There are a lot of worthy black and white films out there. The always-relevant mass media manipulation of Citizen Kane, the perfect farce of Some Like It Hot, the rusty dystopia of Metropolis or the haunting dialogue of Casablanca…
These? Yeah, these are not those films. These are a different sort of monochromatic visual feast altogether.
These won’t be the type of films that will have you beard-stroking over a glass of late-night wine together. No, these are the type of films that will have you tripping your balls (or ladyballs) completely off, even if you’re as sober as a judge.
The American Astronaut
I know what it’s like, okay? I’ve been there. Of course. You see a list and you click on the list with nothing but the purest intentions of investigating every intriguing item on it, but then you just go ahead and skim down each entry, stopping to read the things you already know about.
My dudes? Do not make that mistake here. I guarantee that after reading about The American Astronaut, you will want to get on that shit asap. So unskim your eyes and prep for a gentle info dump. You won’t regret it.
Let’s start with what The American Astronaut is, before moving onto what it is not.
The American Astronaut is a black and white space western/musical from 2001 that has almost completely disappeared. Despite strong reviews, this tale of interplanetary trader Samuel Curtis and his mission to provide the women of Venus with a new King sank without a trace, which is the worst kind of shame because it is absolutely fucking spectacular.
It’s extremely rare in this internet age to find a film that so completely embodies ‘hidden gem’ when you can see every lauded cinematic treat at the click of a button, but here we are. The American Astronaut is the real deal.
Sprinkled with insane musical numbers written by its star, Cory McAbee (lead singer of New York band The Bill Nayer Show) and populated with characters like The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast, The Blueberry Pirate and featuring an early appearance by The Wire and Generation Kill star James Ransone as ‘Body Suit’, there will never be a point in the movie where you know where it’s headed. What more can you ask than that in a period filled with films so signposted you may as well be on the A46 instead of basking in the luxurious and limitless medium of film?
So let’s talk about what The American Astronaut is not. It’s not big budget and it’s not streamlined. It’s scrappy and suffers from those moments of languishing dialogue that you tend to find in writer/director/star passion projects. All the special effects shots are hand-painted and the props and sets were donated or procured from thrift stores.
Producer Bobby Lurie has been pretty candid about his experience working on the film.
“People think that they can fix a film with music, as if music were a band-aid or something. It never works. But I also learned that you can take a good film and make it great with the right music.”
He did and it is.
Fair warning, though: it’s hard to get. It’s not available on DVD or streaming, and it isn’t on YouTube. In fact, it’s currently only available as part of a ‘deluxe package’ via McAbee’s website.
Carnival Of Souls
Carnival Of Souls, which was pretty much ignored on release in 1962, has ultimately gone on to be recognised as a cult classic and a massive influence on directors like George A. Romero and David Lynch.
The central character in the film, Mary, survives a terrible car crash and becomes a church organist in Utah. That’s…well, that’s pretty much it.
Except for the madness, of course.
Haunted by a terrifyingly pale-faced ghoul, simply referred to as ‘The Man’ (surely the influence for the Robert Blake character in Lynch’s Lost Highway) Mary spends the movie trying to outrun death while being burdened with the sickening feeling that she might already be dead. All this is accompanied by unsettling organ music and carnival-esque surrealism, which makes for a truly disturbing viewing experience.
The film was remade (terribly) in 1998, but the story was pretty much unrecognisable and it retained none of the original’s creeping terror.
Once again, the film has been given the Criterion treatment in the US, but is sadly only available on a cheap-as-chips bare-bones DVD here in the UK.
Forbidden Zone, directed by Richard Elfman and the first ever film scored by his brother Danny Elfman (yes, that one), is a mixed bag of nuts. Slammed by critics on its release in 1980 for 100% valid reasons, the film uses actors in blackface and barely crafts other awful racial stereotypes. The actresses are mostly presented as sex objects – the Princess character spends the duration of the movie topless – and there were even mumblings of anti-Semitism surrounding the finished piece.
The plot, such as it is, is utterly insane. Let’s simply break it down to ‘some people go to the Sixth Dimension, meet the royal family and sing some songs’ because getting into it beyond that is a goddamn fool’s errand. The film is based on stage performances from The Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo, a musical art theatre troop that would later disband and re-brand as 80s new wave band Oingo Boingo (who you may only remember being responsible for the Weird Science theme song, depending on your age and level of geekery).
Also involved in the production was Matthew Bright, who would go on to direct Freeway, Freeway 2 and the infamous Gary Oldman-as-a-dwarf film Tiptoes. He also stars in the film as both chicken boy ‘Squeezeit’ and his transgender sister René. (Did I mention that this film is wall-to-wall bonkers?)
But (and it’s a big But) Forbidden Zone has gone onto achieve a kind of quiet cult status despite its flaws and there are 100% valid reasons for this, too. The songs are irresistible, the irreverent nature of the whole production is winsome and it’s super gross (I personally consider that a plus). Also, it’s really funny.
If you want to investigate the oddity further, Forbidden Zone is available on the always-reliable Arrow Video label and it’s a choice release, complete with a fantastic transfer, commentary and brutally honest interviews.
Last Year In Marienbad
We may be straying into more beard-strokey territory here, to be fair. Last Year In Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad) has been known to kick around the University halls of Film Studies students and will forever be a black and white mystery due to the makers’ reluctance to examine the film’s contradictions. The experimental French film was released in 1961 has been hailed as either a masterpiece or dismissed as utterly incomprehensible garbage ever since.
The story was written by Alain Robbe-Grillet and is a minefield of ambiguity. Two men and a woman meet at the titular Marienbad. They may or may not have met before and a rape or murder may or not have taken place when and if they did. The whole thing is both baffling and completely open to interpretation – and that’s not even taking into account the surreal visuals. At Marienbad, some trees don’t cast shadows, events repeat themselves and characters are seen frozen in artificial poses.
Marienbad has a lot to offer if you like to get involved in deciding the true meaning behind a film. Everyone is capable of coming away from it with their own opinion on what happened. It was once described to me as “Kagemusha seen through a glass eye, floating in a puddle of champagne” and who was I to argue?
The film has been treated to a Criterion release in the US, but a fairly respectable Blu-ray release from StudioCanal is available on these shores.
Our final movie is Nightmare Alley, which used to be available as part of the Master Of Cinema collection, but is now sadly only available as a kind-of-shitty-looking matinee-type DVD release.
The film was a mid-40s film noir vehicle for Tyrone Power, who was desperate to break out of the romantic roles that had brought him so much fame. Despite its huge star and plump budget, the film tanked and Power was soon back swashbuckling and wooing the ladies with somewhat renewed zest.
It therefore stands out as a rather odd beast. If we try to picture it in relatively modern terms, imagine Channing Tatum deciding to star in a dark-as-hell thriller about a charming but utterly selfish (and somewhat homicidal) con man who stumbles from the depths of travelling carnival life to the heights of nightclub infamy and back again, where he agrees to bite the heads of chickens in exchange for a few bottles of moonshine (spoilers!).
It’s such an unusual cinematic experience and really pushes you out there on the stage with Power. This is it for him. He has to be a hit or he’ll be back to performing as a geek in a heartbeat. Knowing that the film did so poorly and forced him back to idol territory somehow fleshes out the darkness bleeding from the film’s shadows.
What would Power think to its current 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and classic noir status? Perhaps we would hear the mournful chuckle of his Alley character Stanton and that ironic catchphrase “Mister, I was made for it” once more…
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