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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.

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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.

Harold_and_Maude_-_Swimming_Pool.png

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.