Archive for Dundee

Anger…and Other Deadly Sins

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Mythology, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2008 by dcairns

Shadowplay guest blogger and part-time benshi film describer David Wingrove, who writes as David Melville, reports on Kenneth Anger’s appearance — or should one say MANIFESTATION? — at Dundee Contemporary Arts. Read it up!

On a grey and rainy August afternoon (in Scotland, that is not a contradiction) two friends and I took a train to Dundee to meet Kenneth Anger. He is a…well, I could say ‘living legend’ but that hardly seems to do him justice.

David Wingrove on his way back from Dundee, photographed by Fiona, who had just managed to get her camera to work.
For 60 years or so, Anger has been the uncrowned king of gay/experimental/avant-garde/underground cinema. (Just watch Fireworks (1947) or Scorpio Rising (1963) and slot in whatever adjectives fit best.) He is the notorious author of Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon II, still the most scabrous books of movie gossip. His long-promised Hollywood Babylon III lies buried under a heap of threatened lawsuits. An alleged Satanist and avowed disciple of Aleister Crowley, he was unwillingly linked (through his ex-boyfriend Bobby Beausoleil) to the grisly Charles Manson killings.

At four years of age, Anger played the Changeling Prince in Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, still Hollywood’s most purely intoxicating blend of Art and Kitsch. He is one of several distinguished survivors from that film – others include Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland – and Warner Brothers’ failure to recruit one (if not all three) of them to do a commentary on last year’s DVD must count as a Crime Against Celluloid Memory. More than 70 years on, Rooney and Anger remain pals. Olivia may still be fuming at that snapshot of her in black lace lingerie (!) that Anger slipped into Hollywood Babylon II.

 

Either Dundee Contemporary Arts, or David Cairns Associates.

No wonder we felt a tad nervous, trudging through a downpour towards Dundee Contemporary Arts. (If the Great Beast didn’t come and get us, the wrath of Miss Melanie very well might.) So it’s a pleasure to say that, in person, Kenneth Anger is a joy. Gentle, soft-spoken, immaculately tanned, he looks a good two decades younger than his 78 years. In the bar after the show, he shared his enduring love of Shakespeare, commedia dell’arte and Marcel Carné’s Les Enfants du Paradis. “Not long ago, I went to Paris for a showing. My God, have you seen the state of the print? It was so horrible I hid my eyes and ran out of the theatre.”

 

Kenneth Anger, in Dundee.

Judging from that night in Dundee, Anger’s own work has been strikingly well preserved. Lucifer Rising (1981) gave us Marianne Faithfull as Lilith, Mother of All the Demons – looking eerily beautiful with her face painted blue. Invocation of My Demon Brother (1968) had a soundtrack by Lilith’s old flame, Mick Jagger. Cheekily, Anger cuts in a few near-subliminal shots of the Rolling Stones and their court, in between the all-male orgies and the Black Mass. Rabbit’s Moon (1950), with its lovelorn Pierrot lost in a moonlit wood, is an achingly gorgeous evocation of both Shakespeare and Carné. It has the wistful and fragile beauty of a Verlaine poem.

 

Mouse Heaven (1992) is Anger’s celebration of the original Mickey Mouse drawn by Ub Iwerks – a subversive, anarchic little imp – before Walt Disney turned him into an icon of all-American cuteness. One of the most purely joyous pieces of cinema I have seen, Mouse Heaven sparked a ferocious copyright row with Disney. The wounds, for Anger, are still raw. He confided his long-cherished ambition to blow up Disneyland. “If it really is ‘the happiest place on earth’ as the ads say, why do so many children come out looking disappointed? Just look at their faces! Kids know when they’ve been cheated.”

 

Anger’s more recent films, shot on digital video, bear witness to his enduring love of the male form. My Surfing Lucifer (2007) shows a gold-haired beach boy riding the sort of waves that, in Southern California parlance, are called ‘tubular’. Foreplay (2007) spies on a soccer-team as they stretch and limber up before a game. The sight is numbingly normal to the players themselves, yet richly homoerotic to Anger and his camera. Once the official programme was through, Anger invited the whole audience up to the gallery for a ‘private’ showing of I’ll Be Watching You (2007) – a piece of hardcore gay erotica. Two cute French boys make love atop a parked car, while a third cute boy watches on CCTV and…er, enjoys it too. This may be the sexiest film ever made by a man old enough to be your granddad.

 

But the highlight of the late work was the not-yet-officially-premiered Ich Will (2008). A chilling yet weirdly erotic montage of documentary footage of the Hitler Youth. (The title translates from German as “I want!”) Starting with idyllic Sound of Music-style gambolling amid the lakes and mountains of Bavaria, it builds up to a full-scale Nazi rally that evokes the nightmare world of Leni Riefenstahl and Triumph of the Will. Its menace is underlined, brilliantly, by the ominous tones of Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony.

 

Invocation of my Demon Brother?

It’s not often one can go from Disney to Riefenstahl – from the Magic Kingdom to the Third Reich – with barely a hiccup in between. That is perhaps Anger’s unique gift. It was only on the dark, wet train ride back to Edinburgh that I got to pondering how similar these three artists really are. Walt Disney, Leni Riefenstahl, Kenneth Anger. All three create images that bypass our conscious mind and enter, direct and perhaps unbidden, into the depths of the id. We are aware, with other filmmakers, of a voice and a vision beyond our own. Disney, Riefenstahl, Anger…they speak from within.

 

The official premiere of Ich Will is set for the Imperial War Museum in London on 29 October. (All Souls Night, as Anger points out gleefully.) One shudders to think what the invited audience of elderly war veterans will make of it. Still, as Anger freely admits: “I’ve always enjoyed being a bit controversial.” That may or may not go down as the greatest understatement of the 21st century. But it will do very nicely for the first decade.

 

David Melville

 

Thanks to the Amazing Dr. Anger, to Yvonne Baginsky and Fiona Watson – who shared the experience – and to the fabulous staff at Dundee Contemporary Arts.

Special thanks to David for being there and writing it down.

 

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The Great Darkness

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2008 by dcairns

That’s what Dundee is REALLY LIKE, even today. Yes, that’s right, we’re talking about —

AA

Joseph McGrath’s THE GREAT MCGONAGALL, starring and co-written with Spike Milligan, is out on DVD, complete with its original censor’s certificate, signed by Lord Harlech and the ill-fated Stephen Murphy, whose stint as secretary did not long survive his passing of STRAW DOGS, LAST TANGO IN PARIS, THE DEVILS, CLOCKWORK ORANGE…

That’s what I call a DVD extra! Which is good, since it’s all you get on this disc.

I remember discussing this movie online with David Ehrenstein, a fan of the film, and complaining that the revolutionary multi-camera system used by McGrath, MultiVista*, rendered the image muddy and unreadable. He said it didn’t.

He’s right! The DVD clears up the old VHS’ image problems somewhat, giving us a pin-sharp picture of what proves to be the real problem: a very underlit film.

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The guy on the right is in black-face (a favourite, rather queasy, comic device of Milligan’s) but it really just looks like he’s in heavy shadow, because he IS in heavy shadow. During one musical number, it takes ages to realise that the singer is blacked up, and then we assume his chorus girls (including, I think, ROCKY HORROR’s Little Nell) are likewise daubed, since they’re the same hue. Only when they crowd into the spotlight do we realise they aren’t. Sometimes entire scenes look like minstrel shows. A genuine black actor (Clifton Jones, a militant leader in Godard’s ONE PLUS ONE) strains to make any impression on the emulsion, except when whited up as an Edinburgh Gentleman. Despite the low budget and numerous deliberate anachronisms, the film has a curiously strong Victorian feel, and maybe the engulfing shadows help slightly…

The Prisoner

Quite a lot of Milligan’s performance is lost to the world due to strange lighting decisions that cause his eyes and lower face to disappear into the gloom. Being a product of Britain in the ’70s, TGM is shot not only in MultiVista but also in Brownoscope, the miracle of colour processing that aimed to fully exploit the varied properties of the colour brown. Indeed, Brownoscopy sought to elevate brown from a mere colour to being a full-fledged artistic medium in its own right. Had the pioneers involved succeeded in taking their invention to its highest level, celluloid itself would have been displaced as a recording device, and films as we know them today would have been rendered wholly from brownness itself. This film is perhaps the closest Brownoscope’s creators came to realising their awful, beautiful dream.

Etre et Avoir

The presence of white on the set just confuses the cinematographer — he stops way down to avoid any risk of glare. Never mind if most of the leading man’s head disappears into the wall. When a film is devoid of colour, the lighting must separate out the planes of action to allow us to read the image. John Mackey’s work… doesn’t really do that. In a short career, he also shot micro-budget domestic horror film THE CORPSE with Michael Gough, which shares with this film a muddy texture and a creeping low-affect tone of despair. Which is WHAT I LIKE TO SEE, especially in a comedy.

The Family Way

This shot’s just RIDICULOUS — the visible source light behind the characters isn’t giving off even a strong backlight and the faces are lit by damn-all. What light there is hits the backs of their heads.

What’s not apparent from the frame-grabs here is the dubious quality of the sound recording. Shot in an old Music Hall in Whitechapel, the flick must have presented challenges to the recordist — so we get muffled and reverberant dialogue that kills comedy precision at birth and strangles any impression of lightness. At times it feels exactly like a YouTube home video of a school play. 

Nevertheless, I think Mr. Ehrenstein is right, this is in fact a LOST COMEDY MASTERPIECE. The editing is very strange but often rather fine and sensitive to performance, and often gives things an added element of surrealism. So many shots and eyelines are mismatched in the opening sequence that the editor works up a sweat with constant cross-cutting in a vain attempt to convince us that all these closeups belong to the same film. He doesn’t quite succeed, but he creates a giddy, concussed mosaic of blinks and stutters.

I put the disc on to confirm my earlier prejudices, and the first 36 minutes slipped by before I could think to pause it — no small feat considering the lack of structured plotting, characterisation, scenic variety, and the often impenetrable sound and picture. The technical shabbiness sometimes helps — many of the jokes misfire, only to ricochet around and hit you from an unexpected angle. There are a lot more laughs of surprise than the cheap jokes comprising the script would lead you to expect. Maybe a bad joke can be funnier if you don’t quite hear it at first, then figure it out after everybody’s moved on and is in the middle of some fresh inanity. This is pretty near the opposite of how good comedy is supposed to work, but it works here (unless I’ve just lost my mind, always a possibility).

The movie fits squarely into a weird and despised tradition of British cinema, where ambitious projects are shoehorned into a theatrical format at a tiny budget — Tony Richardson’s HAMLET, filmed entirely in the London Roundhouse, nearly fits the pattern, but isn’t quite open enough at being set in a theatre. Ken Russell’s SALOME’S LAST DANCE and Jim Sharman and Richard O’Brien’s SHOCK TREATMENT embody the tradition. In a fit of madness, Richard Attenborough’s OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR inflates the concept to Mr. Creosote proportions.

Mrs Brown

This… thing constantly delivers memorable hallucinatory frames like these. Peter Sellers plays Queen Victoria, kneeling down. Milligan composes a bovine poem, with accompanying imagery. (Whenever Milligan recites, an ineffably beautiful and mournful theme — Tigon films always had gorgeous scores — plays as if automatically, smothering any comedy beneath a plush cushion of melancholia.)

“The chicken is a noble beast

But the cow is much forlorner

Standing in the pouring rain

With a leg at every corner.”

We’re told that all the poetry is genuine stuff, composed by the real William McG, poet and tragedian, who is buried here in the fair city of Edinburgh. Since W.C. Fields passed through this town, pausing to take his first drink of whiskey, it is likely that he heard of McGonagall’s fame and borrowed the name, which phonetically translated becomes The Great McGonigle, protagonist of THE OLD-FASHIONED WAY.

The Dream of the Bovine

*Briefly, the MultiVista system allowed McGrath to shoot with several cameras at once and edit scenes live, as he filmed them, like a live TV director/vision mixer. The system is also used on that glorious nadir of British “cinema”, NOT NOW DARLING. Watching that one is like swimming in cement with a migraine. And Ray Cooney**.

**After I made him watch a Cooney film, my chum andy Gonzalez said, “I am now physically angry that this man has had a career.”