Gilbey on Film: Gregg Araki and the geeks

Why was Kaboom pulled from FrightFest?

Curious goings-on this past week at FrightFest, the UK's splendid annual fantasy and horror film festival, which runs each August over the bank holiday weekend.

Last Friday, the film journalist Alan Jones, one of FrightFest's organisers, wrote on his blog about the decision of the director Gregg Araki to pull his latest picture, Kaboom, from its slot at the upcoming festival. Kaboom, which screened at Cannes earlier this year, reportedly blends Araki's usual milieu (sex, drugs and general debauchery among elegantly wasted teens fired from Abercrombie & Fitch for being offensively pretty) with horror-movie overtones, and has been widely compared to Donnie Darko. It has also been described as "a messy clusterfuck of excessive surrealism, low production values and characters speaking in that mannered way that only exists in the movies".

Jones has been an enthusiastic champion of the film, and FrightFest doesn't want for prestige, having introduced to the UK films such as Old Boy, Shaun of the Dead and Hostel. So it was a surprise to read his take on why Araki had put the kibosh on Kaboom:

[We] were told that Araki wanted Kaboom pulled from our line-up because he didn't want it being seen by a "bunch of geeks", his alleged words. The first thought that crossed our minds was, how come he's taken this long to tell us when we've been publicising the programme for a month now and every major website has carried the news? The second thought was what sort of film does he think he's actually made? The third was: so much for the pleas of tolerance and acceptance he advocates in his movies. The fourth was: Wow, has he got the FrightFest audience wrong. The fifth was . . . we don't need his movie if that's his blinkered attitude.

It certainly seemed a rum state of affairs, not unlike discovering that Steven Spielberg has it in for UFO nuts. Who would be left to stick up for the geeks if not Araki? His work stretches from his flawed but well-intentioned 1992 debut, The Living End -- a key text of the new queer cinema -- to his beautifully controlled film of Scott Heim's novel Mysterious Skin. Conventional he is not. Even allowing for the inclusivity of terms like "nerd" and "geek", which are affectionate rather than discriminatory, it would be dangerous for any film-maker to dictate in advance a desired audience.

Now Araki claims, in a message posted today on Jones's blog, that he never made any such statement. In fact, he seems to have been kept out of the loop entirely, professing that he only recently discovered his film was off to FrightFest:

As anyone who's seen my movies would know, I'm a cinema geek and genre fan myself . . . As an indie director, I never take any fan of mine for granted and am grateful for each and every one. The only part of this sordid saga that's true is that Kaboom was unfortunately removed from the FrightFest line-up. That decision was made after careful consideration by myself, the other producers [and] the financiers and upon the advice of friends who work in distribution. The sad fact of the matter is it's becoming harder and harder to make and distribute truly independent films in the current marketplace. Getting your film out there to audiences is more difficult than ever and requires careful planning and strategy.

Fan buzz-generating screenings like FrightFest are of course amazing and great fun to do but they're normally slotted closer to a film's theatrical release date as part of an orchestrated marketing effort. Our foremost concern right now is what's best for Kaboom overall and how to parlay the movie's amazing debut in Cannes into the widest distribution possible. As to why the film was pulled so late, I wasn't even told of its inclusion in the festival till a little over a week ago (sorry, but I don't google myself or my films on a regular basis and have no staff or assistants to keep me updated on stuff like that).

That would appear to be the end of the story, at least until Kaboom shows up in this October's BFI London Film Festival line-up, as Jones predicts it might (he says the LFF is "obviously the place Araki thinks would be best for Kaboom even though it hasn't yet been accepted by that flagship festival"). Still, FrightFest gets some well-deserved publicity out of all this, while Kaboom is now a title that people will recognise. So can we kiss and make up?

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge