Thursday, 29 July 2010

Tentacles (1977)

Country: ITALY/USA


The inhabitants of the pretty summer resort of Ocean Beach are in for an unforgettable summer in this totally forgettable creature feature. This was one of numerous attempts by witless and unimaginative Italian producers to imitate Steven Spielberg’s summer blockbuster Jaws (1975). In the words of horror nerd Kim Newman writing in his book of lists Nightmare Movies “Since the end of the romance between art house and the Italian cinema, Rome has become the Taiwan of the international film industry.” Although things have changed somewhat in the last twenty years, the observation certainly held water when Newman made it. But despite the atrocious dubbing, poor acting, and laughable special effects Italian ‘revolt of nature’ rip offs differ slightly from their American brethren. A greater concentration is placed on the set piece sequence, in contrast to a reckless disregard for characterisation and depth. Although Jaws was a monster movie the most memorable aspect of the narrative is the interaction between the three male leads and the exploration of their myriad vulnerabilities and insecurities. Tentacles isn’t interested in that kind of thing at all. It is also only interested in the ecological and environmental concerns that underpin much American ‘revolt of nature’ narratives in passing.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Flavia the Heretic (1974)


Flavia, la monaca musulmana
Flavia the Rebel Nun
Flavia: Priestess of Violence
Flavia: Heretic Priestess

The uncut Region 2 DVD release of Flavia the Heretic by Shameless Screen Entertainment promotes the film with this incredible statement: “Witness the most notoriously graphic and nasty descent into the nunsploitation genre with Gianfranco Mingozzi’s unforgettable masterpiece of shock cinema.” I’m a big supporter of Shameless, but this has to be one of the most deceptive statements about a film I’ve ever read. Firstly Flavia the Heretic is only nominally part of the nunsploitation sub-genre, in so much as there are a few nuns in it. Secondly it is neither graphic or nasty, but then Shameless weren’t going to promote the film with accurate adjectives such as boring. Thirdly this is far from a masterpiece. The stock sub-generic images of lesbianism, sadomasochism, rape fantasises, torture, and the theme of repressed sexuality and desire are diluted to such a degree here that they are virtually non-existent. Instead Mingozzi’s film has broad and ‘worthy’ themes that ally it more to traditions of European art cinema rather than with a film like Behind Convent Walls (1978). We do get a scene in which a nipple is removed, and a scene in which a horse is castrated - but these moments are brief and purely for shock. The camera does not linger in the way it might in a purer example of exploitation and is more focused on seeking moments of symbolic value. A liberated nun sat inside the carcass of a cow for example. These images are noteworthy for the manner in which they work inside a highly symbolic film that is more concerned with interrogating issues of feminine subjectivity. Any erotic or salacious pleasure is soon halted by the apparent importance of Mingozzi’s allegory of female subjugation in an age of rampant religious and patriarchal oppression.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)


Like the ski flier Walter Steiner in Herzog’s earlier documentary The Great Ecstasy of  Woodcarver Steiner (1974) Dieter Dengler had one overriding dream as a child - this dream was to fly. That this dream would take Dengler from the poverty and hunger struck ruins of post war Bavaria, to the streets of New York, to the US navy, and eventually to sixth months in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp speaks volumes for his will and determination to achieve his life long ambition. The latter episode of course was totally unpredicted, but part of Dengler’s charm is the naïve innocence that led to him joining the navy and eventually piloting an aircraft. In many ways for Dengler the Vietnam War was simpler the enabler of his dream. He had little concept or awareness of the human cost beneath the green canopy of the jungle, but just two hours into his first flight he found himself within that terrain and plunged into a fight for survival. Herzog contextualises this with the inclusion of some inspired stock footage. The images of the jungle landscape exploding in slow motion were recycled for his feature film based on Dengler’s experiences Rescue Dawn (2006) and they possess an odd and haunting poetry. In contrast the footage of jungle survival techniques put out by the military in the 1960’s is laughable and painfully ironic when one thinks of Dengler’s ordeal.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

An Award for The Celluloid Highway

In the last few weeks The Celluloid Highway has picked up three versatile blog awards so I thought I'd say  thank you and pay tribute to those, who in their generosity of spirit, read and support my efforts and chose to recognise this blog. Thank you to Jinx at Totally Jinxed , Liam at LessThanThree Film and Jen at Zombies are Magic! for bestowing this award upon me.

The rules of this award are as follows:
1. Thank the person(s) who gave you this award.
2. Share 7 things about yourself.
3. Nominate 15 blogs who you believe are also deserving of this award.
4. Let the recipients know about the award.

7 things about me
1. I have a 1st class degree in English and Film Studies and a Masters Degree in Film Studies - I've lectured and taught film studies...but its terribly dull! - too many 16-21 year olds who are more obsessed with their hair than the films of Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles.

2. I live alone on the top of a 40 foot pillar of salt.

3. My heroes include Alan Shearer, Eric Bristow (5 times world darts champion if you didnt know - I met him once in a pub in Wiltshire...thoroughly decent chap), Andy Partridge of XTC, Werner Herzog, Mike Oldfield, and Clint Eastwood.

4. I'm unemployable

5. I hate every form of motor vehicle - I want to see a river of orchids where they had a motorway.

6. My favourite film of all time is 2001: A Space Odyssey

7. I passed away this morning.

Acidemic Film
Behind the Couch
Cool Ass Cinema
Common Sense Movie Reviews
Cult Movie Reviews
I Like Horror Movies
Italian Film Review
LessThanThree Film
Midnight Confessions
Mondo 70: A Wild World of Cinema
The Death Rattle
The Film Connoisseur
Totally Jinxed
Watching Hammer: The Hammer Films Review
Zombies are Magic!

Thank you one and all!

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (1980)

Country: USA

The Criterion Collection’s DVD of Burden of Dreams (1982) is an excellent package offering a wealth of important contextual information. This includes commentary tracks from directors Werner Herzog and Les Blank, Blank’s informative and absorbing diary of his time in the Peruvian jungle shooting his documentary, a lengthy retrospective interview with Herzog, and most priceless of all a short 20 minute documentary made by Blank in 1980 called Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Any release of short documentary material either by or about Herzog is a mini event in itself, and due to the films content and its title this has always been an exotic and long sought after item for those seeking out Herzog related material. Herzog’s militant attitude to filmmaking is given an opportunity to flourish in this short piece which was filmed during one of numerous breaks in the fragmented and troubled production of Fitzcarraldo (1982). At some point in the late 1970’s Herzog made the bold assertion that he would eat his shoe if young filmmaker Errol Morris succeeded in his quest to make a film. This bet was both an inspiration to Morris and an example of Herzog’s attitude to the importance of individuals battling the odds to achieve their vision. Naturally Morris succeeded and the film opens with Herzog flying in to attend a screening of Gates of Heaven (1978) and to make good on his shoe eating bet.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Burden of Dreams (1982)

Country: USA

Burden of Dreams is a remarkable documentary that in many ways holds a greater prominence than the film it is documenting. The filming of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) was becoming a legend while it was happening, but Les Blank’s documentary helps to clear aside the mythologizing in much the same way that Herzog’s army of extras cleared away a mountain pass for the central metaphor of the film. Blank’s camera helps to humanise the proceedings and documents in unflinching detail the heavy price that numerous people paid in service of Herzog’s dream. Dreams hang heavily in the air like the humid temperatures of the Peruvian jungle, and this is a document about the futility of attempting to capture a reality on screen that exists within the fevered realms of a dreamscape. The ‘making of’ documentary has become a debased form in the modern age of DVD with producers employing film crews dedicated to producing bland and generic featurettes during the making of the film for the sell through market. These artless self-centred ego trips are barely watchable, but it means that the cost of producing material for the DVD is absorbed into the budget of the film. The genius of Burden of Dreams, and the reason such a film wouldn’t be made now, is that it concerns itself with things other than the making of the film. Blank’s documentary possesses an organic and improvised feel which uses the events surrounding the production of Fitzcarraldo as an anchor for a very inquiring camera.

Friday, 16 July 2010

A Truly Vampiric Collaboration

I have to bite into my Werner Herzog retrospective to bring you news of another collaboration I was invited to take part in. For those of you who have put up with my scribblings over the last few months you'll know that myself and Franco over at  the superb blog The Film Connoisseur have been partaking in a series of Top 5 movie countdowns (like NASA space shuttle launches but without the tense guys in sweat stained shirts!), well we are back to bring you a monster post dedicated to our favourite cinematic bloodsuckers - the vampire! This time we are joined by Venoms5 who runs the excellent Cool Ass Cinema blog. This is easily one of the most informed and entertaining blogs I have come across and I urge you all to check it out and lend your support. So follow the link and read up on the 16  most fascinating and blood drenched Vampire flicks we could come up with. 

 Monster Blog Post! 16 Unusual Vampire Movies!

Stroszek (1977)


One of the meta-narratives or major thematic concerns that preoccupied the generation of filmmakers that made up what scholars termed ‘New German Cinema’ was coming to terms with, and exploring, the cultural colonisation wrought on West Germany in the aftermath of World War Two by America. Wim Wenders approached the subject from the perspective of cinema itself in The American Friend (1977) and Kings of the Road (1976) and throughout his career revised the form of the road movie for a generation of alienated Europeans. Rainer Werner Fassbinder opted to explore the question through a reconstitution of Hollywood genre - most notably the Sirkian melodrama of films such as Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Whilst the films of these two ‘New German’ heavyweights were by no means conventional, Werner Herzog’s single contribution to this ongoing narrative is a truly wacky and oddball take on the subject. Stroszek was Herzog’s sixth fictional feature film and it was his first, and to date last, to be set (albeit partially) in contemporary West Germany. Up to this point Herzog had preferred to set his films in the past and in some cases on other continents, and used the storytelling method of allegory, metaphor and symbolism, to make comments on Germany and its recent past. In Stroszek Herzog concocted a narrative (partially based on the childhood experiences of Bruno S.) that enabled him to formulate his view at the time of both West Germany and America. Like most filmmakers of that generation Herzog’s vision is deeply ambivalent, but ultimately he suggests that all countries are alike in the manner in which they can crush the life out of their citizens - the only difference is in the method.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Woyzeck (1979)


Werner Herzog is well known for his daring approach to filmmaking and for his commitment to taking risks in service of his never ending search for the ‘ecstatic truth’ within an image. But in many ways his boldest filmmaking move occurred during 1978/9 when he made two films back to back that were based on pre-existing material highly venerated in Germany. The first was a remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent expressionistic horror classic Nosferatu (1922) with Klaus Kinski playing the eponymous bloodsucker. The second was the trickier proposition of adapting Georg Buchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck - a demanding work requiring the steely nerve of a major actor to cope with the harrowing treatment the character endures. With just a week off after the completion of shooting on Nosferatu Kinski stepped up to the plate and 18 days later the shooting of Woyzeck was complete and Kinski was able to have his nervous breakdown in peace. The speed with which the film was completed has to be admired and shows an economy of filmmaking from Herzog which has remained unrepeated. To add yet more exhaustion and trauma to the characterisation of Woyzeck Herzog insisted on extremely long unbroken takes - there are in fact only 27 cuts in the whole movie! While this was undoubtedly a major challenge to the actors, it enabled Kinski to probably give the greatest performance of his career.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

La Soufriere (1977)


The subtitle to this short thirty minute documentary from Werner Herzog is 'waiting for an inevitable catastrophe'. Within that statement lies an aspect of Herzog’s approach to cinema that has helped to create a mythology of reckless risk taking, a sense that danger is a fundamental aspect in his never ending search for new images. Although an impression of catastrophe is not inevitable in Herzog’s cinema, there is always an echo within the frame of the extremities and hardships undertaken to achieve the finished product. More so than any other filmmaker, the act of filmmaking itself becomes an essential aspect to understanding the fictional world Herzog creates. The same idea can be usefully applied to his documentaries - but La Soufriere is surely the one in which the spectre of death and destruction looms most palpably in every frame. In late 1976 Herzog along with his two cameramen Jorg Schmidt-Retwein and Edward Lachman travelled to the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, an island that had been evacuated due to the imminent explosion of the volcano La Soufriere. However a handful of peasants had remained on the island, despite claims by volcanologists that to do so would mean certain death. Intrigued by this attitude to impending death Herzog was determined to interview these men to get a better understanding of their cavalier approach to life.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The Black Glove #13 - Now Online!

I interrupt this Werner Herzog love in to bring you news of Issue 13 of The Black Glove. This excellent e-zine is produced by writer/editor Nikolas Cook and contains a wealth of well written and imaginative material on horror culture and entertainment. For this issue I have contributed a couple of DVD reviews for the Hammer releases Icons of Suspense and Icons of Horror, so I urge you all to head over and lend your support to this fine contribution to the online world of horror. Now'd I'd better get back to the Herzog retrospective, I dont want the ghost of Klaus Kinski raving and ranting at me for neglecting his films.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Fata Morgana (1971)


Fata Morgana is the most oblique and inscrutable of Werner Herzog’s early films. It is neither a work of fiction, nor a documentary. But exists within a liminal space between these two spheres of representation. It is totally devoid of plot, employing none of the narrative conventions of Hollywood cinema, preferring to approach time and space from a position of non linearity rather than cause and effect. The editing strategies employed in post-production emphasise this attitude towards time, and the result is a film that has the timeless quality of a myth or a fable. Its position as myth is clearly signposted by Herzog’s inclusion of the Popol Vuh (a Mayan creation myth) which is narrated over the images by German film historian Lotte Eisner. This is further confirmed by a three part structure which gives the film the appearance of a meditative and free flowing essay. The three parts are titled Creation, Paradise and The Golden Age and are an echo of Herzog’s early conception of the film as a science-fiction document of alien visitors recording their findings of a long dead civilisation. The imagery that Herzog selects however often undermines the chapter it is within - The Golden Age for example has a number of deeply ironic and unspeakably sad scenes, and Paradise offers us the vista of a blasted landscape crushed under the unyielding glare of the sun. There is subsequently a deep contradiction at the heart of Fata Morgana, a contradiction that seems to exist within most of Herzog’s films, and which makes the viewing experience an oddly disquieting one.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Heart of Glass (1976)


Herz Aus Glas

Heart of Glass is a challenging and demanding film, but almost certainly the clearest statement made by Herzog about the insanity and visionary nature of a fever dream. This time Herzog is concerned with collective hysteria as he charts the gradual breakdown and dissolution of a small community in late 18th century Bavaria. The centrepiece of the village is a factory that produces ruby coloured glass, but when the man entrusted with the secret of the ruby glass dies, taking the secret with him to the grave, the village is plunged into an apocalyptic anarchy that ends with madness and destruction. Herzog opens the film with a beautifully composed shot of a herdsman with his back to camera. An ethereal mist hangs in the cold air, which gives the image an unsettling and disturbing resonance. The sound of Swiss yodellers on the soundtrack only adds to the odd sense of eerie timelessness which opens the film. The herdsmen is Hias (Josef Bierbichler), a man who also possesses the gift of prophecy. What follows is a prophecy of destruction and rebirth, and Herzog fills the screen with one haunting image after another. The clouds resemble rivers in the sky, a waterfall becomes a hypnotic conduit to another plane of existence, and a pool seethes and bubbles as though eager to eject life into a newly formed world. All the while the hypnotic tones of Hias speak a litany of grave pronouncements amid an ever increasing culture of impending doom. There is something revelatory in this imagery, and although it is shot through with destructive pessimisms the music of Popol Vuh creates an uplifting counterpoint to the catastrophe that Hias foresees. There is an odd contradiction here, one which doesn’t resolve itself at all in the film, and makes Heart of Glass a very unsafe viewing experience.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Into the Mind of Werner Herzog...and Klaus Kinski!

I believe the common denominator of the Universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder. (Grizzly Man, 2005)

If you switch on television it's just ridiculous and its destructive. It kills us. And talk shows will kill us. They kill our language. So we have to declare holy war against what we see every single day on television. Commercials and – I think there should be real war against commercials, real war against talk shows, real war against "Bonanza" and "Rawhide", or all these things. (Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, 1980)

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization. (Minnesota Declaration, 1999)

Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species—including man—crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue. (Minnesota Declaration, 1999)

The kinds of landscape I try to find in my films...exist only in our dreams. For me a true landscape is not just a representation of a desert or a forest. It shows an inner state of mind, literally inner landscapes, and it is the human soul that is visible through the landscapes presented in my films. (Herzog on Herzog, 2002)

Coincidences always happen if you keep your mind open, while storyboards remain the instruments of cowards who do not trust in their own imagination and who are slaves of a matrix... If you get used to planning your shots based solely on aesthetics, you are never that far from kitsch. (Herzog on Herzog, 2002)

It is my firm belief, and I say this as a dictum, that all these tools now at our disposal, these things part of this explosive evolution of means of communication, mean we are now heading for an era of solitude. Along with this rapid growth of forms of communication at our disposal— be it fax, phone, email, internet or whatever— human solitude will increase in direct proportion. (Herzog on Herzog, 2002)


Herzog is a miserable, hateful, malevolent, avaricious, money-hungry, nasty, sadistic, treacherous, cowardly creep...he should be thrown alive to the crocodiles! An anaconda should strangle him slowly! A poisonous spider should sting him and paralyze his lungs! The most venomous serpent should bite him and make his brain explode! No—panther claws should rip open his throat—that would be much too good for him! Huge red ants should piss into his lying eyes and gobble up his balls and his guts! He should catch the plague! Syphilis! Yellow fever! Leprosy! It's no use; the more I wish him the most gruesome deaths, the more he haunts me. (Kinski Uncut, 1996)

His speech is clumsy, with a toad like indolence, long winded, pedantic, choppy. The words tumble from his mouth in sentence fragments, which he holds back as much as possible, as if they were earning interest. It takes forever and a day for him to push out a clump of hardened brain snot. Then he writhes in painful ecstasy, as if he had sugar on his rotten teeth. A very slow blab machine. An obsolete model with a non-working switch— it can't be turned off unless you cut off the electric power altogether. So I'd have to smash him in the kisser. No, I'd have to knock him unconscious. But even if he were unconscious he'd keep talking. Even if his vocal cords were sliced through, he'd keep talking like a ventriloquist. Even if his throat were cut and his head were chopped off, speech balloons would still dangle from his mouth like gases emitted by internal decay. (Kinski Uncut, 1996)

Friday, 2 July 2010

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)


Die große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner

This magnificent documentary is a both a study of sporting endeavour and a journey into the psychology of a man willing to risk his very existence to attain his life long dream of flight. The Swiss ski jumper/flier Walter Steiner is probably Werner Herzog’s perfect protagonist. Steiner is an exceptional and introverted figure, a man on the edge of the world, who lives a life of contrasting and conflicting emotions. On the one hand Steiner lives a simple rural life in which he spends his days quietly carving objects out of wood. He appears unassuming and shy, somewhat awkward and self conscious in front of the camera, although when left to his thoughts is surprisingly eloquent and poetic. Herzog deftly emphasises the mundane aspects of Steiner’s life which allows for a far greater impact when we see Steiner launching himself at ridiculous speeds into the alpine skies and clearing 170 meters. The film opens with this image - a beautiful but eerie shot of Steiner in slow motion, his mouth agape, the mountainous backdrop still and implacable and the ethereal music of Popol Vuh giving the shot a resonance and grandeur that slips it into the realm of the ecstatic.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Werner Herzog Month - An Introduction

This month sees The Celluloid Highway dedicate itself to one of the world’s most idiosyncratic and unique filmmakers Werner Herzog. From the moment I saw a rare screening of Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) on BBC 2 in 2000 I have been hooked on this odd man from Bavaria. The sublime images captured by Herzog in Aguirre imprinted themselves on my mind, and for the first time I saw the importance and value of natural landscapes to the creation of highly symbolic and metaphorical statements on the human condition. But little did I know that viewing this film was merely the first step of the process - the discovery of the rigours and chaos of the shoot and of the maniacal ravings of Klaus Kinski, and the sacrifices made by Herzog and his cast and crew too appease Kinski only increased my admiration for the softly spoken Bavarian. As the film concluded and Herzog’s camera circled the raft on which the isolated Aguirre continued to proclaim his dominion over all creatures I thought this was a statement on madness and ego that could never be matched - I was wrong!

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