Tuesday, March 28, 2017

London in the Raw (1964)

Some time ago I was lamenting the lack of a UK equivalent to the Italian Mondo genre of 'shockumentaries'.  Well, thanks to the BFI, I've now been able to catch up with British sexploitation cinema's answer to Mondo Cane: 1964's London in the Raw and its 1965 follow up, Primitive London.  These two films brought together some of the leading names in sixties British exploitation films: Arnold Louis Miller, Tony Tenser, Michael Klinger and Stanley Long and was distributed by Tenser and Klinger's Compton Cameo Films.  To focus on the first film, from the outset London in the Raw is a shameless imitation of the style established by Mondo Cane, with its supposedly real, but undoubtedly staged, footage shot on the streets of London.  Opening with a juxtoposition between two 'street workers' - an old busker with a penny whistle and a prostitute inviting foreign tourists to her room - musing that the possible fine for busking was far more severe than that for soliciting, the film quickly moves into its overriding theme: the need for belonging. 

More specifically, the justification for the vignettes it strings together is an investigation into the social pressures which lead people to try and conform to various standards of behaviour, fashion or ideals of beauty, in mid-sixties London.  This starts with women having 'unsightly' hair removed in the name of 'beauty' and a man undergoing a crude (and extremely painful looking) form of hair transplant in order to conform to the predominant view that masculinity involves having a full head of hair.   Other scenarios involve health clubs and gyms, to underline the pressure to conform to physical 'norms'.  Inevitably, of course, things start to move toward the sleazy - a segment on LOndon Beatnik society shows us 'typical' Beatnik behaviour, including girls posing topless as still life models and the Beatniks eating cat food (as its cheap).  People's need to be part of social groups and sub cultures (such as Beatniks) now becomes the dominant theme.  A segment supposedly shot in a clip joint (although it is obviously staged) shows how this is sometimes driven by loneliness and how the 'outsiders' seeking human contact this way are ruthlessly exploited.  This leads us into, arguably, the film's weakest sequence, as we are introduced to various London clubs, which, ultimately, consists of segments of the main acts performing in these clubs.

Despite the repetitive nature of these club sequences, their central premise is that sixties London is an ethnically diverse city, as most of the clubs and societies are specific to various nationalities living in the capital, showcasing their cultures.  In today's febrile, anti-immigrant, culture, this celebration of multiculturalism seems startling, reminding us that, within living memory, the UK enjoyed, if not universal racial harmony, at least a tolerance and appreciation of immigrant cultures.  The film gets back on track with an examination of British drinking culture, with a visit to a traditional working class British pub, complete with singalongs, and more 'upmarket' drinking clubs.  All of which is then juxtaposed, in true Mondo fashion, with scenes of down and outs gathered around fires in a derelict building, drinking meths (mixed with milk, to make it digestible).  Again, the human need for belonging, even to group of meths drinkers, is emphasised.  This sort of 'dark' social group is further explored in a sequence about the London drug culture, with addicts loitering around Piccadilly Circus, waiting to collect their methadone prescriptions from the all night pharmacists.  Interestingly, as the narration reminds us, this was a time when drug addicts were seen as victims and prescribed treatment rather than being prosecuted.  Consequently, the number of registered addicts was surprisingly small.

At seventy six minutes (on the BFI DVD, there were, apparently, slightly longer versions released in the sixties, as well as a cut down forty six minute version which is included as an extra on the DVD), London in the Raw offers a brisk journey through London's seamier side, with everything held together by David Gellar's mid Atlantic accented narration.  Whilst the film is immensely entertaining, it can't quite match the sheer, unrelenting, sleaziness of a true Mondo.  There is an air of English restraint about it: it seems reluctant to go too far, to shock too much.  There's no cannibalism, exotic made up primitive rituals or animal cruelty which characterise Italian made Mondos.  Indeed, it is fascinating to compare London in the Raw with the later Italian 'Swinging London' Mondo, Naked England, which covers much of the same ground.  The latter film also looks at what it labels the 'legalised drug culture', but does so far more sensationally, with addicts shooting up in grimy toilet cubicles.  Naked England, also includes sensational (and clearly faked) footage of the police beating people up, the discovery of the body of a child murder victim, huge amounts of female nudity and even brings Nazis into the mix.  By contrast, London in the Raw looks incredibly restrained.  But it ids none the worse for that, offering a fascinating picture of a pre-swinging London, at a time when people were beginning to notice the social changes which were shortly to transform the city. 

Not only is London in the Raw well worth watching in tiself, but the BFI DVD also contains some excellent extras.  These include Pub, a black and white documentary short which distills a typical evening in a sixties working class pub into fifteen minutes and Strip, which presents a very down to earth portrait of London strippers. Indeed, the extras alone are, in my opinion, worth the price of the DVD.


Monday, March 27, 2017

Enterprising Terror

The burning question about last week's terror attack in London I still want answered is: will it result in new TV ad for Enterprise Cars?  After all, right now the attacker must be about the most famous person known to have rented a vehicle from Enterprise - whose long-running ad campaign is all bout how they combine something British (I'm never clear what) with US-style customer care, (in other words, they smile a lot while they ignore any complaint).  Anyway, a lot of their TV commercials revolve around an American salesman 'hilariously' failing to understand British customs.  There's one, for instance, where a bloke is hiring a van to transport a 5 November guy to a bonfire party, with his young daughter telling the American that they are going to burn the guy (which looks a bit like him).  Cue 'You crazy Brits and the whacky stuff you do at weekends' reaction.  So I'm fully expecting a new advert where the American guy rents a car to a stereotype Jihadist, wearing a suicide bomber jacket and firing a Kalashnikov into the air, who proceeds to tell him that he is going to use the budget hatch back as weapon to kill infidels and attempt to destroy parliament.  "You crazy Brits! What'll you think of next!"

While we're still on the subject of last week's terror attack (and I still am - it's the gift that keeps on giving), what about the revelation that we was using What's App during the incident?  No wonder the bloody car mounted the pavement and hit all those pedestrians if he was using his mobile at the wheel!  For God's sake, that's why we have laws prohibiting the use of devices which could didtract drivers whilst at the wheel.  If he'd survived, I' pretty sure that he'd have received a fine and points on his licence.  And it would have served him right.  But after the texting-at-the-wheel bombshell over the weekend, today the media revealed that he was doing over seventy miles an hour when he drove onto Vauxhall Bridge - well in excess of the local speed limit!  More points on the licence and another fine, I fear.  It's revelations like these that really bring home just what a bastard this guy actually was.  I mean, before I learned of these driving offences, I just thought that he was a crazy murdered with a rexkless disregard for human life.  Now I find he was also engaging in traffic offences with no regard for other road users.  Clearly, the media are right in apparently thinking that makes him much worse.

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Friday, March 24, 2017

Gun-Toting Street Punk Psychos

First of all Edd China leaves Wheeler Dealers, then, today, I hear that Tomas Milian has died.  What a week!  Oh yes, there was that terror attack in London, as well.  The one carried out by the 'middle aged terrorist' as some of the press have described him.  I really do object to the idea implicit in their ageist coverage that people over the age of forty are incapable of doing stuff like organising and carrying out terror attacks.  Why should terrorism be a young man's game, eh?  Surely the more mature approach to murder and mayhem an older guy would bring to such outrages would be a distinct advantage compared to to the hot headed impetuousness of youth?  But I digress, let's get back to Tomas Milian.  For those not familiar with his work, Milian was a Cuban born actor whose career began back in the sixties, when he played character roles in a number of Hollywood movies.  But he is best remembered now for his many appearances in Italian genre movies from the mid-sixties onward.  His career came full circle when he returned to the US and played character roles in films like JFK and Traffic.

Although his Italian sojourn encompassed roles in multiple genres including westerns and comedies, I'm most familiar with his appearances in crime movies, where he frequently - and memorably - played complete scumbags.  His performances in these roles are truly remarkable: energetic, charismatic he avoids the usual cliches of the crazed, eye-rolling psychopath, portraying instead characters with comprehensible motivations who are running completely out of control.  Perhaps the pinnacle of his psycho-killer career was 1974's Almost Human, an incredibly nihilistic crime drama in which he plays a street punk on the make who harnesses his inherent ruthlessness and lack of regard for even his own life, to try and climb the criminal ladder.  I really must watch it again.  I don't think I can pay Milian any greater compliment that to say that whenever I see his name in cast list for an Italian crime movie, I know that I'm in for a wild and entertaining ride.  If you haven't seen one of his gun-toting performances, I'd urge you to go out and buy or rent one of his crime movies right now.  


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Carry On as Normal

I had another of those moments today, when I misconstrue something I've half heard on TV or the radio.  This time, having tuned into the radio part way through a news broadcast, I was left thinking that yesterdays terror attack ion Westminster had been carried out by Masood from Eastenders.  What else was I supposed to think, having just heard that a middle aged British Asian bloke called Masood was the slain terrorist?  The more I thought about it, the more I thought that Eastenders had missed a great story opportunity - when Masood left to go to Pakistan, they should have brought him back after a few months, radicalised and a Jihadi.  Ideally, when that bus crashed into the market recently, they should have revealed that the driver was the newly radicalised Masood.  I mean, it would have been an incredibly topical plot line, ripped from the headlines and examining the issues of the day: Islamic terror, radicalism and playing to the Daily Mail crowd by providing tem with another negative Muslim stereotype.  I know, I know, we shouldn't joke about terror attacks, especially barely twenty four hours after they've taken place - but what the Hell.  I'm tired hearing the same old platitudes being trotted out by our politicians and journalists in the wake of the attacks.

I mean, today, for instance, we had to endure hours of MPs standing up in the Commons and agreeing with one another as they went on about the 'resiliance' of the British people and so on.  Which is all very well, but it doesn't actually move us forward.  Moreover, we had the media trotting out the usual stuff about how people were refusing to be cowed by the terrorists, getting back to their everyday lives as quickly as possible.  The truth, of course, is that it has little to do with defying terrorists - the fact is that the majority of people have no choice but to return to normal: they have bills to pay which means they have to go back to work to earn the money to pay them.  Indeed, the only time people don't return to their usual business after a terror attack is when the authorities prevent them from doing so, by imposing states of emergency, closing down public transport and restricting travel.

Obviously, I'd never exploit a terrorist outrage to try and drive traffic to The Sleaze, but just got this idea for a story and found that I had to write it.  I hadn't planned on posting anything on The Sleaze this week, but it was an opportunity I couldn't ignore: the chance to go back to basics and come up with a story on the fly that took the site back to the good old days when we just ignored good taste and went for the jugular in satire terms.  And you know something? It worked. Obviously, Google did its best to ignore the story, burying it as deep in the search results as it could, it is amazing how much traffic you can get from Bing with a topical story and the right title and keywords. I know, I should be ashamed of myself.  But I'm not.  To return to the terror attack itself - it's clear that we need to be asking hard questions about security measures at the Palace of Westminster.  After all, an armed man gets onto the premises, but Michael Gove and Michael Fallon are left unscathed?  What were the police thinking?  They should have been pointing them out to the terrorist.  (For the benefit of any reactionaries or members of the establishment who might be reading this, I'm not advocating the murder of Tory MPs, this is merely for satirical purpose). 


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Bad Format

Well, I wasn't expecting that.  I've just been reading that Edd China has left Wheeler Dealers.  As I'm sure I've mentioned before, Wheeler Dealers is one of my favourite car-related TV shows and the idea of it without mechanical maestro Edd China in his workshop overhauling the various clapped out cars bought by Mike Brewer is, pretty much, unthinkable.  Edd has put out a short video on You Tube explaining the reasons for his departure.  Basically, it all comes down to something that often afflicts popular TV series: format changes in pursuit of ratings.  Apparently, the last couple of series have been produced by one of Discovery Channel's US subsidiaries, rather than the original producers, Attaboy Productions.  (I say 'apparently' because I only watch it on Quest, which is only up to series eleven - the changes occur from series twelve, half of which was filmed in the US, with series thirteen moving the whole production across the pond).  Incredibly, the new production company decided that the workshop sequences were too difficult to film and decided that it wanted to cut down on them.  Which seems bizarre, as they are, in essence, what the series is about. 

It would seem that this another case of a popular format being acquired by a new producer who doesn't actually understand the basis of the series popularity.  Clearly, Discovery wants to widen Wheeler Dealers appeal in order to attract more viewers, yet in doing so, it is undermining the the actual point of the programme.  Their argument would be that those workshop sequences limit its appeal to car enthusiasts - which is obviously true, they are, surely, the target audience.  Also, despite being an international success, Wheeler Dealers is very British in its ethos, which, I'm sure, is part of its appeal, moving the production to the US risks undermining this 'Britishness'.  But this isn't the first time that new producers have failed to understand what makes a format popular, bringing in unnecessary and  usually disastrous changes.  These days you often see it when they 'reimagine' old TV series for new film adaptations: just look at the movie versions of The Man From Uncle, The Equalizer or Bewitched, for example - all are left virtually unrecognisable from their inspirations.  It sometimes happens when a TV format is bought for an overseas remake.  I've written elsewhere here about the US version of On The Buses, Lots'a Luck, which had so many changes made to it that one was left wondering why the US producers had bothered buying the format. 

Significantly, the TV shows which have made the most successful transitions to the US are those which have had the fewest changes made to their formats.  'Til Death Us Do Part, for instance, made a successful transformation into All in the Family, because it only really changed some of the cultural references.  It was still about a bigoted patriarch adrift in a modern world of multiculturism, clinging to to his outmoded world view like a comfort blanket as he sees the certainties of his old working class culture vanishing.  Similarly, Steptoe and Son successfully crossed the Atlantic to become Sandford and Son - it was still about the fraught father-son relationship between the proprietors of a junk yard.  As for Man About the House, that needed next to no changes to become Three's Company in the States (even copying the originals spin offs).  By tinkering too much with a format, though, you always face the danger of destroying the very thing which made it popular in the first place.  I mean, imagine if the Shed and Buried format was to be bought by a US producer who decided, in order to broaden the show's appeal, that they'd have to feature less of Henry Cole and Sam Lovegrove rummaging through sheds and barns full of automotive junk?  It would be an unmitigated disaster.  But this is, in effect, what Discovery are doing to Wheeler Dealers.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Post Without a Theme

After two consecutive themed weeks of posting here, I start this week with no idea whatsoever as to what I'm going to post about this week.  Of course, those two themed weeks weren't actually planned.  They came about by accident because I started both weeks without a clue to what I was going to write about, so posted stuff out of desperation on the Monday, then just kept following them up for the rest of the week.  I was thinking of having another moan about Google and its latest abuse of its near monopoly in web search.  But what's the point?  Google are evil bastards. There's nothing more to say.  Besides I can take satisfaction in the fact that over the weekend, not only did Google begin to take a kicking from various institutions and businesses over its 'misplacing' of extremist material near their ads, but that I also managed to temporarily out manoeuvre Google and get them to send me search traffic just at the time they were, once again, trying to crush The Sleaze's organic traffic.  Don't ask me how - it involved a combination of my successful playing of their algorithm by adding some page elements I've found that it 'likes' and an unexpected development in the real world which suddenly made one of my old stories relevant again. - but it worked

Actually, the backlash is already beginning to set in, with search traffic from Google being abruptly throttled back this evening, following a third consecutive day of above average page views.  Google just hates anyone to get more than what they've clearly decided is their fair share of daily traffic and punishes 'errant' sites accordingly.  But to get back to those two themed weeks, I have to say that I really enjoyed writing those posts, it seemed to bring the joy of blogging back to me.  Not only that, but they also provided a nice change from the politics and post-millennial angst I've been mired in here for a while.  Although I can't promise any more themed weeks in the near future, the themes I explored over the past couple of weeks have opened up new areas of interest to pursue here.  The 8mm shorts, in particular, have turned out to be a fascinating field of study which I'm sure we'll be returning to soon.  There is also the related genre of 'glamour' shorts which were popular in the UK in the sixties - something else I'm sure we'll be looking at in detail in the future.  As for the rest of this week - I haven't a clue as to what I'll be posting about.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Silent Star Wars

To round off this (unplanned) themed week of 8mm movie digests and shorts, something slightly more up to date: a ten minute Star Wars digest from 1977.  This was produced by Ken Films, a rival to Castle Films, which started at the low budget end of the business, producing condensed versions of AIP B-movies, but, by the seventies, was producing and distributing digests of Twentieth Century Fox blockbusters like Towering Inferno and Planet of the Apes.  These were often in colour, with soundtracks and would run thirty minutes, divided into two parts.  (There was alao a forty five minute digest of Towering Inferno).  Naturally, such productions were relatively expensive, so Ken Films would also produce shorter versions, shorn of both sound and colour.   An example of which is what I'm presenting here.

There is something slightly surreal in seeing something like Star Wars in this format.  Having seen the film on its original release and marveled at the sheer scale of the film and its (then) amazing special effects, I do find it disconcerting to see it in this diminished form.  It brings home how important the sound effects and colour photography were in helping to create the film's impact.  But, if nothing else, it gives us a chance to see what Star Wars might have looked like if it had been made before the advent of sound.  For the record, the colour two-part 8mm digest versions of Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back are very impressive productions and probably represent the pinnacle of the 8mm digest genre.  But by the time they appeared, the writing was on the wall, as the prices of home video players were beginning to fall, bringing them within reach of ordinary people.  There's no doubt that VHS tapes were a far more convenient form of home viewing (you also got to see the whole movie), but there's no denying that the 8mm digests brought with them some of the romance of celluloid, allowing viewers to create a true home cinema experience, complete with grainy immages and the whirring of the projector.


Thursday, March 16, 2017

Mondo Before Mondo?

Castle Films didn't just produce cut down versions of old movies, (that was something that escalated in the fifties, after they became a subsidiary of Universal), they originally produced newsreels and short informational films.  Some of these, focusing on the culture and rituals of various 'primitive' peoples, very much have the feel of prototype Mondo movies, long before the Italian film industry invented the 'shockumentary' genre.  The short I've featured here, Belles of the South Seas from 1944, is particularly reminiscent of those segments of Mondo Cane which 'showcase' the supposed rituals and roles of women in various remote island tribes.  Like the Italian film, there's a strong suspicion on the part of the viewer that these rituals and dances have all been carefully 'recreated' for the benefit of the cameras, rather than being actual documentary footage of spontaneous activity.

The focus on the sensational - note the number of references to cannibalism, for instance - and using the 'documentary' aspect to justify the showing of bared female breasts, (something audiences were unlikely to see on a screen in 1944 outside of 'stag' films), on the grounds that it was 'educational', are typical of the Mondo genre.  Not to mention the patronising narration, which constantly belittles the cultures of these non-white, 'uncivilised' people.  (The irony being that the supposedly 'civilised' culture making this film were, in 1944, still engaged in slaughtering each other in World War Two).  Obviously, this short is far less explicit than the later Mondo movies but it is, nevertheless, a close relative.  It is tempting to think that it was films like this which inspired the later Italian genree.


Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Mummy's Ghost - in Brief

To continue yesterday's discussion of those 8mm digested movies which were available for home viewing (if you had a suitable projector) right up to the early eighties, today I present a cut down version of one of those Universal Mummy movies from the forties I was on about last week.  Reduced to eight minutes or so, The Mummy's Ghost is actually almost tolerable. Even with a running time of just over an hour, the full version is unbelievably tedious, with its reincarnation theme and leaden pace.  Even the presence of John Carradine can't enliven it.  However, the shortened version makes no more sense than the full version - just why does the girl carried off by the Mummy apparently turn into a mummy herself?  After all, she's meant to be the reincarnation of an Ancient Egyptian princess, not her mummified remains, (which we see turn to dust at the beginning of the film).

This condensed version of The Mummy's Ghost was one of a number of such digests of Universal horror classics produced and distributed by Castle Films, (some when in the fifties Universal became the major shareholder in Castle, thereby giving them access to the studio's library).  Although many were, like this one, straight digests of an entire film, others took a more radical approach, highlighting one particular sub-plot and constructing am eight minute mini-movie around it.  Doom of Dracula, for instance, takes all of the Dracula-related footage from House of Frankenstein and fashions it into a stand alone story.  Likewise, I've seen two similar features edited from House of Dracula, one featuring the vampire footage, another the wolfman footage, (although they can't avoid Lon Chaney Jr briefly popping up, without explanation, in the Dracula segment).  I presume there was also a short featuring the Frankenstein monster edited from House of Dracula

This whole world of 8mm shorts is quite fascinating, (I say 8mm, but Castle also produced some in 16mm, including a condensed version of Psycho), and the more I dig into it, the more interesting stuff I turn up. So, stay tuned for more from the world of 8mm movie digests!


Monday, March 13, 2017

Curse of the Crimson Altar in Eight Minutes and 8mm

Back in the day, before on-demand TV, downloads, DVDs, laser discs and even VHS, the only way most people could see movies at home (other than when they had TV showings, obviously) was to watch heavily condensed versions on Super 8 film.  These were sold commercially - I well remember the ads for them which used to run in newspapers - and, to view them, you'd obviously need to have a projector capable of showing 8mm films.  Which most people didn't.  Nevertheless, there must have been a reasonably healthy market for them, as a lot of titles were offered, ranging from ancient horror films, through Italian sword and sandal epics to relatively recent releases (digest versions of the Planet of the Apes movies, for instance, were available).  They were also surprisingly long-lived: digest versions of Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Close Encounters were all available.

These 8mm digests varied greatly in format, some used black and white prints, even when the original was in colour, some were silent, with subtitles. Some ran up to fifteen minutes, but most were around the eight to ten minute mark.  Some offered highlights of the complete film, others a complete sequence (both the Planet of the Apes and Star Wars digests I've seen present the climaxes of those films), but most presented a cut down version of a full feature.  Obviously, it involved some drastic editing to bring a ninety minute film down to eight minutes and retain any semblance of coherence.  Actually, most weren't coherent if you hadn't seen the original. A case in point being the condensed version of Tigon's Curse of the Crimson Altar which I've presented here.  To be fair, it wasn't a great movie in the first place, but the digest version is pretty much incomprehensible.  It opens about fifteen minutes into the movie proper and then proceeds to jump through several scenes at break neck speed before reaching an ending inexplicable based on what went before.  Overall, it's a surreal experience and, on that level, surprisingly entertaining.