cinema

Under your skin: Hesteofringen - Henning Christiansen

Image courtesy of Holidays Records.

This oddity from boutique Milanese label Holidays Records makes for a disquieting and arresting listen across its 8 minutes and 55 seconds. A single-sided 10” in beautifully minimal respectively white/green and red/white outer and inner sleeves, it transcends its origins as the soundtrack to a singularly bizarre and brutal piece of Danish conceptual/performance art.

Broadcast to a large portion of the Danish population in January 1970, Hesteofringen (‘Horse Sacrifice’) was the ostensible ritual slaughtering and dismemberment of a horse in protest of the ongoing war in Vietnam (the horse was actually very old and put down humanely by a vet). Initiated by Bjørn Nørgaard, this ‘happening’ is captured on silent super 8 footage - a medium that is lent an additional strange horror by the fact that it was so often used to record home videos in the past. The record sleeve’s colour scheme is no coincidence – on a snowy plain in northern Denmark, we see (multimedia and performance artist) Lene Adler Pedersen incanting as a ‘priestess’ while wearing a red, black and white robe, a reflection of sorts of the horse’s dark body bleeding out onto white ground as it is hacked up - while Fluxus-associated Beuys collaborator Henning Christiansen accompanies the act on a green violin (this scene is documented in a vibrant colour photograph on the inner sleeve). The only sound in the film is the music documented on the record, which is partly repeated later in the film (17 and a half minutes long).

The music (a piece that is actually entitled ‘Min døde hest’ – ‘My dead horse’) consists of Pedersen, childlike, singing a poem by Nørgaard; Nørgaard plays plangent, cyclical piano chords while Christiansen draws out atonal, creaky, moans from his violin. The voice is the part that dominates, the part that captivates most – nothing so unusual about that – mourning, distracted, absent. But the (Danish) lyrics repeat the piece’s title again and again, with interjections about crawling inside the dead horse, “Oh, your soft intestines”, and “dead horse on bread”. We do not need to comprehend the lyrics literally (a kind Discogs user, Google translate and the sleevenotes are to thank for these transcriptions/translations) to understand that this voice speaks of a profound loneliness.

The music is perhaps very slightly reminiscent of John Cage’s songs for piano and voice (as found on ECM’s 2012 release As It Is), or Erik Satie, or Patty Waters, but one tends to think more of Jandek, or Grouper (particularly Ruins) in the sense that - irrespective of the actual circumstances of the playing of the music - this sounds like a room containing one person, singing inwardly, lamenting, not taking much care to the execution of the playing, more trying to work through something harrowing, and perhaps finding they are inadequately emotionally or linguistically facilitated to do so. Holidays Records describe the piece as a ‘sad lullaby’ and it’s hard to argue with this description. Lullabies are often used to sing children to sleep, especially if they are unsettled or temporarily troubled; this sounds like someone singing herself to sleep, slipping back into something infant, seeking comfort, warmth, protection.

  Lene Adler Pedersen and Henning Christiansen perform  Hesteofringen  (film still found on inner sleeve).

Lene Adler Pedersen and Henning Christiansen perform Hesteofringen (film still found on inner sleeve).

In Christiansen’s ‘THOUGHTS ABOUT A DEAD HORSE (and an attempt to move on)’ (February 1970), presented as sleevenotes to Hesteofringen, he underlines the existential isolation that echoes through the record: “Our most immediate problem is contact among people. For the last five years, the code word has been communication, but this was on an external level. At stake now is the internal level.” The hippy-ish context of that most late-60s/early-70s artwork, ‘the happening’, and the references to mysticism throughout Christiansen’s statement tend to make one suspicious of this assertion, but it is not so distant from Lacanian thought around language’s alienating effects – most basically (so one is given to understand), that there is a fundamental, irresolvable disconnect within each one of us that leads to an innate dissatisfaction, and language (as an external system) bears much of the responsibility. While the then-fashionable quasi-spiritual mumbo jumbo contained in Christiansen’s 48-year old statement is to some degree validated by tracts of poststructuralist theory, it is really a tautology, irrelevant. As interesting as the sleevenotes are, and as fascinating as the original artwork/performance is, the song resonates all the louder by itself.

Hesteofringen lends some voice to that alienation, without resolving it. That language here has to some degree broken down - become repetitive, twisted, obsessive - is surely no coincidence; not understanding the literal meaning of the words (though the repetition is obvious) actually enhances this sensation of alienation. That the voice, piano and violin all sound slightly misaligned, disjointed, heightens the sensation further still; but the voice alone transmits this alienation well enough, and the loneliness conveyed makes one a voyeur. It’s an uncomfortable feeling, spying on private trauma.

“Oh, just the whole world was a dead horse.”

Crawling inside your “dear, dead horse” won’t bring it back to life; it may protect you from the elements for a while, but the world remains outside.

This may make the record sound horrific, unbearable, unlistenable, but it is far too beautiful to honestly deem it so. Hesteofringen is undeniably stark, strange, discomfiting; but its hypnotic melancholy cannot help but get under your skin.

Hesteofringen is out now on Holidays Records, in a limited edition of 350 copies. Thanks to Low Company Records for bringing it to our attention.

Andrew R. Hill


Bibliography

Ghosh, Mallika. “Lacan and Post-Structuralism.” International Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology (IJSSA), Dec. 2016, pp. 85–89., http://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/0e8b/d896781fe72f4533098794afbc64b4586949.pdf.

Harwood, Mark. “Nature and Culture.” Surround, Apr. 2014, surround.noquam.com/nature-and-culture/.

Hvidt, Annette Rosenvold. “About the Work: The Horse Sacrifice.” Statens Museum for Kunst, 22 Mar. 2017, www.smk.dk/en/visit-the-museum/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/2010/bjoern-noergaard/about-the-work-the-horse-sacrifice/.

Lechte, John. “Jacques Lacan.” Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers: from Structuralism to Postmodernity, Routledge, 1994, pp. 77–81.

DVD Review: 'What Have you Done to Solange?'

DVD Review: 'What Have you Done to Solange?'

Arrow Video continue to impress with their Blu-Ray releases of Italian Giallo films - this time with Massimo Dallamano's salacious and disturbing What Have You Done to Solange?. The film was released in 1972 (at the height of Giallo fever) and it positions itself as one of the more intriguing exponents of the genres. Dallamano (who had previously worked as a DOP on Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More) delivers a lush-looking, highly disturbing and suspense-rich work that is enriched by Ennio Morricone's hunting score. 

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DVD Review: 'La Grande Bouffe'

DVD Review: 'La Grande Bouffe'

Arrow Films' recent release, Marco Ferreri's 1973 extremely dark comedy La Grande Bouffe, is unlikely to leave spectators indifferent - for better or for worse. Upon release, the film divided the public, who either hailed it as a masterwork of cutting social and political satire, or condemned it, as Roger Erbert caustically put it, as as a nihilistic 'chronicle of gluttony and self-hate'.

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DVD Review: 'Eyes without a Face'

DVD Review: 'Eyes without a Face'

When Eyes Without a Face (Les Yeux Sans Visage) was presented at Edinburgh Film Festival in 1960, seven audience members fainted, prompting his French director, Georges Franju, to caustically remark: 'Now I know why Scotsmen wear skirts'. The film scandalised audiences around the world, and it nearly cost a job for a dissenting English critic who admitted she rather liked it.

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DVD Review: 'Rabid Dogs'

DVD Review: 'Rabid Dogs'

Mario Bava (1914-1980) was an influential  yet incredibly underrated Italian director (or, as he would have put it, a 'humble artisan of cinema'). During his long and prolific career, he experimented with a number of different genres (horror, sci-fi, peplum, western) with mixed results. He is mostly well-known for his supernatural horror films Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963) and Kill, Baby Kill (1966), and for consolidating the 'classic' formula of what is known as the Italian Giallo with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) and with his lush, spellbinding Technicolor masterpiece, Blood and Black Lace (1964). 

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Edinburgh International Film Festival '14: Five Reviews

Koo! Kin-dza-dza (dir. Georgiy Daneliya & Tatiana Ilyna)

Image courtesy of EIFF

Present day Moscow. World famous cellist and cultural snob Vladimir Chizov and wannabe hipster DJ Tolik are accidentally catapulted onto a strange and desolate planet known as Puke. How will they make it back to Earth? This is the premise of Koo! Kin-dza-dza, an animated remake of the homonymous 1986 Soviet sci-fi satire. 

It's refreshing too see an animation that doesn't have to rely on CGI or 3D, especially when it skillfully infuses a picaresque story line with the absurdist touches of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. In the dune world of Pluke, inhabitants fall into two main categories - Patsaks and Chatlanians (the latter being the dominant people), a humble match (known as a ketse) is the most valuable item, and common sense doesn't seem to apply as strict hierarchies extend to the colour of pants one wears. The two main characters must fight their way through unreliable journey companions, perennial bribes and cacophony-loving  grandmothers. The comic darkness of this dystopian universe is  occasionally provided with light relief: it's hard not too smile when Vladimir plays his cello for an unusually appreciative and rather timid Plukian creature, or when Vladimir and Tolik seem to finally make an emotional connection.

For all its analogue ambition, Koo! Kin-dza-dza is far from perfect -  clocking in at 96 minutes, it feels overlong, leaving us with the impression that the script could have been much tighter in parts. 

Seeing this film presented again in the 21st century, when the USSR has become a distant memory makes for thought-provoking viewing, as its powerful depiction of laughable hierarchical structures, corruption and racism still resonates in contemporary Europe.

Koo! Kin-dza-dza 27 June, 18:15 at Odeon 2

[Erika Sella]


Anatomy of a Paperclip (dir. Akira Ikeda)

Director Ikeda Akira has stated that his starting point  for Anatomy of a Paperclip was his wish to create the modern equivalent of a Japanese folk tale.

The quiet, submissive Kogure is certainly the kind of character that can be found time and time again in both literature and film (his body language and tubby, inexpressive appearance reminded me Italian popular cinema staple Fantozzi); the linear simplicity and even pacing of the storyline (matched by the minimalist, deliberately two-dimensional and immaculately balanced, often symmetrical shots) are also somewhat reminiscent of a parable. 

Image courtesy of EIFF

The flat cinematography also complements the deadpan humour that springs from a world that has become devoid of pleasure - this is Japan, but not as we know it. Kugore lives in a small, bare room, works in a factory (which actually looks like a converted garage) where he is repeatedly abused by his horrific boss, survives on horrible food and is regularly taunted by a couple of thugs who have a penchant for stealing his clothes. This routine is gradually eroded by the vision of a butterfly (a presence usually loaded with meaning in Japanese culture) and the consequent appearance of a woman who speaks gibberish (a 'language' that was invented by the filmmaker) and decides to move into Kogure's bedsit without an explanation.

At the press screening, a fellow viewer felt that Anatomy of a Paperclip was 'essentially a Japanese remake of Eraserhead'; while the bleak, quietly hysterical  atmosphere that pervades the film may certainly recall some aspects of David Lynch's output, I felt this statement detracts from the film's complexity. This is a mysterious and often profound film; a poignant (yet very funny) comment about human nature and the meaning of interpersonal connections. 

Anatomy of a Paperclip, 28 June, 13:15 at Cameo 3

[Erika Sella]


Displaced Perssons (dir. Asa Blanck and Johan Palmgren) 

Image courtesy of EIFF

Pelle Persson is one of the most intriguing characters I have ever had the privilege to encounter on the big screen; perhaps inspired by a childhood adventure book (having recently watched Mark Cousin's A Story of Children and Film, I was reminded of Palle Alone in the World, and not simply because of the similarity of the main character's name), he sets off to adventure as soon as he is old enough to drive, living and working in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. He eventually settles in Lahore, Pakistan, where he marries Shamin, and has two daughters. As his children reach adulthood, he finds that his liberal parenting idea clash with the local customs (the girls find they can't leave the house by themselves), and decides to return to his native Sweden. But can you ever go home again? 

This is a documentary that tackles complex issues such as identity, the meaning of national cultures and of family ties. It's hard not to like the Perssons as they face their Swedish adventure with defiance and a great deal of humour, but also with fear and maybe some regret; the camera only needs to sit back and watch them, letting the occasional title card guide us through the passing of time. We see the deadpan Shamin braving the freezing winter and unenthusiastically learning Swedish, Pelle having to prove to the local bureaucrats that he still exists in order to receive his pension, their daughter Zahra struggling with life-changing decisions. There is no place for stereotype here - both Sweden and Pakistan are represented in ways that we not normally accustomed to. We are faced with a family that don't conform to the narratives we are fed by the popular press: Pelle, Sharmin, Zahra and Mia all prove that identity is something complex, fluid and not necessarily defined by a country of birth, and that love and family really can overcome the biggest difficulties. As soppy as that might sound, there was not a dry eye at the screening - Displaced Perssons delivers the kind emotional punch that is becoming increasingly rare. Do not miss.

Displaced Perssons, 27 June, 18:10 at Cameo 3

[Erika Sella]


Snowpiercer (dir. Joon-ho Bong)

It’s quite startling that an actor better known as Captain America (AKA Chris Evans…no, not that one) to many should be the protagonist of a film that critiques Capitalism quite so overtly (if in an occasionally naïve, often daft way). The premise is a bit silly but clearly analogous: in a post-apocalyptic world, a train rattles around the world carrying three groups of people, the last humans left on Earth – an elite that lives at the luxurious front, a servile group that do their bidding, and lumpenproletariat that dwell in slum-like carriages at the rear. Evans’ Curtis leads a revolt, blood is shed and a fable of the perils of Capital emerges through action setpieces and a great deal of humour. It does feel a little lacking in nuance in its politics and is silly in that comic-book-film way at times, but is enjoyable all the same. John Hurt expertly plays the wise old man, Tilda Swinton is a hilariously grotesque Lancastrian spokesperson, Kang-ho Song amuses as the drug-addled security expert and Jamie Bell is an entertaining sidekick (if a little heavy on the Oirish Eejit schtick) to Evans’ hirsute and oh-so-tortured American hero. 

Image courtesy of EIFF

Snowpiercer may struggle to escape the inherent limitations of its form but is entertaining with both heart and head in the right place. One can’t help but feel that Harvey Weinstein has probably bludgeoned Joon-ho Bong’s film into something more straightforward for Anglophone audiences than it may have been in the form shown to audiences in South Korea and elsewhere, but entertains and manages to be not entirely brainless with it, which is more than can be said yer average comic book (sorry, graphic novel) adaptation.

Snowpiercer, 28 June, 20:15 at Cineworld 3

[Andrew R. Hill]


The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil (dir. John McGrath)

Buried treasure screened on Saturday afternoon as a part of Dick Fiddy of the BFI’s lovingly programmed Border Warfare: John McGrath’s Work in TV, Theatre, & Film thread at the EIFF 2014. John McGrath’s The Cheviot, The Stag, and the Black Black Oil shouldn’t work; a Brechtian play filmed live (audience and all) with inserted dramatised exterior scenes (with different actors from those in the play), contemporary interviews with real people, Gaelic folk songs, Scottish country dancing and old-fashioned one-liner comedy collide in an hour and a half that is by turns tragic, didactic, polemical and hilarious.

The play takes three instances of the Scottish Highlands being carved up by outside forces, from the Clearances through to the Victorian stag hunting playground to North Sea oil. An unashamed attack on Capitalism, The Cheviot… is a breath-taking work of deceptive complexity – detailed, rich, informative, entertaining and moving. That it was screened on BBC One is astonishing now, especially on a weekend where the BBC News has proven itself to be little more than the propaganda wing of the Tory government, failing to report 50,000 people marching from its own headquarters to protest anti-austerity measures. That the film has yet to be released on DVD is, sadly, not much of a surprise – and, no, a screening on BBC Alba in 2012 isn’t enough (and Auntie’s tack has shifted all too far in the wrong direction in the interim). Luckily, YouTube saves the day – it  really is essential viewing. 

The EIFF should be commended for unshowily yet unashamedly political programming, in an era where artists (by which I include filmmakers, musicians and writers) seem content to shy away from politics altogether, for fear of alienating audiences – audiences that are often very receptive. John McGrath certainly was no such artist and the opportunity to discover (or, indeed, rediscover) his work is an unmissable opportunity.

[Andrew R. Hill]

Review: 'We Are the Best!'

          

 ‘Tell me something good about my life’    

 'You’re in the world's greatest band.’     

                                                                                                                                                   

Lukas Moodysson is back with a film that, at least in spirit, resembles his debut feature Show Me Love (1998): here's the story of three teen outcasts who form a punk band. It’s 1982, and Bobo and Klara are having a tough time both at home and a school. Somewhat neglected by their horrifically liberal-bourgeois parents, and mocked by their peers for looking different, these girls know that something needs to be done: embracing what is best about DIY punk culture, they pick up bass and drums and write one (actually pretty good) song (‘Hate the Sport’). It doesn’t matter that they can’t play their instruments (although they get some musical coaching from the band’s third member, skilled guitarist Hedvig) – it’s their ideas and attitude that matter. 

  Image courtesy of Metrodome

Image courtesy of Metrodome

Perhaps I was a soft target: We Are the Best! Feels really close to my heart because I was once a naïve, difficult teen who picked up a guitar and tried to form a band with my then-best friend. It didn’t matter that we never got out of her family’s freezing basement – we felt we were doing the most wonderful thing in the world.  Lukas Moodysson seems to know what it feels like to think you are on top of the world, when in reality you have little going for you: it’s great to see how these three girls bond, how they fight and make up, how they defiantly make a stand against a grey world populated by inane adults (the Youth Centre leaders, their PE teacher) and insipid schoolmates with crimped hair. They’re sketchily portrayed through a narrative that is for the most part episodic; yet the performances and clever (and very funny indeed) script ensure that we are left with an impression of well-rounded, believable characters.

It’s good to see a coming-of-age tale about females; whilst we are used to see young boys bond on screen, cinema’s depiction of teenage girls interacting tends to be outrageously inaccurate, peppered with either over-the-top bitchiness or sickening idealisations of pre-pubescent femininity.  Klara, Bobo and Hedvig bicker a lot, they questions each other’s authority and behaviour, they argue over boys and then eventually put it all right again, their friendship cemented by the experiences they share.

The portrayal of 1982 Stockholm is also something of a delight – a lot of films set in the 1980s  end up being cartoonish, especially when they feature music so heavily. Moodysson and his production design team handle the period setting with care, with little details such as pop-up toasters and Guzzini-like floor lamps being pointers that never feel too forced. The colours are soft and have a vintage 35mm film feel to them, but nothing here screams ‘retro’.

 It’s telling that We Are the Best!  feels so incredibly fresh – Moodysson just seems to have a natural knack at telling us stories about the all-too transient and often awkward period that is adolescence.  This is a film that definitely deserves to be seen widely (here’s hoping it inspires a new generation of riot grrls) – even for the last sequence alone, where the protagonists play a gig so riotous that it puts The Jesus and Mary Chain to shame. 

Review: 'That Sinking Feeling'

That Sinking Feeling (1979) was a ground-breaking debut: shot on a minuscule budget (according to its director it was the "cheapest feature film ever made"), it signalled the birth of a truly indigenous Scottish film industry. Made by the Whiteinch born-and-bred Bill Forsyth with funds entirely raised in Scotland, it was shot in Glasgow with local talent - largely amateur actors from the art project Glasgow Youth Theatre.

  Image courtesy of BFI

Image courtesy of BFI

The film is ostensibly a comedy heist: a group of unemployed teenagers come up with a plan which involves stealing stainless steel sinks from a local warehouse. As in other Bill Forsyth films though, plot only matters to an extent, with the whimsical aspect is undercut by bitter detail (the boys' hopelessness), and its narrative refusing to stick to a conventional linear structure.

In the opening sequence, Glasgow looks for the most part desolate, a city whose skyline, dominated by high-rises, is repeatedly revealed in the long establishing shots. The desolation of the landscape is soon matched by a story of unemployment and deprivation: when trying to purchase a hamburger and a coffee, Vic (John Hughes) realises that he cannot pay the 45 pence the lady in the van is requesting. The scene in which we first meet the leader of the teenage gang, Ronnie (Robert Buchanan), is of a similarly bleak tone: his speech to the equestrian statue of Lord Roberts situated in Kelvingrove Park starts off in a semi-jovial tone as the teenager ponders "You’ve got to make the most of what life offers you" and tries to reflect on what assets he and the Field Marshall may have in common; the pitch soon shifts when he looks at the statue’s plaque and exclaims, "Oh wait a minute, I don’t see that many O-levels there (…) How did you do it? And why don’t I have a job?" To emphasise his point, he violently kicks the (physical and metaphorical) barrier that separates him from his 'interlocutor'.

This is not to say that That Sinking Feeling is about mere social realism – the continuous interplay between comedy and seriousness constantly downplays any sense of hefty political commentary. Contrasting elements come together in unexpected way – as in the scene when Wal (Billy Greenlees) ends up selling his sinks to the art collector (and Blasted local hero - Ed.) Richard Demarco (played by himself), his goods mistaken for the "Latest development of the New York School".

It is perhaps telling that the only two characters that make a tangible gain out of the plan are Wal and fellow gang member Alan (James Ramsey), who manages to buy an electric guitar with his share of the money. Whilst one can be accused of imposing a meaning that isn't there, it is very tempting to imagine that Bill Forsyth is trying to promote artistic creativity as a way out of post-industrial drabness. In a way, with Postcard Records currently being celebrated with a book, a film, and a reissue of Josef K's The Only Fun in Town (due in May), it is hard not to re-imagine the late 1970s and early 1980s as a time that kick-started the diverse and unprecedented cultural outpouring that has taken place in Scotland in the last 30 years. 

That Sinking Feeling also represents a clear break in the way Scottish men (and specifically Glaswegian men) are represented: instead of the romanticised brutality of the 'hard man', we are faced with a subtler depiction of a masculinity in crisis. Forsyth's teenagers are awkward and confused; when compared with their female counterparts, they clearly appear to lack their wisdom and self-assurance. It is a thematic preoccupation that the director will continue exploring throughout his career - perhaps it is no surprise that the coolest character ever to emerge from his ouvre is the audacious, bobbed-haired Susan (played by Claire Grogan) who, with a little help from her girlfriends, outfoxes John Gordon Sinclair's Gregory with a cunning, if slightly convoluted plan. 

Bill Forsyth went on to direct Gregory's Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983) and Comfort and Joy (1984), perhaps the films he is best known for. Many viewers familiar with these might be unaware of his raw, extremely inventive debut, so we should be very grateful to ever-great BFI Flipside for finally releasing That Sinking Feeling (with the original Glaswegian dialogue track that was bizarrely missing from the 2009 2Entertain DVD version) in a definitive format. This edition is packed with special features: four short films involving Bill Forsyth in either acting, editing, or directing capacity; an audio commentary by the director and Mark Kermode; an interview with lead actor Robert Buchanan; another very entertaining interview where Forsyth discusses the DIY ways in which he funded his film. The booklet comes with a short essay by David Archibald (lecturer at the University of Glasgow), a contribution by Douglas Weir (technical producer at the BFI), and a 1981 article that Bill Forsyth wrote for Sight & Sound. 

That Sinking Feeling  might be one of my favourite films ever; for all its imperfections (if you are after sleek story telling, look elsewhere) it captures a certain spark that comes with being young with vivid, piercing attention to detail. Some of this is certainly be tied to of its late 1970s Glasgow setting, but despite its specificity (or maybe because of it) it also takes on an universal appeal - a fairy tale for underdogs everywhere. 

'That Sinking Feeling' is released by BFI Flipside on 21st April. There will be a launch screening with special guests at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Tuesday 15th April at 6.30. Tickets can be purchased here.