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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painted artwork, photos, notebooks, diaries, cardboard cut-outs, costumes, old cassette tapes and even a long out of date Jobseeker’s Allowance card.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.

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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.

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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/

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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/

Tarantino, Rolling Thunder, Chungking Express & The Cocteau Twins

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Chungking Express

By Hong Kong standards of the time, Chungking Express was well represented at film festivals across the globe. In 1994 it travelled to Berlin, Toronto, New York, Chicago and London. That November it was invited to Stockholm, where it was joined by Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Derek Jarman’s swansong Blue and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which won the festival’s Bronze Horse Award.

Chungking Express did though blag a FIPRESCI prize, while Faye Wong picked up the Best Actress Award, the corresponding award going to John Travolta.

Quentin Tarantino made a personal appearance at the festival to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. This strikes me as at least a little strange as he’d only made two feature films at the time – albeit they were two exceptionally good ones.

The festival circuit was heaven to Tarantino, scooting around the planet, meeting fellow film fanatics and cramming in as many movies as he could see. The one he adored most in Stockholm was Chungking Express. Well, it wasn’t going to be Blue, was it?

Around this time he was toying with a plan to distribute some movies along with producing partner Lawrence Bender. The films the pair had in mind to release were to range from hard to find exploitation classics to newer, hip and underseen movies that could benefit from the Tarantino Seal of Approval. An imprint was set up in conjunction with – cough, cough – Miramax, named Rolling Thunder (after the 1977 cult favourite) and the first release was Chungking Express.

Here, QT motormouths his thoughts on the film, gives us some background detail on Kar-wai, and draws some parallels between Kar-wai and the French New Wave, which many reviewers of the time were also doing. Tony Rayns, for example, compared Chungking to Godard’s Bande à part (Band of Outsiders) and as Quentin points out that’s where the name of his production company came from.

Feel free to play the Tarantino drinking game – every time he says ‘alright’ knock back a shot. Alright?

Set in the hyperactive, neon drenched cityscape that is Hong Kong, Chungking Express is both written and directed by Wong Kar-wai. It consists of two complementary stories, both concerning cops recently involved in break-ups.

The first is a sweet and sour tale that stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as He Qiwu (Cop 223), who has been dumped by his girlfriend May on April Fool’s Day. ‘So I took it as a joke. I’m willing to humour her for a month.’

Qiwu is very briefly drawn into the world of an enigmatic woman played by Brigitte Lin, who is never seen without cheap sunglasses and a blonde wig. The cop is too caught up in his own problems to ever suspect that May could be the type of woman who could kidnap a child, and be majorly involved in a drug smuggling ring. In fact, he’s more interested in pineapple rings and has become obsessed with buying a tin of them every day that will expire on the 1st of May. At which point he believes he can move on and maybe find someone new.

The second, and longer, story stars Tony Leung as Cop 663, a regular at the same snack bar that his fellow officer frequents.

He had imagined that he and his flight attendant girlfriend (Valerie Chow) would stay together for the long haul but instead they have recently changed course. Luckily, you might assume, he immediately catches the eye of new assistant Faye, a girl with a boyish pixie cut – that reminded some of Jean Seberg’s hairstyle in Breathless – and a dream to travel to California, which is why we repeatedly hear The Mama and Papas’ Californian Dreamin’ throughout this segment. The lovelorn policeman fails to pick up Faye’s interest in him, though.

This is quirky stuff, not a million miles away from some of the indies being made in America at the time and Faye Wong gives a startling performance. She also plays an important role in the soundtrack, singing a cover of The Cranberries’ worldwide hit Dreams, renamed here as Dream Person.

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Like QT, The Cocteau Twins were big Chungking Express fans and Faye Wong was a big fan of the Cocteaus, repeatedly mentioning in interviews that they were an influence on her sound along with a number of other Western acts like Bjork and Tori Amos, in addition to more local performers like Taiwanese folk singer Teresa Teng.

Originally from Bejing, Wong had moved to Kong Kong and began a singing career in the latter half of the 1980s. In 1991 she spent six months in New York, and when she returned to Hong Kong her music would become more eclectic. By the time of hooking up with the Cocteaus, she was a major star in Asia.

This meeting of East and West could have benefits for both, potentially helping the Cocteaus make inroads into the lucrative East Asia market, especially Hong Kong and Taiwan, while it would also lend some extra credibility to Wong, and further mark her out from her more mainstream Cantopop rivals, Wong being highly critical of the commercial Hong Kong pop scene of the mid-1990s.

A snippet of her version of Bluebeard was also included in the Chungking soundtrack, where it was renamed Random Thoughts ( Wu Si Lyun Seong), and this became the title of her album of 1994, which also contained a further Cocteaus cover in Know Oneself and Each Other (Zi Gei Zi Bei).

Here’s Random Thoughts, which you could argue adds the square root of hee-haw to the song, but certainly demonstrates that Wong possesses an exceptionally enchanting voice.

On the Hong Kong edition of the eighth and final studio album of the Cocteaus, Milk and Kisses, the band included two versions of Serpentskin, one sung by Elizabeth Fraser, and one where Fraser duets with Wong.

Wong later recorded an acoustic version of Rilkean Heart (Reminiscence) for her 1997 eponymous album, and Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde wrote a new song Yu Le Chang (Amusement Park), especially for her.

‘[We] thought it might be a fun thing to do, as her voice seemed to be in a similar range and style to Elizabeth’s,’ Simon Raymonde explained in The Quietus, discussing their work together. ‘I think it was an interesting collaboration and while it probably didn’t work out as we might have imagined, I think musically and sonically it all worked out fine.’

Here’s that aforementioned duet, Serpentskin.

La Pointe Courte & Faces Places (New Waves #7)

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La Pointe Courte & Faces Places

La Pointe Courte (1954)
Faces Places (2017)

Agnès Varda died last weekend, aged ninety. Unlike many artists she managed to keep her creativity levels at a very high standard right till the end.

Last year saw the release in Britain of her documentary Faces Places, which Peter Travers in Rolling Stone called ‘the year’s best, most beguiling documentary,’ before mentioning the phrase ‘sheer perfection’ to describe it.

He wasn’t its only fan. It was screened out of competition at Cannes, where it won the L’Œil d’or award, and was later nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 90th Academy Awards.

It’s easy to see why so many film fans enjoyed Faces Places. Varda is so damn likeable, it’s impossible not to enjoy seeing her scoot across rural France in a van – doubling as a photo booth – with her companion for the tour, JR, a thirty-three-year-old photographer who co-directs the documentary along with her and is never seen without his sunglasses on.

Yes, the format could be compared to the sort of TV show where a celeb or celebs embark on a road trip but here wherever Agnès and JR head to, they end up memorializing some of the most interesting folk (and animals) they meet. JR specialises in making massive format photographic prints, which he (along with his team) plaster up on the walls, water towers, trains and other surfaces of the villages they visit. Even a huge tower of shipping containers is utilized at one point.

Agnes Varda & mural

Varda was a key figure in French New Wave cinema although she wasn’t French (being born and brought up in Belgium) and had started her long career in filmmaking before the term New Wave had been popularised, so you could easily argue that she is a precursor to that cinematic movement.

Like a number of visually interesting directors – Ken Russell, Stanley Kubrick and Lynne Ramsay spring to mind – she started off as a photographer. A spell studying at the highly regarded Ecole de Vaugirard led to her to finding a job at the Théâtre national populaire, where she met many actors including Silvia Monfort and Philippe Noiret.

She set up a tiny independent production company Cine-Tamaris, a co-operative with the lead actors & crew members in order to make her debut film La Pointe Courte. No one was paid during filming and the budget was tiny.

Filmed in Sète on the southern coast of France, where Varda lived during her adolescence, this is a study of a married couple – played by Monfort and Noiret – in crisis, wondering if they should stay together.

La Pointe Courte

It’s also a portrait of the fishing village where Noiret’s unnamed character was born and raised, which, as the film opens is about to see the arrival of government inspectors, visiting to see if villagers are fishing with the legally approved permits and also possibly harvesting potentially poisonous shellfish.

Shot in a gorgeously luminous black and white, Varda documents the lives of the locals vividly as they eat, fish, argue, gossip, take down sheets from a clothes line in a billowing wind, and even take part in a local sporting tradition known as joutes – a kind of water jousting event that still takes place in the area and is something of a tourist attraction.

Critics adored La Pointe Courte but sadly it was denied the opportunity to ever become any kind of commercial success at the time.

La Pointe Courte - Agnes Varda

The Centre National de la Cinématographie, a government agency whose remit included the promotion of cinema in France, deemed it as ‘amateur’, as Varda had shot it without their authorization. This meant that it was not allowed to be shown in any commercial cinemas. A real shame, although it was screened at Cannes and later enjoyed a two week run in Paris at the Art et essai Studio Parnasse in 1956.

Varda didn’t make another feature length film until Cléo from 5 to 7 in 1961 by which point the New Wave was very much up-and-running with Le Beau Serge, The 400 Blows, and Breathless, having all been keenly discussed hits and international successes.

For someone who had only seen a very limited number of films by the time she turned twenty-five, it’s extraordinary that over sixty years after her debut, Varda was still involved in filmmaking.

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In Faces Places – or Visages Villages, to give it its French title – Agnès is obviously very old. She knows she’s very old. She struggles to get around as she once did and her eyesight is beginning to fail her.

She compares JR’s penchant for never being seen without shades with that of her old pal Jean Luc-Godard, who decades before shared the same habit, and she wants to see JR’s eyes properly while she can. This leads to a melancholic moment that is simultaneously predictable and unpredictable.

Equally sad is her trip to visit Godard. Once close comrades in the heyday of the New Wave, Varda is keen to meet him once more as it’s been years since they met. On the day, Godard refuses to open his door and a disconsolate Varda later closed the door on their friendship and wasn’t sure if Godard had even bothered to watch the film.

Luckily, the bulk of Faces Places is much more enjoyable for the director with plenty of offbeat humor and unexpected moments of joy.

The Agnès/JR double act has been described as a clash of generations and several critics called the pair an ‘odd couple’. Maybe what is really odd though, is the idea that the old and young can’t bond the way these two did. I’m sure Faces Places must have been a life affirming experience for both. And for the villagers who took part in it and the viewers who have watched it too

Agnès Varda 30 May 1928 – 29 March 2019.

To see the trailer for La Pointe Courte, click here. To see the trailer for Faces Places, here’s your link.

New York, New York (Soundtrack Sundays)

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New York New York

New York, New York is a big song. A Manhattan skyline big song. Everybody from eight to eighty knows it. No, scrap that cliche. Plenty of people over eighty know it too. And maybe quite a few under eight too.

It’s the ultimate song for drunks at the end of a party. What a singalong. Belting out those lyrics about waking up in the city that doesn’t sleep and how if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, and pretending to be Francis Albert.

As Sinatra signature tunes go, this is right up there. Only My Way can rival it. It has become the unofficial anthem of the great city and New York’s very own Martin Scorsese even named one of his early movies after it.

No, scrap that too. When Martin Scorsese hit on the idea to make a spec script by a screenwriting newcomer Earl Mac Rauch into a dazzling, hyper-stylised tribute to the big band era and to the golden age of Hollywood musicals, the song didn’t yet exist.

New York New York Happy Endings

To me, it sounds as if it was maybe composed when my grandfather was still a young man, or when my dad was a teenager in the 1950s, but it was written when I was fifteen, a time when The Sex Pistols were tabloid sensations, when David Bowie changed direction radically with Low, and John Travolta strutted his stuff in Saturday Night Fever.

I could get into some old tittle-tattle about Scorsese and Liza Minelli but won’t. He cast the star as his female lead, an up and coming singer Francine Evans, and brought in two songwriters Kander and Ebb, who’d become strongly associated with her through musicals like Cabaret, to supply some tunes.

Their original theme for the film impressed the director and singer but co-star Robert De Niro, who was to play saxophonist Jimmy Doyle, was much less happy about it. He requested that they try writing another theme which I’m guessing must have rattled the award-winning team, who were happy with their effort.

Still, they agreed to give it another go, in order to please an actor who was learning to play saxophone at this point, albeit only so he could better mimic a sax player as his own parts were to be dubbed in the movie by George Auld. Auld who also played bandleader Frankie Harte claimed that when he first met De Niro, the actor ‘Didn’t know a tuba from a taxicab.’

So what did this guy know about a successful theme tune?

This time Kander and Ebb came up with something that he did approve of, as did Scorsese and Minelli too, and this showstopper – which in the film, Jimmy composes – became the highlight of New York, New York (which I could never remotely love the way I loved Mean Streets or Taxi Driver).

Released as a single by Minelli during the long hot summer of ’77, this is Theme From New York, New York:

Was it a hit?

Like the film,* it failed to live up to expectations. It’s easy to imagine that from the moment people hear that killer opening vamp, they would fall in love with the track, but Minnelli’s original only managed to reach #104 in America.

Liza Minelli - New York, New York.jpg

‘Really?’ you might say. ‘But I bet the track must have went on to win Best Song at the Oscars and took off from there?’

Nope. In fact, it didn’t even earn a nomination from the Academy.

When it was first suggested that Frank Sinatra cover the song, he was initially wary. Ol’ Blue Eyes liked Liza’s version and treated her almost like family, due to his old friendship with Liza’s mother Judy Garland. By the autumn of 1978, though, he was persuaded to sing it live at a charity event at Waldorf-Astoria.

In 1980, he released the song as a single.

That must have been a huge hit then, you might think.

Nope, not really. In America it peaked at #32, while in Britain it made it no higher than #59.

Strange.

Both Frank and Liza continued to perform the song live and it continued to grow in popularity. A little research tells me that on these shores, Sinatra’s version was re-released early in 1986, and did finally go on to become a very sizeable success, joining the likes of The Damned, Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Simple Minds in the official UK singles chart, where it eventually peaked at #4, although I have absolutely no recollection of this.

Here are Frank and Liza live at Madison Square Gardens with a very showbizzy take on the song that doesn’t really work for me. Sorry but there’s no real chemistry between the voices and Frank, it would have to be admitted, is clearly past his prime. See if you agree:

* George Lucas – whose wife Marcia worked as an editor on the film – believed that New York, New York could have added another ten million to its box-office takings if Scorsese had chosen to close the film with a happy ending. Scorsese decided to ignore the suggestion but stuck with what he saw as the truth of the relationship.

 

A Suzy Kendall Double Bill: Torso & Spasmo

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Suzy Kendall Double Bill

It’s Giallo time again. So pour yourself a J&B with ice and enjoy.

First up is Torso, also occasionally known as The Bodies Bear Traces of Carnal Violence, or just plain Carnal Violence.

This is my favourite film by Sergio Martino, a director who worked in many fields, from sex comedies to spaghetti westerns, Euro crime to the cannibal genre and even a not terribly good creature-feature Island of the Fishmen.

Martino, though, is today best remembered for his 1970s gialli output such as The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail, Your Vice is a Locked Door and Only I Have the Key, and The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh. Yes, like many other Italian directors in this field he did favour baroque titles.

Martino’s older brother Luciano had produced Mario Bava’s The Whip and The Body, and this film proved inspirational to Sergio, as did Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. The former starred John Richardson, the latter provided a prominent part for Suzy Kendall.

Both these English actors star in Torso, Richardson as Franz, an urbane art history professor in a Perugia university; one of his students being Jane, an American exchange student, played by Kendall.

Suzy Kendall - Torso

The one time wife of Dudley Moore, Kendall is an actress whose early career saw her appear in a number of successes, most notably To Sir With Love and Up the Junction.

By the 1970s, she was also much sought after by big budget British TV series such as The Persuaders, where she was guaranteed to inject some instant glamour. Around this time she also established herself as a big name in the world of giallo after appearing in the aforementioned Bird with the Crystal Plumage.

After Torso’s opening credits sequence, which resembles something from a dodgy softcore movie of the era, we cut to a university hall, where Franz is giving a lecture to a large number of students on the subject of Pietro Perugino, an Italian Renaissance painter who he doesn’t rate very highly.

Afterwards, Jane, accompanied by her friends, chooses to discuss the artist further with him, arguing the case for Perugino. It’s easy to imagine a mutual attraction between the pair, even though Franz refuses to back down on his opinion.

Soon the murders begin. A balaclava wearing psycho brutally kills one of the females seen in the opening credits, after spying on her and her boyfriend canoodling in a car. He kills him too, but off-screen.

The murder of her friend, affects Jane’s pal Carol (Conchita Airoldi) badly. She troops off to what looks like a deserted warehouse with two motorbike riding students, where a gathering of hippy types smoke dope, relax, dance and play music.

Carol puffs on a joint and lets the two boys fondle her until one goes too far. She storms off, followed by them. This scene, as they chase her through a swampy forest, is particularly effective and the score works well, hinting at prog and helping to induce a real sense of dread. And the dread only increases when she glimpses a man through the mist.

Torso Psycho Killer

This won’t be the last murder in Torso, and most of the victims will be in Jane’s circle of friends.

The suspects are many and varied. Chief among them is intense student Stefano (Roberto Bisacco), who has been obsessed by Daniela (Tina Aumont) for years. He’s shown being abusive to a local prostitute, throttling her throat for some moments before managing to calm down.

Then there’s the chisel-chinned man in a smart suit, spotted earlier by Carol buying a black and red neckerchief – which becomes a major clue in the manhunt. He later boards the same train as Jane and co., and chooses to sit in the same carriage as them.

Gianni Tomasso is an incredibly creepy looking man and has a sleazy manner to match. He runs a little clothes stall in a piazza in the centre of the city, near to the university and obviously knows more than he lets on to the police when questioned.

As the carnage continues, Dani’s wealthy Uncle Nino arranges for his daughter and her friends (including Jane) to leave their homes in Perugia and stay temporarily at a cliffside villa in the country, where they’ll be safe.

Torso - Students

Is this a good idea? I think you can guess. And could Nino be involved in the slayings? After all, who doesn’t know how this kind of thing works?

Much as Torso is highly enjoyable, it must have been an even more remarkable watch in 1973. As many commentators have mentioned before, Torso is like a slasher before that cinematic term had even been coined.

The movie’s first half does start off in classic giallo fashion but as it progresses you can tick off a number of tropes and trappings of the slasher.

There’s the masked killer on the loose, the group of attractive young females, an isolated location, and the final girl – the sole survivor, resilient and resourceful and who just happens to be the most moral and pure member of the group.

Torso - Suzy Kendall

I’m not much of a fan of slashers but I’m a big fan of Torso, although I only saw it for the first time years after the likes of Halloween and Friday the 13th had already begun spawning sequels.

Expect gratuitous gore, a shoal of red herrings, and a final third that is packed with suspense and features a fantastic performance from Kendall.

Spasmo

Spasmo is another giallo from a master of Italian genre cinema, Umberto Lenzi. This is a strange one and comes over like a particularly disturbing dream, especially with the running motif of female mannequins dressed only in lingerie, that are either mutilated or hanging on nooses.

The two leads here are Robert Hoffmann, an Austrian actor best known for TV’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and a badly dubbed Suzy Kendall, who plays Barbara. I do tend to love Italian genre cinema but just occasionally sloppy post-synching can annoy, and I committed the cardinal sin here of choosing the English language version. My wrists have been slapped.

Christian Bauman (Hoffmann) is a Bee Gee lookalike with a small medallion, who shows his girlfriend Xenia a patch of land where he and his older brother Fritz (Ivan Rassimov) once discovered a dead dog that had been strangled when they were kids. And don’t ask how two young boys managed to identify that cause of death. maybe they carried out a psot-mortem.

Xenia spots what she looks like a female corpse on a stretch of nearby sand and she and Chrstian run over to investigate. This is Barbara, who of course isn’t dead, and is surprised that anybody could have made the assumption, even though she admits to fainting from sunstroke.

‘What you need is a double Scotch,’ Christian advises her. ‘That’ll pick you up.’

As he and Xenia go to his car to locate the whisky, Barbara mysteriously disappears, leaving behind a clue as to her identity, a flask bearing the name Tucania on it.

Christian and Xenia soon track down a yacht of that name harboured locally, and join a party on-board the vessel that is populated by Euro jet-set types and owned by Barbara’s possessive friend Alex, who is in love with her.

By nightfall, though, Xenia has been forgotten and Barbara won over by his chat-up lines like him calling her a ‘sweet, sweet whore.’ They head to the motel where Barbara’s staying, although she demands that Christian shaves his beard off before they get down to action. She has a razor in her room that is ‘big, sharp and sexy.’

Spasmo Suzy Kendall

While he’s removing his facial hair – with an electric shaver rather than any razor – a gun-toting intruder who looks like Dario Argento attacks him. Christian fights him off and grabs the gun. Then shoots him dead.

‘What’re you doing?’ Barbara asks a dazed Christian, as he walks into the living room. ‘Destroying my bathroom?’

He explains what happened. She suggests running away. He agrees. Luckily, she knows a property owned by a Brazilian artist friend currently in Rio. Here they can hide and plan their next move.

They break into the seaside home and soon discover that a couple are already renting it out, an older man Malcolm and a much younger female Clorinda, a redhead with the most piercing blue eyes imaginable, who Christian appears to vaguely recognise. I think I would personally remember that face forever more.

He confesses to Malcolm that he has murdered a man but Malcolm fails to believe him. This is like a decidedly disturbing dream and it is only going to get even stranger.

Spasmo Mannequin

Spasmo is a decent watch but nowhere near as effective as Torso. The dialogue is often abysmal and the plot too labyrinthine to easily follow, with a number of coincidences that are difficult to believe.

A revelation near the very end is clever enough and does make some sense of the batshit craziness that we have been watching but this comes just too late to entirely rescue the movie.

On the plus side, the mannequin motif is creepy and memorable, Ennio Morricone does provide a sometimes soothing, sometimes disorienting score, while in one great action sequence, Christian displays some driving skills that I don’t remember Jackie Stewart ever demonstrating back in the ’70s. And finally, Suzy Kendall is again in good form. A true giallo icon.

Suzy, incidentally, has now retired from acting but was persuaded to help out on 2012’s giallo influenced Berberian Sound Studio – another film with a disturbing and dreamy quality – where she is credited as ‘Special Guest Screamer’.

To see the trailer for Torso, click here.

To see the trailer for Spasmo, click here.

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