“Freedom of speech is always under threat, every day, worldwide.”
Something you might once have found Dick Cheney saying, perhaps, as he lowered his visor and prepared to blast his way through ranks of dangerously insurgent women and children obscuring his view of the oil fields, but in this instance uttered on camera by a Swedish conservative politician and ringing with the gravitas of a series of ridiculous – but very serious – events that have preceded it.
Historically, truth has resided with power. In our modern society money is the real power – therefore ‘truth’ as it will be remembered is usually pretty easily bought. If this assertion scares the crap out of you, you’ll want to watch Big Boys Gone Bananas!*.
A documentary about a documentary – or more accurately the staggering response to a documentary on the part of one of its subjects – this brilliant film details the aftermath of the LA Film Festival in 2009, where Fredrik Gertten’s attempts to show Bananas, his movie about the legal struggles of Nicaraguan workers against the multi-national fruit corporation Dole, led to the threat of a lawsuit being filed by Dole against his tiny production company for defamation. All this despite a) the CEO of the company having basically admitted its guilt in court, and b) no one at Dole having yet seen the film.
That was only the tip of the shitberg. Dole then set about waging a dirty campaign in an American media only too willing to propound their side of the story without any apparent investigation (suggesting the mainstream American media is now chock full of Scott Templetons, and hardly any Gus Haynes’).
Some of what is in this film is petrifying, some of it incredibly hopeful, but it’s always compulsive viewing. Highlighting the insane amounts of influence that multi-nationals wield, it is at times a terrifying glimpse into the way life could be if we, as a collection of oft-disinterested or apathetic individuals, don’t start being more proactive in making ourselves heard. In the decade when American corporations were granted the right to make political donations under the First Amendment (yes, the Amendments reserved for people) this film is not just relevant, but should be compulsory watching for anyone with a passing interest in our future.
This came to my attention the other day, so I thought I’d share it. Some wonderfully talented creative type (with an enviable amount of time on their hands) has painstakingly reproduced most (if not all) of the Criterion Collection covers using the Draw Something mobile app. Criterion, for the uninitiated, is a DVD and Blu-ray label dedicated to lavish, special feature-heavy issues of classic and contemporary films. Their output leaves the dreams of cinephiles as wet as their bank accounts invariably end up dry.
The madcap intensity of this project nicely reflects the level of dedication and detail which Criterion brings to their work. Here are a few of my favourites:
Visit Made-Up Stories for the rest
via @grady_hendrix on Twitter
The promising debut film of independent filmmaker Jonathan Cenzual Burley, El Alma de Las Moscas (The Soul of Flies), is a low-key magical realist meditation in buddy-film form. The two protagonists, Nero (Andrea Calabrese) and Miguel (Javier Sáez), are brothers meeting for the first time after decades, summoned to their absent father’s funeral by posthumous letters. They meet at a train station that happens to be abandoned – presumably by their deceased dad’s design – and are forced to come to terms with each other as they meander through the grain fields in Salamanca (western Spain) towards the funeral. If you appreciate Beckett’s Waiting for Godot but wish it were a bit more accessible and less tragic, this would be right up your alley.
Crucially for the film’s dramatic trajectory, Nero and Miguel provide effective foil for one another; Nero is an ebullient optimist while Miguel is a brooding cynic. Their dynamic drives the film forward and gives the film a sense of purpose. Because there are few close-ups on either – the film is dominated by medium and long shots of the pair against the landscape – their clothing choices are key for convincingly defining their characters. It’s fitting that Nero looks comfortable in the countryside, wearing earth-tones and a humble flat cap, while Miguel looks incongruous in a slick black-and-white suit.
The film has a third protagonist: the countryside. Given voice by a rustic, rhythmic soundtrack, it’s a strong character of the film as well. The expanses of dry grain fields are described by the narrator as containing a “labyrinth of memories”, a silent witness of the life their father lived. The countryside looks great on film; Burley’s minimalist aesthetic utilises striking, saturated colours and naturalistic light so it looks painterly and timeless.
The writer/director said in a recent interview that he shot this film in three weeks with a tiny cast and crew and a very limited budget, so it’s really intended as a calling card. Burley’s message is: ‘This is what I can do with no money; now give me some.’ And the results are encouraging. While El Alma de las Moscas is understated and minimalist, it has a clear vision and thoughtfully uses film language. For example, when the two brothers are wandering around, their journey moves right to left across the screen, enhancing that their journey is not about forward movement. When they finally start traveling the right way towards the funeral, their path is tracked left to right so a conclusion feels inevitable.
El Alma de las Moscas seems to be billed as a comedy, but that’s a bit misleading, as it doesn’t quite fit into that box. Two strangers wander around the countryside, meeting some quirky characters along the way, and ruminate about the nature of family, loneliness, fate and mortality. This film isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny, but it does deal with deep subject matter in a light-hearted way. So if you’re in the mood for that, check it out.
The Soul of Flies is out now on DVD, released by Matchbox Films (RRP. £15.99) | Buy the film at amazon.co.uk.
Do fathers like Entourage? I’m sure mine does. The reason I’m saying this is because the eighth and final season is out now courtesy of HBO DVD, (as is a complete box set of seasons 1-8). The cover artwork looks a lot like this:
My favourite scene in the film-star-cameo-packed show has always been this delightfully bizarre appearance from twist-based director M. Night Shymalan in series 4.
There’s all kinds of special features on both packs. The single DVD costs £24.99, the box set of 23 discs a cool (as in cool) £99.99. Get on it.
The Complete Eighth Season of Larry David’s ever-brilliant sitcom arrives on DVD next week (11 June 2012) from HBO Home Entertainment. Out on the same day is the box set housing Curb Your Enthusiasm: Complete Seasons One to Eight. The rather amusing cover art (for S8) looks like this:
I can’t ever think of Curb Your Enthusiasm without thinking of this excruciating scene, waaay back from Season 1 in 2000. Beloved what?!
Most hip hop heads have archival tendencies.Think of DJ Shadow trawling through his stacks of forgotten wax, surrounded by floor to ceiling towers of historical documents in Doug Pray’s seminal DJ doc, Scratch (2001). Or the way that hip hop producers such as DJ Premier, Kanye West, Dre or J-Dilla became curators on wax, chopping rap quotables into hooks, flipping samples, and moulding their vast hip hop knowledge into something new. A quick dip into sites like Producers I Know confirms that all over globe bedroom beatsmiths and serato scratchers continue to sniff out that elusive perfect beat.
Occasionally, however, the odd reel of 16mm celluloid takes the beat digger off his or her scent. Five Day Weekend’s DVD release of Big Fun in the Big Town is a perfect example. A documentary about New York hip hop filmed in the summer of 1986, Big Fun in the Big Town has been, until now, little known outside of The Netherlands, where it first aired 25 years ago. Made by Dutch filmmaker Bram Van Splunteren – a music journalist who, at the time, was also fresh out of film school – the documentary plunges you straight into the vibrancy and excitement of NYC’s mid-1980s hip hop scene.
“The aim was to show as much of New York and the neighbourhoods where this all started,” the director told me, “to show where this music came from.” Working for Dutch national broadcaster, VPRO, Van Splunteren had a radio show that played alternative guitar-based rock to a college-campus demographic. But after he hosted a hip hop event he discovered a previously unknown part of his audience who were attracted by the occasional rap tunes that he included in his playlist. “All these kids turned up wearing velour tracksuits. They were totally not the audience we thought we were playing for.” The Netherlands’ burgeoning hip hop culture intrigued the young filmmaker, so he pitched to make Big Fun in the Big Town as one part of a series of six music documentaries that covered different music genres - everything from Nick Cave to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Iggy Pop – and it was given the green light.
What Van Splunteren managed to capture was hip hop at a particular moment in its evolution: the dawn of the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of hip hop. The list of hip hop greats to appear in the documentary’s modest 40 minute running time is breathtaking: Marley Marl, Mr Magic, Roxanne Shanté, Biz Markie, MC Shan, Grandmaster Flash, Run DMC, Schoolly D, Doug E. Fresh, LL Cool J. These are the big rap stars of the day, yet significantly, Van Splunteren records each with an unforced naturalism rarely found in today’s PR-dominated interviews. “I’ve always filmed bands at the beginning of their career. It’s the most interesting point when they’re at the peak of their creativity and they’re not so spoiled by the media.”
Interviewed in the film outside the original Def Jam offices, rapper DMC illustrates Van Splunteren’s point. After an impromptu rendition of ‘My Adidas’ he states: “When we first started we didn’t put on fancy costumes because Run DMC is no gimmicks. What we wear on stage is just what all the youth wear. Dressing this way lets them know ‘he’s just like me’”. It’s a sentiment that taps into the innocence and democracy that rap music had at the time.
At one point the director visits LL Cool J at his grandmother’s house where the rapper opens up about his style and approach to hip hop as they stroll through a sunny Queens avenue. Along with these raw, honest encounters with the rap stars of the day, the film hones in on the music’s street origins, bringing to life the way that hip hop culture defined New York’s youth at the time. As high school music teacher Dennis Bell says in the film, “Kids have no place to take music any more. In the Bronx they figured out a new form of music that didn’t take any lessons. And that is using poetry and a rhythm.
In fact, Big Fun in the Big Town’s greatest asset is that it really nails the moment when hip hop is old enough to have confidence, yet young enough to develop its hopes, ambitions, winning formulas and occasional dead ends. Fans will have fun spotting those elements of hip hop history that are already firmly in place by 1986 and those that are yet to emerge. Suliaman El Hadi of The Last Poets is interviewed complaining about the music’s lack of political ambition. “Hip hop is one big ego trip”, he observes, going on to bemoan the form up for its “nursery rhymes” that don’t address poverty or issues of powerlessness and economic deprivation. Watching this scene you realise that one of hip hop’s major moments – the arrival of Public Enemy – is still to come and it’s this palpable sense of anticipation of what hip hop has yet to offer that really excites.
The film has its finger on the pulse with cuts such as Roxanne Shanté & Biz Markie’s ‘Def Fresh Crew’, BDP’s ‘South Bronx’ and MC Shan’s ‘The Bridge’ but there is so much more down the line: Eric B & Rakim’s Paid in Full, PE’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, NWA, the Native Tongues…and that’s just the 1980s. As such, Big Fun in the Big Town finds an immediate place in the annals of hip hop documentaries; charting the development of the genre like the next big instalment following Charlie Ahearn’s Wild Style (1982) and Dick Fontaine’s Beat This: A Hip Hop History (1984).
Big Fun in the Big Town is available now on DVD from Five Day Weekend.
There has just been a realignment of the cinematic celestial orbs. You remember James Robertson Justice, the rotund, bearded character actor from a myriad British comedies of the 50s and 60s? The one that used to bellow irritably at Dirk Bogarde in various Doctor films? Truly Scrumptious’ Dad in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Yep, that’s the one. Well, I have just watched a film in which James Robertson Justice utters the line “Leave her the fuck alone”! Admittedly it was a subtitle, and I have my doubts that the French words on the soundtrack were not actually spoken by JRJ, but it still came as a bit of a shock to hear such profanity from the lips of the Establishment. It’s OK. I’m fine now.
What was the film? Well, those nice people at Studio Canal have dug deep into their vaults again to prise yet another vintage flick from the fingers of obscurity. This time, it’s Love on a Pillow (Le Repos du Guerrier), a curio from 1962 written and directed by Roger Vadim. Vadim’s first film, …And God Created Woman, had made a star out of his wife Brigitte Bardot, but had precipitated their divorce. This film was their third and final collaboration, made between Vadim fathering a child with Catherine Deneuve and getting married to Jane Fonda. I think we can safely assume that whatever “it” is, Roger Vadim had it.
Love on a Pillow begins with Genevieve (Bardot in prissy, buttoned-up guise) discovering an attempted suicide when she accidentally enters the wrong room in her hotel. Thwarted in his effort to end it all, Renaud (Robert Hossein) decides that maybe being saved by Brigitte Bardot is not such a horrendous fate and declares her to be the owner of his soul. Genevieve quickly recognises in this man an escape from the constrictive life she leads with her fiancé and bourgeoise mother, and embarks on a masochistic relationship.
The loosening of Genevieve’s ties to the bourgeoisie is neatly represented by the state of her hair. Beginning with a tightly bunned-up do, their first meal together has Renaud liberating a lock from its confines. Before you can say “Because you’re worth it”, Genevieve’s tresses are cascading over her shoulders and she’s warming her naked body in front of a crackling log fire. She also adopts a carefree attitude to punctuality and her housekeeping goes to pot. Her mother is naturally appalled. What she would say about the drug-fuelled partner-swapping parties is anyone’s guess.
The film is most interesting in its attempt to shoehorn comment about male-female battlelines into a Bardot vehicle. Renaud treats Genevieve disdainfully, yet each provocation only seems to deepen her desire for him. Bardot was never exactly pin-up girl for the feminist movement, and this film’s depiction of female subservience does run against the grain of the time. At one point a female character is casually but brutally slapped by her boyfriend, an action which the Bardot character thinks is justified.
Defiantly rejecting the stylistic tics of the French New Wave and the working-class preoccupations of the British New Wave, Vadim appears to have taken his inspiration from the louche lifestyle of La Dolce Vita, especially in the party scene that would have become an orgy had it been filmed just a few years later. As it is, we have a bunch of disaffected people getting stoned while listening to languid jazz, pairing off with each other and muttering phrases like “Merde, c’est chouette!” – or, as the subtitles would have it: “Holy shit, it’s awesome!”
Love on a Pillow is not awesome but it is an intriguing attempt to concoct a more mature persona for Bardot, while still emphasising her allure. The script’s stabs at profundity may veer towards pretension, but Vadim fills the film with evidence of his star’s gorgeousness, and the photography has that irresistible glossy sheen so characteristic of the 60s. Superficial pleasures certainly, but pleasures nonetheless. Although perhaps less so for Germaine Greer.
Love on a Pillow is available on DVD now. Contributor Fintan McDonagh can be followed on Twitter @fintalloneword.
Welcome to a new, bright and breezy monthly feature in which Permanent Plastic Helmet picks out some of the film-related treats it’s most looking forward to in the next month.
May is Cannes Film Festival month. Still the most prestigious international film festival going (May 16-27), this year’s ‘In Competition’ line-up features a pretty dazzling (though, sadly, almost exclusively male) array of talent. New films from the likes of David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis - pictured), Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone), Michael Haneke (Amour) and Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly) will duke it out for the top prize: the Palme d’Or. You can take a look at the official selection (including Un Certain Regard) here, and full line-ups for the Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week here.
There was no place in the programme for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master (purportedly about Scientology – but who knows?), which makes us wonder if the 56th BFI London Film Festival in October might end up with a pretty mighty premiere on its hands. We can but dream. Sadly, PPH won’t have a presence at Cannes this year, but looks forward nonetheless to hearing all the news and reactions from the Croisette. At least one of our blogging pals will be there, so expect to be pointed in the direction of that site for feedback during the festival.
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In terms of May’s new cinema releases, we’re hugely excited about Gareth Evans’ The Raid (May 18) – a hyper-violent, Indonesian-set thriller that’s said to draw upon the likes of John Woo’s Hard Boiled for influence. Julie Delpy’s 2 Days In New York (May 18) – the sequel to her earlier 2 Days In Paris – is one that we’d really been anticipating, though are sad to report that it fails to catch fire in the way we’d hoped. That said, it’s definitely worth seeing for Chris Rock’s straight-man performance as Mingus, Delpy’s jazz-and-Obama obsessed boyfriend.
Professional provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen also returns this month with The Dictator (May 16) which, in truth, could go either way.The press campaign leading up to its release has been a touch on the heavy handed side (official statements from his new character, Middle Eatern dictator General Aladeen, no less!), but when Baron Cohen is at his excoriating best, he’s really, really good. So fingers remain crossed. Oh, there is a new Wes Anderson film coming out too (Moonrise Kingdom, May 25), but the oh-so-mannered, almost self-parodic poster alone provoked a near-vomitous reaction in this writer, who will try his darndest to keep an open mind when it hits screens.
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Amongst an ever-eclectic BFI Southbank programme, this month’s African Odysseys screening (May 26) of Ivan Dixon’s super-rare cult film The Spook Who Sat By The Door really stands out. In The Spook…, a black CIA operative returns to Chicago and prepares his brothers for revolution, a conceit which operates both as biting satire and razor-edged provocation in response to the urgency of its socio-politically unstable times. Boasting a highly charged score from Herbie Hancock, it looks pretty much unmissable. The screening will be accompanied by a 2011 documentary, Infiltrating Hollywood – The Rise and Fall of The Spook Who Sat by the Door, which investigates the film’s troubled, fascinating history.
Other BFI highlights this month include a career overview of one of the renowned stars of French cinema, Jean Gabin: Working Class Hero to Godfather, an extended run of Powell and Pressburger’s much-lauded satire of the English character The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp restored to its full Technicolor glory, part two of the complete Vincente Minnelli retrospective, and the 11th London Sci-Fi Film Festival.
Following its launch with Brief Encounter at the Troxy in February, The Other Cinema returns with a screening of Mathieu Kassovitz’ bracing, brutal and timeless 1995 French film La Haine. The screening (May 4) will feature a live score by the Asian Dub Foundation, and include appearances by local artists. As part of The Other Cinema networks, screenings will also take place at Broadwater Farm Community Centre in Tottenham (May 2) and launch in Paris (May 5). All of the profits from the Troxy screening will pour into the production of the free premiere screening at Broadwater Farm.
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Onto home entertainment, news has broken of the first ever DVD release of a groundbreaking 1986 hip-hop documentary entitled Big Fun In The Big Town(May 21).Directed by the fantastically monikered Dutch filmmaker, journalist and rap fanatic Bram Van Splunteren*, the doc is said to show hip-hop from pretty much every angle, and approach its subjects with a genuine journalistic respect. Highlights include rare live performances, and interviews with a number of key players from the scene’s early days including Russell Simmons, Run-DMC, LL Cool J (interviewed at his grandmother’s house in Queens!), Grandmaster Flash and Biz Markie.
Continuing on a DVD theme, the ever-covetable Criterion collection continues to put out some astonishing stuff, highlights of which include extras-packed, digitally optimized releases of the aforementioned La Haine(May 8), and the welcome return of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich(May 15). Best to have a quiet word with your bank account now to let it know that you’ll be treating it with reckless abandon in the coming weeks.
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Finally, kicking off toward the end of the month is the sixth annual Happy Soul Festival (May 25-June 10), a multi-borough, London-set event which aims to entertain, inform and to engage with black and minority ethnic groups and the wider community to help de-stigmatise mental health issues and promote awareness of wellbeing. Though the festival is multidisciplinary in nature, the programme will feature film strongly, and looks like a really interesting, worthwhile event. To find out more, visit the Happy Soul Festival’s website.
*his name reminded me of this near-forgotten rap-rock gem (yes, they exist!) from 1996.
If there’s an event you’d like to see featured here in next month’s round-up, feel free to drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hurrah! My favourite film from last year, Carol Morley’s haunting Dreams Of A Life is released on DVD today via Dogwoof. Here’s what I had to say about it in my Top Ten Films of 2011 (where it placed at the summit):
“Carol Morley’s haunting, unclassifiable (OK well, it’s kind of a Rashomonumentstruction if I must) and frankly rather weird film is that rare beast: a true original. Ostensibly an attempt by the director to discover more about Londoner Joyce Vincent (who died in her Wood Green flat in 2003 at 38, and was found an incredible three years later), what emerges is a chilling, poetic and determinedly personal parable about how we as humans (fail to) connect with each other in our supposedly hyper-connected world. Featuring amazing use of music and a radiant performance from Zawe Ashton as a near-ghostly iteration of Vincent, it’s disturbing, ultra-contemporary stuff, which I suspect will be studied in film schools for years to come. It also boasts the most powerful final shot I can remember for ages”
I also interviewed Morley last year. Here’s a brief excerpt:
PPH: Thematically it has a lot in common with your earlier film The Alcohol Years, in which you yourself were the subject. Other than the hard work and time you put into it, how much of your inner life did you put into this project?
Carol Morley: Weirdly, and I’m not sure if they meant it as a compliment, someone emailed me and said “How long did it take you to find another film to make about an absent person?” and I thought, “Oh my God! That’s not what I set out to do!” But I must be attracted to this idea of absence and I think with Joyce, I never could have made the film if it was about a man that had died in front of that TV. There was some connection in this film being about what it is to be a woman in today’s world. When someone says in the film “it’s bad enough being 40, yet being 40 and alone”, it’s those anxieties that women have I found interesting. With Joyce – and without me wanting to sound like a nutter – it felt like I was chosen to do the film. When I met the family, I found that they never called her Joyce, they called her Carol. We were the same age. I wanted to be a singer, like Joyce. Her mum died when she was 11 and my dad died when I was 11. I really understood the idea of how losing a parent early on in life can destabilise you. I didn’t want to impose my life on Joyce but I didn’t want to just make a film like “look at that person over there!” I wanted to make the connection to a real, breathing person.
You can read the full interview here.
The DVD is packed with special features, including Morley’s short film I’m Not Here, an interview between Morley and Marley director Kevin Macdonald, a featurette entitled Recurring Dreams, and a bunch of trailers and video diaries. Go get it.
“Being natural is merely a pose, and the most irritating one I know” – Oscar Wilde
The notion of camp has been an integral, if much misunderstood, part of British cultural life for more than a century, from the humour of the music halls, through the innuendo of Round the Horne and the Carry On series, to the dressing-up-box excess of ‘70s glam rock and the ‘80s New Romantic scene. Jes Benstock’s 2011 documentary The British Guide to Showing Off, released on DVD this week, profiles a man who perhaps more than any other figure exemplifies this country’s love of camp. Encompassing all of the contradictions that this suggests Benstock weaves together its disparate elements in regal style.
Artist, sculptor and performer Andrew Logan first staged the Alternative Miss World competition in 1972 and the film follows his preparations for the twelfth event, staged in 2009, while looking back on the competition’s history and the eccentric menagerie of people who have been involved along the way.
The Alternative Miss World is a pageant of the outsider, featuring an array of contestants (including several members of Logan’s family) dolled up in a series of extravagantly outrageous outfits, from drag queens to theatrical performers and grotesques. As in the non-alternative version, the lovelies must model a range of costumes – day wear, evening wear and swim wear – though in Logan’s version, shallow beauty is replaced by creativity, self-expression and a celebration of the different. The result is a very British creation, yet clearly reminiscent of Studio 54, Warhol and the spectrum of New York oddities that moved in his creative orbit and appeared in his work.
The cast of characters who have been involved in the contest over the years, many of whom appear in the film, is a virtual who’s who of British pop and even high culture; David Hockney (who judged the first contest), David Bowie (who failed to gain entry to the second), Zandra Rhodes (who designs all of co-host Logan’s outfits), Derek Jarman, Sir Norman Rosenthal, Brian Eno, Ruby Wax, Nick Rhodes and Julian Clary have all been part of it, either as judges, guests, co-hosts or even contestants. The spirit of creative otherness and freedom that Logan has engendered brings to mind Jean Cocteau’s declaration that “I am a lie that always speaks the truth”; beneath the makeup and costume lies a fundamental truth about British culture, to the extent that the contest has reflected and influenced the look and attitude of almost every major pop musical movement of the past thirty five years, from glam to punk to the Blitz Kids, taking in Rocky Horror along the way.
The film mirrors Logan’s sense of playfulness, including Python-esque animation, collages of photographic images and some wonderful footage of the contest down the years, as well as revealing interviews with former contestants and some intriguing talking heads. Despite some problems including budgetary concerns (incredibly, Logan’s team manage to entice major companies including Swatch to sponsor the event) and a desperate hunt for venues, Logan comes across as perennially cheerful, open and likeable. Far from being a specifically ‘gay’ event, the Alternative Miss World challenges perceptions of sexuality and encourages us all to embrace the myriad layers of our personalities. As Logan himself says, “this whole thing is about realism”.
In an age in which ‘alternative’ has come to mean the creative cul-de-sac of Coldplay, while the depressing factory line of X-Factor defines performance, Andrew Logan and his pageant are a key reminder of our culture’s camp heritage, individualism and tradition of reacting against the norm. The British Guide to Showing Off is nothing less than a journey through the alternative history of Britain.
The British Guide To Showing Off is available on DVD now, released by Verve Pictures.