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MIFF 2011: Magic Trip: Ken Kesey’s Search for a Kool Place.

26 Jul

If you’re a stranger to the experience of taking copious amounts of hallucinogenic drugs, then Magic Trip’s story of psychedelic trailblazers may open up doors for you. However if, like me, you understand what it is to take all your clothes off by a river at the height of a singing summer, and commune with the cotton wool clouds and the blazing shrubbery, you may feel like this film unveils a mythology to reveal experiences that mirror many of your own.

Ken Kesey, best known as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest, enlisted a florid patchwork of All-American bohemians – the Merry Pranksters – to drive with him from California to New York in the summer of 1964. This litany of LSD luminaries included Neal ‘speedball’ Cassady, the Grateful Dead and Kesey’s best friend Ken Babbs. Their destination: the New York World’s Fair, which turned out to be ‘over before it began’, an event  embodying an optimistic era that was already dead in the water.

Intending to make their own film about the experience, the group’s ambitions were thwarted by the fact that no-one on board had the faintest clue how to operate a camera let alone record sound. The resulting footage is living proof of what happens when you set up a film shoot while the acid’s kicking in. Frivolity aside, they weren’t just pranksters – they were renegades who pre-empted the 1960s countercultural movement before it took hold of popular consciousness.

The directors Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood have created a narrative that dances with colour and life and movement, the film’s raw beauty achieved through the intermingling of DIY footage, animated flourishes, a killer soundtrack and narration by the adult voices of retrospective pranksters.

Magic Trip is a revisitation rather than a recollection. The Pranksters were ‘looking at, not searching for’ and this immediacy is captured by their visceral experiences – all recorded in a naïve and free-form style that relocates us in the grainy buzz of the 1960s.

A brief history of the somewhat sinister context in which LSD use arose, such as through CIA experiments, as well as the political events that prompted people to go off the rails, sheds some sanity on the subject.

Having artfully arranged countless hours of found footage (most without sound, much of it damaged and in need of TLC), the film-makers have  succeeded in  creating a cohesive drama out of  Kesey’s carnivalesque  chaos. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be able to see what really went on behind the scenes of a fable that has captured the hearts and minds of so many free thinkers. The bus ‘Further’, described by Kesey as looking like ‘a travelling pleasure palace’ but as being its exact opposite, has a magnetic screen presence that propels the narrative into lunatic directions.

Magic Trip is an expression of a free-wheeling spirit that only distantly echoes into the canyons of the 21st century.  As a teenager reading about Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s adventures in On the Road, I hoped that one day I would belong to a generation that not only harboured but acted out a similar defiance and rebellious spirit.

Watching this film reaffirmed for me the adult realisation that, as Ken Kesey now states, these characters belong to an ancient tradition of ‘divine losers’: admirable in fighting for what they believe in, they are destined to lose against the system. Magic Trip is a fitting tribute to these anti-heroes in their finest hour.

7 out of 10.

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Film review (2nd take): ORANGES AND SUNSHINE (2010)

4 Jun

by Anna Sutton

Oranges and Sunshines  is an understated and intimate film about the tragic legacy of the “forgotten Australians”, child migrants who were the product of a forced resettlement scheme conducted by the British welfare state until 1973. The scheme, in which children were removed from state care and shipped off to Commonwealth countries, was Britain’s answer to a post-WWII welfare state, at a time when the White Australia Policy still blighted this country.

Director Jim Loach (son of Ken) tackles the issue with the compassion and complexity that it requires.

We meet Margaret Humphreys (played with great humanity by Emily Watson), a Nottingham social worker who in the 1980s blew the whistle on a saga that the Australian and British governments had conspired to veil for decades. Inspired by one of her clients, Humphreys embarks on a 2-year investigation that results in her attempts to reunite hundreds of adults with their estranged families, and the establishment of the Child Migrants Trust. Continue reading

Houseboat Horror

8 Oct

 

A title design that rocks 80s pencil case art!

 

Growing up in country/regional Australia was great when I was a kid. Then I sprouted the paper bag face of pubescence and those parched yellow hills of inescapability became the essence of cringe worthy.

Many years later, the very things that revolted me at the age of 13 have become the ones I delight at seeing captured on the big screen. Call it a nostalgia for 80s cultural cringe – what was once an allergic reaction to those visible byproducts of parochial Australia – Suzanne Grae fashion, unscrubbed aussie accents, B grade TV celebrities, twiggy bushland and places with names like Bonnie Doon. Often the lowest budget films will date the most quickly but they will also be the most authentic documents of the time in which they were made.

 

"We are the underground"

 

Having secured the dubious honour of being ‘Australia’s first made for video horror film’, Houseboat Horror doesn’t exactly have a lot to live up to.  The story follows a group of city musicians and out of work actors to Lake Infinity, a fictional version of Lake Eildon. Their quest is to shoot a film clip depicting the wild rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of their band Underground Disco, whose lyrics go something like this: She’s alright with me/ She’s alright with me/ She’s young and groovy/And she’s alright with me. With lyrics like this, it’s no wonder that the local kook grabs a machete.

 

Gavin Wood scopes out the joint

 

 

Scene One: Tarago Van passing through blurry countryside. Right there you’ve got your very first reminder of what it was like growing up in Australia in the late 80s/90s.  Seeing a feature film shot entirely on video brought back memories of  my distant cousin  depriving  a suburban backyard wedding of its grandeur using the powers of video cassette. The script provides a hilarious attempt at naturalism that would not be out of home on a Neighbours set and is brimming with corker lines like ‘Come up here and check out the view – you’ll bar up’ and ‘what kind of arsehole would do that?’ in response to a grisly murder scene.

 

This up-crotch shot of a harpoon murder victim is typical of HH's cinematography

 

Standout out performances include the hilarious Gavin Wood (who you can stalk here), Animal (drummer from Hey Hey, It’s Saturday) and Alan Dale (Neighbours at the time, but he later found considerable success in Hollywood). What makes Houseboat Horror so entertaining  is the particularity of the reference points, right down to the galah-like accents,  Cooji/ Kee jumpers and  jet skiing in 80s dinner suits. Efforts to reel us into moments of suspense are inevitably eclipsed by the true horror of seeing mullet heads draped in pirate chic playing Brian Mannix songs on the guitar. If you find yourself often wafting over to the so-bad-it’s good-aisle, you’ll love Houseboat Horror. You can watch the whole thing on you tube – here’s part one:

Bill Cunningham New York

4 Aug

Iris Apfel, self-professed 'world's oldest teenager'

New York is a city full of originals, and there’s no other street photographer like Bill Cunningham. He bicycles the city streets scouting for nouveau fashion, and in each daily procession of  street denizens he witnesses the parade of life. The results are admired every Sunday in his New York Times column On the street. “The best fashion show is definitely on the street, always has been, always will be,” says Bill. His Evening Hours segment, in contrast, chronicles the parties of the week, events heaving with first ladies of philanthropy and Nobel Laureates.

Bill’s been taking photos since the end of  the Korean war, and has become a man of great influence in the fashion industry. As one security guard at a major fashion show said when Bill appeared out of nowhere in his trademark utilitarian blue jacket, “he’s the most important man in the world.”

Bill’s obsession is such that he leads an ascetic existence based entirely on his love of clothing. He feasts on hamburgers in low-brow diners, and has spent the best part of half a century residing in a tiny Carnegie Towers studio. He’s humble and selfless – a diamond in the rough in the fashion industry. We want to learn more about the elusive man himself, but he’s intensely private, and  we only get a glimpse into his personal life and  background.

Through interviews with editors and his inner circle of style doyennes, footage of Bill hard at work, and shots of  uptown and downtown people caught in the act of  being fabulous, we witness Bill’s photography as a barometer of  cultural life  on board Manhattan Island – the mothership  – as it is today. Watching Bill Cunningham New York gave me that joyful  feeling I have when I know someone well and realise we’re destined to be friends for life.

MIFF 2010 review: Survival of the dead and Down Terrace @ Shed 4

2 Aug

Drive-in...shed

Aaaargh! Is the best word to sum up the collective feeling that spread through the chilly air of Shed 4 on Saturday night. Halfway through George Romero’s latest offering, I heard my friend kicking bins around outside, and thought, ‘that’s got to be more fun than this’.

Based on Survival of the dead, the zombie-master’s film career should be laid out to rest. It was so appalling as to be slightly disturbing, like visiting a once-brilliant person in hospital who is now suffering the debilitating effects of dementia or alzheimers. The situation was worsened by  a technical glitch, so that for the first half of the film the faint dialogue was overpowered  by analogue cicada noises and white noise zzzzing through our car speakers. Consequently, we had no idea what was going on in this Irish-western  influenced offering – when the sound was finally fixed, we realised that it was probably more enjoyable without sound on account of the woeful dialogue and laughable plot. Romero’s well known for his gripping, gory, atmospheric  zombie films; this was about as gripping as wet super glue. Fortunately, the backseat of out car was very cuddly, and we managed to keep our spirits high by  helping ourselves to lashings of humour, cheese and champagne.

The second offering, Down Terrace, put an end to that delusional good mood. A dreadfully inappropriate and self-indulgent choice to screen at a Drive-In, it was like a dulled out Mike Leigh without the wit and perceptive characterisation.  At least Survival of the dead was so silly you could have a laugh about it; this film, however, had no redeeming features. It was like something you’d only watch if you were home recovering after major surgery. My care factor towards the characters was zero and try as we might, we were unable to get halfway through before the groans gave way to a mass exodus.

Whoever programmed Down Terrace in particular should be ashamed of themselves. What a waste of a great venue and concept!

MIFF 2010 review: Space Tourists

30 Jul
The desert landscape of Kazakhstan makes a compelling setting for this documentary that explores the personal aspect of Russia’s legacy to the Space Age program.  Anoushen Hansari fulfils her childhood dream to travel into space and becomes the first female space tourist. She  forked out a staggering $20 million to do so, and while  this fact alone may make her slightly unlikable, she is in fact a smart business woman and engineer whose family went on to fund the Ansari X Prize. There is something remarkable about seeing this woman live out a childhood fantasy that so many of us share at some point of our lives.
From cold and silent space she looks down on earth and sees a world without borders, where there’s no trouble –  only peace.
Back on planet earth,  narrator Jonas Bendriksen is busy snapping photos of the eerie Kazakhstan desert with his fancy camera. When he’s not doing that he’s shrouding the screen with his handsome face in on – screen interviews. A Magnum photographer, he has spent years documenting the rusted legacy of the Russian Space program in evocative pictures.
Along the way there’s salt of the earth workers who do overnight campout missions when rockets are launched, on the chase to find the next burning rocket part that’s falling from the sky. They’re quite valuable, being made of high class metals, and are sold on to China for a good amount of money. So, as Bendriksen says, “in a global world you might be wrapping your sandwich in al foil made from a space rocket!”
We meet Charles Simonyi, the architect of Word and Excel, and witness his training and preparation at Star City to become the world’s fifth private space tourist. There’s a great scene where he’s in this tiny little kitchen at the Space school, surrounded by prospective tins of food being handed to him by the doting women who prepare all the food that’s consumed on board. He sits, alternately nodding and grimacing, giving each dish a careful score out of 10. Goulash? Jellied Perch? Caviar? “I’ll give that an 8”.
And we meet the local farmers, villagers, and workers at the International Space Station,  for whom the Space Program is a portal to the stars they will never  be able to afford to travel through.
Accompanied by a sonorous sexy sax soundtrack by Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek (Steve Reich also appears on the music credits), Space Tourists has much to offer. It will appeal to a broad audience and is certainly not just for those who have nasa.gov bookmarked on their computer.
***1/2
Space Tourists’ final screening at MIFF is 12.15pm Saturday July 31.

The dance of Lye

22 Sep

You can read about film and motion in the art of New Zealand artist Len Lye in Anna Sutton’s piece here.

MIFF review: Going Down (1983)

15 Aug

going-down-1

Going Down is one of those movies that’s so good you keep turning around to catch the look on your friends’ faces during the funny moments. You want to see if they’re laughing as hard as you are.

going-down-3Making a come back at MIFF as part of the post-punk program, Going Down premiered in Melbourne in 1983 at an adult cinema that had recently closed down and become a purveyor of more regular films. But of course the old trench-coated regulars still rocked up and were surprised to find that Going Down was not the kind of movie they were looking for. Or maybe…

The story revolves around four twenty-something women having a debaucherous last night out in old Sydney town before the straight one of the bunch, Karli (Tracey Mann), flies to the Big Apple with her daddy’s $3000, in an attempt to get her shit together. The anarchy that ensues harks back to a time when drugs were cheap, rock’n’roll was raw and the young generation still wore its bohemian element with pride.

This film is a testament to all those who never sold out. It couldn’t be more at odds with the MIFF program guide’s description of it as ‘A kind of post-punk proto-Sex in the City.’ While it is about female friendship, the women couldn’t care less about corporate careers, designer fashion, and finding Mr Right. One wears a tshirt that says ‘If I can’t be free I can be cheap.’

Going Down captures the expansive and full-throttle nature of 80s subcultures on the urban fringes using raw handheld footage and gritty location shoots. Fast cars ride with the shared house debris, the Kings Cross nightlife, Drag Queens, boys with dumb bogan wrap-around-sunglasses and bleached mullets, over-the-counter cough medicine, ugly lead singers with real talent, shooting up at parties, women in hot plastic pants, dalliances with prostitution and drunken sex with strangers. The depiction of Aussie vernacular never rang so true against the sunny outlines of Centrepoint Tower and Bondi Beach. Arguments about money, morals, and loyalty swing fast and wild across the story arc, as friends clash and loyalties are divided.

going_down_2

Carrie Bradshaw doesn't shop at Woolworths

While the film may be ideologically oppositional, its structure builds on the Hollywood system rather than rejecting it. Its characters are not completely without purpose; they are simply living in the moment. Some of them are drug-fucked, sure, but their flaws are recognisable and the bad lines aren’t of the scripted variety; they’re the ones going up their noses. I recognised something of myself in all four women as well as the coke-lid spectacled Greg (David Argue) on his crazy electro-out of control roller skates. There’s plenty of un-pc shouts of ‘cunts’ and ‘poofters’ but the female characters  behave like real people, not little girls with soft focus hair looking for a boy’s shoulder to cry on.

Although Going Down was independent with a cumulative budget of $300 000, this film wasn’t all punk in process. It is technically excellent, it was shot twice over a number of years, and its brand of realism was not designed to shock. Two of the principal actors were also co-script writers – Ellen (Moira MacLaine-Cross) and Jackie (Julie Barry). “This was their story, this was what was happening at the time,” states director Haydn Keenan.

Things were less controlled back then. The film makers managed to get the Sydney Harbour Bridge closed for free for 40 minutes. They secured permission to stage a food fight outside Sydney Airport. The crew even did all their own stunts. Keenan says that in a way he misses the “lack of professionalism” and DIY spirit of that era. “Now if you want do something you have to pay $1000 to hire an empty office in an empty building.”

Although the first version apparently ‘went down well’ with test audiences aged 18-29 in demographically diverse Sydney postcodes, ultimately its success was limited by distributors’ fear of family unfriendly depictions and values.

I will be playing a tribute to Pel Mel, the band who features prominently on the soundtrack, next time I DJ. The song? ‘No word from China.’

Anna Sutton

–> A negative take on the film by someone else who saw it at MIFF this year: {here}

–> Senses of Cinema critique {here}

–> Director Haydn Keenan has the film for sale on his site {here}

Film Review: My Year Without Sex (2009)

6 Jun

my year without sex 3What’s all this about My Year Without Sex? Is that a new comedy starring Cameron Diaz and Matthew McConaughey? I was relieved to discover that this is a new Australian film and a possible contender for the best one of 2009 (not that there’s much competition, sadly).

Writer/Director Sarah Watt (Look Both Ways (2005)) has created a realistic portrayal of family life that shows a warmth and humour we have not seen in Australian film for a long time.

my year withoutsex_wideweb__470x300,0

Couple Natalie (Sacha Horler) and Ross (Matt Day) and their two children’s lives are interrupted when Natalie suffers a brain aneurism. Their tribulations and the ways in which they cope are at times difficult but this is in no way a dysfunctional family. Instead the film is concerned with the poetry and drama of everyday life as it is impacted by crisis.

Watts cleverly transforms ordinary details into finely-nuanced observations of character. There are some glorious, superbly acted moments in this film that capture the absurdity of suburban rituals and the beauty in small moments. Although the film has a distinctively suburban setting, it differs from many Australian films in that it is not obsessed with the way characters come up against society due to reasons of ethnicity and class.

My Year Without Sex deals with big questions but I would say it is a poignant rather than a profound film. Natalie’s search for meaning leads her to the church but ultimately affirms the value we play in each others’ lives.

This is a delightful love story about hope, endurance and the importance of family. Once again life in the suburbs makes compelling story material even when it does have a happy ending.

—> Interview with actor Sacha Horler {Here}

—> Interview with Matt Day and director Sarah Watt {Here}

Staying up late: Some thoughts on Luis Bunuel, to coincide with the retrospective at the Spanish Film Festival.

17 May

bunuel_o8mo

I have been on a Luis Bunuel bender for what seems like many days but before now had not realised just how incredibly prolific this Spanish filmmaker was. Not to mention completely and wonderfully outrageous!

Anyone who studied art or drama or English at even high school level knows about the surrealist movement. But how many of Bunuel’s films have you actually seen?

BunuelLuis oldI’m not going to go into the biographical details of how the man divided his time between Spain, Mexico and France. Or a chronology of his films. That’s what Wikipedia is for. Ok, he was born 22 February 1900 and died 29 July 1983. I’m just going to talk a bit about his incredibly diverse body of work in the general terms reserved for a bog entry (sorry, I meant blog) on a Friday night.

A major influence on cinema, Bunuel’s films nearly always disrupt narrative convention in their efforts to mine the unconscious and hold it up against reality’s representation through social rituals. Like when you’re at a dinner party politely enduring the arrogant stranger next to you while outside on the street their shiny BMW convertible turns into a crocodile.

Bunuel depicts the characters’ inner worlds through dreamlike archetypes and complex symbolism, but in doing so he goes beyond the personal: he explores the hypocrisy of bourgeois values and examines the nature of class conflict.

Milky way

Milky way

It is this social commentary throughout his films that sets Bunuel apart from other surrealist filmmakers. His ongoing interest in themes of death and the stages preceding it (ie illness, misery and poverty), his belief in social rebellion and abhorrence of oppression, and his exaggeration of reality rather than distortion of it, allow us to define him as a realist as much as a surrealist filmmaker.

Bunuel’s obsession with catholic dogma and rituals is a prominent theme as is his preoccupation with fetishistic sexuality, obviously a by-product of a strict religious upbringing (what a burden but it makes for great creative material). As he once stated, “sex without sin is like

Milky way

Milky way

eggs without salt”. I know there’s some of you out there who are going to use this line in the future, it’s such gold. In fact you might just use it today.

Bunuel’s films give us a  unique aesthetic experience, despite the fact that they are technically relatively simple and stylistically unadorned. They are often peopled with aristocratic women and tall moustached men who exude a touch of the palace syndrome. They swan about in mink stoles and

Belle de jour

Belle de jour

dinner suits in aristocratic mansions where French chandeliers weigh more than the mortar, or the morals. There are Hitchcockian blonde (but ascetic, that’s what makes them more appealing) nuns straight out of a sort of literary erotic fantasy 101 and women being stylish and elusive in the way only European women can. Or they are devils and brides in disguise. Or smartly suited soldiers. Ok, so there’s a lot of films starring toothless peasants and dehumanised industrial workers, too.

But Bunuel always moves beyond these often beautiful surfaces to reveal the underlying social decay and contradictory social mores. The bizarre, circus -like scenarios that evolve in Bunuel films are part of a brilliant dark satire on humanity’s fundamental absurdity. And the more seriously it takes itself, the more ripe it is for a kicking.

Bunuel injects irrational logic into the recognisable structures of daily life, and the consequences are a civilised society undone. By the time you’re finished with one of his films, the idea that we’re somehow evolved seems rather silly.

Bunuel -el Angel exterminadorBunuel also subverts the limitations of gender stereotypes – is there anything this man couldn’t do? I heard he also dabbled in cross-dressing, just for starters. While many of Bunuel’s female characters may use their sexuality to control men, they continue to oppose patriarchal control with feminine consciousness. Watch some of his films and you’ll see what I mean. I can’t stop thinking about those delicate stockinged legs…

Since we were teenagers we’ve been wanting to liberate our consciousness! And god knows we’ve tried every way how.

This week my nocturnal fantasies have been overrun by new and welcome additions, such as a dinner party that’s invaded by an army of Spanish soldiers who are chased away by lamb who take me to a barn where I act out an eroticised version of ‘My life as a Spanish milk maid, by Luis Bunuel’.

“Life is amusing and strange”, Bunuel once observed. And no other filmmaker captured that wonderful duality quite like he did. I thank him in my dreams.

un chien andalou

un chien andalou

The Spanish Film Festival is on now and runs until the 24th of May at the Palace Cinema Como and the Kino Melbourne and from the 20th in Brisbane and Perth. {link}

See also:

Fantastic feature article in slant ‘The savage poetry of Luis Bunuel’ {link}

Banned film L’age d’or

37 minute doco on Bunuel

By Anna Sl(oops)utton..