Archive for Robert Anton Wilson

Mad Friday

Posted in FILM, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , on April 13, 2012 by dcairns

I saw Ken Campbell‘s TV play The Madness Museum when I was nineteen or so, and it stuck with me. Years later I met Campbell and even collaborated with him in a small way, but only this year did I manage to find a copy of the show.

A fictionalized look at historical treatment of the insane, it features a fervid perf by Campbell himself as the Rev. Dr. Skipton, asylum proprietor with many revolutionary ideas, and young John Sessions (a Campbell protege) as his new assistant, Dr. Arthur Uwins.

In this scene, Skipton’s water therapy/torture is deployed on Simon Callow, a very un-Campbellian actor, one might have thought — but in fact, Callow seems to fit right in, along with David Rappaport from TIME BANDITS and several other members of the Campbell stock company.

Rappaport was a primary school teacher when he answered an ad placed by Campbell to recruit actors and crew for The Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool’s production of Illuminatus! — based on the giant three-volume SF satire by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. By chance, the book features a dwarf, Markoff Chaney (a guerilla ontologist fighting a lonely war against the concept of the average) and Campbell had been wondering how to cast the part.

(Rappaport on teaching — “It’s a wonderful thing to be able to look a child right in the eyes.”)

Years later, after an unsuccessful US TV show, Rappaport committed suicide. He’d always been a very upbeat figure in interviews, but didn’t hide the sadness underneath the sunny exterior. “How did you first find out -?” was one interviewers question. “I was a kid, and I noticed that the other kids were all getting new clothes all the time, and I asked my mum, ‘How come I don’t ever get any new clothes?’ And she said, ‘Because you’re not going to get any bloody bigger.'”

Rappaport could tell this story in such a way that it provoked a huge laugh, followed by the shocked sound of an audience trying to withdraw the explosive laugh back into their mouths and shamefully swallow it.

Using an arrangement of mirrors, Campbell presents an early rendition of his enantiodromic approach to acting.

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Skungpoomery

Posted in FILM, Television, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 24, 2011 by dcairns

Just finished Michael Coveney’s Ken Campbell, The Great Caper, about one of my heroes, the actor, theatre director, sit-down tragedian and genius, “in the pure sense of an influential demonic character.”

I think I first became aware of Ken Campbell via a TV play he wrote and starred in — The Madness Museum, dealing with experimental treatments for insanity in the Victorian era. A kind of blackly comic chamber of horrors. If anyone has a copy, I’d love to see it again.

But I may already have read about him in Robert Anton Wilson’s Cosmic Trigger: Final Secret of the Illuminati, in which Wilson recounts how the Illuminatus! trilogy, which he co-wrote with Robert Shea, was adapted for the stage by Campbell and his Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool as a nine-hour theatrical epic, somehow transferring to the National Theatre in a production featuring John Gielgud as the voice of the super-computer, FUCKUP.

If so, I didn’t connect the two Ken Campbells. And due to some ambiguity in the credits of The Madness Museum, I wasn’t sure if the guy in the show was called Ken Campbell or John Sessions… But I knew which one I was primarily interested in.

Also, there was the Ken Campbell Roadshow, which I’d seen featured in THE SECRET POLICEMAN’S BALL, the film record of John Cleese’s charity concert for Amnesty International. My friends and I knew nearly all the star comedy acts featured, having seen them on TV, but this stuff was new, and alarming. Sylveste McCoy hammered a nail into his head. Campbell acted as goad. And little David Rappaport (later the leader of the TIME BANDITS) was introduced as “Not the smallest man in the world… but fucking close.”

Apparently this was the second house. The first show wasn’t filmed, which is a pity because that’s the one where Campbell turned loose a herd of pigs which invaded the audience…

And then I met him — I was working in the Cinema Shop in Filmhouse, selling posters and books, and he came in and bought two copies of a dictionary of film & television terminology. Now, I don’t think it was possible to have a normal, run-of-the-mill encounter with Campbell, and this one isn’t particularly impressive, I suppose, but it’s in some way typical. The second book was a gift, and Campbell was concerned that the person it was for might come by and grab a copy for herself. “If a tall Chinese bird comes in, don’t sell her that book.”

For dramatic effect, he popped his head in half an hour later and repeated, “Remember, don’t sell the film dictionary to the tall Chinese bird!” I think he perhaps only did this because I was chatting to a friend and it would mildly blow the guy’s mind.

Sure enough, a tall-ish oriental girl came into the shop and leapt upon the volume of motion picture terminology. This was my chance, and I feel I rather underplayed it. You see, Coveney’s excellent book makes the point that life for Campbell was a form of theatre, and that the director’s job was to goad the actors into doing interesting things, “to kick ’em up the arse and get them ON.” He’d assigned me a role in this scene, and of course the correct procedure was to wait for the customer to attempt to buy the book, and then, without explanation, refuse service. The ensuing conversation would slowly, as I allowed more information out, move from being sinister and annoying, “What do you mean, you won’t sell it to me?” into being funny and sweet. And it did kind of work, but I was to swift in unfolding the backstory. The girl, who I think was actress Sarah Lam with whom Campbell was infatuated — possibly the role model for the fictitious Emma May Wang, who appears dramatically in Campbell’s monologue Furtive Nudist, then wanted to know, “How did he describe me?” I opened my mouth, hesitated, and she said, “A tall Chinese girl?”

Campbell was at the Filmhouse to talk about SECRET NATION, a movie dealing with Canada’s sneaky annexation of Newfoundland, the London-born Campbell’s spiritual home. So I guess that dates the encounter to 1992. Again, if anybody has a copy of that film, which I’ve never seen, let me know.

Ken illustrates the enantiodromic approach to acting…

By now Campbell had aroused my interest. I think I’d missed a chance to see Recollections of a Furtive Nudist at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival on its first appearance, but next time he had a show on, I went. This turned out to be Hail Eris!, the missing/suppressed monologue in Campbell’s Bald Trilogy, which otherwise consists of Furtive Nudist, Pigspurt and Jamais Vu. (“Deja vu is when you go somewhere and you’ve never been there before, and you get the feeling, I’ve been here before — Jamais vu — is when you go home and you say: ‘Fuck, I’ve never been here before!’“)

See, although Coveney’s book is excellent and you must buy it, using the link below, I guess the Financial Times doesn’t send their critic to Edinburgh, so he’s missed some good moments. I think I was drawn to Hail Eris! partly because Eris is the Greek goddess of discord, worshipped by the ontological terrorists of the Illuminatus! books, so I maybe had figured out Campbell’s collection to that book-cycle, or maybe it was a surprise…

On comes this bald man with eyes like radioactive marbles under a porcupine conga line of bushy eyebrows, and proceeds to tell us “seekers” about the backstory of his epic theatre production Illuminatus! One part of this saga not covered in detail by Coveney is the origin of the project.

“I was at a science fiction convention — I’m not sure why, except I think a group of us had resolved to do something every day that we’d never done before,” (an excellent project — every day becomes memorable, and the acceleration of life in middle-age is slowed down at least a tad, DC) “I picked up one book, which was called Stand on Zanzibar, and I was excited because I immediately got what it was about. I’d heard that you could stand the entire human race, shoulder to shoulder, on the Isle of Man, so this book was obviously about a future time when the human race would pack the whole of Zanzibar. The author was there, John Brunner, and I asked him, “What’s it all about, this science fiction? What’s it for? ” and he boomed back, ‘FUN!'”

I’m quoting from eighteen-year-old memory here, so you can expect around 60% accuracy… If it were longer ago, I could do better…

In fact, I’ve just remembered that the Fringe programme listed Hail Eris! as being a production of the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool, so I knew it was genuinely connected to the original show — it was Campbell’s presence that was unexpected. “That’s that guy!”

Campbell’s attraction to Illuminatus!, based on the Yellow Submarine on the cover, is well-documented in Coveney’s book. His account of the play’s cult success, likewise. How TIME BANDIT leader David Rappaport, then working as a primary school teacher (“The most wonderful thing in the world is being able to look a child right in the eyes.”) had come in, apparently by chance, when they were looking for somebody to play anarchist dwarf Markoff Chaney (“The midget against the digits.”) How the play gave early roles to Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent (Campbell, having discovered Bob Hoskins, had already released him into the wild) and Chris Langham (“Most British acting always seemed to be in the past tense, but Chris was always in the present tense”). How Bill Drummond (later of the KLF) had created heroic sets which eschewed the abstract to give science fiction fans the super-computers, yellow submarines and Atlantean domes they required — all on a stage the size of a dining table.

But the account given of the more bitter aftermath differs between Campbell’s monologue and Coveney’s biography. Now, there are small inaccuracies in the book, but Campbell mythologized and theatricalized his life story, so there’s no way for me to offer an opinion on which is truer, but here’s what I recall of Campbell’s version —

Briefly, in the aftermath of the play, one of Campbell’s actors, cast as The Man Who Killed God, became increasingly preoccupied by the conspiracy theories recounted therein. At first he’d struggled to believe or get interested in any of it. Latterly he became obsessed. This was good for his performance, but it didn’t stop when the play finished its run.

Campbell found himself avoiding the guy. Then he got a call. “I’ve just killed an old woman.”

Campbell was called into the police station to explain all about “these illuminations”, by a very fat, jovial policeman. “I didn’t know you were allowed to be that fat and still be a policeman. “Your friend isn’t a criminal,” said the policeman, “He’s a nonsense case.” Apparently he’d strangled a bag lady, and then, uncertain whether perhaps his image would be recorded photographically on the retinas of her eyes, as the last thing she saw in life, he’d attempted to put her eyes out with a chair leg.

Campbell attempted to explain his nine-hour play cycle. More policemen drifted in, making cups of tea. The day wore on, as the playwright-actor-director attempted to make the story fully explicable. The sun had set when he finished. “We must have evenings like this more often!” declared the policeman.

He then told Campbell that his friend was now in the place where they keep nonsense cases, being looked after. And the old lady he’d attacked had not died — and she could see out of one eye, and the doctors thought she might be able to see out of the other one if she became able to open it. “And this incident has alerted social services to her plight, so she’s now in a nice place, being looked after by nice people — and she’s got a story to tell.”

A story to tell — Campbell had thought his deranged actor was put away for life. But in 1995, more or less cured — the paranoid schizophrenia he’d been diagnosed with under control — he was released, and Campbell retired Hail Eris! since he didn’t feel it was nice to be talking about the guy’s problems. The story is retold (with variations) in Coveney’s book, so I guess it’s OK now. He names the actor, I don’t, in case Campbell’s account is inaccurate and it might be doing the guy a disservice.

I learned about the reasons for Hail Eris!‘s disappearance from the Campbell canon on my third meeting with the Great Man, of which more later…

End of Part One.

Buy: Ken Campbell: The Great Caper

A fine documentary about Campbell, ANTIC VISIONARY, can be purchased here.

They’re Young, They’re in Love, and They Bore People

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2009 by dcairns

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Johnny Depp fulfills a lifelong ambition by having his name printed laterally across the shaft of his penis.

Sometimes I wish I were just an ordinary audience member (not that I’m removed from that by anything other than conceit and a WordPress account), so I could look at Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES and just say “Blah… what a tedious film.” For in many ways that would be the correct response, and such is the film’s deadening aspect that one does wonder if any critical analysis can produce anything worthwhile from this flat spectacle.

Johnny Depp is John Dillinger, celebrity bank robber, who says things like “You can either be a live coward or a dead hero,” and “I like baseball, fast cars, whisky and you,” which is nice. But Depp is somewhat muted, the way he was in THE NINTH GATE: an actor dedicated to flamboyance, he’s at sea in Mann’s world of low-talking hard men. And Mann is at sea with the showbiz side of Dillinger. He’s a stranger to gusto.

Here’s one problem: how is this film different from HEAT? If you like HEAT, I guess you won’t care, but for me, both films are long, unexciting films about low-affect thugs who talk a lot about how professional they are, and then act like idiots. In HEAT, DeNiro decides to kill a guy who’s threatening him with exposure, so he attacks the guy very publicly in a car park, using only blunt instruments, such as his fists and wits. One of those situations where I always think, “If a witness shows up and spoils things, I’ll be annoyed. And if a witness doesn’t show up and spoil things, I’ll STILL be annoyed.”

A witness shows up. DeNiro stops kicking the guy, acts innocent (he doesn’t quite rolls his eyes up and hang his mouth open like Harpo Marx looking innocent, but it’s similar) and when the witness (I think maybe a COP CAR) drives off, he gets set to resume the beating, but his prey has somehow crawled off and vanished. Even though he was right there.

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Christian Bale lost 63 pounds, and then put them on again, to play Special Agent Melvin Purvis.

In PUBLIC ENEMIES it’s the Bureau of Investigation guys who do the stupid stuff, disobeying direct orders and getting killed, repeatedly letting Dillinger go by — Christian Bayle’s college-boy agents let him down continuously. So he gets some veterans from Texas, and the ignores their advice. Dillinger escapes again. It’s one of these combat-hardened vets who actually plugs Dillinger at the end, and he’s one of the few good characters in the film: Stephen Lang is steely-eyed and magnetic, and his character is actually competent, amid an ocean of assholes.

Mann could have used the factual catalogue of blunders to poke fun of the formative FBI, or he could have used the scenes of torture and reckless trigger-happy public endangerment to condemn them, but he doesn’t seem to want to say anything. I felt like yelling through the film at him, using it as some kind of Hi-Def ear-trumpet, quoting Graham Crowden in IF… — “Do You Have An OPINION???”

All this might pass if the film had an appealing aesthetic, but I struggled, I really did, to find anything worthwhile about it. Mann has spoken about how he tested the digital cameras for a lark, and found that on film, his test scene looked like a movie set in the ’30s, whereas on digital it looked like he’d gone back in time and was IN the ’30s. Which sounds nice, but it doesn’t play that to me. To me it looks like a YouTube video in fancy dress. Digital has advanced to a point where you often need expertise to tell it from film, but Mann succeeds in making it look fuzzy and dead.

(Full disclosure: my local gigaplex, the Vue Ocean Terminal, underlights its projectors, has disfigured screens, and lets light spill onto the screen from the exit. So the film wasn’t looking its best. But I still think this is one that’ll look better on DVD.)

Mann juggles oddball angles looking up under machine guns at faces, uses handheld shots to create a sick-making motion blur whenever he can, and cuts things into what Roman Polanski has called “that fruit-salad style…” The art deco locations are often dazzling, but the camera is never in synch with their cool splendor.

The “great romance” aspect of the film, not really borne out by history, is shot dead execution-style by the limp playing of Depp and Marion Cotillard (all her concentration is going on not sound too French) and by Mann’s total disinterest in women, which also results in the pathetic wastage of Lilli Taylor. Since Mann, like Cotillard’s character, is completely unconcerned with any moral view of what Dillinger does for a living, you’d think he’d have more identification with her.

(Roger Corman, in BLOODY MAMA and THE ST VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, both of which I saw recently, is likewise uninterested in preaching or taking sides, but he IS ripping the veil from off the American capitalist dream. You can’t accuse him of not having a point of view. All Mann has is a viewfinder, generally aimed up at somebody from under their armpit.)

Thing about MM is, he has lots of ideas, but they generally work better in his head than on the screen: the jump-cuts in MANHUNTER, the long-lens confusion of LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Of course, nobody with Mann’s sense and budget could make this movie without hitting some good points: the phone-tapping room, a constellation of little glowing lights; and Dillinger’s last night with his girl, in a barren moonscape lit by chill morgue-rays — such moments suggest that a ’30s digital movie COULD look beautiful.

And Dillinger’s sly visit to the offices where his case is being investigated — which I assume to be at least partly poetic license, since we never see him tell anyone about it, so how would the screenwriters know it happened? — is a nicely mythic and romantic moment, like Dillinger’s last words… a few moments of this kind impress, late in the day.

Oh, there’s another impressive actor in the thing: Peter Gerety as Dillinger’s lawyer. I wonder if his dialogue in court is straight from the historical record, because he sure talks better than anybody else in this film. Maybe such able thesps as Billy Crudup, Stephen Dorff, Marion Cotillard and Giovanni Ribisi make such little impact because of the weedy dialogue, which is devoid of all period zing (in the zingiest slangiest era in American history!), stranding the cast in a neutral zone of slow, emphatic delivery. (I know pastiche is the last thing on Mann’s mind, but folks in ’30s flicks talk FAST, and that would be a wonderful thing to offer modern audiences.)

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Got home and slung an authentic 1930s crime-flick, THE BEAST OF THE CITY, in the old Panasonic, and within minutes was exulting in lines like ~

Cop: Mind if I ask you some questions?
Jean Harlow: Sure, if you don’t ask them in Yiddish.

And ~

Jean Harlow (embracing cop): Are you going to reform me?

Cop: What for?

EVERY line in that film seemed to sparkle and crackle with lust, malice and wanton throwaway wit. By contrast, the verbiage emanating at snail-speed from the kissers of Mann’s barely-dramatis personae cuts about as much mustard as a hash-slinger with hooks for hands. See?

Still, Mann’s usual stumbling-block is music — I recall with rising nausea the synth-pop atrocities of MANHUNTER, the smorgasbord of ethnic stylings in THE INSIDER (“The most heterosexual movie ever made! It’s nothing but angry men shouting into HUGE PHONES!” – Ben Halligan) and the somnolent Tangerine Dream drones of THIEF. Here he does about as badly as you could do in a rich musical decade, but not half as badly as he normally does. The bluesy humming is actually quite nice, although it’s diluted with lots of other effects which don’t mesh into a whole, and every time the radio is on its Billie Holliday, which is fine but limited.

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As in ALI, Man shows an interest in resurrecting history but never illuminates it. Dillinger appears to have escaped from prison in Indiana by carving a gun from a bar of soap, blackening it with shoe-polish, and holding up the guards. Woody Allen parodied this in his first film, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, where Allen’s home-made side-arm dissolves into a lather during a rainstorm. But Mann includes the incident without explaining the fake gun at all. (An alternative theory, from cult author Robert Anton Wilson: Dillinger meditated real hard, and teleported out of his cell. I’d watch THAT movie. Twice!)

Likewise he shows a judge taunting J. Edgar Hoover for never actually arresting anyone, without showing the punchline, which is included in Larry Cohen’s THE PRIVATE FILES OF J EDGAR HOOVER: Hoover stage-managed an arrest and turned up to snap the cuffs into place, a troupe of tame news cameramen in tow. Mann exposes himself as a filmmaker with no sense of humour — or storytelling.

A closing title tells us that (predictably dead-eyed) Christian Bayle’s real-life character resigned from the Bureau a year after Dillinger’s death, and killed himself in 1960. And I wondered, why tell us that? The movie hasn’t done anything to explain such actions, we barely even know this guy, so what’s the point of telling us?