Oct 2, 2015

Johnny YesNo

There seems to be a tendency among certain cinephiles, myself included, to outright overlook and/or dismiss certain films because they were made in collaboration with a certain band or some other sort of musician(s), as if these works do not totally qualify as cinema and should be completely relegated to the ghetto realm of music videos and tour documentaries.  Of course, it is hard to ignore when an artist whose music you hate and/or whose persona you find to be completely repugnant has played an imperative role in the making of a film. Indeed, admittedly, to this day, I refuse to watch any film featuring the Beatles and I probably never will, but then again I am glad I did not let my decided dislike of Mick Jagger to stop me from watching Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's gangster-meets-rocker counterculture masterpiece Performance (1970), which ultimately led me to somehow developing a smidgen of respect for the Rolling Stones singer for appearing in such an ambitious film, even if he is arguably one of the world's first proto-wiggers. Additionally, although I generally loathe musicals and do not think much of Pink Floyd and especially the film's star Bob Geldof, I somehow appreciated Pink Floyd The Wall (1982) more than I could have ever possibly fathomed. Of course, I am still very hesitant about watching any film involving any sort of heavy collaboration between a filmmaker and a band or musician, so naturally I was initially not too keen on seeing a mostly forgotten British experimental short film that was made in collaboration with a somewhat boring proto-industrial group and directed by a longtime music video hack and TV commercial whore who is responsible for such best-selling workout videos as Cindy Crawford Shape Your Body Workout (1992) and Cindy Crawford: The Next Challenge Workout (1993), among various other exceedingly embarrassing monetary motivated projects that no true serious auteur could have ever churned out. Indeed, the 22-minute British avant-garde neo-noir Johnny YesNo (1982) directed by Peter Care is not exactly something I expected to be a substantial piece of cinema, but after watching it I now believe it is and I am somewhat startled by its relative obscurity, especially since it was somewhat recently released in 2011 as part of a two DVD/two CD box-set by Mute Records after being out of print since the early 1980s. 

 Notable for being a rare short film that had an original and fairly notable soundtrack specially created for it, Care’s almost criminally neglected cult classic was scored by British proto-industrial group Cabaret Voltaire, who originally distributed the film through their own label Doublevision in 1983 in the form of a VHS that included two alternate edits of sequences from the flick as well as three aesthetically complimentary music videos. Admittedly, although I am fond of some industrial music and the various other genres that the band has been associated with over their fairly long career (interestingly, they started their career playing gigs with Joy Division), Cabaret Voltaire is not a group I have ever been particularly enamored with, yet their contribution to Johnny YesNo is comparable to that of Bobby Beausoleil and The Freedom Orchestra on Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising (1972), tranny Wendy Carlos’ Moog synthesizer interpretations of Beethoven for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and John Carpenter's own score for Halloween (1978) in terms of adding an imperative extra aesthetic layer to overall film. Quite rightly compared to the films of David Lynch, including Lost Highway (1997) and especially Mulholland Dr. (2001), in terms of themes, aesthetics, and motifs, Care’s deliciously dystopian neo-noir is set in a sort of mythical and intentionally artificial looking Swinging Sixties urban hell that falls somewhere between the East London of the Kray twins and the pulp purgatory of Samuel Fuller flicks where vice reigns and nihilism is the sole collective faith of the forsaken populous. The feverishly foreboding tale of a rough and tough gangster with a rather refreshingly masculine mind and persona who starts a heated romance with a cute waitress but then discovers the simultaneously literal and figurative woman of his dreams and then soon finds himself trapped in a hallucinatory living nightmare where all forms of perception come into question, Johnny YesNo is unequivocally one of the most preternaturally stylish neo-noir flicks ever made as a work that utilizes the cut-up technique of William S. Burroughs in a rare practical and rewarding way that makes the celluloid experiments of the queer junky novelist and his charming cocksucking comrade Antony Balch like Towers Open Fire (1963) and Bill and Tony (1972) seem like badly botched amateur attempts at kitchen sink realism by comparison.  Indeed, with the possible exception of the kraut cyber-punk-noir Decoder (1984) directed by Muscha, Care's film certainly deserves its place in cinema history as the most aesthetically pleasing and aggressively atmospheric experimental neo-noir flick ever made and I say that as a less than enthusiastic viewer that originally thought it would be a boring chore to watch.

 After featuring various beauteous night shots of Manchester city centre, including entracing neon-lit signs of overtly sleazy looking places like Playboy’s Manchester Casino Club, the film introduces the tall, dark, and handsome shadow-dwelling titular protagonist Johnny Yesno (Jack Elliott), who narrates in a sort of elegant calm and collected proletarian fashion, “Flashy nightclubs. Dirty little dives where you never see the light of day. Full of squares and creeps; the people on the make. For these are the places that women like to go to. You choose them or they choose you. Either way make sure the collar of your shirt isn’t greasy. Buy the girl a drink. Let her talk about herself. You can have a lot of fun. Don’t carry a lot around with you. When women dig you, you only need basics.” From there, Johnny stands stoically in front of a neon-lit blue sign that reads “A Punch,” which is probably the best way to describe the film’s overall effect on the viewer as an unrelenting and unforgettable cinematic work that hits you hard, fast, and out of nowhere. While riding around in a taxi while partially camouflaged by shadows and with his face all busted up and bloody, Johnny proceeds to directly tell the viewer about he got into his current precarious predicament, which involves an almost romantically schizophrenic association with two different stunning women, with the protagonist stating regarding the deluge of disappoint that has recently engulfed him, “Well, you think you got your life worked out. You think you’re happy and then something sneaks up on you when you’re not looking…and changes everything.” As Johnny states regarding his first love interest, a sexy brunette name Lorraine (Jude Calvert-Toulmin), and her less than prestigious prole background, “I met her in a dirty little dive called Pyjama Tops serving drinks. Her name was Lorraine. She had a badge that said Sandy, but I knew it wasn’t her real name. She just wasn’t a Sandy. I didn’t realize then that something must have clicked between us. We even slept together, which was kind of cozy if you know what I mean. I woke up with a sore neck, but what the hell…She was worth it.” After a night of flesh-filled fun with Lorraine, Johnny makes sure to wake up before she does and then proceeds to stare at her while she is sleeping while standing in her generically girly pink kitchen where a literal douchebag is hanging on the wall. When Lorraine says to the protagonist while talking in her sleep, “Johnny, don’t go. Don’t leave me, Johnny,” he seems to get scared because he immediately exits her home like he is attempting to avoid the plague. In fact, just as Johnny walks out of her house, Lorraine, declares, “Johnny, I love you,” but the protagonist does not hear her in a scene that hints at the protagonist's fears in regard to starting a serious monogamous relationship with a woman.  As the film will later reveal, it seems that Johnny thinks Lorraine is just too much of a Plain Jane for his cultivated tastes, as she does not fit his romantic view of the ideal dream lover.  Indeed, underneath Johnny's extra hard exterior as a pathologically stoic man's man lies a hopeless romantic who dreams of the day when he discovers the woman of his dreams.

 Although not exactly the most intricately articulate of fellows, Johnny does not mince words, especially when it comes to his deep-seated contempt for his city and its largely nocturnal inhabitants, or as he states directly to the viewer while seeming like Travis Bickle’s more handsome and dignified British big brother, “I hate these nowhere places full of nobodies doing nothing. A lot of jerks on dope of one sort or another. I have to keep saying to myself, ‘Don’t take this shit…Keep the creeps out.’ It’s nice to get away from it all.” Notably, Johnny gets “away from it all” by staying at fancy hotels with fancy females, or as he states in an unintentionally humorous fashion, “There’s no better feeling than walking into your favorite hotel with a good-looking girl on your arm. Well, her personality counts, too. I like girls that are hip, get drunk, drive their own cars, keep their independence.” While clearly obsessed with procuring dainty dames of the opulent sort who like cars and beer and who make him feel like the most potent and desirable of super studs, Johnny seems to have some mixed feelings about the women in his metropolitan hellhole as indicated by his somewhat paranoid and pessimistic remark, “Some of these chicks are quite attractive but I wouldn’t go near them if I was you. They’re all treated like animals. I don’t know how they stand it. They’re nothing, like life in general, only worse.” Of course, Johnny does not follow his own advice and almost loses his life after getting involved with a sort of perfectly pale blonde diva who is more or less the personal property of one of the most powerful yet physically unimpressive fat cat gangsters in town. 

 After concluding his fairly negative rant about the dubious character of the women in his city, Johnny adds, “Anyway, to get back to the story. A couple weeks after I left Lorraine, I met the girl of my dreams.” Indeed, while standing outside a luxury hotel one night, Johnny became entranced upon seeing an absurdly angelic blonde femme fatale (also Jude Calvert-Toulmin) that looks like a sort of Nordic version of Elizabeth Taylor arriving in a pink convertible with her small and borderline elderly sugar daddy. Naturally, after thinking to himself, “She was all the same shade, like an angel […] She was the best looking girl in the world,” gentleman Johnny cannot help but get into the mystery blonde’s prestigious panties, even though she apparently has a powerful ‘boyfriend’ with dangerous connections, or as the protagonist narrates, “The clerk told me that the little guy was a local big noise. The Casanova Counselor, they called him. He had a fleet of flashy cars and a load of flashy blondes to go with them. This one was special though, he kept her in a room of her own, so I got her name and changed my shirt. When a chick digs your shirt, you’re half-way home.” Indeed, Johnny wastes no time in attempting to swoon the blonde and he immediately calls her upon going inside the hotel, but when she hangs up on him after he states, “This in Johnny Yesno in room 202 and I think you’re beautiful. Do you think you’d?,” things begin getting fairly strange for the protagonist. Somewhat curiously, only seconds after calling the blonde, Johnny gets a knock at his door and is startled to find a wounded Lorraine crying, “Oh, Johnny, they shot me,” just before falling into the protagonist's arms. Immediately after laying Lorraine on his bed, an unseen figure hits Johnny from behind and knocks him out cold, thus sending the protagonist into a sort of nightmarish delirium of psychosexual pandemonium where reality and fantasy become particularly hard to discern, especially where his two love interests are concerned. 

 Indeed, in a sort of Burroughs-esque cut-up montage, various scenes from previous parts of the film are edited together in a delightfully deranged dream-like way that makes the viewer question whether or not anything that Johnny has experienced previously has really even happened or is instead the product of a wayward imagination. In this sort of psychedelic neo-noir montage that certainly seems like it aesthetically influenced aspects of Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), Johnny hallucinates seeing the blonde walking inside the entrance of the hotel yet somehow ending up in Lorraine’s kitchen where she admires herself in front of a small mirror near the glaring douchebag that is hanging next to her. When Johnny imagines Lorraine saying to him, “We’re in this together, don’t you see?” and then appearing in the kitchen in the same exact place where the blonde was just previously standing, he loses his stoic calm and collected essence and completely freaks out. During his paranoiac psychedelic bad trip, Johnny occasionally regains semi-consciousness and at one point he even notices that he has been strapped to a bedpost and has two large track marks on his arm as a result of the fact that a mysterious faceless figure is repeatedly injecting him with a dubious substance that seems to be largely responsible for his harrowing hallucinations and overall lack of consciousness. When Johnny finally awakes from his hypnotically hellish drug-induced purgatory, he finds himself lying on his back while all beaten up and bloody in a gravel quarry in the countryside, which ultimately proves to be all the more traumatizing for the conspicuously cocky city boy as he hates the country, or as he complains like some cowardly cosmopolitan pansy, “I hate the country, especially at night. You never know what you’re stepping into.” 

 Notably, when Johnny wakes up in the quarry and tries in vain to stand up while sliding down a steep gravel incline, the shot is seen from an extreme close-up of his traumatized face in a highly idiosyncratic and exceedingly ethereal scene that involved a specially designed camera rig device created by British experimental filmmaker Tony Hill (Floor Film, Downside Up) being attached to actor Jack Elliot’s body. It seems to take Johnny an entire day just to get out of the quarry, tread through the moorland, and over a couple of large hills before he finds any sign of civilization, thus underscoring his relative insignificance in the context of nature and the world as a whole, hence his fairly vocal loathing of the countryside. Indeed, upon reaching a gas station building, Johnny is so excited and jubilant after encountering a sign of post-industrial decay that he declares in a humorously pathetic way, “I found a wall. A beautiful white upright wall.” Needless to say, Johnny is fairly tired as a result of his journey and immediately falls to the ground upon grabbing the side of the building, but he is naturally temporarily rejuvenated when the blonde femme fatale and her sugar daddy randomly arrive at the gas station in the latter's striking retro pink convertible. While the sugar daddy fills up his car with gas and inspects his engine, the blonde takes her beloved matching white pet poodle for a walk so that it can pee. Undoubtedly in no other film is there a scene where a protagonist stares so intently at someone while they are taking their dog for a piss as Johnny does in the film. While staring at the blonde from afar, Johnny has a hallucination about Lorraine’s bullet wound and then suffers what seems like a minor seizure.  Needless to say, at this point, Johnny lacks the gall to approach the blonde while she is in the company of her overprotective sugar daddy, but he certainly does not give up there.

 After the gas station scene where the eponymous protagonist has hit both literal and figurative rock bottom, Johnny wraps up his unhappy personal story by stating to the viewer, “I’ve gotta sort some of this mess out” and then the credits role. Somewhat absurdly after a couple seconds of credits, the viewer is treated to a seemingly intentionally absurd tacked-on twist happy ending in the vein of Blade Runner (1982) where Johnny and Lorraine are featured driving in a convertible while traveling to some sort of pastoral paradise in a pseudo-sappy scene juxtaposed with melodic Twin Peaks-esque music. After Johnny states, “It was a piece of cake” regarding his accomplish to “sort some of this mess out,” Lorraine reveals that she is actually also the blonde femme fatale and that she was shot by her pimp the night that the protagonist called her from her hotel room, though she has no hard feelings about the situation as indicated by her remark, “While I was glad to get away, my sugar daddy was quite sweet, really.” As for Johnny boy, he could not be better, or as he narrates like some sort of would-be-wise old grandfather, “I wanted it to last forever, that journey with Lorraine by my side, but only just figured it out. The girl, the girl in the game and the girl of my dreams were the same person. It was weird, weird and wonderful. We drove on, a million miles away from the lousy world we’ve grown so used to…and we had a good time. Sometimes life does you a favor and sometimes you have to help it along.” Indeed, if only real-life was so preposterously perfect as the oh-so neatly packaged ending of Johnny YesNo, which even makes the signature pseudo-ideal conclusions of the melodramas of Douglas Sirk seem more genuinely optimistic by comparison.

 On of being probably the greatest ‘post-punk psychedelic film noir’ ever made, Johnny YesNo ultimately feels like a sort of missing link from cinema history that arguably exposes that David Lynch is not as an original and innovative filmmaker as everyone thinks he is. Aside from the fact that Lynch is a well known fan of industrial music and would probably seek out a film with a soundtrack by Cabaret Voltaire (incidentally, not unlike director Peter Care, Lynch has also directed various commercials and musical videos during his career as revealed in the highly worthwhile German documentary The Fine Art of Separating People from Their Money (1998) directed by Hermann Vaske and hosted by Dennis Hopper), the film’s lead actress, Jude Calvert-Toulmin, who went on to become an erotic novelist, created a virtual online campaign to get Johnny YesNo recognized as the sort of secret father film to Mulholland Dr.. Although I will not go into detail, I have to say that the aesthetic and thematic similarities between Care and Lynch’s film are unmistakable to the point of being a severe annoyance. For whatever reason, Care would dedicate most of the rest of his career to directing music videos and tour videos for high-profile mainstream musicians like R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, and Depeche Mode, though he did manage to churn out one fairly entertaining feature. Indeed, while not exactly featuring the innovative artistic integrity of Johnny YesNo, Care’s long-awaited first feature The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (2002) starring Jodie Foster as a sadistic nun who gets off to punish teenage boys is notable for being a rare darkly comedic coming-of-age flick that makes various reference to William Blake (which is somewhat different to Johnny YesNo’s references to W.S. Burroughs and J. G. Ballard). Of course, one can only imagine where Care’s filmmaking career would have headed had he been given the money to pursue uncompromising cinematic works that challenged his talents, though I am sure there are those individuals that admire the fact that the filmmaker got the distinguished opportunity to direct Cindy Crawford while she was bending over in spandex pants.

 Notably, for the release of the Johnny YesNo box-set released Mute Records (who apparently insisted that new film material be created for the release because they apparently felt no one would be interested in purchasing such an ‘old’ film), Care directed a sort of digital remake of the film entitled Johnny Yesno Redux (2008), which superficially follows the storyline of the original film and features some new remix tracks by Cabaret Voltaire. While I think the remake is a piss poor pile of  deplorable digital diarrhea that makes it seem like Care lost any artistic talent that he originally had long ago, Johnny Yesno Redux is at least worth seeing as a double feature with the original film as it unwittingly insightfully exposes how much things have drastically morally, culturally, and artistically degenerate since the early 1980s. Aside from being shot in L.A. on a cheap HD camera instead of the North of England on 16mm film stock like the original film, the remake betrays the classic European beauty of its predecessor and stars a swarthy and scrawny Hebraic degenerate in the titular role and a trashy looking East Asian go-go dancer as the female lead in what ultimately resembles a sort of trashy third world porn flick. Undoubtedly while Johnny YesNo oftentimes give off the feeling of being a fairly enthralling and narcotizing nightmare, the remake is just plain irritating and aesthetically grating and thus is an ironically fitting portrait of contemporary times where sex and romance about as meaningful as drinking beer and vomiting.  The remake is also hopelessly modern in the sense that it endorses the patently pathetic trend of yellow fever based miscegenation. To go back to Lynch one more time, Johnny Yesno Redux is ultimately to Johnny YesNo what Inland Empire (2006) is to Eraserhead (1977) and Blue Velvet (1986) as an aesthetically asinine and innately incoherent piece of unintentional self-parody of the decidedly dull digital age sort that highlights how lazy and unimaginative certain filmmakers have gotten over the past decade or so as a result of the digitization of ‘cinema.’ 

 An ecstatically eerie and almost erotically foreboding work of noir-ish phantasmagoria, Johnny YesNo seems like it could have been the sort of cinematic bible for filmmakers ranging from Darren Aronofsky to James Fotopoulos, but most importantly it is a cult film that actually manages to transcend its reputation in terms of quality. A rare dystopian work that references a mythical aesthetic and cultural past while simultaneously making predictions for a misleadingly future of soulless pseudo-utopianism where darkness his hidden behind sunshine, the malignantly moody and broody micro masterpiece was notably described by director Care in an interview with FACT Magazine as a sort of reaction to the sort of aesthetic sterility associated with cultural Marxist agitprop docs that were popular with young filmmakers of that time, or as the auteur said himself, “At that time the English independent film scene was full of really important work, most of it political: you know, documentaries about the Glasgow rent strike and that sort of thing, left-wing subjects. I was involved in some of that work and believed in it, but for my own self-expression I wanted to make something that was the diametric opposite – so partly JOHNNY YESNO was a reaction to what I saw as the norm. But I was fascinated anyway by the idea that you could make a film about psychology, as opposed to politics.” Indeed, the film may have been co-penned by a card-carrying feminist, but it ultimately seems like a work of unintentionally neo-fascist film noir the endorses classic heterosexual monogamy and traditional rural living. Indeed, in its seemingly half-hearted attempt to criticize the classic archetypal masculine antihero associated with film noir history, the film gives off the impression of endorsing these admirable character traits, especially in an era where more sensible people are starved for stoic white men that actually act like men and are not the least bit concerned with some absurd left-wing social construct like so-called ‘gender equality.’ Indeed, while the conspicuously contrived twist happy ending of Johnny YesNo was obviously meant to mock such an implausible Hollywood-esque scenario, I ultimately found it rather refreshing in its failed quasi-cryptic-cynicism, especially since it still manages to illustrate the natural beauty of a handsome macho man and feminine beauteous woman being in a passionate and loving relationship with one another.  Luckily, the remake Johnny Yesno Redux at least concludes with an unhappy ending where the Asian girl drives off and leaves the pathetic Jew boy behind. Undoubtedly the best compliment that I can pay the film is that it is probably the closest thing to a 1980s equivalent to Cammell and Roeg's Performance as a work that takes an almost metaphysical approach to reflecting the particular zeitgeist and counterculture it was made within, with Cabaret Voltaire arguably being at the forefront of these aesthetic changes, at least musically speaking.  Of course, one could easily argue that it is quite fitting that Johnny YesNo director Peter Care went on to become a music video director instead of a feature filmmmaker as it indicative of the birth of MTV, the death of British experimental cinema, and the waning of the intelligence and attention-span of the average viewer.  Not surprisingly, after reading various reviews, I discovered that many contemporary viewers find Care's film to be quite baffling, thus guaranteeing the film will remain a cult oddity that will probably only be remembered by hardcore Cabaret Voltaire fans and the occasional oddball cinephile.

-Ty E

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