Category: Film

Motion pictures from high art to schlock…

David Bowie: The Man Who Fell to Earth – Station to Station at 40

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

David Bowie Station to Station at 40

On the 40th anniversary of Station to Station, Jokerside prepares to stare into the abyss of Bowie’s difficult and ever-rewarding 1976 album with a dart-like glance at the Thin White Duke persona that spun from the cracked actor’s first major film role in The Man Who Fell to Earth

THIS WEEKEND MARKS THE 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF STATION TO STATION’S RELEASE, JUST UNDER TWO WEEKS SINCE DAVID BOWIE LEFT THE PLANET.  Left, that is, after an incredible career. The extent of Bowie’s output post-death, the legacy of a meticulously detailed artist, will take many years if not eternity to unravel. Bowie’s swansong album Blackstar appears to pose riddle and mystery unseen since his peak of persona swapping in the 1970s. Come the 1980s his interest in persona had abated although he retained the power to innovate and reinvent. Surely a good reason for that shift from a period that had produced in rapid succession Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dog’s Halloween Jack and others through the early 1970s fell at the feet of his last major character. The all-pervasive horror of the persona that dominated 1976. The Thin White Duke, who would become synonymous with what Bowie later called “the darkest days of my life”

Station to Station emerged barely a year after the Year of the Diamond Dog, a furious tour of his dystopian bridge between glam and disco soul between June 1974 and… Well, by the end of 1974 it had morphed into the Philly Dogs tour and then side-stepped into soul alongside his new LP Young Americans. That lurch to the unexpected and commercial laid out the immediate and ongoing importance of America Bowie’s his life. The Young Americans sessions were completed in two stints, one a drug fuelled and productive run that producer Tony Visconti was happy to pick up and return to the UK to mix. Bowie though would return to the studio in early 1975 for two last minute additions that not only broke Bowie and Visconti’s relationship for two albums but also diluted Young American’s soul and made it his most overtly Beatles album – or specifically Lennon, with one of Bowie’s better if melodramatic covers as he took on the cosmically simplistic Across the Universe before the simplistically catchy album closer Fame found him in duet with the former Beatle.

Escape to LA

“I lifted you up once”

He wouldn’t return to the studio to any meaningful degree for nine months – a length of time that was extraordinary during Bowie’s most prolific period. But things were afoot. In the mid-1970s three years of relentless touring and the sacking of his long-term manager Tony DeFries left a smacked out Bowie staring the need for relocation in the face while holed up in a hotel in Los Angeles. New York had closed in on him, although its dying throes had not only pushed him and Lennon onto tape but thrown up a meeting with director Nicolas Roeg who was narrowing the cast for his film of Walter Tevis’ short novel The Man Who Fell to Earth. Well, it was a meeting that somehow materialised after Bowie arrived eight hours late then, assuming Roeg wouldn’t have waited, busied himself with other things until he returned home in the early hours to find the director sat at his kitchen table.

Cracked

“My life is not secret… But it is private”

“I’ve always been aware of how dubious a position it is to stay in [Los Angeles] for any length of time” said Bowie in the BBC’s Cracked Actor documentary, a year before his first major film role opened the city up to him. Sporadic visits from his ever valuable assistant Coco Schwab and ever more estranged wife Angie found them both concerned for his health, although this dark portion of his life remains smattered with only sparing facts. Angie later recalled the frantic phone call from her husband, shouting that he had been kidnapped by wizards and witches and recalls him requesting an exorcism. None of that is proven, but it’s clear that during his slide into drug addled paranoia Bowie had drifted towards the dark arts in the heat of LA. ‘Paranoid delusion’ is a phrase that pops up again and again but there was certainly a great deal of peculiar behaviour in a pattern that no one could break. Except it seems, The Man who Fell to Earth. The “Spaced out space man”.

The Man who Fell to Earth (1976)

“Leave my mind alone”

Spells, incantations and late nights spent drawing pentangles by candlelight, while moving between buildings that cast different slants on ancient philosophies from Egyptian mythology to Kabbalah – philosophies that Bowie later described as “misleading in life”. It takes something to get out of that. Fortunately, once Roeg and Bowie finally got to meet, their rapport was instant. Continue reading “David Bowie: The Man Who Fell to Earth – Station to Station at 40”

Hammer: Dracula Prince of Darkness at 50 – Dead and just not putting up with it

Hammer Dracula Dead and not putting up with it

Hammer Dracula Dead and not putting up with it

Of the minor things worth celebrating in what’s been a rather terrible week is the 50th anniversary of the US release of Dracula Prince of Darkness. Jokerside breaks the gloom with a look at the glorious world where resurrection is FACT.

WE’RE NEAR THE END OF A WEEK THAT’S PILED ON SOME TERRIBLE LOSSES. AND 2015 WAS PRETTY BAD. Over the last 12 months we’ve lost two British icons whose careers seemed to defy any idea of death. Sir Christopher Lee and David Bowie. Bowie played a vampire of course, in Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Lee’s illustrious career would take in everything from Gremlins to Jabberwockies and heavy metal, but he will be long remembered as a definitive vision of Stoker’s legendary vampire.

Of course, this horrid week also saw the loss of Alan Rickman, most famous to millions of Harry Potter fans for his glorious portrayal role of the vampiric Severus Snape. And just yesterday, Roberts Bank Stewart, the legendary British screenwriter, father of Bergerac, was also lost. Among his many achievements was the creation of Doctor Who’s premier shapeshifters the Zygons. Ah Dracula, one of literature’s great shapeshifters.

So from the depths of gloom, where better to look that at the glorious fall, rise, fall, rise and so on of Lee’s Count Dracula. As this bloody week ends, let’s celebrate utterly ridiculous over the top and glorious concept of resurrection.

Dracula Prince of Darkness was the second of Hammer’s films to feature Lee as the eponymous Count. Of course, it wasn’t the second of Hammer’s Dracula films, but 1960’s The Brides of Dracula can be dismissed along with 1977’s The Legend of the Golden Vampires. While both starred Peter Cushing as (a) Van Helsing, neither featured Christopher Lee. The latter even attempted to replace him, painfully. If you’re after the modes of vampire slaying therein: the shadow of a giant cross and a spear through the heart.

Dracula Prince of Darkness signalled the glorious return of Christopher Lee as the Count, eight years after his first appearance and sparking off the Hammer Dracula franchise proper. And as the first true sequel, it kick-started the Count’s ability to return. And of course, despite the wonderful recap of Dracula’s death almost a decade before, it rendered the whole final act killing of a vampire utterly pointless. The franchise didn’t care a jot for that however, and so began one of the earliest examples of a series where every successive film practically wiped out its predecessor. Don’t pursue that logic too heavily though. You’ll end up with The Satanic Rites of Dracula sat shivering and alone in the corner.

There’s more to Dracula Prince of Darkness – as well as bearing quite probably the best title of any Dracula film, it also kick-started double-bill horror. Released 50 years ago this week in the US it was accompanied rather oddly by The Plague of the Zombies. Some were luck to receive plastic vampire fangs and zombie eye glasses on attendance.

The film’s script features a very handy reminder of the many weaknesses of a vampire. Just as a refresher:

“He can be traced to his resting place during the daylight hours and there, a stake through the heart. He can be exposed to the direct rays of the sun. Running water will drown him. The cross will burn him. He is not invulnerable.”

But who needs to be invulnerable when you can constantly be reanimated, even a century later? And so, let’s have a good old and tongue-in-cheek rummage through the many resurrections of Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula.

Dracula (1958)

“I am Dracula and I welcome you to my house”

By no means a direct adaptation, it was still hammer’s most faithful adaptation of Stoker’s original novel. Jonathan Harker duly turns up to meet the Count, this time at the Castle Dracula outside Klausenburg, but the real reason for rapid departures was the lock-tight contract Universal Studios had cunningly taken out with the Stoker estate two decades before. Universal’s take, with Bela Lugosi apparently defining the role, looked to have the eminently adaptable story sewn up  (Stoker after all was business manager of the Lyceum Theatre for 27 years). Continue reading “Hammer: Dracula Prince of Darkness at 50 – Dead and just not putting up with it”

“Closer than you think” – Celebrating Labyrinth

Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal Mystic Ambrosiaus Sir Didymus

Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal Mystic Ambrosiaus Sir Didymus

Twelfth Night brought The Dark Crystal while Epiphany brings Jim Henson’s final directorial masterpiece, Labyrinth.

the second of Jokerside’s double-headed look at Jim Henson’s finest and most ambitious hours on the big screen. Modern fairy tales, all vision and little compromise, that bestrode children fantasy cinema in the 1980s… An astonishing three decades ago… 

IT SURFACED FROM COLLABORATION. DURING A SCREENING OF THE DARK CRYSTAL VISIONARY PUPPETEER JIM HENSON AND FANTASY ILLUSTRATOR BRIAN FROUD CHUCKED A FEW IDEAS AROUND. A few years later the resulting film left the New Age philosophy of The Dark Crystal to draw on the works of Baum, Mendak, Bronte and Grimm. Oh and chuck in the odd tune. Now commonly seen as a cult film of a particular era, Labyrinth remains a startlingly innovative take on familiar themes that developed but also departed from Froud and Henson’s previous big screen collaboration. Unfortunately, it also saw the departure of critical and popular opinion at the time.

“That’s not fair”
“You say that so often…”

Labyrinth (1986)

A helluva team

Four years after The Dark Crystal, came the film that it’s probably fair to say is more famous. And a step forward and step back, depending on the Escher-styled staircase you’re on. For one, the budget was almost double that of The Dark Crystal. Once again, it was based on the incredible conceptual art of Brian Froud. But this time it didn’t run from humour, but embraced it. Apparently, humour was a prerequisite for David Bowie’s involvement. It combined humans and puppetry in incredibly realised, highly detailed environments that couldn’t help but highlight the scale. It moved from the early oddity of the previous film’s languages and avant-garde score to sculpt a witty musical.

Many usual subjects were involved in this higher level Henson production, but as a powerhouse collaboration the personnel were almost unbeatable. Brian Froud, Henson and Oz et al were back of course. But in addition to Henson taking a sole grip on the reins, George Lucas exec produced and Monty Python’s Terry Jones scripted from Dennis Lee’s story. Lucas not only had a pass or two on the script but also helped Henson edit, leading Henson to the fantastic quote on their relationship: “I loosen up his tightness, and he tightens my looseness.”

Add into that Trevor Jones return, blending a wonderful score with classic tracks from David Bowie himself. Yes, the centre of the piece was the chameleon of pop as Jareth the Goblin King, at that time riding out the popular highs and mild artistic fall of his mid-1980s period.

With that calibre behind it, Labyrinth just couldn’t fail. And artistically, it doesn’t.

The solemnity of The Dark Crystal was gone, but the fairy tale and frights remained. Jareth’s arrival proved that near the beginning. And away from the New Age philosophy of that earlier film, Labyrinth wandered into what might be the most difficult territory of all. The mind of a teenage girl. Much has been made of the film’s coming of age aspirations, but they’re well realised in a highly textured plot.

First Lines

“I’ve figured it out. I couldn’t do it before. I think I’m getting smarter.”

After the glorious animated opening, Sarah’s entrance firmly establishes a real world. Caught up in her fantasy role playing, with her trusted dog Merlin, we meet her the ‘wicked stepmom’ who is entirely reasonable. We see little of that real world as Sarah quickly returns to her room – a space that would prove pivotal. And so much falls on the corridor that connects her room to her parents; that bridges Sarah’s reality from the dark room where she wishes her brother away, before walking seamlessly into the Goblin Kingdom.

And once she’s there… Sarah is likeable, generous self-assured, self-improving – a far cry from the petulant child we see in reality. She gives away her jewellery, tries to help those around her.

These little subtleties though, can get lost in the onslaught. Some of the references are heavier or more oblique than the palette The Dark Crystal drew from. And as it’s designed to be a scrapbook kitchen sink of a film it’s no surprise that it can disconnect from its audience. Where and when is difficult to pinpoint as so much of it is stupendous in scope, scale and imagination. Take that opening promise, with the crying baby Toby (an excellent performance from Brian Froud’s son) which blurs live and puppet in tension, humour and horror. Continue reading ““Closer than you think” – Celebrating Labyrinth”

“Words that stay” – Celebrating The Dark Crystal

Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal Bowie Skeksis Gelfling

Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal Bowie Skeksis Gelfling

It’s Twelfth Night, so just time for some festive favourites. Well, Festive Muppetry.

This time, Jokerside takes a double-headed look at Jim Henson’s finest and most ambitious hours on the big screen. Modern fairy tales, all vision and little compromise, that bestrode children fantasy cinema in the 1980s… An astonishing three decades ago… Tomorrow, an Epiphany as Jokerside visits Labyrinth, but first 1982’s The Dark Crystal

AT A CASUAL GLANCE, IT’S EASY TO SLOT THE DARK CRYSTAL AND LABYRINTH INTO THAT PARTICULARLY OVERARCHING SET OF 80S FAMILY FANTASY FILMS. From Willow to Ladyhawke, films that still stretch across Western culture like The NeverEnding Story’s Nothing. While Jim Henson’s big screen masterpieces are separated by four years it’s also hard to avoid seeing The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth as two fantasy classics on one natural line of development, although there are no links in terms of story or myth. Following the human-free, straight and ominous myth creation of The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth mixed Henson magic with humans and made the most of David Bowie to construct a musical around its fantastic story. Or the other way round, depending on the paving slab sliding goblin you talk to.

Undeniably, both films contribute some of the most stunning visuals of 1980s cinema, with almost every frame struggling to contain the ambition. While both are very different films, the most striking link between the two is the difficulty both experienced on release. But while one emerged belatedly to marked success, the other demoralised Henson with the result that he never directed a film again.

Off to the alternate dimension of the Goblin Kingdom tomorrow. But first the planet Thra, fittingly a planet of two sides…

The Dark Crystal (1982)

A myth forms

“He didn’t think it was healthy for children to always feel safe.”

So said co-director Frank Oz about Jim Henson. And there’s no doubt about it, The Dark Crystal is a rather sombre affair. As Oz continued, Henson’s intent was to return to the darkness of Grimms’ Fairy Tales. Building the concept from the mid- to late-1970s, the end result is an hour and a half of stunning scenery and stupendous scope, quite jaw-dropping in its realisation and (freed of humanity) timelessness. But in stretching the darkness of the material, or returning it, The Dark Crystal sometimes feels scenes were cut short to stop jokes naturally rolling out and ruining that Grimm intent.

“Another age, another time”

What’s more impressive than the impassioned darkness is how confidently The Dark Crystal throws itself into a mythology, heavily interpreting New Age philosophy and particularly Jane Roberts The Seth Material (still being produced at the time of the film’s release). Lining the crystal are astrological signs and throughout the film ensures the magick is linked to the heavens.

Unlike some other prominent fantasy films of the time, The Dark Crystal doesn’t paint a reality threatened with an impending threat so much as propel alien characters directly into a terrible situation. Not only must disbelief must be suspended for the meek protagonist to quickly embark on his crucial quest, but there is little to relate to. The tone and immense background is immediately set by an omniscient voice, the owner of which we don’t see until the end.

Those weighty words are brilliantly intoned and enunciated in a weighted British tone by Joseph O’Conor. He tells us of the cruel and gentle races, the Mystics and Skeksis, both whittled down to 10 in number. It’s the Skeksis we see first, during the opening titles, the reptilian, birdlike horrors – fixed unmoving in the light of the Dark Crystal. Continue reading ““Words that stay” – Celebrating The Dark Crystal”

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