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Derek’s Jarman’s Jubilee

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Jubilee Quad Poster

Jubilee is no dreary slice of social realism, although the backdrop of the raw sprawl of dockland London, full of bombsites and crumbling buildings, would have been perfect for that. There’s no ‘straight’ political message either, Jarman even dedicated his script at one point to ‘all those who secretly work against the tyranny of marxists Fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists etc’.

Instead, this is a tale of time travel with Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), resident court astrologer John Dee (Richard O’Brien) and Lady in Waiting (Helen Wellington-Lloyd) being transported to a 1970s London by Ariel. The same Ariel who served Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

None are impressed by what they witness. This is a truly broken down Britain, where cops beat up or kill young people for fun and where homicidal girl gangs maraud around the streets. Jubilee comes across at times like a Kenneth Anger movie with a screenplay by Valerie Solanis. With a little John Waters style sick humour thrown in for good/bad measure.

The cast is of the ensemble variety. Five youngish women share a commune style warehouse squat. Bod – presumably short for Boadicea – is the unofficial leader and is played by Jenny Runacre. Amyl Nitrate (Jordan) is obsessed by history and likes to recreate Mondrian canvases with make-up on her face. Mad (Toyah Willcox) is a loudmouthed pyromaniac with bright orange hair; Crabs (Little Nell Campbell) a promiscuous and easily impressed actress; and finally there’s Chaos (Hermine Demoriane), a tightrope walker who looks good and says nothing.

They sometimes hang around with two bisexual and possibly incestuous brothers, Angel (Ian Charleson) and Sphinx (Karl Johnson), and an artist Viv (Linda Spurrier),the nearest thing to a sympathetic character that Jarman gives us.

The casting is odd. Jenny Runacre (who plays Queen Elizabeth I in addition to Bod) was already an experienced actor and had already worked with Tony Richardson, Pasolini and Antonioni; Richard O’Brien and Little Nell had recently been involved in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, while Toyah had just graduated from drama school.

Toyah Jubilee 1978

Many who took part, though, were picked on the whim of Jarman. Adam Ant (The Kid) was selected on the basis of the director spotting him walking through Chelsea with the word Fuck carved on his back by a razor blade. By a complete coincidence, Jordan, who’d performed the carving duties, had just been cast in a leading role. In fact, the first scene that Jarman chose to shoot for Jubilee involved Mad carving the word LOVE on Bod’s back, before sprinkling salt on to the wound.

The performances range from the professional to verging on the kind of thing you might see in a one-star student production at the Edinburgh Festival. If Tommy Wisseau has ever seen this, he might even find Orlando’s turn as Borgia Ginz, a megalomaniac impresario who inevitably breaks into cackling laughter after he has spoken, annoyingly hammy.

Jubilee is usually claimed to be a punk film but the former public schoolboy director Derek Jarman was no punk. In August 1976 he laid out his thoughts on the ‘King’s Road fashion anarchists’, deriding its instigators as ‘the same old petit bourgeois art students, who a few months ago were David Bowie and Bryan Ferry look-alikes – who’ve read a little art history and adopted some Dadaist typography and bad manners, and who are now in the business of reproducing a fake street credibility.’ Ouch.

Despite this opinion, he did include a number of punkish tracks in Jubilee, with Jordan – then the manager of Adam and The Ants – advising him on which music to use.

Only three days after recording their debut single Plastic Surgery, The Ants filmed the track for Jubilee in the Drury Lane Theatre. Wayne/Jayne County supplied a track Paranoia Paradise, that was supposedly number one in Moscow, having sold 30 million copies in three days, while Siouxsie and The Banshees are briefly seen performing Love In A Void.

Gene October & Little Nell in Jubilee

There’s also a blast of Chelsea’s Right to Work, a song that verges on a dirge and which I’ve never been able to figure out – is it a protest against rising unemployment of the era or is the right to work for employees who believe that they should be able to put in a shift even when the trade unions insist otherwise? The band’s singer Gene October also plays Happy Days, who meets a grisly end, being asphyxiated in a red plastic sheet and then dumped into the mud of the Thames at low tide. A far from happy day.

Additionally, The Slits, like the younger sisters of Alex and his droog pals in A Clockwork Orange, destroy a car with great relish. The band quickly decided that they didn’t want to be portrayed as violent and become associated with mindless destruction. They pulled out of any further involvement with the project and asked Jarman to bin the footage already shot. But, of course, he didn’t. ‘Can’t blame him really,’ Viv Albertine noted in her autobiography Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

Interestingly, the first music we hear in Jubilee is the other-worldly ambiance of Slow Water. Initially released in 1976 on a limited edition of Music for Films, which was sent out to directors in the hope that they might include some of it in their films, Jarman was the first to take him up on the opportunity.

Jordan with trident

The song with the most impact, though, has to be Jordan (miming to Suzi Pinn’s vocals) performing a discofied version of Rule Britannia while wearing suspenders and carrying a trident. This apparently being England’s entry for that year’s Eurovision Song Contest.

On its release, Jubilee polarised opinions. Punks might have enjoyed the nihilism but tended to resent the message that punk acts could be co-opted so easily by the capitalist world. The Banshees condemned it while Vivienne Westwood despised it to the extent that she designed an Open T-Shirt to Derek Jarman, denouncing it. Jenny Runacre got her hands on one and wore it with pride, while Jarman was shown photographed wearing one in one of the Criterion re-release extras, A Time Less Golden (2003). When Westwood accepted an OBE in 1992, he called her as a ‘dipsy bitch’.

Derek Jarman in Vivienne Westwood T-shirt

Conservatives meanwhile were likely even more pissed off with the nudity, castration, asphyxiation, murder, blasphemy and sex – especially the orgy sequence supposedly being carried out in the bowels of Westminster Cathedral.

Despite the controversy generated, Jubilee was never a big cinema attraction and by the time it made its debut on British television in 1986, punk was dead and tracks like Sleezy D’s I’ve Lost Control would soon signal a new musical revolution in acid house.

A true provocateur, Derek Jarman was uncompromising here and remained so throughout his career. He was referred to as the ‘English Andy Warhol’ by several critics and Bowie described him as a ‘black magician.’

Don’t expect a traditional narrative here. It’s very episodic, and Jarman made much of it up as he went along (and it tells). It can often be frustrating but equally, it is extraordinary in many ways and not one single scene is bland.

The artist/director/stage designer/writer/gardener believed Jubilee proved prescient. In Dancing Ledge, he wrote: ‘Dr Dee’s vision came true – the streets burned in Brixton and Toxteth, Adam was on Top of the Pops and signed up with Margaret Thatcher to sing at the Falklands Ball. They all sign up in one way or another.’

Ginz’s observation that ‘this is the generation who grew up and forgot to lead their lives’ and how ‘the media became their only reality’, struck me as far more prescient, albeit concerning many of today’s millennials, more interested in recording their lives on phones and social media rather than just leading their lives.

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Arthouse & Grindhouse in Glasgow in the 1970s

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Back in the 1970s, Glasgow didn’t any real equivalent to NYC’s Deuce, but there was a little line of Classic chain theatres in Renfield Street, just down from the old Glasgow Apollo, as well as the Tatler Club on Sauchiehall St. and the Curzon on Charing Cross.

In 1973, the Classic Grand launched on Jamaica Street with the idea of establishing itself as a swanky new venue for filmgoers. It had been a cinema years before, but the building had been lying derelict for almost a decade, gutted by fire. Now it was refurbished, with a lot of money being ploughed into its transformation.

Classic Grand Opening

‘Inside, it’s luxury all the way, The Evening Times gushed, describing the bronze tinted mirror opposite the entrance, regal red striped drapes and 3 foot frieze of ‘deep amethyst vinyl’ together with upholstered seats (390 of them) with plenty of leg-room promised.

‘Classic pride themselves on appealing to everyone,’ Peter Strick, the Exec Director told the paper, going on to describe the varying kinds of movies that would be shown.

The opener was to be Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (u) before launching into a couple of X-certificates – although the plan was to also include a number of U and A certificates like Black Beauty for the younger generation to enjoy.

Within a couple of weeks of the Classic Grand opening, dodgy sounding titles such as Labyrinth of Sex (x) and You Can’t Run Away from Sex (x) began to dominate the programming, although slots were still found for a James Bond season.

The idea of anything family friendly gradually disappeared, and like the other Classics, it soon succumbed to regularly screening softcore pornos and became a ‘classic’ fleapit, albeit there would also be some more general types of film, the sort that could be seen across the city in the mid-1970s.

At this point, for example, the ABC chain were showing Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (x) and early Scorsese effort Boxcar Bertha, (x) which was teamed up with blaxploitation revenge thriller Slaughter (x). The Odeon went with Sexy Susan Knows How (x), while a few weeks later the same cinema played host to the subject of last week’s post, Across 110th Street (x). Elsewhere, a number of picture houses presented A Clockwork Orange (x) in the months before Kubrick withdrew it from British screens.

Glasgow Film Theatre May 1974

Just a little over a year later, another and very different kind of cinema, opened nearby. This was the Glasgow Film Theatre, the successor to Scotland’s first arthouse cinema, the Cosmo.

The first films screened in May 1974 included the work of many big-name auteurs. There was Fellini’s Roma (x), followed by Trauffaut’s The 400 Blows (a), Hitchcock’s Psycho (x), Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (aa), Bunuel’s Viridiana (x), and then another Fellini, La Dolce Vita (x).

If I had been enough old enough to be allowed in, though, I’d have chosen to see one of the great 1970s double bills, which was on at the East Kilbride’s Caledonian – Don’t Look Now (x) and The Wicker Man (x), although The Exorcist (x) would have been mighty tempting too. That was on across several screens in the city centre.

Classic Club Cinema Glasgow 1975

What was to be called the Classic Club Cinema opened in the summer of 1975, aiming from the off to show ‘uncensored films which deal frankly with human relationships’. The first two films screened were All American Girl and Lisa’s Felly, neither of which I have ever seen. Or have any real desire to seek out.

Occasionally, though, the Club and its two neighbouring Classics would also show a range of exploitation movies and even underground obscurities. There would be kung fu flicks, gialli, blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns, cult chillers like Pete Walker’s The Flesh and Blood Show (x), and the kind of movies that in America would find their way onto the drive-in circuit.

The bored, the cold, the unemployed, the dirty raincoat mac brigade, students and folk who just enjoyed non-mainstream celluloid would make their way into these picture houses. By the late 1970s, I’d go and see the odd cult film in this type of venue. There were late night horror screenings where the audience would shout out, talk incessantly and throw food at the screen if the the movie was a dud and, very often, you might find the kind of curiosity that you would equate more with the GFT. One of these was Derek Jarman’s Jubilee (x), which I saw at one of the Renfield Street Classics. Music related films and documentaries always seemed to find an audience there.

Classic Glasgow 1974

In Glasgow, as Jubilee debuted in the early summer of 1978, the extended run of Star Wars (u) was finally nearing an end and the two big films were Close Encounters of the Third Kind (aa) and Saturday Night Fever (x). The Bitch (x) was also creating a stir, and Joan Collins even made a personal appearance at the ABC2 although that held no appeal to yours truly.

With World Cup fever building in Scotland and Ally’s Tartan Army about to set out on their march, the GFT decided to get in on the act with a season of films about Argentina, including a critical study of the Peronist movement. Okay, maybe they weren’t really trying to get on the act commercially as I hardly think this season would’ve proved to be box-office gold.

There were many angry letter sent to the local press complaining about the ‘filth’ being shown at cinemas like the Classic Grand. Today, some might look back with distaste and be thankful that the Classics and Tatlers are no more – although it would take only seconds to find material online that is far more hardcore than anything ever shown publicly in the 1970s in Glasgow.

The most striking feature about the cinema listings of the ’70s is the surprisingly high percentage of X-certs (replaced in 1982 by the 18 rating) that were programmed in the grindhouses, big movie chains and even the independent Glasgow Film Theatre, although the mega-success of Star Wars would change this. Strangely enough, I suspect that the most controversial film advertised above would be the GFT’s screening of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, a technically innovative silent era masterpiece made by a director whose previous work The Birth of a Nation displayed clearly racist beliefs.

I’ll be taking a look at some of the works mentioned in this post in the upcoming weeks, starting with Jubilee.

Jubilee_2_6_78

Across 110th Street (Soundtrack Sundays)

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Across 110th Street

The Blaxploitation era gave the world of cinema some of the its finest theme tunes. Three stand out, though.

Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning Theme From Shaft from 1971 with Charles ‘Skip’ Pitts’ uber funky wah-wah riff and those gorgeous Stax horns; Superfly, which showcased Curtis Mayfield’s honeyed falsetto coo and powerful anti-drugs message. Then there’s Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, which not only opened the film of the same name but also Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. And it closed that one too.*

A New York set crime drama directed by Barry Shear and released in 1972, Across 110th Street featured a number of other songs written and performed by Bobby Womack (and his band of the time Peace), as well as a soul-jazz musical score from J.J. Johnson, a man mainly known as a trombonist. I know little about Johnson, but it’s been said that he did for that instrument what Charlie Parker did for the sax.

A protege of Sam Cooke, whose voice obviously inspired his own vocal stylings, Bobby Womack delivers his finest moment here, his world-weary croon giving the lowdown on life in Harlem, ‘the capital of every ghetto town’, lyrics that reflect the world of central character Jim Harris. As he puts it himself: ‘Look at me! You’re looking at a 42 year old ex-con nigger with no schooling, no trade, and a medical problem! Now who the hell would want me for anything but washing cars or swinging a pick?’

Harris is one of two low-level Harlem criminals who, dressed as cops, rob the Mafia of over £300,000 in a daytime raid on a flat in a busy tenement flat. The heist goes wrong, and in the hail of machine gun fire, three local black mobsters and two Mafia footsoldiers will be gunned down, while in the aftermath, as the thieves make their getaway, two members of the NYPD will also lose their lives.

Two cops are central to the movie. The first is Captain Frank Mattelli (Anthony Quinn), a fifty-something cop hanging on to his job desperately, fearing he’ll be replaced by a younger man. His fists play an important part in any investigation, and he’s also shown to be in the pay of a Harlem crime kingpin who refers to himself as Doc Motherfucking Johnson, played memorably by a gravel voiced Richard Ward.

The other is Lieutenant William Pope (Yaphet Kotto), a younger and more even tempered cop, who is keen to observe police protocol at all costs and who has been put in charge of the case, largely because he is black. Yes, Matelli’s obviously the bad cop to Pope’s good. But the Italian-American is never one dimensional and, like Pope, he desperately wants to see justice achieved.

As this pair attempt to solve the case, the Italian Mafia – aided and abetted (sometimes grudgingly) by their local black gangster associates – also want payback. Sadistic mob lieutenant Nick D’Salvio (Anthony Franciosa) is tasked to get the money back. He wastes no time in tracking down the thieves, first coming across weak link getaway driver Henry J. Jackson (Antonio Fargas), who draws suspicion on himself by immediately heading out for some flamboyant whoring and touring on the streets of Harlem with his ill-gotten gains.

He meets the kind of grisly end that makes you think that the remaining two thieves, Jim Harris (Paul Benjaman) and Joe Logart (Ed Bernard) might be better being caught by the cops.

Across 110th Street - still

Sometimes Across 110th Street resembles an old episode of Kojak, which maybe isn’t surprising as Barry Shear had forged his directing reputation on TV shows such as Police Women and Police Story. He does, though, demonstrate some real flair throughout the film and he excels at action scenes – and there’s plenty of those to enjoy. This is where Johnson’s score proves most effective too.

Despite the two songwriting sources, the music is unified nicely with Johnson tracks like Harlem Love Theme and Harlem Clavinette echoing the theme tune, while there are also an instrumental tale on it and an Across 110th Street pt 2.

Here’s Bobby solo on Jools Holland’s Later with the title track:

* In a different version of the song. It also was used by Ridley Scott in American Gangster from 2007.

Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down: An Albert Finney Top Ten

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Albert Finney as Arthur Seaton

When compiling my list of best film re-issues of 2018, there could only be one winner. A nine disc collection released to mark the sixtieth anniversary of one of Britain’s most influential ever independent production companies, Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema contained three films that featured Albert Finney, who died on Thursday: The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960); Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960); and Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963).

Finney admitted later that could have went on playing Arthur Seatons for years, but he was keen never to be typecast. Instead, he went on to play an amazingly wide range of characters from Scrooge through to Luther in film and theatre. He was nominated for five Oscars and declined a CBE and a knighthood.

The following ten films should, hopefully, give some indication of the scope of this work.

Thanks for the memories, Albert.

Albert_Finney_-_Gumshoe

10. Gumshoe (1971)

The directorial debut of Stephen Frears, this is a noirish spoof that features Finney in the role of Eddie Ginley, a bingo caller with aspirations to establish himself as a club comedian and Humphrey Bogart style private eye. Finney is perfect for the part and Billie Whitelaw, Frank Finlay and Fulton Mackay offer top-flight support.

9. The Duellists (1977)

Often forgotten, this Barry Lyndon-esque historical drama is worth seeking out, even though Finney isn’t in a starring role. According to director Ridley Scott, Finney agreed to film a day’s cameo with his payment being a framed cheque for twenty five pounds. It was inscribed: ‘Break glass in case of dire need.’ I’m guessing he never had to.

8. Big Fish (2003)

Over the years, Finney collaborated with many fine directors like Stanley Donen, Steven Soderbergh and Sidney Lumet. Here he is cast by Tim Burton as Edward, a man of many tall tales, including once having caught a massive catfish by using his wedding ring as bait.

7. Erin Brockovich (2000)

Julia Roberts and her plunging necklines might have won the bulk of the plaudits in this absolute smash biographical hit but Finney was a joy to watch as small-town lawyer Ed Masry, the long-suffering boss of the titular character.

Albert Finney - Miller's Crossing

6. Miller’s Crossing (1990)

A noirish gangster movie that is densely textured and audaciously plotted – you better pay close attention. Finney here is Leo O’Bannon, the corrupt Irish kingpin of an unnamed American city during the Prohibition era. In one of the most remarkable scenes in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre, Leo’s mansion is attacked in a hail of bullets as he listens to the sound of Danny Boy.

5. The Dresser (1983)

A film that brought together two massive stars of 1960s British New Wave Cinema, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. The casting proved inspired and both performances earned nominations for Academy Awards, BAFTAs, and Golden Globes.

4. Tom Jones (1963)

An adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel, this ended up winning four Academy Awards including Best Picture. The success of this historical romp helped propel Finney towards Hollywood stardom and also, along with the success of James Bond, persuaded American production companies to start pumping cash into the British film industry.

Albert Finney - Charlie Bubbles

3. Charlie Bubbles (1968)

I did flick through a number of ‘Albert Finney’s Best Films’ lists in the wake of his death and this failed to appear in any of them. Here Finney plays a writer cut off from his working-class roots, who doesn’t fit into the swanky London life he has carved out for himself either.

Set in Salford and Manchester, this is a surrealist kitchen sink drama with a screenplay by Finney’s fellow Salfordian Shelagh Delaney (take a bow). This was Finney’s directorial debut and was made by his own production company Memorial Enterprises on a budget of £450,000. He never directed another feature film again.

2. Under the Volcano (1984)

Based on Malcolm Lowry’s semi-autobiographical 1947 novel that was judged by many to be unfilmable, this late period John Huston movie told the story of Geoffrey Firmin (Finney), an alcoholic British former consul in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac on the Day of the Dead in 1938. Finney is immense and if you ever see an actor better portraying being drunk onscreen, please let me know.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960).jpg

1. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Finney wasn’t author Alan Sillitoe’s idea of Arthur Seaton. The Nottingham born writer, whose novel the film was adapted from, reckoned: ‘My Arthur was taller and thinner in the face.’ Finney himself could see the author’s point and didn’t think he resembled Seaton either. ‘But I did know a few Arthurs in my boyhood in Salford: I’d also worked ten weeks in a factory to fill in the time before drama school.’

Almost sixty years since its release, it’s hard to imagine how controversial the film was – Warwickshire County Council even as far as to ban the already X-rated film – but it remains a landmark British kitchen sink classic, largely due to Finney’s astonishing powerhouse performance.

In 1999, the British Film Institute named the 14th greatest British film of all time. It should have been much higher.

Albert Finney. Born 9 May 1936. Died 7 February 2019.

The Chicken Won’t Stop: Stroszek (New Waves #6)

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Stroszek.png

May 17, 1980. Britain has only three TV channels and one of them, BBC2, is screening Werner Herzog’s Stroszek. I can’t remember what I was doing that night but as it was a Saturday and I was in my late teens, I would likely have been out drinking or maybe seeing a concert. David Lynch, working in London on The Elephant Man, did tune in. So too, more famously, did Joy Division singer Ian Curtis.

It would be the last film he would ever see before hanging himself.
When this fact emerged, it made me search out Stroszek. I wasn’t disappointed when I finally got to see this unforgettable 1976 release by one of the most important German New Wave directors, Werner Herzog.

As the central character Bruno Stroszek, Herzog chose Bruno Schleinstein (styled here as Bruno S.), a man who had spent the bulk of his early years in mental institutions and had been perfectly cast two years earlier in Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, at which point he had no acting experience of any kind.

The script was penned in just four days. According to Herzog anyway, who you might want to believe or not on the matter. The film had been written specifically for Schleinstein – partly due to Herzog’s guilt at ditching him for the lead role in Woyzeck in order to accommodate Klaus Kinski at the last minute.

Stroszek would have a huge biographical element. The messy Berlin flat with the piano and glockenspiel was Bruno’s. The bar he drinks in was his local at the time. The courtyard where he plays his accordion is where he would often busk.

Bruno Schleinstein is the most fascinating actor to appear in any films of the New German Cinema era. He was the illegitimate son of a prostitute, who hit him so savagely that he had problems with his hearing. At one point he even lost the ability to communicate. The beatings did eventually stop. But only when she dumped him into an asylum. The young Bruno was then subjected to a number of Nazi experiments and punishments. He recounts one of these ordeals, about being caught bed-wetting, in the only improvised scene of the Stroszek.

It’s almost inevitable that Joy Division fans will speculate that Bruno must have reminded Ian Curtis of at least some of the individuals that he helped find employment or access benefits when he worked as a Disablement Resettlement Officer in what was then known as a labour exchange. Not that I’m pointing any blame in the direction of Herzog and his film for the tragic end of Curtis’s life.

‘I wish this singer was still alive and hadn’t seen Stroszek at that moment,’ Herzog told Jason Parkes in a Q&A for BBC4. ‘Deep at the bottom of my heart I do believe that Stroszek was not the reason that he killed himself. I do believe that he must have had some very, very serious deeper other reasons and he may have, and I’m very cautious, he may have used the film as a ritual step into what he was doing.’

Stroszek -Bruno & Eva

Bruno prepares to leave prison and is warned by a well meaning warden to avoid alcohol and, if he should enter a bar, to order coffee and cake instead. Once free, he heads straight to Beer Himmel (Heaven) where he doesn’t order coffee and cake.

Eva Mattes (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant & Effi Briest), a future wife of Werner Herzog, was given the role of Eva, a prostitute beaten and humiliated by two thuggish pimps whenever her takings drop below their expectations. She takes up Bruno’s offer of refuge at his flat and begins an undefined relationship with him. Additionally, she befriends Bruno’s neighbour Herr Scheitz, a frail and elderly man with a passion for offbeat science, played by early Herzog regular Clemens Scheitz.

Herr Scheitz’s nephew Clayton has invited his uncle to join him and live in Railroad Flats in Wisconsin, and he has agreed to the idea. When Eva takes another brutal beating from her pimps, the trio hatch a plan to move together to the States. Clayton soon sources work for both Bruno (working in his garage) and Eva (who can become a waitress). Considering they are currently in Berlin, one of Europe’s biggest cities, they seem strangely excited about a move to the Midwest.

Stroszek - The Trio

This exodus of eccentrics arrives with their soon to be confiscated mynah bird and spend a day sightseeing in New York City. Using guerrilla style methods, Herzog managed to get arrested three times for filming without a shooting permit. Later, he became adept at forging this kind of thing.

They buy a wreck of a car to drive to Railroad Flats, a truck-stop town that is in reality called Plainfield. It’s no coincidence that this is the hometown of the serial killer Ed Gein, the man who inspired both Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

There are many scenes in Stroszek that will likely sear into your memory and never leave, like when a sympathetic doctor takes Bruno to visit a ward for prematurely born babies and demonstrates the astonishing strength of one baby’s grip. It’s almost disturbing and then oddly beautiful.

Then there’s the foreclosure sale where the auctioneer doesn’t just motormouth his way through proceedings but launches into some kind of bizarre hyper-speak that has a touch of Mongolian throat singing about it. Apparently he was a real-life world livestock auctioneering champion.

What makes this even weirder is that the auction is for the repossessed mobile home and belongings of Bruno and his friends. Ian Curtis is shown watching this scene in Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control.

Stroszek - Mobile Home

Most memorable, though, has to be the legendary final scene, shot in a Cherokee run tourist trap in North Carolina. I’ll have to warn you at this point that the following paragraphs may include spoilers.

Here Bruno causes chaos. He vacates his truck and leaves it turning round and round in circles as it catches fire. He visits a very odd animal arcade with performing pets in metal exhibition cages. There’s a drumming duck, a rabbit fireman, a piano playing chicken and a dancing chicken who displays some nifty footwork as it tidbitts across its tiny circular stage, accompanied by some tinny and repetitive arcade music.

Next, Bruno takes a chairlift up to the nearby steep hill carrying a gun that until recently had belonged to Scheitz. As he ascends, Herzog pans his camera upwards. With Bruno below the frame, a shot is fired and presumably, he kills himself.

The last dialogue we hear is from a Cherokee officer who radios into his headquarters: ‘We’ve got a truck on fire, I have a man on a lift, and we are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off. Can’t stop the dancing chicken. If you send us an electrician, we’ll be standing by. Over.’

Words that inspired the run-out grooves on the 1981 Joy Division double album Still.

‘The chicken won’t stop’ (A1); Chicken tracks across the grooves (sides A2 & B1), and ‘The chicken stops here’ (side B2).

Herzog then cuts back to the dancing chicken and its epileptic little stomps soundtracked not only by the arcade din but by a manic version of Lost John by whooping bluesman Sonny Terry. With the rabbit’s fire brigade siren, the other chicken pecking its piano and the rabbit’s random drumbeats, this builds into one truly delirious cacophony.

What the significance of this final section is I cannot say for sure. It’s utterly preposterous but absolutely works. In his audio commentary, Herzog claims that everybody on the shoot hated the sequence. He can’t explain it. ‘It contains some part of me that escapes my own analysis. It’s this dream moment, like in soccer, when you score a goal from an angle that is theoretically impossible… I don’t ever regret filming these sequences.’

After both his collaborations with Schleinstein, Herzog ‘demanded’ an Oscar for Bruno. Predictably, the Academy ignored him.

Schleinstein died in 2010 and, in tribute, Werner Herzog remarked that ‘in all my films, and with all the great actors with whom I have worked, he was the best. There is no one who comes close to him.’

If you like Stroszek, then you might also like Fata Morgana. Although you might not.

Shot in the late 1960s and premiered in Cannes in 1971, this is ‘a science-fiction elegy of demented colonialism in the Sahara.’ According to Herzog anyway.

This is one of those obscurities that became popular with the hippy crowd whenever it was shown on the midnight movie circuit or student union film societies in the 1970s. Think Zabriskie Point and La Vallee. And imagine that audience happily puffing away wherever these screenings were taking place. And not all of that smoke being of a legal variety.

Fata_Morgana

Fata Morgana is a near abstract film. Herzog and his three-man crew shot footage with no real idea what this would ultimately become. Interpret as you like.

There is certainly some startling cinematography, particularly of desert landscapes with occasional striking images, often of abandoned vehicles and machinery, and dead and rotting animal carcases. There’s also some narration – reciting Mayan creation myth, the Popol Vuh – that only served as a distraction.

The most enjoyable aspect of Fata Morgana for me is the music, in particular, Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne and So Long Marianne, as well as The Third Ear Bands’ Ghetto Raga.

Bad Times at the El Royale (Soundtrack Sundays)

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bad times at the el royale

We open in an empty hotel room in the late 1950s.

A man in a trilby and trenchcoat enters and begins to cram all the furniture to one side of the room. Then he rolls up the carpet and begins ripping up floorboards. He hides a duffel bag under the floorboards and then restores order to the room. He answers a knock on the door, a gun in his hand. It isn’t a fellow guest to complain about the noise. Moments later one of the two men is dead. The camera remains static throughout this series of jump-cuts.

Fast forward ten years and a Studebaker Commander enters the driveway of the El Royale accompanied by Edwin Starr and Twenty-Five Miles, a top ten Billboard hit in 1969, later to become a Northern Soul favourite. I’m really liking this movie already.

Once thriving, the hotel is now on the slide. Smooth talkin’ vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) gives a potted history of what was once ‘Tahoe’s best kept secret’ to two other guests waiting to sign in. These are a kindly priest Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and soul singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo).

This trio are soon joined by a hippy chick Emily Summerspring played by Dakota Johnson. Peace, love and understanding, though, aren’t uppermost in her mind during her stay. She’s not alone in this respect.

It’s safe to speculate that writer/director Drew Goddard watched Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight as he began work on his screenplay. It has a definite Tarantino feel: hyper-stylized, non-linear, with sudden bursts of shocking violence and a fine ensemble cast playing characters who aren’t always who they claim to be. And, of course, a killer soundtrack including America’s second biggest selling single of 1967. Here’s a very young and gravelly voiced Alex Chilton fronting Memphis quintet The Box Tops with The Letter:

Once ensconced in his room, Sullivan phones his wife and talks (in a completely different accent than before) to her and his young daughter. As he does so, he begins to disassemble the phone. He is checking for bugs and not just in the phone but across the whole room.

Before too long, he has discovered a secret passageway that looks into a line of rooms via a series of two way mirrors. He walks along it and observes the other guests. Not surprisingly, none of them have their feet up relaxing.

When Sullivan’s stay is ended prematurely, the film begins to go slide downhill. And there’s still a long, long time before the closing credits start to roll.

Much is made throughout the film of the fact that the California/Nevada state line runs right through the El Royale. It’s a hotel of two halves with rooms on the California side a dollar more expensive per night. Likewise, the film is a film of two halves.

We get flashback after flashback and not all of them are essential to pushing the plot forward. Just one example: Did we have to see an obnoxious English producer giving Darlene an ultimatum over her career? As Elmore Leonard once put it: ‘All explaining in movies can be thrown out, I think.’

Goddard even breaks up a crucial action sequence to give us a flashback concerning a character who has so far hardly spoken.

By the third act when Thor, I mean, Chris Hemsworth rocks up as barechested cult leader Billy Lee, attempting to channel Charlie Manson and Jim Morrison in equal measures, I was losing interest fast. Great abs, shame about the one-dimensionality.

‘I’m just tired,’ Darlene tells Billy Lee before a spin on the roulette table that will have more serious consequences than a few dollars changing hands. ‘I’m just bored of men like you.’ I’m bored by this man too. I’m bored by the whole film at this point.

I’m bored by this man too. I’m bored by the whole film at this point, even by Cynthia Erivo’s much praised voice when Billy Lee forces her to sing. She’s good but far from exceptional. And if you want to know what an exceptional soul singer sounds like, the El Royales’ jukebox supplied just that earlier, when Darlene chose to play Bernadette, sung by Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops.

Goddard’s dialogue never sizzles like Tarantino’s. He obviously doesn’t believe in the old screenwriting maxim that there shouldn’t be more than one big coincidence in a film. Worst of all, the movie is just far too long at 141 minutes.

It does look fantastic throughout, though, and why Seamus McGarvey’s neon noir cinematography didn’t earn an Oscar nomination remains a bigger mystery to me than the identity of the politician filmed surreptitiously at the El Royale – clearly designed to kickstart a heated debate much like the contents of the suitcase in Pulp Fiction.

In the acting department, there are a number of fine performances. Best of all is Jeff Bridges, who is superb as he confesses to Darlene that ‘My memory isn’t quite as it was,’ even though he claims his mother and her father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at a point when that disease was not known to the general public.

Hopefully Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood will be a more successful realisation of the late 1960s in America as the hippy dream was plunged into disillusionment and fear.

Here’s Deep Purple and their cover of Billy Joe Royal’s Hush, a track selected from the jukebox by wildchild Ruth Summerspring.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood will be released July 26.

The L-Shaped Room (New Waves #5)

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the l-shaped room

The L-Shaped Room: Bryan Forbes (1962)

As the film opens, we see Jane, a French woman in her twenties, wandering around a West London that is equally seedy and dilapidated, in search of somewhere to stay.

She rents a top floor room (L shaped obviously) from an obnoxious landlady called Doris (Avis Bunnage). Its walls are paper-thin, the meter swallows up pennies at a rate of noughts and worse still, an infestation of bugs scurry around the mattress of her bed at night-time.

There are a couple of prostitutes ensconced in the basement flat – one, Sonia, played by Coronation Street legend Pat Phoenix, the other also named Jane, a young Hungarian who’s fled Communism. Mavis (Cicely Courtneidge), a washed-up music hall entertainer also rents a room, as does Johnny (Brock Peters), a young man from the Caribbean, and Toby (Tom Bell), an easy-going writer, who’s fond of a quip and is instantly attracted to Jane.

tom bell & leslie caron - l-shaped room

At this point none of the residents know that Jane is pregnant and she’s in no hurry to make the fact common knowledge. This is pre-pill, pre-Abortion Act Britain and there’s still a stigma surrounding single mothers from the unenlightened.

She visits a condescending private doctor who assumes that the father of her child doesn’t want to marry her. She has no desire to marry him. The doctor also jumps to the conclusion that she must have already decided to definitely have an abortion. Wrong again.

On the plus side, she befriends her flatmates to the extent that they begin to resemble a surrogate family. Most significantly, she embarks on a relationship with Toby but this brings out a prudish streak in Johnny that, up till now, had been disguised by his cheerful disposition. He reveals Jane’s secret to Toby and this leads to complications. Toby’s insecurities and occasional temper surface as he struggles with the idea that the woman he loves is having another man’s baby.

The L-Shaped Room is unusual for what is often termed a kitchen sink drama. Its London setting is in contrast to the provincial Northern settings favoured by the likes of Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz around this time.
The main protagonist is notably not only middle-class but foreign too. And Leslie Caron was already an established star when cast. Forbes – who was originally only adapting the book into a film to be directed by Jack Clayton – welcomed the decision as it would lift the film out of what he called in his autobiography, ‘the parochial kitchen sink rut.’

It does challenge the social conventions of the day, though, and like the defining films of the British New Wave it had recent literary antecedents – in this case, the 1960 novel of the same name by Lynne Reid Banks. It also displays a freshness and urgency that was a feature of the era, features young lead actors and certainly embraces many types of characters who had been largely ignored or stereotyped in British cinema previously.

The L-Shaped Room is overlong, but it’s a shame that it is sometimes overlooked.

It did witness a revival in interest in the mid-1980s, when The Smiths incorporated a clip of Mavis’s Christmas Party turn Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty into the title track of their The Queen is Dead album. I seem to remember the film being shown on British TV a year or so before, so would guess Morrissey must have been taking notes. More recently, it was screened at the London Film Festival in 2017.

cicely courtneidge l shaped room

The two leads deliver very strong performances. Caron picked up a Bafta and Golden Globe for her efforts, while many might have been tempted at the time to put money on Bell emulating the success that contemporaries like Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay and Alan Bates would go on to enjoy. Sadly, he didn’t, although he did have a very solid career in both film and TV.

A special mention too for Cicely Courtneidge. She’s a vital presence here too as Mavis and the scene where she explains why she never married and speaks about her ‘friend’ is especially poignant. ‘It takes all sorts, dear,’ being the closest she can get to admitting that she’s a lesbian.

If you like The L-Shaped Room, you might also enjoy The Whisperers from 1967, also directed by Bryan Forbes, who since The L-Shaped Room had helmed a further three films and turned down an offer of £800,000 to produce, adapt and direct Casino Royale.

Set in Oldham, this is a real antidote to the cycle of Swinging London movies that had by this point become more fashionable than the kitchen sink/new wave genre. This was released during the Summer of Love but don’t expect a Smashing Time.

You might not know this film. An unflinching exploration of senility, poverty and loneliness, it flopped at the box-office to the extent that it failed to even recoup the cost of its prints and advertising. It did, however, earn lead actress Edith Evans a Bafta and a Golden Globe for her performance as well as her third Academy Award nomination.

Forbes forged his filmmaking career with Whistle Down the Wind, a film with a cast consisting primarily of children but he certainly had the knack too of getting the best from older actors. Evans is staggeringly good here. You could argue it’s one of the finest pieces of acting in 1960s British cinema.

If you begin watching the film and feel it’s just too bleak, I’d advise you not too switch off as it just might slowly draw you in (although I couldn’t guarantee it). The Whisperers doesn’t appear to be available to buy anywhere which is a pity but it can be viewed on YouTube.

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