Cue the queue

 

 

I am one of the 20% of the human race that is currently in lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

The appearance of the easily transmitted and often deadly virus caused Sri Lanka, my present country of residence, to announce a curfew last Friday evening.  This was a sensible decision in my opinion, as there are now about a hundred confirmed Covid-19 cases (though as yet no deaths from it) in Sri Lanka and, if its spread is to be slowed, the authorities needed to take drastic action quickly.  Compare that with the shambles of a response to the crisis going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, mis-orchestrated by bumbler-in-chief Boris Johnson.

 

Consequently, the citizens of Colombo, where I live, were confined to their homes for the next four days.  The curfew was lifted at 6.00 AM this morning – Tuesday, March 24th – but re-imposed in the early afternoon.  This was to allow folk a chance to nip out to the shops and top up on supplies for their kitchens.

 

Okay, the prospect of everyone in Colombo ‘nipping out to the shops’ during the same half-dozen hours was a potentially worrying one, because the supermarkets suddenly being crammed with people trying to buy groceries could lead to a bunch of new Covid-19 infections.  To lessen this danger, it was announced beforehand that the numbers of people on supermarket premises at any one time would be restricted and everyone else would have to queue outside and wait their turn.

 

So I got up reasonably early and headed out at about 7.00 AM – first to the nearest ATM and then to the nearest supermarket, which was Food City on Marine Drive.  There was already much traffic on the road, and the line of vehicles waiting for petrol at the local filling station had already backed up along the next block.  But very few people seemed to be out on foot.  I nearly had the seaward pavement of Marine Drive to myself.

 

Then I arrived at Food City, on the corner of another block, and discovered good news and bad news.  The good news was that Food City was already open – normally it doesn’t start business until about 8.30.  The bad news was that already a queue had formed outside, which was being slowly threaded into the premises by a group of shop-workers and police officers.  I approached from the south and the queue was arranged to the north of Food City’s entrance so, at first, I didn’t see how long it was.  I walked alongside that queue for the whole of the next block, counting the people as I went.

 

At the next corner, where Marine Drive formed a junction with Retreat Road, the queue turned 90 degrees and continued up the latter road.  I kept walking and counting people.  I finally reached the end of the queue two-thirds of the way along Retreat Road, having counted 173.  (Everyone was trying to ‘socially distance’ themselves from one another by keeping a metre of space between them, so it was a pretty long queue for 173 people.)

 

Figuring that I wasn’t going to find anywhere better than this – from what I’ve seen of it, the Marine Drive branch is one of Food City’s less known and less frequented outlets – I took my place as 174th person in the queue and started waiting.  My decision was confirmed when, sometime later, a flustered-looking English lady of about 60 years old walked past talking into a phone.  “I’ve just looked at the Food City on Marine Drive,” she said, “and the queue there’s as bad as everywhere else!”

 

 

The queue inched along.  At about 8.15, I’d advanced to the Marine Drive / Retreat Road corner and the sign with the red, round Food City logo was finally, if only just, in view.  Then, however, there was no further movement for about half-an-hour, which may have been because the Food City staff needed time to restock their shelves and nobody else was allowed in.

 

But movement finally resumed.  By about 9.15 I was standing underneath that sign…

 

 

…and maybe 20 minutes after that, it was finally my turn to enter.

 

 

Inside, the produce section had been entirely stripped, apart from a couple of trays of red onions and a few items of fruit.  But most of the things on my shopping list were available: water, eggs, milk powder, cream, pasta, noodles, margarine, chocolate.

 

Despite the frustrations of the wait, everybody outside Food City showed patience and understanding.  I suppose because of the 30-year civil war and the 2004 tsunami, and the Easter Sunday bombings last year, Sri Lankans are used to having to abide by, and understand the importance of, emergency security measures.  A big thank you is due, though, to the shop-staff and the assigned police officers, who kept the operation running smoothly.

 

To keep myself from going mad with boredom, I’d brought a book along and so I spent those hours in the queue reading.  In fact, a long, grindingly slow queue was probably the best context in which to read this book, for it was Anne Rice’s 1976 gothic opus Interview with the Vampire.  Yes, when you’re queuing for food in the middle of a pandemic crisis, even Ms Rice’s florid and overwrought prose seems the lesser of two evils.

 

 

Songs and soundtracks

 

© Paramount Pictures / Touchstone Pictures

 

Looking at the Internet just now, it seems that everybody and their granny are writing feverishly – and ‘feverishly’ is an appropriate adverb – about the coronavirus, or to give it its more accurate and more Cronenberg-esque title, Covid-19.  Now that I’m facing a period of self-isolation / social distancing (not because I have the dreaded virus but because I live in Colombo and the Sri Lankan authorities have just declared a three-day public holiday, one where everybody is urged to stay indoors and which I suspect will last for longer than three days), I’ve decided to write a few things on this blog not about the coronavirus, but about all the stuff I’m really interested in.  So here, just for a change, is something about films… and music.

 

A pet hate of mine is a film whose soundtrack consists of some lazily selected popular songs.  I’m thinking of films where the filmmakers have just looked at the charts and grabbed a few songs to stick on the soundtrack to make their product seem hip; or, when the film is pitched at a more mature demographic, they’ve pilfered the charts of yesteryear for a few old songs that’ll give their audience a nostalgic glow while they watch the screen.  In both cases, this means they can also bung the songs onto a tie-in soundtrack album that will hopefully generate a few extra bucks after the film’s release.  However, no thought or effort has been taken to choose songs that actually enhance what’s happening onscreen, that create a musical / cinematic frisson whereby the song augments the film’s plot and visual imagery and vice versa.

 

I can think of some particularly painful instances.  For example, there’s Paul Feig’s generally pretty good comedy Bridesmaids (2011) which, after nearly two hours of raunchy, sometimes acerbic comedy about the ordeals that women have to put themselves through in order to achieve the ideal of a ‘perfect’ wedding, suddenly turns into a cringeworthy schmaltz-fest when the 1990 Wilson Phillips song Hold On starts caterwauling during the climactic wedding.  (To add insult to injury, the filmmakers actually wheel on Wilson Phillips to sing the song ‘live’ at the wedding reception, as if the bride, who’s already suffered a near-breakdown about the wedding’s expensiveness, could afford to hire Wilson Phillips for the evening.)  And this applies even to songs I really like.  I mean, I love the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage, but I found it irritatingly distracting when it turned up in the rebooted Star Trek movies (2009-16).

 

Happily, things sometimes work the other way.  I still remember the rush I got when, at the end of The Matrix (1999), Keanu Reeves, now fully cognisant of his powers, steps out of a telephone box and shoots Superman-like up into the sky whilst Rage Against The Machine’s Wake Up thunders in the background.  Or the bit early on in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) where Harvey Keitel’s pensive, sharp-suited Charlie watches the trilby-hatted, devil-may-care Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) swagger towards him across a bar, arms draped over the shoulders of two ‘broads’, to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash. You know immediately that Johnny Boy is bad news and, indeed, the scene serves as a mission statement for all the bad-news characters that De Niro would play later in his career.

 

Anyway, here are a few items that always spring to mind when I think of popular songs and film soundtracks – films that don’t just have one song smartly placed to enrich one scene, but that are choc-a-block with songs making a number of scenes extra-memorable.

 

I suppose I have to start with a film whose soundtrack may qualify for the title of my all-time favourite.  I’m talking about Oliver Stone’s 1994 bloodbath about lovers / serial killers on the run, Natural Born Killers.  For this, Stone hired Trent Reznor, the mastermind behind the mighty industrial / electronica / metal band Nine Inch Nails, to assemble a collage of music to complement the film’s often demented collage of visual styles.  You might have expected Reznor’s choices to form a continuous assault of brutal electronic noise, but what you actually get in Natural Born Killers is an eclectic delight.

 

© Warner Bros / Regency Enterprises

 

It’s brilliant from the start, when we see Woody Harrelson’s Mickey and Juliet Lewis’s Mallory sitting in an oppressive out-in-the-sticks diner populated by leering, gun-toting rednecks while on the jukebox Leonard Cohen forebodingly croons Waiting for the Miracle.  Then Cohen’s Miracle abruptly gives way to L7’s Shitlist and Mickey and Mallory slaughter the rednecks in a nightmarish burst of violence.

 

Other moments of wonder include the Cowboy Junkies’ version of Sweet Jane playing while Mickey and Mallory declare their love for one another (“The whole world’s coming to an end, Mal…” “I see angels, Mickey.  They’re coming down for us from heaven…”); Duane Eddy’s twangy The Trembler accompanying the approach of a tornado, which handily allows Mickey to escape from a prison hard-labour gang; Jane’s Addiction’s Sex is Violent segueing into Diamanda Galas singing I Put a Spell on You during a disturbing scene where Mallory seduces and murders a hapless gas-stand attendant (“Holy shit!  You’re Mallory Knox!”); and another thrilling deployment of Rage Against the Machine, this time their song Bombtrack, when Mickey grabs a shotgun and blasts his way free during a live TV interview he’s doing whilst incarcerated in Tommy Lee Jones’s high security jail.  And you get Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, Patsy Cline, Peter Gabriel and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Dr Dre, the Specials and, inevitably, Nine Inch Nails as well.

 

The accompanying soundtrack album doesn’t quite marshal together all the songs from the film – Rage Against the Machine and the Specials are conspicuous by their absence – but most of them are present, spliced together with memorable excerpts from the film’s dialogue.  It was definitely one of the best record releases of 1994.

 

I’ve already mentioned Martin Scorsese, with whose films a decent soundtrack is usually guaranteed.  I sometimes find them a little too retro, though – the characters depicted may start off in the 1960s, but they age during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, yet it’s often still 1960s music playing in the background.  For example, Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas (1990) has become a cocaine fiend by the early 1980s, though it’s the Rolling Stones’ 1969 epic Gimme Shelter we hear accompanying his binges.

 

This isn’t an issue with my favourite Scorsese soundtrack, which belongs to one of his less acclaimed films, 1999’s  Bringing Out the Dead.  This is the tale of a burnt-out paramedic played by Nicholas Cage patrolling the nocturnal streets of a particularly infernal version of New York.  He’s accompanied on different nights by different colleagues, played by Ving Rhames, John Goodman and an unhinged Tom Sizemore.

 

Bringing Out the Dead features a variety of songs that perfectly reflect its changing moods: Van Morrison’s wistful T.B. Sheets, REM’s jaunty What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? and the Clash’s hectic Janie Jones.  That last song accompanies a scene were the pill-popping Cage and Sizemore are fried out of their brains at the wheel of their ambulance – if you were lying ill on a sidewalk, you seriously wouldn’t want the pair of them showing up to administer first aid on you.  Elsewhere, the soundtrack includes the Who, Johnny Thunders and Martha and the Vandellas.  Even the one song that I normally consider a pudding, UB40’s version of Neil Diamond’s Red, Red Wine, sounds spooky when it plays over a sequence where Cage ventures into the bloodstained aftermath of a gangland shooting.

 

© Pandora Cinema / Newmarket Films / Flower Films

 

From its opening sequence I knew I was going to love Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001).  It begins with an eerie quietude as Donnie (Jake Gyllenhaal) lies prone in the middle of a mountainside road and thunder crackles faintly but menacingly in the distance.  Then Donnie smiles, hops onto his bike and rides down to his wholesome 1980s American suburb accompanied by Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon.  As well as being an exhilarating mixture of visuals and music, this sequence provides some tongue-in-cheek foreshadowing.  Things will soon turn weird and Donnie will soon be troubled by visions of a big, literal bunny-man called Frank.

 

The rest of the soundtrack is a mixture of bona-fide classics like Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart and The Church’s Under the Milky Way and cheese like Duran Duran’s Notorious.  But even Notorious becomes memorable when it’s used as the theme tune for Sparkle Motion, the ghastly school dance troupe of which Donnie’s little sister is a member.  And at the finale of course, when Gary Jules and Michael Andrews perform a melancholy, stripped-down version of it, the film does wonders for Tears for Fears’ Mad World.  This was previously a song I’d never given the time of day.

 

However, beware of the director’s cut of Donnie Darko, because in it Richard Kelly replaces Killing Moon as the opening song with INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart.  The bastard.

 

Inevitably, I’ve got to mention Lost in Translation (2003), Sophia Coppola’s intergenerational romance and fish-out-of-water cultural comedy, wherein a jaded, middle-aged Bill Murray and a radiant, young Scarlett Johansson are stuck at the same time in a luxurious Tokyo hotel.   Put together by Coppola’s frequent collaborator Brian Reitzell, the soundtrack features four songs by Kevin Shields and another, Sometimes, by Shields’s acclaimed experimental / shoegazer band My Bloody Valentine.  Neatly bookended by Death in Vegas’s Girls at the beginning and the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey at the end, these evoke the surreal, discombobulating vibe that Tokyo often gives foreigners seeing it for the first time.  At least, that was the vibe it gave me when I first arrived there in 1989.

 

© American Zoetrope / Focus Features

 

Meanwhile, the karaoke box sequence in the middle of the film is lovely.  A Japanese lad tackles the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, Johansson warbles Brass in Pocket by the Pretenders, and Murray gives an impassioned rendition of Nick Lowe’s (What’s so Funny about) Peace, Love and Understanding and then a lovably wobbly one of Roxy Music’s More Than This.  The scene shows there are no cultural boundaries when it comes to enjoying decent music.

 

Lastly, I couldn’t finish without mentioning Edgar Wright, a movie director whose soundtracks are always furnished with the right songs.  His 2017 film Baby Driver won special praise for this, but I’d nominate an earlier Wright effort as my favourite – 2013’s comedy / sci-fi / horror film The World’s End.  This has a group of male friends in their early middle-age returning to their hometown in a new attempt to complete an epic pub crawl that they originally attempted but failed to complete when they were teenagers in 1990.  First, they’re dismayed to find that their old town has become a homogenised, identikit conglomeration of chain stores, fast-food franchises and bland Wetherspoon’s-type pubs that make it indistinguishable from every other town in Britain.  Then they’re horrified to find that it’s also been taken over by aliens who’ve replaced nearly everyone with blue-blooded robot replicants.

 

Predictably, Wright enjoys populating The World’s End’s soundtrack with stuff that his central characters would have listened to as youths in the late 1980s and early 1990s, namely indie, goth, the ‘Madchester’ rock-dance sound and the first Britpop offerings.  Thus, as the pub crawl / battle against aliens continues, you get to hear Saint Etienne, the Sundays, the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, Teenage Fanclub, Suede, Blur and Pulp.  You even hear the Inspiral Carpets and the Soup Dragons, so let it not be said that Wright leaves any stones unturned.

 

One song seems wildly out of synch with the characters’ timeframe, which is the Doors’ Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar) from 1967.  But it’s appropriate for the film’s boozy premise and it does accompany an amusing sequence just after the heroes have realised that something severely strange is going on.  And the climax of The World’s End provides a rare thing indeed – not one but two songs, Primal Scream’s Loaded and the Sisters of Mercy’s This Corrosion, which aren’t just there for show but actually contribute something to the plot itself.

 

© Working Title Films / StudioCanal

 

The tragic, magic man

 

© Coronet Books

 

Last year, while I was back visiting my family in Scotland, I happened to be hoking around in some boxes of books that belonged to me but that’d ended up gathering dust in a corner of my father’s attic.  Inside one of those boxes I discovered a very old paperback called The Magic Man, a collection of mostly fantasy, horror and science-fiction stories by the late American writer Charles Beaumont originally published in 1965.  Dimly, I recalled buying this for 25p (though the cover-price was a pre-decimalization 3/6) in a second-hand bookshop in the Lincolnshire town of Louth.  I worked in Louth for five months in 1983 as a volunteer classroom assistant and houseparent at a residential school for boys with severe behavioral issues – ‘maladjusted’ boys, as they were called back in those unsympathetic, non-PC days.

 

I knew Beaumont’s name in 1983 because I’d seen it attached to several movies that’d had a big impact on me while I was growing up, such as The Seven Faces of Dr Lao and Masque of the Red Death (both 1964).  But after buying the book, I never got around to opening it and it was stashed away unread among the hundreds, eventually thousands of other books I owned.

 

Anyway, 37 years later – writing this sentence makes me feel absolutely ancient – I’ve finally read the stories in The Magic Man.  The collection kicks off with an introduction by Beaumont’s friend and mentor Ray Bradbury, which while gracious in tone suggests that Bradbury was a hard taskmaster to have as your writing tutor.  He recalls telling the young Beaumont to write and submit one story every week: “He worked, I remember, part time at United Parcel Service, back in the early fifties, so as to spend the rest of his hours finishing that special story that must be sent off in the mail every Saturday.”  Intriguingly, Bradbury also mentions that Beaumont tried, “for years, to convince movie producers to make films out of the Ian Fleming books.”  Obviously, and sadly for Beaumont’s bank balance, someone else managed to convince Cubby Broccoli and Harry R. Saltzman to make films out of them first.

 

With Bradbury as his guru, it’s no surprise that several stories in The Magic Man bear the imprint of Bradbury’s own fanciful, wistful and nostalgic writing.  The title story, about a stage magician who travels a circuit of small American prairie towns doing magic shows and who doesn’t appreciate the importance that his ‘magic’ holds for the prairie townspeople while they go about their otherwise humdrum lives, has echoes of Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It also evokes Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr Lao, which coincidentally Beaumont adapted for producer George Pal as the movie The Seven Faces of Dr Lao.  Also with a flavour of Bradbury-esque small-town America is The Hunger, although Beaumont’s tale of a lonely, frustrated spinster who feels a strange affinity for an escaped, murderous lunatic pushes the envelope further than the genteel Bradbury would have done.

 

Bradbury’s introduction notes too that Beaumont had a penchant for driving and “burning up the dirt on the nearest racetrack” and a couple of the stories reflect his love for automobiles.  A Classic Affair, about a worried woman asking a friend to follow her husband, whom she believes is in an adulterous relationship, takes a nice twist when the man discovers just what – as opposed to who – the husband is having an affair with, although a second twist that follows on from that twist isn’t perhaps so surprising.  Meanwhile, the final story, A Death in the Country, convincingly details the desperate life of an aging and failing dirt-track car racer and is one of the collection’s few non-genre stories.

 

If the story Perchance to Dream, the story of a man with a heart condition who’s troubled by a recurrent dream where he’s lured onto a literally heart-stopping rollercoaster, sounds familiar, it’s because Beaumont adapted it into an episode of the classic TV show The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  This was one of 22 episodes of that series that he scripted or co-scripted.  (Beaumont clearly had conflicted feelings about writing for cinema and television.  According to the cult New Wave sci-fi / fantasy author Harlan Ellison, Beaumont once told him that: “Attaining success in Hollywood is like climbing a gigantic mountain of cow flop, in order to pick one perfect rose from the summit.  And you find when you’ve made that hideous climb… you’ve lost the sense of smell.”)

 

Another story that ended up as the basis for a TV episode is The New People, which became an instalment in the British anthology series Journey to the Unknown (1968-69), made by horror specialists Hammer Films in conjunction with 20th Century Fox.  Beaumont’s story features a group of successful professionals and their families living in a well-to-do American neighbourhood who, beneath their respectable surfaces and like the characters in Richard Yates’s novel Revolution Road (1961), are bored out of their wits with their situations.   But while Yates’s characters try to solve the problem of their ennui by contemplating a move to Paris, Beaumont’s characters decide to enliven things by participating in some dark activities indeed.  In the Journey to the Unknown episode, this sinister community is moved to the affluent Home Counties of England and, with an excellent cast including Robert Reed, Adrienne Corri, Melissa Stribling, Milo O’Shea and a splendidly saturnine Patrick Allen, it’s fairly effective.  But the episode leaves out an important plot element about the main characters’ sex lives (or lack of them) that gives the original story a satisfying and, with hindsight, logical twist ending.

 

The Magic Man has a couple of weaker entries, which tend to be science fictional.  The Last Caper suffers because it attempts to graft a Raymond Chandler / Philip Marlowe-type private-detective story onto a space-age setting, with characters speaking a futuristic version of Chandler’s famously hardboiled 1940s patois.  (“Don’t push it, rocket-jockey…”).  This sounds awfully dated now.  Similarly, The Monster Show has its characters speaking like futuristic beatniks and doesn’t fare any better.  (“It’s pictures that count.  Flap?”  “Nothing can go wrong.  Nothing-o.”)  It makes me wonder how dated the achingly hip and cutting-edge ‘cyberpunk’ sci-fi novels of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s will seem in a few decades’ time, if they don’t seem dated already.

 

That said, The Crooked Man, set in a future where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are a persecuted minority, is a fine example of a science-fiction story that highlights a contemporary injustice by pitching its readers into a world where the tables have been turned.  It was pretty bold of Playboy magazine to publish the story when it did, back in 1955.

 

A little too varied in quality, and with some stories that show their influences a little too much – for example, the 1955 story The Murderers pinches the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and the 1929 play by John Hamilton on which it was based – The Magic Man isn’t wholly satisfying.  But it still contains lots of entertaining and impressive work and makes one wonder what spectacular things Beaumont might have gone on to write if he hadn’t died at the wastefully young age of 38.  Yes, Charles Beaumont was born, grew up, established himself as a writer and died in almost the same period of time that elapsed between my buying The Magic Man and my reading it.

 

The manner of his passing was grim.  He succumbed to a mystery illness, which his agent Forest J. Ackerman theorized was a combination of Alzheimer’s and Pick’s disease, whereby he suffered from headaches, reduced concentration, slurred speech, erratic behavior, weight loss and premature aging.  At the time of his death, one of Beaumont’s sons recalled, he “looked 95 and was, in fact, 95 by every calendar except the one on your watch.”

 

So, while the main character of the title story in this collection styles himself as the Magic Man, I can’t help but think of the collection’s author as the Tragic Man.

 

From twilightzone.fandom.com/wiki

 

In the office with Jim Mountfield

 

© Schlock! Webzine

 

Jim Mountfield, the pseudonym under which I write horror stories, has had a busy couple of months.  Between December 2019 and February 2020, short fiction by him / me has appeared in Aphelion, Schlock! Webzine and The Horror Zine.  I’m pleased to report that a further Mountfield short story, The Away Day, has been included in the new, March 2020 edition of Schlock! Webzine.

 

Many horror stories originate with unhappy experiences suffered in real life by their authors and this is true of The Away Day, which takes place in a modern-day corporate office.  I’ve spent periods working – at times, it felt like being incarcerated – in such environments and much of the story represents me venting my frustration at all the torments that come with them.  These torments include uncooperative desk-booking systems, unappealing team-building activities, patronising line managers, hapless interns, ghastly meaningless jargon and corporate-speak (“Thinking outside the box,” “Taking it to the next level,” etc.), air-conditioning units that don’t work, ID tags that are supposed to open doors but don’t work, photocopier rooms where there’s barely enough space to swing a cat, and so on and so forth.

 

Despite its bland and humdrum setting, the story has woven into it a theme that harks back to a certain much-loved British horror movie of yesteryear.  And there’s also a subtle reference to the second-best novel by Bram Stoker.  I wonder if anyone can identify it.

 

For the rest of this month, you should be able to access The Away Day here, while the main page of Schlock! Webzine’s March edition can be accessed here.

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 14

 

 

The previous post on this blog had a Korean theme.  So too will this one.

 

For the past half-dozen years, I’ve lived in the neighbourhood of Wellawatta’s busy Savoy Cinema.  At times, though, I’ve wondered why it doesn’t call itself the Marvel Cinema, seeing as for months on end its screens seem to show nothing but movies featuring superheroes who originated in the pages of Marvel comics: Ironman, Thor, Captain America, Spiderman, Dr Strange, Black Panther, etc.

 

Actually, as Marvel was bought up by Disney a decade ago, and for most of the rest of the time, the Savoy has been dominated by Disney films, most recently Dumbo, Frozen II and The Lion King (all 2019) and by Star Wars movies – a franchise that, yes, now belongs to Disney too – the cinema might more accurately call itself the Disney Cinema.

 

To be fair, the Savoy occasionally airs Bollywood movies and homegrown ones like the recent Sinhala disaster-drama movie Tsunami (2020) as well.  But as you pass it and see what’s advertised on its hoardings, you can be forgiven for thinking that it’s devoted almost exclusively to family-friendly Hollywood fare from the House of Mouse, which has now annexed the House of Stan Lee and the House of George Lucas.

 

Not that I want to knock the cinema too much for that.  It’s left me with some memorable images over the years.  The release of 2019’s long-awaited superhero movie Avengers: Endgame coincided with the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka, which meant that cinemas here – like every other venue where people gathered in large numbers – were closed for several weeks.  Thus, while cinema audiences elsewhere in the world could enjoy the climactic movie in the Avengers series, it was a sight unseen for Sri Lankans.  I thought it was a heartening sign that things were returning to normal when, one morning a few weeks after the atrocity, I left my apartment and saw a massive queue of Sri Lankan kids extending from the cinema entrance and halfway back along the street.  Yes, the Savoy had finally reopened its doors and every nerd in Colombo had rushed there to catch the very first showing of Avengers: Endgame.  (Everyone who went by was shaking the hand of the proud nerd who’d managed to bag first place in the queue.)

 

And the day before 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker opened at the Savoy, I was initially alarmed when I saw two middle-aged Sri Lankan men having a fight on the pavement outside with what looked like a pair of swords.  Then I realised they were actually wielding plastic lightsabres and were apparently trying to re-enact one of the famous duels from the Star Wars films.  Bless.

 

Anyway, the Savoy has just done something refreshing.  I was walking past it the other day when I discovered that it’d put on a fancy promotional display in its entrance for a new film it was showing – not the latest thing to roll off the Disney / Hollywood conveyor belt, but the 2019 South Korean movie Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho’s acclaimed and deliciously morbid black comedy / social satire about a hard-pressed South Korea family, the Kims, who gradually infiltrate the household of a wealthy family, the Paks.  Pretending not to know one another, let alone be related to one another, the Kims secure lucrative jobs one by one as the Paks’ servants and children’s tutors, whilst ruthlessly usurping anybody who’s employed in those jobs already.  The plot takes a simultaneously funny, tragic and bloody twist when one of the people whom the Kims push aside in order to win the Paks’ confidence turns out to be harbouring a bizarre secret.

 

I like how the Savoy’s Parasite promotion has life-sized cut-outs of the lovable but sneaky Kims positioned on one side of the entrance and cut-outs of the well-meaning but unintentionally patronising Paks positioned on the other.

 

 

No doubt Parasite broke the Disney / Marvel / Hollywood stranglehold over the Savoy because of the praise and recognition it’s received.  Not only did it win the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival but, of course, it snapped up a slew of awards at the recent Academy Awards, including those for Best Picture and Best Director.  So although it’s fashionable to slag off the Oscars these days, they obviously retain some clout in South Asia.

 

I expect Parasite to draw enthusiastic audiences in Colombo because Korean culture seems to be pretty trendy in Sri Lanka nowadays.  A while back, I was talking to a young Sri Lankan guy who told me that South Korea has replaced the Gulf as the destination where people his age want to go to make money – he himself was taking Korean language lessons every weekend to improve his chances of finding work there.  And the other week, my own work took me to a school in the rural town of Eheliyagoda where I was intrigued to see, after school hours, an extra-curricular Korean language lesson being delivered to a motley group of Sri Lankan schoolkids between the ages of about 12 and 17.

 

Plus there are now plenty of restaurants offering Korean cuisine, in Colombo at least.  In my previous post, I mentioned the traditional-style Han Gook Gwan on Havelock Road.  I should also give a plug for the excellent (and super-friendly) Café the Seoul on the Kollupitiya stretch of Galle Road.

 

Glorious international foodstuffs 5: kimchi

 

© yamu.lk

 

Last year, while I was back visiting my hometown of Peebles in Scotland, I was invited to my nieces’ school to give a talk about life in North Korea.  Wow.  There’s a sentence that, back in my youth, I never thought I would find myself writing.

 

The reason why I got invited was because the school’s Primary 6 had been studying about North Korea and one niece mentioned to the teacher that her Uncle Ian had lived in the famously reclusive country from 2005 to 2007.  Actually, when I heard that the kids had already studied about it, I thought it might be more interesting for them if, rather than deliver a talk, I simply took part in a question and answer session.  And the very first question put to me was: “What was your favourite food when you were there?”

 

Without missing a beat, I said… “Kimchi!”

 

Kimchi is surely the most celebrated dish of the two Koreas, north and south.  It’s traditionally made of cabbage – fermented cabbage, whose flavour has been pumped up and bulked out by the addition of such culinary steroids as red chili pepper, coarse rock salt, garlic and, in some cases, gat, i.e. green Korean mustard.  The result is a wondrous foodstuff that subjects your taste-buds to the equivalent of a vigorous but exhilarating massage.  And by the way, pay no heed to foreign wimps who complain that kimchi is ‘too spicy’.

 

Also, certain fuds have been known to complain that kimchi is not only overly spicy, but also ‘smelly’.  As a result, Korean food-scientists have reportedly been trying to create an odour-free kimchi in order to appease these fuds.  I can only respond to this by paraphrasing Dr Samuel Johnson’s words about London and declaring that if you are tired of the smell of kimchi, you are tired of life itself.

 

Actually, it was just as well that I liked kimchi so much because during my two years in North Korea I acquired an awful lot of it.  At the university in Pyongyang where I worked, the female lecturers would sometimes disappear for a few days, summoned from their workplaces to help with the country’s latest kimchi-production drive.  When they came back, they’d invariably present me – dried red kimchi-stains visible under their fingernails – with plastic bags containing some of the results of their labours.  Thus, the fridge in my Pyongyang apartment was usually well-stocked with these gifts of kimchi.

 

Indeed, it became my standard late-Friday-night, just-back-from-the-pub snack-food.  After I’d drunk some Taedonggang beers in my local pub, I’d feel a great craving for a kimchi sandwich, and the contents of those bags were commonly devoured between thick slabs of well-buttered bread when I got home.  (Incidentally, it was not unknown for me to awake on Saturday mornings and find my clothes stained with blood-red kimchi juice and find puddles of more kimchi juice on my kitchen floor – so that for a nightmarish moment I’d wonder if, drunkenly the night before, I’d inadvertently murdered someone and then tried to dispose of the corpse by dismembering it in the kitchen.)

 

By the way, kimchi isn’t always red in colour.  White varieties of it are available too and, prior to the 18th century, none of it was red at all.  The 18th century was when a key ingredient in its making, red hot chili powder, was introduced to the Korean peninsula.  That red chili powder, incidentally, is a source of vitamins A and C and contributes to kimchi’s famous reputation for healthiness.  It’s claimed to be a preventer of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and the general aging process, and while I was living in North Korea. I even recall someone claiming that it acted against HIV and AIDS too.  Well, the HIV / AIDS thing is no doubt an exaggeration, but I’m sure that after eating those hefty, dripping kimchi sandwiches I never suffered from hangovers.  Maybe it was the amount of moisture in the stuff, leaching into my body and saving me from alcohol-induced dehydration.

 

Kimchi is diverse.  I’ve read that there are more than 200 different varieties of it, not just made from cabbage but from radishes and cucumber too.  But if I had to name a favourite kimchi, I would nominate the traditional red kimchi that features among the many side-dishes you get when you order a meal in the Han Gook Gwan restaurant on Colombo’s Havelock Road.  This is a resolutely old-school, no-frills Korean restaurant and is all the better for it.

 

Ritigala

 

 

‘Ritigala Archaeological Site’ is not the most enticing name for a tourist attraction.  It suggests excavations, holes, trenches, mud and dirty, barely recognisable artefacts that have just been pulled out of the ground.  That might be the reason why Ritigala is one of the less well-known attractions in the Cultural Triangle of north-central Sri Lanka, which encompasses the historical cities of Kandy, Anuradhapura and Polunnaruwa and other tourist draws such as Sigiriya Rock and Dambulla Caves.  Well, I say ‘less well-known’ in an international sense.  The day that my partner and I visited, we saw just three other foreigners there.  However, the site was still bustling, thanks to the arrival of a coach-party of Sri Lankans and the presence of a number of Sri Lankan students, presumably archaeological ones, who were busy surveying parts of it.

 

Ritigala is also off the Cultural Triangle’s beaten tourist tracks.  We went there by tuk-tuk from our hotel in the town of Habarana, which involved travelling down a series of ever-narrowing and ever-less-tarmacked roads and into ever-deeper woods.  Among the trees, bushes, ferns, brambles and long grass encroaching on the roadsides, we spotted several peacocks, while occasional vortices of white butterflies would suddenly and chaotically change patterns as they entered the slipstream of the tuk-tuk.

 

Among the historical names linked with Ritigala include King Pandukabhaya, who ruled during the fourth century BC and is said to have established a garrison there as well as, according to the site’s Wikipedia entry, building a reservoir called Banda Pokuna near to the present site’s entrance; King Lanji Tissa, who reigned in the second century AD and founded a monastery there, with the monks living in local caves and rock-shelters; and King Sena I, who reigned in the ninth century AD and whose endowment led to the construction of a whole monastery complex at Ritigala.  By the end of the 12th century AD, however, the monastery had been abandoned to the jungle and it wasn’t until 1872 that its remains were discovered by a British surveyor called James Mantell.

 

 

The site covers 59 acres and is traversed by a path that winds and twists roughly northwards from the entrance.  It begins by negotiating two sides of the reservoir, Banda Pokuna, which nowadays is full of vegetation rather than water.  Bordered by terraces of long stone steps, it slightly resembles a Roman amphitheatre.

 

 

Beyond Banda Pokuna, the path disintegrates and there’s an arduous descent down one rocky and rubble-strewn slope and then a climb up another one, which we found hard going.  Gradually, though, the rocks coalesce into a twisting stone staircase that, from some angles, struck me as being like one of those head-scratching illustrations by M.C. Escher.

 

 

The path links up several spaces that contain the foundations of vanished monastery buildings.  A map we’d seen at the entrance used the English word ‘library’ for one such spot, while describing others as padhanaghara, which in Sri Lankan Buddhism are buildings for meditation.  The patterns made by the rectangular depressions, the low, straight lines remaining of the walls, the stumpy remnants of pillars and the shallow trenches that once formed little moats around the structures give these places the look of giant, primitive, stone-hewn circuit boards.

 

 

Also along the route are two circular areas whose circumferences were composed of a dozen or more curved stone segments.  They’re like traffic roundabouts along a road but without the islands at their centres.

 

 

Once we’d navigated the steep, broken parts of the path just above the entrance, we found subsequent stretches of it lovely.  It becomes a miniature forest roadway, bounded by lines of long, narrow stones, paved with roughly oblong slabs of various sizes and lengths that fit together like a giant jigsaw, and punctuated by occasional sets of stone steps.  We visited on a day of fine weather and it was dappled with tree shadows and speckled by shafts of sunlight that penetrated the leaves and fronds.

 

 

In places along the path-sides, we passed big, crudely conical mounds of dried brown dirt, which were sinisterly pitted with small black holes.  I assume these were termite-mounds.

 

 

The far end of the path is no longer paved and becomes just a forest track.  Here we went by a banyan tree with an immense and elevated root system that made it look like a tangle of giant spaghetti oozing off a giant fork.  There were baroque gaps in the root-mass at ground-level where it seemed to somehow hoist itself up into the air.  The first time we passed the tree, it’d attracted a squad of kids from the coach-group who were clambering up, over and inside it and posing for photos and selfies.  When we returned along the path a little later, the kids had gone from the tree and that was when we took some pictures of it.

 

 

Though the site is rewarding to explore, it comes to an undramatic end.  The track finishes at a northern perimeter, described on the map as the ‘boundary line’, which is simply a wire fence displaying a green sign with some writing in Sinhala.  At the bottom of the sign, someone with a warped (possibly heavy-metal-ish) sense of humour had scratched in English the name ‘Satan’.

 

Finally, as my partner and I are animal lovers, I should end this account of Ritigala with a mention of the cute dog who was living on the site and who intermittently accompanied us during our walk up and down it.  Here’s a picture of him posing at the top of some steps with his tail cranked up proudly in the air.

 

 

Into spring with Jim Mountfield

 

© The Horror Zine

 

Two weeks ago I reported here that Witch Hazel, a short story I wrote under the pseudonym Jim Mountfield, had just appeared online in the February 2020 edition of The Horror Zine.  That story should be available to read for the remainder of February, here.

 

In addition, Witch Hazel is among the contents of the Spring 2020 print edition of the Horror Zine, which is now on sale.  Edited by the tireless Jeani Rector, the collection features a dozen short stories, poetry and some excellent artwork, and can be downloaded onto Kindle here.  Enjoy!

 

Peebles High School Film Club

 

© Handmaid Films / Python (Monty) Pictures / Orion Pictures

 

The death of Terry Jones last month prompted many tributes – obviously because he was a member of Monty Python, one of the most influential comedy teams of the 20th century, but also because he was a skilled (though underrated) film director.  Indeed, a few of the tributes cited the Jones-directed Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) as being the funniest movie of all time.

 

I don’t know if it’s the funniest, but I’d surely put Life of Brian in my favourite half-dozen comedy movies.  One interesting thing about the film is that it’s practically part of the DNA of modern British cultural identity.  Lines like “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a  very naughty boy!” have become national catchphrases and Eric Idle got to sing the film’s climactic song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life at the closing ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.  Yet at the time of its release, it was incredibly controversial.

 

Its tale of an amiable, innocuous oaf called Brian (Graham Chapman) born in the Holy Land at the same time as Jesus, and then getting continually mistaken for Jesus as he bumbles through life, put more than a few religious noses out of joint.  In Britain, the film attracted the ire of the usual sanctimonious suspects: Mary Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge, the Nationwide Festival of Light and Glasgow’s Pastor Jack Glass (a Scottish Mini-Me of the Reverend Ian Paisley).  It was banned in various municipalities.  The Welsh town of Aberystwyth was a particular hold-out – it didn’t get publicly shown there until 2009 when, amusingly, the town’s mayor was none other than the former actress Sue Jones-Davies, who’d played Judith Iscariot in the film.

 

And yet, despite it being such a hot potato, I remember being shown Life of Brian at the start of the 1980s, when I would have been about 15, on a big screen in the assembly hall of my school, Peebles High School.  It was shown to an audience of a hundred or more pupils by one of the teachers.  When I think about this now, and recall the censorious and disapproving mood of the time and how much the religious establishment detested the movie, I find this pretty amazing.

 

Life of Brian was shown as part of the programme for that year’s Peebles High School Film Club. The club was run by an English teacher called Dr Mike Kellaway.  I have to say that these days when people my age gather in a pub in Peebles and Mike Kellaway’s name comes up in the conversation, it’s usually greeted with sighs, winces, shaking of heads and rolling of eyes because the guy had some serious failings, which I’ll talk about later.  However, just now, let me relate the story of the Film Club, which I actually believe reflects well on Kellaway, or as he was also known, ‘the Doc’.

 

First, some historical and geographical context.  In the 1970s Peebles was a small country town of several thousand people.  It had its own cinema, the Playhouse, up until 1977.  Then the Playhouse closed down and thereafter, if you wanted to go to see a movie in a cinema, you had to travel to Penicuik (10 miles away), Galashiels (18 miles away) or Edinburgh (21 miles away).

 

Your only other way to see films was to watch them on the era’s three terrestrial TV channels.  Talk of cable and satellite TV still seemed like science fiction to most people, and concepts like the Internet, YouTube, online streaming and so on were incomprehensible.  Miss a film at the cinema and you had to wait four or five years before it might appear on TV and of course you were still limited by what the programmers chose to show on their schedules, already congested with TV series.  Also, there were no such things as DVDs and DVD players, and video cassettes had barely made an appearance – even by 1982, only 10% of homes in the UK owned a video cassette recorder.  So in other words, if you were a film-lover in a Scottish country town without a cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s you were, basically, screwed.

 

The Film Club was meant to address this problem.  Membership was open to pupils from third year to sixth year.  They paid a membership fee of a few pounds at the start of the academic year and got to see a film – sometimes two on a double bill – most Monday evenings during term-time.  Occasionally, certain films would be for pupils in fifth and sixth year only ‘because of their adult nature’, as the club’s promotional leaflets put it.  So Monday evenings at the school would usually see the assembly hall turned into a cinema auditorium.  A big screen was erected at the front and Mike Kellaway, the Doc, would set up a projector on a table at the back.  Into this projector were fed spools of film that he’d ordered from a catalogue designed for private film clubs like ours.

 

I joined as soon as I could, in 1978, and renewed my membership every year until I finished school in 1982.  One thing that strikes me about the club now was that Kellaway was potentially walking on thin ice because some of the films he showed, like the aforementioned Life of Brian, could be accused of having content unsuitable for schoolkids.  One way that he circumvented this danger was by opening the club’s membership to parents as well.  You could get your folks to come to the school  and watch the films with you.  This was in keeping with the AA film certificate that existed in British cinemas up until 1982, whereby certain films were deemed “suitable for those aged 14 and older… those under that age must be accompanied by an adult.”

 

© British Lion Films / F.A.R. International Films

 

Actually, I don’t remember many Film Club members taking the Doc up on this offer and inviting their folks along.  I certainly didn’t.  Although I recall a guy in my third-year class bringing his mother with him to see one of the first offerings that year, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973).  Sitting next to your mum during the long, explicit sex scene that takes place between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in the middle of that film can’t have been much fun.

 

Thinking about it now, I suspect many of the films shown during those four years were ones close to the Doc’s heart.  He’d have been a young man in the mid-to-late 1960s when a new generation of stars, writers and directors took hold of the reins in Hollywood and elsewhere: Robert Altman, Lindsay Anderson, Michelangelo Antonioni, Warren Beatty, Albert Finney, Mia Farrow, Jane Fonda, David Hemmings, Dustin Hoffman, Norman Jewison, Sidney Lumet, Malcolm McDowell, Roman Polanski, Nicolas Roeg, etc.  It must have been great being a film-fan whose youth coincided with all this.  Everyone in those films was radical and cutting edge on one hand and cool and beautiful on the other, and it was easy to imagine you were those things too.

 

Accordingly, the Film Club’s choices were frequently either socking it to the Man and His traditional conservative values, like If… (1968), Easy Rider (1969), M*A*S*H* (1970), Performance (1970) and Le Cage aux Folles (1978); or simply exuding a glow of youthful, affluent, liberal gorgeousness – usually American, occasionally French or swinging-1960s British – like Blow Up (1966), Un Homme et une Femme (1966), Barefoot in the Park (1967), The Graduate (1967) and Heaven Can Wait (1978).

 

Alas, having worked for many years as a teacher myself, one thing I’ve painfully learned is that to preserve your sanity and faith in humanity, you should not expose your pupils to your favourite things – films, books, music – and expect them to react with the same enthusiasm.  Nothing is more depressing than playing your most cherished late-1960s Rolling Stones album to a class and then discovering that the little thickos think Ed Sheerin is better.  So it was with the Film Club.  Some of those films, which surely meant a lot to the Doc, we just didn’t get.  It didn’t help that we were teenagers.  We saw ourselves both as knowing, blasé hipsters and as tough, hardened cynics reared on the mean streets of, um, Peebles.  If anything struck us as unintentionally funny, silly or lame in those films, we reacted immediately with jeers and laughter.

 

We were particularly unforgiving to any film that seemed old to us.  There were notable exceptions, but I remember us barracking the black-and-white The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954).  Samurai we didn’t like because we knew it’d been the basis for John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960), which we thought was much better because (1) it was in colour and (2) it didn’t have subtitles.  Today I find it ironic when I hear middle-aged film buffs complain that modern kids are cine-illiterate and incapable of enjoying the classic movies they enjoyed in their youths, back in the 1980s.  In fact, the gap between 2020 and, say, ET (1982) is three times greater than the gap between 1978 and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which we had such a problem with.

 

© Warner Bros.

 

Another film we were brutal towards was Franco Zeferelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet.  The moment that Leonard Whiting’s Romeo first came onscreen wearing a pair of medieval tights, some tosser in the audience shouted: “Imagine gettin’ a hard-yin in those!”  Thereafter, the crotch area of every male character’s tights was watched rigorously; and if we thought we spotted a slight curvature, we screamed with laughter.

 

With depressing regularity, when we got out of order, a disgruntled Doc would have to turn off the projector, switch on the lights, come down to the front and give us a bollocking.

 

Significantly, as my classmates and I progressed through four school grades, got older and acquired a little wisdom and maturity, we found our attitudes to the films changing.  We were baffled by the non-linear structure of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in 1978 (though fortunately it had Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie’s sex scene, and a good, graphic throat-slashing, to hold our interest).  Yet four years later, we were discussing Roeg’s no-more-linear Performance in enthusiastic and hopefully intellectual-sounding tones.  By 1981 I’d even asked the Doc if he could book David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) for next year’s Film Club – to which he replied, deadpan, “I think most people would find that one a bit obscure.”  And as we grew up, we found ourselves getting increasingly annoyed at the braying, cackling third and fourth-years whom we had to share the club with.  “Those stupid wee shites!” we raged on more than one occasion at the end of a viewing.  “They totally ruined that film for us!”

 

Thankfully, there were plenty of films on the club’s programmes that everyone enjoyed.  Comedies did very well. In addition to Life of Brian, we got Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Jabberwocky (1977), the Billy Connolly tour-documentary Big Banana Feet (1976), at least four Woody Allen efforts – Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play It Again Sam (1972) and Sleeper (1973) – and at least three Mel Brooks ones – Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974) and Silent Movie (1976).  The Doc was evidently worried about how we’d react to the later scenes of Blazing Saddles, when the film becomes increasingly ‘meta’ and characters burst out of its western setting and invade the settings of other movies, and he gave us a talk before it started and explained the anarchic effect Brooks was trying to achieve.  However, we hardly noticed when Blazing Saddles broke the fourth wall because we were still guffawing about the much-earlier scene involving the campfire, the plates of beans, and the cowboys farting like mad.  We were such sophisticates.

 

Also approved of were action / thriller movies, such as The Mechanic (1972) and Death Wish (1974), both of which were directed by Michael Winner – the Doc, though he had good taste in movies generally, seemed to have a blind-spot when it came to le cinéma du Winner.  Curiously, the action movie I remember provoking the biggest and most visceral response during my four years in the club was, of all things, Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One (1978).  The audience almost blew off the assembly hall’s roof cheering that film’s finale, when Eliot Gould and Telly Savalas swooped down in an old crop-duster plane and rescued James Brolin from the bad guys.

 

© Paramount Pictures / Shamley Productions

 

What I feel especially grateful for now was that the Film Club allowed me to see certain films where they ought to be seen, on a big, cinematically proportioned screen, as opposed to on a pokey little television set.  I was four years too young in 1979 to see Ridley Scott’s X-rated Alien when it was released in cinemas, but the Film Club gave me the chance to see it in its full, terrifying immensity a couple of years later.  That big screen also gave much, extra impact to Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971) – of which Stephen King once said, “In terms of ideas, the film is an idiotic mishmash.  In terms of image… the film is brilliant” – and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), whose white backgrounds seemed especially suffocating on a large scale.  Best of all, though, was seeing Stanley Kubrick’s epic 2001: A Space Odyssey in correspondingly epic dimensions.  I felt I was hurtling alongside Keir Dullea through that stargate at the movie’s climax.

 

And not only did you get to see movies in large form – you got to see them in the presence of a lot of other people too.  This could be a pain when many of those people didn’t appreciate the film, as I’ve said.  When they did appreciate it, though, and the hall was filled with a shared and palpable sense of excitement, the experience was electrifying.  I’ll never forget the terrifying final scenes involving Audrey Hepburn and Alan Arkin in Terence Young’s Wait Until Dark (1967), which caused everyone in the audience to jump six inches off their seats.  Meanwhile, we shouldn’t have enjoyed Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) because it was old and monochrome and relatively bloodless.  But it managed to scare the bejesus out us while we watched it communally.  In fact, I feel privileged that I got to see Psycho on a big screen, with an audience, at a time when the film’s twist ending hadn’t yet become common knowledge.

 

As I hinted earlier, things didn’t end well for Mike Kellaway at Peebles High School.  Shortly before I finished school, he was discovered to be in a relationship with one of his pupils.  She was above the age of consent, but nonetheless he broke the bond of trust that’s supposed to exist between teachers and pupils and caused much hurt and embarrassment to his family and colleagues.  Astonishing though it seems today, he was allowed in those more lenient times to quietly move away and start a teaching job in another part of Scotland.

 

I really wish I could say that was the end of it.  However, years later, he took his own life after he was suspended at another school over allegations that he was in another relationship with a pupil.  The investigation into these claims was dropped immediately after his death.  And that’s all I know of the matter.

 

Anyway, in Peebles, when my contemporaries and I reminisce about school, Kellaway’s name sometimes crops up and inevitably the conversation turns to the scandal he was embroiled in.  But occasionally we go on to discuss his Film Club and we agree that, whatever pain and mess he caused in his professional and personal life, he showed his pupils some great films, in optimal circumstances; and in some of those students at least, he encouraged a love of cinema.  Look at me now, for example.  I’m obsessed with films and rarely shut up about them.  A good quarter of this blog, if not more, is devoted to the topic.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Incidentally, here’s a list of all the movies I recall being show at the Film Club between 1978 and 1982.  But I’m sure there are a few gaps in my memory and a few omissions in the list…

 

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), Airplane! (David and Jerry Zucker, Jim Abrahams, 1980), Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Allegro Non Troppo (Bruno Bozetto, 1976), Bananas (Woody Allen, 1971), Barbarella (Roger Vadim, 1968), Barefoot in the Park (Gene Saks, 1967), Big Banana Feet (Murray Grigor, 1976), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963), The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974), Blow Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966), Le Cage aux Folles (Edouard Molinaro, 1978), Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1967), Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1978), Car Wash (Michael Schultz, 1976), The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979), Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974), Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974), Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971), Don’t Look Now (Nicholas Roeg, 1973), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), Every Which Way but Loose (James Fargo, 1978), From Russia With Love (Terence Young, 1963), Fun with Dick and Jane (Ted Kotcheff, 1977), The Graduate (Mike Nicholls, 1968), Gumshoe (Stephen Frears, 1971), Heaven can Wait (Warren Beatty, Buck Henry, 1978), Un Homme et une Femme (Claude Lelouch, 1966)…

 

If… (Lindsey Anderson, 1968), Jabberwocky (Terry Gilliam, 1977), The Jokers (Michael Winner, 1967), Kelly’s Heroes (Brian Hutton, 1970), Kes (Ken Loach, 1969), The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), Lancelot Du Lac (Robert Bresson, 1974), Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), Lord of the Flies (Peter Brook, 1963), Lord of the Rings (Ralph Bakshi, 1978), Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971), M*A*S*H* (Robert Altman, 1970), The Mechanic (Michael Winner, 1972), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979), Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976), Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1980), The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976), The Odd Couple (Gene Saks, 1968), Performance (Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg, 1970), The Pink Panther Strikes Again (Blake Edwards, 1976), Play It Again Sam (Woody Allen, 1972), Pleasure at Her Majesty’s (Jonathan Miller, Roger Graef, 1976), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960)…

 

The Quiller Memorandum (Michael Anderson, 1966), Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975), Romeo and Juliet (Franco Zeferelli, 1968), The Rose (Mark Rydell, 1979), Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954), Silent Movie (Mel Brooks, 1976), Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973), Snoopy Come Home (Bill Melendez, 1972), Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959), The Spy who Came in from the Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965), Stardust (Michael Apted, 1974), Take the Money and Run (Woody Allen, 1969), Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979), That’ll be the Day (Claude Watham, 1973), The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973), To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962), The Ultimate Warrior (Robert Clouse, 1975), The Vikings (Richard Fleisher, 1958), Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967), The Wrong Box (Bryan Forbes, 1966), Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974).

 

He was Spartacus

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

And so the dimple-jawed movie legend that was Kirk Douglas has passed away at the very venerable age of 103.  Here’s what I wrote about the great man three years ago in celebration of his 100th birthday.

 

“During the late 1950s, it seemed that cinematically Kirk Douglas could do no wrong.  I’m not old enough to have seen his 1950s movies when they were released in the cinema, of course, but they never seemed to be off the TV when I was a kid in the 1970s.  As Ned the harpooner, he rescued James Mason from that pesky giant squid in Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954).  As Vincent Van Gogh, he sawed off his own ear in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956).  And as Doc Holliday, he overcame his tubercular cough to help out Burt Lancaster in John Sturges’s Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957).

 

“He played a Norseman alongside Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine in Fleischer’s testosterone-charged, hardly-historically-accurate but thoroughly enjoyable The Vikings (1958).  It’s Borgnine, not Douglas, who gets the film’s best line – after listening to treacherous English nobleman Lord Egbert (James Donald) describe the custom back home of dropping prisoners into a pit of ravenously hungry wolves, he exclaims, ‘You see?  The English are civilised!’  But an earlier retort by Douglas to Borgnine is pretty funny too: ‘Oh, stop shouting.  You sound like a moose giving birth to a hedgehog.’  The Vikings, though, isn’t all fun and games.  Watching it as a kid, I was traumatised by the scene where Douglas loses an eye to Curtis’s cantankerous pet falcon.

 

© United Artists

 

“In 1960, of course, he played the leader of Rome’s rebellious slaves in Stanley Kubrick’s epic Spartacus.  The film’s most moving and memorable scene is surely the bane of the British police force on Saturday nights, when it has to deal with damage caused by drunken stag parties / rugby clubs / gangs of engineering students.  ‘All right.  Will the person among you who broke the window identify himself, please?’  ‘I’m Spartacus!’  ‘I’m Spartacus!’  ‘I’m Spartacus!’  ‘I’m Spartacus!’  Etc.

 

“But it’s in another Kubrick movie from the same era, 1957’s Paths of Glory, that Douglas perhaps enjoys his finest hour.  He plays Colonel Dax, a French officer trying to save three of his men when they’re court martialled for refusing to take part in a suicidal assault on a German position during World War I.  The film’s historical and anti-military themes proved so controversial in France that it was denied a showing there until 1975.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

“After that, Kirk Douglas’s film roles were never quite as good again, although I’m partial to his turn in Anthony Mann’s tale of World War II Norwegian resistance fighters The Heroes of Telemark (1965), a movie that’s ingrained on my memory because during the 1970s the BBC seemed to show it on TV every other week.  And I like him in Burt Kennedy’s The War Wagon (1967), where he spends most of his time getting wound up by John Wayne.  ‘How are we going to take it?  With the Prussian Army?’  ‘With three other fellas.  Five of us.’  ‘Five.  I’m kind of glad I didn’t kill you tonight.  You’re funny as hell.’

 

“Perhaps his last good film was Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978).  Still, he manages to improve the quality of a couple of movies afterwards – just by being in them – even though essentially those movies are puddings.  I’m thinking of Don Taylor’s shonky fantasy The Final Countdown (1980) about a modern US aircraft carrier being catapulted back in time to the week before the attack on Pearl Harbour; and Stanley Donen’s sci-fi effort Saturn 3 (1980) in which Douglas and Farah Fawcett are menaced by a killer robot that’s been programmed with Harvey Keitel’s libido.  I bet these days Martin Amis keeps it quiet that he wrote Saturn 3’s script.  Not even Kirk Douglas, though, could redeem Alberto De Martino’s Holocaust 2000 (1977), a British-Italian horror movie about nuclear power plants and the Antichrist that truly has to be seen to be believed.

 

“He’s given great performances in some classic movies that are among the most robustly-entertaining things Hollywood has ever produced.  Congratulations, Kirk, on reaching treble figures.”

 

© Universal International