange” (2013)

Not a bad film but for what it is, “A Clockwork Orange” is fussy and relies too much on shock, bright colours and the juxtaposition of apparent high-brow symbols and low-brow brutality and violence to wow viewers. The main character Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is an out-of-control working-class teenager running wild in a near-future London where law and order have broken down. Leading a gang of three others, all of whom and he dress in the same outfits of bowler hats, walking sticks and bland suits, Alex fights other gangs, vandalises buildings, rapes women and breaks into the houses of rich people to trash the furniture and beat up those who get in their way. Alex’s friends eventually tire of his self-indulgence and lack of respect for them and they set him up to be captured by police. While in prison, he volunteers to undergo aversion therapy which leaves him completely broken, unable to defend himself or cope with life after he leaves prison. After a failed suicide attempt, the British government “acknowledges” that it has treated him badly and takes him back under its wing – to act as a tool of its surveillance of the general population.

Seen from the point of view of Alex himself who narrates the film’s proceedings in a neutral and emotionally drained voice, the film has an oddly remote style and so much of the real shock that Kubrick could have inflicted on audiences is blunted. Had audiences been forced to be complicit in Alex’s crimes, by hearing his descriptions of how he felt during his acts, the shock of the victims’ sufferings could have made a much greater impact on viewers. As it is though, viewers are more or less expected to feel pity for Alex once he has undergone aversion therapy and is victimised by the various people he has abused in the past, in a circular pattern common to Stanley Kubrick films.

McDowell puts in a great performance as Alex and the role may have typecast him as a villainous baby-faced anti-hero. Other actors play a constantly shifting parade of stereotypes around Alex; there is great political and social satire in the way these characters behave towards Alex. Alex’s former thug friends end up in the police force, people who express horror at the way prisoners are abused change their tune when they meet Alex and recognise him, and the government minister who approved Alex’s “rehabilitation” and carried it out enthusiastically later admits his error and then happily returns him to his brutal and thuggish ways in a way that insinuates the youngster will do so on behalf of the State.

The main worth of the film is that it presents a moral dilemma about social and cultural breakdown and the ways in which society deals with its consequences. None of the characters appearing in the film is at all attractive and all are mean-spirited and debased in some way. Even the intellectual writer who might be expected to show some compassion for Alex is revealed as vengeful and small-minded; ironically he ends up in the tender embrace of the British prison system which appears as an adulterated version of a World War II concentration camp. Several contradictory themes are presented: coercion and conditioning of people to make of them conformist and compliant versus allowing them to express free will and choice; the use of technical fixes to clear up problems in the short term but which create more problems in the long term; the role of violence in modern society as a tool of control and how the public views it (good when used to put away criminals, bad when inflicted on law-abiding or helpless individuals) and the issue of nature versus nurture in the making of Alex himself. Is Alex a product of the family that reared him or of the society in which he lives? Was he really born bad and should his moral compass, which inclines him towards violence and self-indulgence, be taken away from him?

For all the questions the film asks, there is nothing that questions the society itself and how it is that everybody in the world Alex lives in has ended up as selfish and self-absorbed robots in their differing ways. While the comedy template drives home the unsympathetic brutal anti-hero nature of Alex, it also has the effect of distancing audiences from the characters and action and I wonder if that was done mainly to get the film past the censors at the time than as a necessary vehicle to carry the plot and action.

 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a psychedelic slapstick comedy satire on American society and its values

Terry Gilliam, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998)

From that period of Johnny Depp’s acting career when the films he was making were actually quite significant and not a waste of his talent comes this road movie corker based on journalist Hunter S Thompson’s memoir of his car trip to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race. For the role of Thompson in his alter ego Raoul Duke, Depp had to shave the top part of his head: not the usual thing for self-obsessed actors to do. Accompanied by Benicio del Toro playing Thompson’s gun-crazy attorney, Depp takes viewers on a roller-coaster ride to Vegas at the dawn of the 1970s, after Woodstock and Altamont. Directed by Terry Gilliam, the film simulates something of a drug addict’s viewpoint of the culture he encounters in Vegas, the values and assumptions that inform it and how this culture reflects and is reflected by the hippie counter-culture he’s familiar with back in California.

The plot narrative is a string of incidents coming one after another so viewers should not expect a straightforward and coherent story with a clearly defined beginning, the unfolding of the story and its characters, rising tension culminating in a climax and then a denouement. At just under two hours, the film can seem much longer due to the lack of a conventional story-line and it does sag in parts. But that’s the point: the film is as much a fictional documentary of mainstream American culture of the period when the Vietnam War was raging and occupying people’s attention, civil rights was also a significant issue though barely referenced in the film and the youth culture of the time both critiqued the dominant culture and sought an alternative way through various avenues positive and negative. Gilliam resorts to clever camera tricks, a loud and garish emphasis on colour, slapstick, a voice-over narration by Depp in character and special effects to maintain audience attention; Gilliam’s bag of tricks works to an extent, to the point of drowning out the film’s criticism of both mainstream consumerist culture and the culture that arose in opposition to it.

The comedy is entertaining and the rare moments of seriousness when Duke reflects on the worlds he moves within – the dominant culture of materialism and greed, the counter-culture of youth, rock music, drugs and a shallow understanding of love and peace – are to be treasured. Duke’s drug haze allows the audience to view Western culture from a very different angle from what they are familiar with and what they see can be very ugly: fat middle-aged people obsessed with gambling and easy wealth, their own selfish needs and narrow and prejudiced minds, and the businesses and people who pander to their every whim and pamper them like infants. At the same time, both Duke and his attorney suffer severe side-effects of the substances they constantly imbibe and viewers become very aware of how the hippie dream turned sour for so many people. The film is very clear on the harm that drugs can do and on how a generation threw away so much hope because people believed that drugs were an easy way to achieving enlightenment and would somehow help bring about an end to war and divisions in society and instill a period of love, equality, connection with all humanity and peace. Few people realised at the time how deeply wounded American society was from its history and racial, political and class divisions.

For all its assets – and those are many: Depp and del Toro’s acting, the support cast that includes some quite illustrious actors like Harry Dean Stanton, the directing, the look of the film – I somehow feel that “Fear and Loathing …” does not give very much insight into Duke’s character, why he takes so many drugs and continues to take them after the ravages they wreak on his body and mind, and what he might be escaping from by taking them. Fortunately I chanced to read a review of a documentary by Alex Gibney on Hunter S Thompson, “Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S Thompson” on the World Socialist website, and was able to see where Thompson was coming from in terms of his upbringing and social background, how his view of society was affected by the events he witnessed and the cultural phenomena he experienced, and the pessimism, demoralisation and depression he developed as he realised how corrupt and unredeemable American politics and culture had become. This explains his constant drug-taking which to his credit he understood was a way of running away from and denying the ugly reality of America, a path that so many other people also took. Thus the film “Fear and Loathing …” itself documents the fall of the hippie dream and the culture that it spawned as well as the degradation of the society that the hippie generation criticised. It is appropriate that the film ends on a somewhat sober note.

In its own way, “Fear and Loathing …” is something of an existential film, using Thompson’s drug haze as a metaphor for a search to a deeper meaning to existence, one in which humans can finally learn to live together in true love and peace, in harmony with their environment and all that’s in it, without relying on props like lies, propaganda, class divisions and drugs.

Fantastic Voyage: call for the doctor, this film of inner space has no vital signs!

Richard Fleischer, “Fantastic Voyage” (1966)

Set during the Cold War in the 1960s – or was it the 1990s? – “Fantastic Voyage” has a wonderful premise of space exploration … within the human body! Unfortunately the small budget allocated to the making of this film was used up in the design of the sets and effects and the salaries of the people who did them. While the plot must have looked interesting enough on paper, on film it’s so low-key it hardly generates any heat close enough to normal body temperature. Whatever the plot was meant to be, it was never fully realised in this film; director Fleischer and his crew were too caught up in the wonder of having a tiny submarine take five people through blood vessels through the heart and into the brain to think about bringing to life (ha!) the plot, its themes and the characters in the film.

A defecting Russian scientist is badly wounded during an ambush and he lapses into a coma. Because his knowledge of secret technology is valued, the US government arranges for a secret medical unit within the Pentagon to miniaturise a medical team in a submarine and inject the lot into the man’s artery to perform internal neurosurgery, since this cannot be done from the outside. Once inside the body, the team must battle a series of obstacles to reach the brain where the injury was done. One of the team, a security agent (Stephen Boyd) discovers there is a saboteur on board. He must discover who the saboteur is before that person can stop the operation from going ahead. The team is given only 60 minutes to repair the damage before the effects of miniaturisation wear off, the submarine starts returning to normal size and is attacked by white macrophages.

It all sounds quite exciting but the genius of the film is that its small budget forced a bare-bones style of narrative and action. The acting is just sufficient to keep the dialogue and action going; the only real acting we see belongs to Donald Pleasance who plays the villain of the piece. Raquel Welch as one of the crew members provides an eye candy moment when, during an emergency repair job on the sub, she is hurled into some lymphatic nodes and is attacked by antibodies. The rest of the crew rescue her and have to pull the antibodies off her curvaceous form. Boyd’s agent carries out most of the heroic action and thinks up the most risky ideas to keep the mission going.

The real star of the film though is the body through which the sub travels: it supplies beautifully coloured backgrounds of lava-lamp blobby blood corpuscles glowing red and blue, seaweed-like forests in the lymphatic system, hay-like wax in the inner ear canals and ice-crystalline caves in the brain that periodically flash lights (representing nerve impulses). Much imagination went into the set design and its colouring.

Due to the wooden acting and skeletal plot, the film relies very heavily on the technology of its time and as a result has dated very badly. There are themes about God versus Darwin and religion generally, and the film opts for a point of view in synchrony with the prevailing conservative political and cultural views of 1960s mainstream American society. The Cold War context intrudes at a critical point in the film but otherwise is left as a loose end; indeed, several loose ends are left dangling when the mission has concluded. We do not know whether the operation is successful and what secrets the Russian scientist was carrying. “Fantastic Voyage” could have been more than a jaw-dropping visual experience but instead it’s very lumpen. There are rare moments of humour involving a couple of Pentagon generals waiting out the 60 minutes with cigarettes, coffee and sugar but apart from those the film flat-lines more than shows any vital signs.