Archive for August 3, 2008

The Anderson Tapes

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , on August 3, 2008 by dcairns

He looks like a young gnome.” ~ Screenwriter David Sherwin on first meeting Lindsay Anderson.

They said of director Lindsay Anderson (IF…) that he was a Scotsman when it suited him. That is, although born in colonial India, he was of Scottish descent and he sometimes liked to be proud of this, or use it in an argument. It’s quite handy to be able to stop someone who calls you an English filmmaker and before they’ve gotten to what they wanted to say about you, you can be correcting them. But I don’t think Anderson had a highly developed sense of Scottishness (whatever that might consist of) since he gave a speech in Edinburgh where he repeatedly referred to “English cinema” and called John Grierson an English documentarist. An irate Scot in the audience shouted corrections the first couple of times, but Anderson sailed on, oblivious.

But one time Anderson did remember his nationality was when discussing what he wanted done with his effects after he died — he was clear that they should “go to Scotland”. When Anderson did in fact meet his end (after a swim, on holiday in France — not too bad) somebody must have had to interpret what that actually meant.

Anderson’s writings, his annotated scripts, and his library (lots of cookery books, apparently) ended up going to Stirling University, where they can be consulted by film and theatre scholars (or cooks, presumably). The video collection went to the organisation for promoting the film industry in Scotland, Scottish Screen (also known as the S.S.).

This collection of mainly off-air recordings made by Anderson throughout the ’80s and early ’90s can be seen behind Anderson whenever you see him interviewed in his home. It’s kind of exciting to hold one of the tapes and read Anderson’s rather shaky, spidery handwriting on the label.

Anderson recorded almost anything — old Hollywood movies, all foreign movies, appearances by friends, documentaries and news footage of political events of the day, and a suspicious number of episodes of Spenser For Hire. I guess he just like Robert Urich. Because British television no longer shows the range of films it used to, Anderson’s tapes contain a lot of rare material.

Scottish Screen, having accepted delivery of about ten big boxes containing fifty VHS tapes each, then had to decide what to do with them. What they did with them was put them in a cupboard. And, because that didn’t seem quite enough, somehow, they told a few people that the tapes were there, and available. A catalogue listed the contents of the boxes.

I found out about the collection by chance and determined to have a rummage next time I was in Glasgow (and hour away by costly train). Scottish Screen has viewing rooms so I could watch the tapes if I booked in advance. What a treasure trove I discovered. James Whale’s “sophisticated” divorce drama ONE MORE RIVER, Julien Duvivier’s moving, emotionally epic LA FIN DU JOUR, Josef Von Sternberg’s THE SALVATION HUNTERS, Mitchell Leisen’s REMEMBER THE NIGHT – -things I have yet to find anywhere else.

Sadly, all Anderson’s own films were kept elsewhere (Stirling? I never knew) apart from a few odds and ends. A recording of the HBO mini-series Glory! Glory! which Anderson had directed, was partially taped over with a Beach Boys concert. But they did have this Anderson interview about pop promos —

The only problem was, it was going to be impossible for me to see all the films. If I lived in Glasgow it would be easy enough. Scottish Screen doesn’t charge for its screening rooms, so I could have gone along once a week and treated myself to a screening. But the distance and financial difficulty of getting to Glasgow regularly nixed that. Also, I wanted to share the films with friends and students. I particularly knew that my friend Lawrie Knight would enjoy many of them. Being about 80 years old and paralysed down one side, there was no way he could come to Glasgow with me. And since Lawrie once ran Films of Scotland, the organisation that preceeded Scottish Screen, I felt he had a right to some of this primo entertainment. Since Lawrie had a horrible time with that (“Worst job I ever had!”) and was in hiding from the Scottish film industry, I couldn’t use his name.

The S.S. maintained that they couldn’t allow tapes to leave the building. Even with strict book-keeping, the fear was that tapes would go missing. My argument was that this might not matter too much — after a year at Scottish Screen, the tapes had not been requested by anyone apart from myself. I asked if I could hook up two VCRs and make copies of films. The S.S. took the view that that would be copyright infringement. Which is true, but I can’t see how it’s worse that the infringement of recording the films off-air in the first place. As Anderson would say, “Your rules are too complicated for me.”

So I decided to use subterfuge. I would visit the “archive” and request several films to view. I would be carrying several blank tapes, glue, and a razor blade. Once alone in the little room with the TV, using the razor I would meticulously peal the original, tippex encrusted labels from Anderson’s tapes, then glue them to the blanks. At the end of the session I would leave with several Andersons, and the S.S. would hang onto the blanks. During my next trip I would replace the original tapes (this meant requesting the same films twice) and borrow some new ones.

After a while, my requests for five or ten tapes must have become wearisome, and my fondness for guddling through the boxes in search of uncatalogued treasures did not justify close supervision, so it was suggested that I should just carry a box through to the screening room and knock myself out. This I was more than happy to do.

Left alone with a whole box, or sometimes two or three boxes, I didn’t need to worry about removing labels. Nobody would notice if the box was slightly less full when I was done. And since I always returned all the tapes after pirating them, I felt I was unlikely to get into serious trouble if caught, so I grew ever bolder.

It was simply impossible to pass up a treat like Gregory LaCava’s STAGE DOOR or Anatole Litvak’s MAYERLING when I saw them before me, so the number of tapes borrowed kept increasing. My bag could hold about ten, and my coat and trousers had numerous deep pockets. Stuffed full of tapes, I came to resemble an articulated plastic manwith a Frankenstein monster walk, clunking internally with each step, but I somehow managed to make it out of the building undetected each time. I was usually the same bulk on departure as on arrival, because concealed about my person on entering the building would be the tapes from my previous depradations. I sometimes wondered if the staff had realised what I was up to, but also realised that it was fundamentally harmless, and partook of a recognisably Andersonian spirit.

After all, Anderson would have approved of a bit of film-buff anarchy.

(Also, Lawrie had a little bit of history with Anderson, having helped film MARCH TO ALDERMASTON, a documentary about the gigantic anti-nuclear protests of the ’50s: a high-angle shot taken from a moving car is Lawrie’s work. “I felt rather guilty about filming all these marchers from a car, with a big cigar in my mouth, but my partner, Morton Lewis, just said, ‘Shut up, we’re on the march, aren’t we?'”)