Monday, 15 August 2016

Herostratus (Don Levy, 1967)


(published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems, with a different version appearing as a podcast for MovieMail in 2009)
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Conceived in 1962, shot between August 1964 and June 1965, assembled into a final edit in 1967, given its premiere in May 1968 when it was the first film shown at London’s ICA cinema, and unavailable on any home-viewing format until its release on DVD and Blu-ray 41 years later in 2009, Herostratus now looks like a key film of the 1960s – though you would be well advised to leave any Aquarian age preconceptions about the era at the door. If the film has a totem it is Francis Bacon’s 1954 painting Figure with Meat, while its signature sound is a raw and desperate scream that is only sometimes silent.

The film (which takes its title from the fame-seeking man who sought to immortalise his name through the destruction of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus) is ostensibly about a young poet, Max, who offers his suicide to a marketing agency as an act of protest against modern society. However, this is only half the story. In his only recorded interview about the film with Clare Spark in 1973, Levy said that the film – he calls it a documentary in fact – was edited together to form ‘a network of resonances’, with its narrative set like ‘jewels in a necklace‘. Indeed, as much as its story, the film is composed around the rhythm and punctuation of sounds and silence, emotional resonance, colour, the flashes and repetition of scenes from elsewhere in its narrative cycle, and even the gestures and movements of its characters.

It begins with the exhausted Max, seen in snatches of running through streets and across waste ground, fetching up in his cheerless room in a dilapidated house next to a main road. The room, scrawled with layers of broken slogans, pasted flyers and cut-up thoughts, is an extension of himself. It is irredeemably stained and even appears to be rusting – with this colour echoed by a low winter sun catching and reddening Max’s blond hair. Throughout, traffic drones and buzzes by. The few of Max’s thoughts that do surface through this noise are pounded into submission by the sporadic sound of a trench rammer, working on a site somewhere in the distance. As Max looks at himself himself in the mirror, flash frames slash through his own self-pitying sighs and the film’s linearity, showing us glimpses of his fate.

He then embarks on an exhilarating, axe-wielding bout of cathartic destruction in his room, which he leaves with axe and tape player in hand to seek out ad-man Farson, or ‘Fars’ as he calls him, to sell him his death. ‘I am going to commit suicide’ he says to him. ‘My congratulations,’ replies the icy-eyed Farson, calling his bluff. ‘Why do you want to commit suicide?’ he asks Max. ‘I’ve got a headache,’ he replies.

Soon, Farson and his hatchet-man Pointer are outlining their plans for Max’s jump from a building. They need to give him a ‘good selling image for the general public’. ‘What do you think I am, a box of detergent or something?’ says Max; ‘As far as we’re concerned, you are,’ replies Farson, who adds that they feel, on consideration, that the best time for a jump is on a Monday at a quarter to two ... to help people get over their ‘black Monday’ feeling. ‘They’re dying for something to happen,’ says Pointer, without irony.

Sensuality is never far from the grotesque in Herostratus. A striptease is juxtaposed with scenes from an abbatoir, while Max, now in Farson’s studio bed, spends his time cutting and collaging magazine pictures. Breasts are served on a silver salver, a woman eats hair, and in a Family Circle treatment  of the Francis Bacon theme, a houswife’s head with large upside-down lips emerges from a roast joint of lamb. The comparisons with Bacon are here made more explicit as disturbing time-lapse collages of Max’s distorted face are created and held in moments of brief and terrible silence. All of these scenes, together with the archive footage of the century’s obscenities, make Max and Clio’s bodies on the bed, surrounded by an inky blackness, all the warmer and more precious, and the blue-white morning fog that Max steps out into all the colder.

Clio is bought, Max is betrayed – or perhaps just gets what he deserves by offering his life to a ‘Human Crapology Machine, selling it to the native’ (as he describes Farson). What Max is blinded to by youthful egotism is that ‘human crapology machine’ applies as much to self-pitying poets placing themselves voluntarily on ‘the scrapheap of humanity’ as it does to cynical ad men looking for new material to exploit. For all Max’s youthful posturing, it’s seen-it-all ad-man Farson who runs the game: ‘You've been doodling on water ... go through with it … achieve something’ he says. His predatory circling of Max on the bed as he reduces him to a fame-seeking failure is bracingly cruel.

There are only two credits in the film; at the beginning, the title, and then at the end, that very word. It seems appropriate for a film that, as Levy said, ‘scoured the truth of ourselves’ during its making. Neither Levy nor his cinematographer Keith Allams made another feature. Gabriella Licudi, whom Levy describes as being ‘busted’ after the film, gave up acting in 1974, Don Levy took his own life in 1987, Michael Gothard took his in 1992.

Herostratus is important today because it helps to explain some of the peculiar energy of the age. It provides the psychological mortar behind such films as Antonioni’s Blow-up (1966) – filmed after Herostratus, released before it – with Michael Gothard a close cousin to David Hemming’s photographer (even down to the blond hair and white jeans). It shows how revolutionary energy and liberating, youthful destruction is underpinned, and eventually undermined, by vain, attention-seeking egocentricity. It’s a brilliant, if depressingly clear-sighted premise that, especially in the light of Max’s involvement with advertising, resonates in our own fame-hungry, image-greedy age.

Two Men with Flowering Branches


(written after attending DocLisboa, the Lisbon Documentary Film Festival, in 2009. One of the presiding themes that year was migration, and the films shown addressed with clarity and deep understanding the issues Europe is still wringing its hands about now, seven years later. It appeared in the online Vertigo magazine in 2010.)
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Two men with flowering branches

The first reaches up to smell the blooms
in Prospect Park, N.Y., Spring 1950
a rare moment of colour
between nights walking out the loneliness
and finds that for now
he is exiled even from the scent of lilac

The second was already old (so he says)
when he married 54 years ago
his belly is like a big cheese
(or so his wife tells him)
and as he climbs the hill
to the tractor driver
turning the earth of his field
he stops on the way
to smell the apple blossom
of one more year



The first man is Adolfas Mekas, filmed by his brother Jonas – an image that appears in the first reel of Lost, Lost, Lost, his 1976 assembly of a quarter of a century of footage, described as ‘some images, some sounds, recorded by someone in exile’, before he learned how to turn his estrangement into a process of continual belonging through the recording of the moment.

The second occurs in Andrei Dascalescu’s Constantin and Elena (2008), about an ageing couple who have lived at home in a Romanian village, together, through most of their lives. Their joys derive from family and familiarity, from re-use – a wooden cot fetched from the attic now serves the third generation (at least) of the family – and the film is warmed by walls of woven rugs, by reminscence and the couple turning over the fabric of their marriage. Their story is one of contentment through being happily bonded to a person and a place.

The two films bookended one day at DocLisboa 2009 (the Mekas as part of a retrospective), where films featuring themes of exile, displacement and unofficial migration were predominant. They are stories of movement that take place between the flowering branches of these two scenes.

Sometimes the journeys end with the authorities, as in Fernand Melgar’s The Fortress (2008), a snapshot of the lives of those waiting for the State’s decision inside a Swiss centre for asylum seekers. Beginning with a Securitas guard allowing us through a gate, it is a film of screens, doors and fences, the building shown continually jutting into the days of the centre’s inhabitants. Hope appears like the occasional shaft of sunlight that slants into the stairwells and corridors, warming rooms, melting chocolate. It is a film that makes you aware of the many different types of currency among migrants: the currency of stories or smiles, a shared prayer, fatherly advice, even a trick with a pack of cards. It makes you aware too of sounds such as the showery pattering of fingers at a keyboard, translating stories from places beyond pain into the neutral words of a report on a computer screen. A young Somali talks of extreme hunger leading him and other passengers to eat a child who had died on board their small, crammed boat as they crossed to Europe. A priest sympathises but his story is rejected for lacking detail and sounding second-hand. His application for asylum is refused; we see no more of him. The centre’s interviewers have had to become judges of stories, judges of eyes, judges of tears, grading them according to need and plausibility.

Another journey that ends with authorities is told in Jorgé Leon’s 10 Min., a police testimony given by a Bulgarian girl lured to Belgium on the promise of work from a childhood friend she thought she could trust. ‘You should have doubted there was any care work,’ says Leta to her when she arrives. It is a crushing film told at arm’s length; no people are shown and the girl’s statement is read, straight and without sentiment, by a Dutch man. Accompanying the narration, we see rooms of impersonal human traces waiting for new victims to use them for a while: dark rooms with shelves lined with sex toys and a kitchen timer to ensure a 50 Euro trick doesn’t overstay; a house in Bulgaria, lit by a streetlamp, where neighbours ‘saw everything but dared not intervene’, a room where the pimp’s father assumed he could come for sex, cheap clothing on a bed. I imagine this clothing is still there, in a bedroom somewhere, along with the blue star-shaped pillow, arm extended to greet or to comfort.

The journey itself gives shape to a film such as Olivier Dury’s Mirages, in which he travelled for five days, ‘the time it takes for a citizen to become an undocumented immigrant’, with migrants across the desert, from Niger into Algeria. Heavily-laden landcruisers head into the dark, travelling roads being reclaimed by sand until the roads are only sand, with tyres finding new tracks, heading for a landmark on a horizon not yet quivering and broken with heat; a horizon that is both the sea and an island, but is in the end just sand.

‘Where should I sit?’ asks one man as he tries to mount the truck bed, its space already full with bags and belongings before twenty people and more climbed on top. When the storm arrives the sand hits like hail and roars like the sea, visibility down to that of a north sea coastal fog. ‘People don’t know how to travel these days,’ says one man dismissively as another, through cold, falls off the side the truck somewhere in the middle of the desert.

Then there are the interrupted journeys such as in Bettina Haasen’s Hotel Sahara, in which we hear the stories of the stranded in the windblown, plastic-strewn town of Nouadhibou in Mauritania, a major embarkation point for unofficial migration to Europe. For those who have left their homes in search of a better life, it is a place of waiting, its temporary inhabitants caught between the impossibility of returning home empty-handed after their family has somehow raised money to send them on their way, and the danger and expense of moving on. Rusting hulks of ships lie off the coast; ‘the small stream’ (as one Nigerian woman is told), is quicksilver and sparkling.

Father Jerome, a young Nigerian priest, dwells on the inequality that has brought his congregation together. ‘We talk of freedom of movement, but some people can move, other people cannot … the world is not equal and people want to have the same experiences. Nobody gives you your freedom, you have to take it by force.’ ‘I have so many dreams to realise but time is passing and nothing is progressing,’ says one man; ‘If I don’t find what I’m looking for I will never go back home again,’ says another.

The laying bare of this disillusionment takes place in Oriol Canals’ Letters from the Shadows, a film born of the need for truthful contact. Tired of hearing once more the same stories of beached refugees arriving in Spain, ‘the same sad litany of figures’ on the morning news, he resolved to meet them and record their stories. But as he says in the film, ‘how can you show people afraid to be seen? How can you tell their story when all they want is to forget?’. In answer, he set up a room in which the men could speak unhindered to a camera, with the tapes then being sent to their homes as a way of breaking the illusions that so many families held about coming to Europe. The men speak of their ordeals in their own languages, in Bambara, Haoussa, Peul, Soninké, Twi and Wolof, and liberated from interview, speak candidly of their journeys, their sadness, hunger, fear, and their current drift in a world where they are wholly present but marginal, tolerated but ignored. Their film is suffused with the images and rhythm of waiting and uncertainty.

Letters from the Shadows gives voice to a few of the many who set out with dreams of bettering their lives and seeing the world. ‘When I decided to go for adventure it came from the heart’ says one man. Adventure: it is a charged and energising word that claims ground hitherto regarded as some kind of western birthright.

In his closing speech to a 2009 Gulbenkian Foundation conference on interculturality, Can There be Life without the Other?, also held in Lisbon, Jorge Sampaio concluded that in addition to national strategies, a sense of individual responsibility will be crucial in the challenge to create inclusive societies founded on mutual respect. Perhaps this is the most important aspect of Letters from the Shadows, that through a need to see beyond the barriers of mainstream coverage, one person created the conditions for furthering the possibilities of dialogue. These days, little else counts for as much.

Two films by Maurice Pialat - Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble (1972) and La Gueule Ouverte (1974)


(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2009)
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’These two people are honest, they do not lie to themselves, nor do they try to deceive each other.’ This may seem a strange way of thinking about Jean and Catherine, the tortured central couple of Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble (We Won’t Grow Old Together), a couple always on the verge of parting, but unable either to leave or to make their peace, but there it is.

If you have ever walked away from someone, knowing you need to leave, but also knowing how futile the attempt is to do so, with your bodies still belonging to one another, drawn to each other over and again by each other's taste and scent, then Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble will resonate strongly. It is a film that recalls the feeling of parting, in the full knowledge you are so vitally and so hopelessly intertwined that to pull apart would cause real, raw damage, as much as staying together will continue the needling pain.

To watch Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble it is to share in the feeling of being abandoned in some way; a feeling of needing to go home but no longer having a home to go to. Much of the film takes place in awkward, gut-gnawing times of uncertainty: that blank space of waiting for a train to leave after you have said your goodbyes, the time of waiting in bed for your lover to come home and then waking to an empty bed at dawn with the first birdsong after a fitful half-sleep; it takes place after the slam of a door, or after you have been grossly insulted but – having nowhere to warm yourself except from stinging nettle words – you remain still and try to warm yourself from their heat. It takes place in the time of waiting while a lover reads a letter of apology you have written for her, the time of waiting for a phone call that should have come an hour ago. It takes place in the time of leaving, and waiting to be called back.

Likewise, the film is shot in transitional places – a street, a car, a station, a bedroom, on a bench, on a beach, in the sea, where Jean and Catherine are shown together in scenes of love, rejection and frustration. Pialat trained as a painter, and this shows in his way of picturing his characters together, held by their tension and their mutual reliance.

The leavetaking in Pialat's third feature, La Gueule Ouverte (The Gaping Mouth), allows no second or third chances. The very opening scene takes place in a hospital, where a scan reveals the need for radiation treatment on a woman’s spine. Thereafter, the film follows the time of Monique’s dying as she rapidly becomes bed-bound and wholly reliant on others for her care. ‘There’s no point in our keeping her here’ says a Doctor to her son, Philippe, and she is taken home, where, to the discomfiture of her husband and her son, now confronted with the sour tang of sickness and the sound of laboured breathing in the couple’s Auvergne home, she becomes little more than a mouth – hence the title – an automaton winding down, in one scene even a grotesque mockery of a chick needing to be fed, and which is fed and cared for.

This is a chamber drama of beds and doorways – often seen in the same shot. Even when Philippe and his wife Nathalie return to the car through vines after making love outdoors, Monique's bed seems to be superimposed upon the scene, an unseen but keenly felt presence of immobility reduced to a body’s primary needs, a sort of ghastly chick whose death will not come. Her presence lends anger, or urgency, or off-handedness, or devil-may-care lecherousness to people's actions.

It has been said that the family members behave despicably during Monique’s death. I don't see that so much as family members coping in their rough and ready ways with the death of a woman who was a lover to one, a mother to another. There are no rules for such times, and given that it is a situation that most people only face a very few times in their life, each time, and each death is different. How does one deal with the indignity of death?

Nathalie’s non-committal blankness when told by Philippe that her mother-in-law has only a few months left is honest – there’s that word again. People generally do not know how to react to news of impending death. As much as anything, her reaction – which is not ‘so what’ or ’why should I care’ but a refusal to fake emotion for the sake of it, sets the tone of the film early on. She will be on hand for support, but this is a woman who has never cared much for her, so she will remain at a distance.

In one lengthy scene – I was going to call it a ’central’ scene but this would be to wrongly characterise it;  all of these Pialat films progress in a continual, urgent present, in which no one scene takes precedence over another – Monique, her pallor increasingly deathly, lies in bed, the bedside lamp shaded with the local newspaper, while her husband and son, wander to and from the room, both listening to the sound of her laboured breath, breath that sounds like distant waves on a shingle beach. They need something to do, a way to be helpful, but apart from covering up a shoulder, they are impotent. ‘In the cinema, one has every right, except that of being an imposter.’ said Pialat in a 1973 interview. Remarkably, even in such scenes as this, one doesn’t feel like an imposter.

As with Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble, the colour scheme of La Gueule Ouverte appears offhand, but is actually precise. The film’s opening titles are printed in a sickly yellow that seems leached of vitality, with the colour recurring throughout the film on nightgowns, dresses, walls and window frames. indeed, the film’s palette is suffused with the muted, pastel tones of interior colours, and shaded rooms; there is nothing brash here. Indeed, it’s only with the small-talk about geraniums and red petunias after the funeral that a splash of virtual colour comes in, but even this is tainted by the context of avoidance and the presence of the desolate Monsieur Roger at the table.

After watching the film, details stayed in my mind. I recognised the combination of the forbidden and the futile in Philippe, as he looks through his mother’s personal possessions, object that no longer animate a person’s life, leafing through photographs in a chest of drawers while she lies motionless and unaware nearby. I found myself wishing that Philippe had held his mother’s hand that was just waiting to be touched at the kitchen table in an early scene, but grateful for the tenderness that Roger shows as he rubs her feet. It is a film that makes us keenly aware of such opportunities, both missed and taken, in our own lives. After watching it, and Nous ne Vieillirons pas Ensemble, you can’t help but approach people with a little more understanding, and with ready judgements held in reserve.

Privilege (Peter Watkins, 1967)


(published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems; also a podcast for MovieMail in 2009)
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’A film so bizarre, so controversial, it shall crucify your mind to the tree of conscience’. Nope, I don’t know what it means either, but these words – written to the right of the disjointed puppet figure of Paul Jones, wearing Jean Shrimpton’s face for his breast-plate on the US release of Privilege’s soundtrack album – alert you to a number of things about the film: it eludes easy reduction, it’s seriously absurd, it may well be vaguely offensive to those of a religious bent, and lastly, even though its intent is entirely serious – showing how the entertainment industry can serve as an officially-sanctioned outlet for energies that might otherwise be directed into political disruption – you watch it too seriously at your own peril; i.e. it’s ok to laugh. After all, this is a film that starts with the acne-pocked pop singer Steven Shorter, ‘the most desperately loved entertainer in the world’, complete with SS initialled lapels, raising his hand in a half-hearted Nazi salute as he is paraded in an open-top vehicle through the ticker-taped streets of Birmingham.

Watkins partially based his film on Lonely Boy, a 1962 film from the National Film Board of Canada about Paul Anka and the new phenomenon of ‘the astonishing transormation of an entertainer into an idol, worshipped by millions of fans around the world’. ‘Paul, you no longer belong to yourself, you belong to the world’ says Anka’s manager at one point in the film. It’s a viewpoint taken to extremes in Privilege where Steven Shorter belongs to Steven Shorter Enterprises Ltd (‘he is, in every sense of the word, a gilt-edged investement’, says his Press Officer, Alvin Kirsch). 300 Steven Shorter discotheques throughout the land, built ‘to spread happiness throughout Britain’, are abutted by Steve Dream Palaces – ‘designed to keep people happy and buying British’.

Privilege is a brave and disconcerting oddity of a film. Its lead is, deliberately, a character-free zombie, leached of drive by the parasitic life – agents, managers, photographers, fans – that feed on him from all sides (‘There will soon be 61 people in this room, 54 of whom will have nothing to do with Steven Shorter,’ says Watkins early on, as the bleeding musician quivers on the floor of his dressing room, recovering from his masochistic stage act.)

Unsurprisingly, the one woman who tries to get close to him, Jean Shrimpton’s painter Vanessa Ritchie, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture to paint his portrait, sees ‘a strange sort of emptiness’ in him. Both Jones and Shrimpton received pitiless reviews for their performances, but in fact their scenes together, in which they are as  uncertain in expression as we can all be at such times, have a ring of halting authenticity that contrasts with the cynical product and presentation that Shorter represents. As for Manfred Mann singer and mouth harp player Paul Jones, his portrayal of Steven Shorter is a thankless one. Anyone going to the film based on seeing him rocking out on some of the promotional posters (‘The raw, shocking movie of a pop singer who makes it big’ they screamed) would have surely wondered what on earth they had come to see. His wearied, flat and flu-ey delivery of such lines as ‘quite a phenomenon, aren’t I’ seems like exactly what was required of the role, but it was never going to win him many plaudits.

Jones was chosen for the role ahead of Eric Burdon and Marc Bolan, both of whom filmed screen tests, but it’s hard to imagine either of them hitting the stranded, strained, nervy, frightened and desperate look that Jones gets from the very opening shot when he announces how happy he apparently is to be back in Britain after his American tour. Witness too the scene at the promotional party when he turns and looks over his shoulder directly out of the camera and at us, with a ‘get me out of here look’, a moment that anticipates the many looks to camera in Watkins’ 1974 film, Edvard Munch.

After a while, Steven Shorter Enterprises Ltd., backed by the coalition government, which up to that point had ‘asked all entertainment agencies to usefully divert the violence of youth’ by keeping them happy, off the streets and out of politics, decides that a change of tack is needed ‘for the sake of national cohesion and survival’ and ‘to subdue the critical elements in the country’s youth’ (and also because Shorter’s current image has reached commercial saturation). Thus commences ‘Christian Crusade week’ – a ‘great drive for God’, to promote ‘one faith, one God, one flag’.

So, the cathartic violence of Shorter’s stage show which provided the public with a necessary release from the state of the world outside changes to an opportunity for him, and them, to repent. The ‘He is Coming’ posters have already been printed, and his band, now dressed in Franciscan sandals and tonsure toupees, are rehearsing an excrutiating version of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, at which their assembled reverend holinesses smile sourly and admit that it might help their cause. Shorter is newly clad in cardinal’s vermillion.

The climactic concert for Christian week, at the National Stadium in London, is really quite a sight, resembling a mixture of Nazi rally, Klu Klux Klan meeting, Bonfire Night, a cacophonous battle of the brass bands, pop concert and cut-price Olympic opening ceremony all in one. After a Hitleresque Revererend takes the podium to promote the message ‘We Will Conform’ with Shorter’s Big Brother eye looking on from the giant background banner behind him, the blackshirted Hitler-saluting band play – what else? – England’s de facto alternative national anthem, ‘Jerusalem’, before Shorter takes the stage, inspires the lame to rise from their wheelchairs, and, so we learn later, persuades 49,000 people in the stadium to pledge themselves to God there and then. (Ironically, given his role as a vessel for wholesale conversion in the film, Paul Jones himself devoted his life to Christ’s ministry after Cliff Richard took him and his wife to see evangelist Luis Palau at White City in 1984.)

(And it should be said that if the link between Nazism and entertainment seems a step too far, then it’s worth noting that Privilege finds a cousin four decades later in JG Ballard’s 2006 novel, Kingdom Come, in which he imagines a proto-fascist republic borne of consumerist anomie which takes a shopping mall as its spiritual home.)

Meanwhile, Steven Shorter is cracking up. Concerns about his physical and mental well-being had already been raised at the board meeting after a US tour consisting of 64 appearances, 14 TV appearances and 9 charity events in 25 days. One song of his has the words ‘I’m on my knees, forgive me please, I’ve been a bad, bad boy’. Well, at an industry beano, or rather, ‘The Federated Records Award Giving Dinner’, at which he is guest of honour, he really is a bad, bad boy. As the guests wait in excrutiating silence for his words, he holds the absurd, tawdry statuette with which he has just been presented, a platinum statute  of a singer complete with rotating microphone that earlier had taken the position of a large erection, glinting in the light, flicks the switch and listens to his song wind down. ‘You’ve made me nothing … I hate you, I hate you’ he says to the assembled guests. Steven Shorter, through his wish to become an individual, has suddenly become ‘a bad investment’, misusing his position of privilege ‘to disturb the public’s peace of mind’.

Disturbing the public’s peace of mind is a theme Watkins raises in a self-interview from 2008 about the film, in which he relates the ideas in Privilege to the present-day crisis brought about by the mass audio-visual media’s monolithic, and largely uncontested power. He says: ‘Given today’s frenzied dependency on the instant gratification of the popular culture – with its fragmented images and unparalleled broadcasting not only on TV and in the cinema, but also via the internet and mobile phones – one can well imagine the reaction of at least some of the public to a celebrity who suddenly used his/her position of privilege, in order to denounce its use.’

Privilege ends with Watkin’s ironic, foreboding narration: ‘It’s going to be a happy year, in Britain, this year, in the near future’. Well, that’s now. Made 43 years ago, Privilege was Watkin’s last British film, after which he went into self-imposed exile. It is a measure of the film’s originality and success that it is utterly resistant to being assimilated into anyone else’s filmic vision and continues to raise important questions regarding the relationships between celebrity, influence, media and politics.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1961)


(originally written in 2009 and published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems. I also read it as an audio piece that can be found on the BFI's 2014 DVD and Blu-ray release of the film.)
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Summer floods at Ascot, roads under 6ft of water in Devon, Exeter marooned, dense heat mists, wildfires, water rationing, and a heatwave so severe that the Thames dries up: the only certainty about the world’s weather is its unpredictability and unexpected severity – all of which sounds rather close to our own meteorologically uncertain times. However, this is 1961, and the cause of the trouble in The Day the Earth Caught Fire is rooted in the cold war.

The setup is far-fetched: simultaneous American and Russian nuclear explosions at the polar caps have caused a displacement in the direction of the polar axis (or ‘World Tips Over’ in headline speak), skewing the Earth off its orbit and sending it towards the sun (‘riveting story but bloody balls’ said the Express’s then-science correspondent Chapman Pincher of the screenplay). However, the veracity with which the story is treated is gripping. Director Val Guest, himself an ex-reporter, knew well how to capture the crackle and snap of the newsroom, its urgent clamour and chaos fed by the continual buzz and ring of telephones and the clatter of typewriters, and he said that he tried to make these scenes as ‘documentary’ as possible. This is also the reason why – barring Monty Norman’s ‘beatnik music’ for the doomsday revellers, indulging at the end in their watery orgy of wanton destruction – there is so little music in the film, so as not to clash with its tone of reportage. The Shepperton set was copied meticulously from the Daily Express’s newsroom: ‘IMPACT! Get it in your first sentence..!; Get it in your headlines..!; And in pictures – most of all!’ implores the banner above the hacks’ desks, while the ‘Daily Express for BIG news’ poster, with BIG in an explosive burst, lends a heavily ironic touch.

The film also benefits from its use of authentic locations such as Fleet Street (including the Express’s own offices), a reporters’ watering hole, Trafalgar Square and Battersea Park, while library footage of an eclipse, drought, and even the Aldermaston peace rally reinforces a tone of urgent uncertainty. It’s ‘not so much science-fiction as it is a dramatic and imaginative extension of the news,’ said Hollis Alpert, writing about the film in Saturday Review.

It begins with Big Ben bathed in a brick red tint, the cracked mud of a dried-up Thames, and evacuated London streets into which Edward Judd wanders, dazed with heat and slicked with sweat, trying to summon the energy for one final article. In his breakthrough role, Judd takes the lead as the erstwhile writer and demoted columnist Peter Stenning – ‘one-time ace reporter, striving to make a comeback in life and love’ as the trailer has it – who has turned to the bottle after his divorce and is trying to hold on to the shreds of a relationship with his increasingly estranged son. Balancing Judd’s nerviness is the solid, sympathetic presence of Leo McKern’s hard-bitten hack-with-a-heart Bill Maguire – ‘the science editor who unearths the deadly facts’ who also shoos the film along nicely with his news room banter. And Janet Munro –  ‘the girl on the Government switchboard’ – brings a candid, unaffected and thoroughly seductive naturalism to her role as Jeannie Craig. In fact, Munro, weary of having her breasts bound down in Disney productions such as Darby O’Gill and the Little People and Swiss Family Robinson, and by way of a recent risqué Harrison Marks photoshoot to help rid herself of her cutesy image, said ‘please help me grow up in this’ to Val Guest before filming. A scene of Stenning admiring her tightly skirt-hugged bottom as she leans over to reach a press release in her office certainly signals this intention early on, and later there’s a sense that bed sheets were being lowered to an ‘acceptable’ limit – and then tugged down just a little more to try it on a bit with the censors. As the mercury rises, so the clothes drop, with a few frames of a topless towel drape meriting the film an ‘X’ certificate, though the uncommon and highly suggestive sight of Stenning relaxing on Jeannie’s bed and casting an appraising eye over her underwear while she is drying her hair in the bathroom helps to steer it firmly in that direction as well.

The film also features newly-retired Daily Express editor Arthur Christiansen – who is also credited as a ‘technical advisor’ – as the newspaper editor, and although the many cut-arounds in his scenes are testament to his lack of acting ability, Guest knew he was on to something by using him. His presence shows its worth through his use of customary gestures – the picking up of a telephone, the issuing of orders, the curt commands and dismissals, all of which would have been lost in some slick portrayal of the part.

Val Guest and Wolf Mankiewicz’s script, which won a Best British Screenplay BAFTA in 1961, features a healthy cynicism regarding official pronouncements, whether these come from the ‘chief weathercock’ at the Met Office or the Prime Minister, who, in measured tones, addresses the nation on the emergency thus: ‘I felt it necessary to speak to you all, if only to stop the many wild and irresponsible rumours precipitated by a general lack of facts.’ He goes on to say that he has ‘the utmost confidence that the world’s scientists can produce solutions for any of the climatic problems we are likely to meet,’ reminding concerned listeners, in a glib send-off, that ‘here in Britain at least, the weather is something we are used to coping with.’ No wonder that some of Maguire and Stenning’s lines carry the tang of genuine frustrated disgust: ‘now they want to read about the filthy, self-destructive force humanity carries around, rotting in its belly,’ says Stenning, adding ‘the human race has been poisoning itself for years with a great big smile on its fat face’.

‘Is this the end – or another beginning?’ ran the film’s all or nothing tagline, and although the sky might be tinted a few tones lighter as the bells of St Pauls ring at the end in a celebratory nod towards a successful conclusion (mercifully without the heavenly choir of angels that Guest was prevailed upon to include), the telling shot is the one we have seen a few moments beforehand, with the clocks set at a few minutes to twelve and the two alternative front pages for the next day’s newspaper clipped to the printing machinery: World Saved – H-Bomb blasts succeed – A Nation Prays / World Doomed – H-Bomb blasts fail – Now Nation Prays. That’s the real ending.

Oh, and being the Daily Express that was the newspaper of choice for the scoop, it also inspired a Giles cartoon from Nov 28th, 1961. Appearing in his 16th annual, between cartoons on BEA strikes, Sunday licensing, drizzly Christmases, the Berlin wall, CND protests and power cuts, it shows Father, who, reading the film title in the newspaper from the depths of his armchair says, unhelpfully, ‘Give ‘em all fire extinguishers’, as the rain pours outside the window and Mother doodles on her Christmas present list.

The Aesthetics of Restraint: Sleep Furiously (Gideon Koppel, 2008)


(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2009, with a version of this piece also appearing in 'Borderland Despatches' in the summer 2009 issue of Vertigo - Volume 4, Number 3)
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Gideon Koppel’s land in Sleep Furiously lies west of here, but its world is familiar: village shows, calendars from agricultural machinery suppliers, plastic barrels halved for sheep feed, rolls of blue alkathene water pipe propped against a wall, farm supplier’s clothing and workboots, tractors and sheep. I recognise too the relationship the filmmaker has to his place, a relationship born of a certain respectful restraint.

Wool sacks loaded on its trailer, a land rover squeaks and rattles its way down the track, watched by the sheepdog who sees it on its way round the curves. The dog continues watching as the sound of the land behind the nearby sheep and birds becomes an immense silence, and a violet-grey haze begins to obscure the tree plantation on the far hill. It watches until the vehicle curves out of shot, and, quite satisfied that that job is now done, turns and trots back towards us, as if it has decided how long that particular scene should last.

Generous in its allowance of natural rhythms, this is a typical scene, and any film made with the tacit agreement of its animals is a testament to its ability to enter fully into the moment of its filming. Sleep Furiously was honestly taken – animals are alive and wary to stealth and subterfuge – in static shots and without cunning. Another dog, neck lowered in curiosity, watches us as we listen to a villager reciting a poem about a useless signpost whose pointers now swing confusingly free, a cow watches us watching a young man sitting on a bale, braiding a lead, while another cow has tender care and dumb mercy in its eyes as she licks her newborn calf dry. This film belongs to the animals and the landscape as much as it does to humans. There is no surprise in this. This is an incomer’s film (even if born in a place one can be a lifelong incomer) cautious of giving offence, taking refuge in an aesthetic born of exquisite reticence, and noting mundane and usually overlooked textures – breeze block kennels in concrete yards, rain dropping from a clothes line – and actions, such as a shearer replacing a comb on his sheep shears, a farmer shaking out straw bedding in a winter barn, or tracing arcs and serpentine curves in winter sheep feed, patterns discernible only from a distance.

Koppel says that Sleep Furiously is, in one sense, a film for Dylan Thomas, and especially his ‘Play for Voices’, Under Milk Wood, which was in his thoughts at the beginning of the project. At first glance this seems unlikely – I imagine a widow, polite as a teacup, claiming kinship with a roistering, sensual old uncle, full of stories of drinking, women and the sea, and offering him a slice of Victoria sandwich at four in the afternoon. The comparison is worth pursuing though. Thomas is a poet of characters’ dreams and unexpressed desires. His exhortation is to come closer, and closer still, until we wander like a shade through the fecund, intermingled lives of the inhabitants of Llareggub, close enough to feel the breath that gives voice to their words. In Sleep Furiously we remain distanced from the dreams of the community; this is a film of the waking hours.

At the end of Quite Early One Morning, an early treatment of the theme of the dream lives of the inhabitants of a sleeping town, Thomas wrote, ‘Thus some of the voices of a cliff-perched town at the far end of Wales moved out of sleep and darkness into the new-born, ancient, and ageless morning, moved and were lost’. It is this sense of loss that sends a quieting haze through the film. Instead, it is a film of polite exchanges and actions. From the very beginning it is a study of hands at work: around a table at school children sculpt clay heads (using a garlic press for the hair), while other hands hold books, birth calves and piglets, whistle a sheepdog, lay out produce, conduct a choir, write, repair furniture, butter bread, pick blackcurrants, bake a cake for tea or for a show.

(And here an aside. Anyone who has been to a village show will know that, although some of the traditional competitive categories may seem quirky – ‘25 raspberries on a tea plate’ comes to mind – one should never underestimate how seriously such competitions are taken. 2002 I think it was, and a cold, damp Spring had delayed the blooming on many flowers. Consequently, there were only two entries in the ‘6 Sweet Pea Stems in a Vase’ category in a nearby show. One entrant had placed 5 tall, large and beautiful blooms in a vase; the other 6 smaller, raggedy ones. The latter took first prize, while the former was merely given a card marked N.A.S. – Not As Stated. My friend, new to this particular world, was horrified by the judges’ meanness.)

The shade of another Thomas – RS – haunts Sleep Furiously. I imagine him aghast but unsurprised at the temerity of the enterprise, lamenting bitterly that it has come to this. Yet his presence is acknowledged. I think of his poem, The Small Window, from Not That He Brought Flowers (1968):

In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich

With looking. Have a care;
The wealth is for the few
And chosen. Those who crowd
A small window dirty it
With their breathing, though sublime
And inexhaustible the view.


The final scene before the credits places us in an uninhabited house that carries the traces of its previous occupants still. We look out of a cobwebbed window as the curtains twitch in a time-lapsed flurry, and dusk begins to settle in the house.

As I write, a biting east wind, blowing now for three days straight, is drying the earth and hardening its crust – though the moles push up through still – blowing between the stones of the house and chilling the walls. A milky frozen light hides the mountains and leaches all colour from the hill grass.

The very final shot in Sleep Furiously, after all the credits have come and gone, is an old tree in leaf, tousled by the breeze. Earlier, we have heard John Jones the library van driver, arriving every third Tuesday in the month, say, as he stands below bustled trees on a blowy Spring day, ‘I called the house awelon the breeze’. This breeze is the constant, defining sound of the film, a breeze that is indifferent and rejuvenating, a bringer of change, rain and renewal. (For RS Thomas this could well be the cold wind of the world (in Invasion on the Farm, from his 1956 collection, Song at the Year’s Turning) blowing around Iago Prytherch since his farm gate was left open).

One of the final scenes sees a farmer collecting a ewe and her two lambs to take them back to shelter in the trailer behind his quad. With the view of the camera static, the action of crooking the ewe’s leg and the pickup of the lamb happens offscreen. As much as these actions, this film is about what remains in shot – the sunlight that glistens in dew on the early spring grass, the dead hill bracken beyond the gate, and the slight heat haze that rises from the earth, promising warmth and life to come.

Friday, 29 April 2016

X The Unknown (Leslie Norman, 1956)


(as with The Earth Dies Screaming, below, this was originally written in 2009 and published in 2012 in Offbeat: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems.
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Capitalising (literally) on the success of the previous year’s X-rated The Quatermass Xperiment, X The Unknown looked not to outer space for the source of its invasive threat, but to deep within the earth, from where a primordial being has been awakened by an army troop’s radiation detection training. Called in to deal with the mystery is Professor Royston, a scientist at the nearby Lochmouth Atomic Institute; a man who spends more time in his shed on his makeshift meccano, pulleys and wireless experiments in neutralising atomic energy safely (or ‘disintegrating atomic structure obviating the resultant explosion’, as he puts it, to the consternation of a visiting investigator) than on his work, he thereby arouses the ire of the Institute’s pompous boss (a nicely fussy Edward Chapman).

After radiation is then sucked from a container of trinium in Royston’s locked and barred workshop, he realises that what he is dealing with is beyond the bounds of his experience, although not his reason. ‘Whoever it was came in here must have been most unusual,’ he says. And unusual it certainly is, the threat in this case coming from a seething black radioactive gloop that spreads its way across the countryside from its home in a Scottish bog (in reality the Gerrard’s Cross Sand & Gravel pits), from where it has been rudely awakened. Royston surmises that it is a being of pure energy which feeds on energy. Unpersuaded by this reading of the situation however, the army, with a ‘these scientists you know’ approach, decide to give it a good licking from their flamethrowers, topping the fissure off with a skim of concrete for good measure. The predictable of course occurs and the creature is soon on the loose again, heading for the Atomic Energy Institute for ‘the biggest meal of its life’. Suddenly, Royston’s backyard experiments need to be pressed into urgent use.

The characterisation of Professor Royston is interesting. Although the name ‘Quatermass’ could not be used – his creator Nigel Kneale, disappointed at Hammer turning his pioneering scientist into, as he put it, ‘a creature with a completely closed mind’ through their use of American actor Brian Donlevy in the title role of the film version of The Quatermass Xperiment, refused permission – Professor Royston is a Quatermass figure in all but name. And Dean Jagger, in his beanie hat and overcoat, fills his character’s boots convincingly. A previous Oscar winner (Best Supporting Actor in Twelve O’ Clock High), brought in to give the picture some box-office prominence in America, he is a man who actually looks as if he knows one end of a geiger counter from the other. He is sympathetic, quizzical, courteous, and with a slightly distracted gleam in his eye. He really lends the picture some class. It was a nice touch to give him a walking stick as a prop too; he uses it well, stroking the floor with it when he is being reprimanded by his boss, using it to open the door of the ruined tower, sweeping a dangerous canister out of Old Tom’s reach (but crucially, waking him with his hand), using it to wave goodbye. He’s endearingly fallible too, responding ‘I don’t know’ repeatedly to questions, while still retaining an air of scientific authority. And any man who can say the line ‘how do you kill mud?’, not just with a commendably straight face, but convincingly, is well worth his salary.

As for the monster – and, in passing, it’s worth noting that the United Artists renamed The Quatermass Xperiment as The Creeping Unknown in the US – there are only so many times you can get away with wide-eyed dread on people’s faces before you actually have to show the thing, which initially bubbles out of its crack in a vaguely reptilian spawn. (Early attempts at visualization had apparently involved tapioca.) It found favour with the producers not least because of its suitability for budgetary constraints; ‘we wouldn’t have to build any space ship sets, which were inclined to be large and expensive’, said production manager and screenplay writer Jimmy Sangster.

Sangster’s screenplay took contemporary concerns about nuclear leakage from power plants as one source for his screenplay but, in spite of lines such as Royston’s ‘as long as this thing feeds, it will live, and the more it lives, the more it will grow’, it’s straining things to call X The Unknown a salutary nuclear parable. When asked why he wrote it this or that way, Sangster’s reply was, invariably, ‘for wages’.

It’s hard to know what more you could feasibly require of the film. As well as an original monstrous threat, it has a maverick scientist, a sceptical boss and his clean-cut heroic son, even a pipe-smoking major. And Leo McKern in a very early role, which sees him adopt a pretty fair private eye act (Mr McGill) in his trilby and overcoat. He is a sturdy and respectful presence, not easily swayed from his task of investigating the curious goings-on for the UK Atomic Energy Commission (Internal Security Division). Then there are the specific local details that add so much to the experience of watching the films now – the warning poster for Fowl Pest in the Police station for example – and some rather lovely location photography, from Gerald Gibbs, which nicely captures the hazy light of frosty, early spring days. It has a score from James Bernard too, whose music seethes and boils, as if, deprived of his usual resource of a named horror to build a musical theme around, he concentrated on the movement of the black mousse. Then there the film’s ‘blink-and-you-miss-them, did-I-really-see-that moments?’ – a grotesquely ballooning finger, a melting face – which caused Hammer some of their many problems with the British Board of Film Censors.

I do have one quibble though. Not about the cavalier disregard for a radiaoactive substance which seems to be selective about its victims – that’s practically a film convention – but about a line from the vicar as he is trying to shepherd his parishioners into his church. ‘Come on, it’s nice and warm inside’, he says. There are many things I can believe, but not that.