Obscurities Reloaded

The occasional (and occasionally untruthful) MostlyFilm series, recently the subject of a homage by the BFI, returns in the excessively talky sequel nobody was asking for. Film blogs are a plague, and we are the obscure.


by Indy Datta

Even in a crappy film or show (and God knows he’s been in enough of those – I’m still trying to piece together the shattered remnants of my soul after recently inadvertently watching a few minutes of City Slickers II: the Legend of Curly’s Gold) Bob Balaban’s presence as an actor is like a quality kite mark. At least while he’s on screen you can relax, knowing that one person involved is doing their job properly. But I’d always wondered, without ever being quite moved to look up the details, why I’d never really heard of him as a director since 1989’s period horror-comedy oddity Parents, and why the film had never generally made the lasting impression it made on me. The answer to the first question turns out to be that Balaban has in fact been working steadily as a director in film and TV for more than 30 years, without ever breaking through. And on the second question, well it’s possible that the tastemakers of 1989 were more familiar than I with the work of David Lynch (Twin Peaks was still, just, in my future, although I did watch his adaptation of Dune as part of the same sleep-deprived marathon that included Forbidden World, Obscure Gems continuity fans).

Which is not to say that Balaban’s film doesn’t have its own distinctive virtues, but simply to acknowledge that the influence of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet looms over Parents, as if uplit and filmed from below with a wide-angle lens. Although if Parents is known at all, it’s known as that cannibal movie with Randy Quaid, the cannibalism is really just a pretext for a very Lynchian exercise in evoking, on explicitly Freudian terms, its protagonist’s psychosexual anxiety. In this case, the cause of the pubescent Michael’s freak-out is, as much as the fact that his dad is feeding him longpig meatloaf, the fact that his dad is fucking his perfect apple-pie blonde mom (Mary Beth Hurt) – an interpretation of the film most literally (and ticklingly Freudianly literal-mindedly) signposted in a fantasy sequence in which Michael (the eerily affectless mini-Balaban Bryan Madorsky –“introduced” in the billing here and never heard from again) spies on his mother from a cupboard while he is assaulted by a Lovecraftianly motile string of gigantic sausages.

There’s a plot, just about, and a conventional horror-movie denouement, but the film is all about the ways Balaban evokes Michael’s (and society’s, right?)  anxiety both from inside (throwing every expressionist trick in the book at the idea; cutting from hypersaturated colour to slowed-down grainy black and white that could be lifted from a non-narrative film by Andy Warhol, using split diopters for disorienting deep focus shots like the one I’ve used here, and fantasy sequences like the one noted above) and out: the juxtaposition of the pristine modernism of the 50s/early 60s period production design with the film’s expressionist and genre elements – of light radio pop hits with Angelo (of course) Badalamenti’s  unnerving orchestral score.  It may not be hugely original, but there’s certainly a visual and narrative intelligence at work here that raises Parents beyond mere pastiche, and a degree of commitment and authenticity that suggests to me that the film is indeed undervalued.

You can (if you’re in London) soon see for yourself if I’m talking rubbish, because Parents is on at the BFI Southbank in July.

City of the Dead
by Blake Backlash


City of the Dead is cursed: every moment you spend there you’re really trapped on a soundstage in Shepperton. And yet there’s something uncanny about the way the place looks. John Llewelyn Moxey went on to direct sun-drenched, colour saturated American TV: Magnum P.I., Hawaii 5-0 and lots of Murder She Wrote. But in his first film he used sharp black-and-white to conjure up something otherworldly from fog and faces.

The story is hokum (apart from one strikingly exceptional moment): college student Nan Barlow (Venetia Stevenson) is sent by her history professor (Christopher Lee – obviously a wrong ‘un) to research witchcraft in the small Massachusetts town Whitewood. She is menaced by a coven of witches. These witches should be dead but have been granted immortality by Lucifer, following a bodged burning-at-the-stake we witness in a prologue.

That prologue is something though: have a look for yourself. The film is public domain so you can watch it all after you’ve finished reading this. But for now, just the opening shot should be enough. Blotches of inky darkness mottle a slate grey screen, becoming first shadows and then 17th Century sourpusses that march towards us, and into dour close-ups. The interior of The Raven’s Inn at Whitehaven is rendered almost as vividly: an oppressively low ceiling, with firelight flittering across it like malevolent whispers. The DP here was Desmond Dickinson who also photographed Olivier’s Hamlet – a film that made similar use of bleak exteriors and gloomy interiors.

The scenes at Nan’s college are not nearly so interesting: flat, bland light shows us flat, bland boyfriends and teachers (all Brits doing American accents) none of whom do anything very interesting (well Christopher Lee impales a pigeon but that’s about it). The contrast makes Whitehaven seem even more like a place out of time. Yet these two worlds are united, instantly, as the plot swerves from the middle of the road and takes a dark detour. A singularly cruel and blackly comic bit of editing takes us from a sacrifice to a birthday party. The knife is in the cake.

Art School Confidential
by Paul Duane


It’s hard to believe that an Obscure GemTM could come from a director whose three other movies were respectable hits, edging into classic status. But Art School Confidential, directed by the magnificent misanthrope Terry Zwigoff and written by one of the finest comic-book talents there’s ever been, Dan Clowes, slipped under the radar in a big way.

I caught it on MGM Movies, my favourite cable channel but one whose quality control can put Jean-Luc Godard films up against DTV ’80s vengeance romps. I was by no means prepared for ASC to be this good, this strange and this funny. It amazed me. The critical pile-on it suffered was certainly unjustified, and the awful distribution (I don’t think the film had any sort of real release outside the USA) also worked against it.

Zwigoff and Clowes created a strange, goofy, dark as hell story here, and it deserves to be better known. Based on a four-page comic strip, ASC tracks the art school odyssey of hopeful young painter Jerome (Max Minghella) who has bought into the whole ‘great men of art’ idea, complete with the belief that his talent will make him popular with the ladies. However the art school he attends is more of a bullshit farm, run by losers and populated by borderline psychopaths.

This rings true to my own time in such an institution, I have to say.

The film’s best and funniest idea is also the biggest spoiler. However I’ll just say that another student’s childish, hamfisted naive art is not only far more popular with the tutors than Jerome’s carefully crafted classicism, but also is more closely tied in with the B-story – a crazed killer stalks the campus – than it at first seems to be.

ASC seems at times to be a savage taxonomy of the various types of raging arseholes you’ll encounter in the course of an artistic career – older, embittered artists John Malkovich (he paints triangles) and Jim Broadbent are set against a Jeff Koons-type successful businessman/artist, a terrific cameo by Adam ‘Parks & Rec’ Scott, and the various students, desperate to succeed by any means necessary. The joy of it all is in the calm, surgical clarity of the film’s savagery. You know both Zwigoff and Clowes have been through this world and know it and despise it, and despite themselves, are fascinated by it.

It’s funny, it’s weirdly lovely and finally it’s terribly sad. I would put it above Zwigoff’s Ghost World but below his Bad Santa which is, as everyone must realise, an untouchable masterpiece, so that’s quite high praise. And Zwigoff hasn’t made a film since. Show this one some love and maybe he’ll amaze us again.

by the Tramp


There are a lot of films with highfalutin’ ideas (I am looking at you Christopher Nolan) poorly realised (I am still looking at you Chris Nolan and also you, Leos Carax). Skeletons written and directed by Nick Whitfield is a rare example of a film with BIG, surreal, existential ideas so well realised that the viewer is on board and caught up in the reality represented by the end of the opening sequence.

Skeletons  is a true hidden gem, shot with a modest budget and a cast of non-stars (excepting  a supporting/cameo role by Jason Isaacs), that charmed me throughout and left me with a wonderful warm and fuzzy feeling that Hollywood rarely achieves. It never once assumes that viewers require spoon-feeding its ideas; instead it sweeps the viewer along and allows them to reach their own conclusions, if not catch up in their own time.

Summarising Skeletons is tough to do, partly because the ideas sound preposterous on paper, despite working seamlessly in the film. Ostensibly it is a film about two men (‘Davis’ -Ed Gaughan and ‘Bennett’ – Andrew Buckley) whose job is to exorcise the metaphorical (or real, supernatural) skeletons in their clients’ closets. Wholly reliant on the professionalism of their partner to survive the process this duo share a bond not unlike that of partners in cop shows – knowing so much about the other and yet retaining a distance and secrets of their own. Within the running time of this film they find redemption and resolution for a family (that includes a young Tuppence Middleton) and themselves.

This is the most delightful film, which I will not spoil further for anyone reading this by telling you more about it, rather I urge you to discover and love it yourselves. It is rentable or purchasable on Amazon (other VOD outlets are available – ed); I promise that you are highly unlikely to regret giving it a chance.

 The Whole Town’s Talking
by Philip Concannon

The Whole Town's Talking

I’m a sucker for twins and doppelgängers. Any film in which a star is required to act alongside his or herself is immediately going to pique my interest, and I love watching those scenes in which the actor’s ability to create two distinct characters and the filmmakers’ skill in staging such encounters is put to the test. Of course, the further you go back through cinema history, the more difficult those tricks were to pull off, and this year I have been delighted by two older films in particular. I loved Robert Siodmak’s 1946 film The Dark Mirror, in which Olivia de Havilland played twins plotting to get away with murder, but I was even more taken with a film that was released over a decade earlier – John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking.

“My name’s John Ford. I make Westerns.” is the quote most readily associated with this great director, and it’s true that the wide open spaces of Monument Valley are the first thing that comes to mind when his name is uttered, but there was much more to Ford than that. His 140-film career has plenty of dramas, thrillers, adventures, period pieces and comedies, including this mistaken-identity farce from 1935. Edward G. Robinson stars as the meek, milquetoast bank clerk Arthur Jones, a man who just happens to bear a striking resemblance to the infamous gangster ‘Killer’ Mannion. An early scene finds Jones peering into the mirror as he reads a newspaper report detailing Mannion’s grotesque features, and Robinson has a lot of fun sending up his own image, as his two familiar screen personas play off against each other.

The scenes in which Robinson co-stars with Robinson are a particular treat. The effects work is consistently impressive and often seamless, and Ford even throws in a couple of flashy trick shots, such as one neat moment in which both characters can be seen in a mirror having a conversation. Ford’s direction is at its snappiest here, keeping the film moving at a screwball pace and skilfully balancing the comedy with a darker undertone that emerges towards the end of the film. I just wish he and the scriptwriters had given the great Jean Arthur a little more to do – she’s a wonderful presence in the film’s first half before her role quickly fades, but she does have one priceless moment when she bamboozles a couple of detectives by telling them exactly what they want to hear.

Sir Henry at Rawlinson End
by Spank the Monkey

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I first encountered Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry At Rawlinson End – a radio drama for a narrator and musicians, later released on record – at around the same time as I discovered Under Milk Wood. It struck me that both pieces were cut from the same cloth: a series of intensely human vignettes, told by an author drunk on the power of language (not to mention drunk on drink). Everything was there in the words. Why would you need images?

It’s a question that persists as you watch the beginning of Steve Roberts’ 1980 film adaptation. Stanshall’s words are zany, but precisely structured. Roberts attempts to match them with zany visuals, throwing so much into the frame that even a viewer with prior experience of the Rawlinsonverse would struggle to keep up. By comparison with the stripped-down splendour of the record, everything feels needlessly over-complicated. For the first reel or so, you feel that it isn’t working.

Stick with it, though: it’s one of those films you have to physically dig your way into, like spelunking. And then suddenly, everything comes together and the plot makes perfect sense. Although ‘plot’ may be too strong a word to describe this sequence of events. There are some basic stories that happen – a family dinner, a con job, a ritual, a prison break, an exorcism – and the film flits between all of them without ever really resolving any. But it’s the journey that matters, rather than where you end up. And the film has three strengths that keep you hooked throughout its barely-a-feature running time.

One of these is, obviously, Stanshall’s script – the narrative structure may be partly down to Roberts, but the lines are all Viv’s, and his love of a well-crafted phrase followed by a bathetic plummet remains intact. It’s enhanced by the astonishing photography of Martin Bell (who, as discussed here recently, almost went directly from Sir Henry to working with Walerian Borowcyzk). Bell’s soft-edged sepia images convert Knebworth House into a rundown mansion straight out of a fairytale. His final surreal freeze-frame has stayed lodged perfectly in my head from the first time I saw it in 1982 to the second time in 2015. (Spoiler alert: it’s this.)

But finally, what makes Sir Henry fly is the most astonishing cast a film this silly could hope for. Whether they’re simply great actors like Patrick Magee and JG Devlin, or British comedy legends like Denise Coffey and Harry Fowler, they all embody the characters perfectly – everyone just looks right. And that goes double for Sir Henry himself: Trevor Howard, by all accounts, relished the opportunity to play a role this ridiculous in his mid-sixties. Elsewhere on this page, writers will try to persuade you that their Obscure Gems will show you things you wouldn’t see anywhere else. Well, I can offer you one of Britain’s finest actors riding a unicycle in blackface and a tutu. Beat that.

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