Exploring the world through global cinema

Fantasy

Are You Sitting Comfortably? Part II

July 2012 saw the 16th edition of Pifan, or the Puchon International Film Festival, held annually in Bucheon, South Korea.  I was there and you can read about the first half of my experiences in the previous post. Here, then, is the second half.

I’m sure it would surprise precisely no-one that a Korean international film festival is principally for Koreans. Even the Busan International Film Festival, the largest event of its kind in Asia, makes little more than a perfunctory effort to provide English to international visitors most of the time. I still haven’t forgotten the debacular mockery inflicted upon non-industry ticket purchasers at BIFF 2011, forced, thanks to the virtual impossibility it was to purchase online, to be herded like sheep along a rubber-ribboned maze toward a hastily-erected festival ticket booth outside the world’s largest department store only to be told the tickets had already been snapped up by everyone who’d arrived 30 minutes earlier.  “Wow, thank you BIFF for selling 80% of the tickets online to everyone in the film industry and local government officials who probably won’t even turn up – not to mention relocating the festival to one single city block so this ocean of human slave puppets can fight like dogs for jacked-up hotel prices before standing in a queue on the street full of frustration and broken promises. This couldn’t be any more awesome even if I painted my nose red and let you pelt me with wet sponges – which, by the way, I completely deserve at this point.” Meanwhile, darting around the line of disillusioned faces like bright red sheepdogs, barked a zig-zagging group of festival volunteers wielding portable whiteboards onto which were scribbled a bizarre series of numbers possibly denoting how many dumb suckers were letting themselves be robbed of their dignity, but were in fact a rapidly-growing list of number codes for all the films selling out before you reached the booth. None of which was explained in English, and so became a time experiment wherein one determines how long it takes each mystified member of the cattle run for the penny to drop.

“This couldn’t be any more awesome even if I painted my nose red and let you pelt me with wet sponges – which, by the way, I completely deserve at this point.”

And again, this is the biggest film festival in Asia. It’s meant to be a big-name brand event designed to attract niche tourism. The more diminutive and less-funded Pifan, meanwhile, can be forgiven for lacking many of the needed resources, not least the ability to pave the streets next to the venues. Not only can the regular masses actually purchase tickets online, but also the staff is actually trying to make it possible for them to enjoy themselves. How else to explain BIFF’s red-shirted counterparts actually walking around with bilingual signage, or the fact that I was at one point assigned a personal interpreter so that I could enjoy a post-screening Q&A session?

Pifan is also trying to make a big name for itself, evidenced by the foreign film-makers and press I met there, and needs to be properly bilingual if only to draw that kind of crowd. I apparently cut an incongruous figure, being asked three times if I were “industry or press”, as though those were the only two options. Sure, there’s this blog, and I did act in a short film recently, but that wasn’t the point. I was there as an enthusiast. I can’t have been the only one. To me, international film festivals are an incredibly important service, offering average citizens a (relatively) rare chance to see something beyond the strong-armed monopoly of mainstream cinema. For half the price of a normal ticket.

Ironically, the mainstream played a much larger role in the rest of my Pifan experience, to mixed results.

The Shining

(1980) Written & Directed by Stanley Kubrick

“When something happens, it can leave a trace of itself behind. I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years. And not all of ’em was good.”

Seriously – could *you* tell this guy was going to go nuts by the end?

Yes, I know – surely Stephen King wrote The Shining? Not this version he didn’t. King’s celebrated novel tells the story of a recovering alcoholic with anger management issues trying desperately to do the right thing and hold on to his damaged family by accepting the winter caretaker’s job at remote Colorado mountain lodge, the Overlook, as a last-ditch chance to avoid poverty. However, his efforts to stay on the straight and narrow are completely disrupted by the hotel’s evil spirit, its power accentuated by his telepathic son. The story is a strong blend of the supernatural and King’s usual exploration of blue-collar family relationships put to the test by forces beyond their control.

Contrast this with The Shining, a story about a barely-under-control malcontent seemingly saddled with a family he doesn’t especially want taking a job at the Overlook in order to gain the peace and quiet he needs to write a novel. Quick to begin losing his sanity long before the hotel asserts its malign influence, this version of the character is the principle catalyst for the Amityville Horror-style rampage that follows, with the Overlook simply tapping into a pre-existing madness. While wrapped in similar packaging, the two stories could not be more different – and the above comparison barely scratches the surface of their asymmetry. Stephen King clearly agreed with this assessment, overseeing a televised adaptation of his book in 1997, which is, aside from the story’s climax, about as faithful as a four-hour miniseries can be.

“This is a man who could have made a film about the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it.”

And yet while The Shining both largely dismisses and tramples upon the source material, it has the kind of unsettling and claustrophobic atmosphere coupled with the trademark eye-catching cinematography and editing that make anything Stanley Kubrick does so compelling. This is a man who could have made a film about the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it. Add to this yet another force of nature in front of the lens in the form of Jack Nicholson, very much at the top of his game and with the kind of presence that superglues your eyes to the screen, almost afraid to see what he’ll do next. Jack Nicholson could perform the Yellow Pages and we’d all want to see it. Those of us still clinging to the remaining tatters of King’s original story have little choice but to declare him completely miscast as Jack Torrance – not because of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (I for one haven’t even seen it) – but because every nuance of his performance, every arched eyebrow, every glint in his eye and every cynical tone drawling from his lips telegraphs Torrance’s impending madness like flashing, ten-foot-high neon. Yet none of those people would actually say what he was doing on screen wasn’t interesting.

Then there’s that softly-disconcerting soundtrack by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind intermingled with various classic found tracks of a different lifetime, the imposingly-dark brown visage of the Timberline Lodge-as-Overlook, the threatening majesty of Mt. Hood, and a whole raft of elements that make this psychological base-under-siege melodrama work so well. For King fans, it is an exercise in doublethink, where they must put aside the author’s middle American melodrama and enter Kubrick’s realm without any preconceptions. Imagine if King’s version of ‘The Shining’ was a true account of events, and The Shining is the fast-paced Hollywood thriller based on those events. Except that Kubrick was clearly seeing the story through an entirely different lens.

Room 237

(2012) Directed by Rodney Ascher

If you thought ‘The Shining’ ought to consist mostly of this opening shot over and over again, ‘Room 237’ is the documentary for you.

So imagine that you’re a fan of The Shining, and you’ve watched it over and over again in the 32 years since it was released. You know every line of dialogue, you’ve consciously studied every one of the set props, you’ve been struck by the symmetry of cross-fading shots, and you’ve stared at that opening shot of a helicopter flight across Lake St. Mary until the idea of it being just a helicopter flight across Lake St. Mary is patently absurd. Because you know Stanley Kubrick. Stanley Kubrick the perfectionist auteur who once made Shelley Duvall swing a baseball bat over and over again until she lost her mind. Stanley Kubrick the obsessive-compulsive director who turned a 17-week shoot into a 46-week shoot and had Jack Nicholson demolish 60 doors for the “Here’s Johnny!” scene.  This is not a man who does anything by accident. Every one of those Spherical 35mm frames has been planned to the Nth degree.

All of which you know, of course. Now imagine someone decided to shoot a documentary where uber-fans like yourself get to discuss all the hidden meanings and themes you know are what Kubrick was aiming for.

This is Room 237, a brand-new celebration to deconstruction peopled by individuals who know The Shining better than you do and possibly Kubrick himself. Some of the theories aren’t new: there is long-debated good evidence to suggest The Shining is in part recreating the destruction of the Native Americans by the “weak” white interloper, likewise the Holocaust allegory has been around equally as long, and ‘everyone’ knows the film is one massive allegory for Kubrick’s tension-filled assignment to fake footage of the Moon Landing for NASA. The ‘Obvious When Pointed Out’ file is well-explored also, in particular Kubrick’s tendency to mess with a passive movie-going audience with visual non-sequiturs and provocative props just outside the first-time viewer’s field of vision. The suggestion that Kubrick’s face has been superimposed into the clouds in the opening sequence however, that a standing ladder is meant to mirror part of the hotel’s exterior architecture, or that if you play the film forwards and backwards simultaneously, you’ll see all kinds of intentional thematic symmetry, definitely belongs at the speculative end of the pool. However, the various attempts to reach beyond reasonable lengths at the film’s discourse are welcomingly absurd interludes between the more serious – and in all likelihood more accurate – interpretations of Kubrick’s work. Ascher neither wants nor expects us to take all of Room 237 seriously, and in so doing ensures his documentary doesn’t bear all the stomach-tightening hallmarks of an Alex Jones conspiracy piece.

Consequently, what you won’t find in this film are musings from cast and crew, or indeed what they thought The Shining was about. For that, Vivian Kubrick’s 35-minute on-set short is still the best bet. Room 237 is a light academic paean to the film which spawned it, and for fans, is definitely worth a look. Everyone else will probably wonder what the fuss is all about.

3-2-1…Frankie Go Boom

(2012) Written & Directed by Jordan Roberts

The Pifan Daily, freely available during the festival. Apparently I missed the meeting where the word ‘daily’ was redefined to mean ‘twice-only’.

Time now to unzip our parachutes and float down to Dick Joke Island, where relative newcomer to film Jordan Roberts, perhaps in a bid to prove our species really did evolve from primates, clearly believed the market needed another 90 minutes of genital-related humour, now that Harold & Kumar have annoyingly grown up. The infantile Frankie Go Boom also inflicts upon the viewer that other ‘essential’ element of frat-boy comedy, the intensely annoying main character one is supposed to find loveable and hilarious. Twenty years ago, it was the disturbing mental case brought to life by Bill Murray in What About Bob?; today, it’s Chris O’Dowd donning an American accent to play the sociopathic Bruce, a young man oblivious to the lifelong psychological trauma he has inflicted upon his younger brother Frankie by filming every one of his most compromising moments and screening them to a giggling public – a practice all the more destructive in the age of file-swapping and broadband. Add the obligatory ‘touching’ romance, ‘crazy’ and unsympathetic family and Ron Perlman sacrificing the last vestige of his dignity, and presto: another tedious trek through the teen mire. You know, maybe we could get Scorsese interested in that Yellow Pages idea.

Puchon Choice Short 1

Another collection of short films, of which the quality averaged slightly lower than last time. Things get off to an uneven start with the Korean black comedy, The Bad Earth, where office employee Seung Bum puts himself at odds with his co-workers by refusing to clap along during company presentations and after-hours reverie. Clapping, as Seung Bum, firmly believes, is in fact an insidious form of alien virus that makes the human race ripe for the plucking. I will credit film-maker Yoo Seung Jo for adding to the shallow waters of sci-fi in Korea, a genre the country has historically had little reason to explore. However, the story’s premise is a little too ludicrous to be taken seriously, even if Seung Bum just might have good reason for believing it.

Very little credit, meanwhile, should be afforded Han Ji Hye, who in The Birth Of A Hero quite shamelessly takes the ‘Rabbit of Caerbannog’ scene from Monty Python & The Holy Grail and transposes it onto a rooftop in downtown Seoul. The idea that he might possibly be ignorant of this hallowed source material evaporated once the otherwise docile white rabbit began flying through air towards its victims and gouging out their necks in precisely the same manner. If Han is lauded as a master of surrealist cinema after this unbelievable cribbing, he deserves to be fed to the Legendary Black Beast of Aaaaarrrrrrggghhh!

Quality began to reassert itself at this point to the unusual Korean stop-motion animated short, Giant Room, in which a man rents out a space in a strange, colourless building. Told explicitly by the landlord not to enter the room marked “Do not enter this door”, the newcomer ignores the warning to his great peril. It’s always hard not to be impressed by the work put into old-style animation – just getting 10 minutes of useable material must have taken months. The claustrophobic miniature sets are also well-designed, and the decision to abstain from dialogue a good complement. Hopefully this is not the only feature we will see from Kim Si Jin.

“I will credit film-maker Yoo Seung Jo for adding to the shallow waters of sci-fi in Korea, a genre the country has historically had little reason to explore.”

The drama finally moved overseas at this point for the dystopian US horror, Meat Me In Pleasantville. It is the near future, where overpopulation has finally used up all of the world’s meat reserves, causing the federal government to make cannibalism legal. Inevitably, some citizens agree with this decision more than others, particularly dependent upon who is at the other end of a meat cleaver at any given time. As the Pleasantville population’s taste for human flesh turns them all into murderous zombies, a father and his daughter fight to escape, though they too are only human. Fans of slasher horror will not be swayed too much by the gore of Greg Hanson and Casey Regan’s half-hour kill-fest, though the real-world basis for the story would, I think, amuse George Romero. It’s a little difficult to imagine a government making cannibalism legal, or that a population would ever go through with it, but anyone who thinks that humans couldn’t acquire a taste for their own flesh – or want to keep eating it after that first bite – ought to read the real-world story of one Alexander Pearce. Unfortunately, both acting and dialogue fail to match the worthiness of the concept, making Meat Me In Pleasantville a little hard to digest.

Pifan Ticket office at one of the many festival venues.

The theme of vampirism returns in fellow US horror short, The Local’s Bite, where a young woman traveling home via ski lift after a night out with friends tries to evade a stalker. Film-maker Scott Upshur puts the unusual transport system common to his local town to good use in this suspenseful drama, which squanders its build-up at the last moment for unrealistic fantasy in the name of plot twists and humour. And again, the acting is highly variable, with the horribly wooden appearance of a clearly real-world ski lift operator struggling like mad to deliver a single line. However, Upshur’s talent for rising tension, good location choices and decent editing cannot be ignored, and those are the areas he should focus upon in the future.

It was the final entry in the collection, Antoine & The Heroes, that proved most enjoyable. In the French comedy-pastiche, B-grade film obsessive Antoine is forced to choose between two simultaneously-screening films at his local cinema complex, each showing his two favourite screen stars and each on their final showing. Unable to decide, Antoine decides to watch both, dashing back and forth between cinemas to catch the highlights. Hailing from the days when kung-fu couldn’t be achieved without a funky disco track and heroines screamed and screamed without ever needing Vicks Vapodrops, cool cat Jim Kelly beats up the baddies without messing up his bouffant in his latest piece of kung-fu cinema, while long blonde silver screen star Angela Steele dodges groping zombies in her new horror blockbuster. At first, Antoine manages to alternate between the two spectaculars with ease, but a small accident results in the blending of realities, films and genres to comedic effect. The best thing about this film is Patrick Bagot’s excellent pastiche of 70’s style kung-fu and B-grade horror – both very much in-vogue during that hirsute decade – realized by some great acting, costumes, sets, and appropriate period soundtracks. Anyone with childhood memories of 70s pop culture will feel more than a little nostalgic by the end of Antoine & The Heroes, reminded of why it was all so much fun – even if it does look ridiculous four decades on.

*****

Next Time

“From all directions They come, caring nothing for demarcation lines between man and motor. On every pavement, in every street, across every veranda, and through every backyard, they cover the town in a scuttling sea of red.”

World On Film pays a visit to Christmas Island and comes face to face with its most colourful inhabitants – a sidestep from the usual film fare, next time.


Oh Life (There Must Be More)

Breathtaking Himalayan scenery in this week's fantasy epic, 'Milarepa'.

This week, we travel back through time to meet Tibet’s most celebrated yogi and poet, around whom legends abound of his magical prowess. Technically, it should be the entry for Bhutan, but the self-proclaimed Happiest Nation On Earth has no need of a film industry. It does however produce film-makers, and doubtless the tale of Milarepa is as much a part of Bhutanese folklore as it is in Tibet.

We also travel briefly to Bouvet Island to explore its extraterrestrial film connections and why the Norwegians are in no hurry to exploit the furthest outpost of their borders.

First up though, revenge and mysticism in the epic retelling of:

Milarepa

(2006) Written by Neten Chokling & Tenzing Noyang Gyari         Directed by Neten Chokling

“If you are many, make war. If you are few, make sorcery!”

Jamyang Lodro as the title character, in youth, a far cry from the wise and respected historical figure he would become.

Milarepa is a film adaptation of one of Tibet’s most famous ancient legends, based loosely upon the life and teachings of a Buddhist yogi and poet (in his youth known as Thöpaga) who lived in the 11th Century. Born to wealthy parents, Thöpaga’s father dies young, allowing his greedy siblings to spirit away the family inheritance. Near-destitute, Thöpaga and his mother struggle to eke out a living until the mother eventually snaps and compels her son to learn sorcery so as to inflict revenge on their malefactors. However, the boy quickly discovers that revenge comes with its own price. This film chronicles the early years of this now-revered figure, and is very much within the fantasy genre, playing as it does with the myths and the melodrama surrounding the character, though his principal teachings sit at the core of the plot, which have been a source of inspiration to generations. New to the tale of Milarepa, I found myself generally enjoying this big-screen retelling, despite certain issues I had with its execution.

It seemed fairly apparent that this is a film preaching to the choir, as it were, with many sequences flying along as if obligatory shorthand for an audience already familiar with the story, but a little too rushed for anyone else. To those unfamiliar, the early sections of the film in particular seem like edited highlights that required more time and build-up to achieve maximum impact. For example, the introduction where Thöpaga’s father dies and the siblings show their true colours is a very few minutes in length and family ruin consequently achieved at a whirlwind pace. Storywise, the key elements are intact, but the sometimes choppy pacing and rapid jumps forward in time prevent sufficient character development, an essential process in lending believability to what is after all pure fantasy. It’s clear that director Neten Chokling is keen to get to the sorcery element, thereby relying on several sequences of over-the-top melodrama within the family to sell the desire for revenge. Again, if you’re familiar with the story and know what’s coming, this is doubtless not such a problem.

Tashi Choedon Gyari as childhood sweetheart Zisay and humanising influence on the young Anakin, sorry, Thopaga.

Indeed, once Thöpaga does set off on the road on his voyage of discovery, the fantasy element really takes over and the adventure begins in earnest. All throughout Milarepa, the audience is treated to some truly breathtaking Himalayan scenery – surely one of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. Here at the Roof of the World, it truly does seem as though magic could determine the fates of man, and the backdrop does much to sell the story. Yogic strongholds sit precariously atop mountains and seem to dominate the magnificent valleys below. Here, Thöpaga must travel to seek the otherworldly skills that will let him inflict revenge, which his masters seem quite keen to impart. It almost seems irresponsible, yet Buddhism is after all about passing on knowledge rather than judging how the beholder will use it.

“This is a film preaching to the choir, as it were, with many sequences flying along as if obligatory shorthand for an audience already familiar with the story.”

After all, while mastery of the self is the Buddhist philosophy, Milarepa is very much about karmic retribution, which its central character painfully learns must flow in both directions. The ‘sorcery’ of the film is realised through a surprising amount of cgi that takes the film very much into cartoon territory, but this is after all a retelling of the legend rather than a biopic, and if you’re going to delve into the mythology, you may as well go all the way. Perhaps because the earlier scenes had been so ‘comic book’ in structure, I found myself very much in the right frame of mind when the visual effects appeared and if anything, this is where my enjoyment properly set in.

Sweet revenge, but will it bring justice?

It does mean that those hoping for a deeply spiritual Buddhist epic on the folly of conflict will be disappointed – the message is there intact, but in very much the same way that it was in Monkey Magic. Whether or not this makes Jamyang Lodro’s portrayal of the young Thöpaga a little too close to Hayden Christiansen’s Anakin Skywalker is up to the viewer to decide, as is the question of whether or not Chokling’s approach to his subject matter is out of a desire to make Milarepa into Tibet’s answer to Tolkien. Either way, Lodro plays the troubled youth convincingly and is helped by several other good performances, most notably Orgen Tobgyal, as his willing yogic master – apparently also the film’s art director.

Thöpaga’s real-life alter ego would famously recount years later that he had been very foolish in his youth and faced a long path to wisdom (‘How senseless to disregard one’s life by fighting foes who are but frail flowers’). His voyage to maturity and enlightenment is purportedly the focus of the sequel, which at this stage, is long overdue. This therefore means that Milarepa does not have a strong ending  – so much of the story is yet to be told, and hopefully Chokling will succeed in bringing it to light. In that event, the film will doubtless be better evaluated as simply the opening chapter of a much larger tale – one of reckless youth, in which mistakes are made that lead to wisdom in the wise. This does not absolve it of its cartoon fantasy leanings, but as my introduction into the world of this highly celebrated Tibetan spiritual leader, it was an entertaining enough ride.

*****

A Grue Of Ice: Bouvet Island

In the previous ‘series’ of reviews, I occasionally made mention of those places not altogether known for their film industries. The Aland Islands for example, are inhabited by a people far too happy to spend time developing a film industry and, some might argue, far too small. Travel a little further south, where the word ‘little’ can barely stay on the page due to being weighed down by understatement, and you have Bouvet Island, an altogether different case. So far, it has been highly successful in fending off attempts at human habitation, the secret of its success being boiled down to three basic ingredients: one, it is so far south that any forms of life more complex than bacteria have a tendency to freeze to death rather quickly; two, it is so far away from civilization that Microsoft can’t reach it; and three, it is a small glacier-covered volcano prone to avalanches.

Unlike the Aland Islands however, there is a film connection. What was once obscurely described as a ‘grue of ice’ by pulp writer Geoffrey Jenkins was the setting for the 2004 sci-fi film, Alien Vs. Predator. In the story, the Bouvet massif is the battleground between the two aggressive extra-terrestrial races, and the first time the two franchises united, effectively making them part of the same universe. Although shot somewhere less volcanic and not at all prone to impromptu avalanches, AVP is, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the one and only film set on Bouvet Island, or Bouvetøya, as it is referred to by Norway, within whose territory it currently falls.

Unsurprisingly, no-one has stepped forward to alter the status quo.

*****

Next Time

In his lifetime, Sigmund Freud famously contended that the sexual desire was the prime motivator of all human behaviour. No matter how evolved our minds, no matter how far we advanced the human condition, it all came down to sex. Our social groups are defined by dominant sexual predators and their submissive victims. Yet the predator may only rule in a microcosm, becoming a victim when he or she steps outside its boundaries into the wider world. Join World On Film next time for the brutally-honest analysis of Freudian social dynamics next time in the Bolivian-U.S co-production, Sexual Dependency. The trailer below is not subtitled I’m afraid, but you’ll get the idea.


To One In Paradise

Relax in Bermuda this week, where time codes are the way of the future.

This week, a good example of what happens in World On Film when a country of the week isn’t really known for its film industry and I have to find something to talk about. Travel in dubious fashion with me to Bermuda, where we discover why 1966 is the best time to visit, before spending 90 minutes hunting giant turtles while being bewitched by mysterious women.

First though, just a reminder that you can search through this blog’s past history to see what else has been covered through a variety of widgets all to be found at the bottom of the page.

Now, it’s time to away the anchor and set a course:

Destination Bermuda

(1966) The Bermuda Trade Development Board

Safe harbour in Mid-Atlantic, this speck of Mother Earth rimmed round by the great sea, Bermuda: 600 miles from anyplace else.

Thanks to the new instamatic camera, you'll be a superstar wherever you go!

As the name suggests, Destination Bermuda is a travel documentary produced by the Bermuda Trade Development Board back in the days when the island colony was still Devonshire tea British. While it’s a little unusual for this blog given the nature of the piece, it certainly unveils the Caribbean outpost in all its glory. And yet, it is also the glory of a bygone age, the Bermuda of yesteryear – the unintentional sepia of another world, where it’s almost impossible to imagine it as a serious contemporary invitation to inbound tourism.

Never far from the ocean, the land is carved and shaped to the purposes of the golfer, who seeks the therapy of a club, a ball and 18 holes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Destination Bermuda presents the colony as an island resort, wherein the citizens are chiefly concerned with suntans, cycling and golf scores. The fish are so abundant that all one need do is drop an unbaited hook beneath the waves and within minutes, snapper the size of dinner plates helpfully impale themselves upon them in the hope they’ll see their own bodies caramelizing in a frying pan with their last dying convulsions. Men group together upon the rooftops of their shining white houses tossing back the house red after a solid day’s tiling, while the band of the Bermuda regiment regularly parade up and down Saint George in the interests of being vacuously British. Anyone with skin darker than a communion wafer is little more than a colourful addition to the periphery – a reminder that London is many leagues and latitudes distant.

[The film depicts] the glory of a bygone age, the Bermuda of yesteryear – the unintentional sepia of another world.”

Look ahead to the past in Bermuda, where our long history paints the way forward.

While the fashions and architecture of the day are obvious signs of dating, for me, it was the post-production of Destination Bermuda that really ages it. The rather paternal narration, a sequence of overdramatic lines attempting to be poetic, is delivered in that very measured and deep 60s tone. Ironically, an American artiste provides the voiceover, although as he says himself, Bermuda is a mere “90 minutes from New York”. Likewise the overblown musical score, in true 60s fashion, still clings to the silent film convention of a constant soundtrack, aggressively punctuating the departure of cruise ships with a full orchestra as though they were on their way to Pearl Harbour. The other half of the time, it’s a relentless barrage of harmonica ditties reminding anyone somehow unable to interpret the long band of blue on screen that Bermuda is a sea-based habitat. When one sequence literally broke into Tommy Reilly’s theme from The Navy Lark, I knew I’d been beaten. I half-expected to see one Chief Petty Officer Pertwee wandering up and down Hamilton high street trying to flog off contraband watches. Subtlety, it seems, has never been appreciated in the tourism industry.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy Destination Bermuda. Its lively, slightly bombastic promotion of the country was all the more entertaining precisely because of its dated production values. It fails in its raison d’etre with a modern audience, but gains new meaning as a period piece. And while the Bermuda of 2010 is obviously a far different place with the dimming of Empire and the change in attitudes and technology, the landscape remains intact, as would the relaxed ‘island culture’ of the place. I left the film having little desire to visit it as it was, but curious to see what it has become.

The airlines don’t promise it and your travel agent can’t swear to it, but somehow, your pilot always manages to show you these islands before you land, for Bermuda perhaps, is a special destination.

Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?

Travel Film Archive has made the program available to watch via YouTube, so check it out here:

*****

Tourism is all very well, but for me, there was one very iconic Bermuda-themed film from my childhood, involving star-crossed lovers, oceanographers, and giant turtles. Whether it really fits within the blog’s remit is debatable, but it could only be:

The Bermuda Depths

(1978) Written by William Overgard & Arthur Rankin Jr.                          Directed by Tsugunobo Katani

Siren song: love, drama, and atavism in the memorable 1978 movie of the week, 'The Bermuda Depths'.

A young man returns to Bermuda hoping to discover why his father died 13 years earlier and becomes entranced by a mysterious young woman who turns out to be the childhood friend who disappeared into the sea that same day. Somehow, she is connected to his father’s strange fate, but the answers lie out there, in the Devil’s Triangle.

I first saw The Bermuda Depths many years ago and while the plot had faded from memory long since, there was something about it – an atmosphere, perhaps – that remained with me. A recent reviewing went some way toward explaining this, although it also suggested that my tastes were probably less demanding back then. What I see now is a film that has not aged well, unraveled in its designs by bad acting, dreadful special effects and a premise that proves effective only while under the influence of valium. The nonsense of the Bermuda Triangle too was perhaps more alluring in 1978, but seems painfully artificial now, perhaps because the coast guards of the region have been trying to get it through to people that nowhere near as many ships disappear in the area as pop culture would maintain, and those that have did so with a far more mundane explanation than some want to believe.

Others may suggest I’m missing the point of course, and The Bermuda Depths rides high on the wave of piffle the previous decades have built up surrounding this supposedly supernatural island chain. Throw in an emotionally-damaged young man, a family tragedy, an attractive siren in a black swimsuit and legends of archelonian leviathans, and herein is the tale intended to ensnare us from the distractions of logic. Well-done, these elements should come together to form an intriguing mystery and a haunting story of star-crossed love, but the delivery is off both before and behind the camera.

The lethargic Leigh McClosky (left) looks on, while Connie Sellecca keeps him awake by acting.

The central character of Magnus Dens, for example, is potentially the most intriguing. Dens, we learn, is an aimless drifter, orphaned by the tragic loss of his parents and directionless as a result. Upon returning to Bermuda, he finds himself entranced by a woman invisible to everyone but the local ‘wise woman’ who places her existence within the framework of a centuries-old curse. Rejecting the madness of the one person who believes him, Dens is treated with pitied sympathy by his friends, certain his crumbling psychological state is torturing him with the hallucinations of an imaginary friend. This, to me, demonstrates wonderful scope on the part of the lead that should lend true anguish and drama to the conflict. Unfortunately, actor Leigh McClosky brings this complex character to life with all the energy of a deflating balloon, his languid stares and lethargic movement interrupted at times by over-the-top aggression meant to signal an unleashing of his inner turmoil, but coming across as two-dimensional overexcitement. While I have no problem with the supporting cast, their efforts cannot make up for McClosky’s inability to act. Even the lovely Connie Sellecca’s superior performance as the almost spectral seductress Jennie – a subtle miasma of innocence and eternal regret – can only do so much when this is whom she must play against, although it’s likely no coincidence that it is with her that McClosky gives his best performances, Sellecca seemingly bringing out in him capabilities elsewhere hidden from view.

[The Bermuda Depths] is a film that has not aged well, unraveled in its designs by bad acting, dreadful special effects and a premise that proves effective only while under the influence of valium.”

Disturbance from the deep as the 'kraken' wakes.

That said, William Overgard’s script clearly isn’t interested in being the character study it ought to in favour of a shallow pastiche of ‘Moby Dick’ vying for time with the elements of unrequited love. There’s no reason we can’t have both, but efforts to champion one direction come at the cost of another, perhaps in a desire to provide spectacle. This unfortunately is where the film’s low budget really becomes evident, with some very cheap and unconvincing model shots, special effects and atrocious day-for-night shooting , which admittedly I don’t recall being such glaring problems 20 years ago. The Bermuda Depths is one of those films that holds together far better not simply in the distant past when it was made, but in that hazy distance of memory, which over time smooths out the inconsistencies. It’s a little like being reunited with your first love and finding that much of what you recall about it has been rose-tinted in the years since.

The soundtrack too is an odd mish-mash of styles reflecting the shifting, unevenness of the plot. A haunting period theme song suggests temptation and seduction, giving way to a recurring (and indeed familiar) classical guitar motif, both of which must coexist with a strange retro thriller score that reminded me at times of orchestrations Malcolm Lockyer was creating in 60s sci-fi matinees. The final element of what one today might call ‘muzak’ fills out the dramatic downtime. The overall lack of coherence suggests the differing perspectives behind the scenes and a loss of clarity.

One thing that has not suffered from the passage of time, however, is the location itself. All exterior scenes were shot in Bermuda and its sleepy urban landscape, powder-white beaches flanked by picturesque rocky outcrops and azure sea go a long way toward compensating for other deficiencies. The local government, credited for assisting in the making of the film, would doubtless have seen it as an enticing travel promotion and deservedly so – it certainly worked on me. The natural landscape lends itself perfectly to the storyline and ultimately, it is only the artificial enhancements of post-production, weak plotting and character development that don’t stand up to scrutiny – especially to a modern audience.

Ultimately, these are the dangers of revisiting the past and the way it is often defeated by the ravages of time and the changes we undergo as a result. Ironically, this mirrors The Bermuda Depths rather well. The film itself is the beckoning siren, luring the rose-tinted memories of an ageing audience toward potential heartbreak, and like the ancient mariners, I failed to lash myself to the mast in time.

*****

Coming Up Next

Bhutan is another nation not known for its film industry, but it does produce film directors. One of them fairly recently produced Milarepa, famous Tibetan poet and yogi of the 11th and 12th Centuries, whose early life was fraught with poverty, misery and anger until he learned to rise above it. While the man himself was entirely real, the legends surrounding him slide into the realm of fantasy and magical melodrama, and it is to this realm that we will be exploring next time.

To view a trailer, click below: