Archives for posts with tag: film

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‘I’ve reached a point in my life where it’s the little things that matter… I was always a rebel and probably could have got much farther had I changed my attitude. But when you think about it, I got pretty far without changing attitudes. I’m happier with that.’

– Veronica Lake

Happy Birthday Ken Russell

Happy Birthday Ken Russell.

Few British directors have been as successful or as controversial as Ken Russell.

With the exception of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, few directors have managed to produce a body of work that has appealed to mass audiences across such diverse genres as science-fiction (‘Altered States‘), espionage (‘The Billion Dollar Brain‘), musicals (‘The Boyfriend‘,’Tommy‘, ‘Listzomania‘), biography (‘The Music Lovers‘, ‘Savage Messiah‘, ‘Mahler‘, ‘Valentino‘), drama (‘Whore‘), comedy (‘French Dressing‘), horror (‘Lair of the White Worm‘, ‘Gothic‘), historical drama (‘The Devils‘), and literary (‘Women in Love‘, ‘The Rainbow‘, ‘Salome’s Last Dance‘).

Like the greatest of cinematic auteurs, Russell has created his own distinctive visual language that makes his work instantly recognisable, unforgettable and artistically important.

If this weren’t enough, Russell produced an outstanding body of television films, which has yet to be equalled for their intelligence (‘Delius – The Song of Summer‘), artistry (‘The Debussy Film‘) and controversy (‘Dance of the Seven Veils‘). Indeed it was Russell who devised the bio-pic or drama doc with his BBC film ‘Elgar‘, a form that has been relentlessly copied since.

Today Russell turns 83, and as we wish him a very Happy Birthday, we hope that he is encouraged and supported to produce more of his wonderful, inspiring and idiosyncratic films.

Rob Spence, a Toronto based film-maker lost his eye in a shooting accident when he was a teenager.  Nearly twenty years later, Spence has replaced his eye with a miniature camera that records all that he sees.

The protoype eye was named by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2009.  Spence calls himself ‘Eyeborg Guy‘ and blogs about his experiences.

Spence uses the electronic eye not for sight, but to record and document what he sees.

This brings to mind Bertrand Tavernier‘s superior, 1980 film ‘Death Watch’ (‘La Mort en Direct’) based on the novel ‘The Unsleeping Eye‘ by David G Compton.

In the film, Harvey Keitel played Roddy, a man who has a camera implanted in his eye, in order that he may film a documentary about a terminally ill woman, Romy Schneider, who he follows, for a top rated TV show called ‘Death Watch’, in her day-to-day existence as she prepares to die.

Shot on location in a grim and foreboding Glasgow, ‘Death Watch‘ has withstood its initial poor reviews to remain a highly relevant and important film for our age. Long before Ob Docs and Reality TV, this darkly moving and disturbing movie, has proved itself far more prescient in its criticism of media intrusion into our lives than any contemporary film.

Since its opening, the Chateau Marmont has fulfilled cultural writer Mike Davis’ theory of “historic Hyper-reality” – a mock chateau modeled after the type found in the Loire Valley, filled with antique furniture, “a social fantasy embodied in simulacral landscapes.”

The Chateau is contrasted with the modern  Bungalows arranged at the rear of the main building.  Designed by Craig Ellwood, these Bungalows “demonstrate a more explicit idea of living space as a ‘mere symbolic convenience’.”

The overall effect, as Davis has described LA, is an artificial world that lives by its own rules, its own fashion, its own rhythm.

It has come to embody what the ‘artist’s commune’ thinks an hotel should be.  For the Chateau Marmont is and always has been the haven for artists, writers, musicians, actors, directors.  “There is no hotel like it in the world, and there is no world like it in any hotel.”

From the day it opened its doors, on the 1st of Ferbruary 1929, the Chateau Marmont was home to the world’s greatest actors, writers, directors, producers and musicians.  It was “a bit like the Left Bank must have seemed to Americans coming to Paris in the 1920s,” according to screenwriter Gavin Lambert.

Back then the Chateau was home to Rudolf Valentino, Hedy Lamarr, Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Errol Flynn, Bertolt Brecht, Josef von Stroheim, and Billy Wilder. Wilder said of the Marmont – “I would rather sleep in a bathroom than at any other hotel.”

In fact, when Wilder and ‘M‘ star Peter Lorre arrived in Hollywood, the pair shared a room together at the hotel, until Wilder found out that ‘the sinister’ Mr Lorre was a dope fiend.  Eventually Wilder spent time sleeping in the Ladies toilet ante-room, “Which got very embarrassing.  People would come in, look, and say, ‘There’s a man asleep in there.’  It’s the only time I had a bedroom with six toilets.”

“If you must get into trouble, do it at the Chateau Marmont,” legendary studio boss, Harry Cohn told young Hollywood hopefuls William Holden & Glen Ford in 1939.

Constructed to be the first earthquake proof hotel in Los Angles the Marmont has successfully survived most of Hollywood’s earth-shattering events.

Errol Flynn bedded his three wives at the Marmont, as well as Marlene Dietrich and 15 year old Beverly Aadland, over whom Flynn just avoided a statutory rape charge.

Rita Hayworth had it away with Prince Aly Khan, Orson Welles, and James Hill.   Marilyn Monroe fooled around with Arthur Miller; Grace Kelly with Gary Cooper et al.

John Wayne arrived with an ‘unidentified  brunette’  and stayed two weeks.  Jean Harlow slept with virtually everyone, and kept the staff informed of her activities with the coded phrase “Gone Fishin”, which meant she she was out cruising Sunset Strip.

Nicholas Ray moved there after his divorce from Gloria Grahame.  He cast ‘Rebel Without A Cause’  in Bungalow No. 2, and made love to his underage female lead, Natallie Wood, there.

Shelley Winters went on honeymoon In Room 55, with new husband Anthony Franciosa.

Franciosa obviously did not have a good memory for numbers, as he seemed to spend more time in Room 68, the residence of the ‘insatiable’  Anna Magnani.  This led to complaints of a knife-wielding Winters screaming “I’m going to kill you!” outside Magnani’s door.

And in Room 14 Warren Beatty, Barbara Streisand and Janis Joplin got their ‘Marmont start’.

Jim Morrison used the eighth of his nine lives here; Hunter S Thompson wrote some of his best and worst; and John Belushi notoriously died here in 1982, bringing a brief hiatus to Hollywood’s love of drugs and excess.

“The Chateau stands for all the fables of exotic Hollywood.  Romantic passion is no stranger; nor is the medicinal dose of scandal.  Liberated from what one is tempted to call the realities of the world outside, emboldened by the tradition of privacy and discretion, life takes on more than one element of theatre.”Andre Balazs

Michael Reeves was just 23 when he wrote and directed ‘Witchfinder General‘.  It would prove to be his most critically acclaimed film. It would also be his last.  Reeves died from an accidental overdose months later.  It was a tragic end for a director of such immense talent and originality, who had reinvented the horror genre in three distinct films – ‘Revenge of the Blood Beast‘, ‘The Sorcerers‘ and ‘Witchfinder General‘.

Reeves was a precocious talent, making his first short film at 8.  At school he was introduced to the young actor Ian Ogilvy, who would become Reeves close friend and star of all his films.  Reeves travelled to Hollywood at 16 to meet director Don Siegel.  He became Siegel’s assistant and proved himself to be a natural talent.  From here, he raised the money for his first film ‘Revenge of the Blood Beast’, which starred Ogilvy and horror queen Barbara Steele. The film was highly successful and alerted critics to a young, homegrown talent, who they soon dubbed the Orson Welles of his generation.

Two years later, in 1967, Reeves made the first of his important horror films, ‘The Sorcerers‘, starring horror legend, Boris Karloff. The film’s subtext examined the role of voyeurism and cinema and the obsession with youth. The movie, and especially Karloff’s association with it, propelled Reeves into the top rank of horror film directors – he was just 22.

But it was ‘Witchfinder General’, which was Reeves most important, and original horror film. The film starred Vincent Price, Ian Ogilvy, Rupert Davies, Hilary Dwyer and Patrick Wymark.

Based on the true events of Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed Witchfinder General who carried out the torture and execution of alleged sorcerers in the 1640s, during the Civil War.  Hopkins was a notorious figure who made a fortune out of his activities, being paid £1 for every soul he saved by hanging, burning or drowning.

Vincent Price was brilliant as Matthew Hopkins, with Reeves coaxing a more measured performance from the usually ‘hammy’ Price.  Annoyed by Reeves continual directions to underplay, Price turned on Reeves and said, ‘I have made 84 movies, how many have you made?’  Reeves replied, ‘Two good ones.’

‘Witchfinder General’ captured the public’s imagination with many viewers seeing the film’s barbarism as a comment on the Vietnam War. Despite criticisms of the film’s brutality, Witchfinder proved to be Reeves biggest commercial success.

Yet after this success, Reeves seemed to lose his way.  He started to drink heavily, and suffered from depression.  In February 1969, Reeves returned home after a night drinking, and swallowed a handful of anti-depressants.  Whether this was intentional or not is open to conjecture.

Reeves died in the early hours of February 11.  His death robbed British film, and the horror world, of one of its most brilliant and original talents.

One of the most beautiful films ever made, Wim Wenders‘ ‘Wings of Desire follows Bruno Ganz as the angel Damiel, who longs for the physical sensations of humanity.

Damiel’s desire is awoken after he falls in love with a trapeze artist, Marion, as played by Solveig Dommartin.  But as an angel, he can only “assemble, testify, preserve” and never take part in existence.

Whilst travelling through Berlin, Damiel meets an American actor, played by Peter Falk, who reveals himself to be a former angel, who, like Damiel, longed for physical affection and love, and so renounced his immortality to become mortal.

Now Damiel has a way to heal his longing, and take part in life.

The film, with its cast under Wenders’ direction and its script by the brilliant Peter Handke, captures the deep need humanity has for companionship and love, and reinforces the joy of what it means to be alive.

“Hey, Johnny, What are you rebelling against?”
“What’ve you got?”

Strange to think now, but back in 1954 ‘The Wild One‘ was considered such a serious threat to British society that it was banned by the Board of Film Censors for 14 years.

It was believed that Marlon Brando and his band of slovenly bikers would give youngsters “ideas on how to brutalize the public”. More understandable once you know the film is loosely based on a real event, when a band of bikers took over the town of Holister in California in July 1947, during the Gypsy Tour Motorcycle Rally. Around 50 people were arrested, mainly for drunkeness, fighting, reckless driving, and disturbing the peace. 60 people were injured, 3 seriously. Even so, it’s hard to picture how the chubby Brando and his non-sensical mumblings could have inspired anyone.

Afterall, Britain wasn’t America, as John Lennon later found out when he went to his local fleapit to take part in the alleged riots inspired by Bill Haley and his Comets in ‘Rock Around the Clock‘. Instead of seat slashing and fighting in the aisles, Lennon was dumbstruck to find orderly youngsters appreciatively watching the screen.

If the film did inspire any rebellion, then it was in the imagination of a young poet called Thom Gunn.

Gunn saw ‘The Wild One‘ in America, where it inspired him to write the generation defining poem ‘On the Move‘.

“On motorcycles, up the road, they come:
Small, black, as flies hanging in heat, the Boy,
Until the distance throws them forth, their hum
Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.
In goggles, donned impersonality,
In gleaming jackets trophied with the dust,
They strap in doubt–by hiding it, robust–
And almost hear a meaning in their noise.”

Gunn’s poem critiqued the film’s sensibility, its search for purpose for meaning, while noticing the underlying homo-eroticism, contained within the denim and leather of its biker heroes.

“Men manufacture both machine and soul,
And use what they imperfectly control
To dare a future from the taken routes.”

‘The Wild One’ presented a portrait of a world where the individual could control their own destiny.  This appealed to Gunn, who was a young gay man at time when homosexuality was a criminal offence in Britain.  To the poet, Brando and his rebellious cohorts presented a sharp contrast to the gray and repressive world Gunn inhabited. .

“A minute holds them, who have come to go:
The self-denied, astride the created will.
They burst away; the towns they travel through
Are home for neither birds nor holiness,
For birds and saints complete their purposes.”

Gunn’s analysis inOn the Move‘ provides a literal manifesto, that later became the poet’s own.

“At worse, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.”

For Gunn never kept still. He followed his lover to America, where the tolerance he found in San Francisco changed his verse style from English tradition to American idiom; from strict form to free verse. In the same way Gunn by day was a disciplined intellectual and by night a physical hedonist, who cruised for sex and indulged in drugs.

However, the excesses of his personal life never detracted from the discipline of his poetic vision. He was once described as “the only poet to have written a halfway decent quintain while on LSD.”

Gunn used his experiences as material with candour and sympathy, which led many to believe he “seemed to hold no small number of life’s mysteries and meanings within his grasp.”   A truth that is more than evident when you read his brilliant, beautiful and inspiring poetry.


Dennis Hopper was 13, when he first sniffed gasoline and watched the clouds turn into clowns and goblins. There was little else to do in Dodge City, where he had been born and lived. Catch lightning bugs, fly his kite, burn newspapers, swim. Hopper was, by his own words, “desperate”.   A sensitive child without the stimulation to keep his fevered imagination in check.

He went to movies and watched Abbott and Costello and Errol Flynn. Hopper o.d.ed on gasoline fumes and became Abbott and Costello and Errol Flynn. He wrecked his grandfather’s truck with a baseball bat. It was a hint of what was to come.

Signed at 18 on contract to Warner Bros, Hopper identified with Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean, but found he was expected to conform to the studio’s whims. Hopper was too sensitive to conform, and his vulnerability saw him bullied and picked on by old time studio director Henry Hathaway, who had him black-balled from Hollywood.

For the next few years, Hopper did little work. Instead, he picked up a camera and documented the social and cultural changes that were happening across America, and to himself, during the 1960s.

Towards the end of that decade, Hopper channelled his knowledge and experiences when he directed and starred in ‘Easy Rider‘, the film that announced the birth of a new generation of film-makers.

From this success, Hopper moved on to his next project ‘The Last Movie’, but drink and drugs unfocussed his vision and the studios destroyed his film.

It seemed the pattern set out in childhood was to continue.  Yet Hopper could still make his presence felt, as he did in ‘Apocalypse Now‘ but once again the truck got smashed, when his improvised scenes with Marlon Brando were heavily cut from the film.

By the mid-1980s, he had given up drink and drugs and had accepted his lot making B-list films. That was, until ‘River’s Edge’ and ‘Blue Velvet‘ confirmed what should have been apparent all along – Dennis Hopper was an incredible and unique talent. A talent that should have been given more respect and opportunity to fulfill his vision as an actor and as a director.

But sadly he wasn’t, as one of his last films as director ‘Catchfire’ (aka ‘Backtrack’) was taken out of his hands and hacked form a 180 minute cut to 98 minutes.  Hopper disowned it and had his name removed.

Thereafter, Hopper mainly stuck to acting, and though always watchable and still able to deliver film-stealing performances, as evident in ‘True Romance‘ and ‘Speed’, he made 20-odd forgettable movies.

Even so, Hopper appealed because his performances revealed the depth of his life-experience and a resonance of his emotional hurt that made each role he acted in real for the audience.

Hopper never faked it, and it was this talent which made Hopper more than just an actor, but a great and genuine artist.

Sean Connery once remarked that ‘From Russia With Love‘ was his favourite Bond film, as it depended more on story and character than gadgets and special effects.

This is true but the film also had a great title song, sung by the incomparable Matt Monro, and outstanding performances from Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya in its favour.

By the time of making ‘From Russia With Love‘, Lotte Lenya was a celebrated singer and actress, known for her pioneering performances in, her husband, Kurt Weill’s and Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mahagonny-Songspiel‘ (1927) and the legendary ‘Threepenny Opera‘ (1928).

In ‘From Russia With Love‘, Lenya played Rosa Klebb, a sadistic former SMERSH Agent who has joined SPECTRE to become Ernst Blofeld’s No. 3. The name Rosa Klebb was a pun contrived by Bond author Ian Fleming, derived from the Soviet phrase for women’s rights, ‘khleb i rozy’, which is a Russian translation for ‘bread and roses’. Lenya’s perfromance as the sadistic Klebb is one of the most iconic of all Bond villains, with her poisoned tipped dagger, secreted in the toe of her shoe.

Lenya’s Klebb often overshadows Robert Shaw’s underplayed, though equally efficient Donald ‘Red’ Grant. Shaw was a highly talented man whose own personal tragedies (his father a manic depressive and alcoholic committed suicide when Robert was 12) and alcoholism hampered him from rightly claiming his position as one of Britain’s greatest actors.

Robert Shaw established himself through years of TV and theatrical work, most notably his chilling and subtle performance as Aston in Harold Pinter‘s ‘The Caretaker‘. He went on to ‘The Battle of the Bulge‘ (1965), an Oscar-nominated performance as Henry VIII in ‘A Man For All Seasons‘ (1966), ‘Young Winston‘, the mobster Doyle Lonnegan in ‘The Sting‘ (1973) and most memorably Mr Blue in ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three‘ (1974) and Quint in ‘Jaws (1975).

But Shaw’s success as an actor was countered by further personal tragedy when his second wife, Mary Ure, died from an accidental overdose.  Ure’s death caused Shaw considerable guilt and despair, and led to the actor becoming severely depressed and reclusive in his personal life.

Shaw countered this by continuing his career as a respected and award-winning novelist and playwright. His first novel ‘The Hiding Place’, was later adapted for the film, ‘Situation Hopeless… But Not Serious‘ (1965) starring Alec Guinness. His next, ‘The Sun Doctor’ won the Hawthornden Prize.  While for theatre he wrote a trilogy of plays, the centerpiece of which was his most controversial and successful drama, ‘The Man in the Glass Booth‘ (1967).

The Man in the Glass Booth‘ dealt with the issues of identity, guilt and responsibility that owed much to the warped perceptions caused by Shaw’s alcoholism. Undoubtedly personal, the play however is in no way autobiographical, and was inspired by actual events surrounding the kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann.

In Shaw’s version, a man believed to be a rich Jewish industrialist and Holocaust survivor, Arthur Goldman, is exposed as a Nazi war criminal. Goldman is kidnapped from his Manhattan home to stand trial in Israel. Kept in a glass booth to prevent his assassination, Goldman taunts his persecutors and their beliefs, questioning his own and their collective guilt, before symbolically accepting full responsibility for the Holocaust.  At this point it is revealed Goldman has falsified his dental records and is not a Nazi war criminal, but is in fact a Holocaust survivor.

The original theatrical production was directed by Harold Pinter and starred Donald Pleasance in an award-winning performance  that launched his Hollywood career.  The play was later made into an Oscar nominated film directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Maximilian Schell. However, Shaw was unhappy with the production and asked for his name to be removed form the credits.

Looking back on the play and film now, one can intuit how much Shaw’s own personal life influenced the creation of one of theatre’s most controversial and tragic figures.

Robert Shaw died of a heart attack in 1978, he was 51.

There’s an oft quoted line about Scotlands football team how they manage to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory. It’s a line that does in many ways reflect the Scottish character, as we can often appear a nation of heroic failures, rather than an empire building super power.

Yet, this failure comes with considerable cultural ramifications, something that can be seen in Donald Cammell‘s film ‘Demon Seed‘.

Cammell was the son of the poet and writer Charles Richard Cammell, who had written the biography of Aleister Crowley. Born in Castlehill, and not Edinburgh Castle as he would later claim, the young Cammell was considered a child prodigy and by the 1960s had established himself with London’s Chelsea set as an artist, illustrator and portrait painter. By luck and connections he started writing movie scripts and soon co-directed his first, and most legendary film ‘Performance‘.

Performance‘, which starred Mick Jagger and James Fox, should have made Cammell a major star but the film was quickly disowned by its production company, was considered obscene, violent pornography and described by one critic as “the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing.” What should have been a victory, was an unmitigated disaster.

It took Cammell seven years to make his next movie, the sci-fi thriller, ‘Demon Seed’ – a highly provocative and intelligent film. Again, it should have established Cammell as one of the world’s great cinematic auteurs, but Fate was to play a damning role.

Based on the best-selling novel by Dean Koontz, ‘Demon Seed‘ speculated on a computer, Proteus IV, impregnating a woman to create a living hybrid of man and machine. A bit like ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘ except with a computer. Cammell had major studio backing and his star was Julie Christie, was at the height of her fame, with a series of film hits including, ‘Shampoo‘, ‘Don’t Look Now‘ and her Oscar nominated performance in ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller‘. He even had Robert Vaughn as the voice of Proteus. With such talent on board, it seemed Cammell  was destined to make a brilliant film and at last achieve the success he deserved.

But no. After years of preparation, and  just as the film was released in 1977, a new sensation swept all before it, which made ‘Demon Seed’ look cheap, dull and boring. George Lucas‘ ‘Star Wars‘ changed film, cinema, TV and the way an audience responded to entertainment for ever. As Cammell’s film disappeared, ‘Star Wars‘ conquered the world.

The failure of ‘Demon Seed‘ marked a cultural shift in cinema, the end of an era if you like, for Cammell’s movie was the last of the great, intelligent speculative science fiction films. True, there would be the occasional movie like Ridley Scott‘s ‘Bladerunner‘ or, David Cronenberg‘s ‘Videodrome‘, but cinema and its audiences demanded the sensations that ‘Star Wars’ delivered, and the sound and fury of the summer blockbuster was born.

For this reason, ‘Demon Seed‘s’ failure has been cinema’s and our loss. ‘Sex in the City 2‘ anyone?