George Sluizer at the Berlinale Film Festival in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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George Sluizer (1932-2014): The obsessive director behind River Phoenix’s last film

The Dutch director, who has died aged 82, stole the unfinished reels for Phoenix’s last film Dark Blood from after coming close to death in 2007.

The Dutch director George Sluizer, who has died aged 82, made only one perfect work: The Vanishing. There are surprisingly few filmmakers who can even match that tally. This 1988 picture follows its own remorseless logic to the natural conclusion, and makes no compromises or concessions along the way. It is so unsettling and strange that to put it in the Thriller or Horror section, or to call it Psychological Drama, would be to diminish it, and give only the feeblest impression of its powers. At the beginning of the film, a woman disappears during a pit-stop that she and her boyfriend make in the middle of a long drive. Years later, the bereft man is contacted by the person who abducted her and offered a choice that is tantalising and terrifying.

Sluizer directs with unshakable calm throughout. Stanley Kubrick told him it was “the most horrifying picture I’ve ever seen”. When he asked whether it was even more horrifying than Kubrick’s own The Shining, the senior director replied that it was. Kubrick’s producer, Jan Harlan, explained: “The Vanishing was real. The Shining was a ghost film. A huge difference.”

He was already 56 when The Vanishing was released, and he had been making films for more than two decades, but this was his international breakthrough. It didn’t lead to glory. He agreed to direct a terrible 1993 US remake of The Vanishing, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock, in which he seemed to unlearn all the lessons of the first film. Subtlety was jettisoned. Here is one example: the forgettable remake got a 15 certificate in the UK whereas the infinitely disturbing original was a mere 12. The superior version didn’t need to be explicit to be scary; it needed only to ask us to imagine the worst.

That vulgar Vanishing was not Sluizer’s only Hollywood misadventure. In 1993, he began directing Dark Blood, a thriller about a fraught married couple whose car breaks down during a desert road trip. They meet a beautiful recluse known only as ‘Boy’, who takes them into his desert shack near a nuclear testing site, and develops a warped obsession with the wife. The couple were played by Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis. Boy was played by River Phoenix. It had been a difficult shoot, with tensions between Davis and Sluizer, and after seven weeks in the desert, cast and crew flew to Los Angeles for the remainder of production. Phoenix chose to drive to L.A. with friends. When I met Sluizer at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht in September 2012, he recalled the last words the actor ever said to him. “He told me, ‘I’m going back to the bad, bad town.’”

Phoenix, who was 23, died of a drugs overdose in the early hours of the following morning. Eleven days of interior scenes had yet to be shot. Abandoning the movie transpired to be the most cost effective route. The footage was dumped in the insurance company’s vaults despite Sluizer’s repeated offers to buy it back. In 1999, he heard from an associate in L.A that the company was preparing to destroy the film to save on storage costs. Sluizer and friends stole the footage. He hid it in various locations while he worked on other projects, all the while mulling over how he could render Dark Blood fit to see the light of day.

In 2007, still no closer to an answer, he suffered an aneurysm. “Most people die from it,” he told me. “I didn’t. But I was condemned. I’m told I was in a coma. All the doctors said, ‘He’s gone.’ I’m a medical miracle!” His intimate encounter with mortality became the catalyst for solving the Dark Blood dilemma. “I felt that because I was condemned I wanted to leave this creative work in a good condition. I became as obsessive as any artist in history.”

The solution transpired to be simple yet inventive. “I decided not to use any material that we hadn’t shot in 1993.” Instead, the film now begins with stills of Phoenix on set as the director explains in voiceover how his desire to salvage the project gained urgency as his own health declined. He conjures an elegant metaphor in this narration, likening the film to a two-legged chair to which he has now added a third leg, enabling it to stand upright. The fourth leg, he concedes, will always be missing. Having established the ground rules, Sluizer allows the movie to play out, narrating any missing information or dialogue over freeze-framed shots of Phoenix. In coming clean about its own incompleteness, Sluizer made the film feel paradoxically whole.

He wasn’t at all well when I met him in Utrecht almost exactly two years ago, on that cold, crunchy autumn morning following the film’s rapturously-received world premiere. His skin was as pale and translucent as paper and he walked tentatively with two sticks. But he had fire and fight in his eyes. No one can deliver a knockout blow to mortality. Sluizer, though, had put it on the ropes twice over. He had finished a movie in which the lead actor had been dead for almost 20 years. And he had defied the odds to extend his own stay on earth a little longer.

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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

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Why do politicians keep making podcasts?

Nick Clegg is the latest to take to the internet airwaves.

“Rage is the opposite of reason. Discuss!”, Nick Clegg declares jauntily at the start of the first episode of his new podcast, Anger Management. The former Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister can now be heard on the internet airwaves fortnightly, grilling guests about what he calls “the politics of anger”. Since his show is introduced by a montage of angry politicians shouting, it’s guaranteed to raise the listener’s blood pressure before the host even starts talking.

Clegg is just the latest in a long run of politicians to try their hand at podcasting. Perhaps the most notable example in the UK is the former Labour leader Ed Miliband, whose Reasons to be Cheerful show made in partnership with the former Absolute Radio DJ Geoff Lloyd hit number two in the iTunes podcast chart when it debuted in September 2017 and was recently nominated for a 2018 British Podcast Award. Jacob Rees-Mogg, too, has a fortnightly podcast called the Moggcast, which launched in January 2018 and is hosted by Conservative Home. Where once a politician might do a phone-in show on LBC or guest host The Jeremy Vine Show  on BBC Radio 2 to show how in touch and relatable they are (as in Call Clegg, which aired on LBC from 2013 to 2015, or Ed Milibands lunch time death metal scream), they can now go it alone.

In his column in the i newspaper introducing the podcast, Clegg puts his finger on exactly why it is that politicians find podcasting so attractive: it’s all about control. “I have grown to abhor the tired and tested confrontational interview format,” he writes. On his podcast, “there is no wish to pounce on a slip of the tongue or endure a soundbite being hammered home”. There’s a freedom to this kind of on-demand internet audio, which can be delivered directly to an audience without having to get past the traditional gatekeepers of broadcasting. There’s no need to put up with John Humphrys or work with the BBC’s requirement for political balance. The politician, usually on the receiving end of whatever the interviewer wants to throw at them, is in charge.

Given this, it’s unfortunate that in his first episode Nick Clegg falls foul of his own edicts. His first guest is former Ukip leader Nigel Farage (coincidentally also the host of a podcast called Farage Against the Machine). It’s a slightly odd choice of guest to launch the show — made, no doubt, to generate controversy and a higher iTunes chart position — and it doesn’t exactly show Clegg’s broadcasting skills in a good light.

In a recorded disclaimer that plays before the interview, the former Lib Dem leader and vocal Remainer tries to pre-empt criticism that he’s giving a platform to someone with pretty unpalatable views. He explains that the first half of the 47-minute episode is meant to be about Farage’s “life, not really me cross-questioning him”, and that to hear them “locking horns more on the issues of the day” listeners must wait until the latter part of the show.

This approach results in Clegg letting Farage get away with a number of fact-light statements early on, and then later adopting the Humphrys-style tactic of repeatedly interrupting Farage before he can finish a point. As an interview style, it’s the worst of both worlds — neither spacious enough to allow the guest to explain their thinking fully, nor robust enough to provide an effective rebuttal. Hosting a podcast is a deceptively hard thing to do. It would take someone substantially more skilled behind the microphone than Clegg to completely reinvent the one-on-one discussion format in a single episode.

The lure of podcasting for politicians is in the way listeners react to the medium. The entire burgeoning podcast advert market is founded on research that points to a strong sense of intimacy between podcast host and audience — it’s a level of loyalty and engagement that surpasses many other forms of media. In politics, that can be harnessed for electoral gain: for instance, Hillary Clinton had a podcast called With Her that ran during her 2016 presidential campaign.

The trouble is that politicians aren’t necessarily that good at making podcasts. They’re not journalists, and they don’t often have a good nose for what makes a strong show for the listener, or take the advice of those who do. For those still in office (or, like Clegg, still wanting to participate in politics despite losing his seat), there are other pressures that can prevent them being completely honest on air. As Amanda Hess pointed out in the New York Times in 2017, the best episodes of Clinton’s podcast were made after she lost the election, when she moved out of campaign mode and just tried to process what had happened like everyone else.

The rise of the podcasting politician is the result of a few different factors: an increased dominance of personality in politics; the tendency for us all to gravitate towards our own “filter bubbles” of reassuring content; and an ever-more polarised media climate. For my money, the best show to come out of this trend so far is Ed Miliband’s. He leans in to the “geeky” stereotype that haunted him for his entire career and, guided by veteran broadcaster Geoff Lloyd, is seeking to make something that looks beyond the political bubble.

Podcasts are at their best when they serve a particular niche interest group: there’s clearly a community of people who enjoy listening to Jacob Rees-Mogg intoning bleakly about obscure areas of policy, and best of luck to them. Politicians should realise that it is not a form that works when you try to appeal to everyone. Otherwise, like Nick Clegg, they will end up telling Nigel Farage that he’s “very good at the high horse stuff about how the EU is ghastly” in a strained tone of voice.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.