19 Aug 2016

3 x Translated Review (Taking Tiger Mountain / Alpha / Welcome to Nowhere)

What follows are English translated reviews of three highly experimental works of cinema, Taking Tiger Mountain, Alpha, and Welcome to Nowhere, written in yesteryear, at the request of their respective directors, Tom Huckabee, Stathis Athanasiou and William Cusick.

Taking Tiger Mountain (Tom Huckabee & Kent Smith, 1983)

Speaking of the obscure and provocative dystopian drama (?) Taking Tiger Mountain, the history of its conception should be looked upon, since it is as perplexed (and interesting) as the unconventional narrative. In the intervew for Screen Slate, Tom Huckabee reveals how he came to cooperate with Kent Smith, the original creator, Bill Paxton, the starring actor and producer, and William Burroughs, one of the most eccentric writers of beat generaton. According to his words, it all began in the mid-70's, when a young adventurist (Smith) decided to shoot his first fiction feature out of the money he saved while he had been working on Encyclopædia Britannica's educational shorts.

Inspired by the Italian and French cinema, especially by Fellini's and Godard's opuses, the Middle East culture and the books by Paul Bowles and Allen Ginsberg, Smith wrote a poem about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty, which should have served as a frame for improvisation. With almost no plan, he left for Tangier (in Morocco), in the company of then-anonymous (and barely of age) Bill Paxton, whom he considered a potential star. However, both of them ended up in prison, while all of their footage and equipment was confiscated. After their release, they arrived in Spain, embittered because of the failure, and then they traveled to Wales. Continuing their experimentation there, they were helped by Paxton's and Huckabee's mutual acquaintance, Barry Wooller... and the townsfolk from the country's south. There was less and less of the film tape, so they moved back to Los Angeles, trying to provide funds for their crazy project, which they introduced to Huckabee. A few years later, Tom was finishing his studies at the University of Texas in Austin and preparing for the adaptation of awarded post-apocalyptic story by an unnamed local writer, but ultimately lost the rights to do so. Smith sold him the ten-hour footage for a dollar and Huckabee spent months editing it (with no expenses, thanks to UT) and extracted sixty minutes of suitable imagery. Afterwards, through the punk-rock connection and a complementary-offensive poem, he got in touch with Burroughs, who allowed him to draw on the material from his SF novella Blade Runner (a movie).

The title, which was (instinctively) borrowed from Chinese opera for the sake of wonder, remained untouched, but the new screenplay took place in a near future and it followed Billy Hampton, a Texan who fled from occupied America to British island in order to avoid compulsory military service. Once there, he was abducted by a group of sophisticated feminist terrorists, who have been opposing the oldest profession legalization, creating assassins by brainwashing and then setting them on the prostitution camps leaders. (And they also specialized in redirecting sexual orientation and sex change operation.)

During the introductory part, the quartet of middle-aged women analyzes Billy and persuades him to believe that an aging major is actually a tiger sent by God to kill him. That prologue is a combination of sequences with Huckabee's signature and those from a short film that Smith and Paxton had been working on prior to their arrival to Wales. What follows could be described as a sporadically wet psychotropic nightmare, with hypnotic soundtrack composed of gloomy drones, overdubbed dialogues, confusing monologues and omnipresent radio announcements about the war aftermath and the use of thermonuclear weapons on the United States territory. Along the reports of explosions, plagues and hound-sized rats, and high contrast (overexposed) photography, even the most trite scenes, such as walking down the street or visiting the pubs, look like a paranoid hallucination.

The film itself acts as if it were directed by Cronenberg in his Stereo / Crimes of the Future element, under the influence of Maya Deren and Paul Morrissey, and then given to stoned Portabella for a finishing touch. Despite the oddities and absurdities it has no shortage of, its impenetrability and suffocating, disorienting and simultaneously spellbinding atmosphere, Taking Tiger Mountain is worthy of the "unique sensory experience" epithet. In addition, it drastically changes most people's notion of Bill Paxton, in the same way The Egyptian Princess by Rocky Schenck does.


Alpha (Stathis Athanasiou, 2015)

Greece, in a future not so far away. The cradle of democracy has been turned into a totalitarian state's deathbed. Alpha leads a conformist life, but in a constant fear of what the next morning will bring. When the Fugitive knocks at her door, she refuses to provide him the refuge. For the people in power, their short encounter is a reason enough to punish her. A uniformed group takes her away to the desolate forest, where she is forced to sit under the hanged Fugitive's corpse – the corpse of her own brother...

The part of the Parnitha National Park, damaged by wildfire of 2007, is put to use as "the prison", in which Alpha's physical and mental decline occurs. By burnt trunks, dried grass and car wrecks, that space is given the looks of post-apocalyptic landscape and made into a junkyard of socially ostracized. Applying the "beat-to-obedience" principle, the dictatorship's subjects thwart each and every heroine's attempt to keep on struggling for survival. Nightmarish hallucinations, that transform and eventually break her, are caused by her taking over the responsibility for the family breakdown, as well as the forcible relocation from the safety zone. Childhood memories, often interlaced with the child's cry (or laughter), dissolve her present / deranged reality, introducing the additional discomfort into an abstract and labyrinthian story.

Deconstructing (postmodernizing) the myth of Antigone, Athanasiou creates the uncompromising experimental film, contemplating about the righteousness of the human laws. Simultaneously, his latest feature presents a psychological character study of "anti-Antigone" in the state of isolation – initially, self-imposed (and self-preserving), and subsequently, in captivity. Reducing the dialogue to a minumum, he communicates with his audience via the audio-visual symbols and allusions, and through the symbiosis of excellent black & white cinematography and layered soundtrack, the "conversation" flows smoothly. Exceptionally striking is the tracking shot, lasting around ten minutes, which follows the title and destroys the illusion of unimpeded privacy by playing with (horror) genre conventions. From the unidentified and for Alpha invisible voyeur's POV, we observe her apartment, when the sudden cut takes us back to the past, eerily red and, in a Lynchian way, enigmatic.

The main role is entrusted to Serafita Grigoriadou, who succeeds in playing timid, introverted, hate-filled and ostensibly safe woman as good as bold and defiant individual, who strives for preserving what little's left of her dignity and love for her brother. With disfigured face, which she paints as a warioress using the lipstick, she gives the strong emotional punch in the touching scene towards the end.

Alpha is the first Greek film financed through the means of crowdfunding, and it is available at the official director's vimeo channel.


Welcome to Nowhere (Bullet Hole Road) (William Cusick, 2012)

"The key to my salvation is in the removal of all boundaries."

Based upon the performance of the same name by Temporary Distortion troupe, Welcome to Nowhere represents a surrealist deconstruction of the American dream myth. Stretched between video art, road movie, abstract animation and Lynchean thriller, this film provides us with several pieces of a puzzle, whose solution is the illusion of the five lost souls' story.

Thoughts, memories and hallucinations of a poet (and a murderer?), a hitchhiker (and a thief?), a prostitute, a waitress and a junkie, are all intertwined in modern "Wild West" – in the desert, motel rooms and nightclubs, at the gas station and, of course, on the road. Unable to oppose the demons who feed their fears, as in the karaoke-intermezzo, they're reduced to the level of ghosts, trapped inside the (no-exit?) labyrinth of feverish dreams. Their long and cold looks tear the existential void, and time seems still, while they slowly sink into nothingness, becoming the victims of "paradoxical fantasies of improbable escapism, perverse sexuality and futile violence" (to paraphrase a part of the official synopsis).

Cusick's oneiric-nihilistic phantasmagoria is shown from the different perspectives, but each is subjective and therefore unreliable. Will you simply let it take over you or try to make sense of it or resist the anti-narrative? Well, it depends on your willingness to dive into the sea of subconsciousness. If you're in the mood for floating above the "bluesy" sonic scapes, in the presence of sporadic dialogues and often trippy imagery with saturated colors, Welcome to Nowhere will be the refreshment you’re yearning for. And you can watch it at NoBudge.

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