Parky At the Pictures (7/4/2023)
(Reviews of Lola;The Outwaters; In the Court of the Crimson King; and Little Bear's Big Trip)
Not that long ago, it felt as though every second horror film was made up of `found footage'. Intelligent usage of the conceit was rare, but audiences were prepared to turn a blind eye to the compositional archness of the supposedly spontaneous visuals and the frequency with which they formed coherent narratives without benefit of editing.
Irish director Andrew Legge has cunningly got round these issues by addressing the provenance of the footage in his debut feature, Lola, which follows his excellent shorts triptych by centring on an ingenious invention. What's more, The Chronoscope (2009), The Unusual Inventions of Henry Cavendish (2005), and The Girl With the Mechanical Maiden (2012) have all been made available to view online.
Following a caption revealing that a cache of film reels from 1941 was recovered from the cellar of a country house in Sussex, the monochrome action opens with scratched leader and some scuffed images before Martha Hanbury (Stefani Martini) speaks directly into the camera to explain that she has made the film for the benefit of her brilliant, but eccentric sister, Thomasina (Emma Appleton), to show how history can be made and unmade.
Mars and Tom were close as children, with the latter demonstrating an early fascination with science. Driven by a desire to capture radio signals from the future, Tom built a recording device in October 1938, which she named LOLA after her late mother. Capable of receiving radio and televisual signals, the contraption enabled the sisters to make money by betting on horse races whose outcome they knew. Furthermore, it introduced them to Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, and David Bowie, whose `Space Oddity' was one of the first things Tom picked up.
However, it also meant they could keep a step ahead of current events, which proved useful when Adolf Hitler launched an aerial assault on Britain in 1940. Broadcasting as the Angel of Portobello, the sisters warn Londoners of Blitz targets. But intelligence officer Sebastian Holloway (Rory Fleck Byrne) discovers that Mars is using the gasometer at Shoreham to disseminate her messages and he apprehends her and comes to see LOLA for himself.
While Holloway is hugely impressed, Major Henry Cobcroft (Aaron Monaghan) is more sceptical, as Mars and Tom are hardly welcoming when he visits. However, he agrees to allow Holloway to work with the sisters and their predictions of enemy action prove accurate, notably saving an RAF base at Richmond. Amused by Holloway, Tom puts him to work in the kitchen, while Mars continues to film in order to keep him under surveillance. She senses he is becoming attracted to her during their boozy off-duty evenings. But he still finds their knowledge of the future and trendy slang disconcerting and finds it hard that Tom calls all the shots.
She, however, deeply resents the fact that she is not getting any recognition for turning the war, especially after Cobcroft is knighted. At a party to celebrate his achievement, Mars drags Tom on stage to play piano for their rendition of `You Really Got Me', they yet-to-be classic by The Kinks. A montage shows how this becomes a propaganda slogan, as the nation pushes on to victory.
Feeling good and keen to share, Mars shows Holloway a secret room filled with photographs from the Hanbury past and future. She enthuses about Bob Dylan and the music to come. But, when she summons a Bowie clip, she is greeted by Reginald Watson (Shaun Boylan) singing the fascist anthem, `The Sound of Marching Feet', which appears to have been topping the charts for 10 weeks. As we hear `March to the Gallows', Tom admits that changing the present is impacting upon the future and that Bowie has simply been erased as a consequence of victory.
Distraught that Dylan, Nina Simone, and Stanley Kubrick have also been cancelled, Mars questions Tom about whether she knew her actions would impact in such a way. She is even more dismayed when Tom and Cobcroft allow an American liner, The Abraham Lincoln, to be used as bait to destroy the Nazi U-boat fleet in the Atlantic. Two thousand civilians died and, as a result, President Franklin D. Roosevelt refuses Winston Churchill's request to abandon neutrality and join the war in Europe.
Worse follows when Tom advises Cobcroft of an attack on Southampton, only for the future message to have been planted by Nazi spies. Thus, Dover is left unguarded and falls to a surprise German attack. Holloway is aghast that Tom has allowed her ego to cloud her judgement and is unable to protect the sisters when they are accused of being agents of the Third Reich and responsible for Black Sunday. Tom and Mars accuse each other of being sentimental and psychotic before they are arrested.
Holloway snatches Mars from Whitehall, but Tom is sentenced to death. She is spared when Oswald Mosley is placed at the head of a puppet government and Edward Elgar's `Nimrod' plays over a montage showing how Churchill is arrested and Britain begins to boom under its new overlord. Tom is feted by the new regime and Mars sees her give a television interview, while sheltering in a resistance commune.
When Hitler pays a state visit, he insists on going to the Sussex house to see LOLA. Mars tries to assassinate him with a bomb, but it detonates in the wrong room and he survives. He orders Mars's immediate execution, only for Tom to rescue her and be shot by the Nazi guards. Mars manages to get away and returns to the house some days later to find a message from Tom on her camera. She admits she has blundered in trying to do good and realises that she should have kept a level head.
Mars completes her film with a plea to Tom to find a way to right the wrongs and put time back on its true course. She has no idea whether she can, but has faith. Closing captions explain that the sisters vanished in 1942 and their subsequent whereabouts remain a mystery. A photograph from VE-Day, however, shows them in the thong in Central London. Clearly, Tom was able to rewind and realign, but the how is not revealed.
The Mitford sisters and films like Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Molla's It Happened Here (1964) andWoody Allen's Zelig (1983, are among the influences on this ambitious and accomplished first feature. One would like to add Guy Maddin, but Legge claimed to have only seen the 2006 short, The Heart of the World, before embarking on the picture.
Evocatively photographed on 16mm by Oona Menges to resemble the home movie and newsreel stocks of the 1940s and edited with precision by Colin Campbell, the footage is always convincing. Credit must also go to production designer Ferdia Murphy and the inspired sound and visual effects teams. Yet, even accepting the odd conscious use of anachronism, the dialogue written by Legge and co-scenarist Angeli Macfarlane occasionally rings hollow.
Indeed, such is the legacy of British cinema from this period that it feels wrong for the characters to be using anything other than received pronunciation. But Stefanie Martini and Emma Appleton make the roles of Martha and Thomasina their own, as they respond in markedly different ways to the power that LOLA bestows upon them. The romance between Mars and Holloway doesn't quite work, but Tom's Unity Mitford-like transformation is much more persuasive.
Tapping into the raging debate about cancel culture, Legge adroitly explores how history can be rewritten (by the victors, naturally) and the perils of reinterpreting the past to suit current narratives. He also imparts a feminist spin on the achievements of the Hanbury siblings at a time when women played subsidiary roles. But it's the visual inventiveness that makes this elegant, witty picture so intriguing, although there's also a chilling catchiness to the glam rock pastiches penned by The Divine Comedy's Neil Hannon.
IN THE COURT OF THE CRIMSON KING.
Film-maker-cum-broadcaster Toby Amies is best known for the 2013 documentary, The Man Whose Mind Exploded. This charted his relationship with Brighton eccentric Drako Oho Zarhazar and turned out to be ideal preparation for In the Court of the Crimson King, an account of the creativity and chaos that has characterised prog combo King Crimson's 50-year musical journey.
Touring the world in the late 2010s, the King Crimson line-up is guitarist Robert Fripp, singer-guitarist Jakko Jakszyk, bassist Tony Levin, multi-instrumentalist Bill Rieflin, brass player Mel Collins, and drummers Jeremy Stacey, Pat Mastelotto, and Gavin Harrison. Co-founder Fripp is the last original member and, even though Crimson has become his band, he describes the period from 1969-2013 as `wretched'.
Ex-drummer Bill Bruford claims it looks from the outside like an amazing group to be part of, but it was exhausting to keep up with its changing style. Touch guitarist Trey Gunn compares membership to a mildly debilitating infection, while flautist co-founder Ian McDonald suggests he broke Fripp's heart by leaving after the debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King (1969). Drummer Michael Giles (who quit around the same time) complements Fripp on finding musicians to regenerate Crimson, but implies he always felt he was the big noise.
Singer-guitarist Adrian Belew (who lasted the course from 1981-2009) always felt he collaborated with Fripp rather than took orders. But he realised on being fired that King Crimson is a dictatorship and it's amusing to see Fripp cut across a question Amies poses to Jakszyk to answer it himself and dismiss notions of current members standing in the long shadows of past bandmates because they are talented in their own right and have Crimson in their musical DNA. No wonder he feels this is the first incarnation of the band in which he feels that somebody doesn't resent his presence.
Adopted by a Franco-Polish couple, Jakszyk sank into Crimson's music as a preteenage means of escape. He even named his dog Fripp and was awestruck when he first joined. But Levin was more laid back when he became part of the reformed Discipline line-up in 1981 and Bruford jokes that he and Fripp would spend hours debating the meaning of life as part of the musical process, whereas their American bandmates just turned up and played brilliantly without any of the analysis.
Collins has returned for a second stint after a four decade-hiatus. He alludes to problems with Fripp's perfectionism in the early 1970s, but now feels freer and more musically comfortable. Unlike roadie Paul Stratford, who bemoans his lot, while cursing younger musicians, who lack the staying power of the veterans. Not everyone lasted the Crimson pace, however, with singer/bassist Greg Lake decamping to form Emerson, Lake and Palmer, while lyricst and lighting wizard Pete Sinfield got the push in 1971. Jakszyk jokes that Fripp confided in him that he detested the early line-ups, with Michael Giles being his bête noire (or words to a yonic effect). McDonald resigned after deciding they were inflicting audio torment on the audience.
Bruford welcomes the diversity and change, as it stopped Crimson from becoming The Moody Blues. But the scars left by Giles and McDonald leaving remain a source of pain and Fripp reveals that he offered to go instead. Decades later, he retains the same drive and dedication, practicing four to five hours each day to maintain his performance levels. Guitar technician Biff Blumfumgagnge is acutely aware of the responsibility he bears at each show.
Amies slopes off to meet Norwegian nun, Sister Dana Benedicta, who is a massive Crimson fan. She thinks they have got better with age and so do many of the fans interviewed after the gig. Bandmates discuss how no two shows are ever alike, with Fripp encouraging improvisation to keep the music fresh. However, he is also aware that audiences want to be swept away each time they see them and that brings a unique pressure.
This onus is particularly weighty for Rieflin, who has been told time is short because of colon cancer. He admits that being on the road is painful, but insists it's the best way to deal with the imminence of death and reinforce his determination to do things better. His words humble the hearer, as they're spoken with such acceptance and grace.
Some feel they enter a state of grace at a Crimson gig. Amies interviews audience members, who dismiss Fripp's fabled antipathy towards his fans by insisting that magic only happens because of the connection between the band and the crowd. Fripp notes that certain colleagues put spokes in the wheel and accuses former frontman Adrian Belew of not being an ensemble player. He begs to differ and reckoned they were songwriting and guitar-playing partners and feels Fripp would be better off with him at his side. However, Bruford suggests that Fripp grew tired of Belew constantly trying to impress him on stage by daring him to do things differently.
Percussionst Jamie Muir recalls the strain of hitting the heights each night when he was in Crimson in the early 70s. As Fripp considers egotism on stage as being like trampling on his mother's grave, the stakes are high and the potential for discord and disappointment is high. Consequently, some withdraw with relief, but others recognise the demands that Fripp makes of himself and come back to re-sample a priceless sensation. Fripp himself enrolled at J.G. Bennett's International Academy For Continuous Education and is still moved by the transformation he experienced there.
Amies takes a break from filming and pays a call on Rieflin in Seattle. He meets his cat and films him making music and chatting. Rieflin gives him permission to use what he wants from the footage and signs off with a sighed, `I'm so tired.' He dies on 24 March 2020. A lovely man and Fripp pays him the typically wry tribute, `Bill's sense of rightness was within the same frequency range as my own sense of rightness.'
Following a reunion with Amies at the Royal Albert Hall, Fripp remains in deadpan mode, as he informs the director that a key event in defining the past, present, and future of King Crimson occurred during his absence - thus rendering the entire film useless. It's the perfect note on which to end.
Wisely avoiding an album by album history of King Crimson, Amies capably captures the personalities of the key players and the ways in which they gelled or didn't with Robert Fripp. He may be a bit too fond of getting directly involved. But, the fact he has lured so many old boys before the camera says a lot for either his powers of persuasion or the irresistibility of the prospect of getting long suppressed emotions of some old prog-rocking chests.
Treading the Nigel Tufnel line between imperious pretension and knowing parody, Fripp seeks to project himself as a serious musician who has only resorted to being a martinet when necessity dictated. His dedication to the mathematical sound and to coaxing the best out of himself and his bandmates is undeniable. But Amies opts not to delve too deeply into the nitty gritty of the clashes or how Fripp used them to steer Crimson in new directions.
He also proves frustratingly incurious about Crimson's musical influences and how everything from classical and jazz to folk and metal and industrial and electronica to avant-garde and new wave have fed into the mix. And there's not a gamelan in sight. Those new to King Crimson will also be no wiser about which tracks could serve as primers. But this is very much aimed at die-hards, which is presumably why Amies found room for vox pops from fans rather than any considered assessments from critics.
Ultimately, however, this is a study of the artistic temperament, the rigours of life on the road, the bonds between bandmates, and the peculiarities of musical longevity. It also touches upon mortality and the courage to approach the end on one's own terms. In this regard, Bill Rieflin emerges as a shining example and one can only hope he and Ian McDonald are enjoying the party that Fripp is so confident is happening in the next room.
LITTLE BEAR'S BIG TRIP.
Vasili Rovenski and Natalya Nilova's The Big Trip (2019) was launched with the strapline, `From a writer of Madagascar.' Billy Frolick's name is notably absent from the duo's follow-up, Little Bear's Big Trip (aka Big Trip 2: Special Delivery). But there's so much wrong with this Russian animation beside its script.
Still in a funk after having to take a misdeliverd panda to its parents, Mic-Mic the bear (Daniel Medvedev) is unamused when Oscar the rabbit (Stephen Thomas Ochsner) tries to cheer him up with a rollercoaster in the forest. He is even less chuffed when the teenage Panda (Arthur Cook) turns up out of the blue because his folks thinks he needs reforming.
Meanwhile, in the United Woods of America, incumbent president Don Vulture (Bernard Jacobsen) decides to kidnap the cub expected by John Grizzly (Brodey Evan) and his wife, Mary (Kate Lann), because candidates have to be parents in order to stand. He sends dufus son Billy (Jordan Worsley) to snatch the bundle from ace delivery stork, Arnold (Andrei Kurganov). But the basket lands in the river during their treetop tussle and it floats to Mic-Mic's jetty, just as Karl (David Andrew Grout) - the stork who brought the panda - turns up as a postman with an invitation for Mic-Mic to oversee the woodland election.
Setting off an a pedal-powered airship (with Billy hitching a ride), the friends have wishful reveries on seeing a shooting star. But they come crashing down to earth when Billy pecks a hole in the canvas. Surviving the landing, the group accept Billy as a famous explorer and negotiate an ice wave and an avalanche before Mic-Mic (who has been fighting the urge to hibernate) bumps into a female bear named Michaela (Liza Klimova).
When Billy switches sides because the cub is so cute, Don sends son Doug (Josh Wilson)
and Big Hyena (Kurganov) to capture it so he can claim victory. But Panda is a martial arts expert and clunks the hyena horde with a staff, while Billy and Karl fly decoy missions to fool the vultures. They are rewarded with the chance to deliver the baby bear. But they run into a forest fire - although this poses no threat whatsoever and Karl makes his delivery and exposed Don Vulture as a cheat.
Oscar stays to build another rollercoaster, Panda makes his parents proud, and Karl delivers twins to Mic-Mic and Michaela. However, he also lets a lion cub loose among some penguins, as the film ends...
...And not a moment too soon, as this is a long haul for anyone over the age of three. The brightly bland CGI animation will also appeal to tinies, as will the animals. But grown-ups will suffer through a witless plot that seems to be being made up on the hoof. They will also be driven to distraction by the third-rate voicing of all the characters beside Mic-Mic and Oscar.
Yet, for all its mediocrity, the film tries to say something about the impact of climate change and the need for different species to work together for the best outcome. Perhaps most intriguingly, this is a Russian production that dares to advocate democracy and electoral fair play, and makes a villain out of a vulture who threatens to change the constitution and disenfranchise his enemies. Remind you of anyone?