Archive for the MUSIC Category

Things I Read Off the Screen in “Victim”

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2015 by dcairns


The first time I wrote a piece about “things I read off the screen” it was about SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. It was a film which recreated vividly a lost world of Walpamur Liquid and other strange, esoteric substances, Basil Dearden’s VICTIM, a heroic movie to have made, one which helped bring about the decriminalization of homosexual acts in England and Wales (Scotland had to wait until, if you can believe it, 1980. Not a typo. 1980.) is set in a similar world. Both films give little typographical glimpses of what was playing in West End theatres at the time. They show a grey, dithering England, drizzled on and antsy.

The Dearden film is script by Janet Green and her husband John McCormack, a team who also wrote John Ford’s SEVEN WOMEN, his last movie and theirs too.

Of course it stars Dirk Bogarde, and was a fantastically courageous thing for him to have undertaken at the time. But then, he was sick of the pap the Rank Organisation had made him appear in, and wanted to make a decisive break. Some of those movies are not so bad, and some are bad but fun, but he had his sights set on higher things. Perhaps he thought that playing a character with homosexual impulses would be like hiding in plain sight — everyone would assume he must be straight, since otherwise the risk would be too great. But I suspect mainly he welcomed the opportunity to draw attention to a bad law which was destroying people’s lives — which could potentially destroy his.



Every public phone in this film — and there are many — comes with its own officious warning.



Motor Books??? Lionel Bart’s musical OLIVER!, later a Carol Reed film, is featured so prominently in this film it creeps into the dialogue, with the senior detective lamenting that a policeman’s lot would be happier if he only had to deal with Bill Sykes types. The implication is that there are those who are true criminals and those who are victims of the law. The pairing of coppers — one enlightened, one bigoted, is exactly the same as in the team’s earlier SAPPHIRE, which dealt with race. It’s a slightly obvious way of shoehorning in a debate about the issues, and subtly prompting the viewer towards a more mature view of the subject. Exactly the kind of thing Stanley Kramer gets knocked for.


OUT. While the expression “out of the closet” certainly existed in Britain at this time — you can hear it used in REPULSION, for instance — it’s not clear that the single word “out” by itself had any homosexual implication. I think the filmmakers have been careful to avoid flagrant double-entendres creeping into their signage, which is why this film is less cluttered with verbiage than many other urban movies of the era. So this is a case of a sign reaching for additional significance in a prophetic manner.



CAFÉ. Lovely chiaroscuro shot displaying Dearden’s noir style, displayed in a number of his films at this time. The earlier SAPPHIRE achieves gorgeous effects like this but in colour. Overall it seems to me slightly less successful at steering a path between the various misconceptions about its subject matter. Both films are flawed in ways that are not to do with insensitivity so much as incomplete understanding, and also censorship.

Part of the sign being occluded means that it actually says CAFF, which is how English people would pronounce it anyway, accent grave be damned.


MELVILLE FARR SHOCKS COURT. SHOOTING PARTY. And the rather vague MELVILLE FARR AWARDS PRIZE. From the scrapbook kept by Peter McEnery’s character, devoted to Dirk Bogarde’s. Bogarde/Farr explains this as “hero worship,” as if young men hero-worshipping barristers was a recognized thing. Making Farr a showbiz personality might have rendered this more plausible, and intensifed the blackmail angle, but would be too on-the-nose and too close for comfort.

Instead, Dennis Price, who had already been outed by an arrest for soliciting, plays the film’s token theatrical, part of a group of co-operative blackmailees who are presented by the movie as something of a sinister cabal. We’re encouraged to feel sympathy for Bogarde, but Bogarde is sort-of “innocent.” In areas like this, the film’s footwork is so fancy it can be hard to know if it’s progressive or reactionary. The answer has to be that it’s progressive just by virtue of the fact that it exists.

IIRC, Bogarde wrote in one of his autobiographies that in Price the film contained one actual homosexual. It also has Hilton Edwards (producer and partner to Michaeal MacLiammoir). Of course, Bogarde is excluding himself, as he always did. When the gay BBC presenter Russell Harty quizzed him on his private life, Bogarde responded with a virtual non-denial denial: “I’m still in the shell and you haven’t cracked it yet, honey!” A refusal to confirm, couched in the campest possible terms.


GENTLE HAIRDRE. The film’s inclusion of stereotypes like gay hairdressers is forgivable, it seems to me. There WERE gay hairdressers. The IMDB says of actor Charles Lloyd Pack that he “invariably played Church of England ministers.” Not QUITE invariably. It is an odd feature of clerical life that the qualities required in an actor to play a camp hairdresser are exactly those also required to play a Church of England minister.




HENRY’S. A. PALA. GEL & SON. Don’t know what it means.

The first entrance of the actual blackmailer who, like the Boris Karloff in THE WALKING DEAD and the antagonists of KILL BABY KILL and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s CURE, becomes a de facto serial killer without laying a finger on anyone. This is Derren Nesbitt, who was always on TV when I was growing up, and always in the most dismal things. He’s electrifying here. His wallpaper looks like pieces of correspondence with all the words redacted, and he has a punchbag and a framed print of Michelangelo’s David. Phys Ed and Art, the two suspect subjects. This wraparound ponce in his motorcycle jacket, exuding piss-elegant smarm and leering bullyboy malevolence, is in a very strange partnership with a latter-day puritan who believes in punishing “wrongdoers.” Though his partner’s sincerity in this quest is thrown into question by Nesbitt’s every mannerism. The character is listed in the credits as “Sandy Youth.”



An old theatre playbill provides gnomic hints. The letter must refer to the blackmail notes circulating throughout the narrative. Telephone calls are consistently ineffective in this film, plus you get shouted at by signs: NO PHONE CALLS AFTER 10PM; THIS TELEPHONE IS FOR THE USE OF OUR CUSTOMERS; PLEASE BE AS BRIEF AS POSSIBLE. But letters are effective. Letters make thing happen. A gratuitous subplot involves a fraud ring, operating in parallel with the blackmail, also utilising the postal system. “Words ARE important,” as Peter O’Toole teaches us in THE LAST EMPEROR. When Farr’s garage door is defaced (see top), his brother-in-law somehow knows it’s not the work of “hooligans” because it’s “too explicit.”


There’s more to this film than the writing on the wall. The gay bachelor flat Bogarde must visit (where he indulges in a bit of gay-bashing himself, slugging the rather frail Peter Copley on the jaw) is decorated in prints of lush foliage. In the stunning shot above, bare autumn trees visible through his front window surround him, creeping in, like cracks in a facade (or like the lines the makeup artist has darkened in his face to make him look older, to make it clear this is Dirk Bogarde playing a character).

Sylvia Sims, who today is a marvelous old bag, has spoken of the boredom of the wife roles she was usually saddled with in her glamorous youth. “Poker-up-the-arse parts,” she and Jean Simmons called them. She took this one because she recognized it was an important film. The mediocrity of her rather vapid character is scarcely felt because Dearden shoots the confrontation with Bogarde so dynamically. (“Because I WANTED HIM!” was Bogarde’s own addition to the script, which he felt was mealy-mouthed on this key point. They filmed the line without clearance from the censor and then simply fought it through.)

In the end, Farr sacrifices his career to do the right thing. He is rewarded by being allowed to keep his marriage. The suggestion is that this is a happy ending — certainly, the movie cannot be allowed to suggest that happiness for Farr lies in embracing his other instincts, which are described elsewhere as unfortunate, worthy of pity rather than censure, but in no way salutary. Is Farr gay? We tend to assume he is because of the casting, but the movie doesn’t come out and say so — he was attracted to McEnery’s “Boy” Barrett, and so stopped seeing him. This, he says, is quite different to what happened before his marriage — and incident his wife was aware of when they wed, and which he swore would never be repeated. So, in this cunning way, by repeatedly making it clear that nothing “happened” with McEnery, the filmmakers smuggle in the fact that something DID “happen” previously. And the result of all this finagling is that Farr gets to have had gay sex and doesn’t have to die. He gets off with life.

Background music from the transport cafe scene — pre-Beatles rock n roll, trying every so hard to pass for American. Kind of delightful, though.

Art isn’t just some guy’s name

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2015 by dcairns


We watched two fairly recent films in a row — I know, shocking, right?

MR. TURNER suddenly became the film everybody in Britain had to see, and our local Filmhouse did a roaring trade. I think the success was similar to that of TV movie The Gathering Storm — you have a well-known actor playing a well-known figure who is redolent of Britishness, and it somehow becomes a perfect storm. The Albert Finney Churchill impersonation was held together by a strong story. MR. TURNER had lovely cinematography — more gorgeous than I would ever have guessed Mike Leigh of his cinematographer to be capable of — begging the question why they don’t let their contemporary films look beautiful — but no story at all.


What, in fact, is MR. TURNER about? The extremely depressing final shot seems to argue that it’s about, at heart, the painter’s exploitative relationship with his housekeeper and mistress (Dorothy Atkinson, with some striking physical comedy work). It might be about the fact that each was the most important person in the others’ life, a thing which was never acknowledged for reasons of class. But if that’s what the film’s about, we’re faced with the problem that a good 80% of the action takes place far removed from this spine of the story. I liked Turner Snr., but his declining health is a different narrative altogether. Turner’s relationship with the cash-strapped Mr. Haydon has nothing to do with anything else. Turner’s suffering at the hands of the critics, who are unreceptive to his increasingly impressionistic work, would seem like an important element in a biography of the subject, but emerge very late in the runtime and vanish again, having had no certain impact on anything.

As usual with Leigh, a better approach I suppose is to simply ask if the scenes are interesting and not worry whether they are all necessary or add up to a coherent whole. TOPSY TURVY is the only other Leigh film I’ve both seen and liked, and it gains structural rigour by being about a theatrical production. It then jettisons that rigour by trundling on past its natural ending for about half an hour, leading into Gilbert & Sullivan’s next production. What Leigh gains from this is a deeper portrayal of the theatrical life, a never-ending cycle of fresh projects that must be laboriously brought into being. What he loses is a definable shape, a clear arc that lets the audience understand where they are in the story at any given time — most films follow these structural rules simply to reassure the viewer with a familiar set of beats. I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong to reject that.


In the case of MR. TURNER, a lot of the scenes are interesting. There’s some pleasing rhythmic interplay, some outrageous hamming (Joshua McGuire as Ruskin revives the grand old British tradition of the silly ass) and the grunting, shambling figure of Timothy Spall is curiously compelling. For some reason, the movie feels the need to punish us with some unpleasant sex and a horrible ending. That’s where I can’t go along with it. If it’s just a bag of bits loosely themed around a famous artist’s life, it doesn’t earn the right to be upsetting and/or icky.


THE MONUMENTS MEN is an equally handsome film, from handsome director/star George Clooney, who continues to show promise but doesn’t quite resolve his skilled team, charismatic cast, and intriguing subject matter into a really good movie. The music persistently tries to persuade us we’re watching THE GREAT ESCAPE, trampling all over the actual tone of the scenes, which are often quite a bit darker than a jaunty march would suggest.

Not too dark, though — a consistent and strange error of Clooney’s directing career is the allowing of scenes devoid of drama to make it through the development process. No tension or conflict, just chumminess. Decidedly odd when you have movies about the McCarthy witch hunts, a supposed CIA assassin and game show host (I admit I haven’t seen the ones about politics and football). I think because the story focuses on the good guys, who are all in agreement more or less, the potential conflicts with the Germans, the Russians and the American brass who don’t see the point of risking lives for paintings and sculptures, get fairly short shrift. As an actor, Clooney ought to know that you don’t have a source of tension in a scene you don’t have anything, but like a lot of enthusiastic amateurs he keeps ignoring what he does know.


I think there’s also too much intercutting, and the script is sloppy in its willingness to feed us information any old how: a narration, letters home, radio broadcasts. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov genuinely don’t seem to understand what drama is, or they think it’s OK to suspend it for minutes at a time while everybody stands around and tries to show how much they care.

But that all makes the film sound terrible — in fact, because the cast are all so affable and the basic set-up is intriguing, it’s a sometimes frustrating but generally diverting watch. It’s just not everything it might have been. Clooney is smart, talented as an actor, has good taste, and I’m certain he’s a nice guy — reluctance to allow drama to really boil over is often a trait of nice people — he just needs to take the gloves off, I think.

Pop. Boom

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2015 by dcairns


The two main films about overpopulation — a much discussed subject in the seventies — are SOYLENT GREEN and Z.P.G.

I have been to one science fiction convention in my life, a thing called Ra Con (cartoon rabbit emblem) at the Grosvenor Hotel in Edinburgh, sometime in the eighties. I was fifteen or so. I didn’t know anyone, so I just wandered around amidst my fellow sensation-seekers, a bit alienated. I went to the film show and saw Svankmajer and Bunuel/Dali and Trnka shorts, which put me in quite an odd frame of mind.

Harry Harrison was a guest, and I believe I was already a fan of his Stainless Steel Rat novels about a master-criminal of the future who is recruited into a crime-busting outfit on the principle of “to catch a thief.”

SOYLENT GREEN was screened and Harrison, an irascible, twinkly, gnome-wizard hybrid, (in my memory a lot like Edward G Robinson in the movie) spoke about the differences between the film and his source novel, Make Room! make Room! He was genuinely exercised by the problem of the population explosion. “People say things like, ‘Oh, she’s been blessed with nine children.’ Blessed! She ought to have her fallopian tubes cut out!”


HH liked the same bits of the film I liked — the opening montage, which he seemed to indicate had been added at the last minute to rescue the film and make the point clearer, although it could be that it was always part of the plan and they simply didn’t tell him — the scene where Chuck Heston brings some real food home and he and Edward G. Robinson enjoy an actual meal “and Heston does some actual acting,” — and Robinson’s euthanasia scene. He was genuinely honoured to have Robinson, making his last screen appearance, in a film based on his work. And he made a vaguely lecherous remark about Leigh Taylor-Young.

(A year or so ago, Fiona was forced to call up the NHS’s 24 hour help line to consult on what seemed like a health crisis [and was]. The music they played was “light classical” — the sounds Robinson dies to.)

What Harrison didn’t like is the thing everybody talks about (spoiler alert) — “Soylent Green is made of p*****e!” He felt that was an exploitative, gimmicky, icky and unnecessary twist. In a sense it was put in to punch up a movie which was by its nature not so much sensationalistic as steadily downbeat. What would have made it less so, in his opinion, was deleted dialogue between the old folks, where they were to have offered up a solution — not to their problems, which had reached an irretrievable crisis, but to ours. Birth control! The one thing that could stop us reaching the dead end displayed in the movie, where we’re killing healthy old people to make room, and eating “tasteless, odourless crud” from tubes, and shoveling people up with bulldozers. But, afraid of alienating the Catholic audience, the studio chickened out and wouldn’t allow contraception to be mentioned or supported. You can have cannibalism but not condoms.


I tried to watch ZPG once before and it didn’t take — the movie seemed lifeless and joyless, even more depressive than SOYLENT GREEN (which has Robinson to at least rage against the dying of the light). It seemed quite humourless, though in fact it isn’t…

A more sympathetic viewing in fact showed quite a lot of dry wit, it’s just that the characters aren’t in on the joke. We’re in one of those strangely antiseptic future worlds of the kind SLEEPER makes fun of — everything is ultramodern and plastic and white. BLADE RUNNER really revolutionized that view by making the great leap and imagining that SOME of our stuff will still be around in forty years, it will just have more modern crap accrued on top of it. In ZPG, the future seems like a blank slate, even though the kind of skyscrapers we see are not too different from the kind we have now.


The details of this dystopia do, as I say, have a slight satiric bite, like the deliberately terrifying child-subsititute dolls (Super-Toys!) and the museum with stuffed cats and couples re-enacting swinging dinner parties of the seventies. The movie twice stages these soirees only to reveal that they’re happening in front of an audience in the museum, and both times I fell for the gag. Delightful. What makes the film seem humourless is that the characters aren’t in on the joke. In this world where childbirth is a capital offence, the broody Geraldine Chaplin and the brooding Oliver Reed have little to smile about, it’s true, but people do have a way of laughing in adversity, and it helps to make fictional character credible if they can step outside the seriousness of their situation and indulge in a joke. This happens precisely once in this movie.


In defiance of the edicts, Chaplin is up the duff, and canoodles with Reed while enumerating the months, weeks, days, hours minutes and seconds until her blessed event comes due. “Are you sure about the seconds?” he asks, whimsically. “Yes,” she replies, and adopts a robot voice: “A – computer – told – me.” Again, delightful, although maybe a bit Futurama. It feels like Chaplin is making a joke about the fact that she’s a character in a science fiction film. But it’s nevertheless a welcome break from the gloom. Reed would ask directors, “Do you want Moody 1, Moody 2 or Moody 3?” In this movie, he needn’t have asked. But there is something impressive about seeing all that bullish machismo wrapped up so tight in a civilized, repressed carapace. You fear he might burst at any moment, resulting in a dome-shaped explosion of testosterone impregnating everyone in its radius, like what happens in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED.


Yay, seventies reptiles!

These two films, SOYLENT GREEN and ZPG, mark two extreme reactions to the population problem. In one, we do nothing about it and suffer dire consequences. In the other, we suffer massive ecological damage and then have to take such draconian action that the cure is as bad as the disease. Of course, only in a true totalitarian state could a “no-child policy” be implemented, and it seems unlikely to me that the rulers of such a state would want to follow the same rules as everyone else. I suspect the human race would passively, in a state of denial, choose extinction rather than submit to such a regime, and our democratic leaders would prefer a popular choice with a high chance of causing extinction than an unpopular one offering a solution. But ZPG can be seen as an allegorical warning rather than a literal one — if we are in danger of heading towards a catastrophe where the only solution is one we would never accept, dramatizing that by showing the solution in action is fair enough.


And then they end up in The Zone. Great.

Of course the other 70s film about population control is LOGAN’S RUN, another high concept that doesn’t make much sense. WILD IN THE STREETS and GAS-S-S-S! are more plausible, and more fun — maybe one of those explains how this future history without people over thirty came to be. LR works best as cheese, with a single moment of behavioral realism when Jenny Agutter, exposed to nature for the first time, cries “I hate Outside!” like a stroppy child on holiday. Like Geraldine Chaplin’s computer voice joke, it almost breaks the film by allowing a semblance of humanity in.



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