Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016)

2016 #162
Tim Skousen & Jeremy Coon | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

You may have heard about this: in 1982, a group of teenagers decided to remake Raiders of the Lost Ark shot for shot, starring themselves. It was a project that ended up filling their whole adolescence, filming scenes here and there every summer for years. Decades later, their amateur recreation (known nowadays as Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation) was uncovered by director Eli Roth, who passed it to Harry Knowles to screen at a film festival he organises, and it began to gain cult notoriety. Eventually, that new appreciation led to the guys reuniting in an attempt to crowdfund production of the one scene they were never able to shoot originally. This documentary tells the stories of both the original production and the attempt to complete it.

It’s a great tale, but unfortunately it’s told in a really sloppily made documentary. The narrative is a complete jumble — it jumps in and out of stories all over the place, getting distracted by something else before looping back around. Exposition and setup are bungled, leaving the viewer constantly playing catch-up and trying to piece things together. It throws in general observations mid-film that really belong in an introduction or conclusion. It goes back and forth in time at will — presumably someone thought they’d structured it to tell the parallel stories of the original project and the 2014 shoot, but the editing isn’t clear enough to support that structure. Interviews are cut to shreds, leaving soundbite-sized snippets that often fade out while the person’s still talking, just moving away without letting them finish.

Some people never grow up...

As a viewer, you endure all of this because the underlying story is so good, but there’s a better film to be made here — one that tells the story more clearly, that better draws out the characters of the people involved, the psychology of what they’re doing, and any latent thematic points too. I mean, what these guys did is extraordinary in its dedication, but it’s also completely bizarre. Why did they start it? What does it say about them, or their lives, or maybe even the human condition? And it does say something, I’d wager — you can almost glimpse it around the edges and in the corners of the documentary, but it rarely comes close to actually exploring it. There is a section on the kids’ shitty home lives — that’s something they all seemed to share — and how the Raiders project was a refuge. At this point the editing calms down and it’s briefly very good. If the whole film had displayed that same clarity, it would merit a higher rating.

As it stands, Raiders! has a brilliant story to tell, meaning it’s worth watching to learn about that, but I yearned for it to be told better.

3 out of 5

Elstree 1976 (2015)

2017 #18
Jon Spira | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 12

Elstree 1976

In a studio near London in the summer of 1976, filming took place for a movie that the crew regarded as a children’s flick and several cast members assumed would be a flop. They couldn’t’ve been more wrong, because that film was Star Wars, probably the most influential movie of the last 40 years. You know the names of many of the people who were there: George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness… But there was also an army of supporting actors and extras. This is their story.

Here’s where the point of Elstree 1976 runs aground for some viewers. It is not The Making of Star Wars; nor is it The Secret Making of Star Wars, where the “little people” dish the dirt on what really happened. There is a bit of that in here — a section where the interviewees tell their tales from the set — but it’s not what the film is about. Rather, it’s a study of what it’s like to be tangentially attached to something great; to be a bit player in a cultural phenomenon. Most of the contributors here just took any old job to earn some cash, but by happening to be in the right place at the right time they found themselves attached to something huge for the entire rest of their lives. How does that change the course of someone’s life? How does it change the very fabric of who they are as a person?

What it's actually like being on a film set

There are reviews of Elstree 1976 that espouse a “why should we care” perspective. “These people aren’t the leads, they were just little people, why should we give a hoot about their lives?” Well, isn’t that the point? They’re people, like you and I — people who have lives. They were involved with one of the largest, most enduring pop culture events of our time, and yet they were so on the periphery that it’s a tiny part of their lives… or it should have been. Star Wars may be this huge, defining thing for its lead actors and high-profile crew members, but there were also dozens (probably hundreds) of people who “just happened to work on it”, and who otherwise have led ordinary lives. Or haven’t, because of the effect the film has had.

You see, here’s the thing: some of these people were only on screen for a frame or two, or they were hidden under a prosthetic that means you never even saw their face… and yet they still attend conventions where people want to meet them, get their autograph, all that jazz. For all the people who don’t understand the appeal of a movie telling these performers’ life stories, there are fans who are so much more interested in them for so much less. I don’t know how much the documentary actually explores the psychology of that, but it does touch on some aspects — the behind-the-scenes hierarchy of conventions, for instance, and how some actors don’t think others are worthy of putting in an appearance.

Extras, extras, read all about it!

Providing you approach it with the right expectations, Elstree 1976 is interesting in its way. As a portrait of ordinary lives that were touched by something extraordinary it’s got an interesting thematic point to make, but the lives covered are still ordinary, and we therefore hear a lot about that ordinariness. Well, maybe that’s harsh — some of these people certainly have stories to tell. Still, it’s probably a bit too long, and a greater focus on the behind-the-scenes stories and conventions, plus a trim to the general life stuff, might’ve been beneficial. Nonetheless, it offers a unique perspective on a much-discussed movie and the culture that surrounds it.

3 out of 5

Elstree 1976 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Caesar Must Die (2012)

aka Cesare deve morire

2016 #77
Paolo & Vittorio Taviani | 74 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | Italy / Italian | 12

Caesar Must DieOn the surface, this is a documentary about the inmates of Rome’s high-security Rebibbia prison — many of them with mafia connections — putting on a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. However, it becomes clear fairly quickly that it’s all been staged, which is only more apparent when you learn some behind-the-scenes details (at least one prisoner had been released years earlier and returned to participate in this project).

The question becomes: is that a problem? Because while it isn’t a documentary, it also is a documentary. These are real prisoners putting on a real performance, as they do every year (indeed, it was a previous production that inspired this film’s existence). Even if what we’re watching isn’t literal documentary footage, it’s surely been inspired by real experiences and conflicts, then re-worked into movie form. So it blurs the line between fact and fiction, which is also thematically appropriate: these criminals, some of them murderers, are now playing the parts of murderers in a fiction, and seeing reflections of their own lives in Shakespeare’s centuries-old text.

I don’t know if this gives us any particular insight into the minds of mobsters, or if the mobsters’ experiences bring a new perspective to Shakespeare, but it seems clear that being involved in the project has given new insight and perspective to the prisoners’ lives. For us as viewers, perhaps that suggestion about the power of art to improve anyone’s life — or to provide an escape or solace when in grim situations — is illumination enough.

4 out of 5

The Quay Brothers in 35mm (2015)

2016 #159
Quay Brothers + Christopher Nolan | 68 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 + 1.85:1 + 1.33:1 | UK & USA / English | 12*

The Quay Brothers in 35mmChristopher Nolan made a few headlines last year when his first post-Interstellar film was announced for near-immediate release. Not Dunkirk, of course, but an eight-minute short documentary, Quay, about British-based American-born identical-twin animators the Quay brothers. The short was screened theatrically as part of a programme of animated shorts directed by the brothers, curated by Nolan to accompany his documentary, all from 35mm prints — because it’s Nolan, so of course. One critic reckoned it “will always be one of [Nolan]’s most important contributions to cinema.”

Today, the BFI release a Blu-ray set of the Quay brothers’ short animations, containing 24 of their works plus special features, among which is Nolan’s short. As a complete neophyte to the Quays’ work, I thought the best way to begin approaching it might be via the selection Nolan programmed, which was at least partly minded as an introduction to the brothers’ oeuvre. (Now, obviously I’m not watching this on 35mm, nor in its intended form (i.e. in a cinema), and it’s technically a selection of short films, so can I really count it towards my list? We’ll leave that to my conscience.)

Though if it is a beginner’s course, it’s the kind that throws you in at the deep end. In Absentia (2000) was, remarkably, made for the BBC as part of a season about sound on film — you can’t imagine them commissioning anything like this today. Maybe for BBC Four. Maybe. It’s an inscrutable 20-minute nightmare of a film, with sci-fi landscapes, a demonic puppet, sentient pencil leads, and the graphite-stained fingers of too many hands. It’s clear from the outset that these are films more about mood, atmosphere, and feeling than they are strictly concerned with plot or character, and to an extent one needs to be open to just going along with it in the hope that meaning or significance reveals itself.

In AbsentiaFor all that In Absentia initially feels like flailing in deep water without armbands, accompanied with “what have I got myself into?!” thoughts, in retrospect I found it to be the most accessible of the three animations. It’s abstract and confusing for most of its running time, but by the end you can decipher some meaning; you can understand the relevance of the feelings it aims to generate — and if you haven’t got there yourself, or if you’re unsure, there’s a dedication to point you in the right direction. I didn’t get that with the next two; not so easily, anyway, which is why I say they’re less accessible rather than less good per se.

Nolan follows this opening salvo with his documentary, Quay. It provides a sliver of insight into the brothers’ methods and thought processes; the merest glimpse into how they do what they do, with little or no explanation for why or what it means. I suppose Nolan wasn’t aiming for enlightenment or explanation, but to instead acknowledge the craftsmanship of the animators. Rather than the kooky outré bohemians you might imagine from their bizarre films, the brothers seem quiet, calm, and, for want of a better word, ordinary. By placing his documentary here, Nolan gives you an idea of the people whose hands you’re in, before diving back inside their imagination…

The Comb (1990) professes to be adapted from something and has immediately obvious characters, both human and puppet. “Ah,” you may think, “a clearer narrative.” No chance! I came away with even less of an idea what this was about than I did In Absentia, and certainly no clue what a comb has to do with most of it — the exception being the bits where there is a comb, because then there is a comb there. In a piece on the film at BFI Screenonline, The CombMichael Brooke notes that it is “setting out to wrong-foot the viewer at every turn, and the result wilfully defies verbal analysis.” What can be easily discerned is that it’s about a dream, and it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s some dream-logic involved. As to what else is to be gleaned, your guess is as good as mine.

Last up is the film that’s reckoned to be the Quays’ masterpiece, Street of Crocodiles (1986) — Terry Gilliam picked it as one of the ten best animated films ever, while critic Jonathan Romney has twice nominated it in Sight & Sound’s famous “greatest films of all time” poll. Once again, I was left initially floundering for significance. There’s some fascinating imagery, and the implication again that parts function though dream-logic, but as to an overall story or message… Reading various sources before writing this, a theme emerges: that to search a Quay Brothers film for direct meaning is futile; it’s more about somehow accessing the same otherworldly psychological and/or emotional space that’s peculiar to these filmmakers. Even when the Quays themselves describe what’s going on in Street of Crocodiles, you’ll notice there’s nary a nod to meaning — though even an outline of the plot as they conceived it is illuminating, unlocking something you sort of already knew, but providing a kind of clarity that felt absent before. A bit like that title card at the end of In Absentia, I suppose.

It’s true what they say: watching Quay Brothers shorts is like being given a glimpse into another world, connected to our own but also other to it — hiding in the cracks or around the corner, perhaps; or only in our dreams and nightmares; on the other side of the mirror, were we able to pass though it. Their work is our conduit to this otherness, which is Street of Crocodilessometimes informative about the world the rest of us live in (In Absentia), sometimes a twisted analogy for it (Street of Crocodiles), and sometimes just fascinatingly unknowable (The Comb). All the films are teasingly oblique, and by all rights that should make them frustrating to the point of irritation, even abandonment… yet they’re kind of compelling nonetheless.

Oh, and do I need to throw in a “they’re not for everyone” at this point? I imagine that’s implicit.

4 out of 5

The aforementioned Blu-ray collection, Inner Sanctums – Quay Brothers: The Collected Animation Films 1979-2013, is released by the BFI today. The genuine Quay Brothers in 35mm is screening at London’s Prince Charles Cinema in November.

Further Reading

* Although this particular presentation hasn’t been certified by the BBFC, a collection of Quays shorts featuring these is rated 12, and Nolan’s short is classified U. ^

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

2015 #112
100 Films in a Year #1000
Mark Cousins | 915 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15

The Story of Film: An OdysseyWritten, directed, and narrated by film journalist/historian/fan Mark Cousins, The Story of Film: An Odyssey is an epic 15-hour account of innovation throughout the history of moviemaking, which began its premiere broadcast five years ago today. It’s an acclaimed work, to be sure, but one that also attracts its fair share of controversy — about films and filmmakers that Cousins chose to leave out, in some cases about those he chose to include, and about how the documentary itself was made: the oddly framed interviews, the artistic shots of baubles, Cousins’ accent and vocal inflections. (Also, in the context of counting it as part of 100 Films, you may think it’s a TV series. Well, I went over that here.)

In the booklet that accompanies the series’ film’s UK DVD release, Cousins explains how and why the project came about:

There have been histories of the movie genres before, star histories, continental histories, histories of popular cinema, Godard’s essayistic history, etc. But no-one had tried to do a history of innovation in the movies. […] I was angry, too, that movie history is often so parochial, so provincial. We remember Garbo but not the great Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu, we worship Pixar but not the great Iranian kids’ films of Mohammed Ali-Talebi. This is blatantly unfair. The playing field is not level. The bullies with massive marketing budgets force their movies on us, whether they’re good or not, thus restricting our choice.

Part of the point of The Story of Film, then, is to widen Western audiences’ understanding of film and its history — a position also not without controversy, but I’ll come back to that.

The original concept was to tell this story over a handful of 90-minute episodes — “three chunky Saturday nights on BBC2 or C4”, as producer John Archer describes it in the DVD’s booklet. Unfortunately, the BBC declared the project was “too big”, which is ironic considering how it ended up. As Cousins describes in this making-of article, to help pitch the series they set out to produce a 10-minute test. When that clocked in at 50 minutes, they realised the final piece would have to be considerably longer than expected. By the time More4 got involved to buy the UK TV rights, the expected running time was 12 hours. It continued to grow, eventually looking like it would finish at 18 hours. Cousins decided this could be honed “to 15 hours but any less and — I told my producer and Tabitha Jackson our Exec Producer at More4 — we’d have to cut out Woody Allen, Robert Altman, people like that… So they gave me 15 hours.”

Those final 15 hours represent tens of thousands of hours of work. Cousins estimates the work needed to prepare and finish the clips from other films (of which there are about 1,000) totalled 20,000 man hours, most of it completed by just Cousins and Archer, working 90-hour weeks on four hours sleep a night, with festival and broadcast deadlines looming. Before that, they spent six years travelling the world — “across China and LA, to Tokyo and the streets of Mumbai, to the urban canyons of New York, the film schools of Paris, to Eisenstein’s Moscow and Bergman’s Sweden” — recording interviews and scene-setting footage. It’s an epic undertaking, whichever way you cut it. As film programmer Thom Powers described it in the TIFF catalogue, “by taking a DIY approach, Cousins preserves an editorial independence that normally gets lost with a bigger budget and committee decision-making. […] After experiencing this history from such a distinctive viewpoint, you may crave similar treatments for music, literature, politics or whatever compels you.”

The end result is indeed a magnificent viewing experience. Cousins’ chosen remit is so wide, and his knowledge so deep, that even the most seasoned cinephile is sure to learn something new at some point. It’s like attending a film course with an immensely well-read lecturer who’s keen to share his accumulated wisdom with you. Indeed, to quote from the man himself again, “in the era of DVD, Blu-ray, streaming and VOD, hundreds of thousands of movies are available, often a click away. At times of such plenitude, it’s easy to get bewildered — what should I watch next? The Story of Film: An Odyssey is […] our passionate suggestions of what to watch next.” Those suggestions encompass the whole history and world of cinema, in a very literal way. This manifestly isn’t just the story of Hollywood and European arthouse — Cousins is also keen to cover the emergent cinema of South America, Africa, and others. Including them isn’t a sop; a case of “everyone gets a prize!” It’s a case of films of genuine import or interest that have been overlooked, for various reasons, and Cousins makes a strong case not only for why these wrongs should be righted, but for why you’d want them to be, too.

Nonetheless, some have criticised the series for its lack of focus on American/Western cinema, which is to spectacularly miss (part of) the point. One of Cousins’ goals is to shake us out of our inward-looking learnt-by-rote Hollywood-centric history of the movies. He’s not seeking to ignore Hollywood, but to share what was going on elsewhere in the world — stuff that, sometimes, Hollywood later appropriated for its own. And besides, I don’t need him to tell me of the rise and fall of the studio system, of the arrival of the film school auteurs, of the birth and growth of the blockbuster, of the indie explosion and near-death, of the rise of a new studio system and the near-dominance of the blockbuster. Some people seem to want a documentary that tells the history of cinema as they already know it; a documentary that does so little to challenge their existing knowledge that they probably could’ve knocked it out themselves given an hour or two. Isn’t it better to have something challenging? Something that says, “you think you know the history of cinema, but are you sure?” Something that shows us something new.

Cousins specifically outlines pretty much all of this in his eight-minute introduction right at the start of the series. He outright says the accepted history of cinema is wrong and needs rewriting. Now, that doesn’t mean you have to accept that he’s right to say that — and whether or not you feel his story adequately makes the case for it will be the deciding factor in whether you should believe him or not — but to expect anything different is to not be paying attention. He also makes clear that it’s the story of innovation in film. Does that make it comprehensive? No, of course not — there are surely many films that aren’t innovative in and of themselves but that are significant and immensely influential. That doesn’t make Cousins wrong to omit them, because that’s not exactly the story he’s telling. But it also validates the argument that this is “a” story of film rather than a catch-all definitive telling of everything important.

The other main complaint about the series seems to concern Cousins’ voice, in particular citing a tendency towards AQI. This might sound like a witless niggle, but when you’re essentially listening to that voice talk for 15 hours, it isn’t a small issue. Personally, I find AQI intensely irritating and so think I’m quite sensitive to it, but I barely heard it at all. In fact, on the whole, I found Cousins’ narration to be uncommonly pleasant, especially as it so often comes with the benefit of some nice, crisp diction. Besides, that upward inflection “is also a feature of several UK dialects, especially in mid-Ulster and Belfast” — guess which city Mr Cousins hails from.

Although The Story of Film works as one (very long) film, it’s also possible to see where the divisions into 15 TV-friendly parts occurred. Here are some of my thoughts on each section, using the titles as found in the DVD booklet (because not everyone agrees on those).

Part One: Birth of the Cinema (1895-1920)

Beginning at the beginning, the opening hour is like a “basics of film” class — it covers all the innovations of framing (close-ups), editing (parallel cutting; the 180 rule), and more. It teaches how films are built to this day from how those rules were discovered and established. When it moves on to things like the birth of the movie star, of special effects, of Hollywood, you realise that so much of what still defines the world of movies was set out back in its very earliest days.

As an opening instalment, it also gives you a sense of Cousins’ stylistic goals for the series. For instance, although this is an artistic history of film (of its concepts, ideas, and meanings), it’s one that’s cognisant of how external real-world forces played a part in that — for example, the American studios being located in Hollywood because of people wanting to avoid the copyrights and patents placed on filmmaking on the East Coast. It also tells the story across the ages at all times. The broad sweep of the narrative structure moves chronologically, but Cousins is unafraid to make connections to films made many decades later to help illustrate a point or to show how ideas or techniques have endured. It’s more effective and informative than remaining slavishly chronological.

Part Two: The Hollywood Dream (1920s)

Sticking with the silent era (more on the significance of that in a minute), this hour covers grand fantasies and romances, like The Thief of Bagdad; the innovations and influence of silent comedians like Keaton, Lloyd and, primarily, Chaplin; and the birth of documentary, not as mere observed non-fiction, but as storytelling in its own right. Cousins asserts that documentary is seen by most as being plainly factual, but it is actually one of the most innovative of all genres. Certainly, there’s more to the construction of documentaries than some people realise.

Even this early in the series, there are so many films of which we get fascinating glimpses — it’s sure to leave you with a massive list of things you want to see. Similarly, it’s so dense with information and analysis that it feels wrong to watch too much at once. It’s like eating too much rich food: you still enjoy it, but you can’t separate it out in your mind, can’t appreciate or process it properly. But then binge watching is all the rage nowadays, so maybe that’s just me. (Or maybe people aren’t appreciating things fully, but that’s a debate for another time.)

Part Three: Expressionism, Impressionism, Surrealism (1920s)

The third hour explicitly concerns the people and movements Cousins sees as alternatives or rebels to ’20s and ’30s cinema, both what they did that was different and how it fed back into the mainstream. We’re talking the likes of impressionism (Abel Gance), expressionism (Caligari), surrealism (Buñuel), the Russians (Eisenstein), the Japanese (Ozu), the Chinese (Ruan Lingyu), and more. All innovated in different ways — ways that were either integrated into common filmmaking, or remain striking and boundary-pushing to this day, almost 100 years later.

Some people write off the silent era as “that funny little bit at the beginning before sound came along”, dismissing a 35-year chunk of culture in a single swipe. That’s like ignoring every film made between 1981 and today (which, in fairness, I suppose some people do). Naturally, Cousins is not so foolhardy: it’s over three hours before he reaches the arrival of sound. When he ends this hour by foreshadowing the coming of sound, it’s constructed like a cliffhanger; not only that, but the narration disappears and is replaced by intertitles, to emphasise the point. This isn’t classical documentary making, but playful, individualistic, and clearly iconoclastic. It’s a personal visual lecture, rather than a glossy, polished, manufactured ‘product’.

Part Four: The Arrival of Sound (1930s)

Sound is obviously an important aspect of movies nowadays, but at first it was almost more of a burden. Cousins argues that its arrival standardised American cinema into only six genres: horror, Western, gangster, comedy, musical, and animation. It’s an interesting contention — I suppose his broader point is that Hollywood atrophied, to an extent; its camerawork certainly did, at least at first — but it doesn’t sound quite extensive enough. I mean, surely they made romances?

Still, it’s easy to let such things slide when Cousins is busy drawing fascinating links elsewhere. Here, he discusses the contrast between the white light of Westerns (films about an idealistic age when laws were made) and the dirty light of gangster pictures (films about a dying world where lawbreakers are the heroes of a cynical age, when the making of the laws is long forgotten). These two genres co-exist, yet don’t consciously interact — except in the mind of the filmgoer, when we see both types of picture and can draw such links; links that none of the filmmakers involved ever intended, but which are unquestionably there. Cousins draws out these connections beautifully.

Finally, Cousins paints the ’30s as being about the American genres vs. innovation in European cinema, before taking us to London to meet a man who was both a great genre filmmaker and great innovator: Alfred Hitchcock. Britain bridging the gap between Europe and the US? Twas ever thus.

Part Five: Post-War Cinema (1940s)

Hitchcock said cinema is life with the boring bits cut out; the neo-realists said cinema is the boring bits. That probably explains why I’ve yet to enjoy anything neo-realist. Aside from that, Cousins gives us a nice big chunk on film noir and how it combined multiple influences, and covers the importance of Welles, Stagecoach, and The Third Man, which Cousins thinks encapsulates all of ’40s cinema. As you can see, this is not a documentary maker who’s ignoring established and well-known texts, but is perhaps more selective about which merit inclusion.

From a filmmaking perspective, between the film clips the series is what you might call “artistically shot” — there are very few talking heads; it’s all narrated by Cousins; and there’s lots of metaphorical imagery, some blatant (to represent the bauble of Hollywood we have… a bauble on a tree near Hollywood), others more ephemeral. However, at this point in the series we begin to see more taking heads, because we’re reaching eras where people (or people-who-knew-people) are still alive. It feels like a consequence of that is more close readings of specific films and/or filmmakers, with the series moving away from the “film theory” feel of earlier episodes a little bit, more into the territory of being the story of what occurred.

Part Six: Sex & Melodrama (1950s)

Talking of filmmaking technique, Cousins chooses to frame every interview differently. You might think it amateurism, not knowing how to frame interviewees consistently, but it was a conscious choice. He was, presumably, trying to convey something with how he framed them. Whether that was a worthwhile exercise or not is another matter. It certainly comes across as highly idiosyncratic at times.

At this point, the story of film is really increasingly global: there are great films in America, Britain, Europe, and Japan, as you might expect, but also Egypt, India, and Latin America. On the surface, the different films of these different countries are completely different. Underneath, Cousins demonstrates, they’re linked by trying to come to terms with a new, changing world, repressed emotions bursting forth, and sex. Lots of sex.

Part Seven: European New Wave (1960s)

Cousins begins by tackling the new waves led by four European directors: Bergman, Fellini, Bresson, Tati. There are a couple of significant directors missing from what one typically thinks of as “new wave” there, but this isn’t Cousins being deliberately controversial: after talking about the innovations of those four, he says the directors of the French New Wave came along and “carpet bombed” their revolutions, describing Godard as “the greatest movie terrorist”.

Here, Baz Luhrmann (believe it or not) makes a nice point about changing styles: the Nouvelle Vague wasn’t “real life”, it was an artifice, but an artifice that rejected the big costumes, pretty shots, vibrant colours, and romanticism of mainstream American cinema; and eventually that artifice came back in to fashion, and eventually it will be rejected again. Everything is cyclical, which is practically a philosophy for all life. Luhrmann compares it to language: the words change but the message remains the same; people always say “I love you” or “I want to kill you”, but how they say it is just fashion.

Part Eight: New Directors, New Form (1960s)

As the ’60s continue, new waves and revolutions are everywhere. There’s the Eastern Bloc and the cinema of protest (“rebels with a cause”, as Cousins puts it) and even more new, radical filmmakers in Japan, Africa, Iran, even the UK: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Kes, A Hard Day’s Night. It’s interesting to see very familiar films of British cinema put into this context — Ken Loach discusses the influence of Czech film on Kes, for instance.

Not even America is exempt. In a world where JFK, Malcolm X, and a million civilians in Vietnam protests were all murdered, and where cinema attendance was falling as people stayed home with TV, there were radical filmmakers Stateside too — including Hitchcock! Psycho, for instance, which eschews Hollywood gloss with its plain costumes, plain locations, and plain black & white photography, which Cousins aligns with documentary-influenced independent cinema. More obviously, there was Easy Rider. It was innovative, throwing all kinds of techniques at the screen, and appealed to young people who were fed up with conservative mainstream cinema and wanted something groundbreaking, forward-thinking, revolutionary — and it was a box office hit. The series gets you in the mindset to go beyond the connections Cousins draws and begin to make links yourself. Like, if this is how film as a medium, and society as a whole, seems always to have moved forward, then what thrilling revolutions can we see young people flocking to in the modern day? Disney superhero movies. Belated sequels to childhood favourites. Adaptations of socially conservative novels aimed at teenagers. Oh. Such contrast between then and now is a bit depressing, really.

Cousins concludes by saying this era of innovativeness wasn’t permanent — the ’70s would bring old-fashioned romantic entertaining cinema. As per Luhrmann’s theory, “what goes around comes around”, essentially. To be more positive about modern movies, I suppose this is an era we’re in now. I guess you could conflate the indie boom of the ’90s with the ’60s, or the auteur side of the ’70s; while the post-millennial special effects blockbusters are the latest incarnation of the Star Wars/Jaws/etc-driven ’80s. But then again, blockbusters also existed in the ’90s, and popular indie movies exist now — so how do you decide what’s the dominant form of an era? Is that purely the job of history — what gets remembered best. But what about when they all get remembered, as with the ’90s? I’ve diverged wildly into my own half-conceived theories here, but as if to back up my point about a time being more than one thing, the ’70s are about to get three whole episodes…

Part Nine: American Cinema of the 70s

In the first part on the ’70s, Cousins identifies three types of American auteurs/arthouse: mockery/satire (Buck Henry), dissident films that challenged conventional style (Charles Burnett), and assimilationist movies that told studio genre-style stories with new techniques (Robert Towne). Flying in the face of that criticism about Cousins ignoring US/Western films, in most eras he comes back to America, its story and innovations, after he’s done everywhere else. The exceptions are the birth of Hollywood in the ’20s and the radical ’70s, when he starts with America. Does Cousins want to get these famed and fêted eras in the US out of the way before he moves on to elsewhere, to avoid the nagging “but what about [major US film / director / movement]” question that many viewers would be troubled about otherwise? I doubt he’s so concerned with what you or I are pondering. Rather, these are the times when American cinema was most genuinely innovative (at least in Cousins’ opinion).

Part Ten: Movies to Change the World (1970s)

In the second part of the ’70s, Cousins has a particularly bold assertion: “Performance was not only the greatest ’70s film about identity. If any movie in the whole story of film should be compulsory viewing for filmmakers, maybe this is it.” I’ve not seen it, so I couldn’t say whether I agree or not, but it’s an unusual claim.

Cousins rattles round the globe here (Germany, Japan, Italy, Australia), but the most interesting part comes in Burkina Faso. Today, tens of thousands of people there attend the opening of a film festival. Local director Gaston Kaboré argues that consuming film from other countries is interesting, but if that’s all you do then your lose your uniqueness, your own way of seeing and thinking, your identity. This is exactly what continues to happen in countries that primarily consume American movies — they are increasingly Americanised. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to argue that Britain is one of the worst hit by this. Unlike other countries, we have governments with no serious interest in supporting a national cinema, and the lack of a language barrier between us and the US (only aided by the internet, both in terms of global conversation and media piracy) has created an ever-strengthening supply-and-demand culture across both TV and film. Of course, it can go both ways: look at all the British TV series that have had relatively large US success in the past few years. Somehow I think it’s had more of an impact on our little island, though.

Part Eleven: The Arrival of Multiplexes and Asian Mainstream (1970s)

As Cousins closes out his three-hour overview of the ’70s, we (or I) find ourselves in much more familiar territory: first Hong Kong, for the Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, John Woo, Tsui Hark, A Better Tomorrow, Once Upon a Time in China, Dragon Inn, Iron Monkey… then India, for Bollywood and Sholay… then the Middle East, with films about Mohammad and recent events… and then, most recognisable of all to Western audiences, and most influential of all to the world, Hollywood — Jaws, The ExorcistStar Wars. In all instances, this is cinema that moved away from intellectual thought and hard-hitting realism, and more towards feeling, sensation, emotion, fantasy. These things come and go (Luhrmann’s point about the cyclical nature of it all being perhaps the most pertinent observation of the entire series), but it’s hard to argue against the developments of the ’70s still being an influence today.

Part Twelve: Fight the Power: Protest in Film (1980s)

Much of this series is about things that are important within the world of film, but here we find movies that literally changed the world — like A Short Film About Killing, which contributed to the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. Elsewhere, director John Sayles and his producer/partner Maggie Renzi give birth to the methodology of what we now know as American independent cinema. Renzi says that Hollywood doesn’t even do what Hollywood does very well anymore — that it takes nine writers to produce a screenplay no better than the first draft — and she’s probably right.

While the list of “films that look worth seeing” continues to grow, sometimes the speed at which they pass by makes it tricky to know how worth seeing they are. For example, in this hour Cousins discusses Yeelen, describing it as “one of cinema’s most complex works of art”. Based on a Malian legend, telling of a heroic quest featuring magic and precognition, it sounds interesting, but it’s also hard to infer if it’s complex in a good, interesting way or in a frustrating, pretentious way.

Part Thirteen: New Boundaries: World Cinema in Africa, Asia, Latin America (1990s)

With only a couple of hours left(!), Cousins reaches modern concerns — here, it’s the last hurrah of celluloid and realism, before digital and fakery took over. Part of Cousins’ thesis seems to be that world cinema filmmakers were reacting to fantasy cinema by trying to show the real world, but that became a last gasp before fantasy cinema took over. It’s almost like a battle for the fate of cinema, between realism and fantasy; and fantasy won. So we have Dogme 95 and La Haine, but also Iranian filmmakers who played with form and reality, like making fictional versions of true stories using the real people; or Abbas Kiarostami, who made a film, then made a film about searching for the actors from that film, then made a film about an incident from the making of the second film. And fantasy and reality collide in places, like Michael Haneke and Funny Games, where the evil youths wink at the camera and rewind life like we rewind videos. That was groundbreaking, and obviously only possible in the home video era when rewinding, y’know, existed.

Part Fourteen: New American Independents & The Digital Revolution (1990s)

As we get closer to today, you find more and more references to the past. Is film coming full circle? Or at least becoming more self-aware; referencing itself more often. We’re talking Tarantino’s post-modern screenplays, the Coen brother’s re-appropriation of classic genres and imagery, Gus Van Sant’s film-history-aware visuals, the satire of Paul Verhoeven, Baz Luhrmann’s flamboyant romanticisation of real life, and so on. It makes you think: is this the absolutely perfect time to be making a major “history of film” documentary?

It also reminds you that style or genre do not have to negate substance. Starship Troopers was born out of Verhoeven’s desire to make a film about young men coming into the prime of their lives at an exciting time for their country when everything was developing — that time and country being Germany in 1935, and the men being excited by Nazism. No Hollywood studio would ever make that movie, of course, but take those themes and do them as science fiction…

Part Fifteen: Cinema Today and the Future (2000s)

Unsurprisingly, the concluding hour feels somewhat less clear about what was particularly innovative and what exactly was going on that was most significant — it’s coming up to the present day and looking to the future, which is too recent to get a proper handle on. Nonetheless, Cousins does find genuine innovation, like the single-take Russian Ark. It’s not a film I liked, and even the analysis here incidentally alludes to why: you need to know what you’re seeing, and the context of what came next (in history) to get the point. If your knowledge of Russian history isn’t on the money, if you don’t know what you’re seeing depicted and what came after it, the film offers you no succour, and feels aimless. But innovative? Yes. Indeed, it’s a filmmaking feat that has only recently been emulated.

Talking of emulation, it seems unlikely anyone else will make a documentary as comprehensive and insightful as what Cousins has achieved here. For anyone serious about a love of film, it is a must-see. That doesn’t mean you’ll always agree with it, or accept it as the definitive telling of the story of motion pictures, but it is nonetheless a wide-reaching and thoroughly educational overview of what is arguably modern times’ most significant artform.

5 out of 5

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014)

2016 #93
Paul Goodwin | 105 mins | TV | 1.78:1 | UK / English | 15

Future Shock! The Story of 2000ADTalking heads documentary about the galaxy’s greatest comic, 2000 AD, birthplace of Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, et al. Created to be somewhat subversive in a marketplace stuffed with safe children’s comics, it’s become a rare survivor of the medium on British newsstands.

Future Shock tells of the project’s birth, then the years when the US industry used the comic to scout talent, cherrypicking all its best creators. Today, it’s an influential institution that punches above its weight.

This is a pretty niche documentary, ultimately, but well-made and informative for those interested in comic book history and/or British culture.

4 out of 5

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014)

2016 #28
Mark Hartley | 102 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | Australia, USA, Israel & UK / English | 18 / R

The director of Not Quite Hollywood, a documentary on Ozploitation movies that I bought on DVD at some point and haven’t got round to watching (and which shares a “The Wild, Untold Story of __” subtitle), turns his attention to a similar kind of thing from a different continent: the output of Cannon Films, the studio renowned for producing a slew of cheap but surprisingly successful B-level genre movies throughout the ’80s.

My main takeaway from the film was a massive list of films I now want to see: Inga, Joe, The Apple, House of the Long Shadows (a PG horror movie!), The Last American Virgin, The Wicked Lady, Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, Sahara, Breakin’, Breakin’ 2, Bolero, Invasion U.S.A., Lifeforce… Even though the talking heads in the documentary keep saying how awful all of these movies are, the film makes them look awesome. I mean, not “award-winning” awesome, or even “genre classic” awesome, but like magnificently trashy fun.

As a film, Electric Boogaloo is relentlessly, insanely fast-paced to begin with, and though it does settle a smidge, it still rockets along, which keeps things engrossing and very watchable. There’s an excellent array of talking heads — not many you’ll’ve heard of (unless you’re a Cannon aficionado, perhaps), but they were there, they lived it, and they have first-rate insights into the craziness. Craziness like the story of the competing Lambada movies, which ended up being released on the exact same day. I mean, you’d think one Lambada movie would be more than enough, but two, competing… If you wrote it in a fiction, the audience would laugh at the ridiculous contrivance of it, but it happened. Elsewhere, there’s a chunk where they just slag off Michael Winner for a bit (awesome), and director Franco Zeffirelli describes them as the best producers he ever worked with and the only ones he ever liked. Like I say, you couldn’t make it up.

Documentaries can be hard films to assess from a “film criticism” perspective — you can get lost down lots of blind alleys about the merits of archive footage or talking heads or reconstructions or structure or whatever other variables there are. Some reviews of this film have done that, which I find a little inexplicable because I thought it was very well put together. Plus, generally speaking, if you’ve got a good story and you’ve told it well, I’m satisfied, and I think most viewers are too. This viewpoint means assessing the quality of a documentary becomes more concerned with the subject matter than the documentarian’s skill as a filmmaker, but unless you’re a student of the documentary as a genre, that story (and if it’s told effectively, rather than the issue of if its telling is effective) is all that really matters.

Which is a really roundabout, film-theory-ish way of saying that Electric Boogaloo has a bizarrely fascinating story to tell, and does so in an immensely entertaining manner. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s actually a lot better than the films it’s about.

4 out of 5

Returning to Jedi (2007)

2015 #91
Jamie Benning | 148 mins | streaming | 16:9 | UK / English

Returning to Jedi completes fan/editor Jamie Benning’s trilogy of documentaries about the original Star Wars trilogy with a look at the making of… well, obviously. In case you’ve forgotten, Benning’s “filmumentaries” are most succinctly summarised by the documentary’s own introduction:

Returning to Jedi is an unofficial commentary. It contains video, audio and information from over one hundred sources taking you deep into the making of Return of the Jedi.

I’m not entirely sure why, but it felt to me that this might be the best of all Benning’s Star Wars filmumentaries (he’s also completed ones for Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark). It’s not that anything’s drastically different (the format works), it’s just a certain something that made it the most engrossing. Perhaps there was more material to work with — the result is something like 20 minutes longer than Jedi itself, and a good ten minutes longer than the other Star Wars filmumentaries. Doesn’t sound so much when put like that, so maybe I’m making a spurious correlation.

There’s certainly tonnes of behind-the-scenes footage in this one, more so than the other two. Much of it concentrates on the creation of the special effects, as usual, with particular attention paid to Jabba, the Rancor, and the speederbike chase. As all are noteworthy achievements in effects work, they merit the focus. Audio snippets from various interviews down the years provide some more varied detail. There’s a fair bit of information on variations to the story that were considered and rejected, though it does make it sound like Lawrence Kasdan was desperate to kill someone off: he kept suggesting the likes of Han, Lando, and even Luke should make the ultimate sacrifice, while Lucas maintained no one should die. Kasdan wasn’t alone — Harrison Ford also thought Solo should die, and Mark Hamill expected more darkness for Luke — but I guess they weren’t to be heard by an increasingly autocratic Lucas (reports of him essentially directing Jedi for Richard Marquand, or of his clash with the Directors’ Guild that prevented Steven Spielberg from directing the film, go unmentioned here).

Highlights include: a look at the set for Jabba’s sail barge and the Sarlacc pit, an enormous raised construction in the Arizona desert that looks incredible; the fact that they consulted a child psychologist, who told them under 12s would think Vader being Luke’s father was a lie unless it was unequivocally stated, hence the scene where Yoda does just that; and a selection of interesting deleted scenes. The wisest deletion was an early scene of Luke building his new saber and hiding it in R2-D2 — how much would that undermine the reveal that Luke had a plan all along? — though also of note are a sandstorm before they leave Tatooine (deleted for pace) and a full-on shoot-out as Han and co enter the bunker on Endor.

Whether Returning to Jedi is the best of Benning’s work or not is neither here nor there, really. Although their length and the fact they sometimes focus on minutiae probably rules them out for the casual observer, who might prefer a shorter making-of overview if they’re even interested, his trilogy of Star Wars filmumentaries are consistently fascinating for fans.

4 out of 5

Returning to Jedi can be watched on Vimeo here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK at midnight tonight, and in the US on Friday. It will be reviewed at a future date. (Possibly Christmas Day. We’ll see.)

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Building Empire (2006)

2015 #71
Jamie Benning | 137 mins | streaming | 16:9 | UK / English

The first of Jamie Benning’s “filmumentaries” looks at the making of sometime Best Film Ever, and widely-accepted Best Star Wars Ever, The Empire Strikes Back (as it used to just be known). To quote the documentary’s own intro:

Building Empire is an unofficial commentary to The Empire Strikes Back. It contains video clips, audio from cast and crew, alternate angles, reconstructed scenes, text facts and insights into the development and creation of the film.

It begins with director Irvin Kershner explaining how he came to be involved, though my main observation was how much he sounds like Yoda. Maybe that’s just me…

From there, there’s a focus on the special effects and how they were achieved. There’s a lot of detail about the myriad effects on Hoth, the creation of the asteroid field, and the puppetry of Yoda, as well as boundless trivia, like detailing the set-extension matte paintings. Other major themes include changes from early drafts and in deleted material; audio differences between the many different versions (not only the various release prints and Special Editions, but audiobooks and the like); commentary from actors on the evolution of their characters; plus detail on the actual filming, including the terrible weather on location in Norway (they were able to shoot some of Hoth’s desolate ice fields within feet of their hotel) and the rigours of the Luke/Vader lightsaber duel.

My personal highlight of the documentary comes in Cloud City, at the point Lando’s betrayal is revealed. Benning inserts a “deconstruction of an action scene” (Han shooting at Vader; Vader Force-stealing Han’s gun), using uncut footage and B-roll to quickly glimpse how such things are achieved — or were, before “with CGI” was the answer for everything. Here, Benning’s work transcends merely placing rare interviews or behind-the-scenes footage at the appropriate juncture, instead using that material to create something genuinely new and insightful.

Assuming you’re interested in snippets of minutiae and amusing trivia (if not, these filmumentaries definitely aren’t for you), the downsides are few. It’s a shame that, just occasionally, there are stretches with no additional material (though never for long) when at other times the additions race by in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flash. There are also quite a few instances labelled “restored music”, but there’s no comment from John Williams, Kershner, or anyone else on why so much was removed and/or changed.

Niggles aside, I felt like I enjoyed Building Empire even more than its later predecessor (how very Lucas). I’m not saying it’s fundamentally better — just as with Star Wars Begins, for those who love making-of details and trivia, Building Empire is a delightful grab bag of such bits and pieces.

4 out of 5

Building Empire can be watched on Vimeo here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK this Thursday, and in the US on Friday.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

Star Wars Begins (2011)

A Filmumentary

2015 #63
Jamie Benning | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English

This year, I finally got round to watching the Star Wars Blu-rays I bought back whenever they came out, so I thought what better time to also finally watch Jamie Benning’s trilogy of “filmumentaries”. What’s a filmumentary, you ask? Well, here’s the opening text of the film itself:

Star Wars Begins is an unofficial commentary on Star Wars. It contains video clips, audio from the cast and crew, alternate angles, bloopers, text facts and insights into the development and creation of the film.

For those familiar with (Warner) Blu-rays, it’s essentially a fan-made Maximum Movie Mode, though drawing on a wealth of archive resources rather than newly-recorded material. In practice, it plays less like a cohesive “making of” and more like a trivia track on steroids. Only rarely do we learn something fundamental; mostly it’s interesting titbits. But then, this is a documentary made by a fan for fans, and fans love minutiae. Consequently, it sometimes comes from a place of deep fan-ish-ness. For example, it refers to and uses clips from the “Lost Cut”, but never bothers to define or explain what that is (or if it did, I blinked and missed it). Conversely, it occasionally transcends “Star Wars trivia” to unveil general “moviemaking trivia” — how different on-set audio sounds to the final mix; demonstrations of how editing can affect the flow and pace of a scene; and so on.

Perhaps the highlight are some early deleted scenes. Featuring Luke, Biggs and their friends on Tatooine, and placed to intercut with the droids’ progress and Vader’s search for them (i.e. before we even meet Luke in the finished film), the sequences were removed en masse due to execs’ fears they made the movie feel like “American Graffiti in space”. And for once, an exec was right! They give the movie a completely different tone; more grounded and less mythic. Thank goodness they were done away with, to be honest.

Another personal highlight was a snippet from a 1978 interview with Harrison Ford, in which the Han Solo actor says Star Wars is not science fiction, it’s science fantasy. He’s bang on the money — it’s a distinction I subscribe to wholeheartedly. I’d always thought it was a more recent argument, but there he is expressing it right after the film came out, not as some decades-later revisionism.

This is actually the third of Benning’s filmumentaries — he started with Empire and followed it with Jedi, only then going back to where it all began. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe a greater behind-the-scenes scrutiny on the sequels gave him more to work with, producing more in-depth making-ofs, and when he went back to the first he just had to work with what he could find. Or maybe the disjointed trivia grab bag is his style, and here it reaches its apogee. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Star Wars Begins may not be the first port of call for anyone looking for an overview of the making of Star Wars, but it’s a goldmine of behind-the-scenes titbits and occasional candid revelations for anyone with a strong enough interest.

4 out of 5

Star Wars Begins can be watched on Vimeo here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK this Thursday, and in the US on Friday.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.