Thursday, January 24, 2008

Come in (the Water's Fine)

John Moulder-Brown at 17 (passing for 15)

The Northwest Film Forum has just announced that they're extending the run
of Jerzy Skolimowski's hilarious and heartbreaking Deep End. Made 37 years
ago, but denied a formal US release until now, it's my favorite film of the new
year, and that includes such highly touted titles as P.T. Anderson's eight-time
Oscar nominee There Will Be Blood and Christian Mungiu's Palme d'Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (opening in Seattle on 2/8; venue to be announced).

Both, incidentally, are well worth seeing, but Deep End is funnier and sexier-
and just as tragic as the latter, though the repurcussions are less wide-ranging.

[image]
The Manchester-born Kwouk at 76

Plus, as Siffblog contributor E. Steven Fried brought to my attention, the hotdog vendor is played by Pink Panther and Bond veteran Burt Kwouk. A glance at the IMDb reveals that Mr. Kwouk is alive and well and working regularly on British television. That special something he adds to Deep End only serves to make a fine film better.

In my review, I also neglected to single out German actor Karl Michael Vogler (Downhill Racer, Patton, etc.) who valiantly tackles a more substantial--if some-
what thankless--role as Mike's former gym teacher (and Susan's married lover).

[image]
Vogler at 35

Click here for original review. Deep End continues at the North-
west Film Forum Sun., 1/27 - Thurs., 1/31, at 7:15 and 9:15pm
(no screenings 1/30). Images from Bravo, the NWFF, and Squat.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Soul Desert: Part III

DEEP END
(Jerzy Skolimowski, UK, 1971, 35mm, 90 mins.)


Part III (click here for Parts I and II)

I don't want to work away
Doing just what they all say
Work hard, boy, and you'll find
One day you'll have a job like mine.

-- Cat Stevens, "But I Might Die Tonight"


Long before Can and the Smiths, I fell in love with Cat Stevens (born Steven Demetre Georgiou)--a love affair that continues to this day. Yes, he supported
the Ayatolla's fatwa against Salman Rushdie in the wake of 1988's The Satanic
Verses
. The media was quick to spread the word. Sadly, few outlets took the op-
portunity to report his retraction. Now known as Yusuf Islam, the British singer/
songwriter blames the fervor of a new convert for his poor judgment. He remains
a Muslim, but has since returned to the peace-loving ways that once defined him.

I didn't discover Stevens's music on my own. My mom had copies of his fourth
and fifth albums, Tea for the Tillerman (1970) and Teaser and the Firecat (1971). I played them more often than she did. His career didn't end there, of course, but Stevens never again released records as consistent as these folk-pop masterworks.

Cat...in a hat

The same year Hal Ashby set 1971's Harold and Maude to Stevens's music, Skolimowski did the same with Deep End. There's a key difference, though.

While the former is saturated with his sound, the latter makes use of a singular number (Ashby also mined Tea for the Tillerman for material). That's it: one Can song, one Cat Stevens song, and the possible inspiration for a Smiths song.

Just as Zodiac reminds that Donovan had a dark side--David Fincher's patient procedural opens and closes with the haunting "Hurdy Gurdy Man"--Deep End repurposes Cat Stevens to similar effect, with anger replacing dread.

The cryptic credit sequence begins with Tea for the Tillerman's "But I Might Die Tonight." It's hard to tell what's going on. There's a hand, machinery, and some
kind of red substance, either paint or blood. (The final act clears up the mystery; it's paint and blood.) Then Skolimowski cuts to the impossibly pretty Mike riding his bike down a London street. This exhilarating scene could be straight out of Ridley Scott's first film, Boy and Bicycle (1959). In fact, I'm willing to wager Skolimowski had seen it (Scott's younger brother, Tony, plays the talkative truant of the title).

[image]
Tony Scott on a bike

It's Mike's first day as a bathhouse attendant. Susan, a 23-year-old strawberry-blonde, shows him the ropes. She proceeds to tell him everything he needs to
know. But nothing can prepare Mike for the desperation of the bathhouse's den-
izens, from Diana Dors's football-fixated matron to former classmate Cathy, whose advances he politely rejects. The reason is simple: he's got Susan in his sights. He knows she's engaged. He knows she's sleeping with the sleazy swim coach. Mike is too young, too poor, and too naive for an experienced social-climber like Susan.

Click here for the song and here for a film clip


But knowing is only half the battle. When Mike's hormones take over, proportion
and propriety go out the window. Soon, he's a stalker, a peeper, and, to quote
Steve Miller, a "midnight creeper." Susan may be a demi-bitch, but as embodied
by Asher, her attraction isn't hard to understand. (Paul McCartney once felt the same.) Did I mention that Deep End is terribly sexy? At one point, Mike imagines
her naked in the pool-an image to rival Jenny Agutter's dip in Nic Roeg's Walkabout.

[jane asher]

Mike's interest in Susan's physique merges with an increasing interest in her soul.
It isn't a Christian compulsion, but it might as well be. She has an active sex life,
but not much of a love life--not much of a life at all, other than work and sex. Mike
becomes convinced he loves Susan, and wants her to share his idealistic ardor.

Towards the end of the film, he follows his co-worker and her boorish companion
to London's seedy Soho, where Can's "Mother Sky" signals his confusion and dis-
orientation. What are they doing here? How can he extract her from the situation?

As the band pounds away, Mike comes up with a plan. It isn't much of
one, but at least it's a start. Exults Britmovie's Drew Shimon, "Not only is
it one of the most evocative and captivating, but quite simply it's one of
the most utterly bonkers scenes in any British picture ever released...and
all the better for it." And it involves one life-size placard and six hotdogs.



Deep End concludes with "But I Might Die Tonight," which builds to an anguished
cry, followed by an organ flourish. The final shots echo the first, but everything
has been turned around. Mike gets what he wants, but not the way he wanted it.

I wasn't prepared for something so bleak after so much humor, but Skolimowski signaled his intentions from the start. Like his protagonist, I reveled in the qualities I found most appealing, while ignoring their uglier intimations. As the The Rock Man might put it, "You see what you want to see. You hear what you want to hear." Arguably, the director should've exercised more restraint. Then again, Mike gives in to his baser impulses; Skolimowski's filmmaking reflects that loss of control.

As the year continues, more sophisticated entertainments are sure to hit the rep-
ertory circuit. And I've admitted my biases up front: Can, Cat Stevens, Swinging London-and anything that inspired Stephen Patrick Morrissey to pick up his poison pen. (Ah, but that's wishful thinking. According to my research, "Half a Person" was actually inspired by fact, not fiction.) Nonetheless, Deep End is the kind of movie I might've conjured up in my dreams, but never imagined could ever possibly exist. Miraculously, however, it does. And here it is. Better 26 years late than never.

Epilogue

[moonlighting]
Irons and Skolimowski

You may be wondering what the now Los Angeles-based Skolimowski has been doing lately. After all, he hasn't released a film in 16 years. First, he and Frederic Raphael have been working on an adaptation of Susan Sontag's In America. More significantly, in 2007, the actor/director/poet/boxer/drummer/painter scored his best gig in ages.

Just as Deep End is a British feature made by a Pole, 1982's Moonlighting, his most successful picture, is a Polish feature starring a Brit. That Brit, Jeremy Irons, has done some of his best work, like Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly, for David Cronenberg.

So, my theory goes like this: Irons introduced Cronenberg to Skolimowski. Hence,
he ends up as Naomi Watts's Russian uncle in the London-set Eastern Promises (Irons's wife, Sinead Cusack, plays her mother). In Senses of Cinema, Bruce Hods-
don explains that, "Somewhat paradoxically, identifying with Russian culture was a way of resisting Soviet influence." Cronenberg's film represents another chance for resistance-against the ink-stained Russian mob. And he's brilliant. So is Deep End.

Click here for an addendum.




Deep End plays the Northwest Film Forum from 1/18 - 24, Fri. - Thurs., at 7 and 9:15pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please
click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from the All Music Guide, Amazon, Film Reference, Microcinema DVDs, MovieMeter, Nostalgia Central, and Pop Thing!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Soul Desert: Parts I and II

DEEP END
(Jerzy Skolimowski, UK, 1971, 35mm, 90 mins.)


John Moulder-Brown

Prologue

A soundtrack that eclipses the film with which it's associated is not an anomaly. Pink Floyd's More (1969) is a case in point. Though I've owned the CD for years, I still haven't watched Barbet Schroeder's drug-filled debut. Due to a combination of distribution problems and rights issues, Deep End has been difficult to see for decades. What distinguishes the title from other musically-oriented cult classics
is that it features very little music. But that music has taken on a life of its own.

Part I

No band in the world illustrates the inadequacies
of today's musical terminology more than Can.

-- Derek Jewel, The Sunday Times (1974)


I had been looking forward to seeing Jerzy Skolimowski's second English-lan-
guage effort ever since I discovered Can's stunning collection, Soundtracks, in 19-
82. Twenty-six years is a long time to wait to see-or do-anything. Well...it was worth the wait. And then some. In fact, it's unlikely I'll see a better film this year.

When I was involved with college radio in the 1980s, the Cologne-bas-
ed band was a revelation like no other. Public Image Limited and the Fall
were something, but Can was something else altogether (and they count
the Fall's Mark E. Smith and PiL's Jah Wobble among their many fans).



The first record I heard was 1980's handy confabulation of odds and
sods, Cannibalism I. Then came 1970's Soundtracks, an enduring
favorite. As the title indicates, it's also an assemblage, rather than a
proper album. In this case, each song corresponds to a specific Eas-
tern European film (all five appear in the cover illustration above).

The jewel in the crown is the 14-minute "Mother Sky" featuring Japan's Kenji
"Damo" Suzuki, a former street musician (their original singer was American
sculptor Malcolm Mooney). Just as Peter Whitehead deploys Floyd's magnum
opus, "Interstellar Overdrive," so artfully in 1967's Tonite Let's All Make Love
in London
, Skolimowski gives "Mother Sky" similar pride of place in Deep End.

Like UK contemporaries Soft Machine and Floyd, Can poached from pop, jazz,
and experimental music. And like Brian Eno, with whom drummer Jaki Liebe-
zeit would collaborate, they sound like they're from another time-possibly ev-
en another world (pun intended). The word "psychedelic" doesn't cut it. Then ag-
ain, Mooney and Suzuki sang in their own unique argot, and bassist Holger Czu-
kay and keyboardist Irmin Schmidt studied with the late Karlheinz Stockhausen.

Numerous alternative acts, notably Stereolab and LCD Soundsystem, have
drawn inspiration from the quintet. Rapper Kanye West even samples them
on 2007's Graduation, but nobody sounds exactly like "the Can." Or ever will.

Post-Suzuki Can

As with Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966), Deep End looks at Swinging London from the outside in. But just as Blow-Up doesn't feel Italian, the Munich-filmed Deep End doesn't feel Polish (or German) any more than Roman Polanski's UK-situated Repulsion (1966). [Skolimowski co-wrote Polanski's 1962 debut, Knife in the Water.]

As David Thompson stated in last August's Sight & Sound ("75 Hidden
Gems: The Films That Time Forgot"), "The energy of a foreigner tackling
British territory easily outweighs misjudgments of class accents, and today
the soundtrack by Can and Cat Stevens would probably win a high cool rating."
(Moulder-Brown's appealing accent is more plummy than cockney.)

These are all thoroughly British films, regardless as to the non-Brits be-
hind the camera--or on the soundtrack. And like the UK-born Whitehead's
wide-ranging expose, they're death knells for an era, not celebrations.


Can - "Mother Sky" (1969)

Part II

And if you have five seconds to spare
Then I'll tell you the story of my life:
Sixteen, clumsy and shy
I went to London and I
I booked myself in at the Y ... W.C.A.
I said: "I like it here-can I stay?
I like it here-can I stay?
And do you have a vacancy
For a back-scrubber?"

-- The Smiths, "Half a Person"




I became acquainted with the Smiths' "Half a Person" five years after Can
(courtesy 1987's double-disc set Louder than Bombs). I didn't know it then, but
after watching Deep End, it occured to me that Morrissey's sad lament could al-
most be a loose adaptation of Skolimowski's sixth film, even if Moulder-Brown's
Mike is 15 rather than 16. Further, he works in the Newford Bath House, rather
than the YWCA, but he is indeed a "back scrubber." He's also "clumsy and shy."

In strictly cinematic terms, Mike's a more dangerous cousin to Tom Cour-
tenay's dreamy mortuary attendant in John Schlesinger's Billy Liar (1963).
He's cute, he's charming, but-to borrow another word from Morrissey--
he's also "morbid." (And "pale.") Just as Julie Christie's Liz brings out
the best in Billy, Jane Asher's Susan brings out the worst in Mike.

David Thompson paints Susan as "a divine demi-bitch out for everything she
can get." He adds that "Skolimowski's direction is extravagant, crude and tender
by turns, slapping the audience in the face with its insouciance and weird wit."

Deep End begins like a comic gloss on Blow-Up and ends like an art-dam-
aged The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) or If... (1968). But
while Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson allowed their angry young
men pyrrhic victories against unbeatable foes, Skolimowski's outclassed
anti-hero makes his move too late. Mostly, he makes the wrong move.

Next: Part III

Courtenay and Christie in Billy Liar

Deep End plays the Northwest Film Forum from 1/18 - 24, Fri. - Thurs., at 7 and 9:15pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from the All Music Guide, Amazon, Answers.com, and Subterranean Cinema; video from YouTube.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

My Best and Worst of 2007

This is only the second year I've attempted to make such a thing, and this year I was smart and actually kept a running list of every film I saw. The list topped out at only 118, and that includes Netflix. Here's to beating that total in 2008!

5 Best:
No Country for Old Men
Waitress
Grindhouse
Paris Je T'aime
Sweeney Todd

Honorable mentions:
The Science of Sleep
30 Days of Night
The Signal
2 Days in Paris
Atonement (altho I'm still not sure about that ending...)

5 Worst:
Amazing Grace
Fracture
Spiderman 3
Shrek the Third
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Love & Marriage

MARRIED LIFE
(Ira Sachs, US, 2007, 90 mins.)


PREFAB PEOPLE
(Bela Tarr, Hungary, 1982, 102 mins.)


Love and marriage, love and marriage
It's an institute you can't disparage.

-- Frank Sinatra (Cahn/Van Heusen)

prefab%20people.jpg
Nothing to "disparage" here...

By coincidence, I watched Bela Tarr's third feature, Prefab People (1982), a week before Ira Sachs's third, Married Life (2007). While the former is Hungarian, the latter American, both concern unhappy unions. Aside from the fact that Married Life was shot in color and takes place in 1949, the primary difference is that the blue-collar marriage in Tarr's black and white movie is obviously problematic, whereas
the bourgeois one in Sachs's appears healthy, but fissures lie beneath the surface.

That doesn't make either film a drag. Married Life, for instance, is humorous
in a sardonic sort of way. Chris Cooper's Harry and Patricia Clarkson's Pat are
joined by Rachel McAdams as Harry's mistress, Kay, and Pierce Brosnan as his drinking buddy, Richard. For the story's outline, Sachs and Oren Moverman (I'm
Not There
) turned to John Bingham's 1953 novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven. At
The House Next Door, Keith Uhlich reveals that Bingham, a former spy, was the
basis for John Le Carre's George Smiley character. Married Life eschews espion-
age, but there's plenty of suspense, i.e. Will Harry kill his wife or not?

marriedlife2.jpg
The Allens and their charming "fissures"
In the case of Prefab People, murder never rears its ugly head, but Tarr builds suspense by beginning at the end before doubling back. Nonetheless, he and
Sachs come to the same conclusion: some people are fated to stay together.
Unlike the well spoken duo in Married Life, however, Judit Pog/*ny's Feleseg and R/>=bert Koltai's Ferj (a real-life couple) don't mince words. She: "You drink too
much." He: "You talk too much." The film has a few comedic moments, too, like when Ferj tries to explain the difference between capitalism, communism, and soc-
ialism to his blank-faced son. In his view, communism is the height of perfection.
While Married Life is stylish and controlled, a cross between Far From Heaven
and AMC's Mad Men, Prefab People, result of a 10-day shoot, feels loose and spontaneous. This may surprise those familiar with Tarr's recent work, although he still films primarily in B&W. In 2006, the Northwest Film Forum screened Damnation (1987), Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), and S/*t/*ntang/>= (1994). All three contain some of the most mesmerizing long takes in movie history. In his early efforts, on the contrary, he invades his cast's space via handheld camera (Tarr makes little distinction between facial and landscape topography). Along with Prefab People, the NWFF will be showing Family Nest (1977), The Outsider (1980), and Almanac of Fall (1984). (Tarr's latest, The Man From London, remains without US distribution.)
MarriedLife.jpg
Here she comes again / she's my best friend's girl.
Jonathan Rosenbaum (The Chicago Reader) compares Tarr's early-'80s output
to John Cassavetes-and the director expresses admiration for the "personality"
of Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Jean-Luc Godard-but I was re-
minded more of Krzysztof Kieslowski, circa 1966-80. Both Eastern European dir-
ectors, in their younger days, had an empathetic interest in the lower class. Kies-
lowski never lost his empathy, but as he moved from Poland to France, his char-
acters, like Ir/(R)ne Jacob's opera singer in The Double Life of Veronique, grew in both income and stature. They also became more conventionally attractive (see Juliet-
te Binoche in Blue and Julie Delpy in White). The same cannot be said of Tarr.
As for Sachs, it's too soon to say whether his filmography will favor one in-
come class over another. Granted, Rip Torn, star of the Sundance Grand Jury
Prize-winning Forty Shades of Blue (2005), plays a moneyed record mogul, and Sachs's debut, The Delta (1996), concentrates on a comfortably middle-class
teenager, but less affluent folks are often floating around the periphery.
As a dedicated follower of the domestic drama, I found the temptation to
establish links between these two films irresistible. In truth, though, they're
marked by more differences than similarities-except for that unhappy mar-
riage thing. Neither Prefab People nor Married Life rivals Who's Afraid of Vir-
ginia Woolf?
or Scenes From a Marriage in the most memorable matrimony-as-
warfare sweepstakes, but both belong on the short list of worthy runners-up.
prefab%20people2.jpg
Elliptic and Unbridled: The Early Films of Bela Tarr runs at the Northwest Film
Forum from 1/8 - 30. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Avenue on Capitol
Hill between Pike and Pine. Married Life opens on 3/21 at the Guild 45th. For
more information on the Tarr retrospective, please click here or call 206-329-
2629. Prefab People images from David Bordwell's Website on Cinema and
the NWFF, Married Life images -(c) Copyright Sidney Kimmel Entertainment.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

2007 - What I Liked

I enjoyed a number of films this year and kept a log of everything I saw. And yet, compiling a top 10 list or a top 20 list or any such list is difficult. I don't feel comfortable ranking the things I saw. I did like some films more than others, but sometimes by an infinitesimal amount; sometimes I loved a film while watching it, but ended up liking it a little less upon reflection or vice versa. Some films I saw, because everyone was seeing them and I liked them, but not as much as everyone else. At least, I didn't think they were the canon-worthy classics everyone made them out to be. Also, I'm not sure how many of the films I saw would be considered 2007 releases, a lot of them played NY, LA, pretty much everywhere, before they came to Seattle. So, here's a list of some of the films I liked, in the order in which I saw them.

Ghost Rider
Zodiac
Life In Loops
4 Elements
Murch
King of Kong
Svobodnoe plavanie [Free Floating]
The Pervert's Guide to Cinema
Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
La Stella che non c'/(R) [Missing Star]
Red Road
Superbad
Quiet City
Jack Mitchell: My Life Is Black and White
Brand Upon The Brain!
Control
Charming Augustine
No Country For Old Men
Southland Tales
I'm Not There
Lynch
Juventude Em Marcha [Colossal Youth]
Sweeney Todd
Le Scaphandre et le papillon [The Diving Bell and The Butterfly]