De-Berlinification, Petzold-style

It’s very strange to watch a series of films set in Berlin with characters living in the city or its suburbs, and yet there’s no effort by the director whatsoever to identify the city. How can you shoot a film in one of the oldest cities in Europe and transform it into a nondescript and rather blah metropolis?

Close-ups and medium shots of your cast, that’s how, as well as focusing the camera lens on specific frame areas that deny historical elements from the past. Shoot characters in cars and dirty buses. And create a sound mix that’s highly selective in the kinds of city noises within that weird little cosmos you’ve created.

That’s part of the fascination in seeing a film by Christian Petzold, and since I’ve already covered Yella (2007), the last part of his Gespenster “Ghost” Trilogy, I moved back for Gespenster (2005), the middle film. Also reviewed is Wolfsburg (2003), a very clever variation of a classic film noir storyline where a man steeped in guilt seeks to remedy himself by helping a surviving victim, only to become obsessed with his wounded bird, with potentially lethal consequences.

I’ll eventually get to Petzold’s other work (including Die Inner Sicherheit / The State I am In, and his latest film, Jerichow), but coming soon are some more reviews of some other Berlin-based dramas, partially because October marks the 20th anniversary when the Berlin Wall was finally regarded by East German bigwigs as a bad idea, and a city and country were headed towards reunification.

Included in the upcoming mix is another film shot in and set during that grey period just after the war, and before the Wall’s erection, as well as some excellent documentaries on the people involved in a large escape tunnel dug in 1961, and dramatized (quite brilliantly) in Der Tunnel / The Tunnel (2001).


Canadian DVD and Blu-ray Fall Release Dates, Pt.2

Yes, there's more.

Alliance will release Jim Jarmusch’s Limits of Control and Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst on Nov. 17th, as well as Don’t You Forget About Me: A Tribute to John Hughes on Nov. 3rd.

Also coming Nov. 3rd is a 2-disc set of Passchendeale on DVD ($25.99) and Blu-ray ($30.99). Both releases will contain the following NFB documentaries; Front Lines, Nurses at the Front, The Officer’s Role, The Life of a Soldier, Faith and Hope, The Trenches, and Remembrance (from 2009). The sets will also come with a commemorative magnet poppy pin.

Alliance will also release the Kevin Smith collection on BR, with Clerks, Chasing Amy, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back arriving Nov. 17th ($30.99 each, or $76.90 for the box). Chasing Amy will contain the same bonus material as the 2000 Criterion release, plus the following new extras: Tracing Amy: The Chasing Amy Doc, Was it something I said?, a conversation with Kevin and Joey, a 10 Years Later Q&A, and commentary with director Smith and producer Scott Mosier.

From Mongrel on Oct. 27 comes Animation Express, a 2-disc set on DVD ($34.95) and Blu-ray ($39.95) featuring NFB shorts including the Oscar-nominated Madame Tutli-Putli, and Sleeping Beauty.

The complete series of Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock will be available Nov. 3 from Maple/Lionsgate in a 20-disc set for $99.95

Sony’s TV roster will include the complete series of Dawson’s Creek, with all 127 episodes spread out over 24 DVDs ($141.95). In addition to existing extras, the set will contain several new items: a Creek Daze featurette, interview with creator Kevin Williamson, Final Exam trivia game, deleted scenes from the pilot with alternate cast members, and a CD featuring selected songs from the CDs.

A&E brings Farscape back from out-of-print hell by re-releasing the series in individual season sets ($24.95 each), plus a complete series box ($189.99) on Nov. 17th.

The CBC series Heartland, Season 1 Part 2 debuts on DVD Nov. 10th from E1.

Lastly, MPI will release a pair of documentaries: Earth 2100 arrives Nov. 3rd on DVD ($18.99) and BR ($31.99), and the superb space doc Moonshot arrives Nov. 17th on DVD ($24.99) and BR ($31.99).


Berlin: Traces of a Once-Divided City

Taken close to the Brandenburg Gate, April 2009October of 2009 will mark the 20th anniversary when East Germans were allowed to travel to West Germany after a lengthy ban, reinforced by the infamous Berlin Wall that was built by the communist regime to stop the flow of immigration into the West, as well as those escaping after the border was closed in 1961.

That same year, Billy Wilder was filming his acidic comedy One, Two, Three in the gorgeous city of Berlin. His bombastic story dealt with a Coca-Cola executive (James Cagney) trying to save his daughter (Pamela Tiffin) from marrying an East German boob (Horst Buchholz). The divisions between the East and West in early 1961 were no longer funny when the wall was erected in the fall, and people were plotting and sometimes succeeding in escaping to West Berlin, most notoriously by tunneling under the wall.

The best-known film today is Der Tunnel / The Tunnel (2001), a superb production about a brother trying to get his sister into West Berlin after his own successful escape in 1961.

Back in 1962, however, veteran director Robert Siodmak (The Killers) directed his own version of another underground flight, the aptly titled Escape from East Berlin, and exploitive as the movie was (not to mention melodramatic), it’s a rare snapshot of the tensions as depicted straight-faced under the wall’s fresh shadow. Other films later used West Berlin as a background for spy sagas, but Siodmak’s movie dealt with ordinary people, not dapper spies or diplomats sneaking through alleys in search of a trench-coated man with a secret password and fake passport.

Escape from East Berlin recently aired on TCM, and it was probably a premiere of sorts, since the film more or less slipped through the cracks over the years. I’ve uploaded a review of the film, as well as a documentary/travel video called Mauerflug (literally translated as Flight Over the Berlin Wall).

The film is available online at amazon.de (and at mauerflug.de), although the version I reviewed contains additional language tracks for the main segment where a camera crew flies over the southern sections of the wall months after a hole was poked through in the winter of 1989-1990, and people were able to step through with passports.

In a nutshell, Mauerflug is a snapshot of the wall around the time the East German parliament voted for reunification with West Germany. That effectively killed the wall’s purpose, although a gradual dismantling was already in progress.

The video and its bonus segments also cover parts of Berlin, Potsdam, and historical locations previously unseen except by those able to visit East Germany. Having been to Berlin in April of 2009, the change during those 20 years is astonishing, as are the massive restoration efforts for buildings that seem sooty and lonely in the video, circa 1990.

The eradication of all things GDR is a whole big topic and a hot one, and undoubtedly there’s a compelling documentary to be made about what’s happened to the cultural identity of those born post-1961, and how many aspects of their youth are still extant or have been built over or discontinued.

A humorous example of the change is in Wolfgang Becker’s superb drama Good Bye Lenin! (2003), in which loyal a son tries to maintain the illusion of an extant East German republic post-1990 to ensure his mother’s fragile recovery from a heart attack and coma isn’t endangered. It’s a bittersweet comedy-drama, but it exploits the reality of how many small things – food brands, clothes, furniture, and music – were smothered by a flood of western products.

What’s worth noting about Becker’s film, though, is the its popularity – perhaps a sign that people could find some humour in the circumstances caused by the wall’s erection in 2003, something that eluded Wilder’s One, Two, Three (but is no longer the case).

My memories of the wall exist from glimpses in 1978, asking at a young age why a big wall cut through a beach and continued with wire into the water; as well as odd curios, like a pair of pens that show a plane in a clear pane that glides towards the “You are now leaving the British Sector” sign when you tilted the pen.

There’s also a trip I made in December of 1989 to West Berlin, which a close family friend said I ‘had to do’ because of the historical importance.

In that era, the easiest method to visit the city was flying in a bumpy, narrow-seated propeller plane into the western sector. In December, one could approach the wall – smothered with fascinating graffiti – and look up and see armed East German guards on patrol, but they had orders to be more ‘benign,’ because many youths were pounding away at the wall with picks and hammers to extract coloured chunks which they sold for 15+ Deutsch Marks.

Near the Brandenburg Gate was a hole where foreigners could pass with their passports and check out the East, but I chose a bus tour which still required passage through Checkpoint Charlie. The line up was slow, IDs were checked, and the bus never allowed us to leave except at specific locations: the Pergamon Museum, with its massive Babylonian wall attraction; the huge Soviet War Memorial; and a coffee shop where we could spend our valuable foreign currency.

I bought a souvenir book of East Berlin purposely because I knew the images and text would lose their relevance within months. The tour guide proudly pointed out the efficient trams and buses, waxed on about ‘great social progress,’ but admitted quite often that everything was ready to fall at any time – a reference to the government, as well as a way of life. No one seemed to know what was coming, and indeed a few months into 1990, things did change after the reunification vote.

The bus tour, though, was still rooted in Careful Travel; we could observe, but not mingle with locals, and it was unsettling to imagine the flipside as an East Berliner: ‘Here comes another bus carrying arrogant rich westerners, literally and ideologically looking down at us, our cars and everything else.’

The tour (unintentionally?) propagated a superiority complex because there was no sounding board for one’s thoughts; we travelled in a secure bubble with an official guide but weren’t permitted to interact with anyone on street-level.

Flash forward to 2009, and there are virtually no traces of the wall, save for brick outlines and the occasional plaque marking its route (see pix above). Travel by bus into Berlin is no different than arriving by highway in any other city. The tour buses go everywhere and are exhaustive in their scope of the city.

Any remaining wasteland has been built up or will be covered by a new building. Everything old has been restored. And anything East has been either destroyed – like the Palast der Republik, a combo parliament building/entertainment center – or remodeled to fit with the newer contemporary styles.

Berlin Alexanderplatz is massive and stunning, and once again one can visit the entire island of museums – making a day trip to Berlin a feeble attempt to really sample the city. Berlin is expensive, but the same can be said of any major city when one has to buy meals if one’s not staying with a relative or friend.

Many of the historical buildings in Mauerflug have been scrubbed clean and restored, and while I’ve linked some locations to online snapshots and websites, it’s hard to imagine the before/after unless one sees the state of some buildings as they looked in 1990.

Mauerflug is a bit dated (mostly in the music) and the footage is literally Camera Looking Out from Helicopter, but the views are often startling, and the scope of the wall is daunting. The only equivalent today is perhaps the two Koreas, where travelling out from the North is forbidden.

A family friend had relatives in East Germany and said one could gain permission to leave if it was something special, like a birth or wedding of a relative; but once the token goodwill allowance was used up, that was it – unless you were a pensioner (medical or age-wise). Even the tour guide in 1989 told us that to buy a car one had to order the vehicle when a child was born, so that hopefully by the time it was of age, the car would be ready.

My 1989 bus tour was schizophrenic in the way stupidities and virtues were acknowledged by the guide himself. One could buy an East German Trabant for a pair of jeans at that time; it's ridiculous to think how a westerner could buy a car with a pair of Levis that otherwise took an easterner years to acquire, pre-1989.

But it must seem surreal for ex-easterners to see their relatively recent lives chronicled in Berlin’s DDR Museum, including common objects and furniture reduced to curio status.

Each of the aforementioned films and documentary address fleeing from an oppressive regime, the physical after-effects, and the life and history that was deemed irrelevant by some, but as slices of GDR culture make their way to DVD – be it newsreels and other ephemera, documentaries, or DEFA films – one wonders if there are intangible things the East may have taught the West, and whether those too have been obfuscated by a need to modernize and recall with selection.


Canadian DVD and Blu-ray Fall Release Dates - Pt. 1

Phase 4 Films will release Flashpoint, Season 1 Oct. 13th on DVD ($64.99) and Blu-ray ($74.99). Extras will include “Behind the Scenes of Flashpoint” and “The Human Cost of Heroism” featurettes, and director commentary on pilot episode. Season 2 will be released in 2010. The label will also release The Tudors, Season 3 Nov. 11th.

HBO will reissue Rome, Seasons 1 and 2 in a 10-disc set Nov. 11th on DVD ($124.98) and BR ($174.98). Exclusive to BR edition are the “Bloodlines” character guide, and an enhanced version of “All the Roads Lead to Rome” interactive on-screen guide.

Paramount’s TV slate for DVD will include Vegas, Season 1, Vol. 1 (Oct. 20), The Fugitive, Season 3, Vol. 1 (Oct. 27), Nash Bridges, Season 3 (Nov. 11), and Tales from the Darkside, Season 3 (Oct. 27). Why the last two series aren’t divided into pointless volumes 1 and 2 waves is a mystery known only by the label’s oddball bean counters.

Universal’s TV wave on DVD will include Battlestar Galactica: The Plan on DVD ($32.99) and BR ($47.99) Oct. 27. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Season 4 comes out on DVD Nov. 24 ($39.98), and The Rockford Files Movie Collection on Nov. 3 ($26.98).

While fans are still waiting for the legal headaches of The Larry Sanders Show to be sorted out, Shout Factory will release its predecessor, It’s Gary Shandling’s Show on Oct. 20th ($159.95). The set will contain all 72 episodes spread out over 16 DVDs.

Lastly, VSC will release Spectacle: Elvis Costello with… Nov. 10th on DVD ($54.98) and BR ($74.98). Each episode is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, and extras include extended episodes with extra songs, The Police in their final TV performance, and 60 mins. of behind-the-scenes footage.



Sweet Little Grace

Much like Anchor Bay’s DVD for Adam Green’s Hatchet (2006), Grace (2009) is another superb release with extras that dissect and map out alternative steps to working one’s way towards completing a feature length film – not in the sense of guaranteeing success, but by inspiring some forward-thinking, creative planning, and being persistent in a marketplace that’s often cluttered with sub-standard horror.

As Solet recounts in the DVD’s making-of featurette and commentary track, the script went through several rewrites before he decided the best way to ensure his story wasn’t mucked up by a hack was to direct the film himself, something that studios often don’t like.

Step 1 was to make a short promo film that showcased the script’s main plot points. Step 2 was to shoot a behind-the-scenes video to show Solet capably working with cast and crew. Step 3 was following the short to every film festival and promoting the hell out of it while wearing a babybjorn carrying a dead child mannequin.

Be notorious, and leave an indelible impression.

Step 4 is networking, and Step 5 is repeating the promo stages when the feature film’s been completed and is doing the festival rounds with media attention (and if media is lacking, get their attention somehow).

The reason Grace succeeded in the genre marketplace is two-fold: it’s a solid film, and Solet is comfortable doing the promo grind, which many filmmakers (if not writers) generally avoid. You go on the road with your baby, you answer the same questions innumerable times during junkets, and you remain fresh, enthusiastic, and affable. You make sure the media likes you, and you make sure the result of all that self-promotion is to establish yourself as a professional, financially viable filmmaker.

Solet will probably be able to land a feature film project with a major studio, but just like the studios shoo away the writer after a script purchase, they also like to control and remove qualities, freedoms, and associations that made the indie filmmaker succeed in the first place

Even producer Adam Green makes light of the idiotic habit where studios disallow the involvement of the director’s key creative personnel: the cinematographer, composer, producer, etc.

There are two worst case scenarios in recent years: Chris Sivertson, who directed the excellent Jack Ketchum adaption of The Lost (2006), and followed up with the inept I Know Who Killed Me (2007); and Lucky McKee, whose May (2002) is a brilliant little gem, but whose studio debut The Woods (2006) is an awful, awful mess.

Both filmmakers are very talented, but studio control, politics, and probably a lot of forced compromises resulted in the directors’ studio debuts being turkeys. Switch to Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009), and you have the ideal situation: talented filmmaker gets to work with his chosen team, and delivers a box office and critical hit.

Solet may be in the enviable position where he can choose to remain independent, or accept an offer for a major studio project. Both come with different kinds of compromises, but here’s hoping he’s careful in his next move…



A Dianese waferJesus Diaz at Gizmodo reports that the classic Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will be reissued in a remastered mono edition, which should satisfy fans wanting a digital version of the original mono mixed as supervised by the band prior to the stereo mix that was created by sound engineers for the upscale market.

What’s just as interesting as Diaz’ A/B comparisons between mono and stereo mixes of specific songs is what follows - a colourful batch of reader comments that includes restrained vinyl fans and an amalgam of digital purists, and a fool here and there.

The article isn’t about whether mono is better than stereo, but perhaps the correctness in A) presenting a work in its original format as well as the ‘updated’ version, and B) ensuring the original is always available in the event someone wishes to hear the original mix as intended by the original artist(s) or creator(s).

In the realm of DVDs and Blu-ray, the same goes for retaining the original mono film mix, which doesn’t always happen with older films. There are DTS and Dolby remixes so a home theatre owner can still use all the speakers in the room, and that’s a fair option for someone who feels the thousands spent on a big screen system is being neutered by a Dolby 2.0 mono mix, but regardless of the new mix’ quality, the original track should always be retained.

Most DVD labels carry the original mix – be it mono or an older stereo 2.0 track – and sometimes there’s use of the term “restored original mono” which reads like a marketing gimmick to sex up the word “mono.” Fox, for example, likes to use it, but it’s kind of redundant since the original mono mix was always in mono, and “restored” implies it was something else beforehand.

Fox’ engineers may in fact be paying stealth homage to an older single-ear system known as Mo. The late nineteenth century process worked like this: a leafless twig bent in half was dragged across a strip of curled bark containing raised pieces of cow dung. The music bark (called a Dianese wafer) could only be played once due to the dung’s poor bonding power to the coarse bark surface, but there exists three surviving recordings of a fiddle player that was transferred to Edison wax cylinders by a progressive technician in Pinikindu, Ontario.

This primordial sound system was later adapted using metal elements by Simon Woofing, a burly, baritone-voiced Alberta rancher who was known to experiment in his shed with all manner of oddities. Woofing discovered perforated tin foil and a rusty nail with butter drippings was just as effective as bark and wood fiber, and the foil’s natural bending power also gave the Dianese wafer the bonus of total portability, as one could fold the wafer into quarters and carry it in a back pocket to another player.

Woofing’s invention (initially called Woofing, but later changed to Woofer) was never patented due to a playback issue which made low notes far too sonorous, but the concept of carving sound waves into solid matter for playback endured, and eventually inspired the creation of wax cylinder and steel needle/acetate platters for sound recording and reproduction.

While the term “monophonic” is tied to the word “mono,” that’s actually a corporate appropriation, since the Mo method of aural reproduction and its limited lifespan wasn’t welcomed by Depression Era investors, and their common response to inventors (“No!”) begat the hy-fusion term “mono.” Stereo, however, does indeed stand for stereophonic (‘dual’) sound.

But I’m digressing.*

Diaz’ piece illustrates why choice is a good thing, and how sometimes efforts to improve a good thing for a new technology and audience expectations don’t necessarily make it better.

The sixties are filled with garbage pseudo-stereo mixes of fine mono albums, not to mention awful spatial enhancements that seemed exciting at the time but sound awful today. United Artist Records issued a number of bullshit stereo soundtrack albums (Tunes of Glory being a lu-lu), Tony Thomas used a then-novel device to add depth to old acetate recordings in his archival Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa and Hans J. Salter albums, and the ability to press 50+min. LPs didn’t always yield the best fidelity.

(I covered examples of good and bad ideas in an old Music from the Movies column, of which the multi-part, pro-vinyl biases can be read HERE.)

The other issue at hand is one of personal taste. In a nutshell, having the stereo and mono versions of the Beatles album lets people take the version that suits their listening quirks. Vinyl purists will opt for, say, 180 gram virgin stock and play back the LP using tube equipment, whereas digital enthusiasts will prefer high-end gear that maximizes clarity, error correction, and a broad sound spectrum.

A good friend from high school hated bass. Actually hated it, though I think it may have stemmed from growing up in a semi-detached house that couldn’t block the neighbour’s reggae music from bleeding through the cinder blocks. His gear consisted of an amp and speakers with the lowest bass reproduction on the market, something that ran completely against my taste, if not the musicians.

Blasphemy, I say.

Others prefer a hybrid that may be a record player piped through a high-end digital amp, or an iPod piped through a tube amp. Myself, I’ve compared piping a flac recording from a Rio Karma through a vintage eighties Pioneer amp (the blue fluorescent series), and neither the sound directly from the Rio or the Pioneer was wrong; they were just different in the way some sounds were processed.

The Pioneer’s age maybe softened the sharpness, but there’s a big difference between listening to a fat bass LP through the Pioneer, and an LP that’s been dubbed to CD without any digital enhancements; something just gets lost in the transfer, and it’s often that Big Warm Sound vinyl aficionados (aficionadi?) keep crying about.

Some of the commentators at the end of Diaz’ piece get colourful because there are polarizing stances on what’s best, what’s idiotic, and what’s true to the artist’s original intentions, and whether creating a stereo mix was right in the first place.

Is it wrong to alter a recording to suit one’s eccentric tastes? Not if it’s done by the end-user (you) as opposed to a producer over-excited about new gear that can transform mono to stereo. I’ve never been able to listen to the fake stereo tracks on those Fox DVDs because everything’s all mushy, and just as Diaz noticed in the Beatles album, there are details that get lost when frequencies and stems are reprocessed to create an environment that’s not natural to the original concept.

However, you can create a stereo mix from separate and discrete music stems (which is different from taking a mono track and processing the crap out of it to evoke stereo), but it will always require some imagination, and rational thinking to ensure the final results aren’t gimmicky or a mush of cheap effects.

This is again a reflection of my narrow realm, but labels like Film Score Monthly and Screen Archives Entertainment have issued some rare film scores – Alfred Newman’s Prince of Foxes (1949) and The Captain from Castile (1947), respectively – in stereo mixes made from extant recordings using a pair of optical tracks recorded by the composer initially to achieve a ‘fatter’ mono sound.

Similarly, when Columbia released Mysterious Island (1961) on laserdisc, it sported a startling surround sound mix created from surviving multiple audio stems – a feature foolishly ignored when the film was released on DVD. Bad Sony. BAD.

Contrary to some of the comments, stereo wasn’t regarded as a gimmick in the sixties – certainly not by jazz musicians and engineers like Rudy Van Gelder, who transformed the sound of music from the flat Decca Tree to an up close and personal style where every musician and an instrument’s nuances where heard; moreover, no channel was left dead and silent while another instrument played.

If you really want to hear fine examples of true stereo made by pioneers during the fifties and sixties, try the Capitol recordings (which encompass the Van Gelder Blue Note stream) as well as Liberty Records, Mercury recordings, RCA’s Living Stereo series as well as RCA’s sixties LPs that boasted not only superb engineering, but good vinyl stock.

Personal favourites include Capitol’s LP for Elmer Bernstein’s Staccato, and the RCA platter for Bernstein’s The Silencers. Both are mini-masterpieces of engineering on vinyl, and lest I forget, there’s also the brilliant work done by the Italians during the seventies that seemed to ignore the echoey processing British and American labels applied to recordings to create phony depth. Profondo Rosso is absolutely stunning, and many of Ennio Morricone’s scores – as well as contemporaries like Gianni Ferrio and Piero Umiliani – were recorded and engineered to make bass warm, and place the band or orchestra close to the listener without being invasive. They’re masterworks of 2-channel stereo, and I’m sure would still blow away any attempted Dolby 5.1 reconfiguring.

Many labels (including Mercury) were cheap, and they pressed finely engineered recordings on garbage vinyl during the sixties; that’s why it was so startling to hear the clarity and warmness of vintage Mercury recordings on lovingly remastered CD released during the nineties.

In regards to the affected Beatles albums, the release of the original mono mixes will give listeners a choice, it’ll give purists an opportunity to re-examine songs under a new light, and the label will have another opportunity to re-sell the Beatles to the world – the latter likely being the chief reason this is being done.


Of course not. We now have choice again.


(*) denotes an apocryphal historical footnote in an alternate universe that may be both untrue, and rather ridiculous.

Udo in T.O.

Yes, this movie is REAL.On Sunday August 30th German actor Udo Kier participated in a conversation about his career at Toronto’s Bloor Cinema as part of the Festival of Fear weekend, via presenters Rue Morgue and David Daniloff Productions.

The event, billed as Diabolical Revelations: An Intimate Evening with Udo Kier, began with a chunky 20 min. intro by host/interviewer Bruce LaBruce, and Kier periodically provided anecdotes from the various films in his lengthy career, and the diverse filmmakers with which he’s worked since 1966.

Friend and filmmaker Peter Cho attended that night (I was plowing through reviews and was unable to join in on the fun) and he kindly provided the pair of pictures that show Kier on stage in a relaxed atmosphere, and standing outside of the Bloor Cinema (RM publisher/filmmaker Rod Gudino is more visible than the lucky fan posing with Kier).

... Udo relaxed...


Apparently the Q&A with the appreciative audience went short due to a time overrun, but some clips of the night will undoubtedly appear online, like this brief excerpt on YouTube.

Why is Kier so beloved by horror fans, and regarded as one of the most charismatic cult figures in indie and European film?

Perhaps the best starting points is his horror diptych for director Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1973) and Andy Warhol’s Dracula (1974) – the former filmed in 3-D – which gave Kier starring roles after he’d enjoyed minor starring and supporting parts in The Road to St. Tropez (1966), a short that marked the film debuts of Kier and writer/director Michael Sarne (Myra Breckinridge); the Italian film Season of the Senses / La stagione dei sensi (1969), one of Dario Argento’s early screenwriting efforts; and Mark of the Devil (1970), with its infamous tongue-ripping scene, capping a litany of gory and grotesque torture sequences in the film.

Kier’s career mostly consists of cult films (some notoriously violent and sick flicks made during the seventies), stunt casting (a more recent trend where director-fans have used the actor’s value among horror connoisseurs to boost a films’ marquee value), and more serious work for respected directors like Fassbinder and Lars von Trier.

The Warhol films are important starting points and Kier samplers because they also showcase the actor’s comedic gifts. In both films, Kier plays striking men with emotional sensitivity being overwhelmed by outrageous behaviour – some inflicted upon him by unlikely villains, or bad behaviour from within that’s rationalized by simple needs to survive (blood from ‘were-gins’ in Dracula) or improve humanity (using body parts to make beautiful people in Frankenstein).

It also helps that Morrissey’s films are meant to be ridiculous. Dracula really doesn’t like killing and is a fuddy-duddy; he just can’t help himself and is ultimately dismembered by a jealous Marxist workman (Joe Dallesandro) wielding a big ax. One also begins to feel sympathy for the poor bastard when he keeps retching from the toxic blood of whores.

Frankenstein often seems befuddled, though part of that might be Kier himself wrestling around some fantastically insane dialogue; when Frankie-boy utters the immortal phrase “To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life... in the gall bladder!” it’s said while the character is getting off on a cadaver.

The fact Kier was willing to perform such crazy behaviour with a mix of conviction and amusement is kind of endearing, and one senses he’s winking at audiences so they know the whole movie is supposed to be an over-the-top assault that’s meant to amuse and shock.

I don’t’ recall in which film it happens, but there’s a specific scene where Dallesandro, playing a beefy servant, was told by director Morrissey to slurp the armpit of the actress playing the rich matriarch that’s having an affair with the household boy-toy. The scene goes on and on, and it’s hysterical for the banality of the actors’ performances and their engaging in a completely bizarre fetish.

Both films are on DVD, and it’s worth listening to Morrissey’s explanation in the commentary tracks of specific scenes – including the slurpfest – to understand how the films were meant to be absurd.

Kier also appears on both Frankenstein and Dracula commentary tracks (you just have to shuttle through Maurice Jacowar’s painfully dull and snotty observations) and voices his own memories of trying to act in wacko scenes. (His recollections of copulating with the aforementioned gall bladder amid the stench of real fetid organs is priceless.)

Probably Kier’s best known mainstream work in horror is Blade (1998), and it’s probably one of his best because he’s not in the film for novelty. He’s compelling as the head of a vampire clan whose murdered by a rebel out for total control of the species and humankind. Kier plays a careful bureaucrat, and it’s rightfully upsetting when he’s betrayed and left out in the morning dawn to disintegrate and explode.

(An example of stunt casting, though, is feardotcom, the inept and incoherent shocker where Kier’s character is dead within the first 5 mins. That unfortunate event is proof positive that, just like Bruce Campbell, if you kill a cult icon in the first reel, the film will suck. Try watching feardotcom, and if that doesn’t convince, just attempt to sit through the big studio garbage that’s Congo after Bruce has been dispatched.)

Kier’s also known for appearing in Argento’s Suspiria (1977), but like most of the actors in an Argento film, he’s smothered by the fantastic kill sequences.

The actor has also appeared in erotic films (The Story of O), Hollywood comedies (Ace Venture: Pet Detective), American and German TV shows, as well as dramas (My Own Private Idaho) and the occasional weirdity (Spermula), and he showed an uncharacteristic menace in von Trier’s Breaking the Waves (1996).

More than any director, von Trier has perhaps given Kier more opportunities to stretch his talents in recent years, which is why The Kingdom / Riget (1994) is another superb intro into Kier’s skills and screen charisma; he can play a bureaucratic doctor and a giant mutant baby-man, whining for its mother.

This Danish TV series is quite nuts, but it’s an engrossing fusion of supernatural dramas, TV soaps, and Lynchian weirdness, and even though the series never reached its final round in Season 3 (two major actors died before the final season could be shot), it doesn’t matter that there’s no end. The Kingdom is about mood and eccentric characters, and it’s no surprise Kier is very comfortable in von Trier’s epic genre recombination.

For passing fans and newbies of Kier’s work, it’s worth checking out some of the aforementioned titles (as well as Norman Wilner’s recent interview with the icon for NOW).

I just wish I could’ve been there to ask Kier one question: Why Spermula? WHY?



Reflecting Inwards

Making the news this morning was Michael Ignatieff’s speech to the Liberal caucus of his intention to call a fall election which, if it happens, will be the fourth election within a five year period.

There are many ways one can read this tactic – needy power grab, moral grand-standing against the villainous Harper and the Conservatives, or a great big waste of taxpayer’s money yet again – but it’s another chapter in the country’s increasingly colourful political history.

I’m not going to weigh in (mostly because I don’t like any of the parties nor their leaders – they each deserve a kick in the pants) but the multiple elections offer plenty of material to debate aspects of Canadian culture – political and social.

So on that note, I’ve uploaded a pair of reviews for two Albert Nerenberg documentaries (he’s the director of Stupidity) that deal with parts of our national identity.

You may have heard of Let’s All Hate Toronto (KOCH) because of the catchy title and its chronicle of Mr. Toronto’s (co-director Rob Spence) trek across the country with a “Toronto Appreciation Day Banner.” Basically, he became a human dartboard onto which many people threw up their distaste for Canada’s largest city. The ploy was to provoke opinions and hopefully find the reasons why T.O. and its people aren’t held in high esteem by the rest of the country, as well as some of its citizens.

Do we have a wanker for a mayor? Are we really that obsessed over the Maple Leafs? Are we really New York wannabes? Was Budweiser tapping into some truth or were they just a bunch of boneheads for conceiving this short-lived billboard campaign in B.C.?

The doc doesn’t offer any solutions to the hating problem (and it is a flawed film), but it’s worth a peek for some street-level glimpses of the nation’s ire towards T.O.

Grander in scope is Escape to Canada (Disinformation), Nerenberg’s serious effort to examine the peculiar paths the U.S. and Canada took after 9/11: whereas the south went conservative, the north started to debate the legalization of pot, gay marriage, and welcoming American draft dodgers with open arms.

It too has faults, but Nerenberg holds back on his penchant for cheeky comments and graphics and lets his subjects speak for themselves (as well as letting lunatics hang themselves with their own words and ideologies).

If we do end up going to the polls again this fall, someone should make a documentary on the country’s political divisions, and how respective ideologies shape national policies with sometimes good and disgraceful results.

I still think they deserve a kick in the pants, though.


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