Oct 8, 2012

Angel Mine

In a small island country where the most best known and critically acclaimed filmmaker, Peter Jackson (Dead Alive, The Lord of the Rings trilogy), is a director of the mainstream, epic, and fantastic, one would hardly expect New Zealand to have any notable surrealist arthouse works and, indeed, they have few, but the obscure featurette Angel Mine (1980) directed by David Blyth (Red Blooded American Girl, Wound). Probably best known among bloodlusting cinephiles as the director of the rather redundant and equally forgettable sci-fi/horror hybrid Death Warmed Over (1984); and probably most monetarily successful for directing episodes and a straight-to-video release of the undeservedly popular queer kiddy superhero show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, it might come as a cruel shock to some that Blyth initially dabbled in the mostly irredeemable realm of experimental arthouse cinema; first with the patently pretentious, psychosexual 14-minute short Circadian Rhythms (1976) and later with Angel Mine (1980), a strikingly sardonic surrealist short mediating on the failure of suburbia and the ensuing banality such contrived Utopian ideals sow. Centering around a mismatched married couple – a swarthy and goofy midget monkey man with a small frame yet long arms and a homely Nordic blonde miss with big bosoms and a forgettable face – Angel Mine presents suburbanites in a soundly cynical manner that is more ‘punk’ in its social commentary and avant-garde direction than Penelope Spheeris’ classic punk rock movie Suburbia (1984) and Rene Daalder’s anarchistic musical Population: 1 (1986). Comprised of a variety of elaborately assembled petites vignettes, generally featuring ironic, cynical, and contradictory audio over ostensibly outrageous, campy, and offensive imagery, Angel Mine – although a glaringly low-budgeted work – is indubitably a work of singular sinema. Somewhat falsely advertised as “New Zealand’s own erotic fantasy that’s far too close to home,” Angel Mine is a work that Americans and European can also surely appreciate, but I wouldn’t call it a soundly sensual and salacious, unless you find flaccid poppycocks and flopping, hairy ballsacks and bloody botched abortions to be stimulating as I found the film to be of the fundamentally and intentionally anti-erotic persuasion, which should be no surprise when considering it is a surrealist piece about the stern sterility of the suburbs.

For those that have seen Angel Mine, it should be no surprise that director David Blyth was more inspired by experimental European films, especially Spanish director Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dalí's revolutionary silent surrealist short Un Chien Andalou (1929), than hokey Hollywood productions when he made his early films. Featuring subversive sociopolitical elements and unconventional filmmaking techniques explored by Occidental auteur filmmakers like Alberto Cavallone (Le salamandre, Man, Woman and Beast), Roland Lethem (La Fée Sanguinaire, Le Vampire de la Cinémathèque), and Dušan Makavejev (W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, Sweet Movie), Angel Mine is a bright light in European New Zealand cinema history that director Blyth describes as having, “came out of nowhere and caught a lot of people by surprise.” Although eventually receiving his formal education at a university, Blyth began his film career in the gutter, describing his formative filmmaking years as follows: “We all came from the garage band. I was a garage film-maker. I used an old red Bolex and like the musicians didn’t have any formal education. They just got instruments and started making noises and I got a camera and started pointing it around the room. I thought ‘why wait to get experience?’ Emphatically punk in sentiment and direction, Blyth took an uncompromising DIY approach to assembling the film, describing the process of funding the production as follows, “The very first punk concert at Auckland University was raising money for Angel Mine. The thing about the film is that it was shot for $13,000 or $14,000, which meant I didn’t have to go to any of the authorities and have my script fettered.”  The punk band that headlined the benefit concert, Suburban Reptiles, would also contribute to the soundtrack of Angel Mine.  As explained in Cinema Papers magazine edited by Australian auteur Philippe Mora (Mad Dog Morgan, Snide and Prejudice) , despite the director’s deviceful approach to maintaining creative control of Angel Mine, a cut was made from the film without Blyth’s consent of a blue movie scene by the film’s distributor so that the film would obtain a R-rating, but it is doubtful that the deletion of this seemingly irrelevant scene had any effect on this innately incendiary celluloid work.  Mixing elements of horror, surrealism, TV commercial cliches, and punk rock and New Romanticist fashion, Angel Mine is an angst-ridden cinematic work about an odious odd couple whose marriage progressively deteriorates as they unwittingly wait for a leather-clad 'New Romanatic' space-duo – sort of aggressive alter-egos/Jungian Shadow selves – to annihilate them into oblivion.  Needless to say, Angel Mine is scantly a feel-good work, but it is assuredly a liberating one, thereupon making it an incontestable, if nihilistic, fantasy film as advertised.

Described by director David Blyth as, “an attack on the great suburban dream of New Zealand, the whole focus on ‘get a job, get a house and a mortgage’, a whole philosophy which I guess punk was about questioning,” Angel Mine is a work that equally examines the narrative structure of cinema as an artistic medium, thus it is a shame that the New Zealander auteur essentially went from being an exquisitely erratic L'enfant terrible of celluloid to be a secondhand pussy pink power(less) ranger. Of course, like a lot of former punkrockers, Blyth must have got a job, house and mortgage, which is reasonable since living in the gutter is no way to live at all, but his political persuasion should have no bearing on his integrity as an artist as it undoubtedly did.  Anarchism – whether it be of the radical left or right – may be a retarded and redundant form of government, but it can make for a fully fascinating approach to filmmaking as demonstrated in the foolhardy filmic fantasy Angel Mine.  Although assembled by David Blyth when he was barely an adult, Angel Mine is unmistakably his most mature and multifaceted cinematic work to date, which, I guess, doesn't say much for someone who went on to direct some of the worst children's programming of the 1990s, but it is surely better than it sounds as a work that shows death (with a nod to Bergman's masterpiece The Seventh Seal) literally mowing his lawn in an exceedingly prosaic yet cleverly allegorical manner.

-Ty E

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