Screen Edge

Oscar T Finkelman meets John Bentham, the man who is bringing quality low-budget cinema to video.

More than two years ago, John Bentham "discovered" a wonderful American movie called The Pope Of Utah and began a chain of events which has ended in the most significant video event of 1995.

Bentham started out as a film maker in the mid-Eighties, shooting concert videos for bands from GBH to Hawkwind and selling them on his own label, Jettisoundz. His real passion was for movies, but there simply wasn't a market for the so-called "sell-through" feature film back then. He experimented by releasing avant-garde films by Kenneth Anger like the seminal Scorpio Rising, but it was more for his own satisfaction than to make money. He even got involved with the British Film Institute (BFI) and founded Connoiseur Video, releasing classic world cinema for a highbrow audience.

However, in the Nineties, things have changed. Music video sales became slow and two years ago Bentham decided that it was time to get into the movie business at last. The Pope Of Utah seemed like the perfect place to start - a brilliant, original independent film with broad appeal. But it wasn't that simple. "Directors are always hanging on in the hope that they'll get a theatrical release," complains Bentham. "They'll keep taking their film from one festival to another. They're not interested in video, even though it reaches a wider audience."

Determined to mine an undiscovered seam of quality independent cinema, he began visiting film festivals in search of excellence. Sadly, the classics were few and far between. "The majority of what you see is crap," he admits. "A lot of directors are just using the festivals as a springboard and as soon as I see any of those banal Hollywoodisms I just lose interest."

After finally persuading directors Chaim Bianco and Steven Saylor to part with the Pope, he signed up the eerie suspense thriller The Upstairs Neighbour and the bizarre comedy Alferd Packer: The Musical. "I had virtually given up on the idea of finding a really original independent British film," confides Bentham, "when I met Paul Hill at Cannes, quite by chance, and found out about The Frontline."

Made for 12,000, The Frontline is a gritty drama filmed on Moss Side and Hill begged, borrowed and stole every penny to complete it. Bentham, who made his name through a belief in the DIY ethic of punk rock, is full of admiration. He won't be drawn on the story of how The Frontline got made, only to say "it would make a film in its own right. Basically, he gave up everything to get it made. You wouldn't believe what he had to got through.

"The film industry does not have the same benefits as the music business," he continues, "which has an energetic 'indie' sector with its own distribution systems, chart, and therefore public face."

The answer? Start up your own movie studio. Screen Edge doesn't have much money to fling around (although there is a growing list of people who are all prepared to risk 100 if called upon) but it does have determination. Bentham has already partly funded the two-week shoot of Two Bad Mice in London and Paul Hills has started work on a second feature.

Bentham hopes to discover "the first truly great camcorder movie," but that is just the beginning. In the Eighties, the US toy company Fisher Price released a "children's" video camera system called Pixelvision which used ordinary audio tape to record simple, pixellated video film. Although the product was a flop Stateside, it was picked up by a few experimental film makers and Bentham plans to give Pixelvision back to the world.

"In a sense I've started off on the second rung of the ladder," he says, "and a lot of people are surprised because I don't want to go up, I want to go back. I want to see a really great film made on a camcorder. In fact, I'd like to regress even further than that."


The First Screen Edge Releases

THE POPE OF UTAH

(Cert.18, 12.99)

Del once had dreams of becoming a TV star, but now he is a computer operator in a TV station. He hates his wife and blames her - with some justification - for his failure. So he decides to bump her off. Meanwhile, his old friend Mel is doing great. This month's e.p. magazine cover star, Melvis Pressin is The Pope of Utah, a TV evangelist on the KTRI network, which uses state-of-the-art computer trickery to eliminate the need for human staff while raking in the donations by the second. So, in a dark twist of jealousy, Del decides to blackmail Mel to do his dirty work. The result is nail-biting and hilarious. A perfectly high-tech, gripping and original film.

THE FRONTLINE

(Cert.18, 12.99)

All the more grim and bleak for the conditions under which it was made, The Frontline is a disturbing look at life on the edge of society - a very suitable subject for a film company which seeks out the cutting edge. Harrowing.

ALFERD PACKER: THE MUSICAL

(Cert.18, 12.99)

In John Bentham's words, "It's just the most amazing film you'll ever see." Set in 1874, the story is based on the trial of the only man in America ever to be convicted of cannibalism. It starts off like a gruesome splatter movie and then turns into a pastiche of a Fifties Hollywood musical with Alferd, a naive Colorado pioneer, leading a team of miners through the Rockies. Colorado University student Trey Parker directed, produced, wrote and starred in the film, and also wrote all of the songs. It's silly and sometimes funny, but to be honest, Parker bit off a bit more than he could chew.

THE UPSTAIRS NEIGHBOUR

(Cert.18, 12.99)

Eric is a nervous young novelist living in a quiet ground floor apartment who wakes up in the night to hear sobbing from the flat above. It's the first in a series of incidents which make him suspicious of his upstairs neighbour. A truly suspensful thriller with a bizarre climax.

October 1995



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