Tag Archives: cinema

Dark, Deranged and Disney

What is a Disney film? Over the years “Disney” has become a kind of shorthand for a particular, cloying sentimentality and vacuous wholesomeness. In fact Uncle Walt’s surname has become an adjective, and not a good one either. When cultural commentators refer to the Disneyization or Disneyfication of society they are not describing an increase in musical numbers, Technicolor spectacle and good old-fashioned decency, but rather an increased corporatism under the guise of good old-fashioned decency, utilising musical numbers and Technicolor spectacle to brainwash children into archaic gender roles and a passive acceptance of the capitalist machine. From  Dorfman and Mattelart’€™s seminal How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1971),  Henry Giroux’€™s The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999), to Annalee R. Ward€’s Mouse Morality: The Rhetoric of Disney Animated Film (2002) the Disney corporation and its output have been the subject of much criticism. Meanwhile, Walt Disney himself has become something of urban legend, no longer a kindly Uncle but a racist despot whose head has been preserved in cryogenic suspension. As Jean Baudrillard ( in America, 1989: page 48) put it:

The whole Walt Disney philosophy eats out of your hand with these pretty little sentimental creatures in grey fur coats. For my own part, I believe that behind these smiling eyes there lurks a cold, ferocious beast fearfully stalking us.

All of which is good fun, to be sure and undeniably some of Disney’s output is deeply problematic (Song of the South being perhaps the most egregious example) but still others are widely accepted masterpieces of animation (Dumbo, Bambi, The Lion King). The purpose of this post however is not to sort ‘good’ Disney from ‘bad’. Instead, I want to highlight a brief period in Disney’s history (roughly 1979-1985) when, by a combination of accident and design, some truly odd films emerged from the studio. Films that trouble Disney’s reputation for harmless, child-like fun.

Of course, we might argue that this reputation was already false. After all, Disney have never shied away from parental death, which serves as a narrative driver in both Bambi and the Lion King, for example. Meanwhile, Dumbo, Fantasia and Snow White all feature famously nightmarish sequences. But these are all still fundamentally children’s films; their terrors are real, but fleeting, little islands of horror in a sea of hi-jinx and catchy tunes. What interests us here are those few films made between 1979 and 1985 that explore unfamiliar genre territory for Disney: sci-fi and horror.  Incidentally, while this post is about live-action features, Disney’s dark period also saw the release of The Black Cauldron (1985), the first Disney animated film to ever receive a PG rating. The Black Cauldron is still considered one of Disney’s biggest box-office failures; reaction was so negative that Disney did not distribute it on video for more than ten years after it was released.  The live-action features that comprise the ‘Dark Disney’ mini-cycle proved equally problematic for Disney and its audiences because, as Rohan Berry puts it, these films represented an,

awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns. 

In other words, these films, marred by troubled productions and middling box-office came to close to revealing the  “cold, ferocious beast” that Baudrillard saw lurking behind Disney’s smiling eyes. Continue reading

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Special Effects Auteurs (and the particular genius of Screaming Mad George)

Freaked (1993)

Watching the documentary Fantastic Flesh The Art of Make-Up FX an idea came to me. When  auteur theory was being developed by film theorists and critics way back when in the 20th century its aim was to have film directors recognised as the true authors of a film even though film production was both a collective and industrial process. Despite these factors the true auteurs voice, style and thematic concerns could, so the argument went,  be discerned in any of their works. I had the idea that this article would present a complex theory of the special effects artist as auteur but on reflection thought it would be more fun to celebrate the work of Screaming Mad George, and watch a bunch of videos of cool special-effects on the way.

Some context wouldn’t hurt though. So it is interesting to consider which special effects artists have become more well-known to the public than others. Certainly other effects artists could recognise certain work. In  Fantastic Flesh Tom Savini (see below) describes going to see films featuring the work of favoured effects artists as, “the lastest exhibit from your favourite artist”. A potted history might start with Jack Pierce (featured in this 1933 issue of Modern Mechanics!). Pierce was in the fortunate position of being head of Universal’s make-up department when that studio inaugurated the first horror film boom of the 1930s. Counting Boris Karloff’s instantly iconic make-up as Frankenstein’s monster and Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man (both below) among his creations, Jack Pierce could arguably be said to be the granddaddy of special effects auteurs. In the Fanatstci Flesh documentary dire ctor Frank Darabont describes Pierce’s Frankenstein make-up as, “as iconic as the Empire State Building”. Difficult to argue with that really.

Jack Pierce working on his Wolfman

And working on the Monster

Here I’ve already muddied the waters though. Because Pierce was make-up artist on what perhaps remain the most famous iterations of these monsters, but does this make him a ‘special effects’ artist? Ought we to lump Pierce’s special make-up effects in the same category as, say,  Douglas Trumbull‘s effects for 2001: a Space Odyssey or Close Encounters of the Thrid Kind? And even if we broaden our definition whose Frankenstein are we really talking about? Jack Pierce’s because he designed it? Boris Karloff’s because he performed it? Or is James Whale our classic auteur by dint of directing it? If Pierce is not quite the special effects auteur we are looking for he still possessed the hallmarks of a true artist. According to Fantastic Flesh Pierce was fired from Universal for taking too long to perfect his work.

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Liquid Sky: Lipstick Traces and Alien Races

Guess who finally watched Liquid Sky? No, not her, she died years ago. It was me actually. As will soon be seen in great detail.

A quick warning from the off, Liquid Sky is an unusual film with some unusual themes and ideas. So there are going to be big swears (like c-bombs and everything), hard drugs, grubby new-wave synth music, a dash of necrophilia, aliens that feed off of the pleasure secretions of the human brain, androgyny and neon lighting-lots of neon lighting-from here on out. It will be worth it, but if that stuff doesn’t sound like your bag then I’d jump ship now. Why not try a taster with the opening minutes from the film? If you don’t like it you can read something else. I won’t mind. The rest of you, see you in five minutes.

INTRO TO LIQUID SKY

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Posthuman Ecstasy: Long Live the New Sex

David Cronenberg’s new movie A Dangerous Method is out now. I haven’t seen it yet, this isn’t a review. But thinking about the film led me, naturally, to thinking about sex in Cronenberg’s movies. Specifically, about how Cronenberg’s films offer up images of posthuman sexualities, of erotic experiences beyond the bounds of what human bodies are normally considered capable of. So this post is about Cronenberg’s new flesh. The erotic flesh. The philosophy of which is illustrated in the speech in the video below. Fair warning though: although this audio-visual tour through posthuman sexuality will be stimulating and enlightening, you probably don’t want to be reading this post at work or in front of your Granny. Unless she’s very adventurous.

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The Jon Brion Diversion

Of course, I should be doing some proper work. But I started thinking about Jon Brion. Brion  (born December 11, 1963) is “an American rock and pop multi-instrumentalist,singer, songwriter, composer and record producer” (much like the splenetic and rumbustious musical savant Craig Jeffery). I’m not massively au fait with his solo work but I am familiar with his soundtrack work as it forms part of several of what I  consider (often loudly and at length) some of the best films ever made. So this is really just an excuse to post some videos of highlights from those Jon Brion soundtracks.

I might get round to writing longer pieces on these films in the future but in the meantime its worth saying that although we each have our own reality-filters so the merits or otherwise of these films lies in the eyes of the beholder, while I understand that, if you don’t like these films then it would be remiss of me not to seriously consider either snubbing you forever or smothering you with a pillow to put you out of your tasteless idiotic misery. If you haven’t seen these films then go now and find them. Stop conversing with friends and loved ones, or whatever it is you do, and find these movies. It’ll be worth it. Continue reading


A Treasure Trove of Mind Expanding Documentaries and Movies

Just found this site (TubeGnosis) and thought it was worth sharing with the world. Great site with documentaries and films on and from all the usual suspects, Burroughs, RAW,  Crowley, Jodorowsky and on and on. Weeks worth of viewing here.

I’m particularly excited to see the 1972 documentary about R. D. Laing Asylum:

In 1971, filmmaker Peter Robinson and a small crew entered a world of anarchic madness and healing compassion unlike any other. The resulting film, Asylum, records their seven week stay in radical psychiatrist R. D. Laing’s controversial Archway Community — a London row-house where the inmates literally run the asylum. Laing’s conviction that schizophrenics can only heal their shattered “self” where they’re free and yet are held responsible for their actions, challenged patients, doctors and, in Asylum’s incredible document, the filmmakers, to live communally and peacefully. 

A documentary treasure built from truthful moments of astonishing tension and grace, Asylum takes on a gripping narrative strength usually only seen in fiction. Hailed as “beautifully done” by The Village Voice at the time of its 1972 release, Asylum has since become “a model of cinema verité.” (The New York Times) 

“[Asylum] The only thing we have in film that shows what we think works for – well, for people who feel that society is destroying them.” – R. D. Laing

Plenty more besides that one. Going to be a busy week.

Tube Gnosis: Mind Expanding Documentaries and Movies.


More from the archives…

Look everyone! It’s Life at the End of Time, and its back! That’s right I have finally put my 2007 short film and non-youtube sensation back online. I presume it got taken off because no-one watched it. Nothing changes but the seasons, people.

Watching it again I still think its pretty good. Some of it doesn’t work, some of it goes on too long, but there are some good jokes in there. And it brings back happy memories of its production. Five fun-filled and exhausting weeks running round London spent in the company of the gentlemanly and talented Louis Jackson. I think the fun comes across.

Also considering doing a separate video for the song at the end; another co-production with the lithe and moral musical savant Craig Jeffery. As I recall, not without some distress, certain contingents proclaimed it the best part of the film upon it’s original nationwide (of course) release.

So here it is, emerging newborn and blinking back into the daylight. And if you don’t like it, well, there’s always the song at the end. Enjoy.