Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Thief Poster

British quad for Thief... I'm only posting this to stave off the temptation to buy this gorgeous poster which I spotted on ebay earlier. I'm thinking about where it could go in the house but I’ve pretty much used up all the wall space my wife will allow me. It's a beautiful piece of design, and as far as I know this artwork is exclusive to the British release, capturing well the gaudy, neon look of those painted wet streets. The film's poor performance in the US no doubt prompted United Artists to devise a different marketing strategy for the film's international release, and the decision to go with a more conventional crime film concept was understandable. As much as I love the film's US one-sheet poster - a transparent rendering of James Cann's face against a furnace of white-hot sparks, it does suggest a futuristic, hi-tech science fiction thriller rather than a tough, no-nonsense crime film. The Violent Streets re-title doesn’t have the modernist cool of the original title, but this film was made in Chicago, and reportedly filmed in some very rough neighborhoods, so the re-title feels well earned. To cover all bets, the British poster modified the original tagline: "Tonight, his take home pay is $410,000...tax free", adding “He’s a thief”, but it doesn't quite work as well as reading it on the American poster. Michael Mann's film arrived at the beginning of the 80's, and reflecting on the tagline with its focus on aggressive, deregulated money-making, it feels very zeitgeisty. Not quite the kind of laissez-faire economics Reagan promoted but nonetheless one imagines the profit potential of the thief's line of work appealed to the burgeoning yuppie class and the obsession with fast money.

My only quibble about the British poster is the awkward promo insert for Tangerine Dream's soundtrack, which I presume was due to the confusion of the album retaining the original film title and the US one-sheet artwork. In fact the first UK pressing of the soundtrack came with a hype sticker which advised: "The soundtrack of the film re-titled Violent Streets" lest there be any doubt of the connection. I'm listening to the soundtrack now as I put this post together and it's easily the group's best soundtrack work, much more so than Sorcerer I think - the opening section of the film scored to the track Diamond Diary is arguably their finest moment on film. I mentioned earlier that the US poster may have misled people into thinking the film was some kind of dystopian science fiction but the look of the film coupled with Tangerine Dream's score does lend the impression that the film is taking place not quite in the present, but perhaps a few years in the future. Certainly, the three-dimensional look of the nocturnal city, the street and signage lighting reflected in the wet alleyways and roads, creates a striking layered density that anticipates the look of Blade Runner's 21st century Los Angeles...

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Last 10 Films Watched

01 - Yojimbo (director Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
02 - A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964)
03 - The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983)
04 - Three Days of the Condor (Sidney Pollack, 1975)
05 - Q&A (Sidney Lumet, 1990)
06 - London (Patrick Keiller, 1994)
07 - Robinson in Space (Patrick Keiller, 1997)
08 - Robinson in Ruins (Patrick Keiller, 2010)
09 - Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016)
10 - The River (Jean Renoir, 1951)

Friday, 22 May 2020

Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death Of Al Adamson

For a brief moment as I watched David Gregory’s superb 2019 documentary, I dreamily contemplated ordering Severin’s 14-disc Al Adamson set, despite swearing a few years ago I would never see another Adamson film after the death march that was a late-night TV screening of Psycho-A-Go-Go. But the moment passed, and I'll put that little slippage down to the sheer pleasure of hearing veteran movie folk (most of them well into their 70’s and 80’s) recount war stories from the halcyon days of American exploitation cinema. Al Adamson wasn’t the worst of the schlockmakers, in fact some of his better made films are actually quite... watchable - his 1969 outlaw motorcycle film Satan’s Sadists in particular is a minor classic of the late-60's biker pic craze. Adamson is best remembered nowadays for his horror films but as a journeyman film maker he dabbled in westerns, crime films, science fiction, blaxploitation, even a family film (the very skewed family film Carnival Magic). If Adamson had a genuine talent it was his ability to make films dirt cheap, often financed with loose change and it remained a source of pride for Adamson that he made entertaining and profitable films at a fraction of the spend of the major studios. With the decline of the drive-in market in the early 80's (the natural home for Adamson's films), the director for the most part retired from movie making and branched into real estate, virtually disappearing from view until he made headlines in 1995 with the shocking discovery of his body, bludgeoned to death by a handyman he employed, and concealed for weeks under a freshly laid tiled floor at his remote home in Southern California.

Dramatic stuff indeed, and director David Gregory to his credit has made a film that finds the right balance of light and shadow. Told in a chronological order, the first hour or so is dedicated to Adamson’s film-making career and assembles all the major surviving members of Adamson’s repertory of cast and crew (and sometimes there was little to differentiate both), as well as the affable director himself culled from an archive interview he gave before his untimely death. The tales from the trenches of low-budget film-making are often hilarious. We hear about Adamson's penchant for casting washed-up actors who came cheap but not without their eccentricities. Lon Chaney Jr, performed in a fog of alcoholism, while actor J. Carrol Naish was in poor health was by the time he appeared in Dracula vs. Frankenstein in 1971. The twice Oscar nominated actor was incapable of remembering his dialogue and when huge cue cards were provided for the semi-blind actor, his line readings were accompanied by distracting loud clicks from his unruly dentures !

Producer and close friend Sam Sherman, himself a great chronicler of Adamson’s films on several laserdisc and DVD commentaries, explains how Adamson’s films were often re-shot, re-edited, (re-colored!) and fashioned into completely different films from what they originally started out as. For what was one of Adamson and Sherman's most infamous cut n' paste jobs, the 1965 film crime thriller Echo of Terror was overhauled and re-released as Psycho-A-Go-Go, then in 1969 it mutated into the science fiction film The Fiend with the Electronic Brain, before being reworked again and re-packaged as a horror film called Blood of Ghastly Horror. Elsewhere, colleagues recall with some affection, Adamson's notorious thriftiness which often meant his cast and crews went unpaid. Vilmos Zsigmond who shot 3 films for Adamson before graduating to McCabe & Mrs. Miller for Robert Altman, recalls how the director paid him for a day's directing work with the proceeds of a newspaper delivery job which Zsigmond found endearing enough to continue working for him. Actor and stuntman John "Bud" Cardos fondly explains how he often appeared as two different characters in Adamson’s films, as in the scrappy 1970 western Five Bloody Graves, where he is actually killed by himself ! The documentary also draws on dark connections with the Spahn ranch (Satan’s Sadists and some pick-up shots for 1969's The Female Bunch were filmed at the ranch when it was home to the Manson family) and in the early 90's Adamson appeared to make a return to film-making only to get tangled up in quite a bizarre UFO conspiracy which those close to the director, Sam Sherman included, seem very reluctant to discuss on camera (!)

With the final years of Adamson’s life, the documentary shifts gears and turns a darker shade. Adamson spent the early 90's caring for his terminally ill wife and muse, Regina Carrol and was heartbroken by her premature death. Tragedy would continue to dog Adamson as the decade wore on when Fred Fulford entered Adamson's life. Friends and family recall the increasingly sinister behavior of Fulford whom Adamson hired as a live-in handyman and there are disturbing accounts of trust being abused and financial exploitation. It's a terribly sad coda to Adamson's life, with old friends seemingly gone, and it was only through the interventions of Adamson's brother and his housemaid that police took an interest in Adamson's sudden disappearance. When the police finally recovered Adamson's remains (seen in a quite astonishing and grisly VHS recording of the actual excavation), the moment is genuinely upsetting. When news of his death first emerged, some of the more unsavory elements of the press relished the irony of a horror movie director dying in most horrific circumstances ("This story reads like a plot of a bad horror film" one news report led with). Thankfully though what lingers in the mind after watching David Gregory's moving film is not Al Adamson's gruesome demise but his joie de vivre for making films, a director who delighted in entertaining audiences with cost-effective, unpretentious movies, and a man who was loved and adored by friends, colleagues and fans alike.

Thursday, 14 May 2020

Kraftwerk Catalogue Plus

Since the news broke last week of Florien Schneider's passing, I've been revisiting my Kraftwerk collection, that is, the Catalogue albums, plus the three pre-Autobahn albums that Hütter and Schneider have long declined to re-issue. My CD album editions pre-date the 2009 remasters (which I've heard mixed reports about), but the discs sound absolutely fine and far better than my old LPs which were prone to skips and increasingly distracting surface noise. Kraftwerk made their albums sound so beautifully refined and luxurious, that any extraneous noise becomes a distraction. I long held the image of Kraftwerk recording their music in pristine white lab coats in an ultra clean laboratory. Needless to say it was quite a jolt when I finally saw pictures of the group at Kling Klang, dressed smart casual and the studio brimming with electronic and traditional instruments fed by a writhing mass of cables snaking across the floor.

In addition to the Catalogue albums, there is of course Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf and Florian. I think it was Hütter who brutally dismissed these early albums as "rubbish", which is ludicrous of course - all three are essential documents of German electronica and are strongly recommended to adventurous ears. A cursory listen to these albums (which in the absence of official releases are easily available to stream and download at least), might suggest this noisier, more experimental side of Kraftwerk doesn't sit well with the electronic purity and the precision beats and rhythms of the Catalogue albums. Certainly, there are parts of the first two albums in particular, that seem anathema to Hütter and Schneider's later methodology, with sections of music that sound like they strayed from one of Kluster's proto-Industrial improvisations. One might even hear a guitar plucked Derek Bailey-style here and there. Atem off Kraftwerk 2, is an electronically treated recording of someone breathing, and I presume it was this kind of sonic weirdness that prompted Steve Stapleton to place Kraftwerk on the Nurse With Would List. But with a closer listen to these albums, you can get a sense of the near future - the train-like rhythms of Ruckzuck, and the robot chit-chat heard on Vom Himmel Hoch, both from Kraftwerk 1, the gorgeous melody on the trance-like Tanzmusik on Ralf and Florian, anticipate the music Kraftwerk became famous for. What's most pleasing about listening to these three early albums again after wading through the Catalogue is the sense of the group evolving towards the more familiar Kraftwerk. It was as if Hütter and Schneider had to pass through that experimental phase of the first two albums, before arriving at the warmth of Ralf and Florian and onward to Autobahn...

Monday, 11 May 2020

Nine Types of Industrial Alienation

Monica Vitti and Richard Harris in the poisoned Red Desert...

My Criterion DVD of L'Eclisse was still sitting alongside my DVD player today (some weeks after an impromptu screening) and before returning it to the shelf, I stole some time to watch the hour-long 2001 RAI produced documentary Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema, which offers a decent overview of his career. What made the documentary worth watching was the remarkable footage from the Red Desert shoot showing assistants spraying grasses and bushes with an industrial paint. I long thought that oft repeated line, attributed to Jonathan Rosenbaum, that Antonioni had "entire fields painted" for the film was apocryphal, but at last here’s the proof. The revelation was enough to prompt a screening of Red Desert and it's always a pleasure to revisit my favourite Antonioni film. Even now, after numerous screenings over the years, I still find it a strange and contradictory picture. Antonioni emphasizes the poisoned grasses and lakes with their unnatural colors and textures (which must have stirred the environmental consciousness of some of his Italian audiences), but Antonioni himself favored innovation and development, and found more vibrancy in the industrial architecture of Ravenna (where the film was shot) than in the region's natural beauty. Indeed I still remain uncertain whether Antonioni is actually sympathetic to Monica Vitti's anxiety-racked Giuliana, and I get the sense that Antonioni is shrugging his shoulders at Giuliana's plight, as if to say change, progress and adapt or be damned. A key line in the film, and perhaps a clue to Antonioni's philosophy comes right at the end, when Giuliana tells her son, that the birds have learned to avoid the plumes of sulfuric smoke in order to survive.

If Red Desert is my favourite Antonioni film, it's certainly Monica Vitti's best Antonioni film. The lost and alienated Giuliana feels a more more substantial character than the aloof, ephemeral women she played in L'Avventura and L'Eclisse and even with the hindrance of post-sync line-readings, her performance achieves a genuine pathos. On this screening of the film, I couldn't help but judge Richard Harris' character Corrado harshly. He's one of the very few people in the film who empathizes with Giuliana's sense of alienation but ultimately he's only briefly passing through Giuliana's life and he knows it. His solution to his own sense of alienation is to keep on the moving, and in the end all he can only offer her before he departs for the southern hemisphere is some meaningless sex which only deepens Giuliana's predicament. The film ends as it begins, with Giuliana left to wander that haunted space between her inner and outer landscapes, the film offering no solution to her problems, only a dream or perhaps a memory to cling to, of a young girl in a beautiful rocky cove, far away from the toxic red desert...

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Last 10 Films Watched

01 - Death Rides A Horse (director Giulio Petroni, 1967)
02 - Land of the Dead (George Romero, 2005)
03 - Le Dernier Combat (Luc Besson, 1983)
04 - Desperate (Anthony Mann, 1947)
05 - 24x36: A Movie About Movie Posters (Kevin Burke, 2016)
06 - Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson (David Gregory, 2019)
07 - The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)
08 - Red Desert (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)
09 - Side Street (Anthony Mann, 1950)
10 - The Big Blue (Luc Besson, 1988)

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Florian Schneider (1947-2020)

Florian Schneider has passed away. The founder member of Kraftwerk died on April 30th but in suitably enigmatic style, the news of his passing is just filtering out, almost a week later. I can't help but feel a little sad that I didn't get to see Schneider in the flesh while he was with Kraftwerk - he had left the group a decade (or more perhaps) before I saw them in concert in 2018 (where I stood only a few feet away from where Ralf Hütter was stationed). Reflecting on Schneider's death this morning, I'm still not sure what he did in the group. There was of course Florian's distinctive flute playing which gave those early pre-Autobahn Kraftwerk albums a tremendous color and mood, but for a breakdown in the division of labor at Kling Klang, I shall have to consult David Buckley's excellent 2012 book Kraftwerk: Publikation. As the 70's wore on, Kraftwerk became less a four-man group and more a single collective. The last time the members displayed any kind of visual identity on their albums was in the elegant group photo from Trans-Europe Express. The following year the Man-Machine artwork presented the four members styled and dressed as clones, while subsequent albums would display the group as robots. It was an image that no doubt suited Schneider. While Ralf Hütter lent a human voice to the group with his dispassionate vocal style, Florian preferred to cloak his voice with vocoders and other devices. On the rare occasions when he offered an interview he was tight-lipped and gave little away (and not without some humor it must be said). And yet it must have pleased him when David Bowie, returning the name check on Trans-Europe Express' title track, named the "Heroes" semi-instrumental V-2 Schneider in his honour.

Before he departed the group, Florian could claim he was Kraftwerk's longest serving member, and he steered the group through at least two organisational crises - early on in the group's history, when his partner Ralf Hütter took leave for university, and later in 1982 when Hütter was seriously injured in a cycling accident that left his continuing participation in the group in doubt. When Florian left the group in 2008 or so, it seemed like Kraftwerk has powered down for good, but the group continued on with retrospective tours and the 3D Catalogue concerts. When I saw Kraftwerk in 2018, it seemed more like a multi-media event than a traditional live show. Ralf Hütter duly sang his vocals but the music I suspect was pre-recorded. In a sense, this kind of automation has future-proofed Kraftwerk from the rigors of psychical deterioration and death. Perhaps, there will a time, after Ralf Hütter has ceased activity that a highly sophisticated Kraftwerk machine will tour and perform across the world thus fulfilling Ralf and Florian's dream of Kraftwerk robots performing on stage in their place while they worked on music in Düsseldorf. 

Friday, 24 April 2020

Last 10 Films Watched

01 - Gods of the Plague (director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1970)
02 - Alien Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)
03 - Born of Fire (Jamil Dehlav, 1987)
04 - Circle of Deceit (Volker Schlöndorff, 1981)
05 - Freddy vs Jason (Ronny Yu, 2003)
06 - Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1951)
07 - Metallica: Through the Never (Nimród Antal, 2013)
08 - The Deadly Affair (Sidney Lumet, 1967)
09 - Black Magic 2 (Meng Hua Ho, 1976)
10 - Snatch (Guy Richie, 2000)

Friday, 10 April 2020

Last 10 Films Watched

01 - Dark Star (director John Carpenter, 1974)
02 - Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)
03 - The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski, 1967)
04 - A Fistful of Dynamite (Sergio Leone, 1971)
05 - The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)
06 - Black Joy (Anthony Simmons, 1977)
07 - The Man from Laramie (Anthony Mann, 1955)
08 - The Ox-bow Incident (William Wellman, 1943)
09 - Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947)
10 - Love Is Colder Than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969)

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Last 10 Films Watched

01 - Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (director Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
02 - The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)
03 - On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)
04 - One-Eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando, 1961)
05 - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Marcus Nispel, 2003)
06 - The Black Klansman (Spike Lee, 2018)
07 - Tommy (Ken Russell, 1975)
08 - Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)
09 - Song to Song (Terence Malick, 2017)
10 - Dream No Evil (John Hayes, 1970)

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Dream No Evil

I managed to steal some time last night to watch a film, and went straight to the second volume of Arrow’s excellent American Horror Project series. Dream No Evil, made in 1970 wound up exactly where I hoped it would by the time it finished: as a smart, offbeat regional Horror-tinged drama whose ambition frequently out runs its modest budget. I’m reluctant to loosen any spoilers, but this one takes place within the fractured delirium of a schizophrenic mind, and it’s as if writer-director John Hayes wanted to explore what domestic life might be like inside the Bates mansion: in this case, a young woman conjures up an idyllic childhood she never had with a loving father she never knew and murders anyone who threatens to come between them. 

Dream No Evil is not a full throttle Horror film, but manages to generate a weird enough atmosphere, and there are enjoyable tonal shifts throughout (which might have had more charge had the expository voiceover been dropped). Had you wandered into the film late, you might think you had stumbled upon a wholesome family western, as if the film’s big casting coup, Edmond O’Brien had stepped clean-shaven from The Wild Bunch which he appeared in the previous year. The rest of the cast are certainly capable (Michael Pataki is particularly good as a preacher without chewing the part up) and director Hayes steals some fine moments in the film thanks to some imaginative desert locations and there’s a particular striking shot of sun down on a faith revival that could have strayed from a classic rock documentary. Recommended.

Thursday, 27 February 2020


I'm currently enjoying a Who obsession, and last night I treated myself to a screening of Tommy, which I hadn't seen in a few years. With previous viewings I tended to concentrate on the fast-flowing current of Ken Russell's astonishing visuals and set-pieces, but for last night's viewing, my focus was on Roger Daltrey and the incredible physicality of his performance. I'm hard pressed to name another rockstar-frontman who lends himself so completely, even fearlessly to an acting role (Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth would be another), and certainly Ken Russell puts him thru his paces. But a tremendous film, and had I the time last night, I might have segued right into Peter Watkins' 1967 film Privilege, but it's certainly in mind for another day. Incidentally, as the credits were rolling I spotted the credit "Sculptor Christopher Hobbs" whose production design work I know from Derek Jarman films, but it was a nice Russell-Jarman connection...

Thursday, 20 February 2020

The 'orrible 'Ooo !

I'm currently reading Mark Blake's brilliant 2014 book Pretend You're In A War: The Who and the Sixties. In fact I just started it just last night, but it's such a compelling read, I quickly polished off the first 100 pages before the lights-out, bringing the story up to 1963 (before Keith joins the band the following year and completes the puzzle). The Who had a certain undercurrent of aggression, even violence in their music, their huge egos and open hostility towards one another resulted in shows performed at ear-splitting volumes and more famously, there was ritualistic destruction of their stage equipment (and the occasional hotel suite). Blake writes vividly about the London performing scene, and it surprised me how violent the early years of the 60's were. The reports of Mods and Rockers warring en mass have long since been debunked, but both subcultures amped up by cheap speed brought trouble to Who shows. Roger Daltrey himself, to borrow a line, "knew a few performers in his time" (Townsend remembered one local hood who hid out at Daltrey's home as an "awful, awful man") and at one point in the book, Daltrey had to talk down an associate who turned up a show with a shotgun intent on shooting someone he had a beef with. The kids it seems were not always alright...

[Update] I'm further along the book today and when I last left it, Michelangelo Antonioni accompanied by Monica Vitti saw the group perform in London, where Antonioni was prepping Blow-Up. Antonioni was said to have been intimated by the group, their volume and that the band played on seemingly indifferent to a huge brawl that broke out amongst the crowd. Antonioni was looking for a hip group to appear in Blow-Up, and was persuaded to go with The Yardbirds instead, who went on to smash a guitar in the film Townsend style...

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Zaireeka ????

How does it work ?

I was reaching for a Flying Saucer Attack CD this morning and scrounging around the F section of my album collection, I found myself looking curiously at my copy of The Flaming Lips' 1997 album Zaireeka. This has always been something of a dust-gatherer in my record collection - the album designed to be heard via four simultaneously-playing CDs was never possible back in the day and the album was quickly consigned to the shelf forever. But rediscovering the album again and having a couple of hours to myself at home I pressed my CD player, one of my DVD players and an old kitchen radio into action. 3 out of 4 discs was the best I could do on the day so having carefully set them all up, I let loose this wacky Flaming Lips experiment. I think I lasted all of two tracks, the whole thing sounding very much like 3 unrelated CDs playing at the same time. I had to admire Wayne Coyne's powers of persuasion for convincing Warners to put this out - this was a couple of years before the group found unlikely critical and commercial success with The Soft Bulletin, and I wonder too did anyone actually play the album as designed back in the day when DVD players weren't readily available as CD players. I imagine there's a Warners storage facility somewhere with a section of racking consisting of nothing but unsold copies of Zaireeka...

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

One eye on Brando

I’m currently reading The Contender, William Mann’s 2019 biography of Marlon Brando, and as ever with film biographies, it gives me a good excuse to go back and revisit the films. This weekend it was the turn of On the Waterfront and One-Eyed Jacks. Waterfront I’ve seen a number times over the years (I was lucky to see it in a theater in 2017), but One-Eyed Jacks I hadn’t seen since the VHS days. Actually, I had seen portions of the film in recent years, on one of those backwater TV channels that shows public domain titles in unwatchable sub-youtube broadcasts, and somehow One-Eyed Jacks was one of the titles that screened 3 or 4 times a week. I’m astonished at how a Paramount film of this prestige could fall into public domain, but all that was swept aside courtesy of the Arrow Blu-Ray which features the 2016 restoration. One could hardly measure the work done on the film against the scrappy thing that I had last seen on Showcase TV, but in any case the film looks absolutely magnificent. What always excites me about the One-Eyes Jacks is the mighty Pacific ocean which features heavily in the film - certainly not a typical piece of Western iconography, but this idiosyncrasy (if you could call it that) gives the film a grandeur that must have looked quite majestic in theatres fitted out for big Vista Vision productions.

Watching the scenes with Timothy Carey I’m reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s brief involvement with the film, as was Sam Peckinpah, and I found some nice connections to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, which reunites actors Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado. There were moments too when I thought of Monte Hellman’s great sixties Westerns and I’d like to imagine he was an early advocate of the film. I’m looking thru Brando’s filmography right now and I might have already hit the highlights in terms of the book. I probably won’t get time to catch The Godfather, Last Tango in Paris or Apocalypse Now in the next week or so, but I shall try to steal time for two noteworthy late-60’s pictures: the never-seen-before 1966 film The Chase (for that once-in-a-lifetime cast at least) and the 1969 oddity The Night of the Following Day, which I have great affection for. Sadly, I don’t have a copies of Burn! or The Missouri Breaks, two films I would have liked to sit down with, not to mention the 1967 Charles Chaplin-directed A Countess from Hong Kong, conspicuous by its absence in my 2003 Chaplin boxset…