Thursday, 24 November 2011



Bristol: seen from my dwellings on Upper Maudlin Place, the most self-pitying street in the city.
A frenzied backdrop of apocalyptic threats permeates our lives like some incessant montage of disaster, disease, economic meltdown, hellfire, birds falling from the skies, etc. OK, maybe not that last one but you get the picture. The apocalypse is everywhere right now, and seemed to be at the heart of the 17th Encounters International Film Festival. Despite the harbingers of doom, I’ve returned from three days in Bristol feeling strangely enthused about filmmaking. The festival had an air of urgency to it, from provocative panel discussions debating the future of moving image formats (and the fate of independent filmmaking as a result) to what seems to me a major trend in film at the moment: the end of the world. But before I start banging on about the constant reminders of cataclysmic destruction, here are three of my favourite films from the festival.

A GUN FOR GEORGE (dir. Matthew Holness)

Prepare yourself for Terry Fincher, a character as funny, deluded and kinetically verbose as Holness’ most celebrated creation (Garth Merenghi: horror writer / dream weaver). I loved A Gun For George, from its superb credit sequence (paying homage to Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) through pulp fiction author Terry Fincher’s grainy, vengeful fantasies to its unexpectedly poignant end. You can further explore his violent paperback worlds here

LAS PALMAS (dir. Johannes Nyholm)

A baby gets shit-faced in a dingy Las Palmas bar, trashes the joint, collapses a few times and eventually heads off into the sun on a motorbike, smoking a fat cig. It’s as good as it sounds.

PITCH BLACK HEIST (dir. John Maclean)

This bone-dry two-hander is a superb addition to the bank heist cannon. Directed by John Maclean, with smoldering performances from Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham and cinematography by Robbie Ryan (Andrea Arnold’s regular DOP), everything about this film is crisp as a bag of Salt’n’Shake during the mid-morning break at a primary school in the midst of the harsh winter of 1961 when the world was in the cast iron grip of the Cold War and freakish malevolent manchild Cliff Richards was sound-tracking proceedings with aplomb. It wasn’t until the credits rolled on Pitch Black Heist that I realised this was directed by John Maclean, he of Beta Band / The Aliens fame. And lo! I was pleased. See it if you can.


OK - back to the apocalypse. A recurring theme in many Encounters shorts seemed to deal with humankind’s collective day of reckoning; be it forecasting the end times, literally depicting complete annihilation or retrospectively looking back at our defective race with a teary eye. If there had been any doubt in my mind that we are completely preoccupied with the end times it was crushed when I opened up a newspaper on my seven and a half hour train journey home, only to be greeted by an in-depth two page spread entitled ‘Is the end really nigh?’. Luckily, it was a moderately upbeat article, with such lines as “If we colonise other solar systems, we could survive longer than our sun, perhaps another 100 trillion years, when all stars begin burning out. We might survive even longer if we exploit non-stellar energy sources’. Couple of big ‘ifs’ in there, folks…

Everyone loves a disaster film and by the good grace of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I’m no exception. But I think that Armageddon is getting a little hackneyed and difficult to do with much originality. Having said that, I’m really looking forward to seeing Michael Shannon freaking out to visions of the end in Take Shelter. But that’s probably got less to do with boring old apocalypse and more to do with the great Shannon chewing up scenes with his very aura and spitting them out of his enormous face.

The doom wasn’t limited to the films at Encounters. Peter Carlton (Warp Films) chaired one of the Brief Exchange symposiums; a series of panel discussions on the future of film entitled Future Encounters. There was some interesting debate about how cinema (as the pseudo-religious ritual of gathering in the dark to watch a flickering image whilst shoveling popcorn into our cake holes) could survive. Carlton’s own view was that we shouldn’t fetishise the cinema experience, instead we need to embrace all formats so they can co-exist. The idea of film being consumed on a variety of different formats was brought into sharp relief for me at the DepicT! Showcase, where my own short screened in the Watershed’s excellent main cinema. The film had been online for a month or so but to see it in the context of the cinema space, bigger than ever before (with an audience and everything!) felt completely different. Part of me screamed out BEHOLD! THIS IS THE WAY TO VIEW FILM, PRAISE THE LORD KINO! but luckily it was just the small voice inside my head that nobody hears, so the audience remained undisturbed and I wasn’t thrown out. I think Carlton is right; we do need to embrace new possibilities in the field but let’s just make sure we hold on to comfy seats in dark rooms with gargantuan screens. And while we’re at it, maybe we could pass a law stating mobile phones must be surrendered on entry and chatty folk shot in the head by master marksmen lining the aisles.

To end this ramble, I leave you with a contribution to the field of apocalyptic cinema that I made as part of the Degrassi… collective two years ago. The film was created for the 2009 48-Hour International Shootout, in which we placed 2nd runner-up from over 60 international entries. So if you watch it, bear in mind that this was written, produced and edited in two days flat (including the composition an original score). Our remit was fairly broad and in the spirit of our collective obsession: make an end of the world film. We decided to go down the path of awkward Brits in denial, struggling to accept the fact that everything is mysteriously disappearing before their very eyes.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011



I'm heading down to Encounters International Short Film Festival this week, where I have an ultra-short film screening. It's called Experiments in Parahypnosis and it’s short-listed for DepicT!'11. The film will screen as part of the DepicT! showcase in Bristol this Saturday 19th November (3pm, Watershed Cinema 1, if you're in the hood). It's one of 14 films which are up for the DepicT! Award and the DepicT! British Special Mention Award. You can watch it here. Please rate it too, as I'll also be in the running for the Shooting People Audience Award. If you want to know more about the film, here’s a short interview. And if you want to see Bananarama sing Cruel Summer, click here.

Apart from shitting my pants about the screening, I'm really looking forward to seeing Canadian animation genius John Kricfalusi at Encounters. ‘John K.’ is the founder of Spumco and creator of The Ren and Stimpy Show. I'm pretty sure Ren and Stimpy had a warping influence on my childhood and re-watching episodes some years later produced a trigger-like effect, the long-term psychological impact of which is not yet known. It's blend of psychodrama, slapstick
 and an almost unbearable emotional intensity hits me in the gut every time. The animation is as beautiful as it is grotesque and however weird the stories get they’re grounded by a love that dare not speak it’s name (between a physically and psychologically abusive chihuahua and a remarkably stupid cat). One of my favourite parts of the show was always when Ren, pushed to the limit, would undergo a psychotic breakdown and completely lose his shit. If cartoon characters were eligible for Oscars, Ren Hoek would have one in the bag:

Anyway, where am I going with this? Bakshi, that’s where. I was excited to recently discover John K. had a connection to another innovator in the field whose work I admire: Ralph Bakshi. 
John K. was instrumental in the writing, directing and animating of Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, made in 1987. Mighty Mouse was helmed by said Bakshi, who has had a fascinating career in alternative animation and film. He also made one of my favourite animated features: a stunning, incomplete version of The Lord of the Rings (1978). More mysterious and scary than Peter Jackson's trilogy and a lot weirder. This is in part due to his extensive use of rotoscoping in the film, a technique whereby live action footage is animated over, frame by frame. Here's an amusing early example of rotoscoping in this Betty Boop hula dance, which is so intensely erotic that a nearby flower is compelled to commit suicide during Betty’s final few hip swings. Sad, but true.

Bakshi used the technique in some of the major battle scenes in LOTR (quite different to sexy hula dancing, I know). But the scenes with the Dark Riders (or what Tolkeinista’s would call ‘the Nazgul’) are electrifying, and utilise rotoscoping to chilling effect. In particular, a sequence where Frodo and the gang, not long clear of the Shire, hide from the rider that’s tailing them is particularly creepy. Plus, horses always look scary with red eyes.

Bakshi and John K. faced similarly grim fates with the studios that commissioned their shows; both were fired in controversial circumstances. John K.’s incident allegedly involved an episode where Ren violently assaults the George Liquor character with an oar, one smack too many for Nickelodeon. Bakshi got into trouble when an episode of Mighty Mouse (featuring a scene where our hero snorts the crushed petals of a flower) ignited a shit-storm in Middle America. In Bakshi’s defence, the flower was not of the narcotic variety.

So, a couple of edgy sketchers who push the limits of their art and craft. I leave you with this insane video for Bjork’s I Miss You, directed by John K. Mark the condom boob suckers.