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

 

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

 

Favourite westerns of the decade

 

© Zentropa Entertainment 33 / Danish Film Institute / Warner Bros

 

And so an old decade ends and a new decade begins…  Which is weird, as to someone of my vintage it feels like we only said goodbye to the noughties a few months ago.  In fact, it feels like the most recent decade hurtled past so quickly that we didn’t even have time to decide on a proper name for it.  What was it?  The tens?  The teens?  The teenies?

 

Meanwhile, I assume that this new decade will be referred to as the twenties.  The previous twenties, in the early 20th century, were also given an adjective and became known as the ‘roaring twenties’.  Unfortunately, if the same adjective is applied to the new twenties, I suspect they’ll be ‘roaring’ because they’ll witness the roaring of countless apocalyptic, global-warming-induced bush and forest fires.

 

Anyway, this changeover of decades has meant that many of the newspapers and magazines I read have spent the past few weeks publishing ‘best of’ lists – best books, best albums, best films – for 2010-2019.  I’m going to post only one such list on this blog and it concerns a cinematic genre that’s close to my heart: western movies.  (I’ve started reading Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel Lonesome Dove and I’ve just had lunch courtesy of my local Sri Lankan branch of Taco Bell.  So I’m in a particularly western-ly mood at the moment.)

 

Here, then, are my favourite westerns from the past ten years.

 

© Paramount

 

True Grit (2011)

Not so much a remake of the famous 1969 western True Grit as a fresh adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel on which it was based, Joel and Ethan Cohen’s True Grit was received with muted enthusiasm by critics and isn’t usually credited as one of their better movies.  But I like it for its fidelity to the novel.  Like its source material, it has as its central character and narrator the 14-year-old Maddie Ross, a precocious, forthright and priggish girl who hires rascally Marshall Rooster Cogburn to help her track down the man who murdered her father.  The 1969 version is, of course, dominated by John Wayne’s portrayal of Cogburn.  Here, though, with Maddie (Hailee Steinfield) centre-stage, Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is pushed to the side somewhat and he’s a gruffer and more ambiguous figure.

 

The result is a more sombre, less exuberant film that is usually the case with the Cohen Brothers, for the most part following the events of the novel.  Things go off on a tangent at one point, though, when the Cohens insert some weird stuff about a hanging corpse and an enigmatic rider wearing a bearskin, as if they suddenly decided to make the story a little more Coen-esque so that it’d appeal to their normal audiences.  I particularly appreciate the melancholy ending, in accordance with the book, which has Maddie a quarter-century later as a middle-aged, one-armed spinster travelling to a Wild West show where, she’s heard, an elderly Rooster Cogburn is performing – only to find when she arrives that he died a few days earlier.  It’s symbolic of how, by the start of the 20th century, the West had been tamed and the old, wild one had gone.

 

The Salvation (2014)

At times it feels like western movies have become so engrained on the global consciousness that non-American audiences are now fonder of them than American ones; and non-American filmmakers are more interested in making them than their American counterparts.  That’s certainly how it feels with The Salvation, a Danish western film directed by Kristian Levring and featuring a Danish / French / Swedish / Welsh / Scottish cast with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, playing the villain, as the only key cast-member who’s American.  The story, of a Danish settler avenging himself against the psychos who murdered his wife and child and finding himself up against a gang that controls a town, is no great shakes but the film is well-made and the cast is marvellous.  Besides Morgan, it has the can-do-no-wrong Mads Mikkelsen as its hero, the equally can-do-no-wrong Eva Green as its heroine (or anti-heroine), and also Jonathan Pryce, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshell and former French footballer Eric Cantona.

 

Actually, the thought of Cantona playing a cowboy makes me want to punch my hand in the air and shout “YES!”

 

© DMC Film / Film4

 

Slow West (2015)

If Danish filmmakers can make a western, then surely so too can British and New Zealander ones.  Filmed in New Zealand and directed by a Scotsman, John Maclean, who was once the DJ, sampler and keyboard-player with the Beta Band, Slow West is an eclectic affair.  It features among other things a trio of Congolese musicians, two husband-and-wife Swedish bandits, a German social anthropologist studying the Native American tribes, a villain masquerading as a clergyman, a haunted forest and some Laurel-and-Hardy-style slapstick comedy involving a washing line.  Wisely, though, Maclean doesn’t let things get too disparate.  The result is a film that’s eccentric and varied in character but nonetheless has a lean and linear narrative.

 

Kodi Smit-McPhee plays an innocent love-struck teenager who pursues the girl of his dreams from the Scottish Highlands, over the Atlantic to America, and finally across the Wild West where, in an echo of True Grit, he hires a mysterious and hard-bitten bounty hunter (Michael Fassbender) to act as his guide and guardian.  Needless to say, things become wilder and more dangerous the further west they go.

 

The Hateful Eight (2015)

The eighth movie (get it?) made by Quentin Tarantino, The Hateful Eight has a rogue’s gallery of characters trapped in a store-cum-refuge called Minnie’s Haberdashery in the middle of nowhere, and in the middle of a blizzard, one night sometime after the American Civil War.  They include gang-leader and human wildcat Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who’s a prisoner of bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell).  Ruth suspects that at least one of his fellow travellers in the haberdashery is a member of Daisy’s gang and is plotting to rescue her and eliminate all the witnesses, i.e. everyone else.  Who is it?

 

As you’d expect from a Tarantino movie, the film is long and long too are the scenes where characters probe, joust and bicker and generally are as verbose as possible.  But I don’t mind that with The Hateful Eight, where the screeds of dialogue, restricted setting and limited number of cast members make you feel at times that you’re watching a stage play rather than a film – a play with some fine performers (Russell, Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Dern, Tim Roth) and a play that’s practically Jacobean in its levels of blood-letting.  Pleasingly, with its snowbound landscapes and paranoid atmosphere where nobody is sure about anyone else’s identity, it also echoes elements of the greatest movie in Russell’s back catalogue, 1982’s John Carpenter-directed The Thing.

 

Tarantino’s previous movie was the 2012 western Django Unchained,  Before the decade was over, he also directed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) which, though set in 1969, contains sequences where we see its main character performing in 1950s and 1960s American TV western shows.  Tarantino obviously loves the genre, so will he treat to us to another fully-fledged western in the 2020s?  Go on, Quentin.  You know you want to.

 

© FilmColony / The Weinstein Company

 

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Bone Tomahawk is writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s bold exercise in combining a traditional, leisurely-paced western (for its first hour, giving us time to get to know and like the characters) with a bloody in-your-face horror movie (for its last half-hour, when we get seriously worried about what’s going to happen to those characters).  It sees a posse of mismatched characters, led by Kurt Russell (again) as a slightly over-the-hill but still hard-assed sheriff and Richard Jenkins as his totally over-the-hill but still eager deputy, ride off into the wilderness in search of some people who’ve been abducted from their frontier town.

 

But when the posse catches up with the kidnappers, who turn out to be a tribe of cave-dwelling, inbred, cannibalistic troglodytes, things take a sudden swerve into the macabre.  Zahler signals this swerve by showing a jaw-dropping act of violent horror that’ll have you pausing your DVD for a few minutes so you can recover.  (Folk who originally saw it in the cinema weren’t so lucky.  A mate of mine confessed he had to get up and walk out at that point.)

 

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

Capably directed by Ti West, a filmmaker better known for his horror movies, In a Valley of Violence has a drifter and ex-soldier (Ethan Hawke) arrive in a frontier town where the sheriff (John Travolta) and his deputies run things more like gangsters than law-enforcers.  The most psychotic deputy (James Ransome) also happens to be Travolta’s son and he soon takes a violent dislike to Hawke.  Like The Salvation, In a Valley of Violence doesn’t offer anything that’s groundbreakingly new – but there are a few fresh twists in its plot.  Travolta’s character, for instance, isn’t an out-and-out villain but more a weak, conflicted character who’s swept along by escalating events; while it’s not the death of a person that compels Hawke to fight back and seek revenge, but the death of his pet dog.  Meanwhile, the supporting cast is enlivened by Karen Gillan as Ransome’s dumb and excitable girlfriend and Burn Gorman as an unsavoury mule-riding priest.

 

© N279 Entertainment / X-Filme / Momentum Pictures

 

Brimstone (2016)

After the Danes, Brits and Kiwis had made Westerns during the decade, it wasn’t altogether a surprise that the Dutch should have a go as well.  What is a surprise is how writer-director Martin Koolhoven makes Dutch western Brimstone both unremittingly grim and operatically over-the-top – it’s probably the least likeable film on this list but deserves respect for its determination to make audiences squirm, cringe and gawp.  Telling the tale of a mute woman (Dakota Fanning) pursued across the West by a demented church minister (Guy Pearce) who slaughters anyone who might offer her happiness and stability and has Terminator-like abilities to keep going no matter what injuries he suffers, Brimstone doesn’t flinch in depicting misogyny that’s bred not just by basic male barbarism but also by Bible-bashing religious hypocrisy.  The film stumbles near the end with Pearce finally getting his come-uppance in a hasty and unconvincing manner.  However, Koolhoven makes amends by sneakily adding a downbeat epilogue that shows, in Brimstone’s brutal milieu, that nobody gets a happy ending for too long.

 

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

This list began with a Cohen Brothers film and with a nice symmetry it ends with one too, the western-anthology movie The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.  The opening story is also the title one, featuring Tim Blake Nelson as white-clad, singing and relentlessly garrulous gunfighter Buster Scruggs and showing the Cohens as their most inventive and boisterous.  However, the tone varies among the other segments.  All Gold Canyon, for example, about a grizzled old prospector (played by a grizzled old Tom Waits) digging up a remote, unspoilt valley in his belief that gold lies somewhere beneath it, is a more straightforward and conventional adaptation of a Jack London story; while Meal Ticket stars Liam Neeson and Harry Melling in a surreal Wild West reworking of Edogawa Ranpo’s grotesque tale The Caterpillar.  The film concludes with the supernaturally-tinged The Mortal Remains, in which five strangers find themselves on a stagecoach whose destination might just be the destination that ultimately awaits everyone.

 

Actually, The Mortal Remains, and Brimstone and Bone Tomahawk, plus other recent westerns like The Wind (2018) and Sophia Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled (2017), suggest that as the Wild West drifts further off into history and away from the modern world, it may become a common setting for stories of the gothic, supernatural and macabre.

 

And that’s my list.  Looking at it now, I have to say thank goodness for Tarantino, the Cohen Brothers and various Europeans and Kiwis.  If it hadn’t been for them, there’d hardly have been any westerns made between 2010 and 2019.

 

© Caliban Media Company / RLJ Entertainment

 

Deathlog 2019: Part 2

 

© BBC

 

Continuing my tribute to folk who inspired me who passed away in 2019…

 

July 2019 was a harsh month as it witnessed the deaths of two of my favourite actors.  The English character actor Freddie Jones, a man who over six decades managed to be a member of David Lynch’s repertory company, a Hammer horror regular, a collaborator with Federico Fellini and Clint Eastwood, a star of bucolic TV soap operas and much more, died on July 9th.  Ten days later saw the passing of the great Dutch star Rutger Hauer, who always managed to have a discomforting, Nietzschean-superman glint in his eyes whether he was appearing in a stone cold classic like Blade Runner (1982) or The Hitcher (1986), or in some hoary old exploitation rubbish, or in his advertisements for Guinness stout.

 

Other notable actors who died in July included, on the 9th, the American performer Rip Torn, whom I’ll always remember as demented coach Patches O’Houlihan in 2004’s Dodgeball, training Vince Vaughan and his team in the titular sport by hurling monkey-wrenches at their crotches; on the 18th, the American actor David Hedison, whose CV included the original The Fly (1958), the TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-68) and the James Bond movies Live and Let Die (1974) and Licence to Kill (1989), in which he became the first-ever actor to play Bond’s CIA buddy Felix Leiter twice; and English actor Jeremy Kemp, who appeared in everything from the early seasons of the seminal BBC TV police series Z Cars (1962-78) to war movies like Operation Crossbow (1965), The Blue Max (1966) and A Bridge Too Far (1977) and to the exuberant Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker comedy Top Secret! (1984).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

August 5th saw the passing of American novelist Toni Morrison, author of Beloved (1987) and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.  August 16th brought a triple whammy – the deaths of American actor Peter Fonda who, through his work with director Roger Corman and his appearance in Easy Rider (1969) became a 1960s countercultural icon, before he settled down to become a more conventional action-movie hero in the likes of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1974) and Race with the Devil (1975); of British-Canadian animator Richard Williams, whose work included Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and the legendary but never-finished epic The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), as well as animated sequences for The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and the Pink Panther movies; and of English actress Anna Quayle, memorably rotten as Baroness Bomburst in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

 

American bass guitarist Larry Taylor, who played with the blues-rock band Canned Heat, died on August 19th; English TV scriptwriter and immensely influential (though unsung) children’s-books author Terrance Dicks died on the 29th; and American TV actress Valerie Harper, Mary Tyler Moore’s co-star in The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) and star of its spin-off Rhoda (1974-78), died on the 30th.

 

English playwright Peter Nichols, whose most famous works were probably A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) and Privates on Parade (1977) – both of which got capable film versions, Joe Egg directed by Peter Medak in 1972 and Privates directed by Michael Blakemore in 1982 – died on September 7th.  The next day saw the death of English starlet Valerie Van Ost, whose presence enlivened several Carry On movies and who provided Christopher Lee’s aristocratic vampire with his first victim in 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.  She was also considered as a replacement for Diana Rigg in the stylish TV show The Avengers (1961-69) before Linda Thorsen got the gig.  Rik Ocasek, singer, songwriter and guitarist with new-wave American rock band the Cars, died on September 15th while Larry Wallis, an early member of thunderous heavy metal band Mötorhead, died four days later.

 

© Goodrights / Lionsgate Films

 

Finally, checking out on September 21st was American actor Sid Haig, whose early career involved many collaborations with director Jack Hill in such cherish-able exploitation fare as Spider Baby (1968), Coffey (1973) and Foxy Brown (1974) and also more mainstream items like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971) and the Bond movie Diamonds are Forever (1971).  Tired of being typecast as a heavy, Haig was ready to give up acting in the 1990s and considered becoming a hypnotherapist.  Cinema’s loss and hypnotherapy’s gain were thwarted by Quentin Tarantino, who lured Haig back to the screen for a role in 1997’s Jackie Brown. Thereafter, Haig kept acting, most notably as the droll, clown-faced Captain Spaulding in the Rob Zombie-directed trilogy of House of 1000 Corpses (2003), The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and 3 From Hell (2019).

 

The first week of October saw two notable departures in the musical world – Kim Shattuck, singer, guitarist and songwriter with American punk band the Muffs, died on the 2nd; and English drummer Ginger Baker, who most famously thumped the skins for the late-1960s power trio Cream but also played with Blind Faith, Fela Kuti, Hawkwind and Public Image Ltd, died four days later.  For a fascinating and at times disturbing profile of Ginger Baker, I’d recommend the 2012 documentary Beware of Mr Baker, which among other things features filmmaker Jay Bulger getting assaulted and having his nose broken by his mega-truculent subject matter.  Between those two deaths, on October 4th, English actor Stephen Moore passed away.  Moore’s voice is surely better known than his face, for he supplied the lugubrious, self-pitying tones of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the 1981 TV adaptation of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

 

From pinterest.com

 

Northern Irish poet and novelist Ciaran Carson died on October 6th, while Russian cosmonaut Alexi Leonov, the first human being to carry out a spacewalk, departed this world for good on October 11th.  Leonov was an artist as well as a cosmonaut and he once cheekily pointed out to sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke that a painting he’d done in 1967, showing the sun, earth and moon, bore an uncanny resemblance to an iconic scene in the following year’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Clarke had co-written with Stanley Kubrick.  On the day that Leonov died, so too did American actor Robert Forster.  Like Sid Haig, Forster had been a prolific actor during in the 1970s and 1980s but his career had somewhat entered the doldrums until Quentin Tarantino gave him a role in Jackie Brown.  More recently, Forster appeared in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), meaning he’s yet another member of the Twin Peaks alumni whom we’ve had to say goodbye to in the past few years.  Finally, Scottish journalist Deborah Orr died on October 19th and American film producer Robert Evans, who enjoyed a roll in the late 1960s and early 1970s with such classics as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974), died on October 26th.

 

Aged a venerable 103, the formidable French resistance fighter Yvette Lundy passed away on November 3rd.  The next day saw the death of Irish broadcaster Gay Byrne who, whether you loved him or hated him – I seem to remember describing him on this blog as a ‘twinkly-eyed shit-stirrer’ – was surely the most influential figure in Irish TV history and, through that, a major influence on the Irish psyche generally since the 1960s.  The frontman with a favourite 1980s folk-rock band of mine, John Mann of the Canadian outfit Spirit of the West, died on November 20th.   Check out Spirit of the West’s Hounds That Wait Outside Your Door for a more damning account of the Maggie Thatcher era than any British folk band managed to offer at the time.  And the American illustrator Gahan Wilson, creator of countless delightfully ghoulish cartoons, died a day later.

 

The brainy Australian (but British-based) polymath Clive James – a broadcaster, critic, novelist, poet and memoirist – died on the 24th.  James’s death wasn’t announced until three days later, which coincided with the death of Jonathan Miller, a brainy English polymath – a medical doctor, humourist, writer, TV presenter and director of film, stage and opera.  The simultaneous news of James’s and Miller’s deaths prompted many British people to quip on social media that the country’s collective IQ level had just dropped by a few dozen points.  And guess what?  Three weeks later, Boris Johnson got re-elected as British prime minister.

 

© United Artists

 

This blog-entry has already mentioned Peter Fonda, Rutger Hauer and Sid Haig.  On November 20th died an American actor who’d performed memorably with all three of them.  Michael J. Pollard appeared with Fonda in the Roger Corman-directed Hell’s Angels epic The Wild Angels (1966), with Hauer in Tony Maylam’s barking-mad monster movie Split Second (1992) and with Haig in the bloody but funny prologue to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses.   However, Pollard will be most remembered for playing C.W. Moss, the spaced-out gas-stand attendant who ends up joining the gang of the titular bank robbers in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde.  I prefer him, though, in a movie he made two years later, Hannibal Brooks.  In that, Pollard and Oliver Reed play a pair of escaped prisoners of war in Nazi Germany / Austria who intend to do very different things with their freedom – the psychotic Pollard wants to kill as many Germans as possible, while the peace-loving Reed just wants to lead an elephant he’s befriended in the bombed Munich Zoo to safety.  With Pollard looking baby-faced and innocent and Reed being, well, Reed, it’s a surprise their roles weren’t reversed.

 

The final month of 2019 was another bad one for the acting profession.  The American character actors René Auberjonois – who among many notable performances played Father Mulcahy in the original, Robert Altman-directed M*A*S*H* (1970) – and Daniel Aiello died on the 8th and 12th respectively.  The Danish-French actress Anna Karina, frequently considered a ‘muse’ for Jean-Luc Goddard, died on the 14th.  English actor Nicky Henson died on the 15th.  Though the self-deprecating Henson liked to joke that the only information on his tombstone would be that he once appeared in an episode of John Cleese’s sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-1979), I liked him for his performances in two British folk-horror movies, the gruelling Witchfinder General (1968) and the lovably laughable Psychomania (1971).  Claudia Augur, who played Domino in the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball and was one of at least three Bond girls to pass away in 2019, died on the 18th.  And Sue Lyon, who played the pubescent moppet Dolores Haze, subject of the pervy lusts of Humbert Humbert (James Mason) and Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers), in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick-directed adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, died on the 26th.

 

© Fontana

 

In other fields, Barrie Keeffe, scriptwriter of Britain’s best-ever gangster movie The Long Good Friday (1980), departed on December 10th; Roy Loney, co-founder of Californian garage-rock band the Flamin’ Groovies – the Groovies’ Slow Death is a particularly epic song to shake a leg to – died on the 13th; and American-born Anglo-Scots artist and illustrator Tom Adams died on the 17th.  The covers that Adams created during the 1960s and 1970s for a string of Agatha Christie novels, published in paperback by Fontana, are now considered iconic.  And December 29th saw the demise of Neil Innes, the doyen of British comic singer-songwriters, the deviser with Eric Idle of spoof-Beatles band the Rutles, and the unofficial ‘seventh’ member of the Monty Python team.  “I’ve suffered for my music,” Innes once told an audience.  “Now it’s your turn.”

 

Finally, the beginning and end of December brought sad news for the literary scenes of two countries I’ve had long associations with, Sri Lanka and Scotland.  On December 2nd, Sri Lankan novelist, poet and journalist Carl Muller passed away.  Muller’s engrossing and bawdy novel The Jam Fruit Tree was joint winner of Sri Lanka’s first-ever Gratiaen Literary Prize (founded by Michael Ondaatje) in 1993 and he was the first of his countrymen and countrywomen to have books published overseas.  And December 29th saw the death of Glaswegian author – and artist, playwright, poet, polemicist and academic – Alasdair Gray.  He was an important influence on me and I’ll be writing more about him on this blog soon.

 

From pinterest.com

 

Deathlog 2019: Part 1

 

© BBC

 

As 2019 draws to a close, here’s a name-check of some literary, cinematic, musical, artistic and other inspirations of mine who passed away during the year.

 

Musicians who died in January 2019 included American blues singer and pianist Willie Murphy (of Willie and the Bees), who passed away on the 12th; and American punk rock bassist Lorna Doom who departed four days later.  Doom had played with the raucous band The Germs, whose very first gig in 1976 set the scene for their subsequent performances: “We made noise for five minutes,” recalled guitarist Pat Smear, “until they threw us off.”  Meanwhile, in the world of letters, January 24th saw the death of Scottish journalist Hugh McIlvanney, the only sports-writer ever named Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards.

 

January’s death toll was particularly high in the acting world.  English actor Del Henney, who’d appeared in gritty British thrillers like Villain and Straw Dogs (both 1971), died on the 14th.  Sonorous Welsh actor Windsor Davies, who’ll be best remembered as the tyrannical and occasionally sarcastic (“Oh dear, how sad, never mind”) Sergeant Major Williams in the BBC’s wartime sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (1974-81), died on the 17th.  English actress Sylvia Kay, who played the enigmatic Janette Hynes in the greatest Australian movie ever, Wake in Fright (1971), died on the 18th.  And the much-loved American character actor Dick Miller, first a regular in the movies of Roger Corman and then in those of Corman’s numerous proteges like Joe Dante, Jonathan Kaplan and Alan Arkrush, died on the 30th.

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists   

 

Another slew of performers passed away in February.  English actor Clive Swift, best-known for his BBC TV sitcom work but whose movie credits include Frenzy, Death Line (both 1972) and Excalibur (1981) died on the 1st, while American actress Julie Adams, object of the scaly affections of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) died two days later.  February 7th saw the departure of English acting icon Albert Finney.  Back in America, action-movie and TV star Jan-Michael Vincent, who appeared in 1972’s The Mechanic, 1977’s Damnation Alley, 1978’s Hooper and many more, died on the 10th.  And Katherine Helmond, the wonderfully out-of-it Jessica Tate in the US TV soap-opera spoof Soap (1977-81), and also a supporting player in the Terry Gilliam movies The Time Bandits (1981) and Brazil (1983), passed away on the 23rd.

 

Much-admired German actor Bruno Ganz, who appeared in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and who’d just completed Lars Von Triers’ amusingly icky and provocative The House That Jack Built (2018), died on February 15th.  A month later, on March 13th, another Nosferatu-related death occurred when artist David Palladini, the artist who’d designed the movie’s gorgeously Art Nouveau poster, passed away too.

 

Musical deaths in February included those of Monkee Peter Tork on the 21st; Mark Hollis, singer-songwriter and co-founder of the respected synth / art-pop bank Talk Talk, on the 25th; and Andy Anderson, drummer from 1983 to 1986 on five albums by the Cure, on the 26th.

 

March saw another slew of deaths in the musical world, with the Prodigy’s memorably hissing, sneering singer and dancer Keith Flint dying on the 4th; surf-guitar maestro Dick Dale on the 16th;  and on the 17th, Yuya Uchida, singer with the psychedelic 1970s Japanese outfit Flower Travellin’ Band and also an actor in in Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (1983).  Finally, American-born, British-based singer-songwriter and composer Scott Walker, who achieved success both as a solo artist and as a member of the Walker Brothers, died on the 22nd.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

Among the actors who died in March was American Joseph Pilato, on the 24th.  Pilato played the fascistic and repellent Captain Rhodes in George A. Romero’s 1986 horror film Day of the Dead and the scene where he finally gets his come-uppance is for me the most satisfying death in horror-movie history.  (“Choke on ’em!” he yells as some hungry zombies munch on his vitals.)  Canadian actor Shane Rimmer, long-term resident of the UK, voice-actor for Gerry Anderson’s puppet TV shows and for many years the British film industry’s go-to guy if a level-headed North American was needed in a supporting role, died on March 29th.  Rimmer’s credits included a few James Bond movies and, by a sad coincidence, English actress Tania Mallet, who played the ill-fated Tilly Masterton in Goldfinger (1964) died the following day, while Serbian actress Nadja Regin, who’d appeared in both Goldfinger and From Russia with Love (1963) died a week later on April 6th.

 

Away from the acting fraternity, the fascinating W.H. Pugmire died on March 26th.  The Seattle-based Pugmire was a self-styled ‘punk rock queen and street transvestite’ who bore a fleeting resemblance to Boy George, and a distinguished author of H.P. Lovecraft-style horror fiction, and someone who’d spent the early 1970s doing the thankless job of being a Mormon missionary in Northern Ireland.

 

And now a few words about filmmaker Larry Cohen, who died on March 23rd and who was responsible for directing such ramshackle but thematically fascinating exploitation movies as It’s Alive! (1974), God Told Me To (1976) and Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) and scripting equally diverting items like Uncle Sam (1996) and Phone Booth (2002).  Even if the execution of those films never matched the originality of the ideas behind them, there was much to admire in Cohen’s oeuvre, especially in his love of improvisation.  When, for example, he and his crew nipped up to the top of New York’s Chrysler building without permission during the making of Q, filmed a gun battle there and unwittingly started pandemonium on the streets around the building because people thought a terrorist attack was in progress, Cohen promptly ordered his cameraman to film the fleeing pedestrians below as he thought they might provide valuable bonus footage.

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Finally, Irish actor Pat Laffan died on March 14th.  Laffan was best remembered for playing lecherous milkman (“There are some very hairy babies on Craggy Island and I think you are the hairy baby-maker!”) and vengeful psychopath Pat Mustard on TV’s Father Ted (1995-98).  His death, alas, wasn’t the only Ted-related one in 2019 for Brendan Grace, who played the drums-and-bass-loving priest Father Fintan Stack in another episode of the show, died on July 11th.

 

April saw the deaths of American fantasy / sci-fi writers Vonda N. McIntyre on the 1st and Gene Wolfe on the 14th; and, on the 18th, of British author and playwright John Bowen, probably best-known for his script for the BBC’s spooky folk-horror TV play Robin Redbreast (1970).  French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle – whom I’ll always remember for his portrayal of Arrosio, the gloriously eccentric but hapless and doomed private eye in Dario Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) – died on the 24th.  British director John Llewellyn Moxley, responsible for the atmospheric chiller City of the Dead (1960), died on the 29th, while Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton died a day earlier.

 

For me, however, the saddest departure in April was that of seven-foot, three-inch English actor Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca – Han Solo’s best pal and a ‘walking carpet’ according to Princess Leia – in five Star Wars movies.  I love the fact that Mayhew was working as a porter at Mayday Hospital in Croydon when he was cast as Chewie in the original Star Wars (1977) and, despite that film becoming the highest-grossing one of all time, he continued to work there as a porter during the periods between The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983).

 

From collectors.com

 

May 9th saw the death of English comedian Freddie Starr, whose finest moment for my money was when he appeared in Michael Apted’s 1977 crime thriller The Squeeze.  Musician Jake Black, aka the Very Reverend Wayne D. Love of the London blues / country / techno / electronica / indie band Alabama 3, died on May 21st, while the following day saw the death of English children’s author (most notably, 1968’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea) Judith Kerr.  American horror writer Dennis Etchison died on the 28th, and the final day of May saw the passing of psychedelic singer-songwriter and musician Roky Erickson, of the 13th Floor Elevators and Roky Erickson and the Aliens.

 

Meanwhile, May 11th witnessed the loss of yet another cast-member of Twin Peaks (1990-91, 2017), possibly the finest TV show ever.  At least the late Peggy Lipton, who played Norma Jennings, owner of the Double R Diner, got to see her character have a happy ending in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) when Norma finally got together with love of her life Ed Hurley (Everett McGill).  Which is more than could be said for poor old Agent Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), apparently left trapped forever in a nightmarish parallel-universe limbo.

 

Yet more actors shuffled off the mortal coil in June: American actress Sylvia Miles, wonderfully pathetic in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy, on the 12th; frequently villainous American character actor Billy Drago on the 24th; and British actor Bryan Marshall, who was most memorably cast in 1980’s gangster epic The Long Good Friday, on the 25th.   The French actress Edith Scob, who in her youth made a stir playing the recipient of countless failed face transplants in Georges Franju’s still disturbing horror masterpiece Les Yeux sans Visage (1960), and who also made a late-career appearance in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), died on the 26th.  And I was particularly sad to hear of the death of British TV actor Paul Darrow on June 3rd.  For people of a certain age, Darrow was the biggest hard-ass in the universe, i.e. Avon, anti-hero of the BBC’s surprisingly downbeat sci-fi series Blake’s 7 (1978-81).

 

Italian movie director Franco Zeffirelli, best known for adapting Shakespeare to the screen in elegant films like Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Hamlet (1990), which generations of British kids then had to watch at school as part of their English syllabus, died on June 15th.  Spanish director Narciso Ibanez Serrador, responsible for 1976’s sinister Who Can Kill a Child? died on the 7th.  And finally, New Orleans’ Dr John, the legendary bluesy, funky, boogie-woogie-ing singer and pianist, passed away on the 6th.  I was lucky enough to see Dr John perform at the Fleadh festival in London’s Finsbury Park in 1998.  Truly, he was the only man in the world who could look cool wearing a pair of hush puppies.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Derek Bridges

 

To be continued.

 

The Tarantino device

 

© Colombia Pictures / Bona Film Group

 

Finally, some three-to-four months after it was released in America and Europe, I’ve managed in Sri Lanka to catch up with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the new film – or as it’s more portentously known, the ninth film – directed by Quentin Tarantino.  Before I offer my thoughts on the latest of Mr Tarantino’s opuses, which is set in Los Angeles in 1969, I should warn you that spoilers lie ahead.

 

I felt some trepidation when I sat down to watch Once Upon a Time because I’ve had mixed feelings about Tarantino’s output in the 21st century.  Parts – but certainly not all – of the Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004) worked for me.  I found the first half of Deathproof (2007) tedious.  While I generally had a good time with Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), both had serious lapses in logic that annoyed me.  In fact, I’ve only unreservedly enjoyed his previous movie, The Hateful Eight (2015), perhaps because it was restricted to one setting, had a relatively small cast and seemed more like a stage play, which actually suited Tarantino’s style.  (While he frequently gets dumped on for being shallow and interested only in trashy movies, Tarantino is really very literary.  He delights in dialogue, writes reams of it for his characters and isn’t afraid to give the actors playing those characters inordinate amounts of time to speak it, long after most other directors would have cut away.)

 

Once Upon a Time is the antithesis of The Hateful Eight.  It sprawls across Hollywood, Los Angeles and beyond and has a cast of thousands – well, hundreds, anyway.  But it worked for me.  Not only is it an exhilarating piece of cinema, but it also takes a dark and dispiriting topic and, through the magic of movies, manages to fashion something touching and even uplifting out of it.

 

As you’d expect from a Tarantino film set in Hollywood, Once Upon a Time is loaded with references to famous people – Joseph Cotton, Patty Duke, Ann-Margaret, Jim Morrison, George Pepard, Telly Savalas, John Sturges and Brian Wilson to name a very few.  But for me the most interesting name-check is that of celebrated science fiction and fantasy author Ray Bradbury.  (Bradbury’s 1951 short-story collection The Illustrated Man was made into an anthology movie in 1969, which in Once Upon a Time is heard being advertised on a car radio.)  Significantly, Bradbury wrote a story in 1965 called The Kilimanjaro Device, about a man who goes off in a time machine to find Ernest Hemmingway before he commits suicide and to rescue him from that sad fate.  Once Upon a Time is basically Tarantino’s Kilimanjaro Device.  It’s a means by which he travels back in time, searches out someone who came to a tragic and premature end and tries to save them.  But though his mission is a serious one, he also has a lot of fun along the way.

 

Fun especially comes from the double-act at the movie’s heart, the characters of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth played respectively by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.  Rick is a supposed tough-guy actor whose career reached its peak in the 1950s when he played the hero of a TV western series called Bounty Law.  Since then, he’s been steadily descending the slope on the far side of that peak, taking guest-slots as villain-of-the-week in other stars’ TV shows, a downward trajectory aided by the fact that he’s a pisshead and something of a narcissistic, self-pitying arsehole.  Meanwhile, Cliff is a Hollywood stuntman who’s somehow ended up working for Rick as his driver (Rick was busted for drunk driving), minder, handyman and general dogsbody.  Cliff is the yang to Rick’s yin, being easy-going, amiable and effortlessly cool.  For example, he’s tolerant of and holds his own among the teenaged hippies who’ve become a feature of LA in the past year or so – whereas the prematurely grumpy-old-mannish Rick just hates them.  Actually, such is Cliff’s magnetism that he could have become a star like, or indeed bigger, than Rick, but Tarantino inserts a disturbing piece of backstory explaining why Cliff is persona non grata at the Hollywood studios.

 

I’ve been indifferent to the acting abilities of DiCaprio and Pitt in the past, but they’re both terrific here.  Despite, or possibly because of, his character’s arsehole-ery, DiCaprio manages to make Rick entertaining and even endearing.  Mind you, nothing makes me feel so depressingly old and past it as seeing a film in which the brat from 1997’s Titanic plays a character who’s constantly moaning about being old and past it.  As Cliff, Pitt not only is likeable but invests the character with a surprising vulnerability.  At the film’s climax, we worry about him when he stares danger in the face with his laid-back nonchalance, while the effects of an acid-dipped cigarette he’s just smoked start to kick in.

 

© Colombia Pictures

 

As you might expect from someone so famously addicted to pop culture, Tarantino goes to town in depicting the late-1960s Hollywood milieu that Rick and Cliff inhabit: the music, fashions, hairstyles, cars, building facades, neon signs and, of course, movies.  You could probably watch Once Upon a Time a dozen times and still not catch all the films seen on posters, hoardings and cinema-fronts or mentioned in radio ads and conversations, but here are a few I picked up: Valley of the Dolls (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Romeo and Juliet (1968), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), Lady in Cement (1968) and Krakatoa, East of Java (1969).  Plus we get to see parts of 1968’s The Wrecking Crew, one in a series of 1960s cash-ins on the James Bond craze that featured Dean Martin as a secret agent called Matt Helm.  The Matt Helm movies were set in a cool, groovy, youth-orientated 1960s world in which the middle-aged Dean Martin, try as he might, couldn’t help but look out of his depth – which makes him resemble Rick and Cliff, two slightly over-the-hill blokes trying to survive in a world that’s gone youth-crazy.

 

Then there are the imaginary 1960s movies that Rick supposedly appears in.  We see him torching Nazi officers with a flamethrower (“Anybody order fried sauerkraut?”) in the credibly 1960s-esque World War II actioner 14 Fists of McCluskey.  Later, he jets off to Italy at the behest of his agent (played by Al Pacino) and stars in some fabricated spaghetti westerns like Nebraska Jim (directed by the real-life Sergio Corbucci) and fabricated Euro-spy epics like Operazione Dyn-o-mite (directed by the equally real-life Antonio Margheriti.)  Rick’s Italian career-move, of course, was one that another star of another old TV western series, Clint Eastwood – Rowdy Yates in Rawhide from 1958 to 1966 – had profitably made earlier in the decade.

 

© Renato Casaro / From wiki.tarantino.info

 

And then there’s the cinematic fusion of the real and imaginary, such as when a lachrymose Rick imagines himself starring in a certain, much-loved 1960s war movie.  Apparently, he was in with a shout of getting the lead role when, for a time, Steve McQueen wasn’t interested.

 

Though Once Upon a Time is a cinephile’s dream, I like the fact that it doesn’t forget the larger and less glamorous culture underpinning Hollywood’s moviemaking one – television, which offers performers and crewmembers employment when they aren’t making films.  Indeed, Rick is primarily a TV star rather than a cinematic one and we see much more of him on TV sets than on film ones.  Television helps pay the rent for folk who are both on the way down, like Rick, and on the way up, like Bruce Lee, who starred in the 1966-67 show The Green Hornet and who’s depicted in a flashback meeting and falling out with Cliff.  Lee’s family were upset about his portrayal in Once Upon a Time, which suggests he was an arrogant dickwad.  However, later, we do glimpse him behaving graciously with an actress whom he’s training in the martial arts.

 

Something that surely reinforces Rick’s inferiority complex about being a second-rate TV star rather than a first-rate film star is the fact that his new next-door neighbours on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon are prestigious up-and-coming movie director Roman Polanski – fresh from making 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby – and his wife, glamorous up-and-coming movie star Sharon Tate.  And it’s here that Once Upon a Time gets its injection of darkness: for we know that in the real world on August 8th, 1969, while Polanski was overseas, Tate and her houseguests were brutally murdered by some followers of crazed hippy-cult leader Charles Manson.  At least, that’s what happened in reality.  With Rick and Cliff on the scene, blundering into events unknowingly, the script of Once Upon a Time diverges somewhat from the proper historical script of 1969.  This is, after all, Tarantino’s Kilimanjaro Device.

 

Manson and his disciples don’t get much screen time.  Manson, played by Damon Herriman, turns up in one short scene and his followers are only in the limelight during an unsettling and claustrophobic sequence set at the Spahn Movie Ranch, which was their hangout at the time and which, as its name indicates, was officially used as a film set, mainly for westerns.  And a few of them obviously feature in the film’s last, brutal 20 minutes.  Manson and co have received much attention in popular culture in the last half-century and, in some misguided quarters, have acquired a morbid retro-cool.  So it’s good that in Once Upon a Time they’re portrayed as a pack of pathetic but dangerous psychos / losers who deserve no empathy whatever.

 

It’s also a relief that Roman Polanski, whom time has proven to be a Grade A creep and who’s played here by Rafal Zawierucha, gets little screen time too.  When we see him briefly, he’s togged out in a silly, velvety, frilly outfit that makes him look like Austen Powers.

 

With Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, Tarantino has been criticised for having her do and say little of consequence.  She watches one of her own movies, she buys a book for her husband – in a bit of cinematic foreshadowing, it’s Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1891) – she hangs out with her friends, she becomes pregnant and shows off the nursery she’s prepared for the little ‘un, she’s kooky and charming, and that’s it.  Which I think is Tarantino’s point.  She doesn’t have to be or do anything outstanding.  He just wants to show her as an attractive, talented human being.  That’s the way she should be remembered, not as a tragic footnote to the horrible business of the Manson murders.

 

Also earning Tarantino criticism for Once Upon a Time is his being, well, Tarantino-esque.  The film is long (two hours, 40 minutes) and shows his usual disregard for the rules of restrained filmmaking.  Show, don’t tell?  No, Tarantino tells everything, through voiceovers, exposition, montages, flashbacks, fantasy sequences that illustrate what characters are thinking.  Be economical and cut all extraneous fat from the plot?  To hell with that – there are loads of scenes here, of people walking and driving and talking, talking, talking, that do nothing to propel the story forward and that any other director would have saved for the ‘extras’ on the DVD release.

 

But to be honest, I don’t care.  Firstly, while making this film, Tarantino got a lot of toys to play with – he had fake retro-facades fitted over the businesses along Hollywood Boulevard to make it look like 1969 and had a section of the Hollywood Freeway closed off so that he could populate it with vintage automobiles – and I don’t blame him for taking time to show off those toys.  Secondly, we only see the guy once every four years.  And when the portal finally opens again, so to speak, I don’t mind stepping through it and spending the most of three hours exploring the newest part of the Quentin-verse.  Especially not when it’s as textured, fascinating and generally stunning as this.

 

That said, after the film had finished and I found myself back in the real world, as opposed to Tarantino’s world, I felt a certain melancholia when I remembered it’d all been pretend.  Which was also how I used to feel as a kid after I’d finished reading the latest book by Ray Bradbury.

 

© Octavio Terol / From wiki.tarantino.info

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 13

 

One of the best films I’ve seen in the past year has been Widows, the 2018 American movie directed by Steve McQueen and based on an old British TV drama series written by Lynda La Plante.  The opening minutes of Widows show a gang of bank robbers getting blown to kingdom come when their latest operation goes badly wrong. Thereafter, the film focuses on three of the dead robbers’ wives, played by Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki.  They discover the plans for what would have been their late husbands’ next robbery and decide to carry it out themselves, recruiting as their getaway driver a fourth lady, a beautician and babysitter played by Cynthia Erivo.  What follows is a bracing heist movie with a feminist slant, featuring great ensemble performances from the quartet of actresses heading the cast.

 

Anyway, the other day, I was in my regular DVD store in Colombo when I noticed this DVD case for Widows sitting on a shelf.  I don’t know…  I can’t quite explain it, I can’t quite put my finger on it but…  Somehow, I think there’s something missing in the way this DVD has been packaged for the Sri Lankan market.   What do you think?

 

© Regency Enterprises / Film 4 / 20th Century Fox

 

The essence of Pleasence

 

© NLT Productions / Group W Films / United Artists

 

Today is October 5th, 2019.  Donald Pleasence, one of my all-time favourite actors, was born on this day exactly 100 years ago

 

The distinctive Pleasence, with his domed and usually hairless head, his popping eyes and unsettling stare, and his alternatively smooth and sepulchral voice, was a peerless character actor.  Though he’s mainly remembered for his sinister roles, he could effortlessly inhabit a range of personas – characters who were pathetic, tragic, eccentric, obsequious and, occasionally, virtuous.

 

In celebration of the great man’s 100th birthday, here are 15 of the performances that for me most memorably capture the essence of Pleasence.

 

1984 (1954)

Controversial in its day, with questions raised about it in Parliament, the BBC’s mid-1950s version of George Orwell’s 1984 still has impact.  That’s largely due to its performances, most notably that of Peter Cushing playing Winston Smith.  But Pleasence is good too as Syme, the lexicographer enthusiastically working on Newspeak.  (“I’ve reached the adjectives at last!”)  Despite – or perhaps because of – his zeal for the Party, Syme ends up becoming an ‘unperson’.

 

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960)

John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends is the cinema’s best take on the notorious Edinburgh duo of Burke and Hare, who in the early 19th century started selling cadavers to the dissection rooms of Edinburgh Medical School.  The problem was, Burke and Hare’s cadavers had had some assistance in dying.  Pleasence is loathsome as Hare, with atypically long, lank tresses, a battered stovepipe hat, a smirk and a maniacal gleam that shows he gets a perverse thrill out of murdering people.  As with the real-life Hare, following his arrest, he turns King’s evidence against his partner and gets released, though director Gilling adds an apocryphal scene where he’s blinded by torch-wielding vigilantes the moment he leaves the jail.

 

© Triad Productions

 

Hell is a City (1960)

For someone who made a lot of horror movies, Pleasence had surprisingly little to do with Britain’s Hammer Films, the studio most associated with the horror genre at the time.  Hell is a City is a Hammer movie, but ironically isn’t a horror one but a crime one – and by the standards of British cinema then, is surprisingly gritty.  Pleasence plays Gus Hawkins, a shady but sympathetic bookmaker whose wife gives him the run-around while she attends to the spiritual and physical needs of the film’s villain, a murderous criminal fleeing the law.  In the role of the duplicitous Mrs Hawkins is Billie Whitelaw, whom Pleasence killed in The Flesh and the Fiends, so I suppose there’s justice in that.

 

The Great Escape (1963)

Pleasence’s performance in The Great Escape culminates in one of the saddest scenes in cinema history.  He plays Colin Blythe, a genteel but unfortunate prisoner-of-war in the high-security Stalag Luft III who goes blind just before the inmates stage the mass break-out of the title.  However, Blythe has been befriended by an American pilot called Hendley, played by James Garner, who agrees to take him along when it’s his turn to escape from the camp.  All goes well and Hendley and Blythe manage to steal a German airplane and fly it towards Switzerland and freedom.  They get to within yards of the Swiss border when the plane suffers engine trouble and crashes.  Then, while the bloodied Hendley tries to gather his wits amid the plane wreckage, the sightless and disorientated Blythe stumbles off in the direction of an approaching German patrol.  One of the German soldiers raises his rifle…  I get a tear in my eye even thinking about what happens next.

 

Cul-de-sac (1966)

The Roman Polanski-directed Cul-de-sac has a surprisingly svelte Pleasance playing an artist shacked up with his gorgeous young wife (Francoise Dorleac, who was the sister of Catherine Deneuve and who died in a car accident in 1967) on an island off the English coast, which is actually Lindisfarne off Northumbria.  Their idyll ends one day when two criminals-on-the-run (Lionel Stander and Jack MacGowran) show up.  Things then become positively Beckettian as the villains wait, futilely, for their superiors to appear and rescue them.  Cul-de-sac is overlong, but is a haunting experience thanks to the gorgeous bleakness of its location and its black-and-white photography.  It also contains the bloodcurdling sight of Pleasence, whilst involved in some kinky horseplay with Dorleac, hurtling around in lipstick and a frock.

 

© Compton Films / Tekli British Productions

 

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Your IQ must be lower than your shoe-size if you haven’t worked out within ten minutes that Pleasence is the foreign-agent saboteur among the crew in this colourful sci-fi epic about a submarine of medical experts being miniaturised and injected into the body of a dying scientist so that they can perform internal surgery on him.  Still it features a delightful scene near the end where Pleasence is devoured by a hungry white blood cell.  (Other great Donald death-scenes: getting mauled to death by a bear that’s obviously a stuntman wrapped up in a shaggy rug in 1960’s Circus of Horrors, and being ingested by a monster that’s half-human and half-Venus flytrap in 1974’s startlingly tacky The Mutations.)

 

You Only Live Twice (1967)

The James Bond film where we get to see Bond’s arch-nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld for the first time, You Only Live Twice has Pleasence playing him with all the accoutrements that popular culture associates with Blofeld – bald head, white jumpsuit, white cat, pool of piranhas for dropping incompetent minions into.  Mind you, the filmmakers immediately abandoned the template and cast two actors with very different appearances and personas, Telly Savalas and Charles Gray, as Blofeld in the next two Bond movies.  That, of course, didn’t stop Mike Myers from using the original Pleasence / Blofeld blueprint for his Dr Evil character in the later Austen Powers movies (1997-2002).

 

Wake in Fright (1971)

Nick Cave reckons Wake in Fright is the greatest Australian movie ever and I wholeheartedly agree.  It’s the tale of a young, bright and ambitious teacher (Gary Bond) who becomes increasingly desensitised and degenerate the longer he’s stranded in the macho outback town of Bundanyabba.  Pleasence plays Doc Tydon, an educated man who’s already plumbed the depths of ‘the Yabba’ and who becomes Virgil to Bond’s Dante, guiding him through the town’s various levels of hell.  The scene where a drunken Tydon sits on the porch of an outback pub and raves about “Socrates, affectability, progress” being “vanities spawned by fear”, before going berserk and smashing up the place, shows the mighty Donald at his most unhinged.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Deathline (1972)

Gary Sherman’s grisly and ahead-of-its-time horror movie Deathline has Pleasence playing Inspector Calhoun, a working-class copper investigating the disappearances of late-night travellers on the London Underground.  (Clue: it’s something to do with the last-surviving, cannibalistic descendent of a group of workers who were entombed by a cave-in while the Underground was being built in the 19th century.)  Calhoun isn’t really a nice character.  He’s sly, cynical, irascible and, as a boozy scene involving his only friend (Norman Rossington) shows, a nightmare to get out of the pub at closing time.  However, when he finally discovers the cannibal’s hideous subterranean lair, his exclamation – “What a way to live!” – suggests a feeling of empathy, even of kinship with the lonely creature.

 

The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

1970s children’s television in Britain featured many short public-information films that used harrowing and graphic images to convince kids that it was not a good idea to play on railway tracks, inside electrical sub-stations, next to farm slurry pits, etc.  Pleasence lent his doomy tones to The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, which warns the little ‘uns to keep away from rivers, canals and ponds and is the most harrowing film of the lot.  He voices the titular spirit, a black, cowled figure who lurks in the misty background while a succession of stupid children – “the unwary, the show-off, the fool” – are lured to watery graves.  So memorably ghoulish is Pleasence’s narration that, 45 years on, I can still recite every word of it.  (“Sensible children!” he spits.  “I have no power over them!”)  And to make it even creepier, when he dematerialises at the end and leaves his cowl floating on some murky water, we hear his voice echoing out of the cowl: “I’ll be back… back… back!”

 

© Amicus Productions / Warner Bros.

 

From Beyond the Grave (1974)

The best of the horror anthology movies produced by Amicus Films, Hammer’s biggest rival during the 1960s and 1970s, this features Pleasence in one story as an old soldier called Underwood, reduced to selling matchsticks and shoelaces on the street.  Underwood is adopted by a mediocre, frustrated man called Lowe (Ian Bannon), who’s trying to win respect for himself by lying about imaginary heroics he performed during the war.  Despite having a wife and child, Lowe gradually becomes enamoured with Underwood’s weird daughter – and we realise that it’s Underwood, not Lowe, who’s doing the manipulating.  In a neat piece of stunt casting, the daughter is played by Pleasence’s real-life daughter, Angela.  Meanwhile, wonderfully, in the role of Lowe’s ten-year-old son is the future comic writer and Labour Party activist John O’Farrell.

 

Telefon (1977)

Pleasence plays a Soviet scientist who, during the darkest days of the Cold War, helped to ‘seed’ the USA with deep-cover Soviet agents.  These brainwashed agents don’t know they’re agents, but when they hear a ‘trigger’, which is a stanza by poet Robert Frost, they become zombie-like, grab some explosives and carry out kamikaze-style attacks on nearby military installations.  Pleasence goes rogue and travels to America, where he tries to start World War III singlehandedly by activating the brainwashed agents.  Thereafter, there are many explosions and much reciting of poetry by Pleasance: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep / But I have promises to keep / And miles to go before I sleep…”

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / United Artists

 

Halloween (1978)

In 1978, planning a horror movie called Halloween about a murderous psychopath on the loose on October 31st, director John Carpenter decided he wanted ‘an old British horror guy’ to play Dr Sam Loomis, head of the psychiatric hospital from which the psychopath escapes.  After offering the part of Loomis to Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, without success, Carpenter approached Pleasence and the great man bagged his second most-famous role (after Blofeld).  I have mixed feelings about the massively influential Halloween.  It has a hackneyed script, but benefits from Carpenter’s masterly direction, an endearing turn by Jamie Lee Curtis as the resourceful ‘last girl’ and, obviously, Pleasence’s gravitas.  That said, I’m sure when Pleasence signed up for this, he didn’t expect to appear in four of the film’s five, increasingly ropy, direct sequels.

 

Blade on the Feather (1980)

A TV movie written by the brilliant Dennis Potter, Blade on the Feather has Pleasance playing a wealthy and stuck-up novelist who’s discombobulated when a young stranger, played by Tom Conti, arrives one day, ingratiates himself into his household and starts asking awkward questions – questions to do with some long-ago espionage skulduggery, which resulted in the death of Conti’s secret-agent father.  Stylishly directed by Richard Loncraine and excellently acted by Pleasence, Conti and Denholm Elliot, Blade on the Feather was no doubt Potter’s disgruntled response to events of the previous year – when Anthony Blunt had finally been unmasked as the ‘fourth man’ in the Guy Burgess / Donald Maclean / Kim Philby spy scandal that rocked Britain in the 1950s and 1960s.  Despite confessing to treason in 1964, Blunt’s crime was kept secret for the next 15 years and he was allowed to enjoy a respectable and privileged life at the heart of the British establishment, working as curator of the Queen’s art collection.

 

Escape from New York (1981)

Working again with director John Carpenter, Pleasence plays in Escape from New York a future US president who’s trapped in a hellish version of New York after his plane crashes there.  The city has become so anarchically crime-ridden that the authorities have simply sealed it off, left it to its own devices and turned it into a huge, unstaffed prison into which they dump all their felons.  An ultra-violent, dystopian United States with a president called Donald?  Thank heavens that prediction didn’t come true.

 

Anyway, a century on…  Happy birthday, Mr P.

 

© Central Office of Information

 

Deighton classified

 

© Harper Collins

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a James Bond buff.  Because of this, I’d wanted for a long time to get my hands on a copy of Len Deighton’s 1962 spy novel The Ipcress File – my interest in it being that it’s often touted as the anti-Bond.

 

Whereas 007 is a posh ex-public schoolboy with oodles of money and charm at his disposal, Harry Palmer, spy hero of The Ipcress File, is an unprivileged and ordinary-seeming bloke with only his working-class wits to help him negotiate the hazardous, occasionally dangerous world of espionage.  Whereas Bond swans around in glamorous international locations enjoying the finest in cuisine, liquor and cars, Palmer trudges the lugubrious streets of London peering at the rain and the pigeons through an oversized pair of glasses.  Whereas Bond wins ladies’ hearts with his unflappable insouciance, Palmer gets dumped on by his superiors for his insolence, which to them signifies that he’s a troublesome oik who doesn’t know his place.

 

That, at least, was the impression I always had of Deighton’s character thanks to seeing the 1965 film version of The Ipcress File, which featured in its lead role that impeccably deadpan man of the people Michael Caine.  (At least, he was a man of the people until the 1970s, when he started moaning about his tax bill.)  It was a surprise, then, to finally open the original novel a few weeks ago and discover that it wasn’t what the film version had led me to believe.  It wasn’t quite as different from the Bond novels as I’d expected.

 

I should qualify that by saying I’m talking in terms of characterisation, not in terms of plot.  For unlike the straightforward, action-adventure plot dynamics of the average Bond novel, the narrative of The Ipcress File is a twisty, at times head-scratching thing that produces plenty of surprises about who’s working for and spying on whom.

 

Anyway, firstly, forget about Harry Palmer.  The hero of Deighton’s novel goes through its 250-odd pages without ever revealing his name.  Early on, somebody calls him ‘Harry’, but he immediately muses: “Now my name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever has been.”  All we have is an anonymous narrator recounting events with a laconic turn of phrase whilst giving few clues about his personality and background.  In other words, the main character in The Ipcress File is a cypher, an empty space into which readers can project their own personalities and so imagine themselves at the centre of the intrigue.

 

A cypher was pretty much what James Bond was too – not so much a properly-rounded character as a device for drawing in the reader.  His creator Ian Fleming was careful not to give him too much individuality.  This policy extended from his bland name (famously borrowed from the ornithologist who wrote the book Birds of the West Indies) to his lack of a life-history – it was only in You Only Live Twice (1964), the last novel published in Fleming’s lifetime, that we learn much about him and even then it turns out that Bond was orphaned at an early age, i.e. denied anything as character-forming as a family background.

 

Being a blank canvas isn’t the only thing that Deighton’s protagonist has in common with Bond.  Both their jobs involve some globe-trotting.  Now this came as a shock to me after seeing the film The Ipcress File, which determinedly confines its action to the British capital.  However, the book sees him pursue a kidnapped scientist to Lebanon – resulting in a deadly blunder that the film has happening in a London car-park – and later being posted to a Pacific atoll that the American military have commandeered in order to observe and measure the explosion of a neutron bomb.  The Pacific episode, set in a remote and inhospitable fragment of the tropics that the Americans have converted into a base containing “two athletic fields, two movie theatres, a chapel, a clothing store, beach clubs for officers and enlisted men, a library, hobby shops, vast quarters for the Commanding General, a maintenance hangar, personnel landing pier, mess hall, dispensary, a PX, post office, a wonderful modern laundry and a power plant”, is at times so odd and surreal it doesn’t so much resemble a spy story as something by J.G. Ballard.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation

 

And like Bond, the hero of the literary Ipcress File has refined taste buds.  We variously see him tucking into ‘Russian tea and apple strudel’, ‘Dgaj Muhshy (chicken stuffed with nutmeg, thyme, pine nuts, lamb and rice and cooked with celery)’, ‘totem poles of lamb, aubergine, onion and green pepper’, ‘iced Israeli melon’ and ‘fine lobster salad and carefully-made mayonnaise’.  Even his sandwiches seem classy by 1962 standards, consisting of ‘cream cheese with pineapple, and ham with mango chutney… with rye bread’.  Admittedly, this appears too in the film, which has a scene where Caine’s Harry Palmer bumps into a superior in a shop and is chided for paying “ten pence more for a fancy French label” of button mushrooms.  The disdainful superior adds: “You’re quite a gourmet, aren’t you, Palmer?”

 

However, where Deighton’s hero and Fleming’s hero part ways is in their relationships with their employers.  Whereas Bond seems at ease in the secret service, Deighton’s character lacks the wealthy and privileged background that most of his colleagues and superiors have.  And he isn’t impressed by what that background has produced.  He begins the novel working for Military Intelligence under a man called Ross, “a regular officer, that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 P.M. or hit ladies without first removing his hat.”  Ross, we hear, has given him plenty of ‘toffee-nosed dressing downs’ and at one point he rambles at inordinate length about his huge and lavish garden.  “Ross,” the perplexed narrator breaks in, “Mrs Laing and Dorothy Perkins are roses, aren’t they?”

 

Early in The Ipcress File, though, he’s transferred from Ross’s unit to a civilian intelligence department of the Home Office called the WOOC(P).  Not that he’s much happier with the person in charge there, a character called Dalby who’s “an elegant languid public-school Englishman of a type that can usually reconcile his duty with comfort and luxury.”  When Dalby asks him if he “can handle a tricky little special assignment,” he retorts, “If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it.”

 

Having to work with people from moneyed backgrounds presents him with another problem.  His superiors don’t seem to appreciate the fact that he needs a steady income and regular payment of expenses to survive.  When he switches from Ross’s outfit to Dalby’s, he wonders how long he “would have to make the remnants of this month’s pay last before the new scale began.”  Later, he complains that he’s “still two months behind with pay and three with allowances” and that “a claim for £35 in overseas special pay” was “overdue by ten and a half months.”

 

This also surfaces in the film, with Ross and Dalby (played by Guy Doleman and Nigel Green) depicted as a pair of condescending bowler-hatted toffs who view Palmer as an irritant with ideas above his station.  But the unflattering commentary about Britain’s class system is diluted slightly by the addition of a military theme.  Ross and Dalby are both of upright army-officer stock while Palmer, we hear, had an inglorious time in uniform.  (I assume that as an ordinary soldier he was caught up in illegal black-market activities in Germany, though I could be wrong.)  Anyway, he’s spent time in a military prison and might be thrown into one again if he gets on the wrong side of his employers.

 

Thus, Palmer’s insolence isn’t just the result of a general social resentment – it comes too from a particular resentment against an institution, the army, that’s blighted his past and could potentially blight his future.  Meanwhile, the film plays down his financial frustrations and shows him protesting instead against the needless bureaucracy of his work.  Dalby, for instance, insists on a lengthy report being written after every excursion he makes ‘into the field’.

 

Incidentally, James Bond gets the best of both worlds.  He’s well-bred enough to know his way around a flashy casino or exclusive golf club, and is choosy about what he eats, drinks and drives, but he knows how to avoid coming across as an arse when mingling with ordinary working folk.  Note how easily he gets into conversation with a pub landlord in Moonraker (1955), say, or with Tiffy, the bargirl at the bordello in The Man with the Golden Gun (1965).  As Henry Chancellor puts it, he’s a ‘snob about things’ but not ‘about people’.

 

To sum up then, I found the hero of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File rather more Bondian than I’d anticipated.  But what distinguishes him from Ian Fleming’s master-spy is class.  One has an ample supply of it.  For the other, it’s the bane of his bloody life.

 

© Lowndes Productions / Rank Organisation