Archive for The Bed Sitting Room

They are brothers.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2021 by dcairns

Hello everyone. Mrs Shadowplay here, with a review that should have come out four months ago when Edgar Wright’s THE SPARKS BROTHERS was first released in the UK. But then I kept procrastinating, and procrastinating and procrastinating until it was nearly Halloween. Best get on with it then.

Finally, in the year of our lord, 2021, during a heatwave, Sparks receive received their due after 50+ years of producing innovative, unique pop music. And it’s all due to director Edgar Wright’s fanboy enthusiasm. I can only congratulate him on his good taste. Reading this opening, you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘This is going to be an entirely biased review isn’t it?’ And I can only reply (telepathically) with a whole-hearted, ‘Yes it is.’

Ever since the Mael Brothers caused a playground sensation with their first mind-bending appearance, or should I say ‘manifestation’, on Top Of The Pops in 1974 with the extraordinary This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us, I’ve been transfixed by their art pop antics. They may have reinvented themselves many times over but they are still essentially Sparks; uncompromising and eternal.

Just to prove that Sparks’ music really is imperishable, I showed this legendary televisual incarnation to a friend in his early twenties and his written response was, ‘Oh my, that track ROCKS!’

I think my young friend would have been shocked if I’d then gone on to tell him that they were kept off the No 1 slot by The Rubettes’ Sugar Baby Love. “I wonder where The Rubettes are now?” muses Russell ‘Cutie-Pie’ Mael. Don’t by fooled by their sweetly oddball demenour, these guys have teeth and claws. Ladies and Gentlemen, here are Sparks’ mortal enemy, The Rubettes. It was falsettos at dawn but ultimately history has proved our boys the winners. (Although maybe I woudn’t have minded so much if it was Mud’s Tiger Feet. I will now defenestrate myself out of shame)

So, who are they? “We are brothers,” they helpfully inform us. They say some more stuff but their mystique remains. “What use is a two hour twenty minute documentary on a band that doesn’t completely penetrate their appeal?” I hear you ask (I wish these entirely fictionalised voices asking me questions would leave me alone). Well, that’s kind of the point of Sparks and the reason that they’ve survived the vicissitudes of time.

“How the hell did THAT come out of the cornfields of Kansas?” said someone who’s name I can’t recall at the moment. He was refering to the unique, luminous Louise Brooks.

A random screengrab of Louise Brooks for you all to enjoy.

The same could be said of Sparks. How the hell did Ron and Russell Mael come out of the sand and surf of California? They seem so European in every way. It’s no surprise that’s where their main fan base has been, most significantly, the UK, where they were dubbed “the best British band ever to come out of America.”

What on earth were these, these…THINGS? They were more like cartoon characters than real people. It’s fitting that Wright frequently resorts to animation to tell the unfolding saga of ther lives. They’re also a bit like superheroes. Ron has the power to stare down the barrel of a lense with such focused intensity that he can levitate objects located on the other side of the screen, and Russell has the supernatural facility to mess with the molecular structure of the human body with the spooky range of his voice. In other words, Sparks can make you float in the air while changing you into a werewolf…If that’s your idea of a good time.

The hyperactive visual style of Wright fits them like a glove. In fact I’d go as far as saying that I can’t think of a better director to wrestle them into a documentary format. The film’s been criticised by some for being too long, but how on earth are you going to do a whistle-stop tour of the life and times of the Mael brothers and not have it run at nearly two and half hours? Yes, it does sometimes feel like a ticking-off of each album in their discography. Yes, you do wonder why Mike Myers and Patton Oswalt are talking heads in it just because they’re fans, but these are such minor quibbles they’re barely worth thinking about.

One slower section really made me sit up, take notice, and unexpectedly moved me. Christi Haydon, a talented designer and performer, who had worked with Sparks in the mid 1990s, bursts into tears when talking about their wilderness years after their film project, Mai The Psychic Girl folded. They were suddenly faced with possible extinction. I use the word ‘extinction’ because Sparks really are like a living, breathing, singing being unto death. Haydon’s response seems entirely genuine and it’s a shocking counterpoint to the joyride that’s gone before.

But Sparks are unstoppable. They were back in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax And Senseless Violins. Many people believed them to be a brand new band, and they were placed in the unusual position of being accused of ripping off the very groups they helped inspire in the first place. I’d be looking at The Pet Shop Boys, then swiftly looking away again and going on my merry way. I’d stop and have a long, friendly chat with Erasure because Vince Clarke and Andy Bell are more than happy to acknowledge Sparks’ influence on them.

This video, directed by Sophie Muller, showcases their interest in film (they each took separate film courses at UCLA). Their music often has bombast and cinematic scope.

And they kept on, writing the opera The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman (2009), in which the Swedish auteur is corrupted by Hollywood, based on their own abortive film experience with Mai The Psychic Girl, until chance encounters led to collaborations with Franz Ferdinand in 2015 (collaboration being something which allegedly doesn’t work) —

and Leos Carax in 2021.

ANNETTE is an opera about a deeply flawed, probably insane male stand-up comic and his strange, singing prodigy of a daughter. This time the Maels are on screenwriting duty (shared with Carax). One of my favourite lines, said just before a huge stadium event involving said prodigy, goes, “Nerves are to be expected. She is, of course, a baby.”

This gives me satisfying David Lynch vibes but is also typically Sparksian, with its elements of absurdist humour and revealing psychological insight. In fact there are many commonalities between The Sparks Brothers and Lynch. Both are American Avant-Garde artists whose roots are firmly planted in Europe. Both, despite being passionately non-conformist, have attained popular acclaim.

Another thing in Sparks’ favour is that they knew how to hit back against mediocrity, with cutting wit, at silly, short sighted decisions by programmers and recording companies. Remember how I told you they had teeth and claws, back in the mists of time of this article? Well, here are some examples of Sparks sharpening them:

During the late 80s, Sparks released a single, but the record company wouldn’t shell out for a video to promote it, so when appearing on a breakfast tv show, Sparks leaped into action with their own form of civil disobedience. This involved them fashioning a tv set out of cardboard and putting Russell’s head inside it to sing the song. This is highly reminiscent of Frank Thornton as The BBC in Richard Lester’s bleakly surreal masterpiece, THE BED SITTING ROOM.

Sparks briefly owned The BBC in 1994.

Luckily, they had allies: Jonathan Ross had Sparks on his show to perform Dick Around after the BBC had banned it from radio air play. The letter of complaint they wrote utilising the phrase ‘dick around’ as many times as humanly possible is wickedly clever and funny. Then again, I may have imagined this response. When I went looking for it online I couldn’t find it anywhere. What I DID find were perfectly reasonable grievances about the Beeb Beeb Ceeb’s decision. Has Ron been using his super powers to implant false memories into my brain? *looks around uneasily*

Again in the 80’s, their record company were at a loss as to what to do with them. They suggested they write “music that you can dance to.” This was the result.

I could hug them. I really could. But I’m afraid of Ron’s uncanny brain powers.

What’s been particularly enlightening and pleasing is reading reviews of this documentary by younger people (I’m 55 so shoot me!). The word ‘inspiration’ keeps coming up over and over again. Sparks never gave up. They never compromised. They were always completely themselves. They evolved but still retained their essential ‘Sparksness.’ They’re a perpetual motion machine animated by music and we should all be very, very grateful.

Gentleman (Edgar Wright), and Lady (Nira Parks), I thank you. It’s been a long time coming. I was grinning like an idiot behind my mask the whole time.

Objet D’Art

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2020 by dcairns

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Webp.net-resizeimage4These two frames from THESE ARE THE DAMNED and THE SERVANT made me chuckle.

You see it a little in Losey’s filming of the Bradbury building in his M, and the use of song in THE BIG NIGHT, but it’s in his British work that he starts to craft films, usually with designer Richard MacDonald, that work as beautiful objets d’art, or as audio-visual compilations of sculpture, interior design and music.

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The house in THE SERVANT is both character and battleground — Wendy Craig tries to stuff it full of flowers and spice racks, and Dirk Bogarde quietly moves, removes or bins them. Losey said the house is a spiral, circling round and round — each room has an entrance and exit so you can ascend through every room until you come to a dead stop in the maid’s room. He also said he recycled the cyclic style of EVE’s camera movements, knowing that nobody would spot it since so few people had seen or liked that film.

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A couple of times they choose to turn Bogarde into a stained-glass saint.

MacDonald does a terrific job of building an interior you really believe could be a real house. I knew it COULDN’T be real, but he made me accept it. Partly it’s because everything is gorgeous but nothing is ideal — the living room is this weird corridor. Everything is either very narrow or very tall.  It must have been hell to film in, especially with all those mirrors, mirrors reflecting mirrors, and that convex one that virtually shows the whole space. Yet the crew and the lights have to be somewhere. Losey said he was satisfied with EVE and it was hell to shoot, so that gave him the confidence to ask for the impossible from DoP Douglas Slocombe.

MacDonald’s designs even include the views out front and back, where James Fox’s Tony has installed a lump of abstract sculpture, and where a snow fall can be viewed at night.

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EVE had about twenty Billie Holliday songs in Losey’s cut, but the producers didn’t want to pay for them, so they were reduced to just a few. Here, there’s ONE song, music by Johnny Dankworth, lyrics by Harold Pinter, such by Cleo Laine (Dankworth’s partner — it’s a very close-knit film). One song, but treated in multiple ways, so it gets more distorted and atonal and creepy.

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Dankworth did great work for Losey, here and in MODESTY BLAISE. He also scored BOOM!, but when that film looked like being a disaster, it was decided to replace the score — blame the composer, it’s the cheapest option even if it’s wrong. So John Barry, who had ex-wives to support and carved out a niche for himself rescoring movies deemed to be in trouble, wrote quite a good score for it. I wish we could see the Dankworth version, though, I bet it’s even more of a hothouse/madhouse.

And, since Losey was starting another film, he asked his friend Richard Lester to supervise the dub. I guess he’d finished THE BED SITTING ROOM at this point and was at a loose end, but he took the gig expecting it to be a quick one. Thanks to Dick & Liz’s unpunctuality, it took MONTHS. He still sounds cross about it. He respected Burton’s talent but had no time for Liz, but was forced to have quite a lot of time for her.

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It’s impossible to imagine THE SERVANT or MODESTY BLAISE without Dankworth’s music, and so the fact that we have to watch a BOOM! that is robbed of that component is a drag.

The Old Sex Thing

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2019 by dcairns

I’ve just been to York to rummage and guddle through the treasures in the Charles Wood Archive. An essay/book chapter will result.

Multiple drafts of Richard Lester films THE KNACK, HELP!, HOW I WON THE WAR, PETULIA, THE BED-SITTING ROOM — I had to restrict my searchings somewhat as I just had a day, so I concentrated mainly on the sixties, taking in THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE and THE LONG DAY’S DYING too. And then I could resist peaking at the dialogue rewrites for THE THREE MUSKETEERS, partly just so I could hold George MacDonald Fraser’s jumbo script in my hands. Interleaved throughout are bits of suggested dialogue on tissue-thin pages, where Fraser’s brisk yet literary exchanges are substituted for Wood’s strange, informal yet archaic word patterns, full of hesitations, repetitions, non-sequiturs and talking at cross-purposes. In the finished film, often the scenes combine both texts, always favouring the tightest construction.

In THE THREE MUSKETEERS, Raquel Welch hitches a ride on a sedan chair, hanging off the side so she’s concealed from pursuers, but part of her is revealed to the chair’s occupant (Frank Thornton, Captain Peacock from Are You Being Served?). Fraser, I think, tried some dialogue for this guy, but Wood was asked to give it another go, and came up with ~

Pretties, a maiden’s bobbing pretties, bobbing … bub, bub, they go … oh!

Which didn’t make it into the film, possibly for reasons of taste, maybe because Welch’s “pretties” don’t bob, they jut like an escarpment.

It’s a cleverly devised visual gag, but maybe a bit creepy and that dialogue would have pushed it over, I think. But pushing things into an area of discomfort or conflicted response is rather a Wood speciality, it’s what he normally got paid for.

There’s a suggestion that Thornton’s aristocrat, off-camera (after blowing on his fingers to warm them) has a fondle of the pretties, at which Raquel jumps down from the sedan chair, and then oddly waves to it before running off, a peculiar, sweet touch — as if she thinks she now has a friendship with the occupant — which maybe softens the creepiness.

Wood’s textual descriptions are as great as his dialogue, and the only way to enjoy them is to get ahold of the scripts. There’s this bit from THE BED SITTING ROOM, in which Michael Hordern invades a woman who has mutated into a cupboard (while Rita Tushingham enjoys her reunion with the cupboard-woman, who is her mother) ~

 

“He enters the cupboard sexily.”

Michael Hordern’s radiant leer and the caressing hand on the door — eeewwww!

Lots and lots of fascinating stuff on THE KNACK which I’ll devote a whole post to.

Here’s a nicely described moment from HOW I WON THE WAR which made it in more or less intact ~

A WOMAN LOOKS THROUGH THE CURTAINS AND WATCHES ANOTHER WOMAN IN TURBAN AND STRAP SHOES BEING KISSED BY A FLAPPY TROUSERED MAN IN A RESERVED OCCUPATION WHICH HE HAS WRITTEN ON A PLACARD AROUND HIS NECK. HE HAS HIS HAND UP HER UTILITY SKIRT. THEY ARE BOTH SLIGHTLY DRUNK. WITH GAS MASKS.

The movie adds some dialogue, also no doubt by Wood — they would keep him around during filming to invent bits and bobs — “Here, you’ve brought your child’s gas mask,” says the woman, “Oh no, not in front of your child’s gas mask.”

The man is Frank Thornton, of course, whose presence always fires the erotic imagination.

Wood did a lot of uncredited work on PETULIA — enough to deserve a credit, really. He moved it definitively away from the source novel and the Barbara Turner draft (both of them are credited) before Lawrence B. Marcus came on and produced the final version. I *think* Marcus came up with the line “Was it the sex thing, Archie? Was it the old sex thing?” because I read two versions by Wood of the topless restaurant scene it is uttered in. But it sounds Wood-y, showing that his influence on the film remained — the fractured timeline/s were certainly introduced by Wood, no doubt with Lester’s encouragement.

A good bit ~

ARCHIE TOUCHES HER AND IT LOOKS LIKE ONE OF THOSE MOMENTS WE ALL KNOW AND LOATHE THAT ARE HOLLYWOOD SHORTHAND FOR YOU ARE A WONDERFUL HUMAN BEING AND I DEARLY TRULY LOVE YOU ABOUT TO BE SEALED WITH SPITTLE.

JUST BEFORE WE PUKE SHE SCREAMS AND FAINTS.