A Taste of Honey – The Unfilmables at the BFI

Things not mentioned in this review: Cabaret Voltaire, Expanded Cinema, Jane Horrocks, Malcolm LeGrice, Live Coding, BFI cocktail lounge, eroticism.

As part of their Sonic Cinema strand, Friday 9th brought Wrangler, Tash Tung and Jessica and Mica Levi to Screen 1 of the BFI for The Unfilmables. As a concept, the premise of The Unfilmables is simple enough: what if someone made a version of those great classic unmade scripts? The introduction text references David Lynch’s Return of the Jedi, which surely would have been the greatest Star Wars of all time, along with the more well known unmade version of Dune from Alejandro Jodorowsky. Again, an unmade version that would have been infinitely better than any of the all too literal translations to screen that have been made so far (even Lynch’s feels as though it lost something, at least by the time it was in the editing room). So it was that Colm McAuliffe, Creative Producer, and Lisa Rook, Director of Live Cinema U.K. along with Tim Brown of CineCity Brighton brought us The Unfilmables: two films, two live musical scores.

THE COLOUR OF CHIPS © Francesca Levi 2017
THE COLOUR OF CHIPS © Francesca Levi 2017

Francesca Levi‘s particularly British version of Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates reinterprets the obscure biography of the Armenian ashug Sayat-Nova (King of Song) as a British classic in the vein of the Free Cinema movement of the 1950s (which included Lindsay Anderson amongst its practitioners). Francesca Levi’s film is a trip to Blackpool (on a National Express coach, according to Francesca’s introduction on the night). But this version is half nightmarish dive into repeated motifs of tarot readings and amusement arcade scenes mixed with window shots of passing landscapes. Its lo-fi production values ground the film in a cinéma-vérité reality that defies the shine and polish of many mobile phone videos that haunt our social media streams. This lowered production aesthetic sidesteps any contemporary faux nostalgia trips that might have been otherwise made by the use of contemporary mobile technology and Instagram filters.

All of this was shown to a live score by Francesca’s sister Mica, who has been carving out a name as the composer of some of the most unnerving and beatific soundtracks of recent years. Her work on Under the Skin and Jackie, proving her understanding of the complexities of filmic scoring that might not have always been an obvious departure for one third of the group Micachu and the Shapes. A departure from the familiar sounds of those two soundtracks for The Colour of Chips, Mica mixed an actor’s voice playing the role of fortuneteller with what may have been field recordings from the filming, with electronic fluctuations across a range of rhythms and beats. This combined with the Colour of Chips video to create a mad, sprawling exploration of colour and tradition, with one audience member claiming that they really wanted to visit Blackpool now. A vision of tourist boards across the U.K. hiring experimental filmmakers and electronica outfits seems to be just crazy enough to work, post-Brexit!

In the interval Creative Producer, Colm McAuliffe alerted the audience to the shortness of the break but that anyone who was a fan of stray electronic frequencies should stick around while Wrangler set up. He had us at stray, frankly.

London-based Tash Tung, who has worked on videos for Gazelle Twin, Hannah Peel and Wrangler presented her reading (‘interpretation’ seems to Hollywood reimagineering for The Unfilmables) of screenwriter Clair Noto’s unproduced sci-fi/horror film, The Tourist. Noto’s script was set in 80s Manhattan, following Grace Ripley, one of a small group of exiled aliens living on Earth. The script nearly came to production a few times, and you can find H.R. Giger’s concept art on the Internet, along with a lengthy essay about the film and Noto’s experiences. After flapping around in pre-production hell in a story that would make its own great movie, it finally settled into the dust of cinema legend, despite featuring aliens having sex in Manhattan nightclubs. How could this have been left unmade?

Tung’s version of the movie strips everything back down to pure abstracted narrative, with the text of the original script appearing in a stark black strip near the top of the screen. Even with Stephen Mallinder of Wrangler, reading the script, we’re given very few narrative clues to the structure of the film. What we do get is the flow of imagery that gives Tash Tung’s work its individual take on the Ballardian aesthetic (Her work on Gazelle Twin’s Kingdom Come, with Chris Turner, particularly brought that aspect of her work to the fore). Tung’s film is a sweaty, erotic dive into the untapped potential of the original story. Anyone who has ever found themselves alienated and out of place in a nightclub will already recognise the feeling of unease that the film brings to the fore. Meanwhile, the live visual mixing by Dan Conway, (taking to the stage, flanked by Wrangler on the other side), did nothing to ease the sense of dread that rises in the pit of the stomach while watching the film, as he ‘Brion Gysin-ed’ the film as it played.

After releasing two albums over the past four years, Wrangler have devoted this year to live soundtrack work. As well as supplying the music and script reading for The Tourist, they contribute the soundscape/soundtrack to Cotton Panic, later this year at the Manchester International Festival. The soundtrack for The Tourist references the heavy beats of a club night but with enough sonic overlaying to please even the hardiest electronica fan. My only criticism would be that Wrangler is a band that should never sit down to play their music.

The Unfilmables is the antidote to anyone who worries that too many terrible scripts are being made into multi-million dollar (and it is invariable dollars) blockbusters, while potential greats go unmade. But it’s a bold step to create these two films. There’s untapped potential in a script never going into production that can have more energy stored within it, like a coiled spring, cranking up unrealised expectation, than the fully fleshed out version we get presented with. To respond to those films, to hold a particularly British mirror to Sergei Parajanov’s The Colour of Pomegranates, and to breath life into Clair Noto’s The Tourist, could have been awkward and uncomfortable to have sat through. As it is, these two films and the live music performances show that British experimental cinema is still a strong force of creativity and inspiration for younger filmmakers and musicians looking to forge a path beyond the narrow lanes of the multiplex.

Cotton Panic!