Friday, May 23, 2014

"Tonite's film... "

A tacked on but somewhat necessary Introduction...
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...

14 comments:

  1. What follows originally appeared at the tail end of the post but I pulled it as the post was already too long. Still, I felt there was too much bias towards UK television so to tip the scales a little, I'm including this excised paragraph here...

    Before I wind up this post I ought to say something about film programming on my own national broadcaster here in Ireland. Taking its cue from Moviedrome, RTE ran a series in the 90's known as The Last Picture Show with host Brian Reddin introducing mainly American films from the 60's and 70's like Dirty Harry or Dog Day Afternoon, with occasional diversions into Hitchcock, film noir and the odd Horror film (the ubiquitous Wicker Man). RTE's second channel, offered even more diverse fare for their weekend Cinéclub spot primarily reserved for World Cinema - three films from this era stand-out State of Siege, Costa-Gavras' brilliant 1972 political thriller, The Gospel According to St. Matthew which I vividly remember seeing on a Holy Saturday evening, and a very obscure American independent feature from 1996, shot in grungy blank & white called The Bible and Gun Club, a film I believe has never had a home video release.

    A third channel was added to the RTE network in 1996, TG4, primarily a base for Irish-language programming but has always maintained a strong film policy throughout much of it's life. Up to a few years ago, Sunday mornings on TG4 were given over to Silent films and here is where I first saw Birth of A Nation, Intolerance, Battleship Potemkin, Greed, The General. There were also memorable screenings of Roger Corman's The Intruder, Delmer Daves’ 1947 horror noir The Red House, and up to two years ago, a battered 16mm print of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, was frequently screened, notable for being the antiquated 106min cut - I've only ever seen the restored version of this film (which has been the standard edition since the late 80's), so far from redundant, it makes for a fascinating curio...

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    1. Sorry for posting all over the place this morning, but I just saw your follow up post. I had actually forgotten about The Last Picture Show, despite being a regular viewer of it. It's funny you mentioned The Bible and Gun Club, as I've been trying to see it again since that broadcast, I found it fantastic and morbidly funny little film.

      Ashamed to say that I've never watched anything on TG4., despite some friends telling me they would show great stuff. I think by that stage I had fully moved onto DVD and video, so I rarely took to the TV listings to find something to watch...

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    2. John, I'm thrilled that someone else has actually seen this film - it sorta came out of nowhere and went back there again. I often wondered did I dream it up. But yeah, a mean-assed, wickedly funny movie I think. How come this one never surfaced on DVD ? It really is a great cult movie !

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  2. Wes, thanks for this, it's an incredible stroll down memory lane, and you were pretty damned thorough!

    I'm right there with you in 1993 and Moviedrome. It was around this time that I was getting into film seriously, and had stopped buying Judge Dredd and starting putting money towards Empire Magazine. It was a great time for being able to see films, as video stores still carried some seriously ancient tapes (when I caught some really great shit) and Channel 4 provided everything else you would ever need. It must have been 1993 when they had their 'Red Light Zone' too.

    Watching Moviedrome when it re-appeared with Mark Cousins became a ritual with myself and one of my best friends, and was the first time we watched the likes of Scarface, Society, Bad Timing, Blue Collar, Spanking the Monkey... a really eclectic mix right there. The Forbidden Weekends were obviously the stuff of dreams come true to a horror hound back then - I recently was attempting to capture my experiences with it growing up but abandoned it, so I'm glad you brought it up here. I was doing the Junior Cert when the first weekend occured - I remember clearly my mother exclaiming " You ARE NOT staying up to watch that!" when the ad for The Devils came on! I did get to watch the documentary though, and watched through it again last year. In fact, on the link you provided for the uploads on youtube, you can see me begging the uploader to put part two back up again!

    I still am greatly upset that I missed the screening of The Devils in 2002... that's something I'll never recover from, no matter how many times it gets released on DVD or Blu Ray!

    Great post Wes, this is the kind of thing you could sit in the pub and chat about excitedly for hours.

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    1. John I'm glad you enjoyed it, hopefully not too self-indulgent and rambling a post, but first times are important ! Yeah, The Devils Reconstruction was a tremendous moment, and I had it all on tape right up to when the VCR was ditched for DVD - I certainly didn't think The Devils would take a decade to resurface. I personally don't miss the Rape of Christ sequence, I didn't think it added a whole lot to the film considering what was already left in - for me the scene that goes out on a limb is when Oliver Reed comes off the cross and and makes love to Venessa Redgrave - really provocative stuff - Ken Russell had more balls than a snooker table to include that scene - it's incredible ! I don't think I managed to express it in the post, but it seems unthinkable now that Channel 4 would show something so uncompromisingly experimental as Blue nowadays. They were really heady days for guys our age who were watching films, discovering films, thinking about films... Another thing I had in mind was Howard Schuman's Moving Pictures series on BBC2, or Channel 4's Eurotika series from 1999 - seeing all those tantalizing clips from the films of Rollin, Franco and other Euro-Cult stuff - amazing !

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    2. Wes, can you believe that I still haven't watched The Devils? I got the disc that came out last year (or was it the year before?) but I just haven't found the right time to settle in to it. I really must rectify that. I still just want a definitive release on it, though - with two separate cuts, and a third disc for the documentary. I honestly think it would do great, look how well The Wicker Man constantly does on re-releases, I think The Devils could do good business, as it is the very definition of a cult film...

      Agreed on your thoughts on Channel 4 going out on a limb with screenings such as Blue; but if they didn't, who would? I this great digital age, anyone can go and get there hands on the likes of Funeral Parade of Roses, or the entire ken Anger collection, digitally remastered. I guess they feel that the gap has closed for their niche, now, and the idea of 'event' TV is all but dead beyond the likes of the latest HBO series. Back in those days we only had a handful of channels; everyone would watch the midweek movie on RTE or UTV, and would be talking about it the next day. The arthouse crowd knew to turn to C4 for their fix. These days, not so much. Channels like C4 turn to Big Brother to provide cheap entertainment, as they need to fill schedules, and can't afford risks anymore as there is too much competition. Unfortunately with the joys of having 400 channels, it means you have more to watch, but somehow less choices in what you see...

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    3. John, I can understand that you’ve haven’t found a slot for The Devils – it’s such a mad, swirling symphony of a film it’s not to be casually flung on during an idle hour. Hopefully the Empire of the Censors doc will gave you a segue way into the film. I must revisit the film again soon because a recent screening of Peter Brook’s 1967 film Marat/Sade* really put the film in mind. I don’t recall Ken Russell ever citing the film as an influence but tonally and visually both films are remarkably close, and sure enough I discovered that Marat/Sade was photographed by Devils cameraman David Watkin. Both would make for an incredible and grueling double-bill… I’m fully sure Warners will take back The Devils at some point and put out a big special edition – in the weeks leading up to the UK release in 2012, the BFI disc was charting high on Amazon’s sales chart so a Blu release I think is on the cards at some stage… Yep, you’re correct about the current state of film-programming – why would a controller put on a night of Kenneth Anger films when anyone who wants to see Scorpio Rising will have the BFI anthology, or some other kind of copy, so we may have lived thru the last great era of intelligent, culturally significant programming. I’d love to see more event things like the screening of A Field In England – which reminded me of Aguirre Wrath of God, in that it was screened on German TV before it was released to theatres. I wonder will C4 repeat the experiment with High Rise ? Here’s the thing though – with the amount of channels we have and the number of repeats, I feel like it cheapens even something great like No Country For Old Men which I don’t own on DVD because it’s on TV every other week…

      *I couldn’t let this comment go with giving Marat/Sade it’s full and proper tile – deep breath now - The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade

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  3. Another post here, (I'll move on soon, I swear) but you got me reminiscing over the weekend, but I don't know how we didn't get into it here; do you remember the Mark Kermode hosted weekends on (I'm guessing) Channel 4 in the late 90's? It was all about censorship, and he would do the intros to films before they ran. I remember specifically seeing Bad Lieutenant, which was uncut, as well as Evil Dead II, and a host of other films. It was my first proper introduction to the man, and I've been a big fan since...

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    1. Yep, I had thought of Mark Kermode but my memory was too sketchy of this time, but I absolutely do remember seeing a documentary on Saló because I had to go to my brother's house to see it, this was on Film4 when it was a pay channel (and rather awkwardly it was well after 11pm if I have my times right). Film4 was actually a very good channel in those days, I remember seeing Kevin Brownlow's brilliant Winstanley in my brother's house on another occasion, and I think the very fine Takashi Kitano documentary Scene by the Sea (now found on the Brother DVD) is a Film4/C4 production... John, your mention of Bad Lieutenant unlocked a vague memory of the Irish censor asking C4 either not to screen the film (then banned in Ireland), or block the transmission to these parts. I think the same application was made for the screening of the Irish-banned From Dusk Til Dawn (perhaps the most silly ban in modern times) and both were obviously met with a cool response from C4 - as befitting such a ridiculous, Orwellian reaction - if I have all this mixed up, I'll be glad to be proven wrong, as I find the whole business rather embarrassing… Yep, I do like Mark Kermode, he’s done an awful lot for promoting and legitimizing Cult Cinema in the mind of Joe Public, which is always a good thing – I absolutely hate all that Mystery Science Theatre/Golden Turkey Awards crap. Kermode’s book on The Exorcist is required reading and I liked his 2010 book It's Only a Movie: Reel Life Adventures of a Film Obsessive as well – it’s quite witty, sharp and entertaining…

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    2. I wouldn't be surprised on anything you said, Wes, regarding the Irish Censors... I have only vague recollections of this period, which is probably due to when I starting drinking - so for now I'll take you on your word. I never could understand the banning of From Dusk Til Dawn, I mean, there is nothing in it that could be construed as 'offensive' or likely to 'rape the minds of the nations children' (to paraphrase the Daily Mail)... another baffling moment in the role of Film Censors, I guess...

      Agreed there on Kermode, I too detest the likes of MST3K. It's Only a Movie is a fun read, and I really need to get to his Exorcist book!

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    3. I think From Dusk Til Dawn was banned for religious reasons – the idea of a priest battling vampires was somehow blasphemous ? But something similar happened last year or the year before when the Horror Channel showed in the dead of night, a cut version of I Spit On Your Grave which of course is now banned in any shape or form in Ireland. Thankfully though no fuss was made and the screening came and went and troubled no one… Yeah, Kermode is a good guy, and Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist which Kermode wrote is one of the best film documentaries out there, and incidentally was directed by Moviedrome’s Nick Jones…

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    4. Christ, I forgot that I Spit on Your Grave is completely banned over here now. I remember writing to the Board when it happened, looking for anything resembling a reasonable explanation, but obviously got nothing back. Draconian times...

      In a final response to your comment above, yup, I definitely agree that we were in the last great cultural 'Hurrah' before the internet explosion... it actually makes a fine comparison to your comment regarding the cheapening of great works due to the constant repeats - I think the same goes for the internet. We used to have to work EXTREMELY hard to track down films (either extreme horror or arthouse alike), meaning when you did get to see it, you gave it your complete and undivided attention, even re-watching it within a few days to allow it to wash over you. Now, any teen can pull up a list of the top 100 art house or extreme horror films, and have em downloaded in hours,and begin flitting between them with no respect for context. My biggest gripe on the internet age is the 'overnight armchair expert' this creates, but I suspect that's worthy of a series of posts by itself...

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    5. I love that you felt suitably outraged to pursue IFCO on the banning of I Spit on Your Grave. And I’m not surprised they didn’t answer you – when the ban was announced there seemed to be no actual reason for. I know the Board are not compelled to state their reasons, but after the film had been available in shops across the country for a few years courtesy of the UK DVD, the whole banning smacked of political stunt-making, y’know, a sort of not on our doorstep gesture which really fuckin’ annoyed me. Let’s face it the film has lost much of its power over the years, in these times when anyone with an Internet connection can access ultra-hard porn, nevermind seeing I Spit on Your Grave, banning the film was a completely empty gesture. The thing is, the story of the banning did the rounds – I saw it on a few US websites, not helped by the fact that Meir Zarchi who always been rather arrogant about his film, took the Irish ban like a badge of honor and was keen to call it out to the press. Who could blame him ? He probably shifted a couple of hundred more units on the back of the story. Despite all that, I still think I Spit on Your Grave is a very good piece of work, and I reckon it’s a film that is more admired, misunderstood, and dismissed than actually viewed… But John, what are you gonna do in a state that banned the innocuous 2002 drug comedy Spun ? Yeah, I know what you mean about the young whippersnappers of today who have the power to see Dario Argento’s entire run in a week if they feel so inclined ! I used to keep lengthy lists of films I badly wanted to see but nowadays I can’t really think of anything I’m desperate to see – I mean there’s lots I want to see, but they’re all on DVD or floating around online, and I’ll catch up with them one of the days. John Peel used to say the best year for music was always the current year – and I feel the same about DVD, but y’know I do a feel a little jaded from time to time, I kinda wish the wheels turned a bit more slowly…

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    6. Fully agreed on I spit on Your Grave, the rapes are ugly, nasty business, and despite the nudity, there is nothing erotic about it. As you said, the availability of extreme porn to anyone with an internet connection makes banning this kind of thing silly, the film almost feels quaint in comparison to what you can easily find out there. You know, I didn't realise that Spun was banned. I still haven't seen it, but no wonder I couldn't ever spot it on DVD shelves when browsing HMV...

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