This essay is the fifth and final piece from Spooool.ie’s current “Writer in Residence” David Turpin. It’s a series which will see us introduce a new writer every few months. The contributor is free to write about whatever they like during these months, once it’s loosely centred around cinema in some form. Read David’s other essays here.
Working as a musician, I’m often asked to name my influences. I’m sure there are scores of musicians who I’ve advertently or inadvertently borrowed from, but my mind always races to films and filmmakers first. Preparing an album over the past few years, I’ve probably watched more films than I ever did before, and I find that I still draw upon cinema for the germs of my songs.
One of the problems with talking, or writing, about film is that one recommendation tends to lead to another. It’s a fool’s errand to try and make a list of one’s “favourite” films – nobody needs my encouragement to see Vertigo, Don’t Look Now or Blue Velvet, anyway – so here, instead, is an alphabetical round-up of some of the films that have played on my mind most over the past couple of years (excluding films I’ve already written on for Spooool).
Alice (Jan Svankmajer, 1988)
Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer’s loose adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is often described as “disturbing” for its dank interiors, chattering animal skulls and writhing stop-motion sock puppets. I’ve always found it inspirational – in childhood you have to use your imagination, and the available objects, to make your own fun after all. Svankmajer’s version captures the contingency of childhood play, as well as its cruelty and perversity, more effectively than any other film I know – certainly more so than Disney’s plasticky 1951 Alice in Wonderland. If Svankmajer’s film is disturbing, then perhaps it’s because the arbitrary dystopia of Carroll’s Queen of Hearts proved such a natural analogy for pre-Velvet Revolution Czechslovakia.
[Alice is available on dual-disc DVD and BluRay from BFI Video]
Begotten (E. Elias Merhige, 1990)
This is an experimental film with a largely impenetrable narrative involving the birth and death of progenitor gods. There’s some cannibalism too. A lot of the fascination comes from the filmmaking process, which involved extraordinarily labour-intensive treatment of each frame. The result is something that genuinely seems to exist outside the narrative of cinema history – if somebody told me the film was actually a thousand-year-old artefact, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised. Begotten requires patience, and a certain frame of mind – otherwise it can be like watching the video tape from The Ring, in slow motion, for an hour and a half – but it’s a taste that’s worth acquiring. The whole thing is on YouTube, but the poor image quality makes an already difficult film near unwatchable.
[Begotten is currently unavailable on DVD]
La Belle et La Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
Jean Cocteau’s adaptation of Perrault’s fairy tale, La Belle et La Bête is simply one of the most beautiful art objects in any medium. The film is endlessly rewatchable for its luminous monochrome photography – which evokes Doré engravings as well as the chalkboard that appears at the start of the film – and for the tremendous simplicity and ingenuity with which the medium has been manipulated as a physical object (the reverse motion scenes being the most obvious examples). The Beast himself is one of the great marvels of costume and make-up – so terribly sad and recognisable that Jean Marais looks considerably more alien when he appears as the Prince at the denouement. Of course, there’s an irony in an adaptation of this particular story being such a perfect example of surface beauty, but film is a visual medium after all.
[La Belle et La Bête is available on DVD from BFI Video]
Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978)
I was quite taken with Jane Fonda this year after she wrote a very sincere essay in support of prairie dog conservation on her website. So I had myself a double bill of The China Syndrome and Coming Home, neither of which I had seen in years. Coming Home is a beautifully judged romance about a housewife (Fonda) who falls in love with another man while her husband (Bruce Dern) is fighting in Vietnam. There’s a scene toward the end of the film where Dern turns on Fonda quite savagely in their living room, and she freezes while reaching out her hands to comfort him. It’s a small gesture, but it really crystallises how humane and intelligent a performer Fonda can be when she’s on form. She makes decency come alive on screen, without earnestness.
[Coming Home is available on DVD from MGM DVD]
Derek (Isaac Julien, 2008)
Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton’s commemorative film for Derek Jarman is a beautifully made piece that combines the surface coolness of Julien’s work with the righteous ire of Jarman’s. Swinton’s contribution – a poetic meditation on Jarman’s work which she reads aloud over a collage of new and old footage – has a wonderful incantatory quality. As much as I can appreciate them, I find I often want to enjoy Jarman’s films more than I actually do – stylistically, I find Isaac Julien’s work easier to tune into. So perhaps this is the best of both worlds.
[Derek is available on DVD from BFI Video]
Don’t Be Like Brenda (Hugh Baddley, 1973)
This is a public information film that I encountered on the BFI’s indispensable DVD release The Joy of Sex Education. It’s a warning about the dangers of pre-marital sex, which for the title character leads to abandonment, vilification, and an unwanted pregnancy. Naturally, this is all shown to be her fault. It’s easy to laugh, of course, but the latter section of the film – in which Brenda gives up her child for adoption, without realising that he has a congenital heart defect that will render him unappealing to prospective new parents and condemn him to a life in the children’s home – is genuinely affecting, probably because it uses real footage from a British orphanage circa 1973. The intended message is entirely spurious, of course, but the film emerges a devastating, unintentional eight-minute lesson in how difficult people can make life for others, especially those less powerful than themselves. Being lectured by Don’t Be Like Brenda makes me think of the wonderful retort that Quentin Crisp recalls in The Naked Civil Servant: “Everything that happens to us is our fault, but that’s not our fault”.
[The Joy of Sex Education is available on DVD from BFI Video]
The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)
I genuinely think The Fly is one of the best love stories ever filmed, maggot birth scene and everything. The central romance’s endurance in the face of disease, contagion and death is particularly resonant in the era of Reagan and AIDS (and you only need to see David Weissman and Bill Weber’s brilliant documentary We Were Here to see how AIDS sufferers were regarded as “monsters” by the Reagan administration). Aside from that, The Fly is also Cronenberg’s most purely entertaining film. The screenplay is a marvel of economy. There are really only four speaking parts, and for all the ooze and organs on display, the dialogue has a snap that’s straight out of the 1940s. Take for example the priceless retort that Stathis (John Getz) produces when Veronica (Geena Davis) pleads for him to see the humanity of the Brundle-fly: “I’m sure Typhoid Mary was a very nice person too when you saw her socially”.
[The Fly is available on DVD and BluRay from 20th Century Fox]
Institute Benjamenta (The Brothers Quay, 1995)
The Quay Brothers are identical twins who are best known for their intricate, fetishistic animated shorts – including, as it happens, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer (1984). Institute Benjamena, adapted from Robert Walser’s 1909 novel Jakob von Gunten, is their first feature. It’s a luminous black-and-white hallucination about a man (Mark Rylance) who studies to be a servant by performing endless absurd rituals for a glacial instructor (Alice Krige). Glacial is the operative word in this film, it must be said. Nevertheless, by being minutely detailed and bizarrely intimate, it manages the paradoxical feat of being exceptionally tactile and utterly ethereal.
[Institute Benjamenta is available on dual-disc DVD and BluRay from BFI Video]
Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo, 1968)
I was never convinced by the 21st-century fad for “J-horror” – so much of it seemed to be commodified xenophobia, and everybody knows I’m a philistine who preferred the American Ring anyway. The supernatural fantasies made in Japan in the 1960s were an entirely different proposition – lavish, otherworldly, folkloric. My favourite is Kuroneko, which involves a wronged mother and daughter who haunt a forest as cat demons. Like its earlier companion piece, Onibaba (1964), Kuroneko has extraordinarily atmospheric monochrome photography and design, as well as a compelling plot about the revenge of the (female) dispossessed. More exotic again is Masaki Kobayashi’s ravishing full-colour feature Kwaidan (1968), which adapts four traditional ghost stories as retold by the Irish-Greek author Lafcadio Hearn.
[Kuroneko is available on DVD from Eureka! as part of the Masters of Cinema series]
Quest For Fire and The Bear (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1981 and 1988)
Anybody who’s seen The Lover (1992) or Enemy at the Gates (2001) will know that dialogue isn’t necessarily Jean-Jacques Annaud’s forte. That’s all right, though, because he made this pair of extraordinary non-verbal feature films. Quest for Fire, which introduced the world to Ron Perlman, is a “science fantasy adventure” that represents cinema’s most serious attempt to approximate prehistoric life. The actors, including a career-best Rae Dawn Chong, communicate in specially devised primitive languages devised by Anthony Burgess, while Desmond Morris (“The Naked Ape”) choreographed their gestures. As well as being a fascinating experiment, and an ingenious solution to the language barriers involved in “Euro-pudding” co-productions, Quest for Fire is also remarkably successful as a pure adventure film, of a sort that they just don’t make any more. The Bear was a huge international hit in the late 1980s, and made stars of its lead actors, Kodiak bears Bart and Youk. It’s a sheer delight for bear lovers, which I assume means everybody.
[Quest for Fire is available on DVD from Second Sight; The Bear is available on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment]
The Sexlife of a Chair (Phil Mulloy, 1998)
I love Phil Mulloy’s animated shorts. They seem to come direct from the id, and yet there’s always an incisive intelligence behind them. The Sex Life of a Chair is one of his most minimal films – it uses sparsely animated line drawings of chairs to act out a bewildering array of human fetishes and perversions. It’s weirdly moving, because at its root it seems to be about how the categorisation of desire ultimately forces us to view each other as objects. It’s also hilarious, obviously, and if we can’t laugh about sex (as opposed to laughing at sex) we’re f*cked.
[The Sex Life of a Chair can be seen on Phil Mulloy: Extreme Animation from BFI Video]
Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004 and 2010)
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one of my favourite living filmmakers, and I couldn’t choose between these two films. Tropical Malady is a rural romance between a soldier and a country boy that keeps shimmering into a folk tale, and it has an extraordinary sense of the sentience of the non-human world. It opens with a quotation from Ton Nakajima – “All of us are by nature wild beasts; we must be like animal trainers and teach ourselves tricks alien to our bestiality” – that summarises its themes much more effectively than I could. Uncle Boonmee, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010, is a very moving film about an old man reflecting on his multiple previous lives “as an animal and other beings” before he dies. The mystery and power of the wild is a live force in this film as well. The scene in which Uncle Boonmee’s long-lost son emerges from the forest as a red-eyed monkey creature to speak with his father and the ghost of his dead mother is extraordinarily affecting. As otherworldly as both these films are, they also give a fascinating insight into Thai history and culture.
[Tropical Malady is available on DVD from Second Run; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is available on DVD and BluRay from New Wave]
Whistle and I’ll Come to You (Jonathan Miller, 1968)
This is a BBC adaptation of M. R. James’ story Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. It was broadcast as part of the Omnibus arts strand, and its popularity inspired the yearly Ghost Story for Christmas productions that ran in the 1970s and were briefly revived a few years ago. This is still the best, I think. It’s a beautifully spare, evocative story about a Cambridge academic who unwittingly summons malevolent forces when he unearths a haunted whistle. It’s also a kind of parable about the danger of intellectual isolationism, and the pull of the unknown. The 2010 BBC remake was nicely photographed and had a good performance by John Hurt, but was otherwise a travesty.
[Whistle and I’ll Come to You is available on DVD from BFI Video]
Wild Side (Sébastien Lifshitz, 2004)
This is a very elegant, naturalistic film about Stéphanie, a transsexual woman who goes back to her family home in rural France to look after her dying mother. The film is punctuated with flashbacks to Stéphanie’s childhood as a boy and to her day-to-day life in Paris, where she works as a prostitute and lives as part of a threesome with her two male lovers. It’s a very moving, humane film about the burden and beauty of occupying a body. The most affecting scenes show Stéphanie in long-shot as a distant figure in the landscape – they’re powerful evocations of the regenerative power of the land, and of its indifference to us.
[Wild Side is available on DVD from Peccadillo Pictures]
The Late David Turpin’s new album We Belong Dead is out now. Tickets for The Late David Turpin’s Fur Show at The Workman’s Club, Dublin, on November 23 are now available from Ticketmaster and Tickets.ie. The show will include a screening of the 1922 documentary film “The White Owl”, with a live musical accompaniment.