Monday, May 9, 2016

'Show Pieces' (2016) directed by Mitch Jenkins (with Alan Moore Q&A)

Alan Moore is one of only a couple of people that have permanent spot in my personal pantheon. My adoration of musicians fades as they put out a couple of dodgy albums; I find myself growing out of writer's styles and promising directors' are forgotten when later film lack the spark of their early work. Alan Moore isn't like that - the man is a writing genius and I'll be a fan 'til the day I die.

Though primarily known for his comic books (which are light years beyond any of his contemporaries), Moore's also a musician, prose author, philosopher, magician, publisher, activist and now screenwriter. He's described in the programme for his event as "one of the most important postwar British authors"; an accolade he more than lives up to. 

Over the last twenty years his focus has shifted to his hometown of Northampton, writing the brilliant Voice of the Fire, guiding readers through 4,000 years of Northampton history, Northampton centred alt-culture magazine Dodgem Logic and the upcoming epic novel Jerusalem, an intimidating one million word (!!!) magnum opus about a 1/2 mile stretch of, you guessed it, Northampton.

And now we get Show Pieces, Moore's first foray into screenwriting. Set, predictably, in Northampton, it comprises three short films baked into a single open-ended narrative. The first, Act of Faith, is a tense and stylish mini-narrative about the extremes of kink and sexual gratification. This bleeds into the double-hander Jimmy's End and His Heavy Heart, which follows James Mitchum (Darrel D'Silva)'s very bad night on the tiles.

I may be a diehard Alan Moore fanboy but I was a bit nervous about Show Pieces. I had no worries about the writing, but a script is only a component of cinema. What if it's badly shot? What if the acting is amateurish? What if it just looks cheap?

Pleasantly and cheerily, it clears all these hurdles. But that's probably the only context you can use "pleasant and cheerily" to describe Short Pieces, which proves to be a suffocatingly intense and disturbing trek through sexual humiliation and Egyptian afterlife by way of a fag-stained working men's club. 

In Act of Faith, Jenkins pitches up somewhere between Nicholas Winding Refn and David Lynch; fetishising the rolling on of stockings, slugging back neat vodka and the slow, sticky application of blood red lipstick - all under washes of luminescent primary colour. In the 'main feature', the Lynch-cribbing ramps up a notch, with tattooed burlesque dancers, horrific circus performers and thick velvet red curtains.

I guess if you're doing a surreal horror short Lynch is a decent place to take tonal inspiration, but even I was a little dismayed when the evil and sinister clown archetype reared his head. Psychopathic clowns are - to say the least - a bit played out. Fortunately, Moore's clown (wonderfully played by Andrew Buckley) quickly proves to have a lot more going on than usual - namely being an avatar of the Egyptian god Anubis by way of the East Midlands.

Short Pieces develops into an excellent showcase for Moore's skill at making incomprehensible mystic processes and metaphysical beings as at home in your local pub as they are on millennia old papyrus. This fuzzy partnership between domestic/cosmic works gangbusters, heightening the horror by bringing it home for tea. In practical terms it's difficult to relate to the workings of the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead - but in Moore's hands Anubis, Set, Ra and all the rest might be loitering just around the corner...

L-R, Alan Moore, Charles Shaar Murray and Mitch Jenkins
After the show we were treated to a Q&A with Moore and Mitch Jenkins, compered by journalist Charles Shaar Murray. Moore was, as expected, a warm, polite and deadpan presence (his online reputation as a bitter and miserable grump continues to perplex), discussing his fascination with Northampton ("not just the centre of Britain, but the confluence of all time and space"), the processes of shooting in Northampton and his interest in Ancient Egypt eschatology ("great at makeup, but fucking morbid").

I asked Moore if it was refreshing to get to show people how it's done, considering the famously iffy quality of Hollywood adaptations of his work. He explained that he has no desire to see any of those, but that working with Mitch Jenkins was an eye-opener in terms of translating his words to images. Moore's famous for his lengthy and precise comic scripts (once writing ten pages of notes to an artist for a single panel) but film is a different beast, the end product the work of many creative collaborators. 

Despite this process, Show Pieces feels very much like an Alan Moore joint - he has a small role in it, wrote all the music (the bands credited are fictional) and designed every product in the film. The intent was to create a self-contained fictional universe that, like so much of Moore's work tends to, has begun to bleed into the 'real' world. 

Short Pieces closes on the hellish image of Nighthampton "where Northampton goes when it dreams". This will be the setting of Show Pieces follow-up: where our unfortunate protagonists will journey further into Alan Moore's bottomless and terrifying imagination. I can't wait.

Show Pieces is available on DVD now.

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