Grim January and Absolute Beginners (1986)

January 15, 2016 | By

January’s turned into a rather grey month, and just as the weather shifts from pleasantly mild to icy cold (at least in Toronto), we’ve lost more than a few great artists, some within days of each other.

The Oscar Nominations were announced yesterday morning, as was the death of Alan Rickman at age 69, passing away from cancer – much like David Bowie, also dead at 69 from cancer, a few days after his birthday, the release of his latest album, and several media career pieces, like the BBC’s take on his ever-shifting styles and the magnetic music that erupted from his collaborations with fellow influential artists.

AbsoluteBeginners_posterI’d actually prepped a review of Absolute Beginners (1986), the musical version of Colin MacInnes’ 1959 novel, a week ago and fiddled with it over the past few days as it’s a long-overdue Blu-ray edition of a deeply flawed film that doesn’t represent Bowie’s best work – for that, the more rewarding examples lie in performances in films in which he had central if not starring roles, such as Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983).

Beginners was one of several big budget productions British studio Goldcrest had hoped would save it from bankruptcy, but the high cost of The Mission (1986) and the debacle that became Revolution (1985) proved too much, causing the Oscar-larded studio to essentially shutter soon afterwards, although its current corporate entity does pop up now and then with the odd feature film.

Goldcrest was colourfully chronicled by Canadian-born Jake Eberts in his massive tome My Indecision is Final: The Rise and Fall of Goldcrest Films (1990), which I read cover-to-cover en route to Germany in 2006. I remember a flight attendant looking with surprise at the fat book I’d dragged onto the plane, and realizing myself how much I’d plowed through a week later, flying back to Toronto.

Eberts, like UA’s Steven Bach, was a top executive at the time, but Eberts was also Goldcrest’s co-founder, so the book offered a very unique (and subjective) take on how a company that began with Chariots of Fire (1985) was adversely affected not only by the super-productions it felt were its specialty (like the much-lauded Gandhi), but the very director that earned the company its first Oscar, Chariots and Revolution director Hugh Hudson.

Eberts details the egotism that pushed Revolution into financial bloody red, and the pain in watching the company being kicked closer to the cliff’s edge, whereas Bach chronicled the debacle that was Heaven’s Gate (1980), Michael Cimino’s epic which doomed UA from going over-budget as much as the weak-willed executives who kept writing cheques when teased with Vilmos Zsigmond’s gorgeous cinematography.

Zsigmond, a great Hungarian-American director of photography, also died this month on January 1st. His filmography reads like a critic’s list of top films from the 70s and eighties, but if his commentary track for the low, low budget The Sadist (1963) was an indication – yes, he really recorded one – Zsigmond was a down-to-earth, practical man who worked hard to realize the vision of the many esteemed directors with whom he collaborated over his prolific career.

My personal favourite is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) because when the mother spaceship emerges from behind Devil’s Tower, that’s when 9 year old me got up from my seat and stood for the rest of the film, completely in awe of its scope and visual beauty.

Rickman was a hugely versatile actor, and while perhaps better known for the Harry Potter films, he’s still Hans Gruber, the arrogant German bearer bond thief who masterminds a robbery in the Nakatomi building. It is one of the greatest screen villain performances because you really love the son of a bitch – he’s sleek, modish, witty, and wry – qualities Rickman brought out from an already witty script and rendered into a bastard that was believable, charismatic, and as satirical as the whole of Die Hard (1988).

You can’t say Hans without adding the “Bubby” or “White Knight,” and the film made Rickman a pop culture icon for bringing style to a suave common crook.

Rickman’s other beloved role that followed in DH’s wake was in Truly Madly Deeply, a film I’ve still yet to see because like its fans, I’m waiting for MGM to put out a proper Blu-ray. Like 1984 (1984), it’s one of those MGM catalogue titles that came on DVD years ago, went out of print, and remains a rare and overpriced commodity because it’s been forgotten. If Twilight Time’s recent gift of 1984 in a special edition BR is a sign, maybe Rickman’s other beloved film will finally get its due on Blu (and with a cover less ugly than MGM’s original sleeve art).

MGM also released Absolute Beginners on DVD in a flipper widescreen / fullscreen edition, and Twilight Time’s BR sports a transfer and soundtrack options that should please its fans. My bias against the film is obvious: as a fan of the novel, it’s a huge creative gamble and misstep; and as much as I wanted to find an unjustly maligned gem, I couldn’t.

But there is that peculiar moment when you first see Bowie as the sleazy, commercially-minded executive grinning over a banister as revelers fill the marble atrium of his multi-storey penthouse. He’s just looking, but his mere presence gives the film a glow, and for a while you hope the natural charisma will push the film into something a bit deeper.

Director Julien Temple was one of Britain’s video director wunderkinds, and this was his feature film debut, having directed Bowie’s long-form “Jazzin’ for Blue Jean,” the 20 minute short from which the video “Blue Jean” was snipped, and revised Bowie’s stature as a savvy artist who knew how to have fun with the music video format.

Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” remains a personal favourite because it was featured in a revolutionary show that ran on City TV while I was in junior high school, The New Music. Before Much Music and the glossy VJ puff pieces on bands, NM was a shiny if not a little grungy hour-long show where bands and musicians from all areas – fringe, indie, established, up-and-coming – were showcased, plus music videos. They covered many Canadian artists, and it was a show that balanced information with entertainment, and contextualized music in a manner that was informative, punkish, and neatly packaged for a generation ready to absorb the music video format.

The video still holds its own in spite of being bereft of ADD editing. Its pre-CGI graphics aren’t flashy, but there’s a haunting appeal to the whole production which was reportedly one of the most expensive ever produced at that time.

Made in 1980, it’s videography, solarised colours, and the innate weirdness of costumed figures walking morosely in front of a bulldozer still hold up, mostly because of the perfect tonal balance between images and Bowie’s extraordinary voice, supported by some great synth sounds.

A collection of Bowie’s performances – Best of Bowie – features various network spots on the BBC, but it’s the music videos that are the real stars because they illustrate his complete comfort in transposing music to film with narratives told with experimental film techniques.

The Floria Sigismondi videos – “Dead Man Walking” in particular – are among the best, while Bowie’s 80s productions for “Blue Jeans,” “Let’s Dance,” and “Fashion” showcase the artist’s own fashion sense and the persona of a sleek, lithe, character who makes a point of winking at the viewer, trying to coax you into grooving along even if you lack a peroxide yellow mop and snappy suit.

Bowie’s videos always came with high production values, and the 2-disc Parolophone collection, now (naturally) out of print, is ripe for a remaster in HD, as Bowie’s work in video represents the genre’s mature development from a promo vehicle to performance art, and a short-form medium that used to be the reason millions of fans would tune in to music shows with either a journalistic bent or a straight Top 10 countdown before reality shows proved cheaper and more lucrative to the specialty channels.

Much Music and its American antecedent MTV have long faded into oblivion, sullied by a loss of direction and having strayed too far from their original mandate, but the videos that built those empires have outlived them, because in the end it’s the music that matters, being rediscovered in perpetuity by new generations.

Coming next: more grimness in the form of Synapse’s gorgeous Blu-ray edition of the 2003 German documentary series Stalingrad, and a related review – the 1949 Soviet propaganda epic Stalingradskaya bitva / The Battle of Stalingrad, released in 2008 in an uncut Region 2 set from Germany’s Icestorm.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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