EIFF 2010: Herzog, Lynch and The Runaways

Two films receiving their UK premiere this week at the Edinburgh International Film Festival probed the dysfunctional reality beneath sun-drenched east coast USA, as well as both featuring the unsettling presence of actor Michael Shannon.

Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways tells of the brief, explosive career of the first all-girl rock & roll band. Coming out of the LA glam-punk scene of the mid-seventies, The Runaways were a five-piece group who lasted a few short years before blasting apart in waves of recriminations and drug addictions. As the years have gone on, their sphere of influence has widened, mainly due to Runaways guitarist Joan Jett’s continued position as an authentic female rock icon. 

Here, Jett is played by Twilight’s Kristen Stewart as a tomboy upstart seeking almost spiritual guidance from rock & roll. When her befuddled old music teacher exhorts her to join him on singing “Old Smoky”, having declared that girls don’t play electric guitar, Jett plugs into the nearest amp and rips out a barrage of noise. The girl just wants to rock out. 

Hanging around Sunset Strip, Jett falls under the wing of legendary LA rock impresario Kim Fowley (Shannon). Fowley, ever seeking the next new and big thing, can sense great riches and glory from the prospect of an all girl band and slowly The Runaways are assembled.

The film focuses in particular on Cherie Curry, Runaways singer self-proclaimed as the “Cherry Bomb”. Fifteen years old when she first joined (indeed, all the Runaways were under eighteen in the bands early days. Under age girls were a common groupie fixture of the LA glam clubs), Curry transformed fast from shyly rebellious teenager into wildly oversexed drug fiend. Dakota Fanning perfectly portrays Curry as an initially more reticent teen tearaway who then slides far into rock excess as the band begins to take off.

Music is obviously an important part of The Runawaysappeal. A fantastic soundtrack comes courtesy of classic cuts by Bowie, Iggy, (the first meeting between Curry and Jett to The Stooges’ “Gimme Danger” feels superb), Suzi Quatro and, whisper it, even a bit of Gary Glitter.   Concert sequences are also ferociously staged, focusing less on audience reaction to the band but rather more concerned with creating an impressionistic hurtle around the band members and their overawed reactions to their own newly-found abilities.

While The Runaways does have the odd moment of clunky exposition (“Look, isn’t that Kim Fowley, the famous record producer?”) and perhaps tries to cover too much in a brief 107 minute running time, it is ultimately a nicely told sad little story, the kind passed down about so many bands far less special than they were. We see The Runaways metamorphose from being a gaggle of teenage girls excited about their first tour hotel having a swimming pool into a quarrelling bunch of drugged-up ego trips conducting the inevitable variant on the Beatles “Let It Be” sessions which signals every band’s death throes. 

After Michael Shannon’s barnstorming turn as Kim Fowley comes a much stiller and more disturbing performance in Werner Herzog’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? Shannon plays Brad McCullum, who has woken up one day and killed his mother by running her through with a sword before settling into a siege situation in his house nestling in San Diego suburbia. Willem Dafoe is the policeman who has to unravel how Brad has come to this, with the help of his fiancé (Chloe Sevigny) and drama teacher (Udo Kier).

The film is based on the true story of Mark Yavorsky who murdered his mother in 1979 having recently been dropped from an amateur production of Euripides’ Orestes, which would have demanded similar stage action from him. Shannon is mesmerisingly intense, from his first appearance on the sidewalk with his Razzle Dazzle mug, menacingly brooding then suddenly erupting into bubble-eyed rants against the world.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done is executive produced by David Lynch and, while it is claimed this was more a marriage of convenience for Herzog, Lynch’s prints feel all over the film, to such an extent that it resembles a co-production. The two main locations (Lynch’s anonymous suburban east coast USA of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Herzog’s brooding Peruvian mountain-scapes from Aguirre, Wrath of God), the cast featuring Defoe, ever-eccentric Brad Dourif and Lynch mainstay Grace Zabriskie, right down to the seemingly obligatory cameo by a dwarf in a tuxedo, a symbolic figure both directors have past form with. It’s as if two major artists have joined forces with little to bring to the table and so have fallen back on their recognised and time-honoured signature tricks and flourishes, resulting in a work which can feel indulgent and self-conscious.

This isn’t to say this isn’t a hugely entertaining and thought-provoking film from one of the few outright genius directors still managing to exist in cinema. Herzog always allows his audience to figure things out for themselves. Just like Lynch, he regards the viewer as mature and cine-literate, able to read the film on a number of different levels, throwing us enough lifelines to ensure we get hooked in. Finally, the much noted presence of iguanas and alligators in Herzog’s recent Bad Lieutenant is here duplicated with flamingos and ostriches. What does it all mean? Probably whatever you want it to.