Fragmented Films 6th of May 2009

When you no longer exist and become trapped within your own misguided bloated and mythical image it can become a torturous chicken and egg scenario. The irony being you have no one else to blame but yourself. This was the quintessential problem for Gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson, author of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, who not only inserted himself into his stories, but made himself increasingly the focal point, more often than not to the detriment of the story itself, yet in doing so, somehow stumbled into a wider social milieu, into the darkness and hypocrisy at the heart of the American dream. Gonzo (Arthouse/ Madman) is an exhaustive document of the life, writing, celebrity and eccentricity of Thompson that is willing to delve beneath the mescaline, bourbon, and drug addled paranoia and explore the complexity of the man via archival footage, interviews with friends, family and even politicians on the receiving end of Thompson’s wit. And strangely enough it doesn’t forget the writing, with Johnny Depp reading excerpts over iconic 60’s music and imagery. Director Alex Gibney who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Darkside, tracks some of the most obscure footage of Hunter you could ever imagine, and he is exhaustive in his research, not pulling any punches when the ego and addictions seemed to sap his creative energy and his writing became a sad parody of his former genius. The directors commentary is like a whole new film with Gibney offering up numerous nuggets he uncovered during his research. Gonzo is the kind of film Hunter in all his complex contradictory madness deserves, simultaneously hilarious and tragic.

The Harder They Come (Umbrella) is so cool that it hurts, with great reggae music and copious amounts of ganja. Released in 1972 it’s the film that brought not only the sound of Jamaican reggae to the world, but also its fashion sense and lifestyle. Curiously it’s also a gangster film, a musical and a social commentary. It’s rough and raw, imbued not just with an urban street energy, but these incredible tunes from star Jimmy Cliff who sings the catchy title song and plays the rebellious lead role, yet also from Toots and the Maytals and Desmond Decker. This film is a real time capsule, owing a little to US blacksploitation combined with a cultural snapshot, playing as a anti social gangster film. There’s also some great extras including a 52 minute making off and interviews with all relevant parties.

Fix (Accent) is what happens when the MTV culture smokes ice and gets ADHD. Forget about bothering with numerous setups and angles, just give one of the actors the camera and set him lose. It’s subjective first person narrative, something Fragmented Films hasn’t seen since the 1947 detective noir The Lady In The Lake. In our cinema verite obsessed word, in our quest for immediacy and being right in the thick of the action (albeit deep in the confines of our comfortable armchair) Fix makes perfect sense. It runs with a couple of 20 somethings racing to get their charismatic and eccentric heroin addicted brother to rehab by 8pm or he will face 3 years jail. It’s high energy stuff with abrupt jump cuts and numerous seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It’s the huge boulder that unfortunately doesn’t crush Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, picking up speed threatening to wipe out everything else in its path. Yet when they occasionally slow down there’s an unexpected depth, humor and social commentary lurking beneath the provocative style, and that’s ultimately what makes Fix such a taut and compelling experience.

There is nothing like Film Noir. It’s a morose and seedy post WW2 cynicism about human nature that expressed itself via dark expressionistic lighting, grim storylines and duplicitous archetypal characters. It exists in a time (the 1940’s and 50’s) when happy endings seemed inconceivable even to Hollywood. Otto Preminger is the autocratic (read violent bully) German director who created some of the most influential noir’s of the time and Madman have released three of these, Whirlpool, Fallen Angel and Where the Sidewalk Ends. We’re talking dirty cops, fraudulent hypnotists, seedy con-men, with the dice well and truly loaded against our anti heroes. In the Fallen Angel commentary academic Adrian Martin suggests there’s only one rule with Preminger, ‘follow the camera.” A master of long takes, he would move in and withdraw, obtaining a long shot and close up all within the one shot without cutting. It’s like being entertained whilst going to film school. He was a true maverick, actively attempting to subvert the puritan censors at every opportunity and crafting these incisive dark vignettes that could never be made today.

Fragmented Frequencies 30th April 09

Peter Thomas

Was God an astronaut? Did she visit ancient tribes throughout history? And how did whoever built the pyramids get so damn good at maths? These are the tough questions posed by the cheesy 1971 pseudo scientific documentary Chariots of the Gods (Beyond Entertainment). And the answers are a hoot. It comes from the wildly popular books produced by Erich Von Dankien, a bunch of questionably researched highly entertaining conspiracy pulp novels, that pose as rigorous scientific investigations and come across like the Cellestine Prophecy meets Da Vinci Code in flares. An earnest voice taps into ancient tribalism and rituals, reads centuries old poems and uses very curious interpretations of the dead sea scrolls and the bible to draw weight to the argument that we’re descended from aliens. Visually it’s stunning, you see 60’s Bagdad, Istanbul, India, Africa, South America, Egypt, visit the pyramids, Easter Island, even Aboriginal cave paintings in Australia in a magical mystical tour of the world.

Yet the real treat is the soundtrack which has become a highly sought after cult item, because it’s just so damn wacky. It’s an inspired mix of avant acid exotica, bachelor pad free-jazz, earnest cheesy synth, and soulless white-boy funk with messed up experimental sound effects simultaneously undermining and overwhelming the film. Excess was what these guys put on their breakfast cereal in the morning. Whilst Fragmented Frequencies likes to believe that the soundtrack was descended from aliens, It’s actually the work of the Peter Thomas Orchestra, a man who’s previous TV soundtracks for German Sci Fi and Spy shows had him referred to as as a wilder more eclectic John Barry, thanks to his sensational use of go go music alongside the ubiquitous noiresque brooding horns. He’s also known as one of Germany’s electro lounge pioneers, but really he was jack of all trades, equally adept at moving between classical, pop, rock and easy listening. His various orchestras and recording ensembles  apparently also featured session musos Jan Hammer (Miami Vice theme), Silvester Levey (Silver Connection), even Donna Summer. There is a rumour that Giorgio Moroder was also in the mix somewhere as well but Fragmented Frequencies believes that would be too good to be true. Perhaps the best thing about this soundtrack is that a fair amount of people who owned it are now dead. So you can pick it up on vinyl pretty easily at your local op shop. Perhaps it’s even cursed.

ACMI’s Synaesthesia series continues with the Queensland based audio visual electro acoustic duo Abject Leader. Their expanded cinema is based on the handmade, on hand processed 16mm film, on feedback systems, music concrete and avant garde cinema. They’re playing at ACMI on Thursday night and it should be a unique and quite hallucinatory experience. Best of all it’s free. One half of the duo, Joel Stern’s recent solo album Objects, Masks, Props (Naturestrip) is one of the more interesting and accomplished works of sound art you will hear. Recorded between 2001 and 2008 with raw material gathered from Ethiopia to Toowoomba it features field recordings of everything from bees within a bee hive to angry sounding dogs and insistent rain, yet there are also these thin wisps of melody that peek through occasionally and are quite beguiling. Despite the length of time in the creation it doesn’t feel composed, the feverish layers of sound slowly twisting and contorting in and out of earshot evoking an exotic fourth world sonic experience. The depth of his layering is astounding, taking you right inside a world that has never existed, yet so too is his editing which in the main is invisible, like he is attempting to craft an experiential sonic world for the listener, his edits replicating the subtle movement of the head in order to change sonic perspective. It’s a unique experience and it will be curious to hear if he utilises any of these techniques tomorrow night.