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.

La Belle et La Bête: a visually sumptuous film both clear in its themes and ambiguous in its details

Jean Cocteau, “La Belle et La Bête” (1946)

A beautiful and sumptuous film, this interpretation of the famous fairy tale by surrealist writer / film-maker Jean Cocteau is an investigation into the polarity of deceptive appearance and hidden reality. Within the story of the young girl who sees the loneliness and suffering of a fellow being in spite of his repulsive and bestial visage is other layers of fairy tale stereotype – Cocteau throws in a faux-Cinderella piece with two wicked sisters, a cowardly brother and handsome but spiritually beastly suitor – and a motif of duality expressed in the casting of Jean Marais as both the suitor Avenant and the Beast. There may well be a Freudian sub-text at work here, most notably in the ending when the hero and heroine of the piece fly into the clouds, never to return (or at least not until they’re required to smoke cigarettes in bed together).

The glory of the film is in its design: most scenes are set up as dioramas in which the action takes place. Long white curtains swirl from windows like wisps of smoke as Belle walks down a corridor. As characters pass by props, candelabra lights held by human hands turn on, doors open and close of their own accord and a statue’s eyes move to follow the character’s movements. In one memorable scene, Belle glides through the Beast’s castle in slow motion, her veil and the drapes of her dress flowing out behind her like a wedding-gown train. There are many scenes of similar exquisite beauty, many of them suggesting purity and innocence but with a suggestion of something a little more sinister within. The unearthliness of most scenes is highlighted by the use of unconventional camera angles: furniture and other props are placed in such a way as to emphasise something unusual about them.

The characters are portrayed well by the actors though Jean Marais as suitor Avenant, the Beast and Prince Ardent dominates through his physicality and expressive and handsome face. As Beast, heavily made up and wearing prosthetics, his eyes manage to successfully convey the Beast’s inner torment about the curse laid upon him and the encroaching “bestial” nature that threatens to subsume more noble qualities. The minor characters of Belle’s sisters Felicity and Adelaide, her ne’er-do-well brother Ludovic and his equally lazy pal Avenant embody the idea that appearance is not everything and it’s the inner person who matters more. Belle is a Cinderella character who appears innocent yet reveals an ambiguous nature when she confesses to Ardent that she did indeed love Avenant in spite of his boorish behaviour towards her earlier in the film.

It’s possible that a number of in-jokes feature in the film: in Marais portraying both Avenant and the Beast, Cocteau not only draws attention to the polarities of beauty / ugliness and outer appearance / inner spirit but also aspects of human sexuality: both Avenant and the Beast have good and bad qualities that respect and threaten Belle respectively. Avenant may be selfish but he is also brave, energetic and, well, ardent; the Beast may be a saintly figure in some respects but he’s also creepy in demanding that Belle must say whether she will marry him or not.

The dialogue is made simple enough for children to be able to follow though the fairy tale retelling works for both adults and children. Children will quickly see the moral behind the narrative: the good and faithful are rewarded while greedy people get their just desserts. Adults are sure to catch the many little ambiguities that appear in the film.

The stunning look of the film and its effects are all the more wondrous when you consider it was made in post-war France when the country was still in ruins: the film-makers used ingenuity and creative thinking in setting up a number of effects. The result is a film with a gorgeous look and a magical quality that back up its themes.


Black Moon: surreal film on death and rebirth that satirises political, cultural and social issues of 1970s

Louis Malle, “Black Moon” (1975)

A curious film this is, based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”, in which Alice figure Lily (Cathryn Harrison) is fleeing a civil war and ends up in a mysterious remote country mansion where the normal logic of life she is used to is completely overturned. Here, humans are mute but animals speak and plants scream; an elderly woman (Therese Giehse) stays in bed all day, listening to her radio and being breast-fed by one of her children, Sister Lily (Alexandra Stewart); feral naked children romp around the grounds with a pig; a strange young man, Brother Lily (Joe Dallessandro), communicates to Lily by touch; and the only being Lily can have a rational conversation (well, sort of) with is a tubby black unicorn.

The pivotal point of the film after a series of rather comic and twee sketches that involve Lily running all over the place, trying to understand what’s going on, and throwing temper tantrums in frustration is in the evening lounge-room scene in which Lily plays a piece from “Tristan und Isolde” on piano that becomes ever more deranged before a group of the feral children. Immediately after this piece, the sun rises and Lily witnesses Brother Lily decapitate an eagle with a sword, emulating a scene in a painting in which an Indian Hindu prince does the same. Later, while Brother and Sister Lily fight each other almost to the death with knife and stave, and army forces from outside surround the mansion, Lily retires to the old woman’s bed and offers to breast-feed the unicorn which has mysteriously appeared.

The film has a stream-of-consciousness dream narrative which explains the loose structure in which incidents come and go and viewers are left scratching their heads at whether there is any connection or meaning that will become apparent later in the film.

“Black Moon” is really very mystifying and I must confess that after reading a review on the IMDb database that a lot of things became clearer. If one refers to pre-Christian Germanic mythology, some things do make sense: Lily represents the birth of a new world (as demonstrated when she enters the bed of the old woman who represents the death of the old world) and Brother and Sister Lily are her children who in their fighting represent the dualities that might be inherent in human nature and indeed the cosmos. The most basic duality in humans is the male-female one and the opposition between men and women is a theme threaded right through the film. The eagle might represent one of Odin’s messengers that fly over the world during the day and report back to him at night; its death might represent the battle of Ragnarok. The unicorn carries the horn that itself contains the antidote to the poison of conflict, violence and warfare including chemical, biological and nuclear warfare.

The cinematography is beautiful and includes close-up shots of centipedes, a praying mantis and snakes (symbols of fertility) with one close-up concentrating on a snake crawling up Lily’s leg while she’s lying on the old woman’s bed and into … well, you can guess. The symbolism in this part of the film should be obvious to all but the very young or very naive. The three young actors themselves have quite an unearthly, almost pre-Raphaelite beauty.

The film isn’t intended to impart a message or whack viewers over the head about what they’re doing to the planet: it’s a reflection of Malle’s times and the social, cultural and political issues prevalent then, expressed in a way that perhaps satirises them in a gentle way. The absurd nature of the film points up the absurd nature of many of humanity’s concerns and obsessions which block our connection to nature. In our world, only animals and plants make any sense and perhaps speak the truth, however strange it may be.

Spring Breakers: surprisingly well-made and sarcastic film about the search for a meaningful life

Harmony Korine, “Spring Breakers” (2012)

Contrary to most reports I’ve seen or heard about this film, “Spring Breakers” is actually a very well-made piece with a strong if sarcastic plot and a universal theme that is very moving. Four young college-age girls, fed up with their boring lives swotting at school and yearning for something different, exciting and above all fun, scrape together money obtained in an unusual way – well, all right, three of them robbed a diner – and take the long-distance bus down to Florida where together with all the other bored college-age kids from across America party-party-party, do drugs, flirt with horny guys, crash out in hotel rooms and leave trash wherever they go. The law catches up with them for being under-age and doing things they shouldn’t, and the frisky fillies end up in county jail. A hiphop DJ gangster called Alien (James Franco) is impressed with the girls in their court-room appearances, so much so he bails them out to use them for his own ends.

Two of the girls, Faith (Selena Gomez) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife), bail out for reasons of their own, leaving their friends Brit (Ashley Benson) and Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) to assist Alien when he is threatened by his arch-rival Big Arch (Gucci Mane). At this point the film becomes very surrealistic and the question for audiences to ponder is whether what they see in the rest of the film is for real or is the girls’ fantasy. The end when it comes is very surprising and one questions whether, beneath the girls’ apparent dumbness, there lurks more animal cunning in their little fingers than there is in most men’s heads.

The film is very artfully made: it has the look of a home movie with the use of different film-stock, crazy camera angles and lots of deliberate repetition. The music soundtrack is an integral part of the film: the different songs appear to be just another soundtrack collation of dance tracks to look cool but sound effects are inserted into the songs to emphasise darker, more sinister subterranean suggestions that foretell doom. The music and effects complement the film’s plot perfectly and play up the girls’ apparent innocence as they stumble into one situation after another that would seem to be more than they can handle either as individuals or as a group.

The acting is adequate for the film but special mention should be made of Franco’s performance in giving his narcissistic character Alien more depth and nuance than it deserves. One starts to feel some sympathy for Alien, where he has come from, why he collects so much firepower machinery and Oriental weapons, and his collection, kitschy though it may be, of what passes for culture in the shallow and materialist world that is mainstream USA. Likewise, Big Arch becomes concerned that with Brit and Candy, Alien is making more inroads into his territory than he should be allowed to; we see him at home with his baby girl and his family, and we start to see him more as a family man than as the drug king-pin gangster he is. The girls themselves are very one-dimensional with Faith, the most “developed” character, being not much more than a pretty girl with a conscience and a conservative Christian background that isn’t of any help to her.

Repetition of scenes, the girls’ basic hedonistic and yearning character, and plot points serves to point up the banal and kitsch nature of US culture and society. The girls, brought up on Barbie dolls and Disney princesses, are bored with the shallow life they have led so far and the shallow life they see ahead of them, and spring break represents all that they yearn for: a break from conformity, a chance to experiment with a new life and outlook, the desire to be individuals, the opportunity for personal expression. Unfortunately spring break turns out to be just as empty and hollow as the life they left behind: other kids are just interested in exploiting one another or escaping from life through chemical means. The police intrude on their fun and the girls are forced to face, temporarily at least, the consequences of their self-absorbed and selfish hedonism.

The film’s theme of the search for happiness and fulfillment is a dark and troubling one: four youngsters, ill-prepared by their sheltered upbringing (sheltered in the sense that watching too much bad TV, spending all your time on social networks and exposure to feel-good fundamentalist Christianity together teach a false view of human nature and society), go on a journey to find the meaning of life, which they believe revolves around being happy and rich and enjoying material pleasures. Their adventures turn out to be empty and unfulfilling, and the girls become corrupted by their experiences. Though the film ends well for the four girls and all survive physically, spiritually they are dead inside: ironically, the right preparation they need to be Stepford wives – but that of course is another story …


The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 3: Escape in Time): the past really is a different country from which there’s no escape

John Krish, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 3: Escape in Time)” (1967)

A particularly memorable episode, “Escape in Time” is premised on the theme of time travel and how one can use it as a form of escape. Most of the time though, time travel occurs in our heads to escape the mundane present, to imagine a more exciting past than what actually existed or to consider a range of future possibilities, usually fun but sometimes more frightening than now. In this episode, a travel agent offers time travel to various corporate crooks and ex-dictators on the run from justice but invariably they get their comeuppance in that ultimate form of time travel: a river, in this case, the Thames River. When a couple of agents are also caught up in this vortex of time, those agents extraordinaire Steed (Patrick Macnee) and Peel (Diana Rigg) are called upon to retrace their predecessors’ steps as it were and themselves are thrown into England’s past. It’s a past with four dead-end itineraries which neither agent is able to get a refund of their deposits back on, and Steed and Peel must battle the travel agent (Peter Bowles) and return to the present (or the future as it were) if they are to take their complaint to the Department of Fair Trading.

Not a bad episode but the time travel idea is thin and its novelty wears off quickly. Much of the episode is taken up by tricky labyrinthine sequences in which an ex-dictator, then Steed, then Peel negotiate their respective ways through a toy-town to Thyssen Travel using stuffed animals as barter; there is also a later sequence, also done entirely without dialogue, in which Steed zips through the Georgian and the Restoration periods to the Inquisition to rescue Peel whose torture is taking its own sweet time. Although these sequences are nods to Alfred Hitchcock and silent films in being completely free of dialogue, they are very twee and contrived and serve to reinforce the idea that “The Avengers” takes place in a hyper-idealised world within layers of other idealised versions of Britain. Even the periods in which Thyssen claims he can send his customers to are very distorted and concentrated versions of what they really were: the Elizabethan Age as one of extreme religious fanaticism and use of torture, the 1680s as more refined and the 1790s as effete. Most fight sequences between Steed and a series of other villains are silly and overdone and don’t add anything to the plot.

The time travel itself is deconstructed as a scam and the time machine is simply a dizzily coloured corridor made more so with a whiff of sleeping gas given to the traveller. There is plenty of wit but to this reviewer who has seen the episode three times already, the dalliance between Peel and Matthew Thyssen on feminism is tired – Peel is not really all that emancipated, being a so-called amateur spy and in most episodes needing to be rescued by Steed – and the puns on time can be anticipated a mile away. The stand-out acting is by Bowles, playing several roles as the stammering Thyssen and his smooth-talking forebears, with honourable mention going to the actor who plays T Sweeney (ha!) the barber.

The episode has a very distinctive atmosphere with emphasis on bright colours; a slight psychedelic flavour is introduced during the “time travel” shots which are cleverly done with changing camera angles. Objects and set designs gain a lot of significance here with the primitive poker machine that initiates the time travel (who would believe that a simple slot machine could send a person back into the past?) and the various stuffed animals proving a real hoot. The Indian shop-keeper (Imogen Hassall) who gives Steed his instructions and introduces him to a statue of the Hindu elephant god Ganesha is an unexpected surreal touch that owes more to the influence of late ’60s hippie culture on Western society at the time than a prediction of the dominance of Indian subcontinental communities and culture on British society and culture 40 years after the episode was made.

As with other Avengers episodes, “Escape in Time” has many plot holes – the episode never makes clear what happens to all of Thyssen’s customers apart from the ex-dictator and the two agents who infiltrated the Thyssen mansion – and it was done on the cheap so many sets used do look artificial. The episode succeeds in making the artifice its theme: everything that happens here is artificial and the way in which Thyssen draws his victims into his web is also artificial. His “Tudor” mansion is a nineteenth-century country house. Ultimately the message seems to be that there really is no time like the present: escaping into the past is a kind of death sentence.