October 31, 2012

“L Ron’s got the tech” (Mock Up on Mu)

Scientology-critical movies? Before Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, itself delayed in New Zealand until possibly next year, there was Craig Baldwin’s Mock Up on Mu (2008), a found-footage epic that replayed the dark mythology of Scientology’s creation as both historical fact and improbable conspiracy. Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard’s official history of himself cast him as a military secret agent ordered to break up black magic covens in Southern California after World War II; the unofficial or suppressed history, relayed in books like Jon Atack’s A Piece of Blue Sky, has him as an active participant in rituals borrowed from occultist Aleister Crowley, working closely with rocket scientist and Satanist Jack Parsons and witch and future artist Marjorie Cameron on something called The Babalon Working (see Chapter 6 of Atack: “His Magickal Career”). At least two books have been written about Parsons, a handsome genius who died in a lab explosion. Wasn’t one of the books optioned by a genuine movie star? Until that movie happens, Mock Up on Mu will do as an appropriately eccentric Parsons biopic.

A found-footage artist, Craig Baldwin is still best known for Tribulation 99, which I wrote about back here. In the films that followed, Baldwin has blended his own melodramatic low-budget footage – real actors speaking real dialogue – with the off-cuts that he edits into rapid-fire secret histories. The blend was still a little clunky in Spectres of the Spectrum; Mock Up on Mu is less comic, more narrative-based and, despite appearances, more rooted in fact (Erik Davis, who knows the secret histories of California, wrote about it here). And while it can seem like a crazy, obsessive film about craziness and obsession – “too much science too soon will drive you insane”, someone says, and the same is surely true of occultism and perhaps even Baldwin’s movies – there is a genuine point.

The plot? Fifty years after the moon landings, L Ron Hubbard is running operations from his lunar base. He wants what Parsons has, and sends Cameron back to prison planet Earth to get it. The corporation Lockheed Martin is embodied by a person – a middle-aged servant of the military-industrial complex seduced in a strip club during a comparatively light Las Vegas montage (usefully for Scientology, Vegas is full of “celebrities who need to be detoxified”). Crowley seems to have been trapped underground with Flash Gordon; L Ron Hubbard is represented by, among other creatures, Ming the Merciless. Actual Crowley recordings and actual Apollo mission footage mix with material from 50s and 60s sci-fi cheapies, monster movies, westerns and thrillers (and occasionally, they are things you recognise: Logan’s Run, North by Northwest, the Star Trek series, the original Melies’ Trip to the Moon), while Parsons is reinvented as a free energy evangelist and Crowley as a proto-beatnik who gives the film its ultimate, uplifting message: “Make love, not war.”

In other words, there is a political dimension. Baldwin has added a few disclaimers at the end for those who might have started on this without doing their homework (and good luck to those viewers). One such disclaimer reads: “Lockheed Martin is a pastiched character, but is still a very evil reality …” That concerns the occupation of space and the arms race. But when the film dips into Scientology lore, it can be hard to tell if Baldwin is sending the religion up or simply taking it at its word. That is, if there is a difference.

October 29, 2012


It’s good that Pete Majendie’s 185 empty chairs (for 185 dead) earthquake memorial has survived and found a new home on the site of St Paul’s Trinity Pacific Presbyterian Church on Madras Street. This side of town is now becoming the unofficial centre of earthquake remembrance: the empty, still eerie CTV site opposite, the temporary (cardboard) Anglican Cathedral taking shape almost next door, and now these chairs, which initially appeared on the first anniversary of the February 22 quake, on the site of the Oxford Tce Baptist Church. At the time I wrote that they looked like they were awaiting the general resurrection of the dead. Relocated, they now seem like a memorial to themselves, an exhibit about the objects we remember with.

The supporting text came over from Oxford Tce too. It tells us that the empty chair has often depicted absence or loss, as in (Samuel) Luke Fildes’ depiction of Dickens’ empty desk and chair, which inspired Van Gogh and Gauguin. More recently and explicitly, 2753 empty chairs appeared in Bryant Park, New York, facing the fallen towers on September 11, 2011. Empty chairs have also memorialised the Oklahoma bombing and the vanished Jews of Krakow, Poland.   

October 27, 2012

Killing Them Softly

I didn’t know until after I saw it that Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is adapted from a book from the 70s (Cogan’s Trade by George V Higgins), which accounts for its odd temporal disjunction: the big 70s American cars, the 70s-era urban rot and depressed ambience, against the super-obviousness of the Obama-era recession backdrop. Maybe it would have made more sense to have a resigning Nixon on the TV screens and soundtrack. Recession-era commentary aside, Killing Them Softly mostly feels like great acting in search of a story. Brad Pitt is marquee name and producer; he both looks the part and can speak the pulp dialogue (Dominik’s previous two films are also legendary-killer films: Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), Ben Mendelsohn is one of cinema’s most realistic drug addicts (dopey, sleepy, greasy), Ray Liotta is Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy has the innocence and the instability of the young Brad Dourif, but the best of the lot might be James Gandolfini’s Mickey, a washed-out, drunk, sad killer flown into town for a job that he probably can’t manage. You might even feel like you’ve missed him.

October 14, 2012

Harris Savides, 1957-2012

Stills from films shot by Harris Savides: Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007); Birth (Jonathan Glazer, 2004); Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007); Somewhere (Sofia Coppola, 2010); Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003); Last Days (Gus Van Sant, 2005); Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008). 

“He drops reaction shots entirely for cinematographer Harris Savides’s long, steady gaze and slow, careful glide.” (Elephant review, 2004).

October 11, 2012

The last slasher movie

My piece on The Cabin in the Woods is up at the new (appropriately, if you check the board) Werewolf.

October 9, 2012

Pre-crash London

Dream Double bill: Basic Instinct 2 (2006) and Match Point (2005).

October 8, 2012

A road with too few drivers (Snakeskin)

More than a year ago, I did a films-from-Christchurch post here. But I missed a fairly significant one – Gillian Ashurst’s Snakeskin (2001). First, my review from the Listener, which ran on November 3, 2001:
Directed by Gillian Ashurst; R16, contains violence, offensive language, drug use and sex scenes.

Blatant derivativeness seems to be the entire point of Christchurch director Gillian Ashurst’s first feature, Snakeskin. The film extends from a manifesto in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart – “This snakeskin jacket symbolises my individuality and belief in personal freedom,” hollered Nicolas Cage’s Sailor, a cartoon Elvis freshly sprung from jail, to his girl Lula and anyone else who would listen. It’s a trash aesthetic that Ashurst is entirely at home with – Snakeskin’s road-movie narrative is a mythic quest in which the hero seeks to “earn the right to wear snakeskin”.

But before you can call her film derivative, Ashurst beats you to it. This opens with a slow examination of the pop-culture artefacts lovingly arranged by Alice (a kittenish Melanie Lynskey). Pictures of Clint Eastwood and his Magnum, Thelma and Louise, Elvis and Marilyn. “I had lived my life on a diet of television and magazines,” she says, as though this is unusual. What she means is that everything is framed by her taste for Tarantino-flavoured Americana; New Zealand “seemed to me like the safest f---ing country in the world and I hated it”.

Looking for adventure, or whatever comes her way, she collects Craig, the Lula to her Sailor (gender reversal is one of Ashurst’s innovations). Passive and played by Dean O’Gorman, Craig would rather be known as Johnny. “Ever hear of a hero called Craig?” he asks, maintaining the coy knowingness that will come to seem like babes-in-the-wood naivete. Craig is too sweet for Alice – what she really wants is some authentic American badness and it miraculously appears at a gas station wearing denims and a cowboy hat and named Seth (US import Boyd Kestner). The three take a road trip – and an acid trip – west, across the Canterbury Plains and towards the Alps along a road that could be dubbed Route 666.

Or is it Fear and Loathing in Methven? Call this a journey into a heart of darkness that mirrors the tripartite structure of Easy Rider or maybe the drug experience itself: a prosaic opening, moments of idyllic bliss in the middle, a twisted conclusion. Part of that conclusion, in what is either a sarcastic gesture towards Canterbury’s proud agricultural heritage or a quote from every second horror movie, takes place amongst frozen corpses in an abattoir. Otherwise, apart from a stop-over in a grand country pub and a psychedelic rave in the middle of nowhere, the image is of a South Island empty but for marauding skinheads, drug dealers and one or two bemused tourists.

Lining the highways are the ubiquitous white crosses, from which Ashurst is keen to extract every last ounce of portentous gothic symbolism, when her camera isn’t giddy over the meaningful snake tattooed on Seth’s arm. But for all these intimations of darkness, nothing here is as memorable or inspired as the more deranged moments of Wild at Heart or Natural Born Killers. In its cartoonish images and air of camp self-consciousness, it more closely resembles the Tarantino cast-off True Romance. Only Lynskey comes away looking good – charismatic and engaging enough for this to work as the star vehicle she has been owed since Heavenly Creatures.
Christchurch wasn’t named as a location in the review and it isn’t actually named in the film. But Snakeskin comes out of Christchurch and not just geographically. Sure, the road trip starts somewhere in Christchurch suburbia, heads west across the Plains and up and down over the mountains. Christchurch is Alice’s safe boring place.

But viewed now, 12 years on, Snakeskin recorded another Christchurch, one that was probably starting to disappear by then. At roughly the mid-way point, the road trip stops at a pub – possibly at Otira – and the Christchurch band Space Dust is playing. That’s incongruous, maybe, but by this stage, acid is rendering all sorts of things possible. A stage is done up as though this could be Lyttelton’s Wunderbar shifted to the Alps. Space Dust has Ritchie Venus – a kind of an alt Elvis impersonator who haunted Christchurch forever – guesting on vocals, with Violet Faigan, doing a sleazoid version of “Some Velvet Morning” (before Snakeskin, Gillian Ashurst made this doco about Ritchie Venus). Beyond that theme song, there is a general air of 80s and 90s druggy South Island-ness on the soundtrack – King Loser, the Renderers, Brother Love, Shaft – that comes from the same place as the drugginess on screen.

Local and imported counter-cultures and mythologies collide on the Plains. Alice and Johnny are wrapped up, like the review said, in Americana. Seth is a projection or a bad spirit, and he is not just their problem: the marauding skinheads – another particularly South Island phenomenon – have their issues with Seth, as do two drug-dealing ravers (Taika Waititi, billed as Taika Cohen then, and Jodie Rimmer) driving a “Mr Trippy” van on their way to a Mushroom Ball in the mountains.

Alice and Johnny are Kiwi innocents. It’s apt that one of the artefacts in Alice’s room is a paperback of On the Road: the over-sexed and over-here Seth is a Neal Cassady to their Sal Paradise and Marylou. Out on the road, everyone runs into a Japanese hitch-hiker who is on a cultural expedition of his own, searching the Plains for Goodbye Pork Pie’s yellow mini. There is an intimation of the future too: when Oliver Driver’s twisted skinhead Speed terrorises the Japanese tourist with a baseball bat and the line that “You should have stayed in your own fuckin’ country”, you might start to think of the all-too-real story of the killing of a South Korean tourist by skinheads on the West Coast in 2003.

These are bad roads, it turns out. A Maori woman in the kiwiana tearooms early on suggests that they might even be cursed (does she have a kind of “Magical Negro” function?). But bad things happen for all kinds of reasons – it’s also, a raver says, Samhain (a pagan Halloween), and seven years since five people died in a terrible crash. If the city is safety, the empty landscape is the danger that Alice craved and found, which lands us deep in Cinema of Unease territory. Cinema of Unease was really a South Island idea, and Ashurst expands on her version of it in this quote, from the Film Commission site:
“It’s also about corruption, about loss of innocence. On the surface everything seems so perfect in this place ... but underneath it’s a different story ... There’s this famous New Zealand postcard – it’s a couple of spring lambs playing amongst the daffodils. Looks so beautiful. Except we forget where those lambs must inevitably end up. Snakeskin is a journey to the flipside of that postcard.”
That might remind you of something. At Canterbury University, Patrick Evans would argue that “New Zealand literary culture so far”, even “everything about our presence” here, can be explained by “the choice between paradise and the meatworks, Arcadia and Utopia” (in The Long Forgetting, 2007). The South Island of Snakeskin is picturesque by day and terrifying by night – a road with too few drivers.

One last Christchurch thing. During a rural home invasion, the skinheads read a teenage girl’s diary – in it, she confesses to seeing an older man. At the Otira pub, as Space Dust play, someone’s point of view hallucinates the girl and the man dancing. The man is played by … future Christchurch mayor Bob Parker. Really. He’s billed as “dancing man” in the credits. If you find that hard to believe, pause the “Some Velvet Morning” clip at about 2.10:


October 2, 2012

Two TV sets, two Cadillac cars

Are the early scenes always the best in rock'n'roll films? More so than ever in The Runaways (2010): the creation of ideas/images/names/roles, as though it's a superhero origins story. The invention of Cherie Currie, the invention of Joan Jett, the already existing and seemingly eternal weirdness of Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon). Dakota Fanning is Currie, Kristen Stewart is Jett; the jaded teenage riots in Los Angeles early on -- Rodney Bingenheimer and all that -- are like the descriptions of rock'n'roll debauchery in accounts of mid-70s Bowie and Led Zeppelin tours, the golden age of teenage delinquency (true here, false in Almost Famous). There's a bit in Nick Kent's memoir, at a Bowie show in Detroit, and this looks how that read. Then they become a band: the Runaways story, on film at least, is all beginning and all ending, no middle. But those early stages, when they were fans first and a band second, and Currie does a school talent quest as David Bowie, a girl being a boy being a girl. That was the 1970s.