Kill the Giggler

Short Fridays #4: “Ice Cream”

When Louis CK's series Louie debuted on American cable channel FX last year it sent shock waves across the comedic community. The question on the lips of his comedian contemporaries was this - how the hell did Louis do it?

Louie is one of the weirdest, darkest and most uncompromising television shows to have ever been broadcast on American television; it's also one of the funniest, although some episodes stretch the definition of a comedy programme to breaking point (the infamous 'God' episode being a good case in point).

Louie's originality stems from a unique commissioning deal from broadcasting network FX: after turning in a successful pilot, Louis asked for the series budget to be granted to him upfront (an extremely low amount for a television series), so he could then go away and write, produce, direct, edit and star in each episode, bringing them in at or under budget, with the proviso that there would be no notes or interference from the network with regards to its final content. In an unprecedented move,  FX agreed, granting CK probably the greatest amount of creative autonomy of any showrunner outside of England, where there is more of a history of television 'auteurs'.

The deal has been the subject of much debate amongst comics, all of whom  would clearly kill for an arrangement that would allow them similar creative freedom. Put simply though, there is no other comedian on the planet capable of pulling off a series like Louie the way that CK did, who combines one the most incisive comic minds on the planet with an almost prodigious technical ability. In a fantastic and illuminating recent WTF podcast, Ck reveals that he would spend hours at school in the AV room taking apart and experimenting with equipment, and  longtime friend and fellow standup Marc Maron recalls being with Louis when he found an abandoned computer in the street, before watching wih incredulity as he took it home and nonchalantly fixed it back up to scratch.

CK's natural affinity for the technical aspects of production  led to the making experimental short films alongside his standup career for many years, including Ice Cream,  the subject of this week's Short Friday.

The tone of Ice Cream very much remains in the shorts found in Louie, even if it's significantly less profane than most of his later work. It also demonstrates the kind of artistry and style CK is able to wring out of a tiny budget, something which must have been a big factor in the decision-making of the FX bosses.

While he clearly has a unique comic sensibility, there are two big influences on CK's film work  that are made particularly clear in Ice Cream. There are several parallels with Eraserhead - Rick Shapiro's protagonist character is essentially la combination between Henry Spencer in Lynch's movie and Louis CK's standup persona, and the awkward, ugly and surrealistic quality that Lynch brings to relationships and family life is definitely present - at time Ice Cream feels like an extended version of the famous Eraserhead dinner scene. Also, like that film, Ice Cream is essentiallya simple and moving story about fear of parenthood piled underneath huge swathes of strangeness.

The other big influence present on Ice Cream is Putney Swope, the brilliantly weird 1960 advertising satire from Robert Downey Sr. CK acknowledges the huge impact his original viewing of Putney Swope had on him as film-maker, making him realise the potential of the form, including he claims the notion that, "nothing even really has to make any sense."

The aggressively obtuse non-sequiturs of Putney Swope have become a recurring theme in all of CkKs work, and they're particularly prevalent here - like the shoplifter at the start, the man collapsing in the tunnel, and the mariachi band at the end. The cumulative effect of all these unexplained beats is one of unease, but they're also undeniably and innately hilarious.

Watching Ice Cream it's easy to see why FX went out on such a limb for Louis CK - it's a funny, disturbing, and ultimately quite affecting piece of work that demonstrates a film-maker in complete command of his vision.

Oh, and he's also one of the best stand ups in the world. So there's that.

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How to remake ‘They Live’

AKA 'Matt Reeves: you're re-making me crazy!'

I saw Let Me In at the weekend, and I’d like to think I went into it with an open mind – if anything, I was predisposed to like it, having heard and read a number of good reviews, most notably from Kim Newman, who claims that it actually works better as a horror movie that Let the Right One In.

Nope. Afraid I can't agree with the hairy bran-flake on that one.

Admittedly, I wasn’t really prepared for Let Me In to be almost literally a shot for shot remake of the original, with the exception of maybe, let’s be generous, three scenes. The irritating thing is that the new stuff that was added was actually pretty good (the moment the guardian disfiguring himseld after a spectacular car crash as opposed to in a deserted changing room, for one, although I could have done without the whole “I’m meeeeeeellting!” histrionics that followed).

A scene from Let the Right One. Wait, I mean Let Me In. Wait...

Otherwise it was a redundant and shoddy imitation of the original, and in places it was egregiously bad – the I Am Legend style CGI used for Abby’s first attack was shockingly shite and unscary.

It’s weird, because the performances were good, and it certainly wasn’t a badly made film – it was just a huge waste of everybody who has seen the original’s time, and I’m genuinely baffled as to why it garnered the raves it did. Didn’t Gus Van Sant get hauled over the coals a few years ago for remaking Psycho shot for shot, admittedly with Anne Heche and Vince Vaughan in the leading roles? What’s the difference?

Wait a second…

Van Sant is a Dutch name…

Let the Right One In is a Swedish film…

Sweden is in Scandinavia which shares a border with Holland…

Dutch people come from…

Alas, the Northern Europe Remake conspiracy is finally unveiled for all to see.

Anyway, now Matt Reeves is remaking They Live, another film very close to my heart. I just don’t get it – he’s a talented director, surely, SURELY there must be some great original scripts out there he can take a chance on and direct? Why does he have to keep messing with films I like?

Yes, he’s basing it on the original book, not the film. But Let the Right One In was also based on a novel: this didn’t stop Reeves from ignoring the source material and essentially using the exact same screenplay for Let the Right One In for Let Me In, right down to copying subtitles from the English translation of Let the Right One In directly into his script for the remake.

Remakes are not necessarily a bad thing. At least two of the best horror films ever made are remakes. (I’m not going to insult you by naming them). But they were good because they took an entirely different slant on the material.

I think what annoyed me most about Let Me In was how well-made it was – all that time and money, all those creative resources poured into what was essentially a brass rubbing. At least when Roger Corman did his low-budget rip-offs there was a plucky, cheeky quality to them that was admirable – it’s the same difference between a cockney market trader trying to sell you a watch with no minute hand as a Rolex, and a man in a suit in an art gallery selling you a perfectly counterfeited Picasso. The more sophisticated the deception, the bigger the insult.

They Live: the original.

Here’s what Reeves has said about the They Live remake:

"I saw an opportunity to do a movie that was very point-of-view driven, a psychological science fiction thriller that explores this guy's nightmare ... There could be a desperate love story at the centre of this. Carpenter took a satirical view of the material and the larger political implication that we're being controlled. I am very drawn to the emotional side, the nightmare experience with the paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or a Roman Polanski-style film."

Yeah, whatever dude. I’m sure your idea for a sci-fi version of The Tenant is exactly why studio executives have commissioned it, and not because they are methodically remaking every single John Carpenter film ever made in a nakedly desperate act of creative and moral bankruptcy.

Check out the list:

Assault on Precinct 13
The Fog
The Thing
(coming soon)
Escape From New York (coming soon)
They Live (coming soon)

No love for Christine, Hollywood? And what is Big Trouble in Little China, chopped liver?

Let’s face it. Studio executives have no respect whatsoever for mainstream audiences, and they certainly don’t care about film nerds who hold the originals dear to their hearts. So why not scrap the pretense that they’re attempting to make a decent film or even pay respectful homage to the original, up the already high, campy insanity quotient to dangerously unstable levels, and commit to the total trainwreck that in all likelihood it will end up being? That’s the only way I’d ever want to see it.

With that in mind, here’s a few ideas for my version of the They Live remake:

• The Rowdy Roddy Piper role of 'Nada' to be played by Tommy Wiseau of The Room fame.

• Keith David role to be played by Kanye West, playing himself. NOTE: THIS IS NOT STUNT CASTING. There are important narrative and thematic reasons for this which will shortly become clear.

Tommy Wiseau as 'Nada'

• The legendary extended fight scene to be extended by an extra 40 minutes – there should also be a five-minute intermission where audience members are allowed to place various bets on what will happen next in the fight, i.e. who will receive the next blow to the crotch, how many times a homo-erotic posture will be assumed, and so on. NOTE: to prevent people being tipped off on the outcome of the fight, cinemas will be supplied with 10 different versions of this scene which will be alternated at random, including one that ends in a Never Back Down inspired street dance-off.

• The magic sunglasses are to be replaced with a pair of Kanye West patented ‘grillface’ glasses. It is revealed that Kanye’s recent erratic behaviour is due to his being driven insane by the visions of aliens induced by the magic glasses. Nada now accidentally receives the glasses by catching them after they fall off Yeezy’s head, while he crowd-surfs after a VMAs performance.

• 20% more fart jokes.

• There is a sex scene between Nada and an alien, in 3D. NOTE: this scene and this scene only is in 3D. Before the it starts, Wiseau turns to the camera and shouts to the audience “Put on your damn glasses!” before giggling and disrobing. NOTE: the sex scene should be AT LEAST as long at the fight scene, which it immediately follows.

Featuring Kanye West as 'Kanye West'

• Every time Kanye is not on-screen, characters should ask “Where’s Kanye?”

• In the original They Live, Nada discovers that when he puts on the glasses, adverts are transformed into slogans demanding obedience and subservience to capitalism. Unfortunately the increasing importance of product placement as a revenue for modern films means this aspect of the orignal wouldn't really be appropriate in 2011: therefore, in the new version, putting the glasses on transforms adverts into different adverts, but this time for better and more interesting products.

• Some of the dialogue of the original film may seem a bit nuanced and obtuse to modern audiences – therefore the film’s most famous line would be changed to the following: “I'm here to chew bubblegum, and kick ass …and I'm all out of gum, which means chewing bubblegum is going to be out of the question until I go and buy some more, so by my reckoning all I’ve got left to do here is kick some ass…DICKHOLES!

Matt Reeves, you are welcome. Hopefully now you can see that ‘gauche travesty’ is the only road to go down for the They Live remake: anything else would be like pouring perfume on a pig…

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Short Fridays #3 – Monkey Drummer

When I was 18 I bought a copy of The Work of Director Chris Cunningham on the day of release, and pretty much watched it weekly for an entire year. I find it hard to believe that someone could sit down and watch the DVD in its entirety, and not come away shaken, queasy, and confused, but ultimately with the conclusion that Cunningham is one our most interesting and unique film-makers.

Genius is an overused term, and saying genius is an overused term before labeling someone a genius is an even more overused term, but I’ll point to anything on that DVD as evidence that Chris Cunningham is prodigiously talented in a way that maybe a handful of film-makers have ever been.

The DVD contains pretty much all of the video work Cunningham had done up to that point, including the famous ‘Mental Wealth’ adverts for Playstation, and music videos for Bjork, Squarepusher, Madonna, Leftfield, and of course Aphex Twin.

Interestingly, since the DVD’s release in 2004 Cunningham has only produced a handful of new stuff, including the disgusting and hilarious Rubber Johnny, and well-received videos for Gil Scott Heron and The Horrors. His main focus over the past few years has been on his burgeoning career as a VJ, bringing his set of punishing short films and ear-splitting glitch techno to parties all over the world (his take on Star Wars which features in this set is definitely worth watching if you haven’t seen it already).

It’s hardly surprising that Cunningham made the transition to VJ as one his most impressive talents is his ability to perfectly synchronise the aural and the visual so that they compliment each other perfectly. One of the best examples of his ability is Monkey Drummer, a 2001 music video-cum-art installation with music supplied by Cunningham’s own DeNiro, Aphex Twin.

Monkey Drummer isn’t close to being the best bit of work Cunningham has done – it’s a one-joke film that is pretty much just Cunningham showing off, but when you’re as good as he is, one joke is still enough to create something absolutely amazing. Monkey Drummer is also a succinct overview of all the elements of his work that have led to him becoming so revered and admired in the worlds of music, art, and film.

Firstly, his aforementioned talent for synchronization is demonstrated as persuasively here as it is in any of his stuff – it’s hard to believe the music wasn’t created alongside the video, but apparently it was, and Cunningham’s ability to deconstruct the audio layer-by-layer and construct a compelling visual around it is really something to behold. Normally he acheives this with incredibly tight-editing, as seen in Rubber Johnny and his video for Squarepusher Come On My Selector - in Monkey Drummer, he somehow manages to achieve the same effect iwhile holding one long take.

Secondly, it’s technically astonishing – we live in an age where CGI has desensitized us to the wonder of special effects, so it’s become increasingly rare that a film-maker can make us sit back and wonder, “How in the fuck did they do that?” Cunningham used his background as a special effects technician to create some images of genuine wonder in his videos, even if more often than not they have a horrific edge to them. It’s a testament to his craftsmanship that his videos have retained their ability to awe on a technical level over a decade after their initial release.

Thirdly, it’s one of Cunningham’s lighter pieces, but it’s still steadfastly weird in a way that is instantly recognizable as one of his works. It’s also pretty disturbing, especially if you think about what the monkey’s appendages might be for too long.

And fourthly, it’s really, really funny.

I’m sure I’ll come back to Chris Cunningham in this column in the near future – I could fill a whole blog with writing about his work – but for now, here’s the brilliant Monkey Drummer in all his creepy glory:

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Some love for Steve James: ‘Hoop Dreams’ and ‘The Interrupters’

I finally got around to finishing Hoop Dreams last weekend, something I’ve been meaning to do for an age for the following reasons:

1) It’s one of the favourite films of my favourite film critic, Roger Ebert
2) I love documentaries.

3) I really like basketball, weirdly. I think playing NBA Jam incessantly as a ten-year old might have something to do with it, though.

4) I love basketball documentaries – of the episodes of ESPN 30 for 30 I’ve seen (excellent ongoing sports documentary series), the ones I enjoyed the most were Reggie Miller vs The New York Knicks (very entertaining breakdown of a vicious town rivalry with classic footage of Spike Lee being made to look like a complete tool) and No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (also directed by Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams). I also has a well-worn copy of a Michael Jordan documentary that I was obsessed with and watched almost every week for a period in time that really wasn't that long ago.

I’ve had a number of attempts at watching it that were all eventually aborted for a variety of reasons – I finally got the time to sit down and watch it in all its nigh on three hour glory, albeit on a terrible quality region-free DVD, the only one available to us saps in the UK (the US has a fancy Criterion Collection DVD that looks enviably feature packed). Watch Siskel and Ebert outline the story here if you're not familiar with it:

Needless to say it was just as good as I’d hoped it would be – director Steve James is an incredible visual storyteller, cherry-picking moments that are alternately tragic and triumphant, horrifying and edifying, and weaving them together into an irresistible narrative that plays more like the plot to the apocryphal Great American Novel than your common or garden inner city documentary. If it wasn't terribly reductive and obvious I'd say this was The Wire of documentaries - a richly compelling cross-section of American life infused with a sweeping, Dickensian ambition and a social conscience that has rarely been equalled in their respective mediums.

Hoop Dreams was a long time ago now (1994): in the nigh-on twenty year interim, Steve James has produced one full length feature (Prefontaine), a couple of TV movies, the aforementioned Allen Iverson documentary, and a selection of praised but little-seen documentaries. Coming up this year, however, he makes his long-awaited comeback to documenting inner-city life with The Interrupters.

The lengthy trailer lays out the premise of the film better than I ever could, so please go and watch it below immediately. It's seriously powerful stuff, and is obviously only a tiny glimpse at what James plans to show us in the full three hour feature. Advance word from festival screenings has been sensational - a brief Twitter exchange with production company Kartemquin has revealed that not only will The Interrupters be coming to a UK fest this year, but that it'll also be screened on the BBC (almost certainly BBC Four, I'd wager) as a Storyville special. If The Interrupters turns out to have anything like the scope, ambition, wit and vitality of Hoop Dreams, then we're already looking at one of the films of the decade.

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