Wired Up Wrong

Being a review of culty cinema

It’s dated badly in terms of fashion, music, and even societal concerns, being far too much a slave to the grunge aesthetic, for instance, but Bigelow’s technical ability is certainly not in doubt. What comes over is that, story-wise, it surprisingly bears some resemblance to de Palma’s Blow Out, but with an updated (fictitious) technology.
The opening sequence still stands up as a prime example of “how the hell did they do that?”- and you’re left asking that question on the basis of the filmmaking skill involved, not the application of on-screen special effects. That’s not something that happens very often (The DVD offers a so-called director’s commentary, actually just a recording of Bigelow giving a talk somewhere, and actually only covering the opening sequence, but it offers some genuinely fascinating insight).
The controversial-at-the-time snuff sequence has proper power, too- going beyond a de Palma-esque POV murder sequence and into the realms of truly questioning voyeurism, while at the same time providing a clever clue to the killer’s identity via glitches in the software recording.
There is some serious miscasting going on- in nearly every role in fact! It’s hard to argue that Fiennes is miscast, but I found him likeable anyway, despite some serious snivelling. Juliette Lewis comes off as too vacuous, too young, and too ugly for Fiennes, and making some really bad music, to boot. Michael Wincott is truly awful as Lewis’s manager. But it remains likeable, if only because of the commitment and technical imagination of the director.

I love the road movie, it’s probably my favourite sub-genre, just ahead of movies about authors and movies with disc jockeys as the lead character. In fact, it’s such a prominent sub-genre that I think it’s about time that it was upgraded to full genre status, like the way a loveable old building gets itself listed at some point or another.

Anyways, there may be a case for the second Mad Max movie (aka The Road Warrior) to be installed as the ultimate road movie. Why? Firstly, it’s set after the end of the world (and at the end of the world- aka, Australia). So nothing can follow that, really. Secondly, and most importantly, it is the ultimate road movie because there is no option for the lead character other than to keep on moving, keep on driving. To stop (though it is necessary, to obtain precious gasoline) is to court death at the hands of murderous, rapacious gangs. I think it was this aspect, as much as the action sequences, that really gripped me when I first saw it as a child.  I may struggle to express it here, but it was the feeling that the film gave me, of always having to look over your shoulder; of not wanting to stray too far from your vehicle; whether you have enough ammunition…it’s actually an atmosphere that a lot of computer games recreate successfully.

As for the rest, of course :

  • Gibson has one of the hippest chracterisations (not to mention costumes) in the movies, easily equal, as far as I’m concerned, to The Man With No Name, and, arguably, even more charismatic.
  • The way George Miller seems to create memorable supporting characters largely based upon their appearance alone. All three films seem to be full of faces that seem familiar- I’m thinking particularly of Goose, The Mechanic, and the Pig-Killer guy from the third one. I’m usually thinking ‘was he in Neighbours?’ Most often, though, I haven’t seen them anywhere else- they are familiar to me only from this one role.
  • The unashamed brutality of the future world- the sequence in which Max and the pilot watch the evil bandits hunt down, rape, rob and kill a pair of escapees from the refinery had the air of a snuff film to my youthful eyes upon first childhood viewing. This was, as much as the violence of it (the level of which I was not used to as young as I was), due to the overall primal feel it carried- the fact that it takes place in a desert, dust kicked up all around- the primitive home-made costumes; the use of arrows instead of guns.
  • The craftsmanship of the action/stunt sequences, which are lifted far above most contenders by the movement and velocity of the camerawork
  • The dialogue, where it exists, is excellent, somewhat surprisingly for the genre, from the poetic opening voiceover to the endlessly quotable Humungus. Throughout the trilogy there is a nice influx of typically Aussie humour that manages to infiltrate even the darker moments.
  • However, I just can’t work out whether the absolutely relentless orchestral score, which blasts along throughout the movie, is a plus or a minus. It’s not that I dislike it as an artistic work, but it does tend to give me a headache

I recently purchased a Polish boxset of four works by director Piotr Szulkin, of whom I had never heard until reading a review by Michael Brooke (always an excellent source of info about Central/Eastern European cinema) of said set in this month’s Sight and Sound. I pounced upon it immediately. The stand out film, for me, was this one, presented chronologically as the third in the group.

The story takes place some time after a nuclear armageddon. The suriviving populace of some unnamed country are housed in a vast underground bunker, unable to leave because of the nuclear winter raging outside. Everyone is waiting for the arrival of “The Ark”, a craft that is going to swoop down and take them all away to a better land. ‘Everyone’ includes the lead character, named Soft, is a kind of fixer for the remaining powers that be (including a crazed general obsessed with the country’s defeat by their enemies, known only as “The Boers”). Soft is a cynical type, though, and has some doubts about the myth of the Ark. However, going about his business, he discovers that nearly everyone is a true believer, whatever attitude they present to him on the surface.

There are loads of fascinating ideas and situations in the film: the lower class of refugees endlessly shuffling around on a guarded lower level, as a loudspeaker relentlessly tells them “There is no ark, there is no ark” (I don’t think the origins of this transmission are ever discussed); the people who simply lie down to die, the dead ones getting official stickers; the currency that is little replicas of the Ark…
Now, believe it or not-and I know that you won’t- I once had a dream in which a large group of people (and myself) were refugees in some kind of vast shelter, filled with all kinds of supplies and equipment, hiding from a never-named catastrophe. This was a long, long time before I was in any way aware of the existence of this film. It didn’t look anything like the film, either (I frequently dream about places that I have never been to, and are, as far as I am aware, completely fictional and made up by my subconscious. It’s nice). Anyway, the design of O-Bi, O-Ba (don’t know why this is the title, TBH) is the way I dream of films looking, regardless of whatever has happened when I sleep. The whole takes place in a very convincing series of crumbling, man-made underground caverns, vaults and chambers, the origins of which are a mystery to me. It is a nuclear bunker constructed by the communists, for all I know. Filled with shuffling extras, and lit with plenty of neon strip lighting, a blue caste over the whole movie, couple with a harsh white light, which accentuates characters and environments beautifully. These dour yet stunning visuals are amazingly reminiscent of the work of European comics creator Enki Bilal (whose Bunker Palace Hotel I review elsewhere), and I am determined that this and other Szulkin films must have had some kind of influence upon him.

‘I am a true Lynch fan. Fuck “Blue Velvet”, everyone loves it. The real Lynch is not “Twin Peaks” the series, but “Fire Walk with Me”, and “Dune”, of course.’ -Slavoj Zizek

I’m not sure about Dune, but this, the later cinema prequel to the TV series, directed by Lynch,  letting his subconscious and experimental side run absolutely hog wild.Several key scenes seem to have been apppoached with a ‘let’s try it’ mentality, more akin to that of an artist privately attempting new techniques in his studio.

Fire Walk With Me (and how evocative was that phrase?) represented my first contact with the show- starting in the wrong place, I know, but my younger self was too captured by a TV screening to let it pass without a glace. A glance was all I got, initially, as my taping of the film cut off almost exactly after the half hour prologue investigation into the murder of Teresa Banks, leaving me much more than intrigued (I was practically salivating over the possible solutions to all the mysteries. My imagination was truly held captive.)Little did I know that, of course, even after seeing the film in full (a couple of years later, with another TV showing, I think), even after seeing the series in full, that those questions would still be hanging in the air (to be honest, though, without seeing the show, even the most basic things confused me- I thought, for instance, that Deer Meadow, the corrupted town at the beginning, was Twin Peaks itself, and the unhelpful folks in Hap’s Diner were maybe series regulars). After this, I tried to find the series, fairly unfashionable at the time, I think, and available only on overpriced, bad quality video cassettes. Until eventually viewing the whole thing on DVD, I think I only got a couple of episodes into the second season before I stopped buying them for one reason or another. But the programme, at my age then, had already tapped into my brain like nothing before or since.

Today, I think the least successful parts, perhaps surprisingly, are those that are most indebted to the TV programme. This is largely because several of the show’s regulars are fairly weak actors (e.g, James Hurley, Leo Johnson- even Sheryl Lee fails to convince me in her big moments of anguish). These scenes also reprise music cues familiar from the serial. The best parts are those that just let go of story and completely embrace dream logic, the stand outs being Laura Palmer drifting in and out of a painting, and an oddly realistic* scene in the nightclub from hell (not actually a nightclub from hell- it’s supposed to be, but it isn’t. Your average town centre nightclub is the nightclub from hell. This one actually looks pretty appealing. It’s got great music for a start). The post murder passage of the culprit into the Black Lodge is some of the greatest near non-verbal purely expressionist/surreal filmmaking I’ve seen.

I would like to know where it was supposed to be headed. Not so much what happened after the evil Cooper left the Lodge (I think that the series, as bad as it was in the second season when Lynch wasn’t around, would have squandered this, and it would have ended up being completely cringeworthy- and it is telling that Lynch avoids almost every aspect of the terrible, idiotic Black Lodge mythology that the series came up with in his absence. Indeed, his thoughts on the series lowpoints are largely unrecorded. He has only stated that when he wasn’t around, Cooper started wearing flannel shirts, something he didn’t think appropriate), but what happened to Chester Desmond? What was going on with David Bowie? Who is Judy? Why does Lynch cut to shots of telegraph poles? It is interesting that a Lynch story left unfinished is fairly similar to that of one completed, in that it seems to make no more or less sense, narratively speaking. Lynch, when interviewed, is usually right: to be told what is going on is to kill some small part of us. The mystery is the thing.
*Side note: Lynch films always contain at least one scene that is more realistic than any in so called ‘normal’ films. In this, it’s the nightclub. In the show pilot, it’s the bit where the morgue attendant mishears Agent Cooper telling him to leave the room. In Wild at Heart it’s probably the car crash bit with Audrey Horne talking about “sticky stuff” in her hair…I’m sure there are others.

This is a somewhat obscuro French sci-fi, directed and co-written by Enki Bilal, the ace Franco/Yugo comics auteur known for his work in Metal Hurlant, and his amazing Nikopol Trilogy (the other writer is Pierre Christin, a collaborator on early titles such as The Black Order Brigade and The Hunting Party). As well as the comics, Bilal had gained some experience prior to this debut- he was drafted in to provide monster designs for Michael Mann’s The Keep (though I don’t think he is to blame for the eventual crappy rubber creature in the final film) and he worked in some sort of production design capacity on an Alain Resnais film. I wish that I could go into some sort of description of the genesis of Bunker Palace, but there is either zero information about the film online, or plenty of information online but all of it in languages foreign to me. The IMDB does not carry even one single external review, for heaven’s sake, and the messageboards are pretty much empty. The only review in English I could find was in my Time Out Film Guide, suggesting that there must have been some kind of English release for the film, even if it perhaps only played in London. Now, however, the only way of seeing the movie with English subtitles was through certain underhanded methods. So, this review will have to be entirely off my own back. Nightmare.

The film is set in a country seemingly torn apart by civil war, perhaps some kind of insurrection against what may be a dictatorship (very little of this is explained). Divisions in the spoken languages of the country are mentioned at several points, and the mise en scene is somewhere beyond the Iron Curtain, colliding with elements of the Balkans (actually filmed, I believe, in Belgrade). We are shown several members of the county’s elite (or perhaps they are members of the cabinet- again, I wasn’t very sure), fleeing to a secret underground bunker, maintained and styled as a hotel (hence the title: though it wasn’t much of a palace, to be honest) staffed exclusively by (incredibly dysfunctional) robot servants. However, amongst them are spies and imposters. One of these is Clara, played by Carole Bouquet (with dyed orange hair and a minimum of make-up, she looks far more beautiful here, to my eyes, than she did as a Bond girl in For Your Eyes Only), a member of the dissidents who ends up inside only after her original spy is killed. Clearly not a member of the group, she is looked upon with hostility and suspicion by them (interesting cast amongst them, including Maria Schneider and Jean-Pierre Leaud), and subjected to several chat-up routines (with an interrogational edge) by the nominal leader of the group, Jean-Louis Trintignant, a mysterious (well, everyone here is fairly mysterious) industrialist with unclear motives. He is not, crucially, the country’s leader, the arrival of whom everyone awaits while debating his motives.

Considering the film is a sci-fi film made in the 1980s, it betrays almost nothing of having been made in that decade, except perhaps for the Cold War inspiration of the setting and Maria Schneider’s mullet. Visually, as is always expected from comic book artists dabbling in film, it is spectacular, yet somehow sombre and muted in terms of the colour palette. What astonishes me is how faithfully Bilal is able to replicate his art style in the pre-digital era (the look of characters is paramount to this: Bouquet is clearly remodelled to be one of his drawings; the other tell is a fat robot nurse wearing a pale green uniform, chalk white face and very red lips), and in addition to that, there are next to no special effects in the film, no blue screen, few fancy gadgets. In the first half it seems like they had a whole railway line to play with, Soviet type trains providing the entry to the bunker.

The film is surprisingly talky, coming from comic book authors (can anyone name another comics artist turned director? I can only think of Frank Miller), but never less than intriguing. Coming into it cold helps with the plot twists, of which there are a couple of crucial ones. Certainly worth tracking, through fair means or foul.

I will also, at some point, review Bilal’s Tykho Moon here, obtained through similar means.

I have Antichrist sitting waiting to be watched. My levels of anticipation/fear are pretty high (I have a bad track record watching torture scenes- never shit myself or wept, anything like that, but I almost walked out of Audition in revulsion). An observation, though: the packaging seems pretty crass, a bloody pair of rusty scissors on the cover of what otherwise seems to be a rather good DVD edition. Is that all the distributors think is noteworthy about the film? That’s a terrible start. I far prefer the poster image of the two leads shagging against the tree, with the hands and that writhing out of the roots. It’s a more original image than the one they’ve supplied. I’m hoping that there’s plenty more on offer than the violence. Because I’ll probably have my eyes shut during those parts.

This will be an occasional thing, reviewing the films I see, largely so I don’t forget any thoughts/ideas that I’ve had about them (I imagine it will be easier to find and read than stuff hand-written on scraps of paper and left to clutter up the floor of my room). When I can be arsed, of course.

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