July 2010

Bad Yeats

The composition is for shit but the colours are good and the card in the window reads “Casanova ate two dozen oysters every day for breakfast”. Nothing, at half eight on a rainy Friday morning in Kenmare, could have been further from my mind than the elevating powers of overindulgence in cholesterol.


Just watched Christopher Lee. I watched him in the film noted in the title of this but far more interesting and entertaining is the documentary on his career, which is enough to make Alan Partridge wince. Here’s a bit of Alan in action: any excuse.

Anyway, Lee speaks about his career and uses phrases like “if I may be immodest” and “the key to acting is”. He relates anecdotes in an episodic, easily-cropped manner, pausing as if for audience applause. Go about 1.45 into this an listen to him on the subject of Fu Manchu, one of the more racist characters of the 20th century.

No irony whatsoever. “I had to be very careful. You don’t want to offend people when you’re playing a character from another ethnic background”. He’s playing Fu Manchu, for Christ’s sake. This documentary is full of wonderful falling one-liners and unintentional hubris (the best kind, like borderline racism). It comes from a collection called The Ultimate Hammer Collection, a mammoth 21-disc boxed set released a few years ago. There’s little indication that the Christopher Lee piece is on there but stick in the Dracula film and there it is.

I have abiding memories of BBC2’s Horror double bills on Saturday nights: for what seemed like years (but everything seems like years when you’re a kid) they’d screen one old Hollywood B movie like Frankenstein or Curse of the Werewolf, and one of these Hammer films. For those who don’t know, Hammer made a number of schlocky horror films in the sixties and early seventies, most of which featured one of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. The better ones have more than one of the boys. Some Hammer films have leapt into memory, like 10,000 Years BC, the very creepy The Nanny, or the more recent classic The Wicker Man, but for the most part this stuff is interchangeable.

Now when these films are bad they’re spectacularly bad (Ursula Andress in She is awful); when they’re good then it’s hard to identify why. It can’t be the script, which tends to the declarative, with many convoluted legends expounded before we get any action. It can’t be the acting, which is smell the fart if you’re a man and if you’re a woman, swoon if nothing else seems to be going on. The effects are what you’d expect from the era, with lots of bright red blood and knives in the back. For a particular age group the Hammer films, especially the seventies ones, were guaranteed to feature some nudity from one or more of the buxom, curvy English roses on display. I think I like them because they’re so formal, so English. In a world where horror has once again been reduced to people getting killed in increasingly nauseating ways, these movies are nice and simple. Suspension of disbelief is insisted upon, as a striding Dracula can match the speed of running victims, or two couples get into a carrriage and stay the night in an old mansion although they have no idea who owns it, eating a dinner they find laid out for them by someone they don’t know and putting on pyjamas and big white nightgowns laid out for them from the suitcases unpacked for them while they were eating the aforementioned dinner downstairs. And they wonder how come they’re dying one at a time?

Dracula Prince of Darkness,made in 1966, is a heavy, laden-down, dusty old sideboard of a movie. The opening exposition features a mad old priest, Fr Sandor, who tells a priest refusing to bury a girl on hallowed ground that he’s a superstitious fool. This from the bloke who seems so well-versed in vampire lore that his every utterance seems to come from The Big Book of Vampires. He meets the couples mentioned above, his warning about visiting the castle up the road rendering even more bizarre their almost-instantaneous decision to go there and eat dinner.

Dracula (Lee) himself is dead at the beginning and only shows up 46 minutes in, but the manner of his re-animation is the highpoint. Into an empty Dracula-shaped sarcophagus is poured the fresh arterial blood of the first victim who has been despatched, hung by the ankles and bled out by the helpful butler (Klove, who seems to do everything around the castle). Then, amid the thick dry ice, is a dissolve which takes us from ash to a skeleton, to a fleshy skeleton before the fog thickens and from it emerges a ringed hand, pulling itself out of the coffin. This Dracula is old-school, like Lon Chaney’s classic reveal in The Phantom of the Opera (1925): “feast your eyes, glut your soul on my accursed ugliness” (a favourite chat-up line of mine back in the day). He’s slow to emerge and silent. The rumour was that Lee was so unhappy with the lines he was asked to deliver that he played the thing silent, but that doesn’t explain his preparedness to talk complete shite in dozens of other films.

From then on Dracula seems to appear predominantly when the other vampire woman he’s just recruited (Helen, played by Barbara Shelley) is about to feed. He usually pushes her out of the way and has a go himself, but as there are only two main characters and the priest left, there are slim pickings for both. So it’s ponderous and threatening without any real pay-off, unless you count the staking of the bird with the low-cut neckline (another Hammer staple). It ends suddenly as Dracula vanishes under some conveniently-located ice in the moat of his castle, never to return. Yeah right.

It takes a long time to get anywhere, there’s no real sense of dread and only some threat. It’s pompous and ponderous, vaguely mythic and very camp. Everything you’d want from a Hammer film, in fact, if that’s your kind of zoo.

Just listened to it this afternoon and it starts well with ‘Street Fighting Man’ and gets progressively less interesting. Their version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was good at the time, but listening now Mick’s voice is completely shot and the song sounds lazy. Keith sounds much more focused throughout: ‘Slipping Away’ is the best thing on here. For those a little younger it’s their phlegmatic rattle, added to the plague which swept music in the early to mid-90s of Unplugged. Victims got two hudred of their richest, most coked-up fans and another hundred coked-up MTV liggers and performed, sitting on high stools mounted on big old Persian rugs surrounded by church candles, using expensive acoustic instruments. Then someone took it to the studio and harmonised the whole thing. Then they released it on CD and despite the fact that it was on telly, people bought it and the VHS of it anyway. What mugs.

I have distant memories of enjoying The Cure and hating most of the others. Nirvana‘s set was interesting and Pearl Jam are good at this sort of thing, but when Bruce did it he just plugged in. He was a bit shit in them days, though, so nobody pays much attention to his set. For me the nadir was 10000 Maniacs, but they feature in so many of my lists of nadirs it can’t be seen as objective in any way any more so pay no attention to my nadir-labelling bias against them. What a crock of shit they really were. And what a shit, inappropriate name.

But back to the Stones. It takes a lot to take ‘Wild Horses’ to the glue factory like they do. And all of the life of ‘Dead Flowers’, a song which–one has to remember–is a song about heroin anyway is drained as the thing drones on. It makes ‘Angie’ look lively by comparison and believe me, it’s pretty dead, too. No. Rolling Stones: Stripped is not recommended. Not by a long chalk.

“So change was in the air but we were unaware of where it was leading us all”.

–Robert Fripp, from the sleevenotes.

Introductory paragraph for people who know something about King Crimson:

Recorded on the last night of their 1974 tour and hence the last night of that era of King Crimson, this gig follows the Providence gig used in the construction of the Red album and released more fully on the Great Deceiver box set. This line-up is famous for having David Cross on violin and John Wetton on bass, both coming to the end of their tenure. Only Bill Bruford on drums would resurface in a Crimson lineup when they next convened in 1981. This era is famous for improvisation and tight control and this gig is a fine example of the interplay, particularly between Fripp and Cross. The setlist is derived mainly from the Lark’s Tounges, Starless and Bible Black and Red albums, with some nods to earlier work.

Introductory paragraph for people who know bugger all about King Crimson:

King Crimson have, of late, been treated with respectability by those who know. Those who know know that, when Emerson, Lake and Palmer were getting bigger, when Genesis and Yes were getting further into their own mythology, when Prog was serious music, King Crimson were stripping down and getting loud. Crimson, formed in 1969 by Robert Fripp, became well known quickly as their first gig was opening for the Stones in Hyde Park and their first album, In The Court of the Crimson King, was an amazingly assured and inspired effort. The lead track from that album, ’21st Century Schizoid Man’, is probably the only one you’ve ever heard, if that. This is not a band that ever got much airplay. They kept reforming, reshaping and breaking up again over the course of forty years, and over the last ten have been releasing live documents from their various lines up. Their recent reissue of three albums, especially Red, has led to quite the reappraisal, but there is a core audience who never doubted the quality of this band.

We begin this gig, the last of the tour, with the Greatest Hit, and you’d be forgiven for thinking they were playing it safe. Listen, though, to the interplay between keyboards, guitar and drums, particularly in the tempi changes, and you’ll hear a leaner, less pomp-ous band than the studio version suggests. Instead of building to the climax of their most familiar song, then, this band begins with the known material, bends it into the shape of the current band and then takes off. There’s no better guide to this album than here.

Although the sound quality of this is that of a decent bootleg, the quality of the playing more than atones for the limits of the era. Through the next hour or so we hear recognisable versions of many songs, sadly including the tedious ‘Easy Money’, but augmented with some serious improvisation from Cross and Fripp. By now Cross had moved away from the violin on many songs, using keyboard to duel with the increasingly-overdriven guitar of Fripp. On ‘Easy Money’ Fripp is driven to a level of intensity nearing an unthinkable-for-him unhingedness by the organ swell and the chords played on Wetton’s bass, and the song is all the better for it. The solo played out of this track into ‘Fracture’ is a clear indicator of the direction Crimson were going; here the other instruments stay clear of it before the ascending bass takes us into the theme. By half way through it sounds like a half-dozen Fripps on stage as the notes fly, but the mellotron in the background reminds us of the point of departure once again. ‘Fracture’ alone is worth tracking down this set to hear. You can turn it off before the bass solo at 8.20 if you’d like but indulge them a little….

And then there’s ‘Starless’, a track that represents for me the bridge between the prog and the rock, the pomp and the credibility of this band. The lyric makes way after a couple of minutes of atmospherics for a huge, thrilling instrumental sequence, with Fripp once again playing like a man about to set himself free from this band he described at the time as “perhaps… balanced in disarray”. As the music begins to get complicated the pomposity of the lyric, inspired by Dylan Thomas, is replaced by something much more threatening, much more eloquent. By ten minutes in the melody line has mutated into something much more frantic than the overblown lament of the lyric ever suggested, but it does reach a resolution by the end of its 12 minutes.

As such the encore, ‘The Talking Drum’ and ‘Lark’s Toungues in Aspic part II’, seem accomplished but unemotional, as if all the frustration and tension was spent at the end of the main set. They still bounce along at a highly entertaining crack, though. Whatever Fripp’s mental state, the final half hour of this album is a sequence of music as thrilling in this limited representation of the band as most groups can muster with all the technology easy money can buy.

And this is documentary evidence that even thirty six years ago there were wankers who talked through the quiet bits.

I watched this yesterday and it’s better than the third X-Men film. That’s not saying much. Hugh Jackman plays it straight down the line for the comic book geeks and Liev Schreiber gets the two funny lines. The opening montage is stunning and the action is pretty darn good unless you hate fingernails going down blackboards. The plot details how Wolverine became all metal (it was orignally bone?) and how the bad guys want to mix together every mutation and create Ryan Reynolds. The funniest bit is when Capt. Picard shows up uncredited: either he had some sort of chemical peel or he’s CGI.

Not terribly worth going out of your way for, but entertaining for an hour and a half, with lots of bright lights and noises. Go for it. Oh, guess what? They made Picard look younger using CGI so that was it. I have knowledge now.

It seems the film version of Lord of the Flies, directed by Peter Brook in 1963, is the next Criterion I’ve never watched, but I don’t propose to do so tonight. It came in a collection of Great Adaptations which I bought because it was cheaper than buying Great Expectations on its own at the time. The other two titles are The Most Dangerous Game and Oliver Twist. Oliver Twist might well be next or I might take a mulligan on that one too.

Although Golding’s original book is worth reading and the film helps when you’re 12 and didn’t bother, it’s the sort of thing you really need there to be an injection of, so you can get quickly to being able to say you read it. I can’t really remember exactlywhen I read it but I do remember thinking the film was really annoying. The bit when they discover the head is a nice reveal and Piggy’s glasses are a great metaphor, but otherwise I’m up for the tetse flies throughout.

The theme, that people are no damn good and we’ll revert to animalism at the drop of a coconut, is interesting and well-dealt with, but the thing is just a parody of itself by now. The Simpsons did it and killed it for everyone else. I lump this stuff, fair or otherwise, with Diary of Anne Frank; these days the educational equivalent is The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Teachers with even less imagination than me put it on courses for reasons I can only conclude are punitive. I have to say life’s too short. There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

So I won’t be watching Lord of the Flies tonight. And that looks like the wrong spelling of pajamas.

NOTE: I’ve been collecting DVDs, particularly those of the Criterion Collection, for many years now. I think my first one was The Seventh Seal. For a couple of years I took French Nouvelle Vague and then Kurosawa as my subject, but since I got all the obvious ones I started to buy what was recommended through reading, or what looked interesting. But life overtakes one and it’s been a while since I concentrated my efforts on watching movies and now I’ve quite a few I still have not seen but which sit in my big white DVD cabinet, all arranged in numerical order. For the next couple of weeks I’m going to try one a day and I begin with the unviewed title which comes numerically first in my collection: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

The reason I got this was that for several years it was the Golden Fleece of the collection—there were copies trading for serious money and an appreciable trade in bootlegs. Criterion lost the rights to this movie shortly after they produced it, and for a while the only available copy was the BFI’s version. I’ve never seen it in Ireland and for good reason: not only is it rare but it is acknowledged as one of the more extreme movies ever made. It’s interesting that the other Pasolini pictures I’ve seen—Canterbury Tales and The Gospel According to St. Matthew could not be further apart in tone, subject or execution: the former is a knockabout, lashed together piece of scatology; the latter is a revolutionary though spiritually powerful retelling of the life of Christ. Salò is, by all accounts, much more radical than either, blending the depravity of one with the political message of the other.  I’m apprehensive watching it because I know from notoriety that it features quite a lot of torture, culminating in an apparently-shocking sequence of coprophagia. I’m also apprehensive as roughly half the reviews I’ve seen tell me that this emperor has no clothes, that Salò is bad. The other half, however, tell me it’s a great piece of satire. So let’s watch.

(lights dim, popcorn is rustled, floor is sticky. Time passes. Lights go up).

My reaction to the film is that it’s a visually interesting and sometimes shocking satire. Whether through desensitization or the jaded attitude of someone who’s sat through the Saw franchise, there was nothing in it that made me retch or want to leave. The story, such as it is, is of a collection of young men and women who are kidnapped and ensconced in a big old house run by four men, identified as bishop, president, magistrate and duke. There the kids are subjected to a regime established by rules which seek to undermine any structure or established norm. They must not have heterosexual intercourse, pray, connect with each others or family members. They are to be regularly treated to stories told by glamourous, ageing prostitutes, many of which detail some quite abhorrent treatment of children. The four Masters take turns to abuse and rape their captives, all under the watchful eyes of the Guards, men not much younger than the victims. To be honest (and what would Pasolini make of this from a Catholic) the phases when the women were telling stories of their lives and the kids sat there not knowing what the fuck to think reminded me of a three-day retreat for secondary school kids. Not the raping, though. Not to my knowledge.

Visually, the film sits between Kubrick’s and Greenaway’s stunning tableaux. The shots are carefully manipulated in a very formal sense, whether to declare something of the dispassionate atmosphere by watching through binoculars, or the bare wooden table, an altar to the emptiness of the Great Hall’s subject matter. More distinctly, clever cutting removes the explicit, leaving it up to the viewer to imagine the close-ups Pasolini couldn’t dare. This adds greatly to the effect of the final ten minutes, where much of the torture is, as noted, seen close up through the opera glasses and binoculars of the Masters.

Perhaps because of its overtly political form, one can see at a relatively early stage what Pasolini’s up to—the strutures of state are erasing moral values and replacing them with a self-interested moveable feast of indulgence. Anything on which one can rely is raped—a telling scene is when two of the victims are ‘married’, only for all the guests to be groped by one Master, after which the bride and groom are sodomised by two others. That done, the fourth Master joins in, sodomising one of the rapists as he goes about his business. You get the idea. Even the master/victim dichotomy is removed at times; everyone gets buggered, everyone eats the shit. Tellingly, in the days of bank bailouts, this is a younger generation being sold down the river to pay for the indulgence and greed of the ruling generation.

It’s the replacement by Fascism of traditional values; it’s the Nuremberg mentality when one guard spits in a woman’s face in an early scene and another apologises for what they have to do, but they both still do it. (This last moment is one bookend of the film—the final shot is of two guards awkwardly dancing in an opulent room while the last of the kids are tortured outside a window). Instead of formative values the kids are given stories about the worst aspects of humanity and then fed shit. It has the desired effect: the victims begin to rat out each other’s transgressions in order to avoid the dreaded and unnamed punishments promised to those recorded in the President’s little black book.

The four Masters are unspeakably nasty—at some stages getting drunk and ranting about Nietzsche as if to justify their indulgences, at stages dressing in fancy gowns to mete out some more creative punishments. One of them ‘marries’ a boy, memorably sullying that estate by delivering a sloppy shit stained kiss on the forehead of his ‘bride’. Get it?

That may be the trouble with this film: it’s not very subtle. One may argue that there is no subtle way to depict eating shit, but if it’s a metaphor for being fed a worthless stream of dogma/entertainment then it’s not a very good one. DeSade, on whose 120 Days of Sodom this was modelled, systematically ran through society’s absurd structures as a teenage boy turns the crucifix on his wall upside down for a little while, but there are two major differences between that sort of thing and this. Firstly there are fewer ingrained dogmas in 1975, even in Catholic Italy, and the shocking stuff comes off as schlock, and a little cack-handed (if you’ll pardon the expression). Secondly, the trouble with depicting atrocity is that if it’s well done it comes off as sensational, wallowing in the degradation it’s warning us against. This is the problem Kubrick had with A Clockwork Orange’s balletic violence, and this dogs Salò too. This is a pre-YouTube generation’s Two Girls and a Cup.

Probably because of the last reason, and partly because I’m growing old, I felt myself a little embarrassed that the teenage actors in this film (who claim that there was a jovial atmosphere on the shoot) got exposed to these levels of degradation in service of Pasolini’s project. Far from feeling shock and outrage at the events depicted, I felt a little of the lost innocence of the actors. Funny, that. The message is fine and dandy; still applicable to today’s entertainment industry. Fellini’s Fred and Ginger, or several of Amodovar’s pictures point out such plasticity, though, without having the actors sit in a big tub of poo or pretend to piss in someone’s mouth. Pasolini was, in addition, taking on some big enemies (rumours surrounding his death months later suggest he touched nerves) so he deserves credit there. But there is a nasty exploitation of youth in Salò, some very rarified perversions brought to the fore in service of a message which didn’t need to be that exaggerated, really.

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