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Ciao! Manhattan: American Indie #4

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Ciao Manhattan

Variety once summed Ciao! Manhattan up as ‘Monotonous and nearly incomprehensible.’ Some might argue that the reviewer could have omitted the word nearly. Despite its faults, it is still a fascinating watch for anybody interested in Andy Warhol and his Factory Superstars.

The film focusses on the lightning fast rise and fall of Edie Sedgwick. Mostly it’s about her fall.

Edie, it should be said, plays herself here, although to avoid potential lawsuits from Warhol, she is renamed Susan.

The story gets underway properly with Butch (Wesley Hayes), a Texan in his late teens, driving his beat-up Merc in the direction of Malibu, accompanied perhaps predictably by John Philip’s Malibu People.

Butch speaks with an Oh Shucks accent and comes across as almost childlike in his naivety. Seeing a youngish woman hitching by the roadside, he stops to pick her up. She’s wearing a beige leather jacket opened to leave her breasts fully exposed, and she sways and stumbles as she tries to get in. He’s wide eyed and she’s legless.

If you only know Edie from her gamine minx mid-’60s heyday, then you might not instantly recognise her here. The hair now is longer, the panda eyes and the XXL chandelier earrings a thing of the past. And those breasts are now bigger.

At times while watching this, I did wonder if the writer/directors John Palmer and David Weisman were exploiting Edie. But it on this front, it was Edie herself who insisted on appearing topless for chunks of Ciao! Manhattan. She was obviously pleased with her breast implants, although when asked about them by Butch, she claims the increase in their size was due to a better diet and exercise.

Edie Sedgwick drinking Smirnoff

Only Butch could believe such a claim. Edie finds it an almost impossible task to get on and take off her trousers, let alone exercise. She spends much of her time lying on a water bed glugging back straight Smirnoff from the bottle. She talks with a stilted and slurred diction and lives in a tent in a drained swimming pool in the grounds of her mother’s mansion. She had once been an exquisite fuck-up but now she is just plain fucked up beyond repair with permanent brain damage from drug and alcohol abuse. It really is painful to see such a sharp decline.

Hayes, who played Butch, later spoke about Edie’s behaviour during the shoot, how she was on Seconal and booze and sometimes thought she was in New York when they were in California.

Jane Fonda (whose husband of the time Roger Vadim plays a small role here) put in a fine performance in Klute, a contemporary and far more successful movie. But, as good an actress as she was, she could never have got close to portraying the pain that Edie was obviously in at this late stage of her life the way Edie can. It’s in her eyes. She can’t see any way out.

Edie_on_waterbed

Edie passes out immediately in the car but is conveniently wearing a dog tag with her address engraved on it. He takes her home, dragging her half-naked from his car and carrying her towards the front door of a mansion, much to the horror of her mother (Isabel Jewell). The mother, who is more interested in making pies than in her daughter, decides to give Butch a job anyway. His ambition is to build a flying saucer, and he is to teach her how to do so.

Yeah, I know.

Here, a dazed and very confused Edie talks about her dysfunctional past to Butch. This involves depression, addictions, the suicide of two of her brothers within the space of a year, hospitalisation, eating disorders, a strict father who she accuses of sexual abuse, and a series of abortions.

I once asked a friend of a friend who works in PR who her perfect client would be. ‘Edie Sedgwick,’ she replied in an instant. ‘You wouldn’t even need to invent anything.’ Along with the backstory, Edie had the famous partners like Bob Dylan and high-profile pals such as Andy Warhol. And she couldn’t resist a party.

Edie_partying

Most of Ciao! takes place with Edie living at her mother’s, while part of the film features salvaged black and white footage from her Manhattan days, which was to have been the original basis for the film. There was a gap of a few years between both.

‘It was pure zeitgeist. Coincidences were at the core, driving everything that happened. Nothing was effectively planned; we stumbled into all this as if it were waiting to happen. It was like a five-year-long series of cosmic collisions.’

David Weisman

Factory regular and one-time Sedgwick boyfriend Paul America was to have played a prominent role but he vanished during filming for over a year with no-one knowing his whereabouts. Jail was the answer to that one. Edie suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in rehab. Funding evaporated. It was not until 1970 that Edie resurfaced and filming could start again.

The contrast between 1970 Edie and the ‘Youthquaker’ and 1965’s ‘Girl of the Year’ Edie was extreme. Her underlying issues were obviously still there but if there was ever a time that she was happy it was when she teamed up with Warhol. Dining at Max’s Kansas City. Dancing at the Factory. Drugging it up wherever she went.

Edie_and_Andy_Warhol

Warhol was already an internationally successful Pop Artist when he’d first met Edie at a birthday party for Tennessee Williams. He’d also already embarked on a career as an underground filmmaker and he would go on to use Edie in around ten of his works. Since his days as a child, he’s been captivated by Hollywood and now he hoped Hollywood might become captivated by him.

This was always highly unlikely. His movies were inept in so many ways. His (non) direction of his (non) actors was far from Hollywood friendly, as was his static camera. He also refused to employ industry professionals for key jobs like sound and lighting, which is why these aspects are usually lousy. In Blue Movie he fucked up big time with his film stock, using film that was only supposed to be used for night shoots. This is the reason why that appropriately named movie acquired a blueish tint.

Warhol efforts like Blowjob and Beauty #2 (which starred Sedgwick) were about situations rather than storylines and structure. ‘Scripts bore me,’ he once observed and his early forays into filmmaking generally bore me.

Watch Vinyl, Warhol’s take on A Clockwork Orange, then watch Kubrick’s 1971 controversial classic and you’ll see where I’m coming from. Yes, Edie appears and doesn’t do much except look absolutely fucking fabulous but
for me to ever try watching Vinyl again in one sitting would require my eyes being clamped wide open with specula like Malcolm McDowell’s Alex when he is forced to endure his Ludovico aversion therapy.

Although usually of limited interest, Warhol’s movies did become influential and can be seen as early examples of gay cinema and precursors of ‘porno chic’. Blue Movie has even been hailed as the movie that ushered in the so-called ‘golden age of porn’.

Edie_Sedgwick_modelling

The Factory crowd habitues were a bit like Reality TV before Reality TV. Only some were actually creative and most of them were engaging on at least a couple of levels – unlike the famous for being famous wannabe bores that clog television nowadays. One of the better examples of Warhol’s oeuvre would be when he filmed Edie applying make-up, eating and even sleeping in 1965’s Poor Little Rich Girl.

Edie was incredible on camera – just the way she moved… The great stars are the ones who are doing something you can watch every second, even if it’s just a movement inside their eye.’

Andy Warhol

Edie_Sedgwick_smoking

Edie fitted into the whirlwind of the Factory scene perfectly. The word iconic is overused today but it describes Edie perfectly. The camera utterly adored her. She was impossibly cool. She possessed Audrey Hepburn charm, a Twiggy body, Jean Seberg hairstyle… and a Janis Joplin insatiable appetite for drugs.

At Warhol’s suggestion, Lou Reed wrote Femme Fatale about her and it’s widely believed that the subject matter of Bob Dylan’s Just Like A Woman and Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat is also Edie. Decades later, bands like The Cult and Primal Scream were still being inspired by her.

I had an Edie Sedgwick type character in mind when I wrote Velocity Girl. I read Jean Stein’s biography about her and I wanted to meet a girl like that. Hanging out with Warhol, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan and shooting speed whilst looking absolutely fabulous. Super hip and beautiful. She was the muse. I love her.’

Bobby Gillespie

While I’m on the subject of music, the Ciao! soundtrack is certainly curious. Around half of it features artists popular at the time like Richie Havens, Skip Battin and Kim Fowley, and the aforementioned John Philips but sadly no Velvet Underground. The other half consists of synthesizer soundscapes written and performed by Moog pioneer Gino Piserchio, who had appeared in Warhol’s Beauty #2 with Edie. This is undoubtedly innovative music but irritating too – it’s like entering an early video games arcade in the early 1980s.

Edie_wearing_a_hat

Andy Warhol and the fashion world both soon cast Edie aside. Any chance of a reconciliation between Andy and Edie disappeared after the former was shot by Valerie Solanis, an event that persuaded him to retreat from the wild and unpredictable druggies he had once surrounded himself with. The fashion mags discovered new young flesh, fresher now than Edie and far more reliable.

Edie died just weeks after filming on Ciao! Manhattan wrapped.

I would guess nobody was very surprised.

Ciao! Manhattan is a real mish-mash of a movie. Much of the dialogue in the California sequences is obviously written purely in order to link to flashbacks of the original NYC footage. The acting is sometimes abysmal and a subplot about a technology obsessed old man Mr. Verdecchio, who has a touch of William Burroughs about him, adds the square root of zilch to Ciao!

There are interior monologues galore but who is really interested in the thoughts of a whingeing petty pilferer who works for Edie’s mother or any of Verdecchio’s young employees?

When Edie is off screen, interest evaporates.

Like a much more recent film set in post-Manson murders, post-Altamont California, Inherent Vice, Ciao! Manhattan sometimes feels as if the movie itself is out of it on drugs.

It’s still better than watching any film that Andy actually directed.

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Being Frank: The Chris Sievey Story

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I’m not sure how much of a Frank Sidebottom fan I could claim to be. I only ever attended a single Sidebottom show (at the Glasgow Comedy Festival in 2004 at the Vault) where I hooted with laughter, almost hysterically at times, and a few years ago I made an eedjit of myself in a cinema by hooting almost hysterically with laughter again, every time James McAvoy’s Bruce Robertson character made sick anonymous phone calls using a Frank Sidebottom nasally Manc accent during Filth. In 1985, I even felt the urge to put a wee bet at very long odds on Frank topping the British Christmas singles chart.

In retrospect, this was not one of my better ideas, the British public much preferring festive tracks by Shakin’ Stevens, Aled Jones and even Black Lace’s version of The Hokey-Cokey. Oh Blimey it’s Christmas only managed to limp into the top 100 at #87. It then disappeared out of the chart.

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Director Steve Sullivan has undoubtedly put a great deal of time and effort into making Being Frank. Month after month was spent trawling through Chris’s vast personal archive which consisted of a cornucopia of home movies and TV appearances on mouldy VHS tapes, scraps of meticulously painted artwork, photos, notebooks, diaries, cardboard cut-outs, costumes, old cassette tapes and even a long out of date Jobseeker’s Allowance card.

Sullivan also spoke with an array of family, friends, fans, bandmates and managers including John Cooper Clarke, Mark Radcliffe, former wife Paula, his three children and brother Martin, who salvaged the material from a damp cellar, just days before it was about to be binned.

Many musicians, particularly in the twenty-first century, go through their careers without any real significant change in their music or appearance. Coldplay. Kasabian. The Killers et al. Nobody could accuse Chris Sievey of this.

Chris was always a bit different. As a child, he would invite school pals round to play Subbuteo and would make up tickets for the matches, as well as designing programmes and much else. A band then changed his life forever. The Bay City Rollers were not that band. The Beatles were and an obsession followed. He began writing baroque, melancholic tunes that could definitely be described as McCartneyesque.

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Together with his brother, he came across an ad in the Daily Express that alerted them to the fact that The Beatles, through Apple, were seeking new talent. Rather than just send in a tape of some songs, the pair hit on the plan of hitching down to London with two acoustic guitars, showcasing some songs live, and refusing to leave the Apple office until they had been signed.

This offer wasn’t forthcoming. Staff attempted to get rid of them, but they wouldn’t budge. Eventually they were allowed to perform and Apple helpfully offered some advice and even paid for them to come back to London a few days later to record some new demos. And they met Ringo Starr very briefly!

The first part of Being Frank shows an irrepressible young man, compulsively creative and with a clear eye for a publicity stunt.

He formed bands with Martin with names like Hard Sharks and Big Cheese, then got more serious and put together The Freshies.

In pop terms this act could be filed under ‘close but no cigar’. There must have been moments when a breakthrough looked assured, particularly with the 1980 release of his band’s single I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk, a slice of singalong powerpop with Skidsy guitars. Here it is and I guarantee you, your toes will tap.

I love those self-deprecating lyrics – where Chris lists many of the labels that rejected him, and I’m sure many music fans could relate to fancying somebody working in a record shop. Come to think of it, I seem to remember there was a very attractive female who worked at the Glasgow Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk in the late 1980s and I wouldn’t be surprised if some young customers didn’t at least develop a crush on her. In fact, I would have bet on that. If I wasn’t such an inept gambler.

The single also had a attention grabbing title. And this proved problematic. Due to the use of a trade name, I’m In Love With The Girl On The Manchester Virgin Megastore Checkout Desk was denied radio airplay in Britain. But you can’t keep a good Freshie down and Chris spotted an easy way round this. He re-recorded part of his vocal, and the song became I’m In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk.

Top of the Pops beckoned. On the week they were due to appear, BBC technicians came out on strike. Instead of a triumphant debut watched by around 12,000,000 viewers, that week’s show was cancelled and momentum lost.

The single failed to crack the top 30. Chris pushed on though, still devoting big chunks of his time to his music and art. While disregarding most practical requirements like paying bills.

Frank_Sidebottom_Beatles_outfit

A year or so later, he decided to make and don a big round papier-mâché head with big round eyes and a slick hair parting. This was Frank, a fanatical Freshies fan, who stayed with his mum and liked cheese on toast. Before too long, the Frank idea took on a life of its own. Frank was joined by Little Frank, his own puppet and then Little Denise, Little Frank’s girlfriend.

Frank Sidebottom edged his way towards British indie music cultdom. What had started as something of a prank quickly overtook The Freshies in the popularity stakes, something Chris surely couldn’t have envisaged. He found his way onto TV shows, appeared on the same bill as Nirvana and Nick Cave at the Reading Festival, and introduced Bros to their adoring fans at Wembley.

I hope the money was good for that one as he had to endure 55,000 Bros fans booing him. Although that was possibly preferable to being cheered by them.

It looks like great fun being Frank, but during the final third or so of the documentary, I frankly began to get the feeling that I wouldn’t have fancied being Frank myself.

Maybe Chris’s take on Edvard Munch’s Scream was painted for a laugh. An absurdist take on one of the late nineteenth century’s most famous artworks, an iconic expressionist image that is thought to suggest the anxieties and suffering commonly endured by artists. Painted by a man in an oversize fibreglass – as it was made from by then – head, an idea that I do find amusing.

But when we hear of Chris developing a reliance on booze and cocaine and his problems with the taxman, it makes me wonder whether it might have reflected how he felt at the time. Maybe he resented the fact that he could never be as popular as alter-ego Frank. And now we’ll never know for sure.

Frank_Sidebottom_-_The_Scream.png

Chris Sievey sadly died in 2010. Who would have imagined that within a decade, his inspired creation would go on to inspire a feature film, 2014’s Frank, where the character based on Frank would be played by an A-List actor (Michael Fassbender), and then have his life (or maybe I should say lives) examined in a full length and insightful and often very moving documentary.

I certainly wouldn’t have bet on that.

For more on the film: http://www.beingfrankmovie.com/

Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood & Charlie Says (Soundtrack Saturdays)

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood & Charlie Says

As I write Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood has just premiered at Cannes, where it received a six minute long standing ovation. I’m looking forward to buying a ticket and stepping into a cinema for the tenth time to one of his films, albeit I would have to admit that I’m just a wee bit apprehensive about how he might rewrite history on this occasion, even though Sharon Tate’s sister Debra co-operated with the director and is thanked in the credits.

The first four Tarantino releases in particular are among my very favourite films and a big part of why I lap them up so much is because QT possesses such an amazing knack for coming up with ingenious juxtapositions of soundtrack and visuals.

Who else would have thought to accompany a scene where a razor wielding madman tortures a cop in a warehouse while shuffling along to a catchy 1970s pop song, sung by a guy from Paisley with a bad case of Bob Dylanitis?

His choices are certainly seldom obvious, making it almost futile trying to guess what sounds he might utilise in any upcoming work – so, maybe perversely, a few months back I did briefly try to guess which tracks he might conceivably choose for Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.

With its late 1960s setting, he was surely spoiled for choice. The first song I thought of was Love and this stunning slice baroque/psych pop from Forever Changes. Here’s The Red Telephone:

By a complete coincidence, I’ve just heard this gem used on the soundtrack to Charlie Says, a newly released film that has much in common with Once Upon a Time.

Charlie Says is the latest film by Mary Harron, a former regular at CBGB and journalist for Punk and NME. Previously, she’s directed films featuring subjects like Valerie Solanis (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Bettie Page (The Notorious Bettie Page) but she’s still best known for her controversial adaptation of American Psycho from 2000.

Here, she gives her take on a real-life American psycho, Charles Manson, and the methods he employed to manipulate and control three of his ‘family’ in particular, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel.

As the movie opens all three are imprisoned in an isolated cell block and about to meet feminist tutor Karlene Faith (whose book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, this is largely based on). Faith attempts to persuade the brainwashed Mansonites of the grotesque error of their collective ways. They prove, however, stubbornly devoted to the maniac they view as a messiah.

To an uncomfortable extent, each of the guilty young women are portrayed as victims of Manson. Then again, I have read some writers dredging up excuses for Manson and painting him as a victim himself, arguing that he grew up disadvantaged and spent far too much of his younger life in reform schools and prison.

Dr Who Matt Smith as Charles Manson

The fate of these three prisoners – who seem largely interchangeable for long periods of time – never managed to grip me. Once you’ve embraced the idea of a race war against black people and then repeatedly stabbed completely innocent people over 100 times, including a heavily pregnant woman, before daubing graffiti on the walls with the blood of the dead, then my sympathies are unlikely to be aroused.

The best thing about Charlie Says is former Dr. Who, Matt Smith, who convinces as Manson whether he’s instructing his acolytes on how to help ignite ‘Helter Skelter’ or just roaming around outdoors and strumming on an acoustic like a second-rate Tim Hardin.

The soundtrack also includes The 13th Floor Elevators’ You’re Gonna Miss Me and Peace of Mind by Blue Cheer, which sounds great over the end credits.

Pitt Robbie Dicaprio

Judging by the music used on the trailers for what is supposedly his penultimate movie, Tarantino has chosen some of his tracks due to Sharon Tate/Charles Manson connections.

Here’s a chaotic and very 1960s video of one of his selections. This is Paul Revere And The Raiders’ Good Thing, which somehow manages to feature both go-go dancers and a spot of vacuum cleaning:

Good Thing was produced by Terry Melcher, who had considered recording some of Manson’s music and making a documentary about his ‘Family’, neither of which he proceeded to push ahead with. Manson had met the producer at Melcher’s home at 10050 Cielo Drive, where musician Mark Lindsay, the lead singer of Paul Revere & The Raiders, also lived.

Melcher later severed all ties with Manson after witnessing Manson start a fight with a stuntman at Spahn Ranch, the primary residence of the Manson Family for much of 1968 and 1969. Shortly after this, Melcher moved from Cielo Drive and the owner leased the luxury home to director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate. You’ll know what happened next.

The sheet music for Straight Shooter by The Mamas and Papas was found by cops on the music stand on the piano in this residence, close to the slaughtered body of Tate. Polanski and Tate were friendly with the band, although Polanski at one point began to suspect John Phillips of sleeping with Sharon and even imagined that he could have been somehow involved in her murder at one point. Inevitably, paranoia was rife in the wake of the deaths.*

Phillips also was offered the chance to record with Manson but luckily declined. Of the Mamas and Papas, though, only Mama Cass (played by Rachel Redleaf) is listed by IMDB as appearing here.

Cass was questioned by the police in the aftermath of the murders, having also been visited by Manson and his followers beforehand and she was especially shook up as she was friendly not only with Tate but with the three other victims of the massacre: Jay Sebring, Woytek Frybowski and Abigail Folger.

I have read that José Feliciano’s version of California Dreamin’ also makes an appearance in Once Upon a Time, as does Neil Diamond with Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show and The Rolling Stones’ Out of Time.

Manson Family connections? Not that I’m aware of.

The complete soundtrack details are yet to be confirmed, so the final song that I know will be appearing is Bring a Little Lovin’ by Los Bravos, a track that was co-written by Glasgow-born George Young (the big bro of AC/DC’s Malcolm and Angus). How’s this for a muscular bassline to help kick a tune off?

Will The Red Telephone feature? Or the Monkees, who I also thought might be in with a shout of making the soundtrack? Or Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky? (actually that was released two months after the Manson murders) Or how about The Archies’ Sugar, Sugar?

Probably not but hey, but the print shown at Cannes is unlikely to be Tarantino’s final cut of the movie and he has hinted that he would like to add some material. So, go on Quentin, you know you couldn’t go wrong with a bit of Sugar, Sugar.

Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood will be released in Britain on 15 August 2019. For more on the film click here.

* Polanski also later admitted that he briefly suspected that his martial arts instructor and friend Bruce Lee could have killed his wife. Yes, that Bruce Lee, who had recently taught Sharon Tate some fight moves for her role in The Wrecking Crew. He’s played by Michael Moh in Once Upon a Time and, judging from the trailers, this looks like a perfect choice.

A final piece of trivia. It was on a stay at Polanski’s ski chalet in Switzerland that Lee later picked up the iconic yellow suit that he wore in Game of Death, the inspiration for Uma Thurman’s outfit in Kill Bill Vol. 1.

Harold and Maude: New Waves #9

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Harold and Maude

When I think of the work of Hal Ashby, it’s nearly always for the run of movies he directed in the 1970s. Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound For Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979).

Despite these artistic successes, Ashby today is much less heralded than many of his contemporaries. Yes, his career was much shorter than the likes of Scorsese and Friedkin – he died of pancreatic cancer in 1988 aged 59 years old – but Being There is arguably one of the finest satires of the decade and Harold and Maude might just be the oddest feature length release to appear during the golden years of what was dubbed New Hollywood or the American New Wave.

Hal Ashby was as near to an archetypal hippy as Hollywood ever produced. He smoked dope not just on a daily basis but on a near constant basis.

Hal Ashby cameo in Harold and Maude

In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind tells the story of one meeting at Paramount with the producer of Hal and Maude, Charles Mulvehill. Here the plan was for the pair to go over their budget plans line by line with the moneymen. Both were so stoned they could hardly read the numbers, let alone make sense of them.

Would this happen today at a major studio? I reckon it’s safe to say no.

As his generation of directors struggled to adjust to to the new more conservative filmmaking climate of the 1980s, Hal’s drug intake increased.
He refused to compromise on any level and frequently clashed with studio execs. He had become a heavy cocaine user by this point and they often used this against him.

Hal missed out on directing a number of movies, the most high profile of these being Tootsie. According to Amy Scott, the maker of the 2018 documentary Hal, this ‘would have been a game-changer’ for his career.

He did go on to make a number of other films but none matched up to those six from his seventies heyday and sadly his plans to develop films based on Richard Brautigan’s novel The Hawkline Monster and Truman Capote’s Handcarved Coffins never came to fruition.

Harold and Mum

Okay, Harold and Maude.

Harold is Harold Chasen, a wealthy young man played by Bud Cort, who has become completely obsessed with death. The film kicks off with what appears to be him swinging from the end of a noose, an event that fails to arouse much interest from his socialite mother played by Vivian Pickles. ‘Dinner at eight, Harold. And do try and be a little more vivacious.’

I doubt this counts a spoiler as it’s the opening scene of the film but this is a mock suicide. Harold has a passion for staging this kind of thing. And he prefers to drive a hearse than a flashy Jag.

While attending one funeral of someone he doesn’t even know, he comes across Maude (Ruth Gordon). She has a lot in common with Harold. Apart from a penchant for gatecrashing funerals, they both hate authority – like Ashby – and have very idiosyncratic personalities. Maude is an effervescent bohemian, who is much livelier than the morbid Harold. Rather than an obsession with death, she possesses a passion for life.

There’s another big difference between them. An age gap. And when I say age gap, I don’t mean like the age gap between, say, the Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft characters in The Graduate.*

Harold is twenty. Maude is pushing eighty.

Ruth_Gordon_and_Bud_Cort

The pair start spending more and more time together, and while they do, Harold’s mother decides to sign her son up to a computer dating agency, selecting three young and single females that she hopes might just be right for her son. When her third choice, a wannabe actress called Sunshine Doré (Ellen Geer) fails to see anything too awry with his staged hari-kari, and gives her own histrionic take of Juliet’s death scene, it looks like Harold might have met someone in tune with him who is actually around his own age.

And here I’ll just mention that the young Elton John was at one point being seriously considered to play Harold and provide the soundtrack. This thankfully didn’t happen, but he did recommend that Cat Stevens write the music for the film. Many adore this but not me. I suspect this is a result of my class in primary school being regularly forced to sing along to his take on Morning Has Broken.

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The movie opened at the tail-end of 1971, just in time for Oscar consideration. Paramount needn’t have bothered. Critics were scathing. Even some usually very perceptive critics like Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby. In the New York Times, the latter suggested of the two leads that: ‘as performers, they both are so aggressive, so creepy and off-putting, that Harold and Maude are obviously made for each other.’

Variety went even further, describing it as having ‘all the fun and gaiety as a burning orphanage.’ Ouch.

The story was adapted into a Broadway play in 1980. It closed after only four performances.

Since then critics and audiences have been much kinder, with Ashby’s legacy of individuality and tackling unusual themes and social issues influencing a number of independent directors today. Alexander Payne and Wes Anderson, to name only two, are just big fans and its easy to see why if you watch any of their output.

Bud_Cort_&_Ruth_Gordon

It’s not my favourite of Ashby’s works, despite the excellent acting. Ruth Gordon surely deserved a string of awards for her performance, while Bud Cort is maybe even better, baby-faced yet effortlessly oozing alienation. The scenes where Hal’s hawkish uncle attempts to persuade him to join the military could have with just a little subtlety and I’m not sure the ending was right, although I better not say why as that would give things away.

As the end credits rolled, though, I instantly wanted to see more of his movies, especially Shampoo and Being There.

Would any studio release a film like Harold and Maude today?

I did have a quick swatch at the upcoming release schedule of Paramount. It’s full of kid’s movies (Sonic The Hedgehog & Rugrats), and pointless remakes, sequels and franchises (Top Gun 2020, Italian Job II, and Mission Impossible 7). So I won’t be scanning any ads for my local Odeon for the possibility of seeing anything anywhere near as idiosyncratic any time soon.

If you liked Harold and Maude, you might also like the aforementioned documentary on his life and times Hal.

Written and directed by Amy Scott, this appreciation takes a look at his career from his early days and the time he spent as an editor on films such as In the Heat of the Night and The Cincinnati Kid, through to his highs and lows as a director.

In addition to some fascinating archive footage of Ashby himself, there are also insightful interviews with Jane Fonda, Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Rosanna Arquette, Jeff Bridges, John C. Reilly and a bunch of others.

It’s a fond remembrance of the man, but it also refuses to shy away from his issues and mental health deterioration, as well as his substance abuse.

* There’s been a rash of articles in recent years bemoaning the fact that Hollywood is so keen to team up older men with younger women in onscreen relationships. This is largely true, although none of the pieces I’ve read have mentioned movies that invert this generalisation: Room At The Top, To Die For, Hallam Foe, The Good Girl off the top of my head in addition to The Graduate.

 

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders: New Waves #8

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Valerie_and_Her_Week_of__Wonders

This 1970 film comes from the surrealist wing of the Czechoslovak New Wave and would have made a great double feature with Daisies back when cinemas embraced that value for money idea.

Like its title partly suggests, this is a film about a thirteen year old girl called Valerie (Jaroslava Schallerová), and the first week she spends as a menstruating female. As for wonders, there are plenty of those, believe me. In fact, considering the film was made in the wake of the Prague Spring, when Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush recent reforms, the biggest wonder is how it actually came to be made.

Valerie

Jireš’s previous directorial outing had been The Joke (1969), an anti-Stalinist parable adapted from a novel by Milan Kundera. This earned a twenty year long ban and has been named as ‘possibly the most shattering indictment of totalitarianism to come out of a Communist country’ by critic Amos Vogel.

Next up, Jireš set his sights on adapting a surrealist novel of 1935 by Vítězslav Nezval, who was also a poet, screenwriter and prominent Czech Communist of the interwar years. If he hadn’t been so highly regarded by the party, then the phantasmagoria that is Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders would surely have been a non-starter.

Valerie a týden divů, to give it its Czech title, is one of the most difficult films that I can think of to describe and any rundown of what happens onscreen is never going to be able to convey the magic of what viewers of the film can experience.

I’ll give you a flavour, though. It’s shot mainly around Slavonice, a gorgeous small town that belonged in 1970 to Moravia but which is now part of South Bohemia. It’s never stated when this is all taking place but if I had to guess I’d say maybe the middle of the nineteenth century.

Valerie_and_Her_Week_of_Wonders_-_Grandma

Valerie lives with her Grandmother (Helena Anýzová), a pious woman, who has pure white hair which she scrapes away from her face into a very severe bun. She also has the kind of skin complexion that Goths would absolutely adore. This is not a woman whose list of hobbies would include sunbathing.

She longs for her past when she was young and beautiful (although she is obviously still strangely attractive and looks like she could still be in her early thirties). Luckily, for her at least, she will be presented with the chance of eternal youth in exchange for the house that Valerie was supposed to eventually inherit.

Valerie regularly meets up with a poet and minstrel named Eaglet who wears a boater and looks a little hippyish with his long sideburns and John Lennon style glasses. She also repeatedly comes across a grotesque looking character known as Weasel, a vampire who morphs into a constable and a bishop and has the kind of hideous pointy teeth that make Shane MacGowan’s nashers look like Tom Cruise’s. He’s maybe also the Devil and Eaglet’s father.

Valerie_and_Her_Week_of_Wonders_-_The_Weasel

According to creepy missionary Father Gracián, who later tears off his cassock and attempts to molest her, Valerie’s father was a bishop, so maybe Weasel is her father, and therefore Eaglet might be her brother.

Identities here are fluid. Her Grandmother – who is also a vampire – might be her distant cousin Elsa or even her mother. Or maybe this is just the same actress playing a number of roles. Yeah, I happily admit that I’m confused by this not remotely coherent plot.

As I wrote in my previous post about Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky, for maximum viewing pleasure it’s probably best not to analyse events onscreen too closely as this would likely suck any enjoyment out of your viewing experience.

Just enjoy the startling imagery and the utterly enchanting pastoral score by one of Czechoslovakia’s leading composers, Luboš Fišer. This is a true marvel. Fragile and haunting, it’s the perfect accompaniment to such a beautifully dreamlike and disorienting film.

Valerie_and_Her_Week_of_Wonders_-_Ending

Influences would seem to include middle-European fairy-tales, F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu and Lewis Carroll – like Alice, Valerie is oddly accepting of the constant hallucinatory craziness around her, even when she finds herself tied to a stake, about to be burnt publicly as a witch. The most important influence, though, is maybe dream/nightmare logic.

Jireš never makes it explicit if what we are seeing is really happening or only dreams or daydreams conjured up by Valerie. At one point she does say ‘This is only a dream’, which is fine by me.

Valerie_and_Her_Week_of_Wonders_-_Bed

Rudé právo, the regime’s propaganda filled newspaper, was far from happy, calling for ‘other films, films for audiences, films for today, films for a socialist person’, in a highly negative review. For the rest of the decade Jireš was forced into the the kind of thing that would find more favour with the Communist authorities, mainly arts documentaries featuring opera and ballet. A huge pity.

Valerie would be the only film of his that could be categorised as surrealist. He did, though, describe it as his favourite.

The film only made only a brief appearance in Czechoslovak picture houses but was the last New Wave film from that country to be met with international acclaim, deservedly being selected for screenings at a number of highly regarded festivals worldwide.

Since then, its reputation has slowly grown and today, it’s widely hailed as a cult classic.

If you liked Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, you might also like November (2017). Set in a barren and northerly landscape, this Estonian fantasy film has to be one of the most inventive and strangest dramas of recent international cinema.

In Rolling Stone, Peter Travis proclaimed it ‘a new midnight-movie classic’ and in Louder Than War, I called it ‘Midway between Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and an animation by Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer.’

There’s love spells, a day of the dead, human sized chickens, werewolves, a talking pig, plague and kratts – bizarre contraptions that look as if they’ve been mostly made from junk but which can speak and fly and cause all kinds of mischief.

For more on the film: https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/november/

Jabberwocky, A Hugh Cornwell Video & A McEwan’s Lager Ad

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Svankmajer Jabberwocky

This particular Jabberwocky is a short animation created by Prague based surrealist master Jan Švankmajer.

Žvahlav aneb šatičky slaměného Huberta, to give it its Czech title – and don’t ask me about the ins and outs of that translation – is deeply strange stuff and sometimes more than a little disturbing.

Here’s just a flavour of what what happens:

A pram wheels itself in circles around a room that In a room that looks like the world of 1871, when Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem The Jabberwocky was read by Alice in Through the Looking-Glass. More strangeness soon follows. A disembodied sailor’s suit comes out from a wardrobe and dances and then the room begins to sprout branches. These bloom and apples grows from them. The apples fall and burst open on the floor. They are shown to be full of little slithering maggots. Some large dolls boil some smaller dolls and then eat them. Cannibalism? You could say.

If you’re looking for an analysis of Jabberwocky, though, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Just enjoy and make of it what you will is my advice.

Back in the second half of the 1980s when I was doing a foundation course in art and design, it didn’t take long before I’d hear the name Jan Švankmajer being bandied around in revered tones.

Soon I discovered what the fuss was all about after seeing some of his work on Channel 4, when that station’s remit included providing ‘innovation and experiment in form and content’ rather than concentrating on bake-offs and locations, locations, locations.

Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers was also becoming a fan around this time. In 1987, the singer attended Bristol’s Animation Festival. On its final day, he watched the British premiere of Švankmajer’s new feature length film Alice (Něco z Alenky). Cornwell was immediately impressed and felt compelled to visit Prague to seek out the surrealist and attempt to persuade him to make a promo for his new solo single Another Kind of Love.

Hugh Cornwell - Another Kind Of Love

The Stranglers, incidentally, were already fans of surrealism, signalling their interest in the movement by appearing in a cameo in the 1978 BBC documentary The Journey, presented by George Melly who they would later collaborate with them.

‘The dadaists and surrealists were taking risks,’ he told Direction magazine, during his visit to Švankmajer’s studio. ‘They were the punks of their time.’

If this is the case, then it was especially true of surrealists in countries like Czechoslovakia, where their art was suppressed by Nazis and subsequently by the Communists. At one point in 1968, the year of the Prague Spring, Švankmajer even feared he might be deported to Siberia after signing the ‘Two Thousand Words Manifesto’ in support of liberalization in his country.

Hugh_Cornwell_-_Another_Kind_of_Love

Švankmajer’s video mixed live action sequences of a sharp-suited Cornwell performing the song together with stop-motion animation – including a likeness of Hugh obtained after making a plaster cast of his head.

This is not one of my very favourite Cornwell songs – but better than Old Codger, that aforementioned collaboration with George Melly that ended up as a Stranglers’ B-side, but I am fond of Švankmajer’s startling video that accompanied it. As far as I’m aware, this was his first and only foray into the world of the pop promo.

McEwan’s is the best buy, the best buy, the best buy in beer!

Everyone of a certain age in Scotland will remember this ditty from a corny but catchy ad constantly on TV in the days before I could legally drink alcohol.

I think I’ve only ever featured one TV advert on this site before and that was a more modern ad for McEwan’s Lager. Here’s a second. And it’s another commercial for McEwan’s. Memorable ads, yes, but sadly not a lager I would ever recommend to any drinker.

Depending on your viewpoint, this can be seen as either a homage to Švankmajer, or, a complete rip-off of a section of his short film Dimensions of Dialogue. Either way, I hope McEwan’s sent a few korunas his way so he could treat himself to a Staropramen or two. Now that is a lager.

And if you want to compare and contrast with Švankmajer’s short here you go:

Coming up soon, another slice of Czechoslovak surrealism, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

Faces & In The Soup: A Seymour Cassel Double Bill (American Indie #3)

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Seymour_Cassel_In_the_Soup

By the end of the 1980s, it was often hard to identify what qualified as an independent film. As Kim Newman pointed out in his essay Independent Daze, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing looked indie but was financed and distributed by Universal, while James Cameron’s Terminator 2 was backed by short lived independent Carolco.

Twenty years before in America, things were different. Faces was obviously independent. Director John Cassavetes ploughed his own money made from acting into financing it, as well as re-mortgaging his home. Luckily, he had a circle of friends who would also chip in cash and help out in any way they possibly could. Seymour Cassel was one of this group, along with Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands.

This resulted in Faces being made on a very modest budget of $40,000, and it was shot and edited over a number of years.

Seymour Cassel - Faces

Cassel got started in film in Shadows in 1959, Cassavetes’ first foray into the independent filmmaking scene. Here he played an uncredited, blink and you’ll miss him role, and acted as an associate producer.

On Faces, the next Cassavetes independent, he again took on double duties. As well as helping out as a crew-member, he also agreed to play Chet, a charismatic chancer whose dancing catches the eyes of a quartet of dissatisfied middle-class women while they visit a nightclub. One of this quartet is Maria (Lynn Carlin), whose husband John Marley has just announced he wants a divorce before storming out to meet up with Jeannie, a prostitute played by Gena Rowlands.

Faces is shot in grainy black and white and most of the action takes place in home interiors. It might resemble mumblecore in some ways, with its emphasis on dialogue, naturalistic performances and real locations – much of it being shot in Cassavetes’ LA residence, a spare room serving as an editing room – but don’t expect any mumbling here. Instead the characters drink, sing, argue, tell jokes, dance, suffer emotional meltdowns and shout at each other. THEN SHOUT SOME MORE AT EACH OTHER!

Seymour Cassel in Faces (1968)

You could easily imagine many scenes as a play and the length of some of these scenes might strike modern audiences as terribly overextended. Some dialogue could easily have been cut. It’s not my favourite Cassavetes film but the acting by everyone involved is absolutely superb, down to even relatively small roles – especially Dorothy Gulliver’s poignant turn as the lamentable drunk Florence.

Shot in sequence, so the actors had an improved chance of developing their characters, Faces never comes across as scripted. It looks like an early experiment in reality TV. Either that or a drama where the actors improvised extensively. According to Cassel, though, he was the only actor who veered off-script.

Uncompromising and unpredictable, Faces is raw but utterly riveting. Critic Roger Ebert judged in a contemporary review that it was the sort of film that made you want to grab people by the neck and drag them into the cinema to watch it.

Faces was recognised at the 1969 Academy Awards, earning Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Lynn Carlin), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Seymour Cassel) and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen (John Cassavetes), although it failed to take any gongs home on the night.

Seymour always retained fond memories of his time on Faces. Talking about this period during an interview on an extra feature on the John Cassavetes Collection, he noted that: ‘The closest I’ve come to having that kinda fun was doing In The Soup.’

He did liven up some big budget movies too like Convoy (1978), Dick Tracy (1990), and Indecent Proposal (1993), but Seymour Cassel remained drawn to independent work throughout his long career. ‘I like the excitement of not having enough money, enough film, enough time to do it, and still trying to make it work,’ he explained in an interview with IndieWire.

In 1996 he was cast as Uncle Al in in Steve Buscemi’s much underrated directorial debutTrees Lounge; he was Bert Fischer in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), and Dusty, the elevator operator in The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001.

Seymour Cassel - In the Soup 1994

Perhaps best of all was the role of Joe in the aforementioned In the Soup, directed by Alexandre Rockwell in 1992. Here, he played a minor-league mobster who somehow gets the idea that his money might be well spent by helping to finance the indie movie debut of wannabe filmmaker, Adolpho Rollo (Steve Buscemi).

As always, Buscemi puts in an excellent performance here: a wide-eyed dreamer, as desperate to direct as he is deluded about his talent. Jennifer Beals is very good too, but Cassel steals the show, and is at his irascible best throughout, drawing Rollo into his criminal world and constantly advising him how his film could be improved.

Seymour surely deserved a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Yet another one the Academy got wrong. Saying that, In the Soup was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, ahead of Reservoir Dogs.

You win some, lose some, and I’ve just belatedly discovered that the world of cinema has lost Seymour, who has sadly died of Alzheimer’s disease.

Seymour Cassel: January 22, 1935 – April 7, 2019

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