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‘The Finishing Line’: The grisly British educational film that scared kids and shocked parents
07:58 am


Educational Films
British Transport Films

Blood on the tracks
In 1977, a short film was produced in Britain to discourage children from playing on the railway lines and vandalizing trains—both problems in England at the time. But the documentary-style production did more than that: it scared the knickers off of kids and riled up their parents. The subsequent controversy surrounding this educational short was so great that it was ultimately banned. Even today, watching it is a shocking experience not soon forgotten.

Commissioned by British Transport Films (BTF) to be shown in schools, The Finishing Line (1977) is perhaps the most notorious educational film ever produced. The 20 minute short is akin to a gory episode of The Twilight Zone, or a Rod Serling-directed fake documentary. The atmosphere is so odd and the child body count so high, that it’s a wonder anyone thought this was a good idea to show to kids (the ages of the target audience was eight through twelve). Put simply, it’s a child’s nightmare come to life on the screen.

The film was directed by John Krish, a BTF veteran; Krish’s The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953), which documented the end of London’s tram system, is still one of the organization’s most popular movies. In a 2013 interview with the magazine devoted to blood spilled on the screen, Fangoria, the 90-year-old Krish said he was surprised BTF even wanted to make The Finishing Line:

I came up with this idea of a sports day on the railway line, and I was absolutely sure they would turn it down so that I could get on with something else, and bugger me, they loved it. They loved it! The psychologist in the British Transport’s employ said, ‘This is exactly what we need!’

The Finishing Line begins in a festive atmosphere of children and adults gathering for what looks like a day of fun, but the mood quickly turns foreboding, when medical personal appear with preparations for the inevitable carnage that will take place.

In the film, various events are staged on or near the train tracks. A kind of dystopian reality is presented, where games of life and death are the norm. At times, it brings to mind the black comedy Death Race 2000 (1975), in which racecar drivers earn points by killing pedestrians, but there’s no laughing at The Finishing Line. Here, children lose their lives in games staged by adults, and there is little mourning for the dead. In this world, there is no such thing as “innocence.”

Krish’s documentary-style filmmaking creates a tone that is completely unsettling. Weirdly, the film is staged as a child’s fantasy (what kind of kid would fantasize about his classmates being killed?!), yet the realistic look of the film could still be misinterpreted by a young person as an event that actually happened. If nothing else, the shear amount of gore and dead bodies is enough to upset any pre-teen viewer.

Though the director claims it was unintentional, The Finishing Line contains elements of the horror genre. For the last event, Krish filmed the kids walking briskly through a dark tunnel, capturing it in such a way that the children approach the camera as shadowy figures. The scene resembles something straight out of future horror films The Brood (1979) and Children of the Corn (1984). There’s no music, just the sound of hundreds of shuffling footsteps coming closer and closer. It’s very creepy.
The Great Tunnel Walk
Krish wanted the final moments to resemble the carnage of a war zone after a battle, and the sight of adults and teenagers carrying a hundred or so dead kids—symbolically laying them across the tracks, and doing so with a complete lack of emotion—is truly startling.

“The cumulative effect is shocking, and must have been all the more so for the young audiences to whom the film was screened. Not surprisingly, it immediately generated controversy, even becoming the subject of a Nationwide (BBC, 1969-84) television debate following a television screening of the film. Some commentators and parents worried that children would be traumatized, others that it might actually encourage copycat vandalism. Many defended the film as an appropriately tough response to a serious problem. Nonetheless, in 1979 the film was withdrawn and replaced by the much softer Robbie.” (BFI Screenonline)

All told, Krish has had four of his pictures removed from circulation, telling Fangoria, “I’m the only documentary director who’s had four films banned! And I rejoice in that.” In 2003, he was honored with a retrospective, which included the first public airing of The Finishing Line in over two decades.
John Krish
John Krish

Though it may have been inappropriate for the audience it was created for, The Finishing Line stands as a fascinating and significant film from a director still getting his due. It’s a disturbing and strange little picture—it’s also unforgettable.

The short is available for purchase via British Transport Films Collection Vol.7 – The Age Of The Train, and as a bonus on the DVD of Captured, another of Krish’s banned works.

Here it is, The Finishing Line:

Posted by Bart Bealmear | Discussion
Cognitive Dissonance: Paul Krassner’s ‘Fuck Communism’ banner, 1963
10:54 am


Paul Krassner
The Realist

Fuck Communism
Paul Krassner started his trailblazing periodical of radical countercultural satire, The Realist, in 1959 as a reaction to what he saw as a lack of humorous political commentary targeting the sometimes ridiculous, often ominous issues of the day.  His intention was to create sort of an adult MAD magazine, a publication to which he was frequent contributor.  The Realist became one of the most celebrated underground publications of all time and, with the exception of a hiatus between 1974 and 1985, remained in print until 2001.

Krassner himself was not only the driving force behind the The Realist but was also a child violin prodigy, a founding member of the YIPPIES, a stand-up comedian and an all-around pretty damned funny guy. If you’re not familiar with Krassner’s sense of humor, you could find worst places to start than The Realist’s “FUCK COMMUNISM” poster published in 1963.

The poster in question designed by long-time MAD magazine art director and Realist contributor John Francis Putnam was meant to be not only hilarious, but also a linguistic conundrum to the knee-jerk set.  You know “Better dead than red and all, but the F-word is just so filthy.” 

Here’s Kurt Vonnegut addressing the poster in his forward to Krassner’s 1996 collection entitled The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race: The Satirical Writings of Paul Krassner:

Paul Krassner …  in 1963 created a miracle of compressed intelligence nearly as admirable for potent simplicity, in my opinion, as Einstein’s e=mc2.  With the Vietnam War going on, and with its critics discounted and scorned by the government and the mass media, Krassner put on sale a red, white and blue poster that said FUCK COMMUNISM.

At the beginning of the 1960s, FUCK was believed to be so full of bad magic as to be unprintable. COMMUNISM was to millions the name of the most loathsome evil imaginable.  To call an American a communist was like calling somebody a Jew in Nazi Germany.  By having FUCK and COMMUNISM fight it out in a single sentence, Krassner wasn’t merely being funny as heck.  He was demonstrating how preposterous it was for so many people to be responding to both words with such cockamamie Pavlovian fear and alarm.

Realist Krassner Interview
A FUCK COMMUNISM bumper sticker was also released. Krassner said if anyone had a problem with it, the critic should be told to “Go back to Russia, you Commie lover.”

You can find the entire Realist Archive Project, a veritable treasure trove/rabbit hole of underground press glory, here. The site indicates that “The Mothers of the American Revolution,” listed as a contact at the bottom right of the poster, was a fictitious organization deployed by writers at The Realist when they needed to get in touch with individuals that wouldn’t otherwise respond to somebody affiliated with the controversial rag. 

Now in his 80’s, Krassner is currently working on his first novel about a performer modeled after Lenny Bruce. His new book is Patty Hearst & The Twinkie Murders: A Tale of Two Trials.

In the clip below, we find Krassner in an interview with pioneering conservative TV talk show host, Joe Pyne—Bill O’Reilly’s “papa bear” as it were—in 1967. Pyne berates Krassner about his persistent use of the “filthiest four-letter word in the English language,” Krassner’s deep respect for Lenny Bruce, and a front-page headline in The Realist that asks what kind of deodorant Lyndon Johnson wears.  Pyne is beside himself with disgust. Despite the annoying text overlay on the video, it gives a great sense of the kind of visceral hatred that Krassner could inspire amongst those who just couldn’t get down with his unrelenting irreverence.

Posted by Jason Schafer | Discussion
Philip K. Dick on sex between humans and androids
08:22 am


Philip K. Dick
Blade Runner

In 1981, Philip K. Dick discussed the ideas and themes behind his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in an interview with author Paul M. Sammon. Dick’s novel about a hired assassin (Rick Deckard) paid to eliminate escaped androids formed the basis for Ridley Scott’s classic science-fiction film Blade Runner. The story had its genesis in research for his novel The Man in the High Castle. Dick studied psychological studies on the mentality of the Germans who became Nazis and read how these Germans were often highly intelligent but emotionally “so defective that the word human could not properly be applied” to them.

This led Dick to a philosophical investigation into “the problem of differentiating the authentic human being from the reflex machine I call an android.” 

For me the word ‘android’ is a metaphor for people who are physiologically human but psychologically behaving in a non-human way.

This was a subject Dick discussed in a lecture on “The Android and the Human” in 1972: android means, as I said, to allow oneself to become a means, or to be pounded down, manipulated, made into a means without one’s consent—the results are the same. But you cannot turn a human into an android if that human is going to break laws every chance he gets. Androidization requires obedience. And, most of all, predictability. It is precisely when a given person’s response to any given situation can be predicted with scientific accuracy that the gates are open for the wholesale production of the android life form.

Philip K. Dick.
In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick developed the idea of “androidization” further when he considered what would happen in a war between humans and androids—would humans become more android-like if they won?

This emotional interplay between humans and androids was also examined in the relationship between Deckard and the android Rachael Rosen, which Dick discussed in “Notes on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” (1968):

And this brings up the whole underlying subject: sexual relations between humans and androids. What is it like? What does it mean? Is it, for instance, like going to bed with a real woman? Or is it an awful, nightmarish, bad trip, where what is dead and inert seems alive and warm and capable of the most acute intimacy known to living creatures? Isn’t this, this sexual union between Rick Deckard and Rachael Rosen—isn’t it the summa of falsity and mechanical motions carried out minus any real feeling, as we understand the word? Feeling on each of their parts. Does in fact her mental—and physical—coldness numb the male, the human man, into an echo of it?

...[Deckard’s] relationship, by having intercourse with her, has melded him to—not an individual, human or android—but to a whole type or model, of which theoretically, there could be tens of thousands. To whom, then, has he really given his erotic libido?

...Here, I think, the crucial questions of What is reality? and What is illusion? come up strongly….The more Rick strives to force her to become a woman—or, more accurately, to play the role of a woman—the more he encounters the core of the unlife within her…his attempt to make love to her as a woman for him is defeated by the tireless core of her electronic being.

Dick postulates that the failure of their lovemaking “may be vital in his determination—and success—in destroying the last of these andys.”

In this interview, Dick discusses some of these key questions about what is reality? what is human?

Thomas M. Disch once said that his friend Philip K. Dick liked to play-up the image of the hard-done-to artist, struggling in the garret, living off ground-up horse meat (which supposedly led Dick to translate his name into “Horselover Fat”—Philip Greek for horse lover, Dick German for fat), but things were never really that bad. However, he agreed America gave short-shrift to speculative science-fiction writers, and was grateful for the adulation and serious critical appraisal both received in Europe.

In 1977, Philip K. Dick was interviewed for French television where he discussed the problems of being a speculative science-fiction writer in America, as well as many of the philosophical ideas behind his works.

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
The Replacements censored on live awards show (but get the last laugh), 1989
05:46 am


The Replacements

The Replacements
The collective hearts of Replacements fans everywhere have been aflutter since the announcement that the reunited band would be returning to the small screen, as they are due to appear on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon September 9th. Naturally, there’s been much talk of their infamous Saturday Night Live performance in 1986, when they got drunk, stumbled around, and generally behaved like one would expect the Replacements to have behaved. Singer/guitarist Paul Westerberg even committed the ultimate TV sin, shouting the F-word during “Bastards of Young.” It was awesome. SNL producer Lorne Michaels was, of course, not amused, and reportedly banned the group for life from 30 Rock (The Tonight Show is filmed at the same address and Michaels is the executive producer).

The Replacements only performed in front of television cameras a handful of times, and while there’s no topping the SNL gig, their appearance on a long-forgotten awards show in 1989 is a close second.

ABC aired the International Rock Awards live on May 31st, 1989. Lou Reed, Living Colour (who took home the “Newcomer of the Year” prize), Keith Richards (there to be presented with a “Living Legend” award), and David Bowie’s ill-fated super-group, Tin Machine, all performed at the event. Winners were handed a bronze “Elvis” award.

The reason I was plopped in front of the family television that night was to see my favorite band, the Replacements. I had watched a crappy videotaped copy of the SNL show hundreds of times and was ready for anything. I was excited, to say the least.

The lights lower and an announcer says, “We apologize; here the are: The Replacements.” Wow, a more hilarious (and ultimately fortuitous) opening couldn’t have been imagined. It’s already a classic clip and the band hasn’t played a note! But then “Talent Show” begins and Westerberg walks up to the mic and manages to one up their introduction: “What the hell are we doing here?” And they’re off!

“Talent Show,” from their then most recent album Don’t Tell a Soul, couldn’t have been a better choice for this event. The song—about feeling vulnerable and scared to get up on stage only to be judged by and against your peers—suddenly becomes more literal than intended. The band were booked on a silly awards show with hip young acts and rock royalty, and the Replacements, a group of outsiders and punks at heart, perversely thrived on these sorts of moments. Instead of rising to the occasion and doing their best to “win,” they instead become the little engine that won’t.

But that’s not to say what transpired wasn’t great. Heck, any Replacements fan knows that half the fun is watching the band gleefully launch themselves off the stage ledge, flipping the bird to showbiz protocol. Bassist Tommy Stinson can barely keep from laughing throughout the performance and Westerberg is at least a couple of sheets to the wind—it’s rough and raucous for sure, but isn’t that’s the way its supposed to be?

Before the show, they were told they needed to change the line, “We’re feeling good from the pills we took.” Well, fittingly, Westerberg did no such thing, and the censors were obviously ready for it, as the tape goes silent during that section of the song. What the censors at ABC didn’t anticipate was this: Near the conclusion of “Talent Show” the lyrics address the time when the band hits the stage and there’s no retreating: “It’s too late to turn back, here we go” is repeated twice on the album version, but here Westerberg has changed the line to “It’s too late to take pills, here we go”—ha! The censors missed it and they’ve pissed everyone off again! To add insult, the line is sung three times.

Paul Westerberg
The clip ends with a shot of movie star (and big ‘Mats fan) Matt Dillon enthusiastically whistling and clapping in the audience. Perfect.

I imagine the Tonight Show appearance will be a more orderly affair. Heck, it’s been 25 years since the International Rock Awards, the last time they were seen by a national television audience. People mature. Another famous admirer of the group, Keith Richards, will also be on hand (to promote his children’s book!), so the Replacements will surely be on their best behavior. Or not.

Mr. Michaels just might have to institute another lifetime ban. Fingers-crossed!

Posted by Bart Bealmear | Discussion
‘Symbiopsychotaxiplasm’: Mind-boggling, multilayered 1971 film is an experimental masterwork
05:29 am


William Greaves

“Are we making a movie, or are we not?” (William Greaves in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One)

Filmmaker William Greaves recently passed away at the age 87. Greaves, an African-American, left behind a respected body of work, including award-winning documentaries that tackled issues of race. But he is perhaps known best for a movie that doesn’t address race directly. In fact, lack of direction is one of the fundamental elements of the film.

Shot in Central Park in the spring of 1968, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One at first glance appears to be a documentary about the making of a film. But what’s with the clichéd dialogue, and why are multiple actors playing the same characters? Are they shooting a film or is it a screen test? Or is the finished product going to be something else entirely? Does the director even know what he is doing? Cast, crew, and audience alike ask these questions and are left to wonder: What kind of film is this?

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One is a film within a film within a film. One camera recorded the drama Greaves was directing, while another documented the making of the movie, and a third recorded all of the action on set. A fourth camera was handled by Greaves, on occasion. All of these viewpoints are incorporated into the film at various times. If it all sounds like a formula for total chaos, it is anything but. Greaves had a master plan—he just didn’t let anyone else know about it.

Greaves went out on many a limb during the filming of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One, including the way he chose to depict his own character, which was a fictionalized version of his true self. Early on, he makes an overtly sexist comment, and then proceeds to act as a bumbling, indecisive director, one who is constantly asking others for their opinions. Greaves was surreptitiously pushing buttons, testing the concepts of power and collaboration in art and elsewhere, but his race was also a factor. In 1968, there were relatively few African-American film directors, and Greaves, by playing the fool, was baiting the cast, crew—and the audience—into making judgments based on the color of his skin.

Of the many fascinating sequences in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One are those that show the crew meeting to theorize about the nature of the production, speculating on Greaves’ mind-set and his competence (or lack thereof) as a writer and director. There is much confusion as to what exactly is going on, yet one crewmember has a prescient view of what is happening in that moment—that their on-camera discussion concerning Greaves and his movie—is, in fact, their “function” in the film.
William Greaves creates a diversion
William Greaves creates a diversion.

To ponder too many specifics is akin to getting sucked into the rabbit hole Greaves has created, and, frankly, spoils some of the fun for a first-time viewer. The director, in notes he jotted down before cameras rolled, acknowledged the fruitlessness in outlining the project in great detail, which is also part of his modus operandi for Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One:

Refuse to give total explanation of the film! First of all, it is impossible due to its complexity. Give only as much of an explanation as will satisfy the performers and film crew. To give more will kill the truth and spontaneity of everyone.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One was first screened in 1971, but for decades was only shown sporadically. It would take the support of two high-profile fans, Steve Buscemi and Steven Soderbergh, to finally bring the film into wide release in 2005, when it at last earned the attention and acclaim it deserves.

At one point, while filming in Central Park, Greaves is asked for the name of the movie they are making: “Over the Cliff,” he says. “We’re going over a cliff.” A director with less ability (and nerve) couldn’t have pulled-off the experiment that became Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One, but William Greaves had the confidence and skill to not only take his cast and crew, but also the audience—and the director, himself—right over that cliff.

Check out the trailer:

Then watch the entire film:

Criterion’s definitive two-disc DVD set of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (which includes Greaves’ 2003 sequel, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take Two) is still available.

Posted by Bart Bealmear | Discussion
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