Friday, September 30, 2011

Random Film Review: The Velvet Vampire

Dir: Stephanie Rothman | 1971 | 80mins | USA

1971 was a good year for lesbian vampire films. Harry Kumel's sublime Daughters of Darkness, starring cult actress Delphine Seyrig (Pull my Daisy, Last Year at Marienbad) stood head and shoulders above the rest as a stylishly erotic take on the Elizabeth Bathory legend. Hammer films released Countess Dracula, also liberally based on Elizabeth Bathory, as well as Lust for a Vampire and Twins of Evil, both inspired by J. Sheridan Le Fanu's Camilla, a novella about a female vampire, published 25 years before Stoker's Dracula novel. Then there's Jess Franco's typically baffling and dreamlike Vampyros Lesbos, which needs no translation and was apparently inspired by the deleted first chapter of Stoker's Dracula, called Dracula's Guest.

Also dreamlike but not so much lesbian, though she swings both ways, is The Velvet Vampire, presumably also loosely based on Bathory and/or Camilla, in that it features a female vampire. Though low-budget and amateurish, its unique and unusual setting goes a long way. Much of the film takes place in the scorching heat of the Californian desert, creating a washed out and dreamlike ambiance (put a bed and a mirror in the desert and voilà, you've got instant Dali). Very much contemporary for its time, it features a cool yellow dune buggy, a groovy, atmospheric music score and a young, hip, free-spirited L.A. couple.

Lee and Susan Ritter meet glamorous but weird Diane LeFanu (gettit?) at an L.A. art gallery opening where within two minutes of talking they've accepted an invitation to stay at her desert villa for the weekend. Expecting a Palm Springs type get up, they're slightly disappointed to find Diane's place isolated in scrubland desert. Things don't improve when they're given a local sight-seeing tour of an abandoned mine (where Susan gets lost), a graveyard and an old western town (where bikini-clad Susan gets bitten by a snake on her thigh and has Diane suck the venom out). Amazingly, by this point Susan has actually settled in to things and quite likes the desert, whilst Lee, after sleeping with Diane, is keen to leave. Typical male. After having weird dreams (pictured, above) that seem to come true, and slowly piecing two and two together, the young couple work out that Diane is a vampire and try to get back to L.A. as soon as possible.

Like the film's unique setting, the sultry and alluring Diane is a unique vampire. She eats raw chicken liver and doesn't seem affected by the sun, so long as she wears her wide-brimmed black hat. Her reflection can be seen. And like Romero's Martin a few years later, Diane may not even technically be a vampire. Though in the end it's the crucifixes that get her.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sex, Drugs and Reiko Ike Roll

Reiko Ike (or Ike Reiko) was only seventeen when she released an album and starred in her first Japanese Pinky film. For most of the 1970s she was one of Japan's top sex stars but by the end of the decade her career was over; she was busted for drugs and gambling and never acted in a film after 1979. It seems her bad girl on screen persona had seeped into her real life.

Ike's cult following in the west has been growing in recent years, partly due to Pinky Violence films coming out on DVD and her album reissued on CD, and partly because she's virtually naked all the time, even on her record covers and especially when she's in a sword fight.

The immensely popular genre Pinky film flourished in 1970s Japan, just as Grindhouse movies did in the States at the same time. The two share a lot in common; both are low budget, exploitation films with oodles of sex, nudity and violence. Pinky films are distinguished – slightly – by being quite stylised and visually striking. And although they contained much nudity, due to strict Japanese censorship laws there wasn't allowed to be any penetration, genitals or pubic hair on view, leading some critics to applaud the films imaginative eroticism whilst seemingly overlooking the copious scenes of female rape and torture (the Japanese are a funny lot).

With the growing popularity of the films, the 1970s saw Pinky films with bigger budgets and even have studios such as Toei coin a sub-genre, called Pinky Violence. 1973's Sex and Fury (pictured above), directed by Noribumi Suzuki and starring Reiko Ike, is one of the most famous examples. A political revenge thriller set in turn of the (last) century Japan, it has Ike revenge the death of her detective father. Highlights include a bunch of switchblade-welding nuns on a train; a lesbian scene; the appearance of Christina Lindberg, apparently a well-known Swedish softcore actress; death by oral sex (don't ask) and best of all, Ike, naked (her bath had been rudely interrupted) with sword, massacring a gang of useless Yakuza, in the snow, in slow motion. Snow, blood, slow motion, female nudity: almost my recipe for the perfect scene, if it wasn't so ludicrous and self-conscious (and the sword fights aren't actually that good, and the acting, dreadful).

The whole film leaves a sour taste, really: it's all very well and good having a strong female lead in a film, but if said film is a softcore porno with torture, S&M and rape then it's slightly problematic. Anyway, for an exploitation film, it's visual flair can't be denied and presumably Quentin Tarentino studied the film frame by frame before making Kill Bill (and presumably Suzaki had watched Sergio Leone before making Sex and Fury).

It seems Reiko Ike has two types of fan: those who like her films and those who like her music (it goes without saying that all like her body). Her album Kokotsu no Sekai was released in 1971. Ostensibly a convention selection of standard cover versions, Ike transformed the record into a Serge Gainsbourg circa. Je t'aime... moi non plus (1969) and Histoire de Melody Nelson (released the same year as Kokotsu no Sekai) collection of erotic moans, groans, wails and shrieks, resulting in a classic of Japanese psychedelic porn music. If you don't believe me, read what Mutant Sounds has to say about it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

London through its charity shops #15: Battersea, SW11

I've covered part of Battersea before in my 'round Clapham Junction charity shop post (an area I would actually call Clapham Junction, though residents would no doubt prefer to call it Battersea). This is a quick post to cover Battersea Park Road, about a 10-15 walk from Clapham Junction.

There are three charity shops along Battersea Park Road, all pretty close to each other and near to Battersea Park. If you're in the area early Sunday afternoon, the Battersea car boot sale is on at 1:30pm in Battersea Park school and worth a rummage.

Oasis Wandsworth, at No. 547 Battersea Park Road, is huge, with an abundance of jigsaws, videos, CDs, records, books and clothes. In other words, it has everything one needs. However, it has been under investigation – the Wandsworth Guardian revealed it might not actually be a charity shop at all, but rather a for-profit organisation masquerading as one. Some doors along is Paws, a modest but quite interesting shop with friendly staff. On the other side of the road, near the crossroads with Battersea Bridge Road, is an average FARA, with an uninspiring selection of books, CDs and bric-a-brac, and quite a few boxes of records. I've never got anything there. The clothes section looks quite good though.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Notable Suicide Notes

George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak and inventor of roll film:
To my friends: My work is done. Why wait?

George Sanders, actor:
Dear World, I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool – good luck.

James Whale, film director:
The future is just old age and illness and pain... I must have peace and this is the only way.

Tony Hancock, comedian:
Things seemed to go wrong too many times.

Virginia Woolf, author:
I feel certain that I'm going mad again. I feel we can't go thru another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices.

The Invisible Man, scientist:

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Adventures of Antoine Doinel

From top to bottom: Love on the Run (L'amour en Fuite, 1979); Bed and Board (Domicile Conjugal, 1970); Stolen Kisses (Baisers Volés, 1968); Antoine and Colette (1962) and The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups, 1959). A great series of films, with Jean-Pierre Léaud as Truffaut's alter ego, constantly running and falling in love.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Random Film Review: I Hired a Contract Killer

Dir: Aki Kaurismaki | UK | 1990 | 79mins

London, England. 1990. The Conservative Party are still in power. Anti-Poll Tax riots spread throughout the country. The Docklands is being redeveloped. British film director Michael Powell dies. Somehow, these events all seem to inform Kaurismaki's low-key thriller I Hired a Contract Killer.

The film begins with lonely Frenchman Henri Boulanger being made redundant from his dull clerical job at Her Majesty's Waterworks: the company is being privatised and job cuts need to be made. Foreigners go first. Despairing, Boulanger tries to kill himself but fails. A newspaper article inspires him to hire a hit man on his own life. Then he falls in love with flower-seller Margaret (Margi Clarke, from Letter to Brezhnev) and has a change of heart.

As is usual for a Kaurismaki film, the plot is slight, the humour dark and the acting low-key. Boulonger is played deadpan by Jean-Pierre Léaud, an actor greatly admired by Kaurismaki. Darling of the French New Wave, Léaud's screen debut was Truffaut's Les Quatre Cents Coups (The Four Hundred Blows, 1959), aged fourteen. Léaud would go on to star in three more features (and a short) based on the same character, a series of films collectively called the Adventures of Antoine Doinel, spanning some twenty years of his actual life – a unique cinematic achievement. Léaud went on to work with such acclaimed directors as Godard, Rivette, Varda, Pasolini, Skolimowski and Bertolucci throughout the 60s and 70s; a veritable who's who of European arthouse filmmakers.

In I Hired a Contract Killer, Léaud fills the shoes of the – usually Finnish – Kaurismaki hero amiably, a typically marginal and alienated character in a dead-end job. Leaud's alienation isn't helped by his living in an alien city, London. Indeed, even native residents might not recognise their city, partly due to Kaurismaki's trademark film noir lighting and use of bold colours, but mainly because the city looks almost post-war with piles of rubble, empty shops and derelict buildings. Presumably filmed mostly around the Docklands of East London, it's the cranes dominating the skyline that give the game away: the film takes place during the massive redevelopment of the area. Stanley Kubrick had filmed Full Metal Jacket to replicate war-torn Vietnam in the same part of London several years previously. It's doubtful that many of the locations used in either film are still standing.

The sense of alienation is further enhanced by the soundtrack, consisting mainly of old American songs (including several by Billie Holiday) whose lyrics seem to echo the characters situations. Even a cameo by quintessential Londoner Joe Strummer, here performing a song in a pub, has lyrics full of American references, as well as a picture of Elvis hanging on the wall behind him.

Strummer's last film performance had been the previous year in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train, where he gets repeatedly called Elvis. Jarmusch and Kaurismaki have a lot in common: both make stylised yet low-key films with minimal dialogue, a dark sense of humour and eclectic use of music. Jarmusch himself has a cameo in Leningrad Cowboys Go America (his haircut alone must have got him the role) and in Night on Earth he uses regular Kaurismaki actors. Jarmusch's most recent film, The Limits of Control, has John Hurt's character reference a Finnish film based on the La Bohéme. It is of course Kaurismaki's La Vie de Bohème.

At almost two hours, I found The Limits of Control a struggle to sit through; the great thing about Kaurismaki's films is they're rarely over 80 minutes long.

Friday, September 23, 2011

'God was wrong!'

James Mason, playing a teacher addicted to cortisone, delivers one of cinema's greatest lines in Nic Ray's fascinating 1956 CinemaScope production, Bigger Than Life.

For the record, I wasn't the only one doing the ironing and watching it on Channel 4 last Friday afternoon. The best films are always on TV during the day.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The films of George Kuchar, 1942-2011

Color me lurid: a still from Kuchar's Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966), a film which struck a nerve in my early student film-making days

George Kuchar, along with his twin brother Mike, started making Super 8 films when they were twelve years old. By the time of George's death earlier this month (on the 6 September – the same day fellow experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson died… it sometimes happens like this: remember Antonioni and Bergman both dying on the same day in 2007?… as did Cocteau and Piaf in 1963), aged 69, he had made over two hundred shorts on Super 8, 16mm and, later, video. Low budget, melodramatic, lurid and camp, inspired by both Hollywood and B Movies, his films, along with the likes of Warhol, Brakage and Anger, defined the American underground cinema in the 1960s and for years to come, influencing the likes of David Lynch, Guy Maddin, Todd Solondz and John Waters, who has repeatedly called Kuchar his favourite filmmaker.

Though most of his short films weren't as homoerotically explicit as fellow gay filmmakers Jack Smith, whose Flaming Creatures caused a sensation in 1963, or Kenneth Anger, whose Scorpio Rising was likewise controversial for its time, a collaboration with his then-lover Curt McDowell resulted in Kuchar's (presumably) sole feature film credits: as actor and writer for the still-controversial McDowell-directed Thundercrack!, made in 1975. An almost three hour-long, black and white heady mix of Hollywood Gothic, comedy, hetero and gay hardcore porn featuring all manner of polymorphous perversities, it's as infamous today as it was then, with its hilarious, outrageously over the top dialogue and performances, in particular Marion Eaton as the melodramatic, crazy, cucumber loving and large eyebrow wearing madam of the house.

It takes as its premise the old dark house horror movie, with a group of young, good-looking strangers stranded together in a Gothic mansion during a thunderstorm. Being low budget, the mansion exterior is a painting; the interiors consist of a couple of sparse rooms. No matter; the lighting of the exteriors is pretty atmospheric, looking like a film noir. The interiors, more often than not, are bleached out and over-exposed, giving the raincoat brigade cause for frustration, perhaps, yet creating a unique look to the film. Mark Ellinger's silent movie-like piano score helps punctuate the relentless sex, sucking and masturbating which soon becomes as casual and natural as smoking a cigarette (or smoking a Sherlock Holmes-type meerschaum pipe, as one of the characters hilariously does).

George Kuchar shows up towards the end as a zookooper who's lost the love of his life... a female gorilla. With Kuchar donning a wedding dress, the pair are finally reunited and a happy ending is had by all.

As one of the comments on the YouTube Thundercrack! opening points out, Wikipedia's deadpan plot summary of the film is almost as funny as the film itself.

Along with Eraserhead, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Pink Flamingos, Thundercrack was a Scala cinema midnight favourite. The Horse Hospital had a special showing of the film on Tuesday night as part of the Scala Forever season.

Not be confused with: George Cukor, director of The Philadelphia Story, Adam's Rib and A Star is Born.
Or: Thundercrack, a little heard, unusual Bruce Springsteen song.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Scala Forever!
Double Bill Me

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Top 10 worst Owen Wilson films

I know, I know, all you girls love Owen Wilson with his cute, shaggy dog look. But ask yourself, has he ever been in a really good film? What do you mean you don't care? What do you mean he doesn't care either?

1. Marmaduke
2. Marley and Me
3. How Do You Know?
4. You, Me and Dupree
5. I Spy
6. The Haunting
7. Shanghai Noon
8. Drillbit Taylor
9. The Big Bounce
10. The Wedding Crashers

You know what #1? I haven't even heard of half of these films, let alone seen them. I think I've seen Marmaduke and Marley and Me – both dog films – and some people actually think these are good but in my humble opinion they are among the worst films ever made. You know what #2? I could probably do a top twenty he's been in that many bad films, but I can't be bothered. You know what #3? Tears of a clown and all that… depressed Wilson tried to kill himself in 2007; maybe he does care after all.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Safe as Castles

Stoke Newington's former Pumping Station, no
w a climbing centre

The Alhambra of Pumping Stations: Crossness

My boon companion and I walked along the Parkland Walk, the 4.5 mile path that follows the course of an abandoned railway track in North London. From Finsbury Park we found a canal to walk alongside (though actually a river called New River, though it's not new any more – it opened in 1613) where we didn't see a soul for at least an hour, rejoined the canal after crossing over Seven Sisters Road, then eventually stumbled across Stoke Newington's castle, pictured top.

From the grand Water Treatment buildings at Hampton to the opulent Pumping Stations at Abbey Mills in East London and Crossness in South East London (pictured above), both designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette and Charles Henry Driver, only the Victorians made their ancillary buildings like palaces and castles, and indeed many are now Grade I and II listed buildings.

The Victorians sure loved their bricks and took as much pride in their service buildings as their public ones, but they weren't built as mere follies. The River Thames was an open sewer in Victorian times, resulting in numerous outbreaks of cholera and culminating in The Great Stink of summer 1858, when sweltering London smelt very bad indeed and even affected the fine gentlemen in the Houses of Parliament, causing them to appoint Joseph Bazalgette chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works to commence work on the London sewerage system.

The sewerage system, along with its pump houses and treatment works, needed to symbolise strength, safety and health, so what better way than with these bold, beautiful buildings?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Open House: St Annes, Soho

The Artshed

The Wall of Light

Usually architecture is about big, bold statements but I love it when it's quite humble and well-intentioned, such as the case of the Artshed in the grounds of St Annes church, Soho. Part of a three-stage programme which also consisted of a fence and garden shed, it's amazing that such a seemingly small and modest idea has actually been so positive and achieved a lot of good.

I remember years ago passing that part of Dean Street and there always being homeless people, alcoholics and drug dealers. The church grounds were always littered with needles and cans. It was dark, dingy and a bit dodgy.

In 2006, along with the charity Soho Green, St Annes Church and the City of Westminster, The Architecture Ensemble were commissioned to transform the garden, a plague burial ground. The fence, known as the Wall of Light, is the most obvious change. By day the steel fence is a semi-transparent 'wave', allowing open views of the church and grounds. At night it is lit up with different light patterns, revealing a wall of light. This has instantly stopped most anti-social behaviour in the area.

The Artshed, which I'd never noticed before but was open to the public as part of last weekend's Open House, is actually a children's public toilet. Installed in 2007, the timber boat-shape building has objects and prints built into the walls, functioning as a mini-museum and art gallery to reveal some of the history of the area. Taking a child into an adult public toilet is a hazardous operation at best, so a toilet designed for children is a delightful idea; especially if said toilet is beautiful, relaxing and interesting.

The final stages of the project were the Gardener's Shed (2010) and Big Table (with chairs). Though we tend to think of Soho as consisting only of shops, bars and restaurants, it does have a surprising amount of residents, as well as a lot of social housing and quite a few schools and nurseries. St Annes regularly organises events for local children.

We stumbled across the Artshed quite by accident whilst trying to find shelter from the rain after seeing the Museum of Everything #4 at Selfridges (some people have had reservations about putting art by disabled people on display; personally I found the gallery shop a lot more exploitative than the exhibition). By chance, my daughter did actually need the toilet but was too shy to use the Artshed at first, what with the door being open and two men standing outside. Well, one of them was the architect, Steven Johnson, who we had a nice chat with (whilst daughter finally used the toilet).

The Architecture Ensemble

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Four of the best: Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. covers

"Okay, how many 20th century art movements can we put onto these covers? Surrealism? Check. Pop art? Check. Op art? Check. What about a bit of psychedelia too? Check. Okay, that'll do. Keep up the good work, Steranko."

Friday, September 16, 2011

Top 10 graphic novels

1. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Frank Miller, 1986)
2. Watchmen (Moore, Gibbons, 1986)
3. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth (Chris Ware, 2000)
4. Maus (Art Spiegelman, 1986)
5. Batman: Arkham Asylum (Morrison, McKean, 1989) / The Killing Joke (Moore, Bolland, 1988)
6. Palestine (Joe Sacco, 1996)
7. Black Hole (Charles Burns, 2005)
8. Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi, 2000)
9. Epileptic (David B, 2002)
10. Alice in Sunderland (Bryan Talbot, 2007)

As a kid I devoured comics; the Beano was my favourite but I read most British comics from the Dandy and the Topper to Buster and Whizzer & Chips (though I preferred the publishers DC Thomson to IPC). This was the 1970s and early 80s, when the term 'graphic novel' didn't exist; or if it did, it certainly wasn't mainstream. I used to read some American comics but was never that into superheroes, except maybe Batman (and Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew… but that's another story).

The graphic novel didn't become mainstream (ie marketable) until the mid-80s; indeed, three of my favourites – Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns and the first volume of Maus all came out in 1986. Ostensibly, a graphic novel can just be a collection of comics compiled into one volume but by the 1990s it was clear that comics were for kids but graphic novels were for adults, tackling adult themes such as war, sex, relationships and, well, anything at all really. However, as Wikipedia notes, a lot of comic books have been given the term graphic novel retrospectively to cash in on its popularity.

You may notice that all the graphic novels from my list come from the 1980s onwards. Yet my favourite comic book artists of all time don't feature at all. These would include Winsor McCay (Little Nemo in Slumberland), Will Eisner (The Spirit, A Contract with God; Eisner is often credited as the 'father of the graphic novel'), Robert Crumb, Hergé (Tintin), George Herriman (Krazy Kat) and Raymond Briggs (The Snowman, When the Wind Blows) – all of whom were drawing long before the 1980s graphic novel craze. Hence I wouldn't class their work as graphic novels, though perhaps they are (retrospectively… but at the time, they were comic strips in newspapers/children's books/comics). Of the younger generation of artists working today, Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes and Joe Sacco are among my favourites.

Poor film adaptations have put me off reading most graphic novels (if I haven't already read them) such as Like Hell, V for Vendetta, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, 30 Days of Night, 300, as well as the now never ending superhero franchises. The most successful adaptations, perhaps, are those which either disguise their source material entirely, such as A History of Violence and Road to Perdition, or draw attention to it, such as Sin City and Persepolis. So far, only Persepolis (the film) has made me want to read the graphic novel (which I am currently doing).

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Biggest box set ever due out soon

Music box sets have been getting more and more absurd in recent years, with Neil Young's 8 CD (and it's only volume one!) Archives set costing £99, coming out a few years ago, Pink Floyd's Discovery box set coming out later this month (16 CDs, £129.93) and the Quadrophenia box set coming out in November (£70.99; 'only' 5 discs). Other recent big box sets have included the Bob Dylan mono set (9 CDs, £45), the Beatles remastered box set (16 CDs, £157.97) and Apple records remastered box set (17 CDs, £99.99).

But nothing compares to the mammoth box set to be released in time for Christmas. Consisting of 18,470,283 CDs, 9 DVDs, 3 Blu-Rays, a limited edition vinyl 12" and a 48-page booklet, the set, simply titled 'Music', consists of every album ever produced on CD, ever, and will cost a whooping £9.5m, for which you also get a free, convenient warehouse (pictured) to store the music in. The CDs are helpfully stored in alphabetical order. Alternatively, you can download the collection for a 'mere' £5.5m (though you'll also need a warehouse for all the hard drives).

Whilst it is probably true that these aren't going to go flying off the shelves, for music fans rich enough to afford it, the box set is a dream come true, consisting of music from every genre and every band that's ever existed (assuming it's been issued on CD). 'Music' is the result of a unique joint venture between every record label in the world.

If money isn't the problem, time certainly will be. It is estimated that even if you play the CDs back to back, 24 hours a day, you will still need 1,674 years to play them all. Substantially less if you leave out Neil Young's output.

• Music is released on Nov 26.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bands named after actors

Dennis Hopper Choppers
Marilyn Manson
Rock of Travolta
Mr T Experience
The Real Tuesday Weld
The Wynona Riders
Gay for Johnny Depp
Orlando Boom
Jodie Foster's Army
Com Truise

Half of these names remind me of those pornos which take regular films and give them a porno twist (not that I've seen any of them), such as:

Star Whores
Forrest Hump
A Clockwork Orgy
The Da Vinci Load
The Hills Have Thighs
From Lust Till Dawn
Bareback Mountain
The XXXorcist
Edward Penishands
Butt Pirates of the Caribbean

Sort of. Maybe it's just me, but you could have Orlando Boom and Gay for Johnny Depp starring in Butt Pirates of the Caribbean. Say. Or Rock of Travolta starring in Saturday Night Beaver (I thought I just made this one up – but of course it's already an actual porno film, a tribute disco band, a women's night club and a hilarious and quirky birthday card, etc).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Notes on cycling

Just as old people suddenly start wearing clothes in hues of beige and pastels, and usually calm people turn crazy once behind a car wheel, so cyclists once on their bikes dress like utter prats and cycle like kamikaze pilots. Me, I feel positively under dressed in jeans and a shirt, and no crash helmet. Well, I have just quit smoking so I need some kind of suicidal tendency. But at least I obey the general rules of the road whilst on my bike. Such as stopping at red lights and providing hand signals. Which no other cyclists seem to do. Indeed many of them look as if they intentionally cycle in front of moving vehicles. Fancy being run over like that: looking like a prat.

A recent survey to determine whether the government's recent scheme on encouraging cycling had succeeded resulted in a big 'no'. It seems the general public still think of cyclists in terms of either obsessives or weirdos.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Random Film Review: The Bed

Dir: Derek Vanlint | UK | 1980 | 29mins

The Bed, made in 1980 but not released until 1982, is a low-budget short horror film made in England. I'm guessing, though I'm not sure, that it was made as a short for showing before the main feature in cinemas, something that used to happen in British cinemas up until the 1980s.

It starred my best friend at the time, Christian, and I was employed as a (uncredited) stunt double. I was paid £20 and could eat as much doughnuts and chocolate biscuits as I liked, which I certainly did. I think I was there more to keep Christian company than to be his stunt double but on the one bit of doubling I did do, lighting a match in a dark room, I distinctly remember burning my finger.

Though I wasn't allowed to watch the film once it was released (it was classified AA, which meant fourteen or over), I did see most of it being filmed, even the scary bits, and remember thinking it odd I couldn't watch the end result when I'd actually seen it being shot.

The film's director, Derek Vanlint, died last year. Previously to photographing and directing The Bed he was cinematographer for Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). After shooting Scott's moody masterpiece I would have expected Vanlint's CV to be full of high quality films he'd worked on – but it seems not. His only other role as cinematographer on a feature film was for Dragonslayer, two years after Alien. He worked a lot in commercials then his name crops up again for special effects on X-Men and as director and cinematography on horror film The Spreading Ground, starring Dennis Hopper (both 2000).

The Bed starts with Jamie as a young man looking round an old, deserted country house. Through flashback we see Jamie as a boy (played by Christian), scared out of his wits when his older sister and her boyfriend, left alone in the house to babysit Jamie for the evening, play cruel tricks on him. His sister makes believe she's been sucked under Jamie's bed by a monster and her boyfriend pretends he's been stabbed. Jamie has his revenge at the end when the couple, laughing at scaring Jamie half to death and frolicking on The Bed, are suffocated by its sheets and consumed by it. We come back to present day; Jamie looks at the empty room where the bed once stood then is called by someone outside: an ambulance driver beckons him down in a friendly voice. We assume it's Jamie's day out from the mental asylum. The final shot is of the lighter part of flooring where the bed once stood disappearing once Jamie has left the room.

For a low-budget (and very dated) short horror film, it has a surprising number of talented people working on it. Aside from Vanlint, the late Richard Bedford, who worked frequently with director Julian Temple, was the editor. The creepy, atmospheric electronic music is by John Foxx, former lead singer of Ultravox. He left Ultravox in 1979 to pursue a solo career, so The Bed must have been one of his first solo projects.

It was to be my first and last job as a stunt double. Over ten years after The Bed, Christian would act in and provide make up effects for my video Darker Than Night.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Crazy Richard and Jane

Richard Dadd's Sketch of an idea for Crazy Jane, 1855

Twickenham's stunning Orleans House currently has an excellent Richard Dadd exhibition. Dadd, who famously killed his dad and spent the rest of the life in the mental asylums Bethlem and Broadmoor, painted exquisitely-detailed watercolour paintings of Oriental and religious scenes, portraits and landscapes, fairies and other supernatural beings. Though not containing his most famous fairy painting (The Fairy Fellers' Master-Stroke, which can be seen at the Tate), it does have much of his other work, including sketchbooks and letters.

Orleans House also has a nice cafe in their converted horse stables, but Orleans park, opposite the gallery and over-looking the Thames, has better views and cheaper coffee in their cafe. Nearby are Marble Hill House and Ham House, but best of all is a stroll or cycle along the Thames towpath on a beautiful autumn Sunday afternoon.

The Richard Dadd exhibition runs until 2 October 2011.

Previously on Barnflakes:
Bedlam: The Art of Madness

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Top ten Paul McCartney albums

Isn't it strange how the best albums also have the best artwork? Ram's gatefold cover has photos by Linda and artwork* by Paul, including a 'hidden' message: L.I.L.Y., halfway down the cover on the right hand side, apparently meaning 'Linda I Love You'.

1. Ram (1971)
2. McCartney (1970)
3. Band on the Run (Wings, 1973)
4. Venus and Mars (Wings, 1975)
5. Tug of War (1982)
6. McCartney II (1980)
7. London Town (Wings, 1978)
8. Flaming Pie (1997)
9. Chaos and Creation in the Backyard (2005)
10. Give my Regards to Broad Street** (1984)

Also quite good is Memory Almost Full (2007) and Electric Arguments (2008), recorded under his moniker The Fireman. If you're not a big fan you could probably make do with a Greatest Hits... Wingspan (2001) does the job over two discs.

Whilst Paul McCartney/Wings LPs aren't worth much at all, his CDs, many of which are out of print, are now fetching quite a lot on eBay (by quite a lot I mean £15 at the most). Band on the Run, McCartney and McCartney II have recently been given the full re-issue treatment with single CDs, deluxe editions and completely over the top box sets.

*In stark contrast to his dreadful 'artwork' forty years later on the Live in Los Angeles CD (also known as Amoeba's Secret) giveaway with the Mail on Sunday. For once, the Mail were pretty diplomatic in their choice of words: 'The distinctive sleeve artwork has been designed by Paul'.

**Let me explain! It's good! I remember getting this on cassette when it came out; it was my first Beatles-related album. I have fond memories of it. I hadn't had it or heard it for years until last week when I got it on CD in a charity shop. I've been playing it loads. Come on, it's got sentimental value for me.

Related: Paul and Faul
We've all heard the clichéd conspiracy theories that dead rock stars such as Elvis and Jim Morrison are actually alive and well, but have you heard the one about the alive rock star who is actually dead? There are thousands of websites and forums stating Paul McCartney actually died in 1966 and a replacement, called Faul, has been his lookalike ever since. I'm all for conspiracy theories, but this one seems completely pointless.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Album cover of the week: On the Wires of Our Nerves

Believe it or not, it's meant to be quite a good album (Kraftwerk/Aphex Twinish). LP seen today in a charity shop (actually hanging on the wall!). £3 barngain.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Tedium is the Message

Cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan died in 1980 but his ideas live on, as does his cameo in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. Responsible for the popular expressions 'global village' and 'the medium is the message', he was also said to have predicted the world wide web (but then again so did Douglas Adams and Arthur C Clarke).

With technology moving so fast and now a central part of every aspect of our lives, 'the medium is the message' (and massage – McLuhan was fond of a pun or two) has become more relevant than ever. Essentially meaning that the content of the message is less important than the vessel in which it is expressed, this can be seen in new technology such as mobile phones, DVDs, iPads and the internet – more specifically new media sites like YouTube, Twitter* and Facebook, where bland pronouncements seem to be the order of the day. These sites are so restrictive** yet give the impression we're able to fully express ourselves and the world around us.

*Trey Pennington, 46, social media guru, shot himself in a church car park two days ago. He had six children and a great career in social media. He had 111,405 Twitter followers (though he was following almost as many, which surely can't be cool) and his last Tweet, hours before his death, was 'Sure am thankful for online friends who are real friends offline, too. Love you'†. In hindsight, this sounds a bit insincere. And gives no indication of how many of his online friends are actually real friends. In hindsight, presumably, none. Apparently Trey was depressed; his twenty-five year marriage was at an end. With all his virtual friends did he really have no one to turn to?

News of his death has spread around the web, with some sites saying Pennington 'died unexpectedly' (aren't most deaths unexpected?) and various virtual 'friends' of Trey's writing blogs about his suicide; one refers to it as an 'exit strategy', another adds 'Trey Pennington may have been depressed. Most suicidal people are.' Another blogger, shocked at the news, couldn't understand it: after all, 'Trey's online persona was amazing'.

†Dying people's last words are more likely to be spoken‡ (unless it's a suicide note) rather than written^ or typed but with people now communicating more via social network sites than in person, typing may well become more fashionable than speaking if people are going to be on their own with their phone, PC, laptop or tablet in their last moments.

‡Last week a woman died in a car accident whilst on a mobile phone. Her last words to her husband just seconds before the crash were, 'I think I've made a terrible mistake'. Which seems quite a surprisingly sensible, rational thing to say in the circumstances. In that situation my last words would be 'OOhhh ffffuuuuucccckkkk!!!'

^Trivia buffs may be interested to learn the last thing Walt Disney did before he died was write the words 'Kurt Russell'. Yes, that Kurt Russell from Big Trouble in Little China, who was a child star at the time, 1966.

**What is it with Facebook's 'Like' button? Like just seems such so bland, no committal (what's happened to love and hate?). Though it seems many people like it, including an Israeli couple who named their child 'Like' after it.

Monday, September 05, 2011

London through its charity shops #14: Dalston, E8

Once upon a time, not so long ago, well, 2009 to be exact, the Guardian called Dalston the coolest place to live in Britain. Hipsters, musicians and artists, attracted by the cheap rents and happening night life, had moved there from overpriced Shoreditch in droves, nestling quite happily with the predominately Turkish and Afro-Caribbean communities living there.

Since then, two things have happened: the East London extension line opened and the Olympics were suddenly less than a year away. Dalston's property prices boomed, in sharp contrast to housing in many other parts of the capital. And ubiquitous, hideous 'luxury' blocks of flats started popping up all over the area. Current Dalston looks like one big building site, with Barratt Homes erecting half a dozen unaffordable blocks, mostly to be bought by Asian and Middle East property investors to remain empty for years or rent out (in Barratt's prospectus there's a section for investors – how much return they'll get by renting out the flats; there's not even any pretence these are for first time buyers). Apparently 'breathing life back into the heart of Dalston' (according to their website) to me it seems to be doing the exact opposite.

A few years ago Dalston's famous circus building, along with fine Georgian houses, were demolished to make way for Dalston Square, Barratt's tower block development. The circus building saw many uses apart from a circus: it became a theatre, a cinema and finally a nightclub, playing host to Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley amongst many others. It would have been a listed and protected building if the council hadn't left it rot for years.

Still, let's look on the bright side*. There are still a few good charity shops here. The famous Oxfam at 514-518 Kingsland Road (formerly one of Dalston's dozen cinemas) is called either the best Oxfam in London, or the best in Britain. An 'Aladdin's Cave of bargains' is how one reviewer described it, and indeed it does seem to be both cheap and plentiful, as well as achingly hip, the shop has hosted music gigs and book fests. It also has two blogs – one by a DJ who uploads obscure cassette gems bought in the shop.

From Oxfam, heading towards Shoreditch, is a charity shop called Diamond Life. Small and cluttered but quite interesting. Further along is St Vincent. Spread over two shops, it's as large as Oxfam if not as interesting. A sign outside says 'Vintage and Retro department' but I'm not sure if it's ironic. Inside, clothes are well-arranged by colour. Records and CDs are plentiful, though the two CDs I was going to buy had the CDs missing from their cases. Books didn't seem to be very interesting. Some furniture too.

There used to be an Age Concern at 22 Dalston Lane but it seems to have closed down.

Read the Open Dalston blog for lots more information about the regeneration of Dalston.

Oxfam Dalston blogs: music and shop.

Finally, Everyone in Dalston is Weird.

*It's not all doom and gloom in Dalston – have a look at Fashion's Most Wanted post from last year (she starts by quoting the Guardian article in full; well, she's friends with the journalist, of course). This isn't the Dalston of crime, poverty and dodgy Turkish restaurants but of gorgeous Georgian and Victorian terraced houses, sun-drenched gardens, pubs and restaurants owned by friends, fishmongers, delis, florists and bookshops… she makes it sound more of a village than Wimbledon or Highgate village or even, you know, a proper village. Another post is all cycling round town in vintage bicycles, picnics, rooms with views, rocket salads, squirrels, rainbows, magnolias, bumping into friends constantly and dating 'The Actor'. (To be fair to her, she has lived in Dalston since 1997 and had her fair share of shit... she just seems to make her life sound like a Richard Curtis movie.)

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Walking in the rain

The clouds were so low over London today like a dark curtain, the only light a narrow strip along the horizon. The rain started light then gradually increased until the clouds were pouring with it. I stood out like a sore thumb wearing a bright raincoat and sensible mountain shoes (lucky I didn't wear my wellington boots). Except tourists, no one in London seems to take any notice of the rain. This is because it's only going to be a matter of seconds until they're inside a building, on a bus or the tube, and because raincoats and umbrellas are cumbersome and uncool. And whilst a few may at least don a jacket or light protection of some sort, we can presume it's the Aussies, Kiwis and South Africans still walking around in T-shirts, shorts and flip flops as it pours down. So it seems strange and unfair to me that I always feel and look wetter than anyone else. Maybe it's just a state of mind.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Chapman or Chapman

Photography isn't allowed in the exhibitions – I did take one but was shouted at for doing so. It wasn't any good anyway, so I've pinched this one.

It had been ages since I'd seen anyone famous – I sometimes wonder why I bother living in London at all. Today, though, I finally did see a celeb of sorts. Obscure? Check. Controversial? Check. Arty? Check. None other than Dinos Chapman, one half of the Chapman Brothers. Considering he looks like a generic middle-aged, shaven-headed Polish builder, it's a wonder I did spot him. It must have been the context: the White Cube gallery in Masons Yard, where he currently has an exhibition (I presume it's his, though the brothers refuse to say whose exhibition is whose).

Dinos (look at me on first name terms with him already) was showing some friends around his exhibition – a family with a couple of very young children. Was it appropriate to show them around a room full of mannequins of Nazi zombie soldiers, including some engaged in anal sex? Difficult to say; presumably the kids didn't understand it. Me, those Nazis are going to give me nightmares. (To be honest, I'm guilty of showing my daughter quite disturbing material – the other night it was Jan Svankmajer's Alice, which features quite scary animated skulls with bulging eyes scuttling around. Usually when I'm watching something violent or scary late at night, and for some reason she's woken up and come down to sit on the sofa for a while, I call it a 'blue towel' film. The first time this happened a few years ago – it was David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises – there was a blue towel lying around, so I draped it over a chair and put it in front of her so she couldn't see the TV screen. And hence the name 'blue towel' stuck. Unfortunately, she could still hear the film, so I had to cover her ears as well.)

Dinos' brother, Jake, has got his exhibition at the White Cube gallery in Hoxton Square. I'm not sure if it's the first time but it must be the first time in quite a while that they've put on solo shows, apparently without each other knowing what they've been working on. Either this is a lie or the brothers are remarkably in tune – there are similar elements in both exhibitions. Both are worth checking out and both seem the work of both brothers – as disturbing and offensive as ever.

Many find the Chapman Brothers arrogant dicks. I couldn't really say, perhaps they are, but I still like their art. It was whilst looking at the Nazi zombies that I thought they should make a horror film – and then vaguely remembered that they once had talked about making one. A quick Google reveals they were going to make a horror film – but don't seem to have mentioned it since 2005.

Their website has got some of their films, the most recent being a 2009 music video for PJ Harvey's song Black Hearted Love. Considering in a Guardian blog about the video they say they're 'breaking the rules of music videos' and call themselves 'super, super clever', the video is surprisingly conventional, almost cliched, consisting of PJ jumping up and down on a bouncy castle in slow-mo.

Perhaps part of the reason people call them arrogant dicks and almost as controversial as their artwork is their reputation for being difficult interviewees and making either pretentious or offensive comments. Lynn Barber claims she received a death threat from the brothers after interviewing them.

Only two more weeks before the exhibitions end.

Not to be confused with: the Mitchell brothers
Quite likely to be confused with: The Brothers Chaps