Archive for Orphee

Forbidden Divas: ‘Allo, Sailor!

Posted in Fashion, FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2018 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns to consider another movie star who is both deep scarlet and beyond the pale ~

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

‘Allo, Sailor!

 

“My mother taught me there are two fragile things

– a staircase and a reputation.”

–          Maria Montez, Hans le Marin

In my distant and long-ago youth, one of my favourite films was The Moon in the Gutter (1983) – Jean-Jacques Beineix’s disastrous but hyper-poetic follow-up to his international hit Diva (1981). Set in a hallucinatory night world on and around the docks of Marseilles, it tells the tale of a poor chump (Gérard Depardieu) in thrall to an exotic and glamorous dream girl (Nastassja Kinski) but finding comfort with an earthy hooker (Victoria Abril). I saw this film over and over in its (admittedly sparse) theatrical showings. Its cinéma du look visuals, its swooning Gabriel Yared soundtrack, its invitation to “Try Another World” – emblazoned on a billboard above Nastassja, pouting provocatively in her bright red sports car – are etched on my subconscious to this day. It is, most likely, a truly terrible film.

I do not love The Moon in the Gutter any less now I know it is, essentially, a remake of a forgotten French film noir of the 40s. Hans le Marin (1948) is the tale of a poor chump (Jean-Pierre Aumont) who arrives in Marseilles on shore leave from an American merchant vessel. (His name is Eric and he is originally French Canadian; that is the script-writer’s novel way of explaining why a Yankee sailor speaks in fluent French throughout the movie.) He goes to a bar called the Kit-Cat Club and falls under the spell of a glamorous and exotic hooker named Dolores. She is played by camp B-movie legend Maria Montez, best known for such absurd Technicolor extravaganzas as White Savage (1943) or Gypsy Wildcat (1944) or, of course, the immortal Cobra Woman (1944). She sleeps with him and sets him up to be beaten up and robbed by a pair of thugs – one of whom is the noted French character actor Marcel Dalio. In the best masochistic film noir tradition, Eric responds by having her name tattooed onto his forearm.

Going on the hunt for his attackers, Eric accidentally kills one of them and is forced to seek refuge in a gypsy encampment. There he finds solace with an earthy wench named Tania (Lilli Palmer) who tells fortunes by breaking a raw egg into a glass. (I swear I am not making this up.) He is still prey, of course, to his overpowering obsession with Dolores. His quest to recover and reclaim her will lead him deeper and deeper into Marseilles and its squalid nocturnal depths. (In fact, Wicked City was the film’s title when it surfaced – albeit briefly and badly dubbed – in English-speaking markets.)  His is not so much a case of amour fou as amour of a downright bloody fool. It is obvious to any spectator over the age of twelve that Dolores is completely and consummately rotten. As in her psychedelic Technicolor epics, Maria Montez is in the business of hunting down hunky and half-naked men and turning them into live human sacrifices. Judging from her wardrobe, it is a highly remunerative profession.

 

Her first appearance, perched on a high bar stool in the Kit-Cat Club, is possibly her most dazzling and iconic screen moment. Her camp followers will protest loudly that her infamous ‘cobra dance’ in Cobra Woman is a display of diva excess that has no rivals. The one drawback is that Maria Montez emphatically could not dance. She does, however, show a remarkable flair for sitting on top of a stool. Up until that point, Eric has been dancing and flirting with one of the other girls. He glances over casually at the far side of the bar and his face, abruptly, turns to stone. We get a close-up of a pair of long and shapely legs, rising gracefully and sinuously out of a pair of elegant black evening shoes. The camera rises slowly to reveal two rounded knees, crossed one over the other, emerging from the black velvet folds of a skirt. A gleaming black leather handbag is perched on top of them. A hand, heavy with bracelets of rhinestone and silver, strokes the bag with its long, sharp varnished nails. Whoever these hands belong to is ignoring – and triumphantly – Marlene Dietrich’s rule that “Dark nail polish is vulgar.”

The camera does not pause, but goes on travelling upwards. It moves more slowly perhaps – tantalisingly, almost imperceptibly – as it reveals a voluptuous torso in a tight black bodice studded with sequins, which wink and glitter in the too-bright light of the bar. A rhinestone necklace glows, like a circlet of cold fire, about the base of the neck. The face above it seems cut off, almost disembodied, afloat in a magic space all of its own. It is the face of Maria Montez – dark, sultry, magnificent. She is staring insolently back across the bar at Eric. The smile that plays about her lips is the smile of a hungry cat that has already dined off one bird and is searching idly for another one to round off her meal. Slowly, she draws a cigarette out of her handbag. With a cool nod, she gives her permission for the strange man to walk across the room and light it for her. Eagerly and walking as if under hypnosis, he does so. His entire fate is sealed in that moment. The rest of Hans le Marin is as tragic and inevitable as Euripides. No matter if the dialogue is not quite the same calibre.

This whole film, in fact, was something of a family affair. Montez and Aumont were married at the time. They had relocated back to France after her career in Hollywood began to fade and his, unfortunately, never really began. Their co-starring vehicle at MGM, Siren of Atlantis (1948), was a legendary fiasco commemorated by Gore Vidal in his satirical novel Myron, a follow-up to the more famous Myra Breckinridge. Their first outing as an acting duo in Europe, Hans le Marin was scripted by Aumont himself and directed by his brother François Villiers. In style, the film is an intriguing mix of the pre-World War II poetic realism of Julien Duvivier or Marcel Carné and the newly fashionable Neo-Realism of Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio de Sica. It goes without saying that Villiers never became a big-name international auteur. Yet there are many worse-made films that were not directed by a member of the star’s immediate family.

If only Hans le Marin were better known, it might help to put paid to the idiotic notion that Maria Montez was possibly the worst actress in the history of movies. Her persona was flamboyant, to put it mildly, and an obscure Puerto Rican drag queen made something of a name in the 60s by performing in underground movies under the pseudonym of ‘Mario Montez.’ But her performance in Hans le Marin is sultry and hypnotic and about as finely nuanced as a portrayal of pure and unadulterated evil can possibly be. We can understand all too well why Jean Cocteau sought her to play the Princess of Death in Orphée (1950). Montez died tragically young in 1951 and Orphée would have been the ideal capstone to her career. We can only lament that she demanded too high a fee. Hans le Marin even lets her hint at a softer side. When she lures the hero back to her lair, we see keeps two white doves in a cage and cares for them with far greater tenderness than she ever shows to any of her men.

So was Maria Montez truly as bad an actress as film historians claim? I know a simple yet highly effective way to dismiss that charge. Just try to picture Meryl Streep playing her role in Hans le Marin or any of her other films. Talent is as talent does. And whatever it may have been, Maria Montez did it with a vengeance.

David Melville

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Casares Through the Looking Glass

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , on July 29, 2016 by dcairns

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It had been YEARS since I watched Cocteau’s ORPHÉE, so when Fiona got a free copy from Criterion as reward to her contribution to my vid essay on CARNIVAL OF SOULS, I was eager to run it.

When I last saw it, did all the talk about the dead, who are forbidden to love, strike me as having resonance with Cocteau’s outlaw sexuality? I feel like it didn’t, but now it seems inescapable, though of course Cocteau was right to dismiss any overall symbolic intent. It’s more like the film tells its own story, quite literally and shamelessly, but also exists in a nexus of intersecting possible meanings, none of which is THE meaning.

Elaborating on the source myth, Cocteau creates two couples, except they’re not couples… another nexus is created, this time of yearning. There’s Jean Marais as the title poet-superstar (scarcely a plausible job description except when you remember, oh yeah, Cocteau was one), married to Eurydice, Marie Déa, whom he neglects. Then there’s Maria Casares as Death, or A Death anyhow, who is in love with Orph, and Heurtebise (François Périer), Death’s driver, a student who recently committed suicide, who falls in love with Mrs. O.

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The black dress has changed to a white dress within the same scene. Apart from THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER, what other films do this?

By film’s end, throwing out the Greeks altogether, Cocteau has contrived an implausible happy ending for the living characters, while leaving the dead ones to face an uncertain but clearly unpleasant punishment for their transgressions against the Natural Order. And they’re not even facing this punishment along with the one/s they love. Death and her chauffeur enjoy a pretty snarky relationship through much of the film, but by the end they stand united, and Herteubise, along with Eurydice the one really sympathetic character, seems to respect Death for her sacrifice, for the way she’s put herself in harm’s way first to pursue the one she loves, then to make sure he’s OK.

The message would see to be: some (the living) have happiness as their right; others (the dead) are forbidden to love and are doomed to unhappiness.

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Cocteau felt bad enough about this that he let the characters return in LE TESTAMENT D’ORPHÉE to give him a hard time for dropping them in it.

Skungpoomery, Part II

Posted in FILM, literature, Painting, Science, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2011 by dcairns

Skungpoomery is the art of making up a word, then making up a meaning for it, then doing that thing. For instance, I’m tentringersinging — singing the praises of Ken “Prettyboy Tentringer” Campbell. (In the same way as Philip = Great Equestrian in Greek and Dick = Fat in German, allowing Philip K Dick to adopt the pseudonym Horselover Fat, so Kenneth Campbell called himself Prettyboy Tentringer and I can call myself Lovey Rockpiles.)

Ken Campbell’s Hail Eris! had what I take to be the desired effect on me — I was amazed, amused, taken to a strange place. The world was made bigger. And the evening was not over. The play was followed by a spectacular promenade up the Royal Mile to another tiny venue, where Neil Oram was doing his own monologue, also under the auspices of the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool. Oram was the author of Campbell’s follow-up play to Illuminatus!, The Warp — at 22 hours, the world’s longest play. The Warp had played Edinburgh, in the old Regent Cinema, and I think I remember seeing the posters, but I was too young to see it (although I would have been older by the time it had finished a single marathon performance).

Now, if Campbell was clearly an eccentric, Oram qualified as half-mad, but in what seemed a benign, attractive way. His tale was one of consciousness expansion, from eating the cotton wool out of nasal decongestants in Soho in the fifties, to the banks of Loch Ness in the now (where his drug of choice appears to be PCP, or “rape smack”, later described by Campbell with some despair as “injecting chemicals intended for veterinary purposes into his muscles”). Campbell and Oram’s spiky relationship was obviously enjoying a warmer spell — the difference in their personae was defined by Oram as “I was, and still am, on a spiritual mission. Ken was on some kind of power trip.” Campbell put it differently — “I don’t think you should believe anything. Anyone who starts out by saying ‘I believe -‘ is usually a right berk. So you shouldn’t believe anything. But you should SUPPOSE — everything!”

After Hail Eris! I made a point of checking out every play Campbell directed in Edinburgh. Some of these don’t even rate a mention in the new biography, so I want to describe a little of what I remember here —

Memories of Amnesia — a monologue-play, based on the novel by Lawrence Shainberg, about a brain surgeon who awakens one morning unable to recall his wife’s name. Diagnosing himself as afflicted by a tumour, he resolves to self-operate with the aid of local anaesthetic, one assistant (his wife) and an arrangement of mirrors. This is all technically quite possible. Disturbing and funny, the play used absolutely minimal props (a melon stood in for the afflicted head) and a bare stage. The character muses on the history of brain-mapping, whereby fully-conscious patients had their heads opened and little electric shocks applied to parts of the brain to see what happens. If you get some motor neurons, an arm or a leg might move. If it’s a psychic region, the character will suddenly re-experience a memory: “It’s my Mum coming up the hill.” Once areas have been identified, little flags on pins, colour-coordinated to the various functions, are stuck into the brain tissue. It’s like a military campaign.

As the story progresses, the character refers to his wife as “what’s-her-name” and then by a wide variety of names beginning with “J”, until the end, just as he’s about to experience a seizure in mid-operation and spasmodically tear out his own brain, he refers to her as “Janet”…”Janet! THAT’S her fucking name!”

Wish I could remember the actor who played the part, he was great.

Campbell’s plays often fed into his later TV science presenting work, and so Memories of Amnesia carried the seeds that would blossom into Brainspotting.

Then there was Schlatzer’s Bouquet — some movie relevance here, since this dealt with Marilyn Monroe and the conspiracy theories around her death. Campbell’s friend Jeff Merrifield was the author, and the play featured both David Rarraport’s brother (a man with impressive eye-baggage, almost as striking as Campbell’s bushy brows) and Pauline Bailey, a professional Monroe impersonator, playing herself. Campbell had a history of incorporating “real people” into his productions, since anything that puts the wind up the actors was considered positive. The play incorporated several Photo Opportunities, in which Bailey would pose while members of the audience took pictures with disposable fun cameras sold on the premises. There was a prize for the best one.

My favourite part of the show was the opening — Rappaport appears on stage dressed as a stagehand, moving boxes around. An audience member hurries in.

“What time does the show start?” he asks.

“7,” says Rappaport.

Pause. “It’s two minutes past 7 now,” the audience member points out.

“Then it’s started.”

When I came to make my short film CLARIMONDE, set entirely in one room, with a nod to REAR WINDOW, I deliberately wrote in the character of Inspector Childers, who appears only via the telephone or behind doors. My logic was that I could get a Dream Actor to play the part, since it was entirely audio and could be recorded in twenty minutes, tops. When it emerged that Campbell was coming to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre to do his Bald Trilogy all in one go, I contacted him via his agent and asked if he was up for it. He was!

Taken all together, the three Bald monologues must amount to about four and a half hours. Campbell began his marathon by telling the audience. “To be quite honest, while I’d definitely do what I’m doing… I’m not sure I’d do what you’re doing…”

Buy the book! Campbell’s stories take in movie-related stuff like the mysterious goings on in the Middle-East segment of THE EXORCIST, Fortean stuff like synchronicity, mysterious disappearances and invisibility, autobiography, outright lies, and the benefits of translating Ken Dodd comedy routines into pidjin English as spoken in the Southern Hebrides. Consistently funny and mind-popping stuff.

In the intermission between Furtive Nudist and Pigspurt, or, Six Pigs from Happiness, I went to the green room with my intrepid sound recordist Kiyo and Fiona, and we taped Ken’s role in CLARIMONDE. This may be where I told him cartoonist Gary Panter’s line: “Our eyes are just parts of our brain that have grown to the outside to have a look around,” which he liked so much he repeated it several times, committing it to memory. I wonder if he ever sprang it on anyone?

My longest conversation with Campbell was in a pub, probably around 2000/01. Because it was in a pub, I don’t remember too much of it, except that Ken was in monologue mode and did most of the talking, which was fine. His dislike of BLADE RUNNER came up, since he felt the film was untrue to Philip K Dick — he was certainly right in that the melancholy, underpopulated feel of Dick’s novel, and his work in general, is entirely subsumed by Ridley Scott’s cold, bright/dark vision. Scott hadn’t even read the novel, finding it “too dense.” Scott has a magnificent eye, but one does sometimes wonder if there’s anything behind it.

Campbell was, however, enthused about the idea of Steven Spielberg doing MINORITY REPORT, while I was more skeptical. I think I was right, but I never got to find out what Ken thought of it. I imagine Campbell admired Spielberg’s showmanship, because he was a great one for wonderment and astonishment, but I’d say Spielberg’s visual sense of wonder and Dick’s narrative/existential/intellectual outrages don’t really match. My recipe for making MINORITY REPORT both a successful Dick adaptation and a proper scifi-noir (which is how Spielberg pitched it) would be to chop the last 45 minutes and end on the tragedy of Cruise realizing why he’s going to be guilty of a stranger’s murder… A better, darker ending that SE7EN!

I was excited that synchronicity, such a major force in Campbell’s life and work, had show her silvery hand again in my casting of him in CLARIMONDE shortly before he became interested in the heretical history of the Cathars, including Esclarimonde of Foix. Campbell shrugged this off — this kind of coincidence was clearly nothing compared to what he was used to. (I was also thrilled to hear the spectral radio in Cocteau’s ORPHEE announce “A glass of water illuminates the world,” which contains the phrase “clairement le monde”
which sounds like “Clarimonde” with a stutter. The film got kicked off by the fact that the name appears both in Hanns Heinz Ewers’ The Spider and in Theophile Gautier’s La Morte Amoreuse, both of which have Cathar undertones…

Of Campbell’s later projects, I watched his several science series avidly, although they did not quite reach the heights of undiluted Campbell — but they informed his other work, notably Mystery Bruises / Violin Time, another amazing monologue. I missed his pidjin Macbeth, which sounds mouth-watering and mind-watering, but I did see a production of his improvised Shakespeare with the School of Night. According to Campbell, the true secret of Shakespeare’s authorship is that his plays were made up by the actors. To prove this shaky hypothesis, supposed rather than believed, Ken began leading a troupe of players in marathon sessions of iambic pentameter improv, discovering that “The iambs only really kick in around the thirteenth hour,” or words to that effect.

In the show, whose stated aim was to ultimately, by the end of its run, reconstruct a lost Shakespeare play, the actors did the usual improv thing of taking suggestions from the audience. Ken acted as onstage director and goad, mercilessly critiquing the improvs. The show also reintroduced the ancient idea of the four bodily humours as a way of informing performance, and at one point Ken berated and audience member for paying insufficient attention, “Not like her!” he said, pointing out the wide-eyed Fiona next to me.

Ken with Doris and some bad editing.

Finding Campbell’s work in Edinburgh was always a bit difficult — it was rarely listed under his name, unless it was a one-man show. Often I’d turn up without really knowing what I was going to get, as when Fiona and I discovered the genius of Nina Conti, girl ventriloquist, who Campbell had already discovered and turned on to the joys of the vent act. Here’s a bit ~

Conti’s debut was a full ventriloquial play, exploring the link between ventriloqism and demonic possession, ending with the actress’s backside becoming possessed.

Anyway, as a result of this elusiveness I only saw Campbell’s penultimate fringe show through the aid of a friend who spotted it, and I missed entirely his last show, which I’ll always regret. Still, more footage of Campbell will be wending it’s way onto YouTube, and there are unproduced film scripts which maybe I could get my hands on… Plus, I have a VHS of his production of Whores of Babylon at the National Theatre. Here’s a sampler —

Mac McDonald, leader of the colony in ALIENS and captain of the Red Dwarf, explains how TV news works to keep us fearful. The ideas are influences by Milton Shulman, plus a dash of Robert McKee, whose eyebrows Capbell identified with. He offered to do a complete rendering of McKee’s screenwriting seminars for half the price at the college where I teach — alas, I wasn’t in a position to accept.

Michael Coveney’s excellent Campbell biography, which got me started on this, begins with the Great Man’s death, like CITIZEN KANE. Or his funeral, anyway — a magnificent arboreal affair with a cardboard coffin drawn on a sled by dogs. Most life stories sound better backwards. Campbell’s life story perhaps works best in fragments — he created anecdotes wherever he went, on his mission to astound the world into apprehension.

That’s a beautiful headstone. I wonder who carved it? In the interests of narrative neatness, it’d be the retired policeman who carved the wooden necktie used by Ken onstage (wielded like a dagger). At any rate, it’s beautiful, and the emptiness at the centre expresses the loss of the great caperer.

Images stolen from the Facebook group Ken Campbell Changed My Life.

Blow your mind by buying these —

The Bald Trilogy: “Recollections of a Furtive Nudist”, “Pigspurt” – or “Six Pigs from Happiness”, “Jamais Vu” (Modern Plays)

Violin Time (Methuen Modern Plays)