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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The radio station where the loyal listeners are chickens

Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, knows what gets them clucking.

“The music is for the chickens, because of course on the night the music is very loud, and so it needs to be a part of their environment from the very start.” Emma Hills, the head chicken trainer at Giffords Circus, is standing in the sawdusty ring under a big top in a field outside Stroud as several rare-breed chickens wander freely around boxes and down ramps. They are the comic stars of the summer 2017 show, and Emma is coaxing them to walk insouciantly around the ring while she plays the early-morning show on Radio 1.

It’s the chickens’ favourite station. There seems to be something about its longueurs, combined with the playlist, that gets them going – if that’s the word. They really do respond to the voices and songs. “It’s a bit painful, training,” Emma observes, as she moves a little tray of worms into position as a lure. “It’s a bit like watching paint dry sometimes. It’s all about repetition.”

Beyond the big top, a valley folds into limestone hills covered in wild parsley and the beginnings of elderblossom. Over the radio, Adele Roberts (weekdays, from 4am) hails her listeners countrywide. “Hello to Denzel, the happy trucker going north on the M6. And van driver Niki on the way from Norwich to Coventry, delivering all the things.” Pecking and quivering, the chickens are rather elegant, each with its fluffy, caramel-coloured legs and explosive feather bouffant, like a hat Elizabeth Taylor might have worn on her way to Gstaad in the 1970s.

Despite a spell of ennui during the new Harry Styles single, enthusiasm resumes as Adele bids “hello to Simon from Bournemouth on the M3 – he’s on his way to Stevenage delivering meat”. I don’t imagine Radio 1 could hope for a better review: to these pretty creatures, its spiel is as thrilling as opening night at the circus. Greasepaint, swags of velvet, acrobats limbering up with their proud, ironic grace. Gasps from beholders rippling wonder across the stalls.

Emma muses that her pupils learn fast. Like camels, a chicken never forgets.

“I’ve actually given up eating them,” she admits. “Last year I had only two weeks to train and it was like, ‘If they pull this off I won’t eat chicken ever again.’ And they did. So I didn’t.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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