Brian Beadie interviewed director John Paizs on his cult classic debut Crime Wave, on the occasion of the tour we organised for Scalarama 2018
One of the absolute highlights of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival was Crime Wave, an unduly neglected Canadian comedy from 1985 which, despite being over 30 years old, emerged as one of the freshest and one of the funniest films to be shown at the festival. The film was programmed by Sean Welsh of Matchbox Cineclub who, after its rapturous reception at the festival, is bringing the film back for a limited engagement for Scalarama.
Crime Wave is as visually inventive and playfully pomo as an early Coen Brothers or Sam Raimi film (no, it’s not the film they collaborated on), but its director, John Paizs, would never make it big, despite being part of the innovative Winnipeg Film Group, whose other alumni include Guy Maddin. I would go so far to say that I prefer his dark comedy on the perils of scriptwriting to the Coens’ take on the same subject, Barton Fink – it’s far less pretentious, and has far more charm.
To give you an idea of the hectic invention of the film, here’s Paizs describing the film’s genesis:
“You could say it was a slight exercise in making lemonade from lemons. I was feeling pressured because I’d just written two feature length screenplays I wasn’t happy with, one of them called Crime Wave — a completely different story — and the other, Crazy Casey. Then one night at this time, sitting at my kitchen table, in front of a blank page, I just started writing ‘THE TOP!,’ and wrote out the rest of what would become the opening narration to this second go at Crime Wave. In a jokey way, it was expressing exactly my big secret dream for myself at this time with this new movie — which was to be a big success with it, bursting onto the scene — FROM THE NORTH! Ha — OK — scene one. Then, what next? Well, often when you hit the ground running like that in a story, it turns out that that opening bit was a dream, or something staged in the story, or just otherwise not ‘real’.”
“And so I thought — well, it could have been the opening scene to a movie that someone had written — like me. OK, so what next? OK — now, in Crazy Casey, I had a guy staying in an apartment over this family’s garage, and the family included a daughter, Casey, late teens, and the guy, who’s a freshman in college, has a thing for her — and next thing, that got reversed, she has a thing for him, she’s now ten, her name is Kim, and he’s a wannabe filmmaker — Steven Penny — who’s just capable of writing fun crap like we’d just seen opening this new Crime Wave. OK, so she comes on in scene two, she’s just finishing reading what we’d just seen in scene one, which is the beginning to one of Steven’s discarded screenplays, all of them called Crime Wave, and, breaking the fourth wall, she tells us about it. OK, so then what? Well, how about then she starts reading the ending to this same discarded Crime Wave, and we jump to that? More fun crap. And then — and this may have been my best idea in all of this new Crime Wave — we come back to her, in scene four, and she says that Steven’s problem is he can’t write middles! Boom. Writer’s block comedy. At that point I knew what it was I was writing. I didn’t know it until then. That’s when I found it out. And that’s what I went ahead and wrote.”
What Paizs wrote was a wildly unpredictable comedy with a shockingly high gag rate, taking potshots at everything from film form to current fads of the eighties – you can almost feel his delight in coming up with more outlandish scenarios, throwing in everything from self-help to the death of Sid Vicious into the mix.
“I never had a method for writing screenplays in those days beyond start with the title, then just jump right into it, no outline, no treatment, just make it up as I go along. And sometimes it would turn out more like a traditional dramatic narrative, and sometimes it wouldn’t, like Crime Wave. But I was never conscious of it being one way or the other at any point. I never thought hardly at all about what I was doing. I just did it. And then, when I got to the end of each script, that was it. No second draft, no revisions pretty much. I’d just apply for grant money to make the movie and that was that. So I guess it’s no wonder Crime Wave turned out the way it did, from a story standpoint. I just did what I liked, wrote scenes that I thought were original and funny, and didn’t think hardly at all about whether they advanced the plot or anything like that. Though actually there was one idea I brought to that script that I hadn’t brought to the others before it: and that was to keep the scenes short, and to keep cycling through the same like four or five types of them — a narrated scene, followed by an action scene, followed by a music scene, followed by a dialogue scene, then back to a narrated scene — that kind of thing, over and over, in a loop. I tried my best to make it that way, to keep things hopping like that, to keep the film hopefully jumping off the screen. I was determined not to repeat my huge mistake of my film just previous to Crime Wave, which was practically nonstop dialogue. Crime Wave was supposed to have learned from that one and be fun and alive.”
Indeed, most of the biggest laughs in the film come from pure sight gags, disrupting the film’s lush but highly controlled visual style, a reflection of Paizs’ background as a graphic artist.
“Because I (almost) never move the camera in the movie, it’s like a series of tableaus, or fixed comic strip panels. And I also lit it with hard light, to give it this ‘50s Technicolor look — high contrast and bright saturated colours — which was going directly counter to the prevailing look of movies at this time. So yeah, its visual aesthetic was one of the big things I was selling with it and that was going to be new and exciting about it. Out with the old, in with the new (old), kind of thing.”
Classic slapstick comedy is definitely another influence in play here – indeed, Paizs plays the lead himself, but mute, as a homage to the master of slapstick, Buster Keaton. “I had Buster’s Great Stone Face in mind for my character. It’s something I thought I could put my own spin on, and give the movie another level of originality at the same time because a non-speaking protagonist forces you to think of alternative — and sometimes very unexpected — ways to get ideas across. And also by doing it, I got to be a lead in a movie, and be good at it, with my extremely limited acting ability were I to speak.”
This device allows the film to be narrated in faux-naif style by his landlord’s daughter, who’s got a giant crush on him (a great performance by Eva Kovacs), which leads to another of the film’s influences – Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. “If Uncle Charlie had murdered prose instead of widows it would have been almost the same movie! I got the whole darkness-in-a-small-town framework from that movie, plus the two Charlies’ relationship has a definite parallel to Steven and Kim’s.”
So if Crime Wave is so good – and it really is that good – how come you’ve never heard of it, never mind seen it? Paizs explains the reason for the film’s neglect thus:
“It went down amazingly, actually, at festivals, got amazing reviews — like a few of them almost ridiculously full of praise. But what did it in was a nightmare scenario involving the film’s first distributor. The distribution agreement I’d signed with them had a clause in it saying I’d be paid my guaranteed minimum within eighteen months of the film’s first theatrical release, which they tried not to give it! Instead, they just quickly dumped it onto home video and made some quick pay TV sales, and that they hoped was that, saving them a bundle of dough they’d otherwise be paying in advertising, etcetera, never mind my money. Finally, after taking certain actions, I was able to trigger my payment — like three years later — but by this time it was too late for the film, and I was devastated.”
When I saw the film earlier this year, with Paizs in attendance, he looked slightly nervous about the film’s reception – he needn’t have been. It brought the house down. However, he confesses, “I was so worried about how it would go over in Glasgow, for a million reasons, and was so incredibly relieved and delighted about how well it did go over. But what I hope people can appreciate today, whether they like the film or not, is how new and radical it was back in the day, because it was, then. Time may have eroded the perception of that quite a bit, but it was, what can I say.”
I can attest that Crime Wave stands the test of time very well indeed – its wit and playfulness undimmed – as one of the most inventive cinematic debuts of the eighties, and one that richly deserves a wider audience.
In 2017, Ela Orleans debuted a brand-new live score for Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend The Knee for Matchbox Cineclub. Journalist Brian Beadie, who proposed the project, spoke to Orleans ahead of the performance.
Ela Orleans is best known as an exquisite lo-fi pop miniaturist. She works integrally with images, to the extent that a journalist described her work as ‘movies for ears’, a tagline she has willingly embraced. It’s a cliché to call a musician’s work soundtrack material, but Ela’s work is imbued with a deep love of cinema. When Scalarama asked me earlier in the year if I would like to programme a screening for the festival, my first thought (and best thought) was commissioning a new soundtrack from Ela, and pairing one of my favourite musicians with one of my favourite directors, Guy Maddin.
Growing up in Oświęcim (better known in the west as Auschwitz) during Communism, Ela was exposed both to Western and Communist cinema, Polish cinema going through a golden age during her childhood (she jokes that nothing noteworthy has happened in the country since 1986). The film scores of composers such as Krzystof Komeda are incredibly rich, drawing on a wide variety of musical traditions including jazz. There was a vital underground jazz scene, officially banned by the state although, as Ela notes, the state unbanned it when they recognised that it was the music of the American oppressed.
Oswieicm itself would be a site of much location filming, due to its still having the infamous concentration camp in town, now running as a museum. Ela reminisces about being on the set of a Spielberg film when she was a kid, and that you could tell when a film crew were shooting, because all the town drunks would get their heads shaved to obtain parts as extras.
After a spell in Glasgow playing in Hassle Hound with Tony Swain and Mark Vernon, she moved to Brooklyn to study composition. “My final work for the program was slaughtered by my tutor, who told me to get out of my box. The final word, however, belonged to David Shire [composer of The Taking of Pelham 123, The Conversation and, more recently, Zodiac], who said that he loved my box.”
Her own favourite soundtracks make for an interesting comparison; she equally loves the spare, minimalist soundtracks of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, citing the precision of the sound design on Le Samourai, and the operatic splendour of Morricone’s scores.
While Ela has composed new scores for film by directors such as Carl Dreyer and Frank Borzage (an obsession of Guy Maddin’s) she states, “This is the first time I feel that I am receiving full information on the aesthetic aspect of the score. The suggested inspiration is fantastically familiar, and I feel like my music found home with someone alive for a change and that I have freedom and a sense of direction at the same time.”
One of the reasons I wanted to pair Ela and Maddin was because I think they share a similar aesthetic, haunted by but not burdened by past forms. Ela agrees that, “The musical aesthetic of Guy Maddin is spookily parallel with my own. It’s not mainstream or techno or classical but old-time music which can be played with a rusty needle and it will still bring emotions. He doesn’t ask me to sound Lynchian, which is a bloody relief!”
“His enthusiasm for me scoring it is enormously encouraging, and I am over the moon. I feel like I found long lost family.”
Ela Orleans’ live score for Cowards Bend the Knee debuted at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, on Thursday, 21st September, 2017. By way of introduction Guy Maddin offered the following words: “This wild, gorgeous and almost insane new score by Ela Orleans has completely reinvented Cowards. She understood at musical levels the depths of shame, heights of hysteria, and quivering viscous ick I felt while shooting it; she drew out from the film every dark strand of soiled soul unravelling within and hung it in a new moonbeam for all the appalled to see.”
Brian Beadie interviewed director Guy Maddin ahead of our 2017 event, premiering Ela Orleans’ live score for Maddin’s 2003 film Cowards Bend the Knee
Guy Maddin is one of the most intriguing film directors currently working, with one of the most distinctive styles in contemporary cinema, earning him an international cult reputation. He has worked with the style and imagery of the transitional period between late silent and early sound cinema to produce some of the most disorientating – and flat-out funny – films of the last 30 years. He is far more than a mere hipster pasticheur, however; his films interrogate the very codes of cinema itself, produced in a unique artisanal style that is perhaps closer to the artist’s film than mainstream cinema. Indeed, what many (including myself) regard as his best film, Cowards Bend the Knee, was originally produced as an art installation, and consequently is one of his least-seen works.
When Matchbox Cineclub, which is dedicated to uncovering rare and underseen films, asked me to programme something for this year’s Scalarama, a celebration of underground cinema, and Ela Orleans told me her dream was to score a film by Guy Maddin, the choice was obvious – have Ela score Cowards Bend the Knee. Both Guy and Ela’s aesthetic seem to uncannily match each other’s, both producing work that is haunted by traces of the past but not burdened by it, both producing work that is beautiful and dreamlike.
Here’s an interview I carried out with Guy ahead of the screening.
BRIAN BEADIE: Firstly, I’d like to thank you for being so helpful with this screening for Scalarama. Essentially, we’re producing an alternative version of your film. What do you think of multiple versions of films – perhaps in reference to Seances or The Forbidden Room?
GUY MADDIN: Well, I’m extremely honoured to have this new score, especially since it’s composed by Ela Orleans. She’s a magnificent talent. Wow! Ever since I first stepped into an editing room over 30 years ago, and started moving the component parts of movies around, their shots, their sound effects, etc, I’ve been amazed by how music affects the image. I know it’s not literally true, but it might as well be, I swear different pieces of music can make a shot darker or lighter, long or shorter. The right music cue can make a shot unforgettable, the wrong piece can make a shot disappear completely – it’ll pass by without anyone noticing. I swear music can even slightly improve, completely repair or even destroy actors’ performances. With this in mind I’ve always wanted to have different versions of my movies kicking around. Seances (2016), an internet interactive project I worked on with my new collaborators, Evan and Galen Johnson, featured countless alternate versions of our film adaptations of long lost films – some versions had alternate colour palettes, others had different edits, different plots even, and different video textures, but most important of all, each had multiple scores. This project was one big roiling Kuleshov Effect, with so many variables rolling around like a bushel of ball bearings set loose on the deck of a ship. It was mind-boggling to me, and when we finished I was saddened to think I probably wouldn’t soon get a chance to play with such variables. But now there is this chance, with Cowards and the wondrous Ela! Cowards will now be a completely new film. I wish I could insert this new version into my filmography as a 2017 addition – I would seem much more hardworking than I am!
I understand that Cowards Bend the Knee was shot on the set of another film – The Saddest Music in the World, almost like an underground version of that film, or that film’s dark subconscious. Do you think more filmmakers should do this – the best precedent I can think of is maybe Pere Portabella’s Vampir-Cuadecuc?
You just mentioned one of my favourite films of all time. I don’t know the exact story behind Portabella’s presence on Jesus Franco’s set of Count Dracula (1970). I wonder if he was hired to shoot a behind–the-scenes making-of, or if he had something more sophisticated up his sleeve all along, but what he did has eventually come to represent the creative freedom we can deploy in the way we make accounts of things now, 47 years later. He simply shot his own version of Franco’s Dracula. Franco shot in conventional theatrical release sync sound 35mm colour, Portabella in 16mm hi-con B&W, with a timelessly avant garde sound design. The Dracula story is familiar enough to all viewers, so Portabella was free to add gloss upon gloss in a personal vein to the Franco. Every now and then he catches Franco’s crew, the big camera, the make-up and props people, even visitors to the set show up, but then it’s back to the story, which, it turns out rhymes nicely with the dictatorship of Generalissimo Franco back home in Spain. It’s so dreamy, so sneaky – way, way sneakier than Bunuel’s L’Age d’Or. So this Vampir is among the titans. Evan, Galen and I went to Jordan a couple of years ago to shoot a movie behind-the-scenes of a Canadian war film called Hyena Road. Evan had, without prior knowledge, come up with the idea that galvanized Portabella, simply to steal all of our host picture’s production values, at no cost. Hyena Road had a budget of $12million, and we had $60k, so getting to use all the wardrobed extras, the enormous village set built for the other film, and the explosive effects, this was a tremendous saving, and enabled us to put something together with incredible visual impact, with our cameras literally beside the host film’s. We sat cheek-by-jowl with the DOP for the host. We were like tick birds on a rhino. The host film’s director was incredibly generous to allow this. But feelings later soured between us when he felt we had betrayed him in spirit, and we probably had. We had no dictator to poniard, but we had a few things to say about war films in general, and way came off as extremely ungrateful to our hosts, who had even paid for our film!
Cowards Bend the Knee was shot during pre-production on The Saddest Music in the World, while the sets were being built. The latter film had an enormous budget compared to Cowards, maybe $3.5million compared to $12,000 for Cowards. But, boy, did I feel mischievous making the lower budget work. It seemed like I was shooting tests, getting ready for the bigger days of shooting ahead, but instead I was discovering a new way of shooting. I said goodbye to the tripod to which I had been enslaved during previous work and, for the sake of haste and storytelling efficiency, went completely handheld. The script of Cowards would be shot in highly-improvised camera movements. The story has about seven or more – I can’t remember – characters that needed to be connected by camera movement. I didn’t have time to storyboard the film, so I would arrive on set, call action, and just start drawing connections among all these characters, their faces and their hands – the movie has a hand “thing” – and soon I discovered the power in swish pan connections, collisions, conjunctions. I was writing sentences with my camera, automatically, following impulses that seemed right, the way Jack Kerouac wrote his sentences in the seconds after waking. Not all films can be shot this way, but there was something about this one, maybe its autobiographical nature, that made this approach feel right. It certainly feels alive, like an alert memory and neurology were behind the camerawork. I say memory because, while I wrote the script, I never once consulted it during the shoot. I was simply retelling an episode from my life as I remembered it, or as I remembered dreaming it over and over. The whole thing was shot in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout, for five easy days. It came out in one honest-seeming piece! And by honest, I mean emotionally honest. It’s not literally honest, my life was never as literally shadowy, grainy or soft focus as this film, and I’ve never once had my hands surgically removed.
Cowards Bend the Knee was originally shown as a peephole installation. Would you like to speak about the role of voyeurism in the film, and generally in your work?
The film was originally commissioned by The Power Plant Gallery. The curator there gave me a chance to enter the gallery world with an installation. I had no idea what to do, but after long discussions with the curator – for I truly wanted to make something honest and apt for him – we decided we would concentrate on some guilty feelings I’d been carrying with me since early adolescence, when I had drilled some peepholes in walls in an attempt to watch naked people. What a creepy little sociopathic kid I was, though I suppose you could say I possessed a “healthy curiosity” about sex. Still, I would not want to hang around this younger version of myself now. Anyway, to atone somewhat, however spuriously, I decided to make the most luridly confessional movie I could dream up, and then make it available for viewing through peepholes drilled in the walls of The Power Plant. The public could see me at my worst and maybe some karmic accounting would balance the great ledgers in Heaven. Also, thanks to a quirk in the Power Plant’s air conditioning, a strong eyeball-dehydrating breeze shot out of each peephole, blasting drywall fragments into the eyes of gallery visitors. Few got to see my confessions all the way through; many considered suing me, suing the gallery. Everyone was extremely angry with me, some because of what I confessed, others simply because their eyeballs now looked like throbbing red snooker balls.
The film forms part of an autobiographical trilogy – I confess I haven’t seen Brand Upon the Brain! How did you approach this, and how important do you think it is for a filmmaker to create a mythology around themselves?
I’ve read in places that I’m a narcissist. It’s probably true, though I never once suspected I was one while making this film. I come off so horribly in the movies – I thought I was presenting myself to the film word as its most puerile self-flagellant, maybe the most puerile and self-pitying since Jerry Lewis. I loved operating from this position, and turning literal facts into their fairy tale euphemistic substitutes, to carry on the gospel of Werner Herzog, who has long preached the superiority of “ecstatic truth” over mere fact. Since their invention, motion pictures have been the most powerful tool of mythologisation – like any artist, I just wanted my share of immortality, the budget-discount immortality film offers, maybe 20-50 years of immortality at most. This seemed so typical of the bargain-crazed cheapskates that live in Winnipeg, this seemed like the best way to be honest about why I made films while also achieving my goals. I truly felt that self-lacerating autobiography was the way to go. It works to masterful perfection for John Cheever in his truly great Journals, maybe the best diaries ever published. I thought, let’s go for this. But there is a thin line between self-hatred and self-pity. I never knew how close I was to treading over into Jerry Lewis tonal territory. I’m not the one to say, but I think I just danced back and forth over that deadly border, especially in Brand Upon the Brain!, where more than one critic has accused me of indulging myself in pity for my childhood. But Cowards is more pure, and while no one can say if they ever possess any self-knowledge at all, I truly felt I was finding out things about myself while making this movie. I felt I was unpeeling revelation after revelation. You might ask why I thought anyone would care about me, why any viewer would want to submit his or her eye to all those drywall bits, but, inspired by Cheever, I felt I just might be able to delight, surprise and astound the way the great artists do. You can’t do any of those things unless you try!
Again, I understand the film was financed and exhibited by the art world, rather than the film world. How important do you think galleries are in providing alternatives to commercial cinema?
I love working in galleries and museums. I wish the financing of the film world permitted more of such cross-pollination. I always believed that the arts existed on a continuum, that someone interested in creating paintings or sculpture would also want to write about it, that movies and cave paintings were more related than most regular movie-goers suspected. I guess I was too quixotic for my own good, but I felt that movies belonged in the art world too, especially movies since they synthesise all the other arts, and that even as financially compromised and corrupted as the art world is, so bring in the movies to the museums, I say! Especially their very making! So, when I got a chance to shoot Seances and The Forbidden Room in public, in the foyers of the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Centre PHI in Montreal, I leapt at it. I wanted the museum habitués to see, ant farm-style, how a film was assembled from the little scraps of nothing that typically make up the worlds I shoot. The transformations of utter garbage into the almighty Word of Truth is worth a peek, I thought. I still believe it. But maybe I just like all the glamorous people that show up at gallery openings.
Your work has always focused on a certain period of film history from the late 20s to the early 30s. What fascinates you about this period?
I’m finally leaving the old days, those most oneiric days of the haunted screen, behind. I’ve spent more time in those two decades than the decades themselves did! That’s just wrong. So I’m modernising, and switching to new forms of expression, but I can probably never match the feelings I had while working out the old musty vocabularies. Film, in its industrial haste, was always discarding vocabulary units still in perfect working order. No one else seemed interested in these old, sometimes still shiny parts of speech, so I felt my biggest advantage was simply retracing the route taken by cinema during its short life here on earth, backtracking down the road and reclaiming these unwanted tropes and tones, brushing them off and sticking them into my new projects to see how they worked as repurposed moving parts in new mechanisms. Why not, there was no law against it, and it struck me that wasn’t mildew I smelled, it was excitement. A lot of these old things were good as new, and since no one alive had encountered them before, they struck me as downright revolutionary. If they ever seemed to reek of pastiche or something corny, that’s probably because of my penchant for framing everything in story structures that were basically fairy tales or melodramas. But that’s another story. My favourite tales are from the Old Testament and from the Greek tragedy days of Euripides. There is something both over-familiar and fresh in those things too. Days of Heaven is a good example of how the Old Testament can be made influentially modern! In my most pathologically optimistic and narcissistic days I wanted to make movies as fresh as a Malick take on the Old Testament.
I see this period as being one when certain grammars of film were being discovered and laid down, which you can then use to disrupt conventional ‘realism’, which is why I find your films genuinely radical. Would you go along with that?
Yes, I forbid my students to use the word “realistic.” It has no meaning in a discussion of art. Psychologically plausible, that’s another matter, but realistic doesn’t mean a thing to me. I suppose I rationalised my methods to fit this immutable position of mine, but so be it.
Similarly, your films disrupt and interrogate traditional representations of masculinity, such as the hilarious shower scene in Cowards Bend the Knee. What interests you about this?
Masculine, ugh, I don’t like many men who are truly masculine in the old sense of the word. The sooner we chuck all those taxonomies, including alpha males, the sooner the world will get comfy. The sooner the alpha dogs feel the humiliation they long to inflict on the world, the more wonderful the buttercups will smell!
Although a film like Cowards Bend the Knee captures the look of late silent cinema perfectly, it’s editing strategies are totally avant-garde, and could only have been produced with the aid of digital. How and why did you arrive at this editing style?
My editor John Gurdebeke and I chanced on this style while fast-forwarding through all the footage because beginning to cut. We felt the footage was tremendously improved when his Final Cut skipped over certain parts, came to a rest on others, and seemed to rock itself into one moment, fetishising it, whenever we took a closer, less rushed look at anything. We felt this was a new way of representing memory on film, a more neurological way. Think of your first kiss, say, you want to approach it with enough pre-roll to recreate your anticipation from long ago, then you want to skip over all the boring parts, or you have to skip over some parts because they’re long forgotten; then when you get to the kiss, you want to sow your memory down, even replay certain parts of it, till all the flavour is sucked out of it. When you’re finally satisfied with your memory you go racing off to the next succulent recollection. We found we could euphemise this type of recollection using the scrolling – that’s what it’s called, technically – that results when one fast-forwards digitally. I see David Lynch used a bit of it in an early episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. It still works. It’s not for every story, but for a nervous memory film I love the way it works.
In my blurb for the film’s advertising, I called the film ‘perhaps the most authentically surrealist film of the 21st century.” How important is surrealism to you?
Surrealism is everywhere now, has been for a long time, especially in advertising, where it works the best. It’s hard to make a feature film purely surrealist now without it becoming tiresome, but there are still ways. I’m glad to have tried my best to keep the movement alive somehow, to present it as it was originally presented, as a transgressive genre off by itself, but I do have more classical interests. Mind you, so did Bunuel. BTW, may I make a recommendation of Hebdomeros, the surrealist novel by Giorgio de Chirico. John Ashbery called it by far the best of the surrealist novels and I agree with him. What a dream! The reader forgets each drop-dead gorgeous sentence as soon as he or she reads it, so rhythmically dreamy is the next sentence, and the next and so on! Never have I been so submerged in dream than when marching through that book’s pages. I read it 25 years ago and shall never forget the experience, even though I can’t remember a single word from it – never could!
Most filmmakers go to Hollywood, or somewhere else, but you’ve stayed in Winnipeg and mythologised it. How important is the city, and the Winnipeg Film Group to you?
Man, talk about sucking the flavour out of something. I have had my grave back-hoed open here, it’s ready for me, but I wish I could live long enough to enjoy another city for a while. It helps that I started teaching at Harvard a few years ago so I split my time between Cambridge and home, but the drivers there are such assholes, not the gentle farmers who slowly careen about the dusty streets of Winnipeg. I truly hate the drivers of Boston. I love the people I know, but then, Dawn of the Dead-style, they become something else, asshole zombies, whenever they climb into a car! I wonder if I can ever escape the comfy temperaments of the town that hosts my grave.
Finally, since this is a live scoring event, how important is music in films to you?
Music is everything to me. EVERYTHING. Film is music! The perfect film for me is one that operates like music, takes music’s shortcut to the heart, is structured like music. Uses the same narcotic effects as music. So even if music is literally present in the film or not, its presence must be felt somehow, even if only in the writing of the script. Hitchcock’s The Birds has no music, but the story works like a symphony! But I prefer my music in my soundtrack, up front and loud. There it can distract from the papier-maché cheapness of my sets!
Ela Orleans’ live score for Cowards Bend the Knee debuted at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow, on Thursday, 21st September, 2017. By way of introduction Guy Maddin offered the following words: “This wild, gorgeous and almost insane new score by Ela Orleans has completely reinvented Cowards. She understood at musical levels the depths of shame, heights of hysteria, and quivering viscous ick I felt while shooting it; she drew out from the film every dark strand of soiled soul unravelling within and hung it in a new moonbeam for all the appalled to see.”
We’ve subsequently taken the decision to postpone the debut of our Arrow Video Night screening series (including opener Why Don’t You Just Die! and the April event, scheduled for 10/04) and the connected CineWriters group meetings (ta-da, that’s a thing/will be a thing!).
NB Remakesploitation Fest 2020 (25-26/04) and KeanuCon 2020 (19-21/06) are still currently going ahead as planned. We will continue to monitor the recommendations of the Scottish Government, the NHS and our partner venue, CCA Glasgow. We hope to relaunch the Arrow Video Night on Saturday 30th May.
We’ll be in touch with ticket holders for Why Don’t You Just Die! directly, and generally appreciate your patience and forbearance with this whole thing, which is obviously still unfolding and that we’re trying to navigate with the greater good in mind.
We have to balance our own decisions as a small, independent operation (with currently no guaranteed funding support) against taking an abundance of caution. While events at CCA (theatre capacity 150, cinema capacity 74) fall below the threshold of 500 for proscribed gatherings, and our first instinct is the show must go on, we need to take responsibility and prioritise public health and safety and truthfully, it doesn’t feel right to be going ahead with events while this whole thing is expanding and still unfolding.
This missive from our friend and respected fellow programmer Herb Shellenberger has informed our decision:
On a related note, we rely on funding support, ticket sales and the revenue we make from subtitling for film events to keep going. With all of those things currently unsure, it’s going to be a tricky time for us. If you’d like to support us in another way, we have t-shirts, posters/prints, books and zines on sale in our online shop: matchboxcineclub.bigcartel.com/category/merch.
If you have any questions regarding upcoming Matchbox Cineclub events please feel free to email us at email@example.com.
For the second year, we’ve worked with Glasgow Short Film Festival, this time expanding coverage to nine feature-length programmes of shorts, including the entirety of their Scotttish Competition and our own Girl in the Picture: The Youth Films of Nobuhiko Obayashi programme. The latter celebrates the early, experimental work of the House director and includes films subtitled in English for the first time. We’ve worked with translator Moe Shoji to produce SDH for these films, and they represent the start of a bigger project we’re very excited about – watch this space!
Find all the captioned films screening at GSFF20 here.
Why Don’t You Just Die! (Kirill Sokolov, 2020) is the first in our new, monthly screening series Arrow Video Night, in collaboration with Arrow Video. Arrow produces SDH for all their home releases, but we’ll guarantee them either way, since some of the programme will be sneak previews and descriptive subtitles may not be ready in time for our screenings. Why Don’t You Just Die! is a prime slice of Russian splatterpunk comedy, lots of fun and an advance screening ahead of its Blu-ray release in April.
Remakesploitation Fest is our collaboration with Iain Robert Smith (King’s College London/Remakesploitation Film Club) and the result of a long, long infatuation with the weird world of Turkish fantastic cinema – particularly the era which featured countless unauthorised remakes of Hollywood films. Following our sold-out premiere screening of the 2K restoration of Turkish Star Wars (Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam) last year, we’re bringing a whole day of Turkish remakes to CCA Glasgow, all with exclusive, brand-new translations, screening for the first time in the world with English SDH. Thanks to King’s College London and Film Hub Scotland for making this possible!
This April, we’ll be screening restored and newly-subtitled classics of Turkish fantastic cinema for the first time. Ahead of Remakesploitation Fest 2020, read our primer on the weirdest film scene in world cinema, originally published in 2011…
Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam AKA The Man Who Saved The World (Çetin Inanç, 1982) doesn’t make it too far past the endearingly handmade titles before it demonstrates the elements that gave it its better-known title, “Turkish Star Wars”. Edited into new Turkish scenes are newsreel clips of NASA rocket launches, instantly recognisable shots from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (chopped from a print in a different aspect ratio from the rest of the Inanç‘s film – making the Death Star an odd shape), and identifiable footage from Sodom and Gomorrah (Robert Aldrich,1962) and The Seven Curses of Lodac (Bert I Gordon, 1962). The roguish leads, Cüneyt Arkin (Murat) and Aytekin Akkaya (Ali) are shown in space battle, their commitment to their performance overriding the viewer’s disbelief as projected footage from Star Wars cuts haphazardly between scenes behind them. Nobody in Lucas’ Rebellion ever had to deal with their spaceship appearing and disappearing around them, and even Luke Skywalker probably wouldn’t have dared flying backwards down the trench in the Death Star, even if it was oblong. But then daredevil Ali reckons the enemy are too sour-faced and he’d prefer “if some chicks with mini-skirts were coming”.
While the provenance of the visual effects is immediately and jarringly obvious, the soundtrack is equally dubious. The music not sourced from library stock is bastardised from an impressive array of high-profile soundtracks, including John William’s score for Raiders of the Lost Ark (The Raiders March and Chase Suite), Giorgio Moroder’s disco cover of the Battlestar Galactica theme, Ennio Morricone’s theme for the TV mini-series Moses the Lawgiver (Gianfranco De Bosio & James H Hill, 1974), music from Planet of the Apes, Moonraker and Silent Running, and then Queen’s score for Flash Gordon – a film which also provides key sound effects. Even JS Bach’s Toccata gets a showing. Such audacious theft cannot help but overshadow the homemade costumes, mannered stunt work (particularly Arkin’s trademark trampolining) and lunatic storytelling that the film otherwise consists of, but Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam is still more entertaining than The Phantom Menace.
Such pithy comparisons have revived international interest in a peculiar sub-section of Turkish film that thrived domestically in the late 1970s and early 1980s, of which Turkish Star Wars is only one among many. There are now countless blogs and webpages dedicated to lists of bizarre and poorly-made foreign versions, some official, some not, of Hollywood films. Usually light on context and high on derision, these articles have nevertheless brought to light a whole spectacular genre that may be described as Turkish Remakesploitation.
Most of these films were made during a particularly tumultuous period for the Republic of Turkey that saw the country experience the third coup d’etat since its formation in 1923. The 1980 military coup followed coups in 1960 and 1971 and brought a temporary end to violence but also ongoing political instability that has continued to the present day, with the country engaged in a long struggle towards multi-party democracy. Contrary to some reports, there was no general ban on American films in Turkey, even during the period of the military coup (from September 1980 to November 1983) beyond the individual bans on Midnight Express (Alan Parker, 1978) and A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1973). The more serious censorship affected domestic films and directors, most famously Yılmaz Güney who, in the middle of this period, orchestrated the production of Yol AKA The Way (Serif Gören, 1982) from a Turkish prison cell. One of the biggest movie stars in Turkey (of a rough and roguish type similar to Arkin), Güney was also one of the most politicised, first jailed in 1961 (for publishing an allegedly ‘communist’ novel) then again in 1972 and 1974. Escaping prison in 1981, he completed Yol in Switzerland and it went on to win the Palme D’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. Exiled in Paris, Güney died of cancer in 1984 and he is now internationally renowned as a key figure in modern Turkish cultural history.
However, the kind of low budget oddities that decades later would become known as Turkish Jaws, Turkish Dirty Harry or Turkish Exorcist, among many others, belong in a world parallel to the politically and socially conscious filmmaking of the likes of Yılmaz Güney. Even filmmakers sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Güney took part in the Remakesploitation trend. Memduh Ün, who garnered early international notice for his film Kırık Çanaklar (The Broken Pots, 1960), also directed the Turkish James Bond rip off Altin Çocuk (Golden Boy, 1966) and, much later, Turkish Death Wish AKA Cellat (The Executioner, 1975). With the spotlight on the highly entertaining, low-budget escapism of Turkish Star Wars, it’s easy to overlook that Turkey, even in such adverse conditions, had no shortage of “respectable” films and, after a wilderness period from the early 1980s through into the 1990s, has resumed producing world-class films.
Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam is probably the most famous of the Turkish Remakesploitation films, by dint of having Star Wars as its template and because it so blatantly ripped off whole special effects shots and sequences. Truth be told, even though it cribs some broad ideas along with a bucket-load of special effects, it tells a distinctly different story than Star Wars and it is not even close to being the most thorough Rip-Off in this genre. Nor is Süpermen Dönüyor, even though Kunt Tulgar’s movie makes liberal use of stolen music cues and copyrighted characters. There are far more explicit offenders in this category, films that are practically shot-for-shot remakes of the originals. Crucially, none of them are authorised adaptations of the source material, distinguishing them from the standard and continuous back-and-forth nature of movie remaking across national borders.
Films belonging to the genre take a variety of forms, from those shot-for-shot remakes (Sevimli Frankeştayn AKA Turkish Young Frankenstein (Nejat Saydam, 1975)), to straight retellings adapted for a Turkish audience (Süpermen Dönüyor, Kunt Tulgar, 1979), to films that took elements of foreign films and incorporated them into ‘reimagined’ versions of the originals (Dünyayi Kurtaran Adam). All three types regularly feature in Top Ten Terrible Foreign Rip-Offs lists, their puny budgets, brazen appropriation and lunatic energy frequently compared ironically to their muscular Hollywood forebears. The common links between them are the international fame and success of their source material and a focus on any combination of action, sex, adventure and violence – the key constituents of any so-called B-movie and bread and butter for their contemporary domestic audience. The films were broad, easy to comprehend and entertaining to a fault – so no Turkish Chinatown, but Turkish Young Frankenstein was a no-brainer.
The films that can be described as part of the classic wave of Turkish Remakesploitation also belong to a larger genre of Turkish Fantastic Cinema. This term encompasses many kinds of genre films, from horror and science fiction to the hugely popular masked hero film. B-movies by any description and obscure to say the least, these films are not widely available even in Turkey, where the original prints have long since been sold off to television stations or simply disappeared entirely. Often the best sources for viewing them are VHS copies of pre-digital Turkish television broadcasts and/or German rental copies, ripped for the internet. Luckily and somewhat miraculously, a decade ago MTV Turkey began screening many of these films, previously believed to be lost altogether, in a weekly Fantastic Cinema slot. Otherwise, tiny independent companies like Onar Films, based in Greece, distributed DVD versions sourced from original prints. While these were lovingly packaged, carefully cleaned and prepared for release and much better quality than YouTube uploads, they were hampered by the extremely poor quality of the existing prints, which had never been high priorities for preservation or digital remastering.
From a modern, western perspective, cataloguing and delineating these films is a nightmare, due to a number of factors. First and foremost, the lack of an international audience even at the time means that the films and filmmakers have very little status in the west. Awareness of them now is really due to some hard work by fans of the genre(s) and a whole lot of wry internet ‘appreciation’. Even now, the documentation and availability of these films is very limited, automatically granting canonical status to a handful of high-visibility Rip-Offs – Turkish Star Wars, Turkish Superman and Turkish ET (Badi, Zafer Par, 1983) among them. The films that are available, one way or another, often have sub-standard English subtitles (with no disrespect to the efforts made, for which we have to be very thankful) and most have no English subtitles at all. Additionally, there seems to be very little behind-the-scenes information available and attempts to frame these films in any kind of context are very rare. Bill Barounis of Onar Films produced a helpful Turkish Fantastic Cinema Guide and while there are surely more scholarly tomes on the history of Turkish cinema, Fantastic or otherwise, they are, by and large, written in Turkish and in any case not widely available.
Fortunately, as the films of particular interest here have benefited from the widest modern audience, it’s still possible to discuss them in context and to trace their origins somewhat. While the key period for these films is the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, their roots go much further back. Prior to World War II, the Turkish film industry was dominated by a handful of companies importing foreign product into the major cities of Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara. After 1948, when the municipal tax on exhibition was reduced from 75% to 25% (leaving the tax on imported films at 70%), there was an explosion in domestically produced Turkish cinema. By the mid 1960s, Turkish cinema had expanded rapidly to become one of the biggest film making economies in the world, centred around Yesilçam (literally ‘Green Pine’ and named for a street in Istanbul that housed many production companies), which became a by-word for Turkish cinema in the same sense Hollywood is for classic American film.
However, while there were over 1,000 cinemas in Turkey at the peak of this wave, Hollywood product was still limited to theatres in the major cities and the coasts, leaving the huge Anatolian population in the south at a disadvantage – which is to say, there was a huge demand for the kind of westernised product epitomised in the Western and Action genres which was not being fully catered for. Starting around 1962, the Turkish Western became a hugely popular genre with 15 films a year being produced at the peak of the genre’s popularity in the 1970s and an audience happy to consume up to three films a day. In this period, the power of the regional distributors was paramount as they could and would demand films to their own specification, according to the discriminations of their local audiences. Unfortunately, due in part to the decentralisation of the system (with hundreds of companies making films), the general tilt was towards private enterprise, meaning that profits from films were not directed back into future film production, but removed for private gain. This was essentially a cash-flow business, with the success of one film providing the budget for the next, and one that could not sustain itself under any adversity. Eventually, Yesilçam’s output became dominated by soft-core porn productions.The encroachment of television and VHS meant that cinema revenue took a dive in the late 1970s and 1980s, which, in combination with that still thirsty-for-action Southern audience, created the perfect environment for Turkish Remakesploitation to thrive, albeit briefly.
Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam speaks to the audacity of some Turkish filmmakers, but the copyright situation in Turkey then is extremely vague from a modern perspective and it seems clear that there was no pertinent law of any kind in Turkey at that point. Indeed, there was a similar approach taken to the recording of foreign songs, at least up until the 1990s. At any rate, most of the films to be made in this golden age were well under Hollywood’s radar, probably more so than even Tarzan Istanbul’da (which had attracted the attention of Hollywood lawyers), and catered to an audience that had very little access to Hollywood product. Up until this point, it was standard practice in Yesilcam to freely adapt English-language novels, scripts and movie serials. There had been numerous Turkish bootlegs of Hollywood properties like The Lone Ranger, Zorro and Flash Gordon as well as oddities like Tosun and Yosun, the Turkish Laurel and Hardy clones, and innumerable Turkish Westerns. The spirit of the classic Turkish Remakesploitation can be traced in some of those Westerns, in their enthusiastic appropriation of American Western tropes and types (in similar fashion to the Italian Spaghetti Westerns), and their giddy disregard for international copyright concerns.
Una Pistola Per Ringo (Duccio Tessari, 1965), the now-classic Spaghetti Western, spawned many unauthorised spin-offs and unofficial sequels (as indeed it did in homeland of Italy). Similarly, Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) soon inspired the likes of Cango Olum Suvarisi (Django Rider Of Death, Remzi Conturk, 1967). Then came Çeko (Çetin Inanç, 1970), featuring a Turkish analogue of the Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Çeko opens with music stolen from Ennio Morricone’s score for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966) and goes on to utilise his Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968) score and Riz Ortolani’s music for Day Of Anger (Tonino Valerii, 1967). Even with the relatively low budget director Inanç had at his disposal, and the hasty production schedule – which would rapidly earn him the sobriquet “Regisör Jet”, the Jet Director – it was yet more economical to plagiarise pre-existing music. There were, of course, composers at work at the industry, but they would have cost too much, even in the form of the library music that they were most frequently employed to produce. With the materials at hand in the form of worn American prints and with impatient theatre owners on the phone, representing a waiting audience, directors like Inanç could churn out cheap copies quickly and to demand.
All of which begs the uncomfortable question of why filmmakers did not simply manufacture and distribute bootleg prints. The answer is in the question, and it is because these were filmmakers and not criminals. It seems clear that these films could not exist without a certain level of raw enthusiasm for the source material, the genres they represent and the filmmaking process itself. In any case, such blatant theft could easily be considered too likely to provoke the attention of litigious Hollywood studios that, after all, were still screening their product in the major cities, though they would not have a presence in the country as distributors until the 1990s. Equally probable is that the audience responded more enthusiastically to representations of these stories through a Turkish prism, which the filmmakers were only too eager to provide. It’s presumptuous and perhaps condescending to consider that the language barrier when screening original American films was an important element, but it likely would play a part. What is more than likely is that the significant delay between the initial American release and the widespread distribution of American films – even to the extent that they reached – provided a window ripe for exploitation.
Inanç is the most prominent behind-the-scenes character in the story of Turkish Remakesploitation. Weaned on the same comic books and serials that inspired his contemporaries Lucas and Spielberg, his first notable work was writing the screenplay for Kilink Istanbul’da (Yilmaz Atadeniz, 1967), a rip-off of Italian comic strip Killing, itself a rip-off of another called Kriminal, which was again a rip-off of Diabolik – making Kilink Istanbul’da a kind of bastard cousin to Danger: Diabolik (Mario Bava, 1968). His first film as director, Çelik Bilek (1967), was a Rip-Off of another Italian comic series, this time Il Grande Blek. After Çeko, he churned out carbon copies of Bonnie and Clyde, Dirty Harry, Mad Max, Jaws, First Blood, Rocky and Rambo II, making him by far the most prolific of the Remakesploitation directors. Those films, however, are only a sampling of the 136 films he made before moving into television in the mid 1980s. His transition then was emblematic of the general refocusing of the industry around television and its revenues in the 1980s and 1990s.
The key to understanding the films of Turkish Remakesploitation is to see them in context, not as part of a bungling criminal enterprise, but as the work of inventive, cash-strapped pragmatists. They were opportunists, certainly, but no more than Roger Corman or, indeed, any other Hollywood producer. The films were, after all, made for and enjoyed by an audience that could be described as undiscerning, but is more properly seen as enthusiastic, extremely receptive and, ultimately, forgiving, if the entertainment was worth the price of admission. There are comparisons to be drawn between Turkish Remakesplotiation and some Blaxsploitation (eg “The Black Exorcist” – Abby, William Girdler, 1974) in the way that mainstream (white, American) content is recreated but transformed to reflect the appearance and cultural specificity of the ‘niche’ audience. They’re also a worthy example of the hijacking and détournement of the Hollywood juggernaut to produce films for local consumption and, to a very limited extent, local profit. It’s hardly Robin Hood and it doesn’t beat a genuinely creative original and non-derivative industry, but it’s a lot more attractive, culturally, than simply swallowing what America doles out wholesale.
But their worth is not merely academic. And it’s not simply found in their superficial comic value, or even in their oddball energy, strange logic and generally singular approach to genre filmmaking. It’s in the spirit they were made in, the sheer will to make films overwhelming the paucity of available resources. It’s about making films of a certain kind when logic perhaps should tell you that you are not able to and not being constrained by your material limitations – certainly not when there is the prospect of expanding your material wealth. Fundamentally, Turkish Remakesploitation survives because it’s still doing what it was created to do – entertaining, even if that enjoyment sometimes takes the shape of snarky, ill-informed criticism.
Comparing the intent of Çetin Inanç and his contemporaries to their Hollywood counterparts is perhaps the most instructive measure. The cultural influences they share, taking for granted the international success of American comics and movie serials of the 1930s and 40s, seem as important as their distinct national identities. How different would the original Indiana Jones and Star Wars trilogies look if they were made with a fraction of the budget, talent pool, shooting schedule and basic infrastructure that they found in Hollywood? And though posterity has not been kind to the films of Turkish Remakesploitation, the smiles they engender and the basic thrills they offer are undiminished. As Kunt Tulgar has said, “Action and adventure never die in our culture.”
Remakesploitation Fest 2020 takes place 25-26/04/2020 at Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow. Tickets available from our online shop here.Keep up-to-date with the Facebook event page here.
NB This article was originally published in 2011 at physicalimpossibility.com.Thanks to Gokay Gelgec of the Sinematik website and the sadly departed Bill Barounis of Onar Films for invaluable background information on these films and the culture they were made in. Wherever possible, we’ve referred to the best-presented and ‘official’ versions of these films available.
The dream of the ’90s is alive in psychotronic rave fable VIBRATIONS. We spoke to writer/director Mike Paseornek about his “strange little movie”
“Emerging rock star, TJ CRAY, (JAMES MARSHALL), early twenties, has it all, incredible talent, a beautiful girlfriend (PAIGE TURCO), and now, a shot at the big time. He and his band are about to play the gig of their lives – an audition for the A&R man at Boston’s hottest night spot. And then…”
As President of Motion Picture Production for Lionsgate, Mike Paseornek has overseen a multi-million dollar blockbuster slate for decades – from the SAW series to the Hunger Games franchise to the John Wick films. The lauded films he’s “known for” on IMDb, like La La Land or American Psycho, have screeds and screeds of writing devoted to them. But the story of Vibrations, the 1995 “techno music love story” near the very beginning of his résumé, remains largely untold. “You never set out to make what someone would call a bad film or a limited film,” says the man with production credits on everything from Monster’s Ball to Mortdecai, “but they sometimes turn out that way.”
By all accounts, Vibrations is a wild film. It has the best virtues of a certain kind of cult movie – extraordinary, beyond-taste elements welded to a boilerplate morality tale; extremely period trappings that play to nostalgia as much as they provoke warm incredulity in fresher-faced audiences; earnest performances wrestling with a less-so script. It’s camp in the truest sense, of art that reaches beyond its grasp. And, whatever you may think of it, Vibrations is the one and only film that hinges on a thwarted garage band guitarist-cum-homeless-wino who replaces his amputated hands with robot ones, the better to become the toast of the techno rave underground.
Paseornek began his career as a writer, first as a humour columnist for Greenwich Village weekly The Villager then for television and, before too long, movies. All of Paseornek’s writing credits have a certain je ne sais quoi: Stitches; Meatballs III: Summer Job (“The ghost of a dead porn star comes to Earth to help a nerd with his sex life.”); Loose Ends AKA Screwball Academy; Snake Eater; Snake Eater II: The Drug Buster (“Together with a street-wise hustler from the ghetto they’re going after the TRAFFICKERS”); Downhill Willie AKA Ski Hard. He even wrote a TV drama about teen stress that’s still taught in American schools (Has Anybody Seen Phil?). But to date, he’s only directed one film, and Vibrations leapfrogs all of those (and most others) to the very top of the must-watch list.
Released in 1995 – straight from the “electronic underground,” as the posters have it – Vibrations is a rags-to-riches tale of Gen X rave redemption. It charts the rise of Cyberstorm, a techno musician who exclusively performs in a cybernetic bodysuit, and his romance with self-named t-shirt designer/scenester Anamika. Paseornek cast James Marshall (Twin Peaks, A Few Good Men) and Christina Applegate (Married With Children, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead) at the peak of their young careers, gifting them leading roles dealing with meaty themes of alcoholism, disability and workplace misogny, in a ripped-from-the-headlines milieu of cutting edge technology and incipient EDM culture. The official synopsis:
Emerging rock star TJ Cray (JAMES MARSHALL) is en route to his first major concert when a confrontation with a carload of thugs turns violent. His car is crushed and his hands severed. Despondent, he becomes an alcoholic, and bums the streets of New York City. Cold and drunk, TJ breaks into an abandoned warehouse, and passes out. He’s awoken by pounding music, multi-coloured lights and swarms of young faces. He’s in the midst of an all-night dance party. Dazed, he’s rescued by Anamika (CHRISTINA APPLEGATE), a regular, who brings him to the walk-up apartment building she shares with three friends – a sculptor, a computer/electronics wiz, and a techno DJ. Gradually, he develops a romantic relationship with Anamika, overcomes his alcoholism, and with the help of her friends, develops programmable metal hands that allow him to play the keyboards once again. Shielding his identity in a sculptured metallic suit, he re-emerges on the scene as Cyberstorm, becoming a music legend.
The writer-director-producer of this “strange little movie,” is fully cognisant of its current status. “People have called it so-bad-that-it’s-good,” Paseornek reflects today, from his office in sunny Los Angeles, “but we actually set out to make something that was so weird that it would be good. We didn’t think of it as bad. We thought of it as different and strange and bizarre and weird, while we were doing it.” Vibrations was never intended to be a sober consideration of an emerging subculture, more “a fable which would take licence,” Paseornek concludes, “and we thought there is no better place to do that than in the rave world.”
Shot on location in New York City in 1993, the year CERN made the Web source code public domain, the year before Friends debuted, Paseornek’s film was truly riding the zeitgeist. By the time Vibrations was released, though, the ne plus ultra standard for ragtag groups of twentysomething New Yorkers had been irrevocably set, while Hackers, Johnny Mnemonic and The Net had instructed a whole generation on the credible depiction of computer science. On the other hand, Paseornek’s lens had caught the sense of a milieu, the New York rave underground, that had been practically evaporating in front of him. And Vibrations had at least one other, seemingly inexplicable USP, in the shape of a hand-me-down Stan Winston cyborg suit. But what – bearing in mind Daft Punk wouldn’t debut their famous robot personas publicly until 2001 – brought Paseornek to combine these elements? Where does a movie as singular as Vibrations actually come from? “The origin of this film,” confirms Paseornek, “was not typical.”
Vibrations was co-produced by John Dunning (1927-2011) a giant of Canadian film, who shepherded early films by David Cronenberg (Shivers, Rabid) and Ivan Reitman (Meatballs) alongside future cult classics like My Bloody Valentine, Happy Birthday to Me and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone. According to Paseornek, Dunning was a showman. “Not personally – he was a behind the scenes guy – but he liked showman-style projects that had a gimmick to them. He was a good friend.”
It was Dunning who had given Paseornek his start in motion pictures, hiring him, alongside his writing partner Michel Choquette, directly from National Lampoon. The two re-wrote Stitches for Dunning, then developed a sequel to Meatballs before their partnership broke up. Then a chance meeting with Dunning in a New York street led to his flying Paseornek solo to Canada and putting him on the Cinépix payroll. “John and I had a creative affinity for one another,” Paseornek has explained. “Everyone would sit around and come up with ideas. And that’s the way we made movies.”
In 1986, Dunning had made a film for Fox called The Vindicator, originally titled The Frankenstein Factor and a modern-day retelling of the classic horror story. “A very small movie,” says Paseornek, “but there was a very big-time special effects make up person on that movie, named Stan Winston.” Winston was Oscar-nominated for Heartbeeps, renowned for his work with Rob Bottin on The Thing, but had become truly iconic through his collaborations with James Cameron on The Terminator and Aliens. Dunning still had the suit Winston had designed for The Vindicator (“It had been gathering dust in my basement for years,” he later wrote), and ever since that film had failed to recoup its $4 million budget, he’d been keen to recycle it. “The suit probably cost more than the whole movie did,” says Paseornek, “so we were talking about, what could we do with this suit? And techno music was really beginning to get hot in the early ’90s.”
Based now in Los Angeles, sojourns in Canada aside, Paseornek lived in New York for over 30 years. “I think the first rave in New York was probably 1991,” he recalls. “All these little raves were popping up. I would get these notices of a rave in a warehouse and they always had interesting graphics and I thought, ‘This is an interesting world.'” Indeed, though rave culture had been bubbling under in the US for a few years while it exploded in the UK, the first of Frankie Bones’ landmark Storm Raves took place in Brooklyn on May 11th, 1991.
Described by Michaelangelo Matos, author of The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America, “Rave was America’s last great outlaw musical subculture, created by kids, for kids, designed to be impenetrable to adults.” And its proliferation across the US, according to Matos, was inextricably linked with the rise of the internet, first with message boards and mailing lists, later with new electronic audio formats like RealAudio and mp3. In May 1992, ageing alt-culture godhead Timothy Leary told ABC News, “What was once psychedelic is now cybernetic.” In the same segment, which went “undercover” in LA’s rave scene, described techno as “a kind of heavy metal disco.” All of which is to say it’s not a huge leap to get from rave to “robot DJ”.
“So John and I got together,” Paseornek recalls, “We were trying to talk about what we could do, you know, that would reflect this generation of people and new music and the suit. And, we thought, ‘Well, in this world, a DJ could programme his hands just like you programme a keyboard. What would the story be about that?’ And we came up with this crazy story because we had a suit and we had a setting we wanted to put it in, which was the rave world, where we thought it would really fit and what would it be like if a guy turned up with no hands in this world and they had to create hands for him, what could he do if he was a musician? Well, he could play techno music and he could be a DJ at raves.”
“And, so, it really did come together that way.” Next, they needed to enhance their Stan suit with those programmeable hands, which came courtesy of a veteran of RoboCop, eager to work on a Winston. Meanwhile, Vibrations co-producer and music supervisor Dan Lieberstein (later of Sex and the City fame) began searching for representative acts (“We really took the music seriously,” says Paseornek), ultimately providing an entrée to all the musicians who would cameo in the film – Utah Saints (whose performance was cut for the US release), Moses on Acid (a popular group otherwise largely undocumented), Fierce Ruling Diva et al. (The score – including Simeon’s infamous techno demonstration and all of TJ’s music, from his garage band to his Cyberstorm sets – was written and performed by Bob Christianson). Perhaps most importantly, though, Paseornek had to flesh out his script with some lived experience.
“Researching the movie,” says the filmmaker, “The thing that struck me was that the whole rave world was like a fable. I mean, people were in these heightened worlds, there was a vibe going on.” Paseornek’s wife, an artist, suggested they should “go and see what these things are,” and they began to attend warehouse raves, stepping together “into this whole other world.” At one party, Paseornek noted a group of people standing between two enormous speakers, just to feel the vibrations through their bodies. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a whole new world – these people are in their own world.’ It was just a different universe that was being created, and we tried to reflect that when we did the movie, recreate as much as was possible, which made for a very weird film.”
“Yes, part of it was the ecstasy and all that, but most of it, to me, was that it was like a lifestyle in the rave world. To the point where there would be sometimes an adventure to get to a rave – they would send you to one place and they’ll send you to another place and yet everyone would find these raves.” For the record, Paseornek confirms, “I never liked ecstasy. It wasn’t my thing, but it wasn’t like I was going [there] to do drugs. Nothing against anyone who did, but I am a martini guy. To me, it was one of the downfalls of the rave scene that the drugs kind of took over and it got a really bad reputation. Most of the people involved with raves really had big hearts and just want to feel something different.”
“I even met with Moby,” Paseornek says, “although I’m sure Moby will never remember this. Moby was just starting to do raves around the world and, through a mutual friend, I sat down with him and he told me about the rave world.” Alas, during filming, Moby was on tour and unavailable. “I tried to convince him. I have a feeling if he was around, he would have stopped in and done something.” Indeed, Moby’s music features heavily in a pre-production promotional video made by Cinépix, which also features a specially-shot Cyberstorm performance, with an alternative cast (and, sadly, the only appearance of his unnamed cyborg backing band).
Script complete, they set about casting the film which was still titled, and would be all throughout production, Cyberstorm. Christina Applegate was 22 and best known for portraying Kelly Bundy on the long-running sitcom Married With Children. Paseornek knew that Applegate was getting offered plenty of mainstream Hollywood, coming-of-age projects but was eager to try something different (or, as the New York Post claimed, in July ’93, “looking to shed her TV bimbo image”), so he passed her manager the script. Applegate liked the project too, but stipulated she would only sign on if James Marshall was hired for the lead. In his memoir, Dunning explained, “He wasn’t our first choice, but we agreed. And he did, after all, have the reputation of being a hot up-and-comer as a result of his work on the hit Twin Peaks TV series.”
First Watergate, now Christina Applegate. The blond star from “Married With Children” passed up highly visible comedic roles in “Wayne’s World 2” and “The Coneheads” and opted instead for a more serious role in the low-budget film “Cyberstorm”. Applegate was overheard saying at Ciccio & Tony’s that she’s going to dye her hair black for the part of the woman who takes in a rocker who loses the use of his hands before the “big concert”. Don’t worry, he’s later outfitted with a computerized suit and “programmeable hands.”
New York Daily News, Tuesday, July 6, 1993
Happily, though, Paseornek wanted someone “Where you sort of go, ‘Well, there’s kind of something more going on in that guy’s head.'” Marshall had played brooding biker James Hurley on both series of Twin Peaks, which had only recently been a true cultural phenomenon. “I thought it would be good to have someone who wouldn’t come off as corny intrinsically… James is a heavy dude.” Luckily, Marshall liked the script and wanted to do it, and so Paseornek had his star-crossed lovers. Ultimately, though, Marshall would share credit for some of Vibrations’ most memorable moments. “For the more adventurous dancing, there was a dancer, her name was Zu Zu,” Paseornek recalls. “James was in there for a lot of it, but then we enhanced it.”
Paseornek insists that you can see Vibrations in “a whole different way” if you do picture it as a fable, and “not like somebody trying to show life as it really is,” but, even so, there’s a genuine verisimilitude in the production. “If you stepped back in 1991, into the rave world,” Paseornek suggests, “the characters and the environment itself was a lot like that.” Vibrations was filmed in July 1993 (“One of the hottest summers I could ever remember in New York”), over a month of six-day weeks. It was Cinépix’ first production in the city, and, according to Dunning, “We were pumped.” The production recruited rave organisers to decorate the same Brooklyn warehouses where their parties were held, and hired their regular lighting crews.
Embed from Getty ImagesChristina Applegate, Bubba (Moses on Acid) & Neville Wells at Mr Fuji’s Tropicana, New York, 1993.
There was no air-conditioning in the warehouses they shot in, and sold-out crowds were conjured via radio annoucements of DJ appearances. The climactic scenes were shot at New York’s Webster Hall, where contemporaneous press noted the dancing extras didn’t get paid. (“On the contrary,” reported The New York Post, “The club charged their customary $15 admission fee.”). If there was any ill will directed towards the production, though, it certainly wasn’t aimed at the stars. According to Lieberstein, “While we were filming on the streets of Brooklyn, the local residents would crowd around calling’s Christina’s name, throwing flowers and sending small gifts over to her through the production assistants. No matter where we shot, it was impossible to feel threatened in the midst of so much genuine affection.”
“The difference between shooting John Wick in New York and shooting Vibrations, if you watch John Wick and you see Times Square or Chinatown, those are all our people. All our cars, all our rain. All our everything. On Vibrations, I was stealing shots.” Meaning that while they might have had a permit to grab a shot or two in, say, Times Square, Paseornek would surreptitiously sneak his actors in front of the cameras. “The reason that a real person put a dollar in James Marshall’s cup when he is sitting on the ground there is because there were real people walking through the shot, along with our people, so, they felt sorry for him. He actually made some money during the scene.” (The Vibrations press kit assures us that “proceeds went towards the purchase of sandwiches for some of the neighbourhood’s homeless”)
But the producers weren’t focused on the bottom line. In John Dunning’s memoir, You’re Not Dead Until You’re Forgotten, Paseornek recalled his perfectionist friend and mentor forcing him to re-shoot a scene. Dunning had noticed you could see under the neck of the Cyberstorm costume from one angle. “And I thought, ‘No-one but John Dunning is ever going to notice that.’ But it drove him crazy. He was ready to pay for it out of his own pocket to re-shoot something only he would see.”
Sadly, Vibrations’ box office performance didn’t reward its creators’ attention to detail. Dunning had an idea to emulate the major studios’ saturation strategy – where they book a film into thousands of movie theatres simultaneously and spend millions marketing it nationally – but instead focus on just one area of the US. “The people in that region wouldn’t know that it wasn’t a national release because we would match the majors in media exposure.”
However, Dunning would’ve had to convince US partners on the plan, and, as he later reflected, “it wasn’t my forte”. Instead, his experiment took place in one region of Canada and, unfortunately, “It didn’t work. Quebec wasn’t ready for a film about raves, so off it went to video.” Vibrations was quietly released to US video rental in late August, 1995. The sales campaign aimed at video store managers boldly asserted the film had, “trailered theatrically with The Crow, generating powerful consumer impressions.”
Vibrations was not widely reviewed (Entertainment Weekly said the film “deserves a long video life as the most unintentionally funny craze comedy since Roller Boogie“), though the dry synopsis accompanying the little press coverage it did receive goes a way to explaining its lack of impact. Under the banner of “Romance”, the Baltimore Sun’s listing was typical: “A dance-club manager befriends and then falls in love with an aspiring musician who has become an alcoholic after an attack that left him without the use of his hands.” No Utah Saints, no Vindicator suit, no programmeable hands – no suggestion at all of an irrepressible, rave-dancing cyborg DJ.
There’s a sense too, strengthened by a glance at a selection of abandoned poster concepts (see above), that they struggled figuring out how to sell the film – as a harrowing tale of amputation and alcoholism, as a Gen X drama in the mould of Reality Bites or as some kind of vague Terminator derivative? But perhaps Vibrations simply missed its moment. “Sometimes films are discovered the day they open,” offers Paseornek, “and sometimes they are discovered later.”
“I was once standing in line with Mary Harron, after we’d made American Psycho…and there were these people who had just discovered it. We were standing waiting to buy our food and this one woman says to this other woman, ‘Have you ever seen that film American Psycho? What kind of disgusting people would make that film?’ That is what you’re vulnerable to, period, in our business is, you know, not everybody is going to love everything you do. So I’m always nervous whenanything comes out that I’ve been involved with.”
Vibrations had been a co-production between Paseornek’s Tanglewood Films and Dunning’s Cinépix. In the few years that followed, Paseornek established the US distribution arm of Cinépix in New York City. Then, when Lionsgate took over Cinépix/CFP in 1997, just two years after Vibrations debuted, Paseornek became president of the company’s film arm, overseeing development and production.
So after all this time, how does Paseornek feel about Vibrations? “I will say this, if I had to do it over again, at this point, I would probably have looked at the motivation more for why things happen, like why did those guys attack him. Back then, it was good enough to have bad guys just be bad guys often, you know? Today, we want to know why they are bad guys. So, I probably would put a lot more thought into that, but, again, we thought of it as a fable.”
“I think what it might have helped inform me on as a producer is not to feel limited by money and, you know, the whole idea of putting the movie together in the city with no money and just not hearing the word no.” And, of course, Vibrations’ whole budget wouldn’t cover the squib bill on any given John Wick production. “I would probably not have gone for some of the effects I went for with no money, because sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t, that’s the thing. And you don’t have any room for error on a low-budget film.” But, even so, Paseornek refuses to make excuses for his debut film, claiming that, even with with same budget, he’d do things differently if he made it now. Producing Vibrations helped Paseornek figure out “how to deal with everything that you deal with in a movie, without much, if any, resources. It was a great experience in that way.”
A quarter of a century later, with 86 production credits to his name, Paseornek is assured about his record. “I’ve been involved with films that have had terrible reviews and I’ve been involved with films that have had great reviews and not been that successful. Our company, we’ve had 130 Oscar nominations. I’ve seen the best of it and I’ve seen the worst of it and I’ve seen the most bizarre of it and I’m proud of everything we’ve ever done.” And so, while it’s a little scary for his film to resurface these days (“because you never know how it’s going to be received”), he’s still fond of it. “It’s a strange little movie,” says Paseornek. “I hope that people like it.”
Sean Welsh (with very special thanks to Mike Paseornek, Greg Dunning and Cinépix)
Vibrationsis currently unavailable in the UK, streaming or otherwise, but you can purchase a Region 1 DVD here.
John Dunning’s memoir, You’re Not Dead Until You’re Forgotten, can be purchased directly from Cinépix here.