Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A World On Fire's Interview With 400 Lonely Things (Part One and Two)

Tonight of the Living DeadThis month’s giveaway prize is a signed copy of 400 Lonely Things’ Tonight of the Living Dead. This is a dark melodious journey into the zombie filled apocalypse as depicted in George Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead. You can get a sample of this music right over here.

This is the first part of interview that will span the entire month. If you have any questions that you’d like ask 400 Lonely Things just post your comment on the facebook page, or reply to this post.

Who is 400 Lonely Things?
400 Lonely Things is just Jonathan McCall and myself (Craig Varian). We’ve been recording for over 20 years, but didn’t hit upon the name and theme of 400 Lonely Things until 2001 or 2002. The name itself was just something I’d scribbled on a pad where I would write down phrases and words that I liked. I didn’t think much of it when I first wrote it, but a few days later I realized that it described an obvious thread in our music that I’d never really noticed before: this kind of disconnected nostalgia that was equally creepy and comforting. I think we are driven by some primordial homesickness, for a feeling of belonging that seems lost, but may have never even existed in the first place. Like the phantom limb of a phantom limb.

What music has influenced 400 Lonely Things?
Because our music is extremely self-referential and introspective and private, I don’t feel that 400 Lonely Things is directly influenced much by other artists. Although a lot of what we do is sample-based, we often sample ourselves or our surroundings and when we sample other sources (like songs or films) – it’s usually to try to capture a feeling, time or association that belongs to us and not to the source material.

Do you listen to a lot of music?
Although I’ve thinned my collection of vinyl somewhat, I still have about a thousand pieces and I have a couple thousand cds boxed up somewhere in the house and am currently halfway through filling up a 160gb iPod. I listen to a lot of dub, especially Prince Far I and the Arabs and Scientist. I never get tired of Cocteau Twins’ pre-Capitol recordings. Lately I’ve been digging some of the 80’s music I loved when it was new (like Public Image Limited, Dali’s Car, Wolfgang Press, Echo and the Bunnymen) and some of the 80’s music I missed like The Sound and Siouxsie and the Banshees. I also love Ween! I’ve seen them at least six times.

Who are some of your favorite artists?
There are two artists who over the years have really come to mean a lot to me, and that’s William Basinski and Boards of Canada. I hear this same sensibility of nostalgia, homesickness, and repetition in a lot of their recordings that I feel is both a method and a thematic territory we have in common. Plus there’s just textural similarities that come from working with found sound. There’s also two albums that I couldn’t do without – David Sylvian’s “Gone To Earth” and Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Vol II”.


What age did you get into zombies?
The first zombie movie I ever saw was Night of the Living Dead. I was probably 6 years old or so – this would have been probably 1976. I used to watch a show called Creature Feature every Saturday at 10:30am on a UHF channel in South Florida. I saw a lot of Godzilla and Gamera movies, Hammer films, Vincent Price flicks – the kind of stuff I would see in Famous Monsters of Filmland. The Amazing Colossal Man, It! The Terror From Beyond Space, The Thing – stuff like that. One weekend they showed NOTLD and I remember it being the first Creature Feature that actually scared me, and I was totally hooked on the very idea of zombies from then on. Sometime after that they showed Shock Waves and I really dug that, too.

By middle school, I was collecting magazines like Famous Monsters, Eerie and Creepy, Heavy Metal, Starlog and Fangoria and various sci-fi and horror comics. We would get the big Sunday paper every week and I’d comb through the movie section and cut out all the big Sunday ads for all the horror and sci-fi movies and tape them up on my wall. One of these movies was Dawn of the Dead (X-Rated!) and me and a friend of mine managed to con some kid / brother / cousin or something of his who was old enough to drive into taking us to a midnight showing of it. We didn’t think they’d let us in, but they did and the show was packed with a huge rowdy crowd – the movie was totally uncut and seeing that movie was a defining moment in my 11 or 12 year old life. Oh my God, that was seriously so fucking awesome. Later that year, we went again – but the version of the film they showed had all the violence cut out and we left before it was over.

What were some of your favorite zombie films and why?
One of the movie “posters” that I cut out from the newspaper was for Fulci’s Zombie. I couldn’t wait to see that. I finally saw it when it came out on VHS (which was still a new technology at the time, and the concept of renting these movies was even newer) and that movie sparked a life-long love of 70’s and 80’s Euro-trash zombie flicks, easily my favorite sub-sub-sub-genre of movies. There’s something about them that I never get tired of yet can never quite put my finger on what it is about them that I like so much…

When I was a kid, I was way into the violence and gore and these European films had it nastier than any of the others, and this quality was especially exaggerated by their poor transfer to VHS – everything was so dark and poorly cropped and it was hard to see what was going on, but what you could see was much more grimy and graphic than the bright stage-blood you’d see in something like Dawn (no disrespect to Savini).

These 70’s and 80’s Euro-zombie films are the inbred, demented little cousins of the Spaghetti Westerns I grew up on. Over the years I’ve grown to love how inept and wildly inappropriate and random they are, and how the gore in films is just so pornographically extreme and hysterical. They really are just awful and it’s so much fun. I’ve sinced owned many titles on Laserdisc and DVD and seeing them widescreen with a proper transfer has shown me that they are for the most part, very competently photographed – but they are still so incoherent and the overdubbing is just so shrill and often the actors (especially the english speaking ones) just stand there looking like they wish they could understand what the director was saying.

My favorites of these films are basically all the movies Fulci did in the few years around Zombie (Zombi 2) – House by the Cemetery, City of the Living Dead (Gates of Hell), The Beyond and also his sword and sorcery gore-epic Conquest. I also love Bruno Mattei / Vincent Dawn’s Hell of the Living Dead (Night of the Zombies) – that movie is a complete fucking riot. However, Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground (The Nights of Terror) is in my opinion the single greatest achievement of mankind. It’s the perfect blend of incompetent film-making, terrible dubbing, atrocious acting, and insane screenwriting coupled with a great location, excellent zombie design (it’s like Fulci’s Zombie meets the Blind Dead) and really sickening gore. There is really just so many things wrong with this movie and twenty-something years later my friends and I still quote this movie almost every time we talk. And of course, the disturbingly delicious cherry on top of this mess is Peter Bark (shudders).

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Video - Tonight of the Living Dead

We've posted the first video from Tonight of the Living Dead that we premiered at the Flyway Film Festival in Pepin, Wisconsin in late October. Please watch and comment. Hope you enjoy, and that everyone is well.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Flyway Transmission Three: Colin

Tonight I'll be writing about Marc Price's film Colin, and I take great pleasure in doing so, as it was such an unexpected treat. More than a week after our initial viewing of this movie, my wife (who doesn't like zombie films) and I were still talking about it and remembering Colin with warmth and outright fondness, enjoying the novelty of it coming from such a traditionally unlikely place.

I had not heard of Colin before being invited to the Flyway Film Festival's International Zombie Summit, and read just a little about it online before departing. I was intrigued by the poster art, and the film's rumored $70 budget - but mostly by the long overdue concept of telling this type of story from the inside out. You see, Colin is a zombie movie - but it's told from the zombie's point of view. A zombie named Colin.

The best zombie films often make us think about what it means to be Human. Since Romero established the tradition with Night of the Living Dead in 1968, zombie films are often allegories for their time, in that they say something about the current direction in which humanity is traveling. No one has really done this better than Romero, whose subtext is often social and political and speaks of The Big Picture.

But Colin teaches us more about The Big Picture by making us think of what it means to be human in the "little h" sense of the word; the idea of what it means to be a person, an individual, ourselves... It does this by showing what it means to Colin to be Colin.

In the opening moments of this film we watch our protagonist die with no real sense of who he is. He shortly awakens - undead - with even less of a sense of his identity than we have. Colin is reduced to a relentless core of need that is nameless - but that drives him on an obscure journey to reconnect with the phantom limb of his humanity. Along the way, scenes of mayhem unfold, some of which would feel familiar (such as the zombie siege inside the apartment building), but through the uniqueness of their approach come off as being told for the first time - the very freshness of these scenes should cause them to become legendary. However, as intense and enjoyable as these moments are, they often have little to do with Colin's story, which is gradually told through flashbacks both intimate and personal. It's in these qualities that I feel Colin finds its ultimate uniqueness and strength. It's a strength that may alienate Colin from fans of horror culture junk food, but is likely to win new fans (like my wife) who just like good movies, and enjoy a little nutrition when faced with so many empty calories.

In the world of horror cinema (and especially within the zombie sub-genre) it's not often that a film this quiet and unique gets made, and somewhat shocking when it gets noticed. The habitat of the horror film is frequently a crowded landscape of volume and violence, dominated by big-budget gore, homogeneous jump cuts and startling noises, remakes with no heart and no risk (and subsequently, no tension), all shouting through studio-mandated, gold-plated megaphones "LOOK AT ME!!!". But Colin is just the opposite of this: it's modest and quiet and keeps to itself. It's an hypnotic, lingering study in Zombiance that shows though the body may be dead - the soul doesn't go so easily, making it almost more of a ghost story.

Don't get me wrong, there is some pretty nasty gore and loud, shaky scenes of panicky chaos in this film - but while the rest of the world goes on shouting and struggling and fighting around him, Colin himself as a zombie is uninterested in the carnage and spectacle, feeding only out of a distracted necessity. He stumbles about lost, looking for pieces of himself to form a breadcrumb trail - more a victim of amnesia and long-term introspection than a shambling corpse. Along the way, we gradually learn what it is that drives him so - and in the end, something obvious and profound is revealed.

That humanity is always looking for the way home.


P.S. - As a post script to this entry, I must make special mention of its score, written by Daniel Weekes and Jack Elphick (and also written by director Marc Price, pictured left). We were invited to Flyway to premiere a music video from the 400 Lonely Things album Tonight of the Living Dead (see Flyway Transmission One, here). Our music often deals with the personal language of homesickness, and that loss of the sense of belonging that I feel, at our core - hiding beneath the idea of ourselves - we always long to return to. I apologize for the self-promotional nature of these comments and this forum, but I can't shake the feeling that 400 Lonely Things had found kindred spirits in Colin - as this idea of homelessness and homesickness is at the core of Colin's humanity. I also feel that the incredible music in this film did as much to advance this feeling as the writing, acting and directing. I would love to hear more, and I'm honored that we had the chance to share a screen and an audience for a night. Perhaps we'll do it again sometime.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Flyway Transmission Two: Ink

For my second installment of posts about the Flyway Film Festival, I would like to write about Ink.

Ink was shown Friday night, to a packed room upstairs in the Stockholm Historic Opera House as the final film of the opening night's festivities. The Director and Producer - Jamin and Kiowa Winans - were both in attendance, along with the two lead actors - Chris Kelly and Quinn Hunchar.

Ink - like the other films I was fortunate enough to see - is a small triumph. It's creativity thumbing its nose in the face of financial limitation, its spirit easily overcoming the considerable obstacles its tiny budget must have presented. This is all the more impressive because Ink is such an ambitious movie: a dark science-fiction fairy-tale about a species of horrific nightmare-feeding Incubi and the Storytellers, guardian angels that balance the presence of the Incubi in the universe - and the family drama at the center of it all. These creatures and forces are portrayed with imagery that is alternately chilling and plastically diabolical and warm and spiritually sensual - as they battle for a little girl whose soul has been forcibly taken, the soul of a wounded father who has tried with all his might to let his go, and the spirit of a mother who will sacrifice her soul to heal them both.

The technical aspects of this film are nothing short of remarkable: there are elaborately staged and tightly edited fight sequences and limbo-like half-worlds that hide within the fabric of our daily lives. There's a breath-takingly orchestrated ballet illustrating the seemingly unrelated interactions that make up the physical world and a blind wandering spirit who surfs their rhythms like a spider on its web, inserting himself like a kindly monkey wrench into the sequence of events when needed, to guide the course of randomness to a better place. The film also makes judicious use of lighting, filters and effects to give every thread of the narrative its own unique environmental feel.

My only criticism is small: for the first half it's not completely clear what the story is (which is good), but once the story is clear - to me it seems to take a little longer than is needed to be resolved. However, I think this is a challenge that must always be met when dealing with a story so allegorical. Creating a story that takes place both in the real world of its characters and simultaneously in the timeless, lyrical world of their inner-emotion and symbolism is risky in that the same story is being told twice. In this respect, Ink has done much better than its more high-profile contemporaries.

There is also an element of melodrama (as was mentioned to me by one fellow viewer), especially in how the family relationship is depicted. However, if - like me - you are or have been the parent of an 8-year old girl you already know that melodrama is just part of the package. We all struggle to influence our world, the child does this in ways that are more black and white like a fairy-tale with obvious heroes and villains - and the adults often struggle in shades of grey, trying in vain to not be the child anymore but to be the hero - yet often feeling like the villain. The child gets ignored and is heartbroken; the adult is heartbroken and ignores the child. Melodrama is necessary for a story of this type, and is no less sincere because of it. This film was especially synchronous with my own sometimes melodramatic family life: our 8-year old - like the scene-stealing Quinn Hunchar in the film - is named Emma. And like the father Chris Kelly portrays, I've found myself sometimes unable to connect with the imaginary world my daughter creates so effortlessly - even though I can so clearly remember having the same ability as her when I was her age. Even more personally ominous to me, was when father John tells his daughter Emma, with equal amounts of antagonism, guilt, and jealousy, "I've worked 80 hours this week, what have you done?" egad, my skin was fairly crawling - for I've said that exact same thing to my Emma before (Gulp!). I can pay this aspect of the film no higher compliment than to say that while watching it, my wife and I had to fight the urge to hop on a plane and hurry home to just give our daughter a hug.

I found out today from a post at Ink's Facebook page, that Ink has become the most heavily downloaded film on Pirate Bay this weekend (over 100,000 times), and while I've already weighed in on the excellent discussion occurring in the comment section - I'd like to take some time to expand on my comments regarding the issue of piracy here. We should know soon if for Ink this will be a blessing or curse - but I'm going to go ahead and put my money on the blessing. I think this weekend Ink has accomplished something profound that I'm still trying to grasp: that Ink has been illegally downloaded over 100,000 times in one weekend means that it has been accepted by the world on the sheer strength and quality of the film itself. It's on the verge of going completely viral not because of some clever marketing campaign (ahem, Paranormal Activity, cough-cough), Ink is going viral because it's so good. And while some rush to defend the film-makers' rights and complain that the pirates are stealing money from them - to a point I agree, but I also don't think it quite translates so literally. There's a hole in the logic of the argument: not all of these downloads can equal a lost sale because no money has been exchanged. And what I mean by that is that if this film were not available free (albeit, illegally) this massive and sudden outbreak of an audience would simply not have happened. How many downloads would have occurred if there had been a cost for the downloader involved? And how many sales of the DVD, Blu-Ray or T-Shirt occurred as a direct result of the illegal downloads in question?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not entirely on either side here. Some have said "if only the film-makers could have gotten a dollar or two from each download" and I whole-heartedly agree, but it also would most likely have prevented this same audience from spontaneously developing. Indeed, the makers of Ink would be no richer - and in audience size much poorer. This brings me full-circle to the comment I originally posted at Ink's Facebook page: "Night of the Living Dead had the title changed at the last moment, neglecting to include a copyright notice when they did. As a result, Romero's company lost control - but within a couple of years it had been shown all over the world by theaters and TV stations alike who didn't have to pay for the content - ultimately making Romero into a legend whose film had been seen by millions and millions of people instead of somebody who made an awesome but forgotten little horror film that never got noticed by the general public."

Photo: Jamin Winans (center) with Flyway Curators Rick and Diana Vaicius

Some say the studio / theater / distribution chain is a broken and out-dated model, and that's especially true in the case of a film like Ink that in all likelihood would never have been green-lit by Hollywood (although I fear before the dust settles, as Jeffrey Coghlan predicted the next morning - we'll probably see a mega-budget Hollywood remake of Ink in the years to come). So I hope this piracy helps point a new direction - freeing us from that broken model that brings us Matthew McConaughey abominations instead of Ink: that an independent film can be made with such resonance that it can bypass that system but still find another way of connecting with the viewing public like a stream reaching the sea. I feel Ink's sudden viral popularity is an indication of cultural embrace and achieving that was the hard part. I'm sure financial success will follow. I'm sure the minds that were creative enough to make this wonderful film will find a way to parlay this burst of attention into something even bigger. They certainly deserve it and I wish them nothing but the best.

In the meantime, Ink DVDs, Blu-Rays and t-shirts can all be purchased here. I'll be doing the same and I hope you do, too.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Flyway Transmission One: Tonight of the Living Dead

I recently had the pleasure of premiering a video from the 400 Lonely Things album Tonight of the Living Dead as part of the Flyway Film Festival's International Zombie Summit in Pepin, Wisconsin.

The video for the song Tonight is an internet-based collaboration with Phil Harrell (a Denver-based film-maker, currently working with the editor of Rusty Nails' forthcoming documentary Dead On: The Life and Cinema of George Romero), and was created using visual treatments from the original Night of the Living Dead similar to the methods I employed in the audio construction of the album.

It was our great privilege to have it shown in between two of the most critically-acclaimed international releases of this year - films that have been praised as game-changers in their ability to challenge what can and can't be done in the zombie sub-genre: Cannes breakout hit - the U.K. "$70 zombie movie with a heart" - Colin and the Stephen McHattie driven Canadian production and "intellectual zombie-film" Pontypool, which had been named by Entertainment Weekly the previous week as one of the 25 Greatest Zombie Films of All Time.

Our video was well-received by both audience members and attending film-makers alike. Encouraged by the warm reception, we've decided to expand Tonight of the Living Dead into a feature-length black and white "fish-tank" of haunted ambiance, creating a unique video for each of the tracks on the album - emphasizing the disturbing visual poetry found in the original film of Night of the Living Dead that I attempted to capture, tweak and loop aurally in the construction of the album. We'll be making the rounds at various film festivals in the months to come and will be rolling out a video or two online very soon (and hopefully we'll premiere the feature at Flyway next year).

In addition to the soothing and beautiful scenery, delicious food and warm hospitality of the people of Stockholm and Pepin, WI - Phil and I were also flattered to take part in a "Zombie Panel" with the other IZS film-makers in attendance. Pictured L-R are Festival Organizer Rick Vaicius, Phil Harrell, myself, Jeffrey Coghlan (Producer, Pontypool), Ed Bishop and Pericles Lewnes (Producer and Director of Redneck Zombies), Jay Cheel (Director, Colore Non Vedenti) and Gary King - director of New York Lately, (who is currently filming a zombie film of his own in Cleveland).

A delicious dinner at Gelly's Pub the night before led to a great discussion of our favorite films (mostly horror) between Phil, Jay Cheel and myself with Matt Gamble of Where the Long Tail Ends. Matt, along with Andrew James of Row Three, setup their laptop in Gelly's and interviewed all of the film-makers throughout the course of the next day for their "pubcast". My interview is at this link or just subscribe in iTunes and listen to the whole series.

All in all, the experience at Flyway was one of the better times in my life. I very much look forward to going back, and have appreciated getting the chance to make new friends and see new and wonderful films from all over the world. Many thanks to Rick and Diana Vaicius for making Flyway such a memorable time. That Flyway is so unique and wonderful is no accident; it's the inevitable result of their enthusiasm and warmth.

In the days to come, I'll be posting at length about some of the films I had the privilege of viewing.