The following post began as a diatribe against the current state of television, but quickly changed into a sort of check-list of films discovered in my formative years of becoming a serious film fan. What follows is not a history of 90's television, but rather a spotty but hopefully accurate memoir of what I was watching during these years...
I'm currently reading The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the Third Programme and Radio Three, Humphrey Carpenter's dense and engrossing 1997 book, charting the long and turbulent history of BBC Radio's intellectual wing, The Third Programme which began broadcasting highbrow culture to the masses in 1946, eventually mutating into BBC Three in 1970. Reading the book I found myself reminiscing about how exciting TV was for this young film enthusiast throughout the 90's. In the years before my family bought a VCR, and even some years later when tapes of widescreen editions and foreign films were still prohibitively expensive to buy, television was a goldmine of film treasure. Sift through the TV listings nowadays and you're likely to find a cadre of bland, familiar, safe film titles recycled among the channels.
James Woods is consumed by television in Videodrome
I suspect the rise of home cinema culture is partly responsible for the current homogenization of film-programming on TV and while the film collector has gained more in the trade-off, I still miss the days of staying up late to catch films like El Topo, screened on BBC2 in 1997 (and introduced by Leone biographer Christopher Frayling), or Channel 4's one-time broadcast in 2002 of The Devils reconstruction and the Hell on Earth documentary which accompanied the film.
Any appraisal of this era of film-programming will inevitably lead to BBC2's Moviedrome, which racked up an incredible 11 seasons worth of cult films between 1988 and 2000. The Moviedrome format – a film preceded by an onscreen host introducing the film and contributing a few interesting factoids had been done previously by the BBC - in 1985 Guardian film critic Derek Malcolm hosted Film Club on BBC2 dedicated mainly art house films. Moviedrome by contrast was less precious about its selection, with producer Nick Jones serving up an eclectic roster of titles from the BBC’s film library, from exploitation horror (Q – The Winged Serpent, Rabid), to Italian imports (The Long Hair of Death, A Bullet For the General), eccentric studio pictures (The Beguiled, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), independent wildcards (The Honeymoon Killers, Tracks) as well as the odd idiosyncratic variation on a theme (Escape From Alcatraz double-billed with A Man Escaped). Initially Repo Man director Alex Cox was approached to introduce just one series but ended up fronting Moviedrome until 1994 when the program took a three year hiatus, returning in 1997 with Mark Cousins handling the introductions.
The original Moviedrome logo as seen in series' debut
Making its debut in May 1988 with The Wicker Man, Cox set out Moviedrome’s stall – on a set that resembled a cheap room at the Chelsea Hotel, complete with flashing neon sign outside, Cox wearing a Walker t-shirt, intoned: "Welcome to the Moviedrome a season of cult films. What is a cult film ? A cult film is one which has a passionate following (and) does not appeal to everybody. James Bond movies are not cult films, but chainsaw movies are…” As the series gathered momentum, Cox's introductions became more lengthy and elaborate, especially the opening titles - Moviedrome's first season had Cox transplanted Zelig-syle into old black & white clips, the 1994 season saw Cox on the run as an elusive Third Man. But more importantly, Moviedrome's intros served to properly contextualize films that otherwise might have been baffling to the casual viewer. I became a regular taper of Moviedrome from 1993 onward and it led to some memorable discoveries - Weekend, 200 Motels, Django, Andromeda Strain, The Harder They Come, Carny, Blue Collar, Bad Timing, Le Samourai, and Walkabout.
Alex Cox is the Third Man... from the his final year at Moviedrome
Despite Moviedrome taking a sabbatical after the 1994 season, 1995 was also a very good year for films on BBC2, with the Century of Cinema series picking up the slack. Throughout the year, the BBC showed 100 films chosen by editor Steve Jenkins to celebrate the centenary of the medium. The selection process itself was ring-fenced by what films the BBC had license to, so the series could not include the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Seven Samurai – two permanent top 10 fixtures of any film 100 list, but this left Jenkins with some wriggle room to include more imaginative choices like I Walked With A Zombie or Picnic At Hanging Rock; and perhaps the odd maddening selection - an absent Breathless represented by Jim McBride’s 1983 remake. The real value of the list was the extensive coverage it gave to World Cinema with screenings of Andrei Rublev (my first introduction to Tarkovsky), Amarcord, Tokyo Story, Rocco And His Brothers, Sanjuro, Aguirre Wrath of God, The Spider's Stratagem, as well as recent films like Sonatine and Farewell My Concubine.
Walking with Zombies in celebration of 100 years of Cinema
Closer to the Moviedrome spirit was BBC2’s Forbidden Weekend which ran over the weekend of May 27th 1995, and showed a number of censor-baiting films including Bad Taste, The Night Porter, The Silence (my first Bergman film), Performance and The Devils – the final two selections were particularly significant as the versions shown were the longest seen up to that point (the version of The Devils was the original British X-rated cut, which the BFI put out on DVD in 2012). The Forbidden Weekend also featured an excellent, revelatory two-part documentary on the history of British censorship entitled Empire of the Censors which featured contributions from Roman Polanski, Ken Russell, Bernardo Bertolucci, Donald Cammell, as well as ex-BBFC examiners openly critical of James Ferman's draconian stewardship of the board (with a particularly good account of Ferman's handling of the British VHS release of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer). By contrast Doing Rude Things, which followed was an irreverent look back at the halcyon days of the British sex film, based on David McGillivray’s 1992 book of the same name. Interspersed among the films were various personalities waxing lyrical about seeing an X-rated film, among them John Peel fondly remembering an unnerving screening of House of Wax, and Jarvis Cocker defending Borowczyk’s The Beast.
"Dear John, I've cleaned up the shit on the altar..."
Ken Russell reads his letter to head censor John Trevelyn regarding The Devils in Empire of the Censors
At this point I should say something about film-programming on Channel 4 but my notes are rather sketchy here in terms of transmission dates. In the decade before it was colonized by the reality-TV bug, with 10 solid years of Big Brother, and dreary mondo medical programmes like Embarrassing Bodies, Channel 4 was a tremendous resource for films which leaned towards the independent and the avant-garde. Before my time (and Moviedrome’s), Channel 4 ran a season of films in the winter of 1986 which became known as the Red Triangle films, so-called because the films in the series were prefaced (and discreetly watermarked during the screening) with a warning symbol advising viewer discretion – these were films that were violent and/or sexually explicit but considered culturally important works, like the harrowing 1980 Brazilian street drama Pixote or Shūji Terayama’s mind-bending 1971 film Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets. Channel 4 were required to make cuts to some of the more salacious films in the series to satisfy the Independent Broadcasting Authority, but nonetheless the Red Triangle season was a provocative, defiant moment in television in an era when the Video Nasties controversy was still raw in the mind of the Establishment.
Hallucination generation in Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Into the Streets
Fortunately by the time I began seriously watching films in the early 90’s Channel 4 were still some years away from their current stagnation. 1993 was a particularly great year on Channel 4 for interesting low-budget independent films and avant-garde, experimental work. There was a season of films devoted to American independent Cinema, entitled Made In the USA, with screenings of sex, lies and videotape, Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho, She’s Gotta Have It, Metropolitan, as well as a number films by the scene’s spiritual father John Cassavettes, screened concurrently. Midnight Underground which ran through 1993 rounded up a dazzling array of rare experimental films by the likes of Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising), Maya Deren (Meshes of the Afternoon), Stan Brakhage, (Mothlight) Robert Frank (Pull My Daisy), Antony Balch (Towers Open Fire), Jan Svankmayer (Food). Midnight Underground was true to its title and occupied a late night spot on Channel 4 and it’s amusing to think of the pub crowd stumbling home to be confronted with Wojciech Bruszewski’s abrasive 1973 film Yyaa, which consisted of cut-ups of the director primal screaming for the camera.
Allen Ginsberg in Robert Frank's beat happening, Pull My Daisy
Derek Jarman, one of the film makers represented in Midnight Undergound (with his Super8 momento of a Throbbing Gristle concert, T.G. Psychick Rally in Heaven) was a favourite at Channel 4 around this time. In April 1991, two of Jarman's more notorious films Sebastiane and Jubilee were screened as part of the Banned season (which included Scum and Life of Brian). In September 1993, Channel 4 premiered Derek Jarman’s final film Blue, which for the uninitiated consists of a single frame of International Klein Blue color set to the voice of Nigel Terry and others reading extracts from Jarman's diary (later published as Smiling In Slow Motion). Channel 4 was a particularly strong supporter of gay culture during this era and frequently programmed gay-interest films. In December 1993, a whole night of programmes were devoted to The Velvet Underground, which included a very rare screening of the underground classic The Chelsea Girls (which features an appearance by Nico as well as some Velvet Underground music recorded for the film). Some years later Channel 4 secured a very rare (and surely a first for television) screening of James Bidgood's extraordinary 1971 film Pink Narcissus as part of a programme which included Jean Genet's only film, Un Chant d'Amour, as well as a curiously censored version of Scorpio Rising, which had some of the bikers' antics pixellated out as if it was a victim of Japanese film censorship...
Darkness made visible... Derek Jarman's Blue
Fortunately, some of Alex Cox and Mark Cousins' Moviedrome introductions have been saved from oblivion and are available in variable but watchable quality on youtube. All are worth a look... The Empire of the Censors documentary is also available in two parts, in excellent quality and needless to say is highly recommended...