Sarah McMullan is a freelance publicist and film reviewer. She had a six-year stint reviewing films at Radio New Zealand, has worked for the New Zealand International Film Festival and currently writes for The 13th Floor and her own The Call Her Square Eye. Here are five films that have stayed with her…
I worked out that through my work as a film reviewer and publicist, that on average I watch about 550 movies a year. And that’s been going on for a while now. So asking me to pick five films was an impossible question! Instead I decided to choose five films with score/soundtracks that have somehow shaped my life as a film lover. I thought that would make it easier. I was SO wrong.
1 – Watership Down: The animated version of one of my favourite books, this film is responsible for emotionally scarring more members of my generation as children than any other. OK, I will admit it could be considered disturbing, (what with the psychedelic swirling fields of bloods, screaming, suffocating bunnies and terrifying dogs, men and members of the Owlsa just waiting for a chance to tear our heroic band of travellers apart,) however, I think it’s a beautiful illustration of the circle of life, and how man and nature sit within that cycle.
Allegorically an examination of politics – yeah I didn’t get that when I first saw it aged 4 – most people will know this for the incredible voice cast (John Hurt, Richard Briers, Denholm Elliot, Roy Kinnear…), the sweeping score and the Mike Batt penned Bright Eyes, famously performed by Art Garfunkel.
That song used to come up regularly on Love Songs ‘til Midnight when I was the host, and I’d cry every single time I had to play it as all I could see was Hazel joining the Black Rabbit of Inlé. Full Disclosure: I STILL cry every time I hear Bright Eyes. So Sad.
2 – Broken Circle Breakdown: A Belgian film adaptation of a play written by the lead actor, I dare anyone to watch this and not find something stuck in their eye for the best part of 90 minutes. A tale of love between a beautiful tattoo artist singer and a sensitive, bearded guitarist who meet through their mutual love of bluegrass, the film follows their relationship as they marry and start a family only to have their happiness snatched away in the most heart-breaking of ways.
I didn’t know a lot about bluegrass when I saw this, but this soundtrack got me completely hooked. (And how often do you get a film where the actors are actually the musicians and singers on the soundtrack, for real?) Johan Heldenbergh as Didier and Veerle Baetens as Elise are just amazing in this. Broken Circle Breakdown was one of my Top 5 films of 2013, and it’s an album I listen to regularly.
3 – A Clockwork Orange: By the time I was 15 I already had a list a mile long of films I wanted to see that I was supposedly too young for. Even worse, with a nosy little brother, my parents were hyper vigilant over the videos we rented so my chances of getting even an R16 past them were slim at best. If I couldn’t sneak it past a friend’s parent, or it wasn’t on late at night so I could sneak downstairs past my sleeping parents? I didn’t get to see it. Which was why I was determined to see A Clockwork Orange when it played on the big screen at the Westend Cinema in Christchurch.
My friend and I spent hours getting ready; we wore way too much makeup and hairspray for a Friday night movie, all in an attempt to pass for 18-year-olds. Looking back at the blurry photo from that night, we really didn’t, but they sold us tickets anyway. It was for an 11pm screening and we felt so grown up buying snacks and nonchalantly wandering up the stairs that late at night knowing both sets of our parents thought we were spending the night at a third friend’s house.
We sat dead centre in a row towards the back – still my preferred seat – with an old man three seats to my left, and a group of skin heads sitting on the other side of my friend. Behind us was another large group of skin heads, and I remember at the time wondering why there weren’t many women there. We both knew the film was R18 but we didn’t know why. Neither of us had read the book and while I had seen Full Metal Jacket (an R16) with my Uncle, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and Dr Strangelove; my friend was a Kubrick virgin. Truth be told we were actual virgins. Which was what made the next two hours 18 minutes one of the most intensely surreal of my life.
From the moment the film began I was captivated. Malcolm McDowell was hypnotic, visually it was like nothing I had really seen before and the soundtrack was incredible! Speakers turned all the way up, you could feel the music reverberating through the floor, shuddering through your breastbone. I noticed for the first time just how pivotal the right music at the right moment could be.
Unfortunately, I also learned that night how different people interpret the same content. During the scene where Alex and his droogs break into the writer’s home, beat him up and rape his wife, the skin heads behind us began cheering and clapping, urging the characters on with terms that made my friend and I a bit uneasy. Wanting to appear grown up (it was an R18) we just shifted in our seats and carried on. By the time the Cat Lady was sexually assaulted and beaten with her art collection I’d realised that the old man beside me was wearing a rain coat for a reason (ew!) and the skinheads beside us were also clapping and cheering on the rape to such a degree there was no way in hell my friend and I were going to stand up and have to walk past them as well as the rape cheer team behind us.
So we stayed and sat through it. I lost myself in the film again, my friend not so much. She was almost in tears and had a pretty miserable night. Yes I still feel bad about that, and I don’t think she ever let me choose another film again.
But as awful as it is to think that in 1990 two 15-year-old girls couldn’t go to a movie without being wanked at by some pervy old dude, or get jeered at during rape scenes; I did get to see A Clockwork Orange for the first time on the big screen; and for that I’ll always be grateful. (Just don’t ever play Singing in the Rain anywhere near me.)
4 – Beyond the Black Rainbow: Available only on Blu-ray or DVD in NZ, this undeniably strange Canadian sci-fi horror thriller might be better received now after the success of It Follows, and to a lesser degree Enter the Void and Under The Skin. Utterly trippy almost trance like, it features a teenage girl locked in an asylum by a mad Dr intent on studying her telepathic and psychic powers; Sentionauts who want her for their own reasons; mysterious black ooze and a daring midnight escape.
What pulls it all together is the incredible soundtrack by Sinoia Caves, aka Jeremy Schmidt, keyboard player for Black Mountain. With obvious echoes of The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Exorcist and Risky Business; there’s Moog and Mellotron galore with menacing bass rumbling underneath like a prehistoric beast.
Set in 1983, the soundtrack manages to be both kitsch and futuristic at the same time, echoing back to films of the 80s yet still distinctly different, much like the film itself. Obvious touchstones are on display yet the film is totally unique. Beyond the Black Rainbow is something you want to turn up REALLY loud, sit in the dark and watch, more than once. Trust me you’ll need to.
5 – Labyrinth: What can I say? I saw this in a movie theatre in 1987 for my 12th birthday and BAM! My whole life changed.
Suddenly I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: Jennifer Connelly/Sarah. She was the perfect mix of smart and brave and beautiful. She also had this mysterious, bad but maybe secretly good King fall in love with her just by being stroppy! How cool was that? He would do anything to keep her happy; all she had to do was fear him, love him, do as he said and he would be her slave.
Ok, so not the healthiest relationship message for tween-age girls but I was already swept away by the majesty of David Bowie. (And as much as we joke about his Jareth Pants now, I’m pretty sure 12 year old me did not notice that aspect of his enormous talent at the time.) His hair was impressive, his makeup skills advanced and he did rule an entire magical kingdom. Plus he could turn into an owl which seemed pretty badass to an animal mad kid like me. Actually it still does.
Was Jareth/David Bowie responsible for the sexual awakening of a generation? It’s possible. He certainly gave me my first taste of jealousy and an introduction to feelings I really didn’t understand.
But David and Jennifer aren’t the only reason I watch Labyrinth at least 3 or 4 times every year. It has a fun story with relatable characters and cool puppets, plus a fantastic soundtrack that my parents didn’t mind if I turned up loud because for some reason they thought it was more appropriate than the Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones that I’d been playing prior to the film’s release. Of course following Labyrinth my next pocket money purchases were Let’s Dance and Heroes, and thus my love affair with David Bowie was cemented and has proved to be my longest yet.
Like Watership Down and A Clockwork Orange, I know every line of dialogue in Labyrinth; all of the musical cues too. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ll imitate the drum solos, sing the guitar lines and saxophone parts shamelessly because I’m not ashamed. These films are as much a part of me as the rest of my formative years. Watching them, hearing them takes me straight back to a specific time and place yet I still discover something new when I watch them today.