Women in Horror: Berberian Sound Studio vs V.H.S.

An incidental happenstance of watching so many films in a short period of time, as I am at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, is that films with quite disparate aesthetics and subject matter start to echo. The viewing of one film informs another. So it is in the case of Berberian Sound Studio, for which my love is well-documented, and V.H.S. The former is a sleek fugue of a film about Gilderoy, a sound designer losing his grip as he creates the sound-mix for an Italian exploitation horror in the 1970s. The latter is a crass American enterprise, a horror anthology, set in the modern day. But both are about men who film women, and how they hurt them. Continue reading


Jim Henson improvising on the set of the Muppets

I can not over-state the importance Jim Henson and the Creature Workshop have had in my life. The day Henson died, when I was 6, was actually my brother’s birthday, and I was so upset I refused to eat any cake or lollies. Which was quite the bold statement of devastation for a 6 year old (hell, there’s little in the world I’d let get between me and cake or lollies now).

Having read numerous biographies numerous times, they all paint a picture of Henson being a gentle, generous man, a hippie with an infinite imagination and a child-like wonder. But also an adult despair of the injustices of the world. All of this is an entirely unnecessary preamble to the magic of a clip like this: Jim Henson improvising on the set of 1979’s the Muppet Movie. The word delightful doesn’t do it justice.

EIFF – What Is This Film Called Love?

Dear Mr Mark Cousins,

I want to tell you about your new film, What Is This Film Called Love? I want to tell you how it made me feel. How it made me feel brave and hopeful. How it reminded me everything I have is impermanent. How at moments it was transcendent. You talked about ecstasy often during the film. How to be ecstatic was to experience ex-stasis – leaving your status, being on the move. I feel mobilised now. Your film made me feel ecstatic.

But I suppose I shouldn’t just credit it all to you, though. I should thank Mexico, where you journeyed. And Eisenstein, who you talked to as you walked around the city, pointing me to things I never would have noticed, teaching me about non-indifferent nature. And Polly Jean Harvey, for the beautiful songs she gave to the soundtrack, and Bernard Hermann too. I’d forgotten what a gasping swoon the Vertigo soundtrack is. I’d thank the woman with the lilting voice who narrated alongside you, the one you said had more insight than you, but I don’t know her name. You know who I mean.

In your 15 hour opus, The Story of Film, Mr Mark Cousins, you reminded me to look, to think when I’m watching a movie. So often watching films can be a passive experience but you remind me it can and should be active. Tonight, watching What Is This Thing Called Love, you reminded me to look, to think, when I’m not in a cinema too. That life can and should be active. It seems so obvious. You let me see the world through your eyes for a while, which are at once impishly childish and idiosyncratically wise. And then you popped your willy out too. Fair play.

Thank you for your film, Mr Mark Cousins. It made my heart swell.


Katrina Conaglen,

The Red Curtain.

Woody Allen – Early Stand-up Routines

For your delectation: with the new documentary on Woody Allen out in cinemas now (and making film-houses a warmer, funnier place for it), The Red Curtain invites you to take a moment to revisit the brilliant stand-up routines Allen crafted towards the start of his career. Well, we say start, but given he was a paid gag writer in high school, earning more money than his parents combined by age 17, he was already a seasoned veteran by the time of this:

For those who enjoyed Midnight in Paris, you can see the genesis of his love for the Parisian literary salons of the 1920s here, in one of his finest routines:

And the Metropolitan Museum of Art sketch:

EIFF: Fred

There is something uncomfortably churlish about picking apart a film that has honourable intentions. It’s a little akin to picking on that clueless kid in primary school who would show up for mufti days in full uniform and spent too long talking about their toenails (Reader, that child was … me). But there is a wide divide between good ideals and good cinema, and Fred (2012, USA) utterly fails to cross that gap. It is a universally awkward film, weak and uncertain, despite boasting a wrenching central turn from Eliot Gould.
It is slight on plot: the titular Fred (Gould) is tip-toeing gently towards Alzheimer’s. His wife, Susan, is considerably further gone, spouting gibberish and barely mobile. Currently looked after by a live-in carer, the film depicts a brief spell in which Fred and Susan’s adult children struggle to reconcile the belligerent Fred with the idea he and Susan are being moved into a nursing home.  
The press material for the film compares Fred to a Woody Allen movie, but the only discernible corollary is Fred a) contains dialogue and b) contains Jewish characters. The script itself is risible, a mixture of clunky expository dialogue and laboured monologues. Gould transcends the dialogue with a delicate and sensitive performance, but the rest of the cast are woeful. In particular, it is a crushing disappointment to see Fred Melamed, so brilliant as the suavely malevolent Sy Abelman in the Coens’ A Serious Man, give such a stilted and unconvincing performance as Gould’s self-absorbed son Bob.
Stylistically Fred is just as poorly executed – the editing so amateurish and jarring it frequently jolts you out of the picture. Vague flails towards an aesthetic sensibility are scattered throughout – rapid-cut close-ups, sudden light saturation – but achieve nothing save for calling attention to how awkward they look. An hour in, I found myself celebrating at a brief, pretty shot of a forest. It’s a sorry sign if a film leaves you that desperate for distraction.
Most people will have experienced the pain of seeing a loved one experience Alzheimer’s, or indeed may be facing diagnosis itself. It can be a protracted form of agony when someone struggles with the loss of identity, autonomy, and dignity, for them and all who love them. It is evident Fred is trying to be sensitive to its subject matter and avoid condescension, but in doing so it also fails to create relatable characters or a genuine sense of consequence. Sarah Polley’s delicate masterpiece, Away from Her, does an infinitely more artful and insightful job of depicting what it is to essentially lose yourself. People tempted to Fred would do better  to seek out Polley’s 2006 gem. Fred is a quiet disappointment.

EIFF: California Solo

If, as the saying goes, we are all each other’s angels and demons, then Lachlan MacAldonich (Robert Carlyle) has played the demon to more than his fair share of people during his life. Whippet thin, every feature a grimace, he’s a barely contained streak of bitterness and regret, the former guitarist of a Madchester rock band, now living in self-imposed isolation in California.  Selfish, ungrateful, and often ragingly drunk, his attempts to overturn a deportation ruling – sending him back to his native Scotland – are disastrous, resulting in him finding ever new ways to hurt those around him.  It’s a testament to the conviction and ferocity of Carlyle’s performance he’s never less than compulsively watchable in so toxic a role, and that ultimately you end up on Lachlan’s side. It’s a career-best turn.

The washed up musician is well-trodden cinematic territory, most recently with Jeff Bridge’s Oscar-nabbing turn in the country music schmaltz fest Crazy Heart, which California Solo shares common ground with: both Bridges’ and Carlyle’s characters are irascible, high-functioning drunks. Both films are anchored by bravura lead performances. What distinguishes California Solo, however, is an intelligently realised, lean script, which deftly handles the bleak subject matter without ever seeming too maudlin. Whatever his faults, Lachlan is shot through with a healthy dose of Scots wit, so you can always spy the charisma that first draws people towards him before he pushes them away.

The cinematography is garishly beautiful, painting California in grainy, abrasive light – seeing the world through Lachlan’s hangover. The soundtrack, featuring tracks from Lachlan’s old band the Cranks, aptly apes the gangly guitars and ironic lyrics of Mancunian rock. It’s soaringly good, as is the moment where Carlyle performs the titular lament on acoustic guitar. As with the film itself, you’ve heard this story before, but it’s no less beautiful for it.

Macbeth at the Tramway

Bleedy Cumming

Alan Cumming in Macbeth

Onanism is a past-time we at the Red Curtain would like to actively encourage. If it is theatrical in nature, so much the better. There’s no manner of arts-wankery the Red Curtain isn’t open to. So when, thirty minutes into the Tramway’s new one-man production of Macbeth, Alan Cumming, portraying both Lady and Mr Macbeth, depicts himself literally fucking himself, it should have been a triumph. Instead, it all fell curiously flat.

The production, co-directed by John Tiffany and Andrew Goldberg, is elegantly mounted: set inside a psychiatric hospital, the set design is sleek, the sound impeccable, and faux-CCTV footage is utilised to un-nerving effect. The central conceit, too, is a sharp one: Macbeth, driven mad by his actions, replays the events that lead up to his downfall – he’s in a sort of associative fugue.

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Wednesday’s Top 5: Top 5 Bond Theme Songs

5. Live and Let Die, Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that however talented and brilliant a songwriter/musician he may be, Paul McCartney is not cool. He does not even trouble the coat-tails of cool, so far out of reach of cool is he. And yet his entry into the Bond Theme canon, Live and Let Die is … cool. With bitter, nihilistic lyrics, a sweeping sense of scale, and a raging guitar riff, it is indubitably cool, and manages the neat trick of being both contemporary to its era and oddly timeless, the way the best Bond tunes always do. (The Red Curtain’s significant other insists The Red Curtain is banned from mentioning the Guns’n’Roses cover) Continue reading

Neutral Milk Hotel/Jeff Mangum

If you’ve had the misfortune of being around me when I’m terribly drunk, you’ve probably heard me slur emphatically:

“‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea'” by Neutral Milk Hotel is my favourite work of art in the world, in any medium, ever.”

God but it is, peculiar, ugly-beautiful, with imagery rank and surreal, lyrics by turns introverted and weirdly celebratory, and great big orgasmic soundscapes. Orgasmic is the word, because the whole album is suffused with sticky, teenaged, fumbling sexual imagery. Despite being an album loosely based on telling Anne Frank’s story (she of the diary and the annexe and the holocaust tragedy), ITAOTS has always being curiously resonant, like a musical distillation of my psyche. My psyche is a strange place, yo.

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