Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Brothers of the Head

Of the three films derived from the writings of Brian Aldiss, undoubtedly the most successful is Brothers of the Head.

The ultimately released version of AI was a gut-wrenching disaster, a catalogue of crimes against Kubrick's legacy. It would be easy to put all of the blame on Spielberg, but that wouldn't be fair. He must be held accountable, sure, but Jan Harlan, the film's "executive producer" and facilitator of the Spielberg take-over, should also be made to pay.

Roger Corman's Frankenstein Unbound - the one and only movie B-Maestro Corman has directed since 1978's Deathsport - fares much, much better, being a messy, sloppy film filled with ideas that get halfway where they should go and smattered with a handful of (relatively inferior) performances from superior performers. Ultimately, you are likely to feel indifferent to the film overall, but I can see exactly why a respectable cult of fans should form.

I would hope Aldiss looks favourably on the attempts made with Frankenstein Unbound, but I'm sure he's rather more satisfied with Brothers of the Head.

What we have in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe's film isn't a straight adaptation of the novel at all, but a fake documentary that represents the main body of Aldiss' fictions as a very believable reality while removing a handful of supremely gothic, sometimes fantastical episodes into a film-within-the film. It's a perfect choice that Ken Russell makes an appearance as the director of this faux (faithful) adaptation.

Our first piece of important story information comes from this metafilm, a crucial opening scene in which our protagonists Tom and Barry Howe, conjoined twin brothers, are "sold into showbiz" by their father. It's a melodramatic distortion of what we are left to infer the reality of this important moment in the brother's lives could have been - is "supposed to have been" in the film's "real" version of events. Jonathan Pryce and John Simm cameo here, virtually in the figures of Mephistopheles and Hades' ferryman.

Tom and Barry become a punk-glam mini-sensation in the band "The Bang Bang", but they are almost palpably doomed from the second the contract is inked. It's this "rock and roll fable" that the fake documentary footage (most of which is alleged to have been cannibalised from an older, and even faker documentary) tells vividly, from up-close, with a genuine intimacy.

The film-within-the-film does sometimes give information or atmosphere the audience will willingly enfold into their impression of the story overall, a narrative having-your-cake-and-eating-it that is brilliantly exploited. A special-effect scene of an extra head that grows from the flesh where Tom and Barry are joined together is represented in one very potent "excerpt". It achieves something very much like a dream sequence, say, but it also works perfectly in the pseudo-documentary framework - and has none of the usual dirty, guilty shame of "it was all just a dream" plotting.

Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography is a career best, delineating the film's four styles definitely yet remaining coherent and cogent. The design, by Jon Henson and Patrick Rolfe, is also utterly authentic and, for the most part, dramatically effective. Visually, the film is a huge success.

Clive Langer - of inimitable production duo Langer and Winstanley - composed the original music, and it's just the late 70s mess required. Another perfect choice.

The screenplay, by Tony Grisoni is genuinely clever, his characters subtle and strong, his refitting of the novel wonderfully conceived. Structurally, the script is weaker, seeming to be overlong, particularly in the earlier sequences where it repeats information and gives the impression of treading water. The current shape of the film would have been happier at around an hour's running time, not an hour and a half.

I'm a great admirer of Grisoni, particularly of his work with Terry Gilliam: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, The Brothers Grimm and Tideland. We're still waiting to see their Quixote fully realised - the infamous, regretfully foiled first attempt was captured in the hurting, painful documentary Lost in La Mancha. The directors of that film were Fulton and Pepe, who are making their joint fiction film debut with The Brothers of the Head. Observing Gilliam and being party to his processes couldn't have harmed them.

So, despite some shaky playing from supporting cast members, my feeling a little impatient at first, and needing time for some of the nuances to really take hold of me, I now find Brothers of the Head to have be one of the most effecting films I have seen in some time, and certainly set to be amongst the most underrated. Fulton and Pepe's handful of "behind the scenes" works - including the two major ones they made in Gilliam's shadow - were entertaining, informative and undoubtedly solid, but I certainly wasn't expecting the leap forward they've made with Brothers.

iFC and Tartan are reportedly releasing the film across the US in July, if only on a limited scale. As of yet, I have no idea at all who will be giving the film it's imminent UK run, but Tartan, again, seen to be the most sensible guess.

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