Thanks to a mutual friend (also called David), David Gaffney sent me a copy of his new novel about a traumatised man obsessed with an obscure British film noir.
Set primarily in the Midlands of the 1980s, Out of the Dark falls somewhere in the terrain triangulated by Mike Hodges’s Get Carter (1971), Chris Petit’s Radio On (1979) and Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006).
It is also under the influence of JG Ballard. But its motorways are not London’s near-future-but-never-happened orbitals, nor are its high-rises desublimating enclaves of bourgeois acquisitiveness and hierarchical obsession. Rather, it all takes place in actually-existing concrete landscapes of marginalisation, disconnection and dereliction – ‘neither in Walsall nor West Bromwich’ and thus ‘equally inconvenient’ in all directions. And it is rather more grungily quotidian and irreal-adjacent than anything in Ballard – closer, perhaps, to M. John Harrison or Ramsey Campbell.
And while the story it tells is full of twists and turns, genre-playfulness and sharp observations – as is the story within the story – what I loved most about Out of the Dark is something much more personal. I was born in Staffordshire, in a small-now-swallowed-in-the-conurbation Staffordshire village, but all my family were from Birmingham, from the Perry Barr/Perry Beeches parts of Great Barr, with outliers in Handsworth and West Bromwich; and behind my paternal grandparents mid-terrace two-up/two-down (with an outside loo), on the far side of the allotments onto which the garden backed, was an aerial stretch of the M6. And although we moved down to Devon when I was four years old, there is something ineffable about the litany of place names threaded through the novel: in chapter five alone, Perry Barr, Great Barr, Sarehole Mill, Kings Heath, Cotteridge, the impossibly distant Worcester, Bourneville, Harborne, Dudley Road, Perry Barr Island, Aston Lane, Swan Island, Billesley, Walsall…
And if this is nostalgia, it is not inappropriate for a novel enamoured of noir – especially when, for me, it is so oneiric and bittersweet.
…and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer 1982) is the way in which Kirk passes the real Kobayashi Maru test when he is backed into a no-win situation by his two best (i.e., only) friends, barely able to suppress their rivalry for his affection, competing with each other to present him with the bestest of best birthday gifts, with Bones giving him reading glasses and Spock giving him the most monumental edition of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities ever printed (more disproportionate even than the Neo’s humungous copy of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation), so massive in fact that it must be the largest of large-print editions ever printed, and he serenely navigates these tides of desire by changing the conditions of the test and reading it with his reading glasses on…
One of the legacies of the Communist era is that every Polish home is guarded by a robot – with lethal capabilities and firefighting equipment. Although many Poles feared they were installed as surveillance devices, this was pretty much beyond the technical capacities of the time.
The most such experimental models could do was phone the Esbecja on themselves, and not very surreptitiously at that.
While the guardian robots are now often regarded with nostalgia, there are other holdovers from the Communist era which are not cherished, such as the still rigorously enforced ban on ice cream
and, if your home is considered too large for the number of residents, the ban on using the upper floors.
Another feature of homes build under Communism is the circular inner chamber in which to isolate punk rockers and other troublemakers.
Culturally, the Polish people are divided pretty evenly between fans of L. Frank Baum and fans of CS Lewis, and they often decorate their entranceways so as to affirm their allegiance to one or the other.
The Polish are a relaxed people and their homes are always full of flowers.
The Polish people honour the memory of the ancient hero, Jan Skrzetuski, famous for leading an army of elephants across the Carpathians to defend his homeland. There is a shrine to him in every home. Typically, this takes the form of his three favourite pachyderms, reproduced in varieties of modernist glassware.
The current right-wing Polish government has adopted a number of controversial measures to maintain its support in working class communities. These include encouraging a population increase and pushing women back into more traditional roles by paying parents a substantial sum for every child that is born. Thus it is not uncommon nowadays to find in bathroom cabinets supplies of powdered semen.
Especially valued – and commanding huge prices on the black market – is the desiccated spermatazoa of renowned philanderers.
There is a far more sinister side to this recent upheaval in Polish life, though.
and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Brick Mansions (2014) is not that it has a piece of good old-fashioned Jean-Claude Van Damme-style hasty exposition about the origins of Lino to explain why someone with a French accent lives in a Detroit ghetto (and then dubs David Belle badly anyway), nor that a film so vastly inferior to its source, Banlieue 13 (2004), has the audacity to insist that ‘different methods can produce the same result’, but that it helped answer a question posed by the old episode of Orange is the New Black I saw just before it – yes, it is actually possible for something to be more depressing than a Tori Amos tribute band…
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about RoboCop (2014) is not its astonishing commitment to the lipogrammatic principles of the Oulipo group, going far beyond Georges Perec, for example, who wrote the 300-page novel La Disparition (1969) without using the letter ‘e’, in order to gather together the few surviving remains of a franchise blown apart by lame film sequels, not to mention insipid live-action and animated television incarnations, and from them to build a whole new 117-minute film without using the letters ‘wit’, ‘intelligence’ or ‘decent action choreography’; no, the very best thing is that in the tagline at the top of the poster, very first word, they spelt ‘cinema’ wrong…
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Bait (2012) – the film in which a bunch of young Aussies, most of whom, according to a half-assed imdb search, seem to be stuntmen from Neighbours (!), and that bloke who used to be in Charmed (not the pudding-faced one, the other one) get stranded in a flooded post-tsunami supermarket along with a couple of great white sharks – is the sequence in which one of the kids constructs a shark cage cum body armour out of shopping trolleys and baskets so he can make his way underwater to do something or other (to be honest, I’d stopped paying attention and couldn’t be bothered to rewind it) only to find that his makeshift airtube is too short and he must spit it out in order to reach that little bit further and do that thing, whatever it was, only to then find, when he swims to the surface to breathe in the gap between the water and the ceiling, that the shopping basket over his head is too big and so he drowns, which the film tries to make noble and tragic, and to be honest you would need a heart of stone not to wet yourself laughing….
It is the one with the audacity to have a character claim, early on, that ‘We’re dealing with subtlety here’. And the bravery, moments later, to let Aunty (Tina Turner) ask, ‘You can shovel shit, can’t you?’
It is the one featuring the Goonies outback adventure. It is Max Rockatansky’s Kindergarten Cop. His Mr Nanny, his Pacifier, his Game Plan. It is Dad Max.
It is the one that makes Waterworld look not so very terrible after all.
It is a poxalypse, full of pain.
It begins with a drum-machine, for chrissakes.
It is full of other terrible 80s things, such as a shockingly ill-judged Maurice Jarre soundtrack and a dreadful saxophone that, for a moment, fills you with dread that Aunty will be played not by Tina Turner – whose chainmail shoulderpads are even more awesome now than they were thirty years ago – but by Al Jarreau.
Beyond Thunderdome lays bare the insidious effects of LucasSpielbergianism.
Costing five times as much as the first two films added together, it made rather less than them added together. But a bigger budget meant a drop in the certificate. Which meant replacing innovation with competence. Which meant abandoning crude, robust, imaginative and often very skilful filmmaking in order to imitate the less-than-stellar Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Badly.
It nicks sequences and gags and ideas from HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau and Island of Lost Souls (1932), from Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) but sadly not from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), from episodes six and seven of Flash Gordon (1936) and episode one of Bret Maverick (1981), from Star Wars (1977) and Apocalypse Now (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Mad Max and a whole bunch of westerns. Badly.
It reworks the climactic chase from Road Warrior.
As if Health and Safety finally caught onto some of the crazy shit George Miller was doing.
It is like some Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983) knock off.
While Tina Turner is fabulous as the same-sex-yet-somehow-cross-dressing Aunty, it is disappointing to see the queerness of this future has been muted in the fifteen years since the events of Road Warrior. (I have no idea how the scantily-clad musclemen cranking Bartertown’s elevator managed to sneak unnoticed through the straightening of the post-apocalypse, but I’m glad they made it and are thriving.)
Although there are plenty of stereotypical signifiers of non-white ethnicities – Max’s burnoose and camels, the didgeridoos on the soundtrack early on, Maurice Jarre’s delusion that he is scoring Taras Bulba (1962), the plane-crash-surviving kids’ version of Aboriginal art and make-up – it remains a fairly pallid future in which whitey has learned almost nothing from these cultures about practical fashions for desert environments. One can only assume that Bartertown is built in a quarry (some of the time) because they are mining for sunblock. And talc. And, of course, vaseline.
When the movie came out, Roger Ebert, who loved it, raved about the Thunderdome fight sequence, calling it ‘the first really original movie idea about how to stage a fight since we got the first karate movies’ and ‘one of the great creative action scenes in the movies’. It was never that good and doesn’t really hold up that well. But it can be made fabulous by taking the time to set up a second screen so you can synch it to the Peter Pan scene from 21 Jump Street (2012).
Much was also made of the alternative Riddley Walker-lite English spoken by the kids who grew up in isolation without any adults around. This linguistic drift, which has none of the post-apocalyptic horror of the final minutes of Threads (1984) either, would have perhaps seem more innovative if a few minutes earlier it hadn’t been revealed that in Bartertown the meaning of the word ‘gulag’ had shifted to mean ‘to be driven into the desert to die while sitting backwards on a horse with a giant papier-mache head on your head’.
So, besides Tina Turner, is there anything good about Beyond Thunderdome?
Well, it provides an opportunity to admire some of the early work by Terese Willis from Neighbours, formerly Sophie Simpson from Home and Away.
It was nice to see Bruce Payne return, playing a character indistinguishable from the one he played in Road Warrior but definitely intended by Miller to be a different character, which doesn’t quite explain how Max recognises him, unless it is a version of that joke in the A-Team title sequence when Face recognises a Cylon.
And it was nice to see the sarlacc pit get work again, even if it never did manage to break free of the way it was typecast by Return of the Jedi…
Oh, and the first thing the kids do after rescuing Max is cut off his mullet. Which at least puts it ahead of Steel Dawn (1987), at the conclusion of which Patrick Swayze is permitted to stride off into the sunset, mane uncropped.
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Big Ass Spider! is not, as you might assume, its title, which, like Eight Legged Freaks (2002), no film could possibly live up to, nor is it the pleasure of seeing Lombardo Boyar, playing the offensively-written comedy ethnic sidekick, steal every scene he is in, because sadly that is not really much of an accomplishment, nor is it the unexpected Lloyd Kaufman cameo, no, the very best thing about Big Ass Spider! is that they seem to have brought it in on time and budget, more or less, I guess…
Road Warrior might be punk’s Sistine chapel, but it is not without problems.
To be punk at all it has to have problems.
Many of them come from its dependence on colonial adventure narratives, particularly Westerns. There is an enclave of ‘white’ civilisation in the wilderness – a fortress, circled wagons – surrounded by aggressive and highly mobile ‘savages’, who are darker and more ‘tribal’ (some even sport Mohicans), and who rape and murder one of the ‘white’ women.
And as if this racial othering is not enough, many of them also dress as sexual dissidents.
To be honest, I am not sure whether it is because I have cherished this movie since adolescence that I tend to overlook these problems, or whether it is genuinely more complex than this reductive account suggests. Certainly such colonial imagery can be used in different ways. For example, when Starship Troopers (1997) uses the fort under siege scenario, it does so to parody imperialist military aggression. Unlike, say, Zulu (1964), in which post-imperial melancholy works hard to mythologise yet another shabby episode in the history of British imperialism. And unlike the final section of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), in which Brett Ratner, once more putting the idiot into idiot savant, slanders San Francisco’s queer counterculture.
And Road Warrior does do some interesting things with its colonial set-up.
Three of the key ‘white’ people are so white as to become parodic, including their bleached blond leader Pappagallo (Mike Preston, who back in the late 50s recorded ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘Whispering Grass’, long before The Pogues and Windsor Davis/Don Estelle). This excess at least suggests a self-consciousness at work, and although it might not be very articulate, it is far more convincing than the post-hoc claims that the Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty (in that film from the following year about the police flying around over Los Angeles deciding who counts as human) is some kind of ‘ironic Aryan’. (The absence of any actual Aboriginal people helps deracinate the situation, I guess.)
Related to this is the transition from Mad Max’s Tom of Finland coppers to the accoutrements of sexual dissidence worn by the ‘natives’: the studded leather pants, wristbands and harness of The Humugus (Kjell Nilsson), and his Jason Voorhees take on an enclosure mask; the buttocks-flashing chaps of Wez (Vernon Wells) and the cutaway bondage gear of his bleached boytoy, etc, etc. However, I think this works a little differently to Toecutter’s stereotypically jealous (but, come to think of it, not really demonised) blond second-in-command in Mad Max.
Yes, the ‘natives’ are queer (except perhaps for the misleadingly credited ‘Tent Lovers’), but they are also charismatic and alive in a way the ‘white’ folks are not.
In Doomsday, the natives’ Glaswegian equivalents – and who would have thought that thirty years after the zombie apocalypse there would be quite so much pristine bondage gear stockpiled in Glasgow? – bear a very specific resonance, as evidenced by the music Sol (Craig Conway) plays to the crowd before they cook and eat Sean Pertwee. Adam and the Ants’ ‘Dog Eat Dog’, the Fine Young Cannibals ‘Good Thing’, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ ‘Spellbound’ and Areil Rechtshaid’s knock-off of Bad Manners’ ‘The Can-Can’ are all part of the anti-Thatcher eighties, and so it comes as no surprise that during the Road Warrior-like climactic chase, we get Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Two Tribes’. Displaced into the future, this is a culture of political and sexual dissidence being celebrated.
In Road Warrior, the celebration is perhaps less clear, but the film does not despise its ‘natives’. Miller, like Milton, is secretly of Satan’s camp.
And the opposition between the ‘civilisation’ and ‘natives’ is not as secure as one might think. Max lives in the wilderness and only crosses into ‘civilisation’ so he can leave again. The same is true of the Gyro Captain (Bruce Spence). He eventually chooses to stay, but only as ‘civilisation’ begins its long trek through the wilderness. The Feral Kid (Emil Minty) is raised in ‘civilisation’ but looks like one of the ‘natives’, grunts and growls a lot and behaves like some kind of monkey-dog; his finger-slicing boomerang is as close as we get to Aboriginal culture. And of course the opening narration turns out to have been spoken by him in his old age, long after the events of the movie, when he has become the chief of the Great Northern Tribe – a rank and social structure that suggests some retreat from ‘civilisation’.
The bondage gear also provides Humungus’s motivation for besieging the fortified refinery. Clearly, from the way his crew race around everywhere, they are not short of fuel. But in that dry hot sandy environment, leather and rubber are gonna get uncomfortable. They’re gonna chafe. So it is not gasoline Humungus is after. It is some other petroleum-based product. Like, I dunno, vaseline.
Mad Max’s key cinematic innovation was setting the racing cameras so close to the ground. Road Warrior added a couple more things to the language of contemporary cinema.
First, is the long final action sequence. Films did not used to do that, and now they do. Without Road Warrior, the runway during the climax of Fast and Furious 6 (2013) – a runway so long you begin to suspect they are just gonna drive all the way to the destination airport – would have been a whole lot shorter and much less would have happened on it.
Second, is the radical electro-surgery George Miller performed on the muscles under Mel Gibson’s face, so that in this film it actually moves. Sadly, this experimental procedure was not entirely successful, dooming Gibson to decades of shit-eating glibness and peculiar gurning.
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about The Ultimate Warrior (1975) is not the moment when a young mother, safe within Max Von Sydow’s fortified compound, decides to sneak out into the violent gang-filled streets of post-apocalyptic Manhattan in search of powdered milk rumoured to be hidden in a nearby derelict bakery, nor is it her decision that the best way to do so is to leave via the front door (er, portcullis) with her given-to-squalling infant on her back, but her decision that the best time to do so is under the cover of broad daylight…