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by Bill Gibron

14 Jun 2008


We often forget how much actual art there is in the art of animation. Not so much skill or filmmaking acumen, but genuine, painstaking personal craft. After all, the genre is built on the drawing, the pen and ink providence that, through motion, constructs an aesthetically pleasing perception of the world. It’s what the Great Masters strived for when they put oil to canvas, or chisel to stone. It’s also what directors and illustrators focus on when they put cells to celluloid for that all important imitation of life. Yet sometimes, concept transcends creativity, leading to something both revolutionary and retrograde.

Such is the case with Lawrence Jordan. Having been involved in making his “cartoon collages” since the ‘50s, the bay area maverick has seen both his Victorian styled stop motion cut outs and meditative live action tone poems celebrated as intense, inspired, and most importantly, artistic. Now, Facets Video has compiled a four disc DVD box set celebrating the man’s career. Entitled The Lawrence Jordan Album, we get two sets of animation, and two additional collections of standard cinematic statements. Yet once viewed, it is clear that there is nothing “typical” about what this inventive, sometimes irritating auteur has to offer.

Disc one takes us through the most typical of Jordan’s work, with pieces ranging from 1961 (“Duo Concertantes”) to 2004 (“Enid’s Idyll”). Following themes typically built around particular classical compositions, the 10 presentations illustrate the main muse that the filmmaker follows. The second DVD delves into the other side of Jordan’s passion. Known as “The H.D. Trilogy” (based on the poet Hilda Doolittle and her long form elegy “Hermetic Definitions”) this trip through Italy, Greece and Britain serves as a statement about aging gracefully, and vitally, through a world seemingly ignorant of its history. Disc three returns to the careful collage style, the trio of films following similar pattern. The final DVD delivers seven more live action efforts, including the stellar “Sacred Art of Tibet”.

Together, these films tell a compelling story, the implied narrative centering on an idealist locked in a battle between the suggested and the sensible. The first few films argue for a man exploring the very limits of a certain set agenda. As the gorgeous tones of the “Gymnopedies” or “Moonlight Sonata” play, Jordan juxtaposes images from ancient tapestries and etchings, old world wonders manipulated in such a way as to suggest Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam without a sense of humor. Certain constants resonate throughout - the crying, all seeing eyes; the escape implied in the hot air balloon; the grace of the human body; the undeniable beauty in nature. When combined with Jordan’s seemingly random approach (objects fly in and out of frame with minimal reference to anything storied or purposefully plotted), one gets the impression of an effervescent vision inspired by too many dreams and not enough drama.

Yet Lawrence Jordan’s scattershot stratagem can be very effective. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Samuel Taylor’s lyrical ballad about the seemingly supernatural events that occur to a sailor as he heads home, benefits from this wide open imagination approach. It’s a masterstroke to take the arc poetics the material provides and provide some manner of visual association. The other animations of Disc three follow a similar pattern. “Sophie’s Place” does try to intimate a centeral location and person, but the boundaries of such an idea are pushed, and then broken, time and again. Similarly, “Blue Skies Beyond the Looking Glass” gives us man (in the form of old Hollywood stars) vs. nature, the ephemeral and the exacting in close quarters combat.

Yet it’s his live action work which resonates deeper. The “HD Trilogy”, for example, explores elements that, even today, many filmmakers fail to bother with. Acting as a stand-in for both Doolittle and the poem’s complex protagonist, actress Joanna McClure depicts aging sensuality with frank openness and abject honesty. There are times when she appears frail and fragile. In other sepia toned lights, she sizzles beyond what her beauty pageant betters could ever accomplish. As the material turns contemplative and more insular, Jordan investigates the intimate. McClure bravely responds with nude scenes, self-reflection, and a last act sequence where all we see is her philosophical face, mind lost in deep thought. Some may see this trip through Italy and Greece (with a side trek through the cemeteries of London) as an extended travelogue. Sadly, they are missing the major point of this material.

The last disc is not so deceptive. Here, Jordan provides what some might consider straight forward documentaries. Of course, his clash of images style remains real and intact. Some of his subjects are fairly obvious. “Views of a City” looks at a burgeoning metropolis through the various reflective surfaces within, while “In a Summer Garden” and “Winter Light” are vistas captured in a self explanatory form. Perhaps the best example of what Jordan can accomplish with both his fact and fiction conceit is the vibrant “Sacred Art of Tibet”. Using a voice over that explains the various deities in the country’s religion, the filmmaker manipulates the material, double exposures and camera tricks creating an epiphany like look at the psychedelic dimension of faith. It stands as a fascinating piece.

In fact, all ‘facets’ of The Lawrence Jordan Album stand the test of time and post-modern temperament. As with any overview, the sudden sandwiching of movies that were never meant to ‘play’ together can be off putting. One sees patterns purposely avoided thanks to the displacement of years, and it causes a kind of fault the artist is far from guilty of. In fact, if one takes this box set as a gallery exhibit, a chance to view Jordan as a whole and not just a singular selection of one or two works, a prescience evolves. There is humor of the grotesque here, anatomical models dancing like chorus girls in a cheap vaudeville revue. Similar, Jordan applies a dream logic even more specious than David Lynch’s psyche scarred scenarios. Yet there is no denying that what he forges is, as Ed Blank of the Pittsburgh Press referred to it as “pure film”.

Indeed, The Lawrence Jordan Album could be subtitled “A Primer on the Language of the Artform”. Like a grammar guide required of school children to understand the fundamentals, and the tenet bending nuances, of writing and the resulting literature, this complicated creator reveres the rules, only to then break them with radical regularity. It’s the perfect amalgamation of what many in creativity already know - you’ve got to perfect the basics before venturing out into the unknown. With their spinning orbs, buried pagan symbols, understated purpose, and overdone calculations, Jordan’s work joins the ranks of other fringe finery. He may not deserve a place among the mainstream, but to understand the normative, one needs to know his formidable flights of fancy. They help put animation, and its internal element of art, into proper perspective.

by Bill Gibron

8 Jun 2008


Action films are forged out of some very tenuous threads, each one required to carry its own weight while intricately balancing the needs of the other ingredients. They can certainly be crafted after a formula, years of practice guaranteeing that once all the elements are in place, something viable will result. Those who try to stretch or even break the mold are destined to either fail, or fracture and reconstruct the cinematic blueprint, revising the standard for the next generation of artists to come. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being really, really good at what the basics already provide, and this would describe the Hong Kong thriller Invisible Target rather well;. Now out on DVD from Dragon Dynasty, Genius Products and the Weinstein Company, this film is not out to redefine the genre. Instead, it wants to perfect it, and does so magnificently.

After an armored car explosion robs Fong Yik Wei of his fiancé, the policeman becomes a broken man. Six months later, his unpredictable nature has made him a law enforcement disadvantage. It’s the same with Detective Chan Chun. He’s so caught up in capturing a gang of international mercenaries that he can’t see the connection to Wei’s situation. It takes a chance meeting with rookie officer Wai King Ho to bring the cases together. Looking for his missing brother, who went undercover years ago and never came back, this department newbie sees only one course of action - a by-the-book belief in the rules. But when the self-described Ronin Gang reveals that they have someone on the inside helping them out, our trio will stop at nothing to discover the turncoat, and stop leader Tien Yeng Seng in his quest for death, destruction, and millions in cash.

Like a primer on how to proficiently kick, punch, fire, slash, and in general blow stuff up, Invisible Target is one of the best bombastic macho man movies that Hollywood never made. It’s Die Hard with an Asian accent, The Departed taken back to its Infernal Affairs origins and draped in thousands of glass shards and bullet holes. Director Benny Chan, best known for working with Hong Kong icon Jackie Chan on later day vehicles such as Robin-B-Hood, Who Am I, and New Police Story, takes a page out of the Western gonzo guidebook and delivers the kind of electrifying mayhem that has defined the shoot ‘em up since Arnold was just a bodybuilder. We are introduced to the customary good/bad dynamic, have the archetypes peppered with competing motives, lash everything together with a few of the deadly sins, and send it all careening into crowded streets and highly populated locales.

Chan certainly knows his references. There are lashings of John Woo here, the kind of emotional underpinning crucial to the slo-mo masters thrill ride successes. Of course, when we see a last act stand off in a massive office building, innocents locked in with the villains for the ultimate standoff, it’s hard not to think of Chow-Yuen Fat kicking ass in Hard Boiled. Similarly, our Asian auteur channels the Paul Verhoeven school of window shattering. No fight is complete without panes being pulverized into hundreds of chaotic crystals. It’s so deliberate that a drinking game could come of it. When you add in the excellent chases, both on foot and via automobile, it is clear that we are witnessing a solid cinematic eye with an easy ability to keep our heart racing and our eyes glued to the screen.

The superb actors help out immensely. As our seasoned and soured officers, Nicholas Tse and Shawn Yue are a couple of confident bastards. They play both sides of the law to their own ends, and come across as equally belligerent and highly vulnerable. Both must face demons bent on destroying their pursuit of justice, and each one handles said clash in a differing yet dramatic manner. It also helps that both men are adept in the major martial arts. It really aids in selling the numerous fight scenes. Similarly, Jaycee Chan (son of Jackie) does a wonderful job with a rather thankless third wheel role. He’s the voice of naïve reason among the back biting and double crossing of the Hong Kong police force, and his last act redemption is a bit too maudlin for the material. It definitely works, but the feelings seem strained and unearned.

Perhaps the biggest revelation, especially for those of us unfamiliar with his entire career arc, is the twisted turn by Jacky Wu. Playing the most malevolent of mobsters, here is a man unafraid of killing and quite capable of any act to maintain his power and position. It’s important to note that Tien Yeng Seng’s gang has only one purpose - the mindless pursuit of money - and it is clear that they are capable of anything…ANYTHING...to get it. Invisible Target is the kind of movie where children are visibly threatened, unarmed men are mowed down in cold blood, and pain is inflicted randomly and without warrant. And it is Wu doing most of the dirty work. While he is surrounded by a barely distinguishable group of gangsters, it is clear who holds the reigns in this racket.

With the simple storyline and two hour plus running time, director Chan is allowed to mine both the sentimental and the stunt. Make no mistake, this is some brutal stuff. The second disc of this two DVD set offers many in the cast talking about their participation, and more often than not, the grueling action and physical preparation for the fight scenes dominate the discussion. Wu, Yue, and Tse seem particularly interested in dishing the dirt about long days in training and long nights knocking each other out. Even better, the bonus featurettes explain how some of the more dangerous bits were created and captured. There are times in this movie when actors tumble down buildings, jump across rooftops, run into passing cars, and escape optically oversized explosions. While there is some CG trickery involved, many actual man hours were used to achieve the engaging ends.

Indeed, if you don’t expect the latest redefinition of the action epic, Invisible Target will warm you in a wonderfully old school manner. It takes its time getting started, develops its situations and characters fully, and then never lets up once the pedal is put to the edge of your seat metal. There is enough visual spectacle present to satisfy even the most fastidious film fan, and Chan definitely knows his way around the Hong Kong locales. Sometimes, getting the basics 100% right is much better than merely trying to reinvent what’s tried and true. That’s clearly the case with this on ‘Target’ title.

by Bill Gibron

7 Jun 2008


For a while, it seemed like the rumors would turn out to be true. Months of speculation had concluded that Troma, the independent titan responsible for such memorable cult classics as The Toxic Avenger and Tromeo and Juliet was on the verge of closing its doors forever. The production company, now largely in the business of distributing films produced outside their umbrella, had sunk all its cash into the demented zombie comedy Poultrygeist, and the lack of legitimate support from theater owners was driving founder Lloyd Kaufman and crew to the point of bankruptcy. There were even stories that inventory was being sold off and the main offices moved to the more “financially friendly” confines of New Jersey, the last desperate gasp of a business barely afloat.

Well, apparently, the gossip got it wrong. Sure, Troma left its Manhattan digs to travel over to the shores of its notorious neighbor, but this was done out of bold face necessity. Landlords raised their rent by a ridiculous amount, and there was no way the company could compete under such lend/lease larceny. Similarly, the lack of available product had nothing to do with a frantic fire sale. Instead, the business model mandated the push for Poultrygeist before unleashing another slew of digital delights. This past April saw the label finally return from the DVD dead, offering up the ganja goof Pot Zombies, and just last month, two more treats were unleashed on unsuspecting audiences everywhere. And just like other items in the cockeyed catalog, Bloodspit and Belcebu: Diablos Lesbos prove why, when it comes to sensational schlock, no one tops Troma.

Oddly enough, both movies come from outside the US. Australia is the setting for the story of a long dead vampire, back from the dead and desperate to retrieve a magical coat of arms. With the brand, the aging neckbiter can return to the land of mirrors (otherwise known as “Mirrorland”) and rejuvenate. While waiting to reclaim his birthright, he spends his off hours sexing it up with the hired help. Of course, his main nemesis, the wheelchair bound Dr. Ludvic, has discovered the power inherent in the tacky talisman, and the mad medico intends to use it to destroy the crafty Count Blaughspich (aka “Bloodspit”) once and for all - that is, if the demon’s wantonly wicked sister doesn’t stop him beforehand.

Spain is our next exotic location, and outside Madrid we meet up with a band of unhappy hookers. When heroin addict Mani gets involved in a robbery turned fatal, she spends time in prison. Upon release, she returns to her sex for sale ways. Meanwhile, her former boyfriend, a rocker named Toni, has magically transformed into Belcebu - a death metal menace whose unwieldy popularity has led to fan suicides and public censure. Hoping to find the sister - and sense of purpose - she left with the musician, Mani reconnects with him. Of course, by this time, Belcebu has successfully sold himself to the Devil. In return, he must make an annual sacrifice to the mangoat, and his ex may be the ritual’s main stage star.

As is typical with Troma, both of these movies are under the radar remnants of a DIY ethos that has long since stopped being practical within the artform. Sure, the current technology allows almost anyone to make their own damn movie (and even better, distribute it in a professional manner), yet when you watch either effort offered here, you get the distinct feeling of the personal passion the filmmakers had for their project more than any major moneymaking ideal. This is clearly the case with Bloodspit, which seems to be celebrating every outrageous horror spoof made in the last 20 years. Director Duke Hendrix, who co-wrote the wacky wayback weirdness with partner Leon Fish, fashions a kind of John Waters look at European exploitation, a movie with as much atmosphere as comic anarchy - and twice the tasteless tawdriness.

Drawing on sources as surreal as The Addams Family, Nosferatu, the typical Dracula dynamic and what appears to be the films of Chris Seaver, Hendrix and Fish proffer nonstop laughs, some wonderfully ridiculous characters, and more than a little unnatural skin. The ladies hired by the duo to do their flesh flashing dirty work give a new meaning to the word ‘dive bar’, yet they fit in perfectly with the pair’s aesthetic. Certainly, the level of toilet humor and dirty double entendre will remind one of the LBP universe. There are trips to the toilet bowl and graphic descriptions of human (and monster) genitalia, the whole thing reeking of middle schoolers mocking each others physical inadequacies. Hendrix and Fish also love accents. Between the Scots, the Brits, the Slavic and the just plain undecipherable, we are treated to a literal UN of vocal lunacy.

And yet thanks to the directorial style implied, an odd angle approach that utilizes the language of film as much as the dialogue of debauchery to get its point across, Bloodspit becomes a minor masterwork. Sure, it looses its bearings halfway through, demanding that the actors actually lift the narrative back on track, and if you’ve seen one Aussie stripper in her skivvies, reminding everyone that personal grooming and nutrition are actually GOOD things, but for the most part, this movie is terrifically entertaining. You can tell that Hendrix and Fish know their local lore. Peter Jackson and his pre-Rings gross out glory spews from every psycho shock sequence, and thanks to the ultra-low budget, imagination takes the place of production value. With pitch perfect performances from everyone involved, and a gamey grindhouse ideal at work, this is one incredibly infectious entertainment.

As silly as Bloodspit is, Belcebu is the exact opposite. This is a foreign film than takes itself far more seriously. Sure, there is a slightly satiric tone to the material, a Rosemary’s Baby like look at how the Devil controls all aspects of business and popular culture, but the real message behind Sergio Blasco’s self styled vanity project is that a life devoted to sex, drugs, and rock and roll can only lead to misery, addiction, and death. Starting off as a complicated character study before careening wildly over into pornography and a last act orgy of desecration and dismemberment, the writer/director/star accomplishes something quite rare. He makes us believe in the freakish and unfathomable while staying true to the blasphemous nature of the beliefs he is channeling. This is not your typical Satanic romp. Blasco really delves deep into the entire Black Mass basics.

Of course, we have to wade through Mani’s initial fall from grace, and there are times when Belcebu seems more interested in the life of a low rent hooker than dealing with its literal demons. The rock star storyline is frequently shuttled to the back so we can see our heroine shooting up, strung out, or slagging off. There are even moments reminiscent of Mamma Roma, when the local prostitutes hang out and trade secrets and safety tips. Blasco creates a real sense of community for his Spanish skanks, and it helps establish a tone of authenticity that supports the slam dunk surrealism to come. Indeed, once the professional cameraman Angel arrives on the scene, his oddball reaction to sex signifying that something is wrong with his supposedly straight machismo, we sense Belcebu beginning its turn. Sure enough, within seconds, Mani is a memory and its all soft core shuck and underworld jive.

Blasco looks the part of a long haired metal head, delivering his doom and gloom bombast in a manner that reflects every outsider rock act endlessly touring the club concert circuit. He lends his movie a real sense of scope. Similarly, the F/X work is very effective, gory and gruesome in that always welcome return to the practical and physical side of splatter. There are some sensational kills here, including a Cannibal Holocaust homage where a female victim is literally skewered from crotch to cranium, the massive pole then used as a statue for the rest of the dark ritual. There’s even a little winged imp that adds some crazy comic relief amongst all the arterial spray. Some may feel that Belcebu takes too long to get to its blood soaked climax, and many will find the street walker sequences to be dour and depressing. But the end result is something unique and totally of its own accord - a true indicator of what Troma tries to bring to all of its releases.

As for the DVDs themselves, nothing much has changed. The tech specs are uniformly good, the audio and video neither horribly misguided nor reference quality. It’s always a treat to see Kaufman do his patented proto-pervert act during his pre-feature introductions, and here he provides two classic examples of his extremism. For Bloodspit, the Tro-man is ensconced on the throne, doing his ‘duty’ to support the film. For Belcebu, it’s a Spanish language send-up complete with very un-PC pronouncements from his female co-hosts. As for extras, there are interviews with Hendrix and Fish, some outtakes, and a Behind the Scenes discussion with Blasco that, sadly, is not subtitled. In addition, there are lots of corporate come-ons to keep you spending those hard earned dollars in the distributor’s direction.

But the most important part about the release of Bloodspit and Belcebu: Diablos Lesbos is that the creature feature carnival barker known as Troma is back in business. In another few weeks, two more titles will be featured, and long in development projects like the proposed Giuseppe Andrews box set may now actually see the light of day. And considering how amazing Poultrygeist actually is (read the review here), it’s clear that the company wasn’t merely spinning its excess cash wheels. For anyone wondering what happened to the formidable B-movie madhouse, the return to DVD distribution indicates that everything is fine in the feverish land of Tromaville. It’s a welcome return for devotees desperate for the diseased and the dopey

by Bill Gibron

3 Jun 2008


Don’t let anyone tell you differently - cinema is cyclical. Ever since the initial barrage of old school Hollywood studio glitter, films (and their maverick makers) have been finding a way to rebel, and then revolt against said aesthetic uprising over and over again. Fantasy like fiction gave way to neo-realism, while the old techniques of static shots and journeymen direction mandated a whole ‘New Wave’ of experimentation. All throughout the ‘70s, French filmmaking was going through its own post-modern movement. Movies focused on the problems of real people, presented in a manner that accurately - and often uncomfortably - mimicked life.

In 1981, first time filmmaker Jean-Jacques Beineix decided to radicalize his approach to the medium. Drawing on deliberate artificiality - and a novel by Daniel Odier (under the pseudonym Delacorta - Diva was the result. It gained instant worldwide acclaim, and even managed to become a certified cult hit in America. It announced a new approach in French cinema, labeled Cinema du look, and introduced the talents of Beineix, Luc Besson, and Leos Carax. While some saw a thread of political relevance inside the style - the subject matter usually centered on the disillusioned youth of the era - many felt this new form was more flash than finesse.

Oddly enough, it was a similar argument used against the burgeoning US independents of the mid ‘90s. Wunderkind directors like Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, and Darren Aronofsky were considered brilliant visionaries whose efforts carried a gloss of uneasy emotional detachment - again, all technique and no import. Yet their influence guided cinema for the next decade, swaying many who felt that film needed a swift kick in the creativity to remain vital. After getting his start in the art video circuit, Canadian filmmaker Francois Girard applied his passion for classical music toward an intriguing biography of a legendary pianist. His 1993 opus 32 Short Films About Glen Gould brought instant notoriety, its unusual conceit reflecting this newfound desire to reinvent the form of cinema. Five year later, critics would complain about his vignette heavy time trip, The Red Violin.

Thanks to Lionsgate, who is introducing a new line of important DVDs under the “Meridian Collection” tag, we get a chance to revisit both films to see if their particular era-oriented vision still holds up over the decades. In the case of Beineix, Diva still derives a great deal of its pizzazz out of elements that now seem sort of dated. When one thinks about camera trickery and directorial flare, a film like this instantly comes to mind. On the other hand, The Red Violin is like a lush lesson in ephemeral emptiness. There are times when the movie seems so lightweight and puffy that you wait for it to simply vanish into the ether and disappear from the screen. This does not mean they are bad films - far from it. But in a format friendly dynamic that gives even the most unsung work a chance to shine, both Diva and The Red Violin have been bypassed by other, more daring deconstructions.

As a starting point for all this filmic flare, Diva has one of the more straightforward stories. A young mail courier named Jules (Frédéric Andréi) enjoys his pseudo-slacker life on the fringes. He particularly loves opera, and the vocal work of American soprano Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez). So taken is he with the ‘diva’, that he makes an illegal recording of a recent recital. Somehow, his tape gets mixed up with that of a recent police sting, and the mobsters at the center want all evidence eliminated - including Jules. Thus begins an extended chase with both police and criminals after our hapless hero.

The Red Violin, on the other hand, takes the Glenn Gould approach to narrative, using the title instrument as a thread linking several divergent storylines. When a rare example of a ‘Bussotti’ is auctioned off, flashbacks fill in the gaps in the item’s history. We see the creator perfecting his creation, watch as it finds its way into the hands of a child prodigy, and witness its part in China’s Cultural Revolution. In between, there are stop offs with noblemen, nonentities, and a particularly intense historian (Samuel L. Jackson). Not surprisingly, the delicate object has one final secret to reveal.

One of the great things about the digital format remains the ability for filmmakers to defend their work. Sometimes, the most difficult offerings have the easiest of explanations. That is clearly the case with both Diva and The Red Violin. On the Lionsgate DVDs, both Jean-Jacques Beineix (in a scene specific overview) and Francois Girard (a full length discussion with co-writer Don McKellar) are present to contextualize their craft. Of the two, the latter is far more informative. Beineix is all shot selection and memories, not so much a defense of his highly ostentatious outing as it is a primer of possibilities. Girard is more forgiving. He underscores his motives, making sure listeners understand the allusions and mythos he was employing.

Even better, we get added material that makes both films feel less calculated and more manageable. Beineix’s baby draws on a wonderful documentary revisit entitled “Searching for Diva”. In it, cast and crew expand our knowledge of the movie while making clear how much of the style was purposefully premeditated. Violin relies on more indirect guidance. One short piece outlines the auction of a rare “Red Mendelssohn” Stradivari (clearly an inspiration for the film), while another allows the Oscar winning composer of the sensational score - John Corigliano - to discuss the movie’s main theme. Certainly, obsessives will wonder why there isn’t more material here. Yet Lionsgate gives each disc just enough heft to warrant a reissue. Besides, the newly remastered transfers look terrific.

This doesn’t address each movie from a critical standpoint, however, and this is where both Diva and The Red Violin suffer, if ever so slightly. For the earlier effort, the passage of almost three decades has been almost deadly. What was fresh and reinvigorating then is now harshly kitschy and borderline camp. This doesn’t take away from Beineix’s way with an action scene - the motorcycle chase through the Paris streets is still exciting, it’s jump cut skill reinvigorating the then dying action element. Yet some of the moments where characters mope about in pre-Goth gloom, or worse, run around like refugees from a camp revival of A Clockwork Orange, come across as cheesy as an Adam Ant video. Diva still delivers a great deal of pleasure within its now noticeable knottiness, and the performances are excellent and quite accomplished. Yet this is the kind of experience that makes one wonder how current cinematic turning points (CGI, the ‘found footage’ first person POV genre jolts) will play 30 years from now. 

If The Red Violin is any indication, style doesn’t always need substance to succeed. In fact, sumptuousness can trump depth with a carefully constructed composition. The broad scope of Girard’s canvas - he moves through the centuries as effortlessly as a virtuoso’s fingers along the frets - definitely allows for a more hit or miss approach, but here the director delivers more times than he fails. The material centering on the child prodigy is highly engaging, as are the moments in Communist China. Jackson’s story may seem the weakest, but watching the actor outside his element (we keep waiting for him to break out into a string of venomous epithets) and underplaying his part is highly entertaining. There are those who’ve complained that Violin violates the whole ‘image over import’ ideal. Sadly, they seem to be missing many of the movie’s more noticeable attributes.

Indeed, it’s easy to dismiss either film for what it offers visually vs. how it plays as a thriller or a detailed drama. Diva can never shake its Cinema du look logistics, but ignoring the calculated bells and whistles, it is still a satisfying experience. So what if The Red Violin appears deeper, and less deliberate. There is still enough visual privilege to make those inclined to criticize apoplectic. Just remember that this is all part of film’s recurring reboot and all your concerns will be calmed. Diva and The Red Violin definitely deserve continued recognition, and Lionsgate Meridian Collection is a perfect way of preserving them for future debate/consideration. And there will be a great deal of both.

by Bill Gibron

1 Jun 2008


The most revolutionary thing about punk wasn’t the music, though it’s hard to imagine that ‘70s listeners were ready for the Ramones/Sex Pistols style of cacophonous crash and burn. And it definitely wasn’t the fashion, since safety pins and bondage gear were nothing more than the flairs and love beads of a differing era. In some ways, it was the attitude, even if every generation finds a way to rebel against the authority they feel are strangulating their future. No, the true ‘white riot’ came within the DIY dynamic, the notion that this style of music provided an open door for anyone with drive and a desire an outlet to be heard. All they had to do was pick up an instrument, learn to play it (optional), and bring the noise.

Of course, not everyone followed the three chord slam. There were bands that believed punk’s power awarded them the opportunity to express themselves in whatever manner they saw fit. All throughout England, pockets of post-movement music were making that distinction. The kids of Sheffield channeled their German synth heroes, while Coventry discovered the jazzy Jamaican skank of ska. In Manchester, birthplace of the industrial revolution, two schoolmates were looking to mimic the Buzzocks’ buzzsaw pop. After recruiting a pair of like minded locals, Warsaw was born. Eventually, they’d sack their drummer, rename themselves after the prostitution section of a Nazi concentration camp, and take to the stage as Joy Division. The rest, as they say, is rock and roll mythology.

What happened when singer Ian Curtis, guitarist/keyboardist Bernard Sumner, bassist Peter Hook, and percussionist Stephen Morris entered the studio to record with lunatic producer (and noted drug addict) Martin Hannett pushed the providence into legend. The tragedy that turned the remnants of the act into New Order sealed such a folklore fate. Now, two new films hope to uncover the truth about the entire Joy Division experience, from the no nonsense approach of the business, to the over-romanticized suicide of Curtis. Each one takes a diametrically opposed look at the story, and yet each reaches the same conclusion - Joy Division was the moment when punk truly reached its purpose.

In 2007 Grant Gee, noted for his excellent on the road overview of Radiohead’s rise to fame during the promotion of OK Computer (Meeting People is Easy), turned his sights on the seminal foursome for Joy Division, his amazingly in-depth documentary of their rise and rapid fall. That same year, photographer (and longtime fan) Anton Corbijin made his feature film debut with a biopic of the band he once worked with. Control contains the truth mirrored in fictional flashes, the focus more on Curtis as a person than as a rock and roll symbol.

When viewed side by side, they become something quite surreal - a combination of companion pieces that both verify and violate the very terms of a biography. We get swatches of history inside a spiraling attempt to expose a perspective-plotted accuracy. Thanks to Genius Product, the Weinstein Company, and their new Miriam Collection DVD division, we are treated to a pair of perplexing, important films that fulfill the mandates of the genre while peeling back the layers of lies and fables.

Though it tends to wear it’s artiness on its work shirted sleeve, Joy Division is still a wonderful first person tell-all. Utilizing as many living participants as possible - only Hannett and manager rob Rob Gretton, both of whom died of a heart attack, and widow Deborah Curtis fail to show - we get the preamble to the band’s story. Sumner, Hook, and Morris maintain a very stiff upper lip, shrugging off suggestions that they are in any way complicit in the death of their mate, while several people suggest, including former Factory Records chief Tony Wilson, that Curtis could have been helped had anyone really been paying attention. The punk philosophy, which can best be described as the two fingered salute in UK gestures - is evident throughout the documentary. Gee goes overboard with the odd illustrative tags and flashback referencing, but the chance to see the actual players speak for themselves is valuable in and of itself.

So are the varying versions of what exactly happened. In Control, director Corbijin does a delicate job of demystifying Curtis’ suicide. We never see it, but we witness every personal detail beforehand. Many of the incidents mirror the stories we hear in Joy Division, yet without the ability to see a fictional Ian in action, the sadness still sounds emblematic. But Control countermands this. In Sam Riley - who really does do a magnificent job of playing our tragic hero as a human being - Corbijin discovers a veritable clone, someone who is capable of channeling Curtis onstage as well as bringing a similar intensity to his normative life. Both movies make it clear that Joy Division’s success never translated into the typical music biz trappings. Curtis and his mates always needed money, and one former acquaintance guesses that, in total, each only earned about $2500.

Since Control comes from Debbie’s side of the story - it is based on her 1995 autobiography Touching from a Distance - Curtis’ affair with diplomatic liaison Annik Honoré is given short shrift. In Joy Division, it feels like a fully formed relationship, the actual participant present and pleading her case. But Control treats the whole issue as a selfish, indulgent act by a man confused as to what he wanted and a woman who was more or less a glorified groupie. It’s not an issue of great love, but of lust complicated by epilepsy and the medication Curtis took. It’s not the only odd juxtaposition between the two films. Peter Hook, who does condemn his own actions in Joy Division, is portrayed as a slightly homophobic prick in Control. What few lines of dialogue the character has center around the name “Buzzcocks” and other random criticisms.

Corbijin’s decision to film in black and white definitely adds to his position. Thanks to the monochrome, there is a gravity in how Control depicts its events that Joy Division can’t quite match. It’s as if imagines are battling words for authenticity. As a filmmaker, this former video music master has the chops. There are times when Curtis and his bandmates look like the men of mystery and ethereality as history has held them out to be. At other instances, Manchester looks like a big gray garden, concrete taking the place of anything natural or organic. Corbijin does go back to his previous career when handling some of the musical material. Compared to the live performances seen in Joy Division, he argues for his ability to capture the very essence of the stage experience.

In fact, one could easily see the two films fused together to turn into the type of epic tell-all that John Lydon perfected with his masterful book Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. In said tome, the former Sex Pistol presented the facts of his life as he saw them, and then allowed others to write their own commentaries contradicting/complementing his tales. While Joy Division lays down the basics, Control creates a more emotional version of the band’s story. Corbijin is not really interested in the machinations of rock and roll. The concert scenes are amazing, but manager Rob Gretton is more comic relief than window into that world. We never learn how Hannett made Unknown Pleasures in his own oddball aural imagine, or why the band went along with that decision. Indeed, the documentary focuses far more on how the music was made than why.

Of course, that’s the major question of Curtis’ life. How did a civil servant, well read but rather unmotivated, married too young and yet quite comfortable with his domestic situation (at least initially) become the darker, more dour Jim Morrison of his generation? Where did his disconcerting laments about alienation and depressive come from? Joy Division suggests that Manchester itself, a dying industrial giant desperate for a rebirth, may have been the motive. The rest of the band considered it pretty bleak. Yet Control contains sequences that suggest a relatively happy Curtis. Once he is diagnosed with epilepsy however (still a vastly misunderstood disease in the ‘70s) it seems to fuel a forgotten set of pains. Both may be catalysts, though they are probably more guesses than anything else.

Both DVDs dive deep into the details, presenting extended interviews (on Joy Division) and commentaries from Corbijin (on Control). Band participation is explained, metaphors are drawn up and explained, and anecdotes fill in the blanks. Of the two presentations, Control is more complete, since it offers a making-of featurette and some additional conversations with the filmmaker. Gee is nowhere to be found in the Joy Division supplements, in what must be a clear case of a director believing his film speaks for itself. Visually, both movies look great, and as they do with most of their packages, Genius never scrimps on the technical specifications.

Yet one will definitely walk away from Joy Division and Control with more questions than straight answers. Some might even argue that after seeing Curtis in such a flawed light, his muse may no longer matter. The band certainly seems timeless, and still their songs do preach to a much more insular and uninviting world. For better or worse, post-millennial culture is too junky and juvenile to be in tune with such angular doom. As seminal albums of punk’s harrowing hangover, Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures and Closer are indeed outstanding. They resemble nothing of their time, or the future to come. The story of how these records were made still remains something ephemeral and vague. But thanks to these two incredible films, Ian Curtis can finally rest in peace. The burden of his legend seems lost now - and he probably would have wanted it that way. 

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