Tag Archives: British

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: ORLANDO (1992)

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DIRECTED BY: Sally Potter

FEATURING: Tilda Swinton, Billy Zane, Charlotte Valandrey, John Wood, Lothaire Bluteau, Quentin Crisp, Jimmy Somerville

PLOT: A young English nobleman looks for his place while exploring the vicissitudes of life over the course of several centuries, delving into love, politics, war, and poetry; eventually, he becomes a woman.

Still from Orlando (1992)

COMMENTS: Tilda Swinton is the Mona Lisa. Not “looks like.” I say she’s the genuine article, galvanized by the muse Melpomene and reveling in the mask of placidity that she uses to conceal any deep feeling she might harbor. With her narrow, skeptical eyes and lips that betray only the barest hint of her bemusement with the world, Swinton is truly the living embodiment of that icon of mystery. What a magnificent piece of luck, then, to secure her services in the leading role of a person who views the trappings of gender and power with a maximum level of detachment and disinterest. An actor perennially dismissive of the limitations of gender, she navigates between sexes with hardly a hesitation. Orlando proves to be an excellent launchpad not only for her talents but also for the way she likes to deploy them.  

We first meet Orlando in 1600 as an aimless boy who comes into the orbit of the Virgin Queen herself (played, in a piece of thematic foreshadowing, by the English raconteur Quentin Crisp). The Queen is eager to welcome this bare-faced boy into her orbit, but under one condition: “Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” A modest request to be sure, but he will spend the next four centuries honoring the Queen’s command, steadfastly bypassing death or even aging  in favor of a lengthy exploration of love, sex, and self.

If you didn’t know Orlando was adapted from a Virginia Woolf novel published 95 years ago, it might easily be branded as a fantasia of feminism or a revisionist history of transgenderism. As it stands, the film (like its source material) proves to be surprisingly prescient. The film is littered with historical examples of gender fluidity, from the songs performed by castrati to the stunning costumes of Sandy Powell, in which Restoration-era men are adorned with enough frills and artifice to make the patrons of the Met Ball look Amish, while women are sometimes indistinguishable from furniture that has been mothballed for the season. Orlando seeks to demonstrate that if you think androgyny and gender blurring are modern phenomena, well, crack open a history book.

Part of the film’s delight is that it is intensely interested in the strange, but the word is never applied to the things we find most unusual in it. “How strange,” the new-found Lady Orlando notes as she castigates the leading poets of the day for their indulgence in casual misogyny even as they extol the virtues of their feminine muses. “How strange,” she repeats as she apologizes for her failure to acquire the name of the fascinating man who arouses love in her for the first time. But the fact of her femaleness in spite of her previous masculinity? Not weird at all. The fact of the gender shift (which is portrayed less as a binary switch and more as a clarification) is the one thing Orlando seems entirely certain about. The moment where Orlando first lays eyes on her new form is immensely powerful, not for the shock of the change or for any eroticism attached to the nude, but rather for the gentle and pleasant surprise she finds in discovering that her sense of self is fully intact, completely divorced from language or attitude or anatomy.

While watching Orlando, there’s an inclination to feel that not very much is happening, and Swinton’s nonplussed vibe can feel at odds with the engagement you might expect as a viewer. But she’s a sly one, that Orlando, and her tale has a vivid afterlife in the brain as you consider the whole of their experiences and realize that nothing has lingered in quite the way you expect. You feel pity for the deluded Archduke Harry rather than anger at his effrontery. You find unexpected grace in the romantic overtures of Billy Zane. And most of all, you discover that the seemingly empty gaze of Tilda Swinton is in fact triumphant, because she knows so much that you never will. And to demonstrate it, all she needs is the hint of a smile.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Sally Potter’s marvelous 1992 film of this undeniably strange, altogether wonderful book now makes its way back to theaters after a digital restoration, and in a bleak cinematic landscape, this oddball film feels especially vital.” – Chris Wisniewski, Reverse Shot (2010 re-release)

(This movie was nominated for review by wuzzyfuzzums, who describes it thusly: ” Based on an equally weird novel by Virginia Woolf, our hero/heroine is an immortal aristocrat who transforms half-way through the movie from a man into a woman, for no particular reason.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: RADIO ON (1979)

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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Petit

FEATURING: David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer

PLOT: A disc jockey drives across the UK when he learns about his brother’s death.

Still from Radio On (1979)

COMMENTS: Radio On is well aware that its soundtrack is its strongest (or, at least, its most marketable) component. The movie begins with the sound of a radio dial quickly migrating through static and brief news snippets to fasten onto singing “Heroes” (the rare extended version where the crooner sings the lyrics in both English and German). The main cast are quickly credited, and then we launch into the soundtrack credits:  Bowie. Kraftwerk. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Ian Dury. A bunch of late punk/early new wave acts now forgotten. Devo. (Though not credited, a young Sting will also cameo, as a guitar-playing gas station pump jockey who sings Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven.”) Cinematic staple “Heroes” continues to drone as the black and white camera pans through a cluttered apartment to eventually light upon a body in a bathtub.

Unfortunately, the zeitgeist tunes and superior camerawork (by associate Martin Schäfer, one of several connections to the German director found in Radio On) are the movie’s only real draws. Made just as Thatcherism was taking hold in the U.K., Radio On is as dour and torpid as the mindset of liberal intellectuals of the period. That body in the bathtub belongs to our DJ protagonist Robert’s dead brother, who, after 25 or so minutes of dilly-dallying, staring off into space, and getting a haircut in what seems like real time, sets him off on a journey to find out what happened. The camera focuses on the ugliest examples of modern British architecture it can find—factories, tenement skyscrapers, freeway on-ramps—so that when we finally see the flat and bleak English landscape outside his car window, it looks pastoral by comparison. Newscasts blather on about crime and obscenity raids, until our expressionless antihero turns on some Kraftwerk in boredom. It’s all very esque, stylishly alienated and dispassionate. Once the journey gets afoot, Petit livens up the scenario (not a difficult task) with a few chance encounters: a Scottish army deserter, Sting, and a plot detour with a German woman (Wenders’ ex-wife Kreuzer) fruitlessly searching for the daughter her ex-husband has taken to England. Robert’s car deteriorates throughout the journey, until it ends up stalled out at a quarry by a beach. We never learn exactly what happened to the brother.

I’m sure Radio On accurately captures the mood of anomie among leftists in 1979 England. As a time capsule, it has some value beyond the soundtrack and cinematography. But the aggressively disenchanted pallor makes it a hard sell for people who weren’t there. Despite the Bowie tunes, most of the movie informed by long, ambiguous-but-sad silences.

Radio On was a surprise late 2021 release from Vinegar Syndrome (via partner label Fun City). The movie has a small but loyal British following, and among the surprising number of extras on the disc (including a Kier-La Janisse commentary track and multiple interviews with director Petit) is “Radio On (Remix),” a 24-minute experimental film composed of altered Radio On footage with a schizophrenic audio mix and lines of poetry appearing in subtitles. I’m personally much fonder of this abstract, dreamlike approach to the material, but it’s difficult to say how it would work as a standalone piece for someone with no knowledge of the feature.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an enigmatic and offbeat walk on the wild side.”–Rob Aldam, Backseat Mafia (Blu-ray)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: THE NINE LIVES OF TOMAS KATZ (2000)

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DIRECTED BY: Ben Hopkins

FEATURING: Tom Fisher, Ian McNiece, Will Keen, Tony Maudsley

PLOT: On the day of a rare solar eclipse, a stranger with the ability to switch places with others arrives in London. His identity-swapping and subsequent trouble-making have an immediate impact on the natural order of things. A police inspector suspects that the disappearance of the Astral Child That Represents Existence may be responsible for the strange happenings and interrogates the spirits in an attempt to stave off disaster.

Still from The Nine Lives of Thomas Katz (2001)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Combining stark surrealism, a heightened and aching sense of dread, and a heaping dollop of British absurdism, The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz has a profoundly distinctive point of view—there’s a perverse thrill in the way the film not only accepts its incongruities but relies upon a relentless commitment to them.

COMMENTS: Tomas Katz – whose name might in fact be “No” – has a ready answer to a casual question about what he does for a living: “I cut people open to find out where their dreams lurk.” What he doesn’t say is that he knows the ugly truth about most of those dreams: they are fractured or forever out of reach or consigned to the dustbin of memory. And this is the day when Tomas Katz will resolve all of those dreams by ending the world.

If The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz could be said to have a theme, it is that the world is simultaneously ridiculous and tragic. For a movie ostensibly about the end of everything, there’s not much concern about the actual end. It all seems pretty messed up, and usually in a pretty amusing way. We’ve got war, but it’s declared by the Minister for Fisheries against a country with a silly name. We’ve got financial calamity, but it’s brought about by an angelic choir. We even have the mass of humanity marching to Gehenna, but that just turns out to be the last stop on the London Underground. It’s nihilism with a smile, a sweet-smelling hangover.

The world into which No enters, which is primarily London as encompassed by the M25 motorway, is one where Britain’s famous stiff upper lip has metastasized into a blend of habit and ennui. Londoners are trained to silently endure the wait for their train, so when an announcement informs them that their trip will be delayed to accommodate the souls of the dead, there’s barely a perceptible change in tone. Similarly, the deployment of a tuning fork that kills all children on national television might seem destined to arouse anger and protest, but broadcasters know just how to smooth over the ruffled feathers: “The BBC would like to apologize for the widespread destruction and loss of infant life.” It’s not that the world will end with a whimper, but just that nobody wants to make a fuss.

There may be no better synthesis of the mood of Tomas Katz than a sequence where No encounters a boy bemoaning his fate: he has no friends, and his Tamagotchi died just that morning. The scene turns into a silent film, complete with wailing strings and ornate title cards. “The tamagotchis will be freed from their cages,” No assures the boy, “and all will be released.” Then he swaps places with the boy and experiences all the highs and lows of childhood, the joy and the cruelty, the pleasure and pain. It’s not too hard to understand why No feels tremendous pity for the doomed human race, and why he’s simultaneously content to burn it all down.

Tomas Katz is a genuinely funny movie, but it’s an especially English kind of funny, Britbox with bite. Consider the rabbi whom the BBC has called in to offer his wisdom to the nation despite the inconvenience of having been dead for two years. Or perhaps the police report of a window conspiracy, which is an amusing combination until we actually get to see it play out. In fact, the tone shifts so widely that the film could easily be called The Nine Films of Tomas Katz, yet it never loses its focus or its bleak humor.

For a small-scale, microbudget endeavor, Tomas Katz plays big. Huge credit goes to lead Tom Fisher, who embraces the chance to play multiple characters with a unique blend of sympathy and savagery. Kudos also to Ian McNiece, whose fearful police inspector manages to find drama and pathos in connections that make no logical sense. And a special shout-out to Dominik Scherrer’s diverse and adaptable score, which encompasses opera, techno, klezmer, Klaus Nomi, patriotic marches, and more.

Fittingly, it isn’t No who brings about the end of the world. He hands that honor to a security guard named Dave, whom he identifies as “the most vacuous being in the universe.” (Dave doesn’t seem too put out by this.) We will ultimately be the agent of our own demise, it turns out. The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz shows what that grand finale will look like if we all just keep calm and carry on.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This has to be one of the strangest films of the year, a weird apocalyptic vision shot in the most mundane of London surroundings, with all too obvious budgetary constraints pushed asunder by the sheer energy of the director’s imagination.” – George Perry, BBC (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Phantar.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

ALL THE HAUNTS BE OURS: A COMPENDIUM OF FOLK HORROR

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Severin Films. 15 disc set.

“Folk Horror” is a buzzword that has blossomed over the past decade to become a marketing phrase. It brings to mind things British, pagan and ancient/medieval, usually in that order. This makes for a nice narrow niche to categorize and sell to the audience; if a film has certain elements that are on the checklist checked off, it’s officially Folk Horror®.  The genre even has its Unholy Trinity: The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General. Of course, with some digging, we find that there’s a lot more to the subject to beyond those tentpoles.

It’s a massive subject tackle, and we’re fortunate that the person taking it on is Kier-la Janisse (film-programmer/editor; founder of The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Stories; author of “House of Psychotic Women“) with Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (2021), a 192 minute documentary serving as a primer/immersion into Folk Horror. It’s the foundation for “All The Haunts Be Ours,” a massive boxs et with 19 feature films (some making their debut on Blu-ray) and tons of bonus material. In short, this is a college semester course compressed into 15 discs; and although it’s pricey, it’s a lot less than what one would be paying for an actual college class. This is the most ambitious box set  that Severin Films has done to date—and they’ve done collections of Al Adamson, Christopher Lee’s European Films, and Andy Milligan in just the past three years!

Woodlands (the first disc in the set, also available as a standalone release) comprehensively examines Folk Horror, beginning with its roots in folklore and literature and moving into film, starting with that Unholy Trinity and other British films, plus television programs like “The Owl Service,” “Children of the Stones,” “Doctor Who,” and the work of Nigel Kneale. The documentary then shifts to North America, examining it by region: New England (Washington Irving, H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King); the South (influences of folk music and Evangelicalism), and the West (Native American lore). After that, the film goes global, focusing on horror in Eastern Europe, Australia, Japan, and Brazil, addressing a lot of films you’ve heard of (Viy, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and the Coffin Joe movies, to name just a few), along with many more that you probably haven’t.

For a 3+ hour documentary, you don’t feel the time drag, and you’ll spend a lot of time afterwards Google-searching availability of titles. Even though it’s a deep dive into the subject, it also feels like it’s just scratching the surface and not even close to being the Last Word in Folk Horror. The subject is thoroughly examined, and even though you could walk away with some sort of definition, “Folk Horror” doesn’t seem “defined” in a way that traps it in a box. It’s a fluid term Continue reading ALL THE HAUNTS BE OURS: A COMPENDIUM OF FOLK HORROR