Busy, busy, busy…that means rushed blog entries like this one – apologies.
Prison films carry a certain miserable appeal. That’s what can attract a film goer to the cinematic classics -‘Penitentiary’, ‘Bad Boys’, ‘American Me’, ‘McVicar’, ‘A Prophet’ (nice sweatshirt – shame about the throat-slitting obligations) ‘Midnight Express’, ‘Riot in Cell Block No. 9’, ‘Short Eyes’, ‘Carindarou’, ‘Runaway Train’ or searing texts like George Jackson’s ‘Soledad Brother’ and Edward Bunker’s ‘Animal Factory.’ I’ve pondered just how much of a weak prisoner I’d be, and whether I’d get Beecher’d into obliged Aryan Brotherhood membership. Not a good look. As a result I’d rather stay on the outside.
After ‘Oz’ ended on a madcap low-note (at least Tom Fontana had the honesty to concede he’d just run out of offbeat killing methods) with Shakespeare performed behind bars using real knives, there’s been an opening for some trashy jail madness, yet only Walter Hill’s repeatedly shelved ‘Undisputed’ really delivered at b-movie level. Sean Penn delivered in ‘Bad Boys’ but the true daddy was Alan Clarke’s ‘Scum’ – after Gus Van Sant had a go at his masterpiece ‘Elephant’, Nick Love caused shock with a half-decent film reworking Clarke’s ‘The Firm’ it looks like we’re going juvey again when his brutal look at British borstal life gets an unofficial remake from Doublegoose wearing ‘Sheitan’ director Kim Chapiron via ”Dog Pound’ – it looks pretty good.
Even though ‘Scum’ takes paternal status by wielding an iron bar and yelling, it’s not the greatest prison flick ever made. That honour goes to John Hillcoat’s ‘Ghosts of the Civil Dead’ – a cerebral, searing, naturalistic near-futureshock that makes the penal system look utterly hellish and totally hopeless. Neoliberal capitalism, the outlook of colonial administrators like Arthur Philip, primal instinct versus mechanical coercion and the (correct) notion that prison systems can further criminalize institutions’ denizens doesn’t make for a lot of laughs either. Other Aussie jail films ‘Stir’ and ‘Everynight, Everynight’ (with ‘…Civil Dead’s David Field in the lead) are hardly fun, but this is next level. Rage turns to murder, and evidently taking a note from one of Norman Mailer’s key “Doh!” (though I’m sure I heard hims say it Homer-style when Rip Torn cracked him on the head with a hammer) moments – the whole Gary Gilmore saga. ‘…Civil Dead’ pulls few punches, but if you can stomach the unrelentingly grim tone, you’ll emerge impressed. Officially Oz-made, this is the original ‘Oz’ – I’ve never seen it admitted, but the clinical, experimental tone of Levinson and Fontana’s fictional criminal housing, and the back story focus owes a debt to this movie.
Some Bad Seeds on the soundtrack and a truly demented Nick Cave performance may well have given this film some extra mileage beyond VHS purgatory, but with the mild popularity of Hillcoat’s ‘The Road’ (too miserable to sit through – well executed but better on paper) and ‘The Proposition’ this still doesn’t exist in digital form beyond a comprehensive but tough to track down Australian DVD. This website is pretty exhaustive too, dating back to 2005 but promising a rerelease. This film will affect you with regards to a deeply contentious topic without concluding with a Hollywood liberal crawling through pipes of shit to topless freedom. Evan English, one of the film’s writers recently wrote an account of the Cannes guerilla marketing for the movie in May 1988 that puts most calculated, hapless attempts at a “viral” to shame.
On asking Evan about a potential release, I got a polite email, “You have obviously seen the website availability page which lays out the intentions. As those ideas have developed and the work of likely contributors reviewed, it becomes increasingly obvious to me I want to do something with this (dvd, book, website) that significantly adds to the film. Mot a making of with some puff, but a solid review of the politics of incarceration and the trends therein.
The problem is this is independent filmmaking (and this answers your question: with the release of ‘The Road’ and ‘The Proposition’ a few years back, why does this masterpiece remain a cult film. Were there distribution or global licensing issues from day one?).
All the work on the film – intellectual to mundane – is done by me. That’s it, me. It’s twenty years after and it’s wonderful it’s alive , but it’s hard work. There have been many offers over time, but I have high standards…”
Evan says, “Believe” and having had similar feedback regarding other personal favourites ‘The Decline of Western Civilization’ , ‘Style Wars’ and ‘Ladies & Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains’ (well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad) I’m inclined to trust him. Hunt it down in the meantime, but please…don’t have nightmares.
From the extras from that release, here’s an interview with soundtrack composer for the film, Blixa Bargeld. 0:35 seconds in is cool personified…
On a lighter note, lest we forget, this SNL skit with Jerry Seinfeld in Oswald State Pententionary should’ve been a DVD extra in the final series boxset. Jerry was also cast in the show in an unbilled role as the video shop clerk Biohazard’s Evan Seinfeld (no relation) battered to end up in prison.