FIVE FROM THE FIRE #10
stu steimer & marcus pinn
For the FIVE FROM THE FIRE series, we present our featured writer with the following scenario:
A giant warehouse houses the collected directorial works of five filmmakers. A raging fire breaks out and you have just enough time to save exactly five prints. All of the other films will be entirely lost to history - they even have all of the digital masters at this fucking place. Which five prints do you save? Feel free to pick all five from one filmmaker or one from each fellow or anything in between. Don't be selfish - think of cinema history, for the love of Pete. Or don't. We won't hold it against you. Also, you don't have a lot of time to react- there's a towering inferno before you! Go with your gut reaction, so no checking imdb for their complete resumés or other memory-enhancing skullduggery.
The day we feared has finally come to pass. When the concern of placing a storage facility to exclusively house the last remaining prints of a half-dozen directors' works in a patch of land surrounded by four already burning tire fires was addressed in city hall meetings the concerns were usually dismissed outright. "Some movies might get burned? Who gives a shit? The only people that care have probably never touched a woman without aid of a chloroform soaked rag" was chairman Ethynol P. Chesterfield's response at the time.
Since Mr. Chesterfield never pursued a career as a failed school shooter that overslept on his big day, and instead occupied himself with film in lieu of a healthy social life he was naturally unfamiliar with the works of the five directors that this warehouse stored:
Nicolas Roeg Takeshi Kitano Catherine Brelliat
Peter Watkins Andy Milligan
If Kitano's prolific output weren't enough to feed these flames then it would have Peter Watkins - who has made his share of long movies...like, really fucking long - to feast on. All this celluloid was just another variable that would cause the perfect storm, a fire lasting five, maybe ten percent longer than originally foreseen.
Nevertheless, here I am. Attempting to salvage whatever I can (or five films in total since that is what this project is all about) from this warehouse fire. Funny, I wouldn't rush into a burning building to save a child or a pet or anything that was alive and had a personality... I might have high-functioning asberger's come to think of it. Is that how it's spelled? Spell-check says it's wrong, implying that it is not a real condition, which implies Microsoft is insensitive.
I find myself in the Andy Milligan section. Picking a Milligan film to be saved from the fire should be an easy task considering about half his filmography has been lost forever, ironically, in a separate warehouse fire decades ago (including The Bitch and Gutter Trash, two lost films from the Fassbinder of schlock that I hope to see when I wake up in hell) while most of the other half just isn't very good. I feel some amount of temptation to just save Milligan's unwatchable 80's comedy Monstrosity and just make four dubs of it for the sole purpose of antagonizing movie lovers everywhere, but I won't. Milligan, despite the reputation of being one of the worst directors ever (I think Stephen King once described his style as being that of a derelict with a camera), has made a few films that I feel justified in defending and saving. Then again I also feel justified in defending Uwe Boll, who I have seen exactly two films from, and relatively enjoyed them both. Seeds of Sin and Vapors are the two Milligan films that I am saving for now.
Why? Vapors because I really do consider it to be a legitimately fine piece of early 60's avant-garde/gay film making that I would prefer to a lot of Derek Jarman's work (though Milligan at his best is still no Kenneth Anger, but that isn't really a dig - few people at their best are likely to be Kenneth Anger, including Michael Jordan.) Seeds of Sin gets picked for rather selfish reasons: I just enjoy its schlocky uncontainable lunacy (I even tried to write an adaptation of Seeds of Sin in 2010 and 2011 only to end up writing something completely different and unsalvageable.) Not only that but I'm pretty sure Seeds of Sin almost certainly had to have been an influence on John Waters, possibly as much as George Kuchar or Douglas Sirk or Jack Smith - of course, I have no idea if Waters has actually seen the film, or even liked it. But until further confirmation on this issue I'll just assume that he did.
I breeze by Catherine Breillat for now. I'm unfortunately not very familiar with her as I would like to be, in fact I'm not even sure if I'm spelling her name correctly. At the time of this writing I have seen exactly two of her films, Fat Girl and Brief Crossing. Although I remember liking Fat Girl I think I found both movies to be too cold and cynical, even for my tastes. If it counts I watched, via eFukt, the scene in A Real Young Girl when the 14-year old protagonist shoves a dismembered earth worm into her vagina. It's fucking gross. I feel disgusted with myself every time I masturbate to it.
Next up we have Takeshi Kitano. Funny, if I was making this list ten years ago I probably would have picked mostly Kitano films: Kikujiro, Sonatine, Hana-Bi, two copies of Johnny Mnemonic - one to watch, one to keep sealed behind plexiglass. But my tastes have shifted in the years. Of these films, the one that strikes me as an absolute necessity in saving is probably Hana-Bi (Fireworks). Although Hana-Bi may lack Kitano's trademark of shooting himself in the head (or maybe it does, it's been about 8 years since I watched it last) it makes up for it in its humanity and approach to recoil and tragedy. It's compelling, sad, dark and at times pretty bleak, but it balances all this with fine grace and wit, never flirting with easy sentimentality or empty cynicism. It's Kitano at his most introspective; it's certainly his best film.
I head over to the Nicolas Roeg section. I immediately seek out Performance. To my dismay, its canister has been replaced by the Martin Lawrence vehicle Black Knight. At first I am a bit perplexed but then I remember that this week is an odd number in the 52-week cycle, thus Performance was transferred to the Donald Cammell section in the supply cabinet at the Wendy's across the street, safely avoiding the flames for now. Though, to put my two cents in the "Who does Performance actually belong to?" debate I'd vote that it is more Cammell's film anyways. Am I cheating on this? Probably.
I feel like I should save The Witches for purposes of nostalgia as well as my own self-congratulatory wankery for being one of its defenders. Despite a cop-out happy ending, I'd still consider it to be the best Roald Dahl adaptation until Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. And no, I couldn't give a shit about Willy Wonka. (Getting slightly off-topic, why is it everyone seems to only care about Dahl's children's stories? His "adult" stories are some of the best short stories out there, and I'm pretty sure he hated kids.) The Witches, a family film, is refreshingly unsettling, dark and just generally impressive coming from a genre that relies heavily on close-ups of animated pandas dropping hip pop-culture references to Black Eyed Peas songs while farting, or vice-versa. The Witches, while flawed, is deserving of a place among the better received Henson films: Labrynth and Dark Crystal.
But still, to reiterate the "while flawed" portion of the above statement: it's not that good. It's probably the weakest of the better Roeg films by a mile. I wish I could save Track 29's brilliant opening title sequence, or Gene Hackman's performance in Eureka, or David Bowie overdosing on media in The Man Who Fell to Earth (and Rip Torn's floppy penis, but that goes without saying.) It's been years since I've seen a lot of the best Roeg films (Man Who Fell to Earth, Walkabout, Don't Look Now), so maybe my opinion would change a bit if I went to re-watch a few now, but at this moment in time there is only one film Roeg has made that has carved and clawed its way so deep into my memory that not even a day of intense glue-sniffing will allow me to forget...
Bad Timing is Roeg's masterpiece, his best film and often his most frustrating to watch. If the portrayal of the violent, psycho-sexual relationship between the two doomed protagonists (Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell) isn't enough to drain you, then the structure of the film surely will. Told almost exclusively through series of flash-backs and flash-forwards it follows anything but linear conventions. For about the first half-hour of the film it is indeed very jarring, and at times feels very convoluted, but then again memory (and this is illustrated heavily through Garfunkel's character's perspective) never follows a linear pattern either. And yes, we get a full view of Art Garfunkel's bare ass but there's so many more reasons to watch it, like Harvey Keitel not whipping his dick out.
Finally, Peter Watkins. I pick up the 25 canisters containing La Commune and gauge how fast the fire is approaching to see whether or not I should casually toss these reels into the flames one at a time like stones rippling across a pond or if I should just launch the whole goddamn thing in at once. At the risk of sounding like a philistine (though why bother?) I'm freely admitting my ignorance at generally not understanding the film, but I spent most of its six-hour running time sleeping, so I'm not expecting to. All I know is everything this film needed to say about the effect of media, and media's own manipulations on perception, it said in the first 10 minutes, and then spent 340 additional minutes repeating itself ad-nauseum. Occasionally we get to hear Watkins' opinions on film school and other shit nobody cares about.
Next I see The War Game and I think about saving it despite not being quite as witty as Dr. Strangelove. But then I remember that The War Game is directly responsible for influencing Lynne Littman's Testament, which to this day is still one of the most heavy-handed, self-righteous and repugnant pieces of dogshit I have ever had the misfortune of watching (just to put this in perspective, I use to watch rapture/Christian-guilt films semi-regularly.) So, for that, I hold The War Game directly accountable for this atrocity and, although a good film, should pay the price of the flames.
Next are The Freethinker and Culloden - haven't seen either of them. So they can burn.
Privilege is fun, but the take on fame, celebrity and sycophancy has been done better (King of Comedy comes to mind immediately.) So I probably won't be able to save it either.
I think long and hard about saving Punishment Park. It's easily Watkins at his most fast-paced and entertaining. The theme of a slowly unfolding police state and authoritarian dominance in what is commonly perceived to be a "free" state is just as socially relevant now as it was 40 years ago. But I can't help but feel that there is something dated about it - maybe not so much as dated as...I just hate hippies. And they're all over the place in this. This is worse than that Phish concert that I never went to.
But besides my neo-fascist tendencies and hatred of blotchy mold masquerading as facial hair I'm probably going to not save Punishment Park on the basis that it is already well canonized as it is. There's already enough articles on its importance to allow it to live on vicariously from now until Earth feels the warm, silencing wrath of gamma rays from Betelgeuse's hyper-nova sometime in early 2015.
Watkins' Edvard Munch is the one that I go out of my way for. Not only do I consider it the best film of the five saved, or the best Peter Watkins movie in general, but I'd consider it to be one of the greatest neglected 'epics' ever produced. Almost 40 years after its production it doesn't really seem to have found the solid niche audience it deserves; if it takes another 40 years to manifest itself into the realm of The Godfather or, more appropriately, Andrei Rublev, then so be it. Watkins' vérité approach to the first 25 years of Munch's artistry as he copes with demons in the names of sickness, death and loneliness while being the victim of censorship and public dismissal is so textured that it can only be described as encyclopedic in scope. As far as period pieces go, Edvard Munch goes so much more into its time and place than costume and vernacular; the tuberculitic blood and mucus paved across the syphilitic whore-dominated streets is so thick and rich that the film almost requires several raincoats to watch it. There are of course many more reasons to save this film than just the bilious ones, but they're the ones that matter the most to me.
It's rare that I can come across a film of 90 minutes that when I reach the last five or ten minutes I feel a real amount of sadness over the fact that it's approaching its end (if most movies aren't shit, then they're too long.) I felt that for Edvard Munch, a movie which has a run-time that borders on four hours.
To round off the list I am going to save The Gladiators. Watkins at his most eccentric, replacing the sometimes heavy-handedness of Punishment Park with deadpan satire and dark humor, turns his focus to a group of soldiers selected to participate in a televised, corporate-sponsored faux-war. The similarities to Running Man go without saying - except this was made a solid 20 years before that film. (though The Gladiators definitely does not feel like it was made in 1968 - I was convinced that it had to have came out a lot more recently than that, neither its commentary nor aesthetic style seem to have aged very much in 43 years.) The catharsis of the television controller that occurs towards the end of the film is probably one of the strongest scenes Watkins is responsible for.
So, to re-cap, the Five (5) films I will save from eternal hell-fire:
VAPORS HANA-BI BAD TIMING
EDVARD MUNCH THE GLADIATORS
Wow, I'm surprised. Based on your fondness for the image of Kitano shooting himself in the head, I was sure you would have saved Sonantine first (which is the FIRST movie I pick.) Would you care to explain why you left that behind along with other Kitano movies like Boiling Point, Violent Cop or even Battle Royale? I know he didn't direct that last one, but if you brought up Johnny Mnemonic then Battle Royale is fair game.
I like the little loophole you found with Performance (even though I'm not a huge fan of that movie.) Just make sure none of those Wendy's employees comes across it and steals it. When it comes to Nicolas Roeg I'd have to go with Bad Timing (nice choice) and Don't Look Now. And since I already know my 4th and 5th movies would be Edvard Munch and Punishment Park, I'd have some extra time to find Insignificance and make sure it burned (I recently blind-bought the Criterion and half way through watching it I realized I just wasted 30 dollars.)
I think a lot of people (specifically Criterion fiends like myself) would question why you left behind The Man Who Fell To Earth and Walkabout. Are you not a fan of those movies? Or is it just one of those things where there were more important movies that took priority over those? Care to explain?
I would like to have chosen something by Catherine Breillat but I already picked 5 movies. On a side note, you should check out Sex Is Comedy, Romance and Anatomy Of Hell (especially the last two, as I know you're a lover of porn.)
I don't know who Andy Milligan is, so oh well...
marcus' picks: Sonatine, Bad Timing, Don't Look Now, Edvard Munch, Punishment Park
Sonatine is definitely in my top three favorite Kitano films (though it falls behind Kikujiro, and obviously Hana-Bi.) But I like the Sonatine image because of the iconography of it. In other words, it just looks cool. Then again, I probably uploaded that pic as my MySpace default pic around 2004 or 2005 - which was probably the last time I watched Sonatine and I think my memory of it is too hazy to articulate and rationalize saving it against some of the other films which I remember more vividly. Such as is the case with Roeg's Walkabout, which I haven't seen since renting the VHS in 2003 or '04. It's another movie I need to revisit obviously.
I've never really been that into Battle Royale, to be honest. I watched it once on a bootleg videotape while the movie was still out in theaters in Japan and unavailable in the United States, thought it was decent for what it was, and never really returned to it from there. Next time I would be that meh/ho-hum about a controversial movie that I was dying to see through whatever means possible came the next year with Ichi the Killer.
Violent Cop is good, but I don't think it holds up quite as well as some of the movies Kitano went onto do in the mid and late 90's, though I think it is much better than Getting Any?, Scene by the Sea and a few others of that period. I'm not sure if I've ever really seen Boiling Point - I think it could be another one of those movies that I may have seen but my memory is completely wiped clean of having seen it. I need ginkobiloba, or whatever that shit is that you're suppose to take when you get old and microwave the cat.
I didn't really express it in the initial write-up (I spent way too much time defending The Witches, though undeserving of its maligned reputation, isn't even that amazing of a movie) but Roeg's The Man who Fell to Earth was the hardest reject to reject, and just narrowly avoided making it into the line-up and, on another day, it probably could have been there with Bad Timing. Realistically, it's a much more important/better film than something like, say, Andy Milligan's Vapors - which inclusion was based on my opinion that Milligan, though mostly a schlockmeister working well below Herschell Gordon Lewis caliber, was just as capable of making a decent underground film as he was making messy, disorganized trash. But even that trash can be defended, the manic insanity of The Ghastly Ones and Seeds is still pretty inspired, and I'd definitely, at the very least, put him above Doris Wishman and Cash Flagg/Ray Dennis Steckler.
I too blind-bought Insignificance as one of my first Blu-Ray purchases (I now own 4 Blu-Rays.) I watched about a half-hour of it and fell asleep. What I did see I didn't think was too utterly terrible or too amazing. I'll need to watch the whole thing some day; I know it was in that post-Bad Timing period which marked Roeg's fall. Though I've defended Track 29 and elements of Eureka, which although mostly a mess has some real shining moments, mainly from Gene Hackman and Rutger Hauer. It's also a probable influence (along with Sam Fuller's Baron of Arizona, just as much as the Sinclair novel) on There Will Be Blood, which, I guess, could have been enough of a reason to save it - a blueprint for a superior film that would come a quarter of a century later.
As for Breillat, I recently watched Perfect Love which I really enjoyed quite a bit and would consider the best of three I have seen from her by far. Still, I'm not sure if I would save it over some of the others I have chosen, but it's enough for me to continue exploring Breillat's work.
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