More Than Meets The Mogwai

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Niko Nikolaidis' LOSER TAKES ALL (2002)

Greek filmmaker Nikos G. Nikolaidis shook off this mortal coil in the year 2007, a full five years and one film later than 2002’s LOSER TAKES ALL [O Harmenos ta pairnei ola], but you’d never know it by the way this second-last film feels, at times, like both a dialogue with death and a thematic summation of an off-kilter career that’s been mostly misunderstood (and largely unknown to anyone but cultists) because of its frank handling of sexual perversions and kinks (1993’s perhaps overrated SINGAPORE SLING being his most well-known effort). On the other hand, LOSER TAKES ALL is a low-key crime picture, timid in areas in which Nikolaidis usually doesn’t seem prudish, but fluent in the language and poetry of crime film forebears like Fuller and De Toth. The only comparison to a modern director I could make would be Abel Ferrara -- superficial grit and offbeat qualities that mask a deeper understanding of the ways in which the world turns for those vaguely vagabond and criminally-inclined members of its populace.

Coming to terms with his inevitable, impending death is our lower-dregs, David Goodis-esque anti-hero, simply referred to as The Man (rocker Giannis Angelakas, from the rock group Trypes, [unheard by me]); he’s a small time, hard-drinking ladies man who's perfectly content in carousing his way into oblivion before his friendship with a guitar-playing young man renews his sense of purpose and vigor. In a way, Little Boy (Simeon Nikolaidis, who I assume, but am not certain, is Nikolaidis’ own son) is the mirror-image of who The Man was that age (roughly late-twenties). The two meet at the apartment of one of The Man’s former lovers -- she’s allowing the down-on-his-luck Man to spend the night on the couch while she herself engages in a session of lovemaking with the younger version (later, The Man seduces Little Boy’s pretty young thing of a girlfriend). In the wee hours of the night before and the morning after, the two sides of this same persona bond over a simple melody, featuring a telling bit of fatally simplistic, but lyrical poetry (sung in English):

“Things are gonna change, I heard
But, by that time, I’m probably gonna be dead”

It’s eloquently sung and referred to throughout the entire picture, as the two men get progressively drunker, sleep around, and become mixed up with scams, prostitutes (the sex scenes feel perfuntory, somehow remaining rough on-the-surface yet innately tame, as if Nikolaidis is going through the motions of what’s come to be expected of him), and gangsters. The song – and those lyrics – are repeated time and time again, taking on the guises of both a cry for help and a comforting mantra, a dirge for their wasted, ravished lives.

It doesn’t end well for either man, but the final sequence and acceptance of The Man’s death is splendidly elegiac. He rests on some apartment steps after being chased away by the law, idly strumming along while singing the aforementioned, oft-repeated refrain. He’s alone, but soon sees the ghostly spirit of Little Boy across from him (with what appears to be a seedy underbelly-version of pearly gates screen-right), encouraging him to play along by plucking his own acoustic guitar just as he forgets the melody. The Man walks over to join him in the shot after several linking dissolves, as Nikolaidis makes it clear, even without directly referring to or showing the law enforcement closing in, that The Man has finally crossed over and has joined his pal in whatever peculiar version of the afterlife awaits them. The film fades out and the song abruptly ceases...

Simeon Nikolaidis - "Wonderful World"

Barroom Scene from LOSER TAKES ALL (love the party-favour bit player):


Scene from SEE YOU IN HELL, MY DARLING [Tha se do stin Kolasi, agapi mou] (1999), with gorgeous Greek-based actress Vicky Harris:

Labels: ,

Monday, July 28, 2008

Demon with a Smith-Corona: DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH (Erik Nelson, 2008)

A Film About Harlan Ellison --

author of:
..."The City on the Edge of Forever" ("Star Trek" teleplay)
..."Soldier" and "Demon with a Glass Hand" ("The Outer Limits" teleplays)
..."Spider Kiss" (novel)
..."A Boy and His Dog" (short story)
..."Deathbird Stories" (short story collection)
..."Dangerous Visions" (s-f compilation, mastermind of)
..."Slippage" (short story collection)
..."The Glass Teat" (essential essays on the nature and debilitating effects of Television)
..."Watching" (film criticism)
...many, MANY others...

It’s been more than a week since I’ve seen the still distributor-less Harlan Ellison documentary DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH (2008), and even though it’ll be forever tied to a senseless, maddening offense for me (my car being broken into as I sat in the theater –- and if fate has a sense of irony, I’d hazard a guess that it happened during the sequence in which Ellison rants and apoplectically raves about how inane, meaningless acts of aggression make him so characteristically frustrated with mankind), I still haven’t shaken the more important impressions that these 90-something minutes spent in close quarters with one of SF’s (Speculative Fiction, that) most revered authors offers up.

The project was initiated, unknowingly, at age 24 by director Erik Nelson, a true-blue journeyman documentary producer best known as a key collaborator on Werner Herzog’s GRIZZLY MAN [2005]. Shooting a short segment for the Public Broadcasting Station, Nelson filmed Ellison in his cramped worked space in the early 1980s, pecking away at his Smith-Corona typewriter on a memorabilia-packed desk, cab driver’s hat adorning the top of his head as if to humbly refer to Ellison’s oft-mentioned aphorism that writing is a job like any other; hard work is hard work, no matter whether you’re digging ditches or mentally attempting to capture an eloquently, well-rounded phrase.

90% of the footage is from roughly twenty-five years later, with Nelson following the author around his city of Los Angeles (a transplant from Cleveland, Ohio) to essentially confirm the feisty Ellison persona we’ve come to know (and arguably love -- I know I do) from his myriad appearances on the college and talk show (a number of stops on “Tom Snyder”) circuits through the years. Surprisingly, the usual amount of bravado on display is non-existent in such sequences as the one in which Ellison plays the only footage of his deceased father (for more on his early life, read “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty”, see the “New Twilight Zone” episode that adapted it, and THEN listen to Ellison’s commentary on the DVD) –- his hard-edged demeanor remains to protect the calloused persona built over the years, but his softie’s heart can be gleaned; it’s a startling sequence, one that’ll mean more to anyone who’s lost their father before they themselves could mature and relate to/ask about any of their patriarch’s own past history/sense of experience.

As is the norm, Celebrity Talking Heads are corralled together for fringe or name value (some hipster-youngster digging on Neil Gaiman, figuring that if Gaiman likes Ellison, surely he will too!), including the above-mentioned and, most inexplicably, an amusingly sedate Robin Williams. A series of open-ended questions asked by Williams serve to christen the film on a high note, clearing the air around certain rumors (whether Ellison harmed an overeager fan) while serving to only strengthen Ellison’s no-nonsense mystique by confirming others (like mailing a peculiar-smelling package to a publisher).

The less said the better about the background illustrations that serve to enhance Ellison’s dramatic readings of his own works; it’s an unsuccessful attempt, as Ellison’s wordplay conjures up so much more worthwhile imagery on its own than with the help of cheap, wishy-washy computer FX. Still, the unabashed attitude and rebellious rattle that carries forth in Ellison’s voice as he recites chunks of his own inimitable prose is worth the price of a [hopeful] DVD alone -- the more they’ve filmed and relegated to the Supplements, the better.

Labels: ,