Richard Linklater, 1991

The Oxford definition of a Slacker reads: a young person (especially in the 1990s) of a subculture characterized by apathy and aimlessness. Whereas previous generations had chosen to express their dissent from the attitudes and beliefs of their parents by becoming increasingly radicalised and vocal, Generation X took the wholly different approach of manifesting their disillusionment not by trying to change the system, but by simply refusing to be part of it. Cultural phenomenon’s such as Beavis and Butthead, Nirvana and filmmakers such as Kevin Smith would serve as the spokespeople of this generation, the defining work of this period was to be supplied by Richard Linklater though in the form of Slacker.
Richard Linklater’s second feature after the largely unseen 1988 film It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (an extra on the Criterion version of Slacker) is an episodic look at the lives of the youth inhabiting Austin, Texas. The format of the film sees the camera fluidly following one set of people whilst they talk, before another set of characters pass and we begin to follow them and their discussion instead. The conversations themselves are the focus of the film, their subject matter varies but they accurately display the slacker ethos,
 characters discuss philosophy, conspiracy theories and authors such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy displaying both their education and intelligence. However, whenever the question of what they’re doing with their lives is raised they all respond similarly, stating they are currently unemployed and listing their interests as activities such as sleeping and watching television. The high brow conversations they hold are contrasted with their total lack of motivation, they have all the knowledge and intelligence necessary to succeed, they just don’t want to. Their viewpoint can be seen as a result of many of the events they discuss as having witnessed in real life or the news- car accidents, assassinations, a man being shot by the police, all traumatic events whose occurrence they could never anticipate or prevent regardless of what choices in life they make.

The film doesn’t shy away from questioning the attitudes of it’s inhabitants, in one particular scene there is discussion on the merits of travelling abroad with the decision reached that there is no point as you ‘might as well have watched it on TV’. Shortly after this conclusion is reached, a pair of older characters cross paths with them and the camera suddenly switches to follow them. Although the viewer enters their conversation halfway through the aged woman is describing a scene abroad so vividly that she could only have witnessed it first hand, purposely contrasting the two of them could only be to show that real life experience is still more significant and worthwhile than the youth of Austin would believe. Although Linklater’s preoccupation with slacker culture in both this and his later film Dazed and Confused would suggest he agrees with their worldview (he even cameos as one of the lost youths of the film in the films opening scene) moments such as this make you question whether he does truly agree or just fascinated with this culture of apathy.

The film acts as the 90’s equivalent of a Godard film with it’s experimental use of tracking shots and meandering coffee shop conversations, it could also be closely compared to the films of Woody Allen in this with it’s discussions of the meanings of love, life and death. Along with the films such as Sex, Lies and Videotape this was one of the films that set in motion the chain of events that would lead to the revival of independent cinema in the 90’s and see filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino become the most prominent directors of the decade. As with Josh Harris of We Live in Public fame, it also foresees the ever growing dependence of society on living lives virtually, wanting to live their lives via a television set in the same way people have chosen to exist through the internet who’s rise would begin at this time. Although the lesser known of the two, it is a great counterpart to Dazed and Confused and definitely worth much wider attention.

words by pete bond.

Straight to Hell

Alex Cox, 1987

A year after The Clash announced an indefinite hiatus, singer/guitarist Joe Strummer made an attempt to redefine his career, and cross over into the world of acting, starring in Alex Cox’s third feature length movie after the critically acclaimed Sid and Nancy. The film centres around three hit men, who, after an erroneous job, hold up a bank, then seek refuge in a small Mexican village, populated by coffee-addicted psychopaths. The film was a by product of a failed Nicaraguan concert tour, which after being cancelled left a multitude of musicians out of work for a short amount of time. In place of this, Cox assembled a hurried script, a disused location in Almería, Spain, with four weeks of shooting, the purpose being to cast the artists in a low-budget homage to his favourite genre; the Western.

In turn, Straight to Hell transpires to be a movie of two very different aspects, the first being the direction and cinematography, which, in keeping with Cox’s previous work such as Repo Man, is highly idiosyncratic, reflecting the ethos and influence of the late 70's/early 80's punk movement. Cox merges this with further influence from directors such as Luis Buñuel, Akira Kurosawa, and most notably Sergio Leone; in fact, in one scene there is a clear homage to Once Upon a Time in the West, as a wheezing harmonica plays during a standoff, echoing Ennio Morricone's haunting score. The second aspect of the movie is what proves to be its downfall, as Cox’s use of non-actors and poor scripting override any degree of positivity the movie might have. This really is a case of style over substance, and Cox’s off-beat direction, is let down by terrible dialogue and irritating characters, one example of which being Courtney Love's character ‘Velma’, a heavily pregnant, underage love-interest of Sy Richardson's ‘Norwood’, who screeches her way through the script, mimicking Cloe Webb's character in Sid and Nancy. Her performance is excruciating to watch, think ‘DJ Ruby Rhod’ in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. However Richardson’s performance as Norwood is the exception of the piece, as his righteous persona and sharp style brings to mind Samuel L. Jackson's role as ‘Jules Winnfield’ in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, predating it by seven years.

Straight to Hell could be labelled a surrealist or absurdist comedy, constantly using non-sequiturs, with statements and events having no relation to previous ones, which gives the movie an unpredictable quality, for example, in one scene, Sy Richardson’s character dons a pink shower cap in the build up to a duel, for no apparent reason. Other humorous aspects of the movie appear in bad taste, almost becoming dark and sadistic in their use, such as the abuse and eventual death of a young hot dog vendor, and the shooting of his dog earlier in the film. Whereas in other directors hands, this use of ludicrous and bizarre humour could be used to their advantage (for example Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) Cox’s twist of preconceptions comes across as unoriginal and non-intelligent. 

The movie itself seems to exist purely on the basis to exploit the audience, capitalizing on the cult devotees that follow the artists in the film, such as Elvis Costello, The Pogues and even Strummer himself being the main attraction, the title of the movie being named after his 1982 single, from the album Combat Rock. Beyond the amateur performances weighing Straight To Hell down, there is a decent movie trying to get out. Cox obviously has a good artistic scope, and a range of respectable influence, borrowing styles from the likes of John Ford, shooting on location, and using wide shots of desolate terrain, composing asymmetrical frames and using the depth of field to his advantage, with the placement of characters and objects contributing to the impression of the depth. His mix of striking and ludicrous imagery is strangely reminiscent of the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, such as El Topo or The Holy Mountain.

Alex Cox released his next movie Walker in December 1987. The film was a commercial failure, ending all involvements with Hollywood Studios, and effectively blacklisting him. With no work left for him in feature films, Cox next found work 5 years later with Mexican crime-drama EL Patrullero. In 1996, Cox was employed by producer Stephen Nemeth to write and direct an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his first creditable project in over nine years, but after creative disputes with not only Nemeth but Thompson himself, he was kicked out of production (the film later being taken over by Terry Gilliam). Cox self proclaims himself to be a ‘cult director’ and a ‘radical filmmaker’, in fact the only true cult movie he has produced is Repo Man, which is retains popularity with film lovers because of its originality and ability to distance itself from standard conventions, unlike Straight to Hell, who’s cult appeal appears preconceived, as to appeal to fans of the musicians involved.

The Clash sang in 1980 “Death or glory, becomes just another story”. While there is death and bullets, Straight to Hell lacks any glory, and is easily forgotten in the pantheon of great Westerns, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and The Wild Bunch.
words by danny walker.

Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg, 1991

The adaptation of books to film is as old as cinema itself, stretching as far back as the early experiments of pioneers such as George Méliès, who would make his own filmic versions of novels such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and fairy tales such as Cinderella over a hundred years ago. Primarily the purpose of the adaptation is simply to transpose the descriptions of events, character and dialogue from the page and onto the screen changing as little as possible so as not upset your core audience (those who have read the novel). However, this approach is dependent on the source text possessing a linear narrative. When the author has taken a more post-modern approach, the director must employ other techniques to ensure the creation of a successful film. Naked Lunch is one such example of this. 

The film is based on William Burroughs novel of the same name, a novel which ignores a traditional approach to story telling in favour of employing each chapter to act as a short story, these chapters are united by nothing more than the occasional recurring characters and a series of common themes and concerns (primarily drug addiction and homosexuality). Juxtaposed together these chapters can be seen to be doing more than simply telling the tale of a characters passage through a fictional world, but as attempting to create a fuller picture of the nightmarish world that Burrough’s characters are inhabiting.

Films rarely succeed however when they completely break free of the confines of an act structure, although many books can be described as ‘plot less’ there are few examples of films that have faced commercial or critical success when there is no forward narrative present (Last Year in Marienbad being the only exception that comes to mind). Cronenberg therefore takes certain elements from the book, such as the alien like ‘Mugwumps’ that produce their own highly addictive secretions, and the ‘black meat’( used metaphorically to represent methadone) along with various characters such as Doctor Benway (Roy Scheider) and places them around the story of William Lee (Peter Weller). William Lee was Burrough’s pen name on his first novel Junky and the story draws largely on biographical material from Burrough’s own life. Like his fictional alter ego Burroughs worked as a bug exterminator in New York, he accidentally shot his wife Joan (played in the film by Judy Davis) through the head during a drunken game of ‘William-tell’ and would later retire to the ‘International zone’ (or Interzone) of Tangier where he would send correspondence to his friend Allen Ginsberg that would later be placed together and form Naked Lunch. The more surreal elements of the book are attributed in the film to Lee’s drug addiction, firstly to ‘bug powder’ and then the substitute ‘ the black meat’ (Burroughs was an opiate addict for most of his life). The more surreal elements of the plot are treated as hallucinations, which he then chronicles to form his book.

This approach works well to give Burrough’s text a form and structure necessary for the screen, it is not a betrayal of the novels experimental approach in that by putting on display the creative process used to forge the original source material, is post-modern and experimental itself. In the 90’s many films would see release that worked on a similar level, from the same year as Naked Lunch there is for example Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka, focusing on another author living through the experiences that would become his fiction. Later in the decade there would also be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which also dealt with the influence of hard drugs on the authors writing style. Fellini’s 8 ½ can be seen as the only film to precede it in creating a work of fiction centred around the work’s conception, a source which Naked Lunch surely must have drawn upon (indeed it‘s eccentric cast of characters feel like a more downbeat version of Fellini‘s own).
Burroughs had always hoped to bring Naked Lunch to the screen, and had made forays into film himself shortly following the books publication. Working with Anthony Balch on such short films as The Cut Ups in 1966, he attempted to apply techniques he had perfected in the literary world to the screen (in this example, his cut up technique). Working closely together with Cronenberg, Burroughs manages to translate his world onto the screen successfully, whilst Cronenberg is allowed to further build on themes touched upon his other works. There is his usual use of body horror and the dangers of scientific experimentation, but primarily it can be seen as treating literature in the same way television was portrayed in Videodrome, like a drug for both those who create and consume it.

words by pete bond.

Two Lane Blacktop

Monte Hellman, 1971

It’s 1971, a year or so after Easy Rider was released and a turning point in American history.  A new decade, in which the youth of America were becoming more and more disillusioned. The hippie dream was collapsing, the Nixon years were ahead, and Two-Lane Blacktop was dropped into theaters.  Originally meant to capitalize on the success of Easy Rider, the two films do share similarities.  Both follow two men on the road through America, and both are very bleak in their portrayal of that America.

Easy Rider was, however, more overtly political, with its allegorical allusions to ‘Nam and was born, to some extent, out of the sensationalist Roger Corman AIP biker movies,  which were exploitative flicks to pull the youth audience in.  Although Blacktop was marketed in that same excessive style, the trailer exclaiming “The far-out world of the high speed scene!” it seems more limited in its appeal, with its lack of violence and sex.  The film certainly begins like this, kick starting with a high speed drag race at night, broken up by police sirens and within the first 5 minutes, a disregard for society & the law is established.

While this disregard for authority is common in the exploitation genre, it was a general feeling with the counterculture of the sixties, but the seventies replaced the activism with an antipathy, a sense of futility, people had burnt-out, culminating in the events at Altamont freeway and captured in the books by Hunter S. Thompson (notably Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).  Blacktop is very much a product of this era, in terms of capturing the zeitgeist, but also as a historical document.  The film transports the viewer to that specific time and place, the roads of America before the inter-state highway was built, the snippets of background music, the out of the way roadside cafes and bars and the cars.  But it also has a timelessness, which is part of what makes it a cult classic.

In terms of style, the film draws upon the New Hollywood, as well as a European influence, with stark cinematography and lack of conventional narrative.  In fact, there is a distinct lack of anything in the film and events feel totally arbitrary, for example, after fleeing the aforementioned scene, the two men, known only as the Driver & the Mechanic - played by singer-songwriter James Taylor and Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson (in his only acting role), respectively - drift across the highways and route 66.  After stopping off a bar, the two men return to find a girl (again known only as the Girl, played by waif-like Laurie Bird) in their car.  They drive off without asking any questions.  The film doesn’t offer any explanations either for why the girl gets in the car or where the two men are from, they are just there. They just exist, and for no real purpose.  This nihilistic attitude could be seen as reflective of the times, or a deeper existential crisis inherent in the road movie.  The road represents freedom from the restrictions of society, a place for outsiders to roam or to search for something, but it is also a trapping as what happens when the end of the road is reached?  It is probably fitting (although tragic) that Laurie Bird, who appeared in only 3 films, committed suicide at the age of 25.

All the characters in Blacktop are outsiders, perpetually journeying and driving, running on empty with no real goal. The film drifts as the characters do, with its lack of narrative, structure and unresolved events.  All this futility and meaningless is best seen in James Taylor’s constant stony expression and cold eyes as well as the final scene, which again is reminiscent of Easy Rider.  The last frame is definitely iconic and telling enough that it sticks in the mind and draws this nihilistic feeling together, without resolving anything.

Another character the two men come across is known as G.T.O. due to the car he drives.  Played by Warren Oates, he is by far the most entertaining character in the film, picking up hitchhikers - such as Harry Dean Stanton in an early appearance as a gay cowboy - in his flashy yellow car. He is talkative, constantly telling amusing, fabricated stories about himself and is definitely a contrast with the other two men, who barely talk to one another.  They can only communicate through the car, the 55 Chevy. There is an obsession with cars, the talking about cars, almost a fetishization of cars, or to coin a term, ‘motorsploitation’ and where the film lacks dialogue, it is usually replaced with the sound of roaring car engines.  There is also a homosocial bonding over cars, especially between the Driver and the Mechanic.  This is until the Girl comes between this, but the only way the Driver can express his feelings toward her is through the car (not so much in the penis substitute way, but rather, he and car are linked, are one).  The 55 Chevy is a muscle car, built for one purpose and as is often in the road movie, the male has a bond with his car, the car can be a personification of himself and they both have one purpose and that is to race.  But that purpose is inevitably meaningless and as the film draws to a close, it becomes evident - like Easy Rider before it and Vanishing Point after it - that for the Driver, there is nothing at the end of the road.
words by josh shaw.

The Last Detail

Hal Ashby, 1973

Hal Ashby has always remained a polarizing figure, with a catalogue of films that divide audiences, from Harold and Maude, to The Slugger's Wife. At the culmination of his career, he directed The Last Detail, a comedy/drama, starring Jack Nicholson, with a screenplay written by Robert Towne (Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown). It follows two swabbies, as they escort a young Randy Quaid to Portsmouth naval prison N.H. Any comparison to previous naval movies (Anchors Aweigh, On The Town), have to be dismissed, as the film, with a backdrop against the Vietnam War, features strong existentialist, and almost nihilistic themes, with characters struggling to come to terms with their assigned roles, and ultimately, life in general.

Nicholson's "Badass" Buddusky, surpasses a strong cast, as a charismatic maximalist, whose objective, above and beyond his assignment, is to provide a no holds barred bon-voyage for Quiads character, 'Meadows'. Otis Young supports, as Nicholson's stony-faced shore-patrol partner "Mule" Mulhall, and remains the voice of reason between the uncontrollable, hurricane "Badass", and the vulnerable 'Meadows'. The movie plays out like a coming-of-age/road movie, with Buddusky and Mulhall taking meadows on a crash-course of manhood, exposing him to drinking, fighting and fucking, and showing him the freedom he’s shortly going to lose.

There's a definite hard edge to the movie, and it walks a fine line between comedy, and becoming a full-blown drama. Michael Chapman's cinematography expertly drains the life out of each frame, abandoning the contrast of gloss and grittiness that is apparent in his other work (Raging Bull, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and stripping the movie down to a harsh, grim aesthetic, that more than lends itself to the photography of Arthur Fellig's pseudonym ‘Weegee’, and the dark lighting techniques of Gordon Willis. The Last Detail is arguably the definitive Jack Nicholson performance, with him throwing as much magnetism and charm into 'badass', as he does 'Randle Patrick McMurphy' or 'J.J. Gittes'. In fact all performances are perfect, and show Nicholson and Quaid in their prime, before they became typecast and subsided into self-caricature.

The movie itself could be seen as a left-wing metaphor for the Vietnam War: a group of men working for the armed services, being assigned a pointless objective, with no positive outcome. This is unsurprising, considering Hal Ashby's filmography (Coming Home, Harold and Maude) and his outspoken views on the Vietnam conflict. Ultimately this movie remains of it's time, and is a window into the life of desultory blue-collar workers during the cold war, showing the harsh, grim reality of working class life. Ashby was a Hollywood outsider, a rebel against the mainstream, and held a sheer refrain from being pigeonholed into a certain style or genre.’ The Last Detail was him at the pinnacle of his career, with his directorial work gradually declining into obscure films and TV work.
words by danny walker.

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion

Shunya Itō, 1972

As the last decade has progressed, comic book adaptations have been coming at moviegoers thick and fast. These have been rather inconsistent in quality with various graphic novels such as Ghost World and the fact based Persepolis proving to be the successes of the medium, with most films, including the large majority of the 21 films Marvel has contributed (with the notable exception of those directed by Sam Raimi and Bryan Singer) being wholly average in quality. However it may seem though, comic book adaptations and the numerous spin-offs and sequels they produce are not a recent development and it’s worth casting a look at one of the lesser known earlier franchises, Japan’s Female Prisoner #701 series.

Based on the Sasori manga comics of ru Shinohara the first of these is titled Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion and tells the story of Nami ‘Matsu’ Matsushima (played by Meiko Kaji, who would later take the title role in the similarly revenge themed Lady Snowblood series) who is sent to jail after attempting to stab the police officer who first seduced her, before using her to implement a sting that resulted in her being raped. The film follows Matsu as she attempts to escape from prison in order to enact her revenge on those who betrayed her whilst at the same time surviving altercations with fellow prisoners and guards alike.

This series was funded by the Toei Company, notorious for their own particular brand of ‘Pinky Films’ known as ‘Pinky Violence Films’. These contained all the nudity and soft-core sex synonymous with the Pinky films but as the title would suggest, with lashings of violence complementing the nudity. Just at the films of the New Hollywood were a response to the advent of television, attempting to get viewers back to the movie houses via increasingly experimental and exploitative films so too were these and Female Prisoner can be seen as one of the best example of this genre.

First time director Shunya Ito (who would later earn himself an Oscar nomination for his 1985 film Gray Sunset) brings a great deal of stylistic flair to his debut, there are sets where the walls revolve as in theatre to reveal new surroundings, certain scenes are shot through a glass floor so we can see Matsu’s face as she lies face down on the ground following her abuse, and all the while there is the expressive use of lighting with bright greens and reds dictating the tone of the scene. In one sequence another inmate attempts to stab Matsu whilst in the showers. As the fight progresses and the assailant becomes more enraged suddenly her hair begins to stand on end, the lighting turns blue and her makeup turns to one of the face masks seen in traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre. Jump cuts are also evident throughout, a technique the Nouvelle Vague had only unveiled in the previous decade, and directors such as Scorsese were beginning to make their trademark at the same time. With all this experimentation the film works well as an art house alternative to the women in prison films people such as Roger Corman were producing in America, with Kaji proving herself to be every bit the equal of Pam Grier.

Indeed it is Kaji’s performance that carries the film. Despite her literary counterpart being extremely vocal and foul mouthed, Kanji convinced Ito to break away from this and allow her to give a primarily silent performance at Matsu, with the her cold stare conveying more hatred for her enemies than the shouting of obscenities ever could. The most play Kaji’s vocals get for the films duration is in the film’s title song ‘Urami Bushi’ also known as ‘My Grudge Blues’ a haunting number sang by Kaji herself. Ever desperate to shoehorn in as many references and allusions as possible, Tarantino would later feature the song on the soundtrack to Kill Bill(during the Lady Snowblood styled fight scene no less).

Ito and Kaji would work together on a further two films in this series, Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1972) and Female Prisoner 701: Beast Stable (1973) both of which maintain the original’s acute sense of style whilst remarkably managing to increase the amount of violence and nudity, every bit the equal to the original they never feel forced as many sequels do and are a worthy continuation of Matsu’s search for vengeance. As evidenced in many of the other great films of the decade such as Taxi Driver and Suspiria- when art house aesthetics are combined with exploitation narratives, the result is something extraordinary in its own right. Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is one such film, far greater than the slew of comic adaptations around today and definitely worthy of greater attention that it receives.
words by pete bond.