10 MOVIES, 10 DAYS: A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

A Night At The Opera

Oh, God. How to describe the impact the Marx Brothers have had on my psyche? You know that thing where my first reaction to everything you have to say is a wisecrack? You know how I’ve had three sons, and if they’re within five feet of me you have to keep telling me to stop rough-housing with them? You know how, every now and again, I tell you that it made sense to me? That it’s not my fault if people can’t keep up? That I’m only here to amuse myself, and everyone else is only watching?

Yeah. That.

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10 MOVIES, 10 DAYS: DOCTOR STRANGELOVE

Strangelove

Art should never be comfort food. It should always challenge, undermine, rebel, and otherwise find apple carts to upset. And while humour can be a reassuring reinforcement of your thought patterns, I’ve always been drawn to a rather black variation of the form.

Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, to give it its stupidly full title, is a deliciously uncomfortable viewing experience. It is absurdism writ large and painful, cut so close to the cultural bone that future archaeologists will take it as proof of cannibalism. It is, in many ways, Stanley Kubrick’s misanthropic masterpiece, and the perfect exploration of his working habits– every scene, every moment, cut and recut until they are pared down to their very minimum; no fat, no blether; simply distilled, pure, predatory, poison. It’s all tied together, of course, by the pitch-perfect performances of George C Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, and the never-better Peter Sellers.

I never quite cut it as a stand-up comedian. I couldn’t bring myself to pitch my material at the heart of the beer-and-knob-gags crowd that populated Perth’s evenings, and late in my career I developed a case of the performance yips that sunk me completely. And movies like this were partly to blame– perhaps, had I been less in love with Kubrick’s acidic perfectionism, and more a fan of, well, Porky’s…… but as an artist of a different stripe, the beautiful turns of phrase, the sublime juxtapositioning of elements, the obsessionally fierce holding to point of view and narrative voice, all have been part of my artistic education. And, just as importantly, this movie remains a sublime and simply magnificent slice of perfection, more than 50 years after the possibilities with which it concerns itself have reached their first-run nadir.

It’s still the War Room, and you still can’t fight here.

 

10 MOVIES, 10 DAYS: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

Young Frankenstein

For a period of my teenage years, Mel Brooks was the funniest man alive. I was, and remain, an unabashed fan of his off-color, utterly inappropriate humour. Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, The Producers, Silent Movie, History of the World Part One, To Be or Not To Be…… they make me snort with unrestrained, childish glee.

Young Frankenstein is something better. It’s everything Brooks’ other best films are: funny, scatalogical, sexual (Madeline Kahn was an early, intense, crush), nonsensical, and absurd. But it also shows a deep love for its source material, in a way that most of hos other parodies don’t. And it is also very, very clever. It can be argued, with some success, that the central trio of talent involved– Brooks, Gene Wilder, and Marty Feldman– were never in better form, certainly never better together. And the whole thing just hangs together so beautifully.

For most of my career I’ve been a speculative fiction writer, but the label has sat uneasily upon me. I’ve been open about it– I like being a spec fic writer, but I didn’t set out to be one. I set out to be a writer. No prefix. I’m fascinated by artists who transcend their prime activity, by polymaths, by people who aspire to break out of their artistic restraints.

Young Frankenstein stands out. It’s a sign of artists investing in something so deeply that they transcend their surrounding ouvre. In many moments within the film, their investment transcends the material itself. It’s funny, it’s anarchic, it’s everything you want in a Mel Brooks film… and then it’s a bit more. For an artist who has failed more often than he has succeeded in transcending his own ouvre, it’s an education.

And it’s still fucking hilarious.

Blucher!

 

10 MOVIES, 10 DAYS: HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER

High Plains Drifter

There’s some damn weird shit going on here. A stranger rides into an isolated town, rapes one of the local women, bullies the local businessmen, shoots folk, and generally terrorises the townspeople until they hire him to protect them from three Very Bad Men ™ who are returning to cause mayhem after a stint in the pokie. In response, he anoints a dwarf as Sheriff, orders the townspeople to paint every building bright red and rechristen the town ‘Hell’, and sets out a giant picnic using every scrap of food the town has to spare……

High Plains Drifter is not your average western. It’s a metaphysical rumination on the nature of evil, and the deals that marginally-honest people will make to keep hold of power. It’s downright spiritual. It operates on multiple levels at once, taking a brutalist approach to themes of betrayal, power dynamics, and heroism. It is, at once, both repellent and utterly fascinating. Its surface layer is skin thin– the expendable loner versus the trio of obvious baddies– like High Noon seen in a fun house mirror. But the surface narrative is simply the delivery medium: what’s really being discussed here is something far deeper, and far more insidious.

Clint Eastwood has always been a master filmmaker, and his record as a total jerk of a human being is also well established. High Plains Drifter is a nearly-perfect vehicle for him– a psychological examination of extreme viewpoints, in which innocence is seen as weakness and the only strength comes from a toxic masculinity that eats the person wielding it, even as it reinforces the might-makes-right conservatism that we know is central to Eastwood’s world view. It is no simple western. It is a brilliant western, and its brilliance lies in the fact that its brilliance as a western is almost entirely irrelevant to its brilliance as a truly weird psychological horror story.

It’s a jaw-dropping piece of cinematic wonder, and I find myself returning to it on a regular basis, just to watch in awe as it remorselessly unfolds its weirdness. It is a perfect lesson in character development, and how to build a narrative from nothing but rotten materials.

 

 

10 MOVIES, 10 DAYS: THE GENERAL

The General

The General is a stunningly funny film. Thing is, I didn’t realise that until the third time I watched it. The first time, I spent the whole experience with my jaw hovering just above my ankles. The second, with my face pressed up against the screen as I spent my time trying to work out how. The third time was the one where I could sit back, relax, and take in just what an unbelievable genius Buster Keaton was.

And a lifelong fascination was born.

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10 MOVIES, 10 DAYS: FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING

LOTR

I first read the Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was ten years old. I read it in an omnibus volume, all three books together. The one with the cover depicting the Nazgul from the Ralph Bakshi animated movie of which we shall not speak. I read it annually, until I was well into my twenties. There is no single book that has had so much impact upon, or sway over, my life. One of the games that my good friend Sean and I enjoyed playing, as students, was to cast and set our favourite books to film: over the years I developed numerous different variations on a Lord of the Rings films.

Imagine, then, my utter joy, at finding the book at the core of my life was going to be made into a trilogy. Properly done, with serious funding, and a big cast, and all the Hollywood-tentpole-production trimmings.

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10 MOVIES, 10 DAYS: THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW

Rocky Horror

I’m going to give my Mum the benefit of the doubt: despite the blurb on the back of the video box, despite the pictures, despite the reputation, it’s entirely possible that when she brought this movie home as the very first we would watch on our very first VCR (a gift to ourselves to help cope with the departure of our Dad after a particularly messy separation fought out away from  our eyes with a startling lack of success), she had no idea what it was actually about.

Otherwise, she was in such an emotional state that a movie featuring cannibalism, blow-jobs, orgies, and songs about cross-dressers wishing they were Fay Wray seemed exactly the movie to show to shell-shocked and traumatised 13 and 10 years old boys.

Whatever. The truth is, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a triumphantly anarchic mess. Part musical, part horror story, part twisted love letter to exactly the same 1950s Z-grade Rubber Suit Monster movies I hold so close to my heart, it is entirely a creature of excess. The Time Warp had been a radio and disco staple for my peers and I since primary school. That was not enough to prepare us for the triumphant entrance of Frank-N-Furter, and everything that followed I’m a Sweet Transvestite. The darker the movie became, the more Mum fell still and silent and disapproving, and the more I responded in exactly the opposite direction.

The seeds of an awful lot of my artistic… is fetishes the right word?… have their beginnings in this movie: the shock theatre (any wonder Alice Cooper entered my consciousness at roughly the same time); the combinations of joy/darkness/sensuality/outrage; the dualities; the sexualisation of fetishism and horror… as a young teen who was suddenly bereft of the father figure he was hoping would actually take a fatherly interest in him (My Dad: not one of those hey-buddy-wanna-toss-a-ball-and-learn-how-to-shave kinda guys), confirmation that the world was a nihilistic freak show where the main guiding rule was to seek out pleasure for its own rewards came at exactly the… well, choose right or wrong as your own personal feelings guide you.

Slowly but surely, I was departing from the paths that my school peers would follow. I was isolating myself: emotionally; culturally; and psychologically. There would be hard years to come, and I would be at University becfore it all began to pay off, but The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an important part of that beginning. There was an entire world out there– other worlds, even– where those things that were repressed and mocked in 1980s Rockingham were not only tolerated, but celebrated. It was a thought to hold onto as my school days became darker.

Seen thirty years later, it’s still a great romp with a fantastic soundtrack. The sexual and horror elements seem slightly twee now, compared to what I’ve seen in the intervening years, but somehow that only serves to add to its charm. It’s an unholy mess of a movie, every element thrown together with joyful abandon with no great care as to where they land. But by God, it’s a fun unholy mess, and one that gave me a life raft just as the water were begiining to rise.