Crossing Europe (pt3) : No Frank In Lumberton, The Czech Dream, etc

2nd Crossing Europe Film Festival: Linz, Austria, 26th April – 1 May 2005
at Moviemento and City-Kino cinemas, and the KAPU music-venue
official site : www.crossingeurope.at

                                                        
PART THREE … Top Spot, No Frank In Lumberton, The Czech Dream and Edgar G Ulmer

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TOP SPOT : [5/10] : Tracey EMIN : UK 2004 : 62 mins

                The film is also [sic] Emin's poem to Margate, mixing DV footage and
                Super8 film into lyrical montage. The natural beauty of the sea and the sunsets
                is linked with Margate's more man-made pleasures, underscored with a
                selection of 1970s songs that formed the soundtrack to the artist's own
                adolescence. Shot last summer in Margate, London and Egypt, this is
                a personal history at its most adventurously cinematic. 
                                           (Crossing Europe film festival catalogue)
                                               
While most festivals try to 'bulk up' their schedules by including features of three or even four hours in duration – most of which are pretentiously overlong – the Crossing Europe event in Linz seems (commendably) to opt for the opposite end of the length-spectrum. Few of the features shown in the 2005 renewal scraped even the two-hour mark, and several clocked in at less than 70 minutes. Which is why it's appropriate that the  top prize went to Isild Le Besco's Demi-Tarif – shown first in its standard 63 minute format, then trimmed (on the director's request) to just below the hour for the 'repetition'.

At 62 minutes, Top Spot falls between the two versions of Demi-Tarif in terms of length. Both pictures are somewhat 'naive' in style, focus tightly on young people (children in Demi-Tarif, teenage girls in Top Spot), and are directorial debuts from women better known for other things: Le Besco as an actress, Emin as one of the UK's most famous and controversial modern artists. But while Le Besco's entry found strong favour with the Crossing Europe jury, Top Spot's reception was less enthusiastic: I attended the Sunday-morning screening with the posse from The Plague who, their ire undimmed by severe hangovers, railed against Emin's self-indulgence and incompetence.

They have a point – there's clearly an awful lot to dislike about the scrappy, often-tedious Top Spot – the title referring both to an actual Margate teenage disco visited by Emin in the late seventies, and to the coital moment when the man's penis makes contact with the base of the woman's womb. Emin largely dispenses with 'plot' – we follow a group of gossipy, somewhat old-looking teenagers as they wander around the town. At one stage, the girls are 'interviewed' individually and at some length by a schoolmistressy, unseen voice (provided by Emin).

We get glimpses into their private, emotional lives – which in some cases are severely dysfunctional. There's a messy discovery-of-suicide sequence which led to the film being rated 18 by the British Board of Film Classification – Emin's response was to withdraw the whole thing from circulation, which means that, with the exception of a couple of one-off sequences, the only UK screenings of Top Spot have been on the BBC or in art-galleries.

The latter environment is arguably Top Spot's natural home – many of the sequences in the collage have the feel of video-installation about them, and it doesn't take much imagination to imagine an Emin show with screens showing Top Spot on a continuous loop, or perhaps 'remixed' to emphasise particular elements at the artist's whim. Emin's detractors would, of course, argue that her whole output is a matter of whims and slapdash affectations – and Top Spot is unlikely to win her too many new fans, although it does seem to be extending her controversial 'fame' into new areas. For myself, I find it impossible to dissociate Emin from her art (no bad thing, that) – and while initially skeptical, I have found myself increasingly won over, the more of her I've seen.

Top Spot is pretty much pure, unmediated Emin – it's rare for any artist or film-maker to enjoy this degree of unfettered liberty. That means that there are rather too many dull spells in what often feels like a very long hour, one whose rhythms and pacing are annoyingly out-of-kilter: in the second half we seem to be reaching a climax, over and over again, only to continue for yet another scene. But once you adjust your expectations, and realise that this is an internal journey into Emin's memories and consciousness (as well as being an extension of her self-promulgating personal mythology), Top Spot begins, slowly, to yield rewards.

Every now and again she produces something skilful, memorable, funny and/or unexpected that keeps the viewer interested – as when, completely out of the blue, we follow one of the girls on a dreamy visit to Egypt. It takes some effort, but all of the fragments do coalesce into a kind of a whole. And there's a certain ramshackle lightness about the enterprise which, if taken in the right spirit, can be a little bit intoxicating and invigorating – like a blast of salty, smelly Margate seafront air.

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NO FRANK IN LUMBERTON (TV) : [8/10] : Peter BRAATZ : West Germany (W.Ger/USA) 1988* : 57 mins
               
                An experimental documentary shot on the sets of David Lynch's film Blue
                Velvet, ingeniously anticipating Velvet's present-day cult status. Perhaps
                the most unusual film-about-filmmaking, which instead of the usual
                behind-the-scenes facts, interviews and anecdotes offers a highly personal,
                fragmented and surrealistic account of the art and magic of movie making.
                                                                (Crossing Europe film festival catalogue)
               
BLOCK OF TEXT. NO FRANK LESS MAKING-OF THAN REACTION AND RESPONSE TO THE FILM. MAIN SURPRISE OF NIGHT: BLUE VELVET NOT A FILM WHICH BRAATZ PROFESSES TO LIKE. CAUTIOUS DIPLOMATIC COMMENTS AT SCREENING IN LINZ BETRAY HIS DISLIKE OF THE FILM, HOW IT WENT WRONG (KAEL "OUT THERE AND IN HERE" SEPTEMBER 22, 1986: HOOKED PAGE 202. SEE YOU AT DEAUVILLE CASINO, BOARDWALK APRIL 1987 HOT WEEKEND NIGHT). BACK THEN: Projects as " Ronnie Rocket " will not be born. But Dino de Laurentiis will give him its chance. With a reduced budget (5 million dollars) and a total artistic freedom, David Lynch will carry out Blue velvet, a thriller which will be turned in Wilmington in North Carolina. LYNCH IN LUMBERTON IN LYNCH. NO FRANK NO (BABY WANTS TO FUCK.) BRAATZ ON SET. GERMAN MID-20S DIRECTOR APPRENTICE, HE JOINS LYNCH ON SET IN CAROLINA.  NIGHTMARISH SOUND COLLAGE. OVERHEARD FRAGMENTS ADD UP TO SOMETHING MYSTERIOUSLY GREATER THAN CONSTITUENT PARTS. SECTIONS FROM INTERVIEWS JUMBLED. BAD MUSIC FROM BRAATZ, REPETITIOUS SUB-YANK-FOLK RANTING GIVE MISLEADING WRONG VERY BAD IMPRESSION IN EARLY STAGES. BETTER MUSIC FROM BADALAMENTI (PRE-DISASTROUS-TIM-BOOTH-CONNECTION). WHAT HAPPENED IN SOLINGEN? ROSSELLINI NIGHTCLUB SEQUENCE FROM DIVERSE ANGLES. BLUE LIGHT ON HER FACE. SUFFUSED. Summary of film: It is in the small town of Lumberton that Jeffrey discovers a cut ear in a waste ground while going to see his hospitalized father. Jeffrey decides to bring this ear to the inspector Williams… Her daughter meets Jeffrey one evening and says to him that this discovery has a possible relationship with the singer Dorothy Vallens… It is here that Jeffrey will discover the hidden face of the city. NO FRANK MADE FOR GERMAN TV : NEXT, BRAATZ (AKA HARRY RAG, 1977- SINGER/SONGWRITER IN GERMAN "PUNK" BAND S.Y.P.H..) UNSEEN OVERWEIGHT GERMAN DIRECTOR, YEARS LATER WILL: WORK AS SECOND UNIT DIRECTOR OF WINGS OF DESIRE AKA HEAVEN OVER BERLIN, MARRY MAJA WEISS, RECEIVE TRIBUTE RETROSPECTIVE FROM CROSSING EUROPE, TURN UP TO SCREENING OF NO FRANK IN LUMBERTON WEARING STRANGE OSSI-STYLE BLUE HEAVY CHECK TWEEDY BLUE JACKET (SUFFUSED IN BLUE LIGHT, CAN'T SING), UNSUITABLE FOR WARM LINZ. PERSPIRATION ON FACE AS NEIL YOUNG CONDUCTS HURRIED Q+A, SO AUDIENCE CAN ATTEND BRAATZ PROGRAMME IN NEXT THEATRE. KAEL: "THE MUSIC SWELLS TO DO JUSTICE TO THEIR FEELINGS". FRANK TO JEFFREY : "YOURE SO FUCKIN LUCKY TO BE ALIVE." 20 YEARS BACK THIS IS Lynch: " an old phantasm attacked me for a long time, says it. I always dreamed to slip to me into the room of a girl to watch for her in secrecy all the night ". This film introduces to us Kyle Mac Lachlan (future Dale Cooper) who interprets Jefrrey Beaumont… This one is going to see his father who had a heart failure, and he finds in his path an ear! After having carried it to the police, he will meet the daughter of the inspector, and with her, he will discover the hidden face of Lumberton: sex, drug. Dennis Hopper incarnes here a gangster who represents violence in a pure state, who will involve Jeffrey in many tours. MAKING-OF DOCUMENTARY RESULTS. FRACTURED SCRAMBLE OF LYNCH BRAIN. INSIDER DEAL. SECOND REAGAN TERM 1985-86, LYNCH YOUTHFUL IN BLUE OR BLACK MA1 USAF PILOT JACKET (REPUBLIKANER). TO WATCH FOR HER IN SECRECY ALL THE NIGHT. TOO WARM FOR MA1 IN WILMINGTON SUMMER HEAT? WHITE SHIRT AND TIE. OLD J-STEWART ON MARS QUOTE RISES, IS REPRESSED. AN EXPERIMENT IN TERROR – BLAKE EDWARDS PROVIDES THE UNSPOKEN TEMPLATE. LYNCH SMILES CONFIDENT/NERVOUS ALONGSIDE THEN-SQUEEZE ROSSELLINI FOR PHOTOSHOOT. PEAK OF POWERS / REACHING HIS SUMMIT. TEASING GLIMPSES OF HOPPER, DOURIF, (STOCKWELL CONSPIC. BY ABSENCE). TEASING: SOUND AND IMAGE SELDOM COINCIDE. LAST DAYS OF WEST GERMANY, BUT WHO KNEW? POETIC INSPIRATIONS FROM UNLIKELY SOURCES. A LUCKY STRIKE FOR HARRY RAG. LAURA DERN WILL RETURN IN INLAND EMPIRE ALL CAPS. David Lynch will find in his team the head operator Fred Elmes and the person in charge of the sound effects Alan Splet who have both worked with him since Eraserhead. After this film, Angelo Badalamenti will follow Lynch in all his works to create an original tape which always tallies with films of Lynch. Summary of film: It is in the small town of Lumberton that Jeffrey discovers a cut ear in a waste ground while going to see his hospitalized father. LYNCH'S BLAZING CHARISMA – ACTING ABILITY SO RARELY TAPPED (GORDON COLE IN TWIN PEAKS). WILMINGTON = LUMBERTON. LYNCH LARGELY SILENT, HIS PRESENCE SUFFUSES THE SET. POST-DUNE, NOTHING TO LOSE FOR THIS DIRECTOR WHO WILL LATER ANNOUNCE NEW PROJECT AS "INLAND EMPIRE" FORSAKING FILM. NO FRANK IN LUMBERTON SHOT ON 8MM PERHAPS 16MM, SMALL HANDHELD CAMERA HELD BY YOUNG OVERWEIGHT (?) NOSEY YOUNG GERMAN DIRECTOR. BORN 1959 SOLINGEN. SET-ACCESS GRANTED. RESULT WOULD MAKE IDEAL COMPANION TO BLUE VELVET DVD BUT IS HAS BEEN "SUPPRESSED"(DOWN, PUSH IT DOWN). WHO AND WHO BY AND HOW? LYNCH ALWAYS THEN AS NOW OLDER THAN HE LOOKS. STUMBLING ACROSS AND INTO THE DARK AMERICAN GRAIN. INNOCENCE LOST AND REGAINED (OR NEVER LOST IN FIRST PLACE, MISPLACED) IN LUMBERTON. NO PETER / NO DAVID IN. JEAN MARAIS WAKES IN DUSTY WASTELAND ON MIRROR, JEFFREY WAKES IN DUSTY WASTELAND ON DUSTY WASTELAND FLOOR. SHOCK CUTS OF FRANK'S FIST IN FACE. Jeffrey decides to bring this ear to the inspector Williams… Her daughter meets Jeffrey one evening and says to him that this discovery has a possible relationship with the singer Dorothy Vallens… It is here that Jeffrey will discover the hidden face of the city. THIS WOUND WILL (NEVER) HEAL. LATER, LEAVING LINZ SCREENING IMPRESSED/BEWILDERED, FORGET TO SAY "MAYBE I'M SICK BUT I WANT TO SEE THAT AGAIN". SEX, DRUG. AN EXPERIMENT IN

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THE CZECH DREAM : [7/10] : Cesky Sen aka Czech Dream : Filip REMUNDA & Vit KLUSAK : Czech Republic 2004 : 87 mins

                An original, cheeky treatise on capitalism, with more than a whiff of
                exploitation, Czech Dream follows two film students who used a state grant
                to promote the opening of an entirely fictitious big-box mega-market in
                a Prague field. The resulting scandal, alternately hilarious and
                discomfiting, illuminates the waking nightmare of consumerism in a
                country still adjusting to the strengths and pitfalls of the concept.
                                (Eddie Cockrell, Crossing Europe film festival catalogue**)

While seemingly gentle, the Czech sense of humour has long been renowned for its biting sarcasm, skeptical cynicism and deadpan satire. Combine this with the country's fine tradition of reportage-style documentaries, plus its current status as the EU's most enthusiastic per capita nation of hypermarket shoppers, and you get Czech Dream. The film is named after a new retail emporium on Prague's outskirts, the focus of an expensive, all-pervasive ad-campaign. But it's all a stunt, masterminded by a couple of audacious film-students (Klusak and Remunda) – are they simply laying bare Czech gullibility? And/or diagnosing the pervasive power of the ad industry? Or are there wider targets in their sights?

The 'project' coincide with the Czech Republic's entry to the EU, and it isn't long before parallels are drawn by the public, press and politicians of all party-preferences. K&R wisely avoid being drawn into the debate: their 'hypermarket' may be light on tangible produce, but there's no shortage of food-for-thought. The taste isn't always entirely palatable, however – we see several elderly/infirm folk hobbling along in vain bargain-hunt. K&R's attitude towards their "subjects" will undoubtedly trouble some viewers – one of the "dupes" (a hefty, articulate young fisherman) reckons the film-makers are treating the public in the same way as the Richard Attenborough present wildlife.

But the key is provided when a young shopper and her daughter, whose interests include folk-singing, are persuaded to warble a stirring (English-language) anthem. As orchestral accompaniment swells on the soundtrack, the effect is oddly moving: it's clear that for K&R, the line between lampoon and celebration is a very thin one.

While the majority of the "prankees" appreciate the gag,  there's surprisingly visceral tension when our brassnecked heroes are surrounded by severely disgruntled not-so-happy "shoppers" – their ire stoked when they find out that government grant funded the whole affair. The state did get its money's worth, though: economic and amusing, Czech Dream is also educational. Like their trans-Atlantic cousins The Yes Men, K&R want us to question anything and everything we're offered, be it Communism, capitalism, the EU… or a cut-price microwave.

14th June, 2005 (written for Tribune magazine)

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EDGAR G ULMER – THE MAN OFF-SCREEN : [6/10] : Edgar G Ulmer – Der Man i’m Off :
Michael PALM : Austria (Aus/USA) 2004 : 77 mins

                This documentary about the "King of B-Movies" examines how, even after
                his death in 1972, Ulmer's work lives on today: in the archives, in the
                memories of contemporary witnesses and of his daughters, in the admiration
                of his fans and in the spirit of low-budget filmmaking. "Nobody has ever made
                good pictures faster or for less money than Edgar Ulmer", says Peter
                Bogdanovich.
                                               
(Crossing Europe film festival catalogue)

Though serviceable as an introduction to the life and career of 'b-movie king' Edgar G Ulmer, Palm's documentary The Man Off-Screen proves all too accurately-titled: by the end, Ulmer remains a defiantly elusive figure, about whom the audience isn't really very much the wiser than at the start. Ulmer himself often deployed mist as a background to avoid building expensive sets – so in a way it's fitting that he should remain in the shadows. Despite numerous drawbacks and limitations, The Man Off-Screen is entertaining enough to make a viable scheduling option for any festival programming an Ulmer retrospective – although not substantial enough to gain even arthouse distribution.

This is one of those rare pictures which could perhaps have been a little longer – but the real problem isn't one of length but of emphasis: Palm includes lengthy sequences featuring the likes of Wim Wenders, John Landis and Joe Dante chatting (engagingly) about Ulmer, whereas what we really need is solid facts. These aren't easy to come by, of course: when talking about his early years in Europe, Ulmer constantly 'embroidered' his recollections – he claims to have worked with Lang, (Billy) Wilder, Lubitsch, Murnau and Wiene – to the extent that he seems to have been a (or perhaps even the) pivotal figure in German cinema of the late teens and early 20s.

Documentary proof of Ulmer's exploits is thin on the ground, and as The Man Off-Screen continues Ulmer increasingly emerges as a genial fabulist, spinning tales for the benefit of Hollywood acolytes such as Peter Bogdanovich. Palm structures his film in orthodox, chaptered fashion: a brief introduction telling us who Ulmer was and why he's worthy of attention, followed by a chronological survey of his career, interspersed with talking-head testimony from collaborators, admirers and family-members, and wrapped up with a pat "we'll never know the truth" conclusion.

Palm's main creative contribution is to stage some of the interviews on a studio set, with the interviewee sitting in a car "on-set" – he then films them from the front, with back-projection making it appear – in true b-movie fashion – that the car is travelling through the countryside. It's a somewhat cumbersome, tricksy gimmick, but it pays dividends – not least because one of the talking heads is none other than Detour's unforgettably tough leading-lady Ann Savage, now a relatively sweet-looking oldster.

But having gone to the trouble of tracking Savage down and persuading her to appear, Palm frustratingly restricts her screen-time to a mere handful of minutes. Veteran character-actor heavy John Saxon fares a little better – he worked with Ulmer on the director's ill-fated final project, and contributes some decidedly unflattering recollections of 'the great man'.

Elsewhere, however, the tone veers towards the hagiographic – not that Ulmer doesn't necessarily deserve such a treatment, as the clips from his two most famous pictures, Detour and The Black Cat, amply prove. But Palm clearly got his hand on a budget far in excess of any Ulmer picture – and you do wonder what marvels Ulmer himself might have wrought given the kind of cash and (relative) artistic freedom enjoyed by his young Austrian disciple.
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Neil Young
above reviews 14th-19th June, 2005

(all seen at City-Kino: Top Spot and No Frank In Lumberton April 30th; The Czech Dream and Edgar G Ulmer May 1st)

click here for reviews part one (Aaltra, Days and Hours, etc)

* year of production given as '1985-88' in Crossing Europe catalogue. Peter Braatz is also known as 'Harry Rag'.
** no citation is given in the catalogue, but I'm presuming this is taken from Cockrell's review of the film in Variety magazine.

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ORIGINAL SHORT-FORM REVIEWS WRITTEN AND POSTED HERE 8TH MAY …

Top Spot : Unorthodox big-screen debut from scandal-stoking artist Emin would be better suited to gallery exposure than cinematic release to a paying public. Impressionistic collage of life in Margate, seen through the eyes of dissatisfied teenage schoolgirls – with some head-scratching (fantasy?) detours to Egypt. Maddening, ramshackle and often tedious, but undeniably different from the normal run of tame Brit pics.

No Frank in Lumberton : The making of Blue Velvet, except nothing like any other 'making of' before or since. Suitably bizarre kaleidoscope of sounds and images, shot on and around the set using an 8mm camera and non-synch cassette-tape sound. Nightmarish and boldly audacious, a fine companion-piece to Lynch's groundbreaking classic – with the man himself an endlessly enthralling screen-presence. Why isn't this film better known? And why isn't it on the Blue Velvet DVD?

The Czech Dream : Entertaining, thought-provoking docu in the vein of The Yes Men, in which the directors prank the Czech public into attending the opening of a nonexistent hypermarket. Amiably roughedged, nimbly-edited, skilfully-scored, DV-shot expose of the advertising business's nefarious methods, and a timely political statement as Czechs join the EU with mixed levels of enthusiasm.

Edgar G Ulmer – The Man Off-Screen : Intriguing subject gets only slightly disappointing in this would-be quirky docu on the legendary "king of the B movies". Despite an array of surviving collaborators (including Detour's Ann Savage!), celebrity fans (John Landis, Wim Wenders, Joe Dante) and experts chipping in their two-penn'orth, Ulmer by the end remains a mysterious, fog-enshrouded figure – still, indeed, the man off screen.