DVD Review: HIGH (1967)


A fortunate encounter at this years edition of Fantasia has led me to a treasure trove of Larry Kent (Canada’s godfather of indie and counterculture cinema who has been active from the early sixties right up to two new films in the past 4 years) DVDs which I will be exploring over the next couple weeks. The kick-off is the drug psychedelic kill-trip that pre-dates Natural Born Killers and The Doom Generation by several decades: 1967’s HIGH.

Tom is a college drop-out who keeps his sex and drug fuelled lifestyle going by playing gigolo to older women (and stealing their husbands credit cards, post-coitus), selling oregano to undiscriminating acquaintances, while keeping the good ganja for himself, and otherwise confidently hustling his way in and out of situations. He is somewhat of a cross between Breathless-era Jean-Paul Belmondo and Fritz the Cat, who may or may not have a few bastard children scattered about his stomping grounds of late sixties Montreal. His femme-du-jour, Vicky, may on occasion, pester him about ‘the future’ but for now – and in the now – she has no issues about getting down in an impromptu, casual three-way with her roommate under marijuana-laden red-filter cinematography. One of the films best scenes (and one of several sex scenes) has the contrast so low that you can only make out hats and hair: an animated tangle of long locks AND short pubes. Tom’s recent score of a Finnish Diplomat’s Charge-Ex card leads to a getaway weekend consisting of airports, 5-Star hotels, upscale city eateries and romping around in the fountains and shops along Kings St. in Toronto. Upon the couples return to Montreal, there is a desire for a little more of the good life, obtained the easy way. Before you can say, “Live fast, die young, and leave a good looking corpse,” director Larry Kent has (whether intentionally or not) changed the rules of the criminal youth on the run genre before they have even been fully fleshed out. Both Bonnie and Clyde and High at the time were playing festivals simultaneously, and while the latter doesn’t have the caliber of actors featured in the former, or the technical resources for that matter, it makes up for it with the tools of the indie filmmaker, a veneer of exploitation and lot of pluck. Supposedly, Warren Beatty was a big fan when both films played alongside one another in the Montreal International Film Festival in ’67.

For someone born in the 1970s, I have to wonder how High was received at the time of its release, beyond the simple factual history of its censoring and banning by the Quebec government. Sporting a psychedelic soundtrack, an in-the-moment vibe that seems to celebrate and condemn the free-loving hippie life-style and straddling the divide of a porn peep show and a Canadian riff on European arthouse of the day. With the French Nouvelle Vague in full swing in arthouse circles, Jack Smith on the experimental film/theatre side of things in New York, and the Summer of Love writ large in popular culture of the time, High seems to exist right middle of all these things while still being its own vérité beast. Viewing a film like this 40+ years after its release it can on one hand be considered a fascinating cultural document, on the other hard to disentangle from trends and fads of the day. Cinematic capture of street scenes and drug squatter homes of Montreal recall the aimless and confused romp down Yonge in Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down The Road. But surprise! When a plot of sorts starts to coalesce within the film, several interesting things, from feminism to genre subversion, start to click into place.

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A Martin Scorsese Marathon

Basically, you make another movie, and another, and hopefully you feel good about every picture you make. And you say, ‘My name is on that. I did that. It’s OK’. But don’t get me wrong, I still get excited by it all. That, I hope, will never disappear.” – Martin Scorsese

For the better part of the last three decades, I have been a fan of Martin Scorsese. My admiration first took bloom in the summer of 1985, and happened to coincide with what I consider to be the discovery of my young adult life; set off the main drag of the town I grew up in, I found a small video store. Now, this in itself was no great revelation; in the years before Blockbuster came barreling into my area, forcing all the smaller video chains out of business, there were at least half a dozen such stores within a 3-mile radius. But the moment I walked into this particular video palace, I knew it was special. Where most were lining their shelves with numerous copies of the ‘hot new releases’, this one had titles like Midnight Cowboy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, films that the others simply didn’t offer. For me, this store was a treasure trove, and I returned there often, sometimes 3-4 times a week, uncovering classic after classic, films that, to this day, I consider some of the finest ever made.

And it was here that I first found Mean Streets.

Tough and unflinching, Mean Streets was like a punch to the head for a 15-year-old from the suburbs; a marriage of images and rock music, violence and pain the likes of which I had never seen before, offering a glimpse into a lifestyle that I found all too real, and a little bit frightening. I must have rented it at least six times that summer, and as a result, Mean Streets fast became my favorite movie. More than this, it was my jumping-off point into the career of Martin Scorsese. After Mean Streets, I moved on to Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, two more shots to the head. Through these three films, I realized just how deep, just how down-and-dirty, and just how moving the cinema could be. They marked a turning point in my development as a film fan. Movies were no longer limited to the land of make believe; they would also be a window overlooking the real world.

Now, almost 24 years after I first walked into that video store, I’ve decided to take my admiration to the next, perhaps the ultimate, level. Over the course of the last several weeks, I sat down with everything that home video has to offer of Martin Scorsese’s work behind the camera, 26 films in all, and what I uncovered on this love-fest of mine proved to be just as enlightening as that first viewing of Mean Streets all those years ago.

As I sat watching one Scorsese movie after the other, I found myself asking, “What exactly is it that constitutes a Martin Scorsese film”? It was a question I had to pose, because I quickly realized that most of my initial beliefs, the pre-conceptions I had built up about the man and his career, only told part of the story.

For one, there was my presumption that the recurring trait in every Scorsese film was a down-to-earth quality, where the genuine, the realistic, would be favored above all else. Well, this is certainly true in some of Scorsese’s finest films, especially those where actual events served as a foundation (Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Aviator). However, it was wrong of me to discount the role that fantasy played in Scorsese’s work. The opening scene of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore looks as if it was lifted right out of Gone With the Wind, and the musical numbers of New York, New York were obvious nods to the Hollywood big-budget spectaculars of the 40’s and 50’s. There is the dreamy romance of The Age of Innocence, and the hilarious bad luck of Paul Hackett in After Hours; in short, films that have little or no basis in reality whatsoever, proving that the fantastic plays just as important a role in the great director’s work as reality does.
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Spotlight on: Ray Winstone

Having recently seen The Proposition for the first time, I was impressed enough with Ray Winstone’s performance to delve a little deeper into his work. As it turns out, he’s had a very interesting, not to mention impressive, career thus far. I’m not sure exactly how regular a posting this Spotlight On series will become, but I can say that, if it does blossom into a regular offering, it will owe its inspiration to Ray Winstone.

Having achieved a respectable level of fame in the new millennium, the truth of the matter is that Ray Winstone has been around for a while. His breakthrough performance came in Alan Clarke’s Scum, an overlooked gem that started life as a 1977 BBC television drama before being given a theatrical release in 1979. Winstone played Carlin, a young hoodlum locked away in a juvenile detention center, and was excellent in what would prove to be a very demanding role. He was also one of the best things about 1981’s Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, playing the lead singer of a British punk rock group touring America.

Having done mostly television throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, Winstone returned to feature films in 1997 with Nil by Mouth, the directorial debut of friend and fellow actor, Gary Oldman. Two years later, he was again cast in a film by an actor-turned-director, this time Tim Roth. The title of that movie was The War Zone, and Winstone turned in a stellar performance as a father who’s sexually abusing his teenage daughter.

Ray Winstone has kept himself busy over the last 11 years, appearing in 29 feature films (while also managing to mix in a few television stints along the way). He’s appeared in everything from Big-budget Hollywood productions (he was solid as Jack Nicholson’s second-in-command in Scorsese’s The Departed) to lesser-known independent features (Face was a sturdy, if somewhat forgettable crime drama). His best performance to date, however, can be found in Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, where Winstone plays Gal Dove, a retired thief whose utopian life in the south of Spain is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a venomous old associate.

As busy as Ray Winstone’s been over the last decade or so, it doesn’t appear to be tiring him out; he has seven films slated for release in 2009 and 2010.

To catch a glimpse of Ray Winstone at his absolute best, watch the video clips hidden under the “more” link below. If you like the clips, then I strongly recommend checking out the films (links to the DVDs on Amazon can be followed by clicking on the title above each clip)

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