Mad Cox: Beyond Moviedrome

Alex Cox's big loomy head - a late-night BBC 2 fixture
Alex Cox’s big loomy head – a late-night BBC 2 fixture

Moviedrome! You either remember it or you don’t, but if you do you’ll never forget it and if you never forget it, it will stay with you forever, which is how memory works. Late on BBC2, Alex Cox’s gnarled knuckle of a head would loom out at you and introduce a film so mind-blowingly obscure or spine-tinglingly brilliant it would impress itself into your unconscious brain and lodge there like a bit of popcorn in a tender gum. In later years it would be Mark Cousins on loomy head duty, but there’s little doubt that Cox is the classic loom-monger for most. It was fertile ground for our writers, and here we present some memories of both the films and their unique, treasurable presentation…

The Duellists
by Indy Datta

The BFI focus group gets down to business.
The BFI focus group gets down to business.

A few years ago I took part in a focus group run by the BFI and one of the things we talked about was how we’d first got into films as something more than a casual pastime. Moviedrome was one of the most commonly mentioned factors, one of the first things for most of us that introduced us to the idea that there was a specific film culture, and everybody seemed to agree that its loss was felt. The general tenor of this blog post, I am guessing, will be the same – but my own feeling, which has changed since that focus group, is that nostalgia shouldn’t blind us to the fact that times have changed. Growing up outside of London in the 80s, the BBC was pretty much my only source for visual culture (being comically middle class, we didn’t even have a VCR until I’d left for university), and most films were more or less impossible to see if they weren’t on TV. None of that is true for the generation of budding film buffs currently in their teens. Of course, the big difference between the BBC and all the other ways people can see films now is that the BBC is free to those kids, and there is obviously a debate to be had about the size of the role the BBC should have in promulgating culture in general , but that debate is, as they say in Scotland, outwith the scope of this bloguscule.

Nostalgia should also not obscure the fact that the sense of curatedness that I and the other focus-groupers associated with Moviedrome was somewhat illusory. In retrospect it seems obvious that the strand included whatever off-mainstream films the Beeb happened to have the rights for, whether Alex Cox or Mark Cousins thought much of them at all. In preparing to write this piece I watched Ridley Scott’s debut feature The Duellists, largely because of my memory of Cox’s hilariously snide introduction to it, which can now be revisited in full thanks to the magic of the internet, and which seems to consist largely of Cox loudly grinding his axe in the direction of whoever is in his way (including the now sainted Tony, brother of Ridley, of whom no ill can currently be said in polite company).

Duellists

As for the film itself, it’s the comment Cox makes in passing about Scott’s films resemblance to Barry Lyndon that resonates the most at this remove.  The first time Scott starts a scene in close up on a beautifully lit still life of some food or something and then pulls back to reveal the scene around it, it’s an amusing homage – the fifth or sixth time, it’s a bit like watching someone actually lift a shop. The unique visual sensibility Scott would bring to Alien and Blade Runner is only embryonically evident here (or maybe Scott needed the scope of fantasy to really fly). The film has plenty of other pleasures, of course, chief among them a typically committed Harvey Keitel; so convincing and unquestionable is his wounded pride, burning across the story’s decades over a point of honour so obscure that nobody else, in the film or out of it, can truly understand it. The Region A BluRay does justice to the beauty of the cinematography by Frank Tidy (a long time associate of Scott, they shot many commercials together) and the extras (including a conversation between Scott and, for some reason, Kevin “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves” Reynolds), while not up to Criterion Collection standards, provide more useful  and interesting context than Cox was inclined to. I’d welcome a revival of Moviedrome, or something like it, but it would have to do a lot more to justify its existence than it did in its first life.

Il Grande Silenzio
by MarvMarsh

It's the pollen.
It’s the pollen.

1990 was a fine year. I was eighteen and among many things it was the year in which I rubbed my eyes all the way to work at Sainsbury’s so that when I got there I could claim I had hay fever and be sent home to watch England play Holland in the World Cup. By the time I got there my eyes were as red as a tree frog’s. Needless to say they didn’t believe me but, glory be, they sent me home anyway. My manager did not hide his disgust. I felt like a king. As well as that,  Arnie shamed himself mightily with Kindergarten Cop and Moviedrome gave us what I think was its best season of films. As well as the one I’m going to go on about, it included  these three: Assault on Precinct 13, An American Werewolf in London and Yojimbo. That’s three of my favourite films, all presented to me by Alex Cox when I was eighteen. Imagine what else Alex Cox gave to eighteen year olds in 1990. Such a generous man.

Silenzio Kinski

Anyway, Il Grande Silenzio. The last twenty years have been punctuated by me telling people about this great film I saw once that was a spaghetti western set in the snow. It was brutal and fun, with a brilliant ending, but I couldn’t remember the name of it. Eventually Google helped me out and I got myself a copy on DVD and finally watched it again a few months ago. In a way it’s a shame I did, not because the film failed to live up to my memory of it, but because it means I can’t copy the method used in Nicholson Baker’s book, U & I, where he writes about the impact of John Updike’s work on him without re-reading it first. At least, I think that’s what he does but appropriately enough I can’t quite recall. My memories of Il Grande Silenzio were pretty much only these: snow, Klaus Kinski and dead bodies slumped against a bar. As it turns out all were accurate but on rewatching it I found I had forgotten much of the plot and only occasional moments set off flashing lights somewhere in my head to tell me I’d seen them before. Fortunately, it turned out that my eighteen year old self was right to recommend it. It’s a terrific film. How could it not be with Klaus Kinski playing a seedy little bounty hunter who earns his living killing people and storing their bodies in the snow to collect later?  As well as Klaus Kinski, it’s filled with horses tramping through snow, zoom-ins, and grubbiness. All good things. And the ending is still great.

So why is this film that it turns out I could barely remember so important to me? The reason, I think, is at least partially Moviedrome. A Moviedrome film was a bit of an event. Unlike just watching a film that was on, it felt like someone had chosen the film for you. Being eighteen and just beginning to really take an interest in films didn’t exactly hinder the sense of that being a bit special. It probably isn’t a coincidence that four films I would class among my favourites were shown as part of it. They’re all great films, of course, but I got to see them in a great way. They need to bring Moviedrome back.

Manhunter
by Emma Street

A literal truth.
The inside of your head as you read the next paragraph.

Michael Mann’s Manhunter was shown as part of Moviedrome in 1991 – the same year that Silence of the Lambs was released. “Of course, Anthony Hopkins wasn’t the first actor to play Hannibal Lecter,” I could tell people knowledgably, “He was originally portrayed by Brian Cox five years earlier. Brian Cox the actor, obviously, not Brian Cox the breathy TV Physicist because this is the 1991 and D:Ream won’t even release ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ for another 3 years. “

I was a pretentious 17 year old. The same year my friends and I went up to London to see Bertrand Blier’s ‘Merci La Vie’ because I aspired to be the sort of person who made an effort to see arty subtitled films and didn’t just go to see ‘ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ‘. To be honest, I probably still aspire to be that person.

We saw Silence of the Lambs after eating fairy cakes made with marijuana. In order to better understand film’s nuances by seeing it through the prism of mind altering experience. Possibly. Or more likely because we were a bunch of teenaged hippies with no idea what sort of film to see when stoned.  It didn’t improve the viewing experience.

Manhunter is a sort-of predecessor to Silence of the Lambs. It introduces us to Will Graham; a criminal profiler who retired to the seaside after the effort of catching Hannibal Lecter broke his brain. He is tempted back to catch a new serial killer by his cop buddy who – along with all the other policemen in this film – trained at the US School of Hard-Boiled Cop Clichés. This means he’ll do whatever he has to do in order to get the job done. And he has a moustache.

manhunter tiger

The serial killer – known as the Tooth Fairy – is everybody’s idea of a creepy looking and sounding guy. You wouldn’t want to sit near on the bus because he looks like a serial killer.  To his credit, he takes a blind lady to cuddle a drugged tiger which is my idea of a perfect date.  She thinks he’s nice despite his non-stop creepiness because as well as sight she lacks people skills and a sense of self preservation.

The Tooth Fairy only gets caught at the end because he stops acting like an inscrutable angel of death and behaves like a jealous psycho boyfriend. There is clearly an important lesson here we can all take from this.

Cox as Hannibal Lecter is only in a couple of scenes but he completely owns the film. He’s charming, well-spoken and happy to discuss his God Complex.”If one does what God does enough times, one will become as God is ‘

In fact, Cox is so good in the role that he can almost deliver the following line without sounding at all ridiculous. Almost.

‘We are just alike. If you want the scent… smell yourself.’

One Eyed Jacks
by Niall Anderson

This may be relevant later.
{Twin Peaks reference here}.

Like Orson Welles, Marlon Brando is such a revolutionary figure in the history of Hollywood that fans tend to look kindly on even his worst excesses. One-Eyed Jacks hardly counts among his worst work, but it’s certainly excessive: an episodic Western of multiple styles, multiple climaxes, and multiple personalities. Taking the director’s chair for the first and last time (having apparently just fired Stanley Kubrick), Brando starts out by riffing solemnly on the legend of Billy The Kid but soon enough ploughs into the apparently more resonant story of how hard it is to be Marlon Brando.

If you could bottle One-Eyed Jacks and were unwise enough to drink it, the hangover would be the worst you’ve ever had, featuring wraparound paranoia, a hostile sexuality, and, perhaps relatedly, a peculiar ambivalence about whether you’d like your old best buddy to clasp you to his bosom in friendship or whip you in the street. It is, in other words, the essence of Brando.

OEJ

I knew none of this when I first saw it on Moviedrome in 1990, but I was very taken by Alex Cox’s description of the film’s ending: “When they were ready to shoot that sequence, Brando called all the cast, crew and extras together on the set and told them the alternatives … in one [Brando’s] character died; in the other, his adversary did … They took a vote. Democracy in action.”

Even this rare exercise in democracy feels very Brando: an instinctual acknowledgement that One-Eyed Jacks never knew where it was going even for a minute. For all that, it remains my favourite Brando movie: a skeleton key to both the brilliance and the lunacy of his career, and a decisive tipping point in favour of lunacy.

THX 1138
by Mr Moth

The source of a million nerdy references.
The source of a million nerdy references.

Confession – I didn’t watch THX 1138 when it was featured as part of Moviedrome. I recall watching films from around the same time as part of the strand (Q the Winged Serpent*, The Thing From Another World, Razorback, Body Snatchers, Jabberwocky, Brazil, Barbarella, etc) but I didn’t actually watch THX until some seven years after it was shown. So what the hell am I doing writing about it here?

I was sharing a flat at the time, in my second year at university, and my flatmate had an amazing video collection. I regularly sat about in my pants watching Artificial Eye movies, his ex-rental tapes of camp junk and, crucially, the random stuff taped off the telly. So it came to pass that I pulled down a tape labelled THX-1138 (Moviedrome). Of course I knew what it was; I’m a man born in the late seventies and so have a curious affection blind-spot for Star Wars and its assorted nerdicalia. This was a year before the Special Editions showed us the tidal wave of nostalgia-piss George Lucas was preparing to unleash on fans and, dammit, I wanted to see this, to see the man before the phenomenon.

THX 1138

It’s quite a thing. Alex Cox was dismissive in his intro, but I was undeterred. I was expecting something… I don’t know what. It wasn’t what I expected. An art student’s reworking of 1984 via Philip K Dick is the best I can come up with, but the plot feels more like a peg to hang some memorable scenes on. Oh, that sounds familiar. Still, nothing in any subsequent Lucas film has the kick of the white prison in THX, an endless space that could stand in for purgatory in the mind of any passing Catholic. And as triumphant as A New Hope’s medal ceremony is, it is a light hurrah to the final image of THX emerging from the tunnels below the Earth to witness a glorious, unfiltered sunrise for the first time.

But it’s not about the film – it’s about the medium of discovery. It’s hard not to wonder what place Moviedrome would have on television now, if it could have a place. If I chose, I could watch THX 1138 right now on YouTube or Blinkbox. Even hard to find films can be downloaded somewhere, often for free. Access to these tapes is no longer guarded, rarity isn’t enough to make a film worth seeking out so now it could only be about quality. The presenter – Alex Cox, Mark Cousins, Justin Lee Collins – would no longer be a gatekeeper to a vault of lost treasure, they would be the curator of a collection of hidden masterpieces. And I still think THX would make the cut.

*Which I now realise I should have written this about.

Diva
by Spank the Monkey

Ah! The Gallic sophistication of Gitanes! As the French would say 'Bon inhaleur!'
Ah! The Gallic sophistication of Gitanes! Is.. is she holding a severed head?

I was lucky. I was living in London in the late 1980s, the golden era of repertory cinema. Scattered across town were a dozen or so actual moviedromes, regularly showing some of the best films ever made. So for me, Moviedrome wasn’t a place where I discovered forgotten classics: I’d already been introduced to them at cinemas like the Scala. What it did offer, though, was a chance to tape some of those forgotten classics for my own personal collection. Which is why I own a VHS of the 1981 film Diva, complete with this introduction from Alex Cox.

When it was first broadcast in 1988, that intro seemed genuinely shocking. Diva was an established part of the cult canon – both Time Out and City Limits agreed on that, so it must be true. But here was Cox, ditching his usual five minute enthusiastic spiel for two minutes of carefully paced ennui. It astonished me that he could introduce Diva without mentioning its director’s name once, actually giving the possessive credit to its production designer instead.

Diva

Time, inevitably, has proved Cox right. Back in the 80s, we knew that Diva was all style and no substance (like, um, The Mail On Sunday?), but we didn’t care. Rewatching it now, it doesn’t even have style any more: its cinema du look trappings were taken up by other directors, and amplified to the point that the original source became redundant. The only things that still hold up are – surprise! – Hilton McConnico’s sets.

Snark for snark’s sake is tedious when it becomes the normal mode of discourse [waves hands in the general direction of the internet]. But it would be nice to have a film slot on TV where, once in a while, the host gets to disagree with the choice of film. Then again, just a film slot with an interesting host would be nice.

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3 thoughts on “Mad Cox: Beyond Moviedrome

  1. If it does come back, it will be presented by Kermode – who pretty much does this online already – and I leave it to the reader to decide if that would be a good idea or not. On the one hand, he’s a genuinely enthusiastic and knowledgeable presence who is often most interesting on the subject of more obscure films. On the other…if you want to see the future of middlebrow film criticism in this country, imagine a DM boot grinding on about Silent Running forever

    1. I would also expect Kermode to slip in an audience baiting reference to how under-rated the Twilight saga is every few weeks.

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