It’s much, much later than planned, but here’s the second instalment of my report on Bradford Film Festival’s Widescreen Weekend… It already seems such a long time ago, as the weather has undergone a miraculous transformation in the meantime, but here seems as good a time as any to point out that my intro to Dersu Uzala is now online on the in70mm website. But anyway, onto Day 2.
It is no real surprise that a festival devoted to widescreen cinema should feature such epic films as those mentioned in my previous post, monumental works by the likes of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa that seek to overwhelm the viewer with their sheer sense of scale and in which landscape plays a crucial role. Adventure films, war films, religious epics and period dramas – these are the genres traditionally favoured by those who choose to work on such large canvasses. The second day of the festival, however, featured two titles that initially seemed rather misplaced; one, a children’s fantasy film realised with puppets, and the other an 85-minute concert film featuring artists from one of British pop history’s most unassuming of genres. Nostalgia played a role in my appreciation of both, but it certainly wasn’t the only factor.
I saw The Muppet Show-creators Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s The Dark Crystal when it came out back in 1982. I’d have been about eleven or twelve at the time, and I can pretty much guarantee that the print the Astor Cinema in Barnstaple played would not have been a 70mm one. I probably saw it a couple of times on TV back in the 1980s, but I think it’s fair to say that this is a film that has pretty much receded back into the mists of time for me. Given how we’ve become so accustomed to CG over the past decade, I’d geared myself up to be pretty disappointed by its use of old-school live-action puppetry upon its Saturday morning airing in Bradford (ostensibly a Kids Screening ticketed at a give-away quid a kid, although the audience seemed predominantly made up of Widescreen Weekend passholders at the other end of the age spectrum).
I was pleasantly surprised at how well the film held up to scrutiny. OK, so the story is basically Lord of the Rings-Lite and the general approach to it as portentous as any other fantasy made in the 1980s, but the general look of the film was as impressive as ever, benefiting from its mist-shrouded locations and atmospheric background mattes rather than the hyper-real sheen of, for example, Peter Jackson’s takes on Tolkein – and without such moments of video-game action silliness as the scene in Jackson’s third film of Legolas bounding up the Oliphaunt’s leg. I kept looking for the strings on its Gelfling main characters of Jen and Kira, but The Dark Crystal successfully managed to pass off its illusion. The other thing I loved about it, apart from the fact that the characters all had British accents, was the level of periphery detail, especially in the forest scenes, which teem with all sorts of bizarre critters who pop out of holes or flounder around in swamps, filmed in a surreal but witty manner that recalls a puppet version of the weird nature documentaries of Jean Painlevé. Doing a bit of background research, I noticed a sequel was announced just last year, which is to be filmed in 3D. I’m not sure whether I should laugh or cry, but anyway, I did enjoy my 70mm reacquaintance with the original immensely, so I’ll be following the news on the upcoming film’s website with some interest, and while I can safely say that I’ll never see the film looking as good as it did on its wide-gauge projection on the massive screen of Bradford’s Pictureville cinema, I should point you in the direction of the Region Free Blu-Ray of the film which can be currently had for a mere £6.99 on Amazon.
What I love most about film festivals is that thrill of stumbling upon absolute gems where you’d least expect them. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Dance Craze (1981), mainly because I’d barely registered its presence until I looked at the catalogue to see what the next screening held for me. The lack of stills in the Bradford International Film Festival catalogue meant it didn’t exactly leap out from the line-up, but at the end of the day, not only was it the highpoint of the weekend for me. I honestly don’t think I’ll see another film this whole year that will put such a huge smile on my face and keep it plastered there, not just for its hour-and-a-half duration, but for the entire week after. Dance Craze was ineffably brilliant, a bare bones concert film featuring the top talent ska bands of the era, The Beat, The Specials, The Selector (my favourite), The Bodysnatchers (no, I don’t remember them), and Madness and Bad Manners, before they both degenerated into the Top-of-the-Pop silliness I remember them for (a fate avoided by the first four bands, who either split up, renamed or regrouped before we had a chance to get bored of them). A number of people I’ve subsequently spoken to remember the tie-in Dance Craze album released by Chrysalis, but it seems hardly anyone remembers the film itself.
So why the hell had I never heard about it before? Well, the lack of suitable venues with the facilities to project it seems to be the main reason. According to cinematographer Joe Dunton, who was not only on hand to introduce the film, but his illuminating onstage interview with Thomas Hauerslev following the screening can be found here on in70mm.com, a decision was made to produce the film in 70mm (or more accurately in SUPER 35, which was then blown up to 70mm), in order to exploit a format that seemed in danger of going out of fashion, as the declining fortunes of the film industry in the late-1970s saw a general retrenchment of the type of films Widescreen Weekend celebrates in the wake of the new phenomena of winner-takes-all blockbusters like Jaws, Star Wars and Grease. As Dunton explained, “I then had the idea to make a film that was not ‘a third row film’, – not shot from the audience, from the third row; everyone shot concert films from the third row, and it does not mean anything, and because the bands were young bands I ended up being on stage with them.” While Joe Massot, who had helmed the Led Zeppelin concert film The Song Remains the Same (1976) is credited as director, the heavy use of Steadicams operated by an onstage Dunton means it was more likely he who really controlled the show – if we can indeed say that, as he’s so close up to the action (including some a few pretty rowdy stage invasions) he often feels like another organic component of the bands, one of the musicians himself, and very much a part of the onstage madness. It is this up-close-and-personal style that makes the film such a joy, as well as the sheer exuberance of the songs themselves, gems such as The Specials’ “Too Much Too Young”, The Beat’s “Mirror in the Bathroom” , The Selector’s “On My Radio” and Madness’ “One Step Beyond”.
So as far as I could work out, this was the first screening of Dance Craze in the UK pretty much since it came out, as there have simply been no prints available to screen from except the one in Dunton’s possession. Sure, it has circulated on bootleg video, DVD and now online, but lets put it plain and simply, these versions look and sound shit, and Dunton himself seems pretty annoyed that a film that was meant to be so immersive has been put out illegally in such inferior copies. He did hint that he was going to make a digital version, possibly for Blu-Ray release and for film festivals, and I really pray that he does. As he said, this film was not made for television, and works optimally on as large a screen as possible. What I think would be amazing is to do this as an outdoor screening with all seats removed and the volume pumped up as loud as possible so audiences can just mosh along to it. Not only are there no concert films quite like it, but it captures a uniquely English form of music at a unique time in British history, when you first saw black and white musicians onstage together, when it was still possible to smoke onstage, and when bands could pack out sizeable concert venues without all the Simon Cowell glitz and flimflam, performing on basic, unadorned stages and with little division between the bands and the audiences.
So I’ll just end by saying, I don’t know whether Dunton will hold true to his promise of striking up a new digital print of the film, but if there are any interested film festivals, venues or distributors out there who are interested, heh, do you fancy getting together and lobbying for this to happen? It’s simply too depressing to imagine I might never see the film again as it should be seen, on the big screen, and I really think there are a lot of people out there who would appreciate it being resurrected for other festivals.
As you can read on the in70mm.com profile on him here, Joe Dunton is actually a pretty legendary figure in film technical circles, having come up with numerous inventions to do with video assists, cranes, lenses and eye-pieces that have revolutionised the industry, and for this reason, he was given his Widescreen Academy Award just after the screening. In my next update, I’m going to move on from discussions of widescreen to multi-screen, and the innovations of another living legend of British cinema, Stanley Long.