Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Scala Forever

Last Saturday saw the beginning of a lengthy season of films and events celebrating the golden days of repertory cinema in London, and in the Scala Cinema in particular – Scala Forever. There’s a fantastic trailer for the season, made by Justin Harries of the Filmbar 70 (cult film and a pint of beer – I like the sound of that) which filters various clips through a dizzyingly unfocused two-toned tint, which both emulates the off-centred visual style of the Scala programmes and gives a wry nod to the imperfect nature of some of the old Scala prints. The Hilarious opening quote, in which a chap styled for the lounge, with cravatte daringly worn outside his shirt, stridently declares ‘this is my happening and it freaks me out’ is taken from Russ Meyer’s 1970 film Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and was directly quoted by Mike Myers in the first of his Austin Powers films. There follows a delirious eyeflash progression of images from Zombie Flesh Eaters, Once Upon a Time in the West, Valerie and her Week of Wonders, Zardoz, Pink Flamingoes, Black Sunday, Dawn of the Dead, Seconds, Deep Red, Jules et Jim, After Hours, Glenn or Glenda, A Night At the Opera, King Kong, A Clockwork Orange, and Aguirre, Wrath of God, with the comic end title music from Dawn of the Dead to round it off. Last Saturday's edition of Jonny Trunk's OST show on Resonance fm was also dedicated to the season, and to the kind of films the Scala used to show, and should hopefully turn up on the station's podcast archive page sometime soon. Of all the old repertory cinemas in the capital, from the Everyman in Hampstead and the Ritzy in Brixton, to the Electric in Portobello Road and the Riverside in Hammersmith, the Scala seems to be remembered with the greatest affection. A ramshackle and barebones operation, it offered more than just a wildly eclectic programme of cult, classic and arthouse films. The Scala was an experience, a clublike hangout and for some a welcoming and familiar home from home – a church of cinema which was open to all believers and seekers alike. The Scala Forever site has already begun to amass an anecdotal drift of fond memories, and a book gathering together further reminiscences is promised for everyone who buys a ticket to any of the season’s screenings. I was one of the Scala regulars in the mid to late 80s, and see no reason not to add to this nostalgic outpouring with my own remembrance of the place where I received my formative film education (a significant improvement on my parallel formal schooling, and with a longer-lasting impact).

I would travel up from the south-eastern suburbs several times a month to see double or triple bills and occasionally test my endurance with a Saturday all-nighter. I would eagerly collect the latest programme, which was a highly desirable artefact. It folded out into a four A4-panelled poster, which would be attached to my bedroom wall. These posters were fabulous graphic works in themselves, assemblages bringing together cult actors and actresses and thrillingly evocative stills and posters, often printed in striking shades of gold, green or red. I would cut out various of these pictures to add to my own ever-growing collages, where Marlene Dietrich would find herself mingling with Peter Cushing, Daffy Duck with Bob Dylan. I still have a couple of panels of this wall-spanning, vaguely obsessive product of teenage toil, those fragments now all that remains of the old programmes. The Cinema Museum promises to put some of them on display on its Scala Day on 17th September. You can also see one from the Scala’s latter days accompanying the Lost World of the Double Bill article in the August 2008 Sight and Sound. The circular entrance on the corner of Pentonville and Caledonian Roads immediately gave a sense of occasion, of crossing over into a magical space. You got your tickets from an attendant in an old fashioned booth, a small enclosed room which looked rather cosy. Climbing the turning stair, you arrived in the lobby where people gathered before going in to see the film or refreshed themselves in the interval with a cuppa or something stronger from the serving hatch at the far end. At some point during my Scala years, a couple of artists who I believe styled themselves the Urbanites painted the walls and ceilings with a mural depicting famous film scenes (or scenes which would be familiar to regular Scala-goers), all reduced to witty stick figure form. You could crane your neck and pan across the barrelled expanse of the ceiling, scoping in an eccentric pattern, connecting one to another and thus creating your own random double and triple bills. You can see some pictures of the lobby and the auditorium over here.

Walking up another short set of steps, you entered the auditorium halfway up its fairly steeply graded slope. You could either continue upwards into the larger seated area or head down past the partition barrier to the lower depths where, a couple or rows at the top apart, it was a question of sprawling on the tiered, carpeted steps and gazing up at the screen. Whichever direction and mode of disportment you opted for, you had had to stumble along in near total darkness. I remember performing a spectacular trip and forward sprawl on one occasion, a piece of slapstick whose perfection could only be achieved through complete lack of intention. Sometimes, if you arrived a little early and didn’t fancy lingering in the lobby, you could wander in and catch the latter stages of whichever favourite was just reaching its climax. I remember opening the doors and entering the auditorium to hear Charlton Heston cry ‘you maniacs! You blew it up! God damn you!’, as he fell to his knees on the shore and stared out at the half-buried ruin of the statue of liberty in Planet of the Apes. Walking in during a scene of a well-loved film was a real thrill – an anticipation of a pleasure which would be more fully and completely enjoyed later.

The recurrence of particular films, either in the same programme or in changing combinations, meant that you could become thoroughly acquainted with their every detail and nuance; a precious and rare opportunity in the early days of video when the availability of less mainstream fare was very limited (and even when issued, limited by the unsatisfactory nature of the medium). Films to which I returned again and again became like familiar landscapes, complete with the scratches and jumps etched into the prints, and other peculiarities particular to the Scala’s copies. The white onscreen subtitles accompanying Cocteau’s Testament D’Orphee became completely illegible whenever they weren’t superimposed over a darker area of the projected scene. Entering the cinema and seeing one of these films or programmes was like coming home, or perhaps returning to a regular holiday haunt. You could lose yourself for hours, for whole days or nights in here. No-one was about to kick you out if you decided that you’d like to sit through that whole triple bill again. Indeed, some did effectively make their home there. Richard Stanley, the director of Hardware and Dust Devil (and contributor to the upcoming anthology picture The Theatre Bizarre) writes about his Scala experiences in Dying Light: An Obituary for the Great British Horror Movie, a piece published in Steve Chibnall and Julian Petley’s 2002 critical anthology British Horror Cinema. He recalls coming to London at 16 years of age, where he ‘took refuge in those aisles…as much for warmth as anything else…The Scala became my sanctuary, my alma mater, a house of dreams redolent of an opium den with its haze of psychoactive smoke and its delirious, half-glimpsed denizens. I would camp with my bedroll on the front tiers of the red-lit, cat-haunted auditorium’. Not sure about the smoke haze; as I recall, the auditorium was a no-smoking area, although a vague waft of aromatic herbal scents would drift across during films such as Easy Rider or 200 Motels (Frank wouldn’t have approved). Later, exhausted and bankrupted by the production debacle of his would-be magnum opus Dust Devil, Stanley once more found himself ‘taking refuge in the only sanctuary left to me: the Scala cinema, where Jane Giles allowed me to spread my bedroll in a room above her office’.

Others have recalled the cinema as being a refuge in which outsiders and misfits could take up regular residence in an otherwise unforgiving era, and also a place in which revelatory experiences were possible. Peter Strickland, who spent years struggling to produce his first feature Katalin Varga, remembers (in the November 2009 issue of Sight and Sound) ‘when I was 16, I went to the Scala in London to see Eraserhead. It was unlike anything I was accustomed to…Suddenly here was something that conveyed a state of mind. The cinema smelled of cats, dope and beer. The Northern Line ran underneath. It was a huge epiphany’. The August 2008 Sight and Sound contained a celebration of the Scala and the lost era of repertory cinema with an article written by Jane Giles, a former programmer at the cinema who went on to head of acquisitions at Tartan films (and there’s no doubt that the Scala would’ve been at the forefront of the discovery of the new wave of Asian horror films, the likes of Ring, The Grudge and Audition). Giles recalls how ‘the cinema’s extraordinary atmosphere affected the audience profoundly, acting on their senses in a way that is hard to imagine in more mundane or domestic environments’. She also quotes Derek Jarman, writing in 1989, declaring that ‘The Scala is one of very few, and I’m afraid, a shrinking number of venues where it is possible for a young audience to see our film history. Any threat to the cinema is indirectly a threat to the industry as a whole, for here new audiences are educated and a whole generation that is active in our cinema has found its task’. It’s certainly a statement which is backed up by the experiences of the young Strickland and Stanley. Sight and Sound editor Nick James, in his editorial for the June 2007 Grindhouse issue, he remembers how ‘at the Scala…in the 1980s I was one of the many watching scratchy prints of the likes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Pink Flamingos, Reefer Madness, Detour, The Warriors, Thundercrack!, and Assault on Precinct 13’. He also remarks, in the August 2005 Sight and Sound, on the intense experience of seeing related films one after the other, recalling a film noir all-nighter featuring three Robert Mitchum films (Out of the Past, The Big Steal and Where Danger Lives). ‘It was a formative cinematic experience for me’, he writes, ‘not least because I drifted off occasionally so the three films intermingled to become one unforgettable epic that was like a paradigm for the best of Mitchum’s early films and for noir itself’.

The auditorium had its own particular acoustic imprint, as if the building were subtly altering the films to make them its own. Every one became a Scala film – they were never quite the same elsewhere. The speakers may not have been of the highest quality, but there somewhat crude and echoing sound seemed perfectly suited to the old place, adding a certain time-haunted quality (instant hauntology before its time). The sonic mix was occasionally added to by trains which periodically rumbled by beneath, also giving your seat a bit of a William Castle tremble. Although these were probably just on the City Thameslink line headed for Blackfriars and beyond, I believed at the time that they were Northern Line underground trains, and that there was therefore a connection with a whole world of subterranean tunnels (perfect if you were watching Death Line or An American Werewolf in London). There was also a cat who wandered along the backs of the seats, sometimes brushing the nape of your neck with its tail, which could be rather unnerving, particularly if you were watching The Tomb of Ligeia, Cat People or, indeed, The Black Cat at the time (but pretty cool if you were watching Breakfast at Tiffanys). There were never any luxuries like heating or air conditioning, but somehow the ambient temperature always remained comfortable. You could always keep your coat on if it got a bit chilly.

As Nick James notes above, the cinema was particularly associated with camp, trash and gay cinema. Many of the films could be said to fall within the catch-all definition of a chapter title from Kim Newman’s recent update and rethink of his survey of contemporary horror Nightmare Movies (first published when the Scala was still up and running, and indeed christened with a launch party at the cinema in 1988): The Weirdo Horror Film or: Cult, Kitsch, Camp, Sick, Punk and Pornography. The films of Russ Meyer, Walerian Borowczyk, John Waters, Paul Morrissey and George Kuchar were often all of the above at once. Kuchar’s Thundercrack! (these films often require that exclamation mark in the title) seems to be one which brings back particularly strong memories in the old Scala crowd. It certainly appears to be something which few have been able to forget (even if they wished they could). Newman notes that ‘since it joined Pink Flamingoes on the late-night cult circuit, Thundercrack! has become the most walked-out-of film this side of Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale’. Couples shared intimate moments during these screenings (and Jane Giles recalls the popularity of the women-only Russ Meyer nights) watched over by the oversized tutelary spirits of Divine, Joe Dallessandro or Tura Satana, celluloid gods and goddesses of love and genii loci.

My Scala favourites tended towards the fantastic and classic elements of their repertory. I always went to see their Cocteau triple: La Belle et La Bete, Orphee and Testament D’Orphee, and If…, which was usually shown with Blow Up and, if I was lucky, Performance, if not, Godard’s unbearable Sympathy for the Devil. I also caught any Powell and Pressburger films which were shown (they were just then being rediscovered, with new prints being released) and Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Solaris, Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. All of these remain firm favourites to this day, and I could probably quote chunks of them verbatim, or play back scenes with some detail in my head. The sublime Christmas angel double-bill of Wings of Desire and It’s a Wonderful Life was also essential, a highlight of the season. I also saw a rare John Cassavetes double bill of Gloria and Love Streams, having been introduced to his films at an ICA season in the mid 80s. Love Streams (John’s last film proper) remains incredibly hard to get hold of these days. A Hitchcock/Jimmy Stewart triple of Rope, Vertigo and Rear Window introduced me to the wonders of Hitch beyond Psycho. You really haven’t seen Rear Window properly until you’ve watched it on the big screen, and seen the blinds slowly pulled back at the start to unveil the view which you’ll be gazing at alongside Stewart for the rest of the film. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques was always a good, white-knuckle double (hmmm, or was that at The Everyman – memory has a tendency to compress and compact these experiences). Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage was definitely on at the Scala, however, and offered one of two scenes which I found myself having to look away from (the other being Martin’s first drinking of blood in George Romero’s film). A beautiful piece of dreamy black and white surrealism, it was one of those films which was perfectly in synch with the setting, the slightly unreal feel of the place enhancing its mood.

The Scala showed a fondness for 60s music and counterculture, and I saw many films from that era, which I preferred to the one in which I was growing up. Easy Rider was a regular, sometimes shown with Roger Corman’s The Trip, also featuring Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda (and with Hopper going characteristically off-script, inserting a ‘man’ between every other word). The Monkees’ Head was a real surprise, one of the best films from that era, self-mocking and full of wild pop surrealism and fantastic music (and Frank Zappa leading a large cow across a backstage lot). I remember a psychedelic all-nighter in which it played with Zappa’s incomprehensible mess 200 Motels, the rather dull Grateful Dead Movie, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (which vied with Sympathy for the Devil as the worst film I saw at the Scala – although I find both interesting these days for their background detail and the attitudes which they convey, as long as I have the remote to hand for fastforwarding and rewinding) and the Magic Roundabout feature Dougal and the Blue Cat. The beat connection was also made with a triple bill linked together by the presence of Allen Ginsberg (always the great connector and bridge between different scenes): The documentary Whatever Happened to Jack Kerouac, the Kerouac narrated Pull My Daisy and DA Pennebaker’s Dylan doc. Don’t Look Back. Pop 60s science fiction was represented by Barbarella and Thunderbirds Are Go, the latter with music provided by puppet versions of Cliff and the Shadows (spot the difference, an unkind observer might note). I think I may have seen a 2001 and Silent Running double too. I don’t see why I wouldn’t have. Nic Roeg was always a favourite of Scala programmers, and I recall seeing Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Don’t Look Now and Performance in various combinations. There were also spaghetti westerns and eastern epics. I first saw Once Upon A Time in the West at the Scala, and also fell under the spell of A Touch of Zen. If I recall correctly, I also saw the amazing kabuki-style ghost story compilation Kwaidan here. There were also Woody Allen triple bills from his mid-Mia late prime, small black and white gems such as Broadway Danny Rose, Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Horror was a big focus of the Scala. Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley had established the Scala at the new venue (it had previously been based in Charlotte Street) and also used it as the base for their new distribution business Palace Pictures (which would eventually also expand into production). Palace acquired the rights to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, and its huge success (aided no end by the indignant furore which it stirred up as an exemplar of the ‘video nasty’) set the tone for the gaudy comic book horrors of the rest of the decade. I remember seeing several examples at the Scala, where they often received their premieres: The Return of the Living Dead, Re-Animator, Evil Dead 2 and Nightmare on Elm Street 3 (during which the audience let out a rousing cheer at the return of Heather Langenkamp’s character). Although enjoyable enough at the time, few of these made any long-lasting impact or made you want to go back and see them again. It was the dawn of the disposable multiplex horror movie, a mindless ghost train thrill ride with added entrails and buckets of blood liberally thrown in, and a line-up of good-looking but characterless teenagers lined up for the slaughter. The films which I did return to at the Scala were those of George Romero and David Cronenberg. Romero in particular featured often in the programmes, and I remember an all-nighter featuring Night, Dawn and Day of the Dead alongside Martin and (I think) Creepshow. Dawn of the Dead is another film which has the indelible imprint of the Scala for me.

Whilst Romero largely went off the radar during the latter half of the eighties, Cronenberg was still producing distinctive films, with a more mainstream sheen than before, but still with his characteristic mix of distanced intellectualism and an insistence on the physical nature of being: the likes of the Fly and Dead Ringers, both of which were released during my Scala era. I didn’t see either of those at the Scala, but I did (if memory serves) see what remains, to my mind, his best film, Videodrome (in which he splices and grafts elements of JG Ballard, Philip K Dick and William Burroughs and possibly also gives a nod to Harlan Ellison with the name of one of the characters) and also caught up with some of his earlier films, from his breakthrough picture Scanners (with a post-Prisoner role for Patrick McGoohan) to earlier efforts such as The Brood (featuring Oliver Reed in a role of typical sotto voce intensity), Rabid and Shivers. Dario Argento was the third of the feted 70s horror auteurs to feature at the Scala, but I’ve never enjoyed his films, which always seem to centre around lingeringly brutal misogynistic violence. Their undoubted stylishness and visual panache can’t distract from this essentially repugnant core, a depressing component of too much modern horror, and never justifiable no matter how often Poe is invoked. An auteur in terms of ideas if not in terms of polished technique, Larry Cohen was also a Scala mainstay, with satirical and sardonic films such as Q: The Winged Serpent and The Stuff retaining the social bite of the genre in the 70s, and also bucking the 80s trend by featuring well-drawn and adult characters.

The Scala building itself has an interesting and colourful history. Its construction was interrupted by the advent of the First World War and it became a workshop for the manufacture of aircraft parts for the duration. After the armistice, it became a labour exchange for the returning soldiers. It finally opened as a movie house in 1920, and was run as the Kings Cross Cinema under the management of Gaumont British Pictures. It was damaged during the blitz, and re-opened after an extensive refurbishment as the Gaumont in 1952. The Odeon took over from 1962 to 1970, when the general downturn in cinemagoing resulted in its led to it following the depressing trend of many London cinemas and switching to a programme of softcore porn. This didn’t work either, however (Soho cinemas had the benefit of local, Met-assisted economies of scale) and it returned to showing mainstream films in combination with a series of late night concerts. This memorably included a 1972 performance by Iggy and the Stooges, at around the time that they were recording Raw Power in London. The photos on the cover of that LP are all taken from the Kings Cross Cinema show. The live music came to a halt in 1974, with local residents perhaps understandably proving none to keen on the idea. The cinema, like so many others in the early and mid-70s, bowed to the inevitable and, offers from Bingo chains not forthcoming, closed down.

Then, five years later, came the really bizarre interlude in the building’s history. It was re-opened as a primatarium (a word I suspect the new owners made up), a hokey ‘ecological’ exhibition with a sorry collection of caged monkeys as its central attraction. Such a throwback to carnivalesque hucksterism would be unthinkable now, with its blatant exploitation of the animals involved, and shows once more what a wholly different country the 70s were. Richard Stanley, in his dying light article, remembers ‘a vast ape house, painted jungles crawling across its walls and its sepulchral auditorium filled with Astroturf. When I last looked there were still deserted cages in the basement and if you inhaled deeply enough you could just catch the faint hint of musk and dried urine, a safari smell that took me back to my earliest childhood’ (he was born in South Africa). Unsurprisingly, the primatarium didn’t last long, and Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell brought the building as a place to rehouse the Scala and their nascent Palace Pictures business in 1981, opening in July. Their first film, in acknowledgement of the previous use to which the building had been put (and in regard to what Stanley said above, perhaps intending to take advantage of the lingering aroma to present it in its first smell-o-rama version), was King Kong, which was also the film which launched the current Scala Forever season. The Scala was open for 12 years, until it was finally scuppered by a law suit from MGM over its illegal screening of A Clockwork Orange. I had though that this was a self-destructive final act, a deliberate decision to go down in a final blaze of glory (and possibly provide the publicity to reverse the absurd ban on a film which anyone could see with very little effort) given Michael Heseltine’s decision to plough the proposed cross channel rail link through the area. But Stanley claims that it was all down to a treacherous projectionist who bargained his way into a cushy job at the MGM preview theatre, betraying his former employers by testifying against them in court. A great postcard advertising the trial fund appeal (wittily titled droog in the dock) shows the Scala cat rising atop the rooftop dome of the corner tower in paws raised in playful feline fashion – a kitty Kong. In truth, the cinema had been struggling for some time in the face of Major’s recession. It’s time had come, whether through redevelopment, prosecution or simple bankruptcy. It finally closed down in May 1993. With a self-conscious gesture towards circularity and closure, its final film was King Kong.

The Scala may be dead, but its spirit has risen again. The range of venues in this seasons suggests that repertory cinema is once again in hale and hearty health in the capital, enabled by the ease and portability of digital projection. The old school cinemas are represented by the Phoenix in East Finchley, the Rio in Dalston, the Ritzy in Brixton and the Riverside Hammersmith. The Phoenix is covering the musical side of things with a double bill of the 1958 Newport festival film Jazz on a Summer’s Day and Peter Whitehead’s swinging sixties pop ‘concerto’ of studio and concert footage combined with interviews with the likes of Julie Christie, Mick Jagger and David Hockney (and, more bizarrely, Lee Marvin) Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. The Rio provides a programme of experimental cinema achieved with mixed levels of success, combining Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour (surely crying out to be combined with Fassbinder’s Querelle, an old Scala favourite) with Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda (as experimental as they come), and following it with the component parts of Kenneth Anger’s Magick Lantern Cycle. Anger codified the Scala trash aesthetic in his book Hollywood Babylon, and so is an appropriate choice on several levels. The Riverside showed a Marx Brothers double to kick off (A Night At the Opera and A Day At the Races) and is following it up with a series of classy billings which reflect the spirit of the Everyman more than the Scala. The Ritzy meanwhile will be providing a pairing of two of Hitchcock’s blackest films, both of them centring around brutal stranglings – Rope and Frenzy - before moving on to two coolly observed depictions of psychotic breakdown within prescribed interiors: Polanski’s Repulsion and Kubrick’s The Shining.

There are a number of interesting smaller venues of varying degrees of permanence or peripateticism. The cinema at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn is offering a juicy double bill of Theatre of Blood, which gives Vincent Price full reign to camp and thesp it up, and Bunuel’s Viridiana. Both feature anarchic and murderous bands of tramps, and both have scenes centring around blasphemous and ill-mannered feasts: Viridiana with a Church-baiting restaging of Leonardo’s Last Supper, and Theatre of Blood with a Shakespeare-mauling restaging of one of the gruesome scenes from Titus Andronicus, in which Robert Morley is force-fed his two ‘babies’ – pampered poodles. The Lexi cinema, ‘the UK’s first social enterprise independent boutique digital cinema’, which is housed in what looks like a small church hall lodged between two suburban semis, is teaming up with the Screen on the Green to put on outdoor screenings, including Some Like it Hot and The African Queen in Holland Park and Richmond Park. Whirled Cinema (nice punning name) is located in what looks like a very cosy railway arch (no.260) near Loughborough Junction in South East London and will be showing a great double bill of recently rediscovered films set in London, Bronco Bullfrog (1969) and Private Road (1970), the latter of which stars Withnail and I writer and director Bruce Robinson. Close-Up cinema meanwhile takes over the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club to show the first four episodes of Kieslowski’s Dekalog series (the first of which I found deeply upsetting, so be warned). The Portobello Pop Up Cinema is a ‘microplex’ situated in an underpass beneath the Westway, and as if to offset the grey, Ballardian concrete surrounds, it will be showing Sergei Paradjanov’s The Colour of Pomegranites, a sumptuous feast of intoxicating colour and obscure yet compelling symbolic tableaux. The Atomic Bark (and check out their excellent site here) film club takes up residence in Ryan’s Bar in Stoke Newington for what promises to be an excellent evening, with Fellini’s Toby Dammit section from the 60s Poe anthology Spirits of the Dead, featuring a dissolute Terence Stamp, providing a prelude for Corrado Farina's Baba Yaga, not a version of the Russian legend of the witch with a chicken-legged hut, but a weird and warped 1973 Italian giallo (described by Kim Newman in Nightmare Movies as ‘enormously boring’, but maybe it has some redeeming features) – and all for free, too!

It is the Roxy in Borough High Street which is becoming the proxy Scala for the duration, however. It is restaging a few themed all-nighters, including an 80s horror bill which includes Re-Animator, Basket Case, Humanoids from the Deep, Slugs (my god, they made a film of that – presumably with the tag-line ‘an agonisingly slow death’), and Phantasm (the original which, in its crazy way, achieves moments of delirious surrealism and even the odd bit of reflective sadness as it circles around the unacknowledged loss of an elder brother). The zombie all-nighter looks a bit of a treat, too, ranging from the sublime (Val Lewton’s majestic I Walked With A Zombie and Romero’s gore spattered epic Dawn of the Dead with its glacially paced core of self-examining interiority) to the logic-defying Euro weirdness of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City (1980) and Amando de Ossorio’s Return of the Blind Dead, in which the Knights Templar return from the grave (this made at a time, lest we forget, when Franco was still in power). Further horror is on offer in the form of a completely unrelated but nevertheless enticing pairing of Mario Bava’s classic gothic chiller Black Sunday with the 1973 blackly comic British movie Horror Hospital, directed by sometime William Burroughs collaborator Anthony Balch, with Michael Gough relishing his role as a demented scientist. You’ve already either seen or missed the pairing of the magical Czech fairy tale Valerie and her Week of Wonders with Juraj Herz’s 1973 gothic melodrama Morgiana, intriguingly described as ‘opening the doors on a fetid, decaying snow-globe of a world where Hammer meets Chekhov with remarkably macabre results’. One to look out for on the Second Run DVD release. There’s an interesting 70s science fiction double, with Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius brought to the screen to distinctly underwhelming effect in The Final Programme, and John Boorman creating a strange, mythopoetic future world in the hills and valleys of Ireland in Zardoz (a much-derided film which I, for one, think is great). There are Fassbinder and Herzog doubles, and Klaus Kinski turns up in the spaghetti western Grand Silence, playing with that most magisterial example of the sub-genre, Once Upon a Time in the West. Finally, there is a screening of Powell and Pressburger’s ode to vanishing British values The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a deeply moving piece of romantic conservatism which always affects me even though I don’t agree with its outlook, which should hopefully be introduced by Tilda Swinton. The whole thing ends with a screening of A Clockwork Orange on the 2nd October. Only this time, the lawyers from MGM won’t be getting on the phone.

Monday, 1 August 2011

I'll Be Your Mirror at Alexandra Palace


Sunday began in darkness at (just after) noon with Godspeed You Black Emperor, who played a nearly 2 hour long unbroken set. I initially waited in the Great Hall, before the penny finally dropped that the fact that I was almost entirely alone in this large space probably indicated that the action was elsewhere. The Great Hall wouldn’t have suited their music anyway; it requires suitably shadowy and relatively intimate surroundings in which to achieve its fullest effect. The group sat and stood in a communal circle, unconcerned with facing the audience. But this didn’t feel like a rejection or a gesture of aloof indifference, rather an invitation to join in this communality. The music is all about dynamics shifting over time, with a slow build up to a thundering crescendo followed by a subsequent ebb and flattening into alluvial dissipation. The piece Gathering Storm is paradigmatic in this sense, both in terms of its title and its form, with a gradual massing of instrumental forces rising higher and higher until they burst forth in an ecstatic melody. This was accompanied in performance by a series of images of their Canadian homeland; wooden homes were lingered over, both intact and derelict, before we rushed through the landscape, often seen through the windows of cars and trains. This evocation of home and belonging fulfilled the promise of the word ‘hope’, which flickered in scratched scrawl across the screen at the beginning of the set. This tentative grafitto had provided a subliminal visual plant behind the opening number, which hovered around a single chord for about 15, incrementally increasing the mass and volume until it was an all-encompassing torrent of glorious noise.

Godspeed You Black Emperor
In between Hope and the Storm, the images darkened, and hope seemed far distant (but with that initial burning word still echoing in retinal after flash on the mind’s eye). Official document or desperately typed pages swiftly scrolled by, interspersed with disturbing pictures hinting at the hidden agendas and secret processes of the war on terror, the subliminal flash of a scrawled ‘fuck America’ the response (and the dark antithesis to the original ‘hope’). The cover of Robert Burton’s 17th century philosophical treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy is followed by contemporary woodcuts of demons, scourging clerics and conquistadors, the roots and early symbolism of modern empire. These began to deliquesce in the manner of igniting or chemically disintegrating film, a visual representation of the sinking spirit of melancholia inflecting much of the music. After the Gathering Storm had broken and passed, the set ended with a triumphal piece in which the final explosive clarion chords were accompanied by aerial and ground level shots of anti-war protestors filling the streets of New York (or it could have been Montreal, not sure) – hope realised, if only for a day. It’s paradoxical in a sense that Godspeed You Black Emperor, an instrumental group in which the only vocal elements are provided by samples, should be one of the most unequivocally political acts producing protest music of recent years. The lack of lyrics allows a certain flexibility in the interpretation of just what the nature of that protestation is. The live back projections bring this sense of resistance firmly into focus, however. As the music passed the apogee of its final explosion, the members of the group got up and quietly left one by one, just as they had first entered, and the reverberating sound diminished until it had dwindled to a looping singularity – and then it was over, the end of a quite overwhelming experience. Time to go out and breathe the air of the bright North London afternoon, spirits raised high.

The Passion of Joan of Arc
Liars in the Great Hall delivered their usual pummelling post punk thrash, all distortion, ritualistic drum pounding and muttered or shouted vocals of a vaguely (or explicitly) threatening nature. It all blurred into an indistinguishable continuum for me, and with the lyrics being unintelligible to my ear, it proved a little wearying in its relentlessness, with no discernible purpose behind the attack (the LPs have much more cohesion to them). A large hall wasn’t the most appropriate setting, maybe, with some of the intensity of their performance dissipated, particularly from the vantage point of the back of the crowd. I headed off to claim a prime position for the screening of The Passion of Joan of Arc in the West Hall. Portishead’s Adrian Uttley and Will Gregory, Goldfrapp’s musical partner, had composed a live score sometime ago for Bristol’s Colston Hall, and this was played again here, with both participating. Uttley was one of several guitarists, and also occasionally picked up his mandolin for minstrel moments. Gregory crouched studiously behind his KORG synthesiser, but also managed to coax plangent and sacred sounds out of that most humble of instruments, the kazoo. The ensemble also included kettle drums, three gradations of medieval harp and a chamber choir. The whole was unobtrusively conducted by Charles Hazelwood, who had an exceedingly busy weekend, given that he had conducted the Human Planet Prom at the Albert Hall the previous evening and again the following morning, before dashing across town to conduct again in another grand Victorian building. He gave a cheeky Kenneth Williams moue in reaction to the audience’s applause as he took to the podium – acknowledging that this was no place for classical formality. The film itself remains a hugely affecting masterpiece of the silent era, an unflinching depiction of suffering and of a soul preparing itself for death, as well as a timeless study of heroic political resistance in the face of seemingly unassailable power. The harrowing pictures of Joan’s body burning and toppling forward as if in prayer at the end of the film are reminiscent of the footage of self-immolating Vietnamese monks in the 60s, and are intercut with scenes of violent rebellion which have the immediacy of contemporary news footage even though they take place against a medieval backdrop.

Joan's tears
The concentration on the actual recorded transcript of the trial meant that a lot of the drama was conveyed through close-ups, and there are some remarkable faces here: Maria Falconetti, in the title role, who gives one of the most remarkable and fearless performances in the history of cinema (and whose tears are mirrored by those of Anna Karina as she watches the film in Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie); a relatively youthful Michel Simon, an iconic, beautifully ugly figure of French cinema, also present in such classics as L’Atalante, Boudu Saved From Drowning and Quai des Brumes, and whose 1968 swansong, Ce Grand Pere featured a soundtrack by Serge Gainsbourg and Michel Colombier (including a songs, L’Herbe Tendre, on which Gainsbourg and Simon, fellow spirits in many ways, collaborated); and the legendary Antonin Artaud, surrealist, experimental film maker and proponent of a confrontational performance style (the ‘theatre of cruelty’) who could be said to be one of the presiding spirits of the weekend. The music blended the sacred and elevated with industrial and noise elements. The choir produced ‘angelic’ interpolations at key moments which bordered on the clichéd but were archetypically affecting for all that. They also passed around ‘hocketed’ syllables to suggest the conspiratorial muttering of the ecclesiastical jury. The clamour and clank accompanying the torture chamber sequence conveyed the physical terror of pain and suffering experienced by Joan upon seeing these appalling devices demonstrated. The nauseating roll of the spiked wheel upon whose crushing revolutions the camera focuses was particularly well evoked by the metallic rumble and fingernail scrape of guitar and synth, anticipating the industrialised instruments of death from centuries to come. The final burning at the stake and subsequent revolt of the onlooking peasantry, a sequence which still has an almost unbearable intensity even to this day, was made even more powerful by the conjoined forces of the ensemble, with clangourous, tolling guitars heralding the uprising (and also echoing the climax of the Godspeed set). It was wonderful to see this deeply affecting film further elevated by such a finely attuned and adventurous soundtrack.

It took me a while to see the latter half of the Acoustic Ladyland set in the Panorama Room as I had to negotiate the frustrating contraflow system which sought to reconfigure the everyday relationships of space and distance according to some arcane and evidently incommunicable logic. If you crossed a particular threshold between the corridors and halls of the Palace, you could not then step back, as an imposingly built orange-jacketed security person would tell you with implacable finality. A complete circumambulation of the building would then be necessary in order to return to the spot which you had just left. It was like passing through the mirror in Cocteau’s Orphee and entering a world which operated according to its own laws. There also seemed to be a problem with the room having reached its capacity, although there seemed no shortage of space when I was finally granted access. This was the group’s last performance and they went out in blazing style. They played a scorched-earth punk jazz, with short tenor sax phrases in a ripe Albert Ayler-ish tone occasionally exploding into frantic squeal and skronk, backed by guitar thrash and scrabble, and drum hurricane and coal chute tumble. It took jazz back to its party roots (with the audience batting large black and white balloons about), a music to dance to, as it had been in the hot 20s, the swing band 40s, and the hard bop 60s, although now the moves were of a more primal pogoing variety.

Having had a delicious crayfish confection from the Banh-mi Vietnamese food stall, I returned to the West Hall to await Alan Moore and Stephen O’Malley’s performance, and watched timidly through the open door into the Great Hall as Swans completed their set. Michael Gira was thrashing around as if in a self-induced fit, or in the throes of divine or demonic possession. The doomy song they were playing was lent further funereal dolour by the tolling of tubular bells. Having already arced a sputum of spit into the audience, he stood up to the mic, the music dying around him, held his arms out wide with fists clenched in a gesture half of crucifixion, half of grim triumph and just roared at full capacity, several times. It was an act which had to be carried through with absolute conviction, otherwise it risked teetering over the edge into absurdity. But from my somewhat distance perspective, he seemed to pull it off (it certainly made the security guards at the door pass a few comments between themselves). This was music which acted as a sort of communal purgation, a purification of sorts, and its excavation of the dark places of the soul was the demonic shadow side of a yearning, religious sensibility, reaching for the light. This comes through in the titles of some of the songs (Children of God, The Apostate, Eden Prison) and in the name of Gira’s post-Swans group, Angels of Light. At the end of the show, he told the audience that he loved them, and it seemed like he really meant it, and that the feeling was mutual.

Alan Moore and Stephen O’Malley (of bracket abusing drone metal group Sunn (((O)))) were due to perform a words and music accompaniment to the 1957/62 Harry Smith (not to be confused with fellow experimental film-maker Jack Smith) animated film, which is often known as Heaven and Earth Magic. O’Malley seemed to take an age to set up his guitar, with engineers also fiddling, leaving the scene, and then coming back to fiddle some more. The resultant delay was particularly damaging in that it meant that a good number of people left when Grinderman began (on time) next door. Alan Moore took to the stage in a very striking long wizard coat, a shimmering sky blue with added glittery sparkles, worn over a dark shirt with white tie. Very elegant. You had to make a conscious effort to shift your attention from his imposing figure as he read in his distinctive Northampton tones and concentrate on the film being projected on the screen, which was, after all, what he was talking about. O’Malley, meanwhile, was another in the line of guitarists who took to their seats over the weekend. He scraped, knocked and bowed the strings to produce sounds which emphasised the electronic rather than the guitaristic component of his electric guitar. Moore had already fitted Smith into his pantheon of counter-cultural heroes, including him in the ‘collectors cards’ series Great Hipster of History in his latter day underground magazine Dodgem Logic. Smith was card number 8 (an early selection, then) and appeared in the third issue, where it was noted that he was hailed as ‘an authentic American magus’ by Allen Ginsberg and that his extensive paper aeroplane collection was eventually bought up by NASA.

Moore’s text, read in conjunction with the quieter passages of O’Malley’s music, attempted to align Smith with his own theories equating alchemy and magic with the transforming power of art upon human consciousness. Smith’s remarkable collage animation sets out his own personal symbology and set of magical arcane, and sets them dancing in an archetypal series of tableaux. It bears some resemblance to the work of Terry Gilliam in its use of cut-outs from old catalogues and text books for surreal and disruptive ends. There were lengthy periods during which we were left with just O’Malley’s guitar, which was particularly effective in the sequence in which a series of cog wheels are turning, as if we are in the engine room of the universe. He provided appropriate clanking, scurrying, rattling, busy, machine-like and metallic sounds, the music of the hidden mechanisms of the spheres revealed. Moore’s poetic prose took Harry Smith from his Oregon birthplace in 1932 to the ‘Beat’ Chelsea Hotel in New York where he died in 1991, and interpreted the images on the screen in terms of his inner and outer life, and the artistic transformations through which he set out to express his visionary ideas and explorations. His reading acted both as a personal interpretation of the imagery of Smith’s film, and as an invocation of his spirit and purpose. It demanded concentration (and didn’t always receive it, as witnessed by a couple of idiots standing near the front who raised their voices so that they could hear each other’s conversation, and be heard by everyone else in the vicinity, over Moore’s voice) and perhaps also a little prior knowledge, as this was undeniably esoteric matter. But for those who made the effort, it was an insightful and involving introduction to the surpassingly curious mind of Harry Smith and his strange and compelling film.

Nick Cave and pals’ reductio ad absurdum rock group Grinderman were in full flow by the time I made it to the Great Hall. They were, of course, incredibly loud, and I fumbled for my ear plugs to protect my ears. You could physically feel the waves of sound as they streamed past and shuddered up through the floor. In Grinderman, Nick Cave and fellow bandmates Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos go into ‘character’, expressing the base principles of male lust, greed and violence expressed in primal rock noise. They were all immaculately tailored in suits and shirts, as befitting their age, and leapt around the stage with demented adolescent energy, as very much didn’t befit their age. Cave himself planted himself front stage, striking wide-legged cock rock poses, occasionally rushing back to wrench a few distorted chords out of his organ (supply your own Carry On response here…). He also jumped down to sing directly at the audience, indulging in the old holding the mike out for the crowd to sing into cliché, and harassing them in close-up (aggressively demanding of one poor soul ‘give me your money’ several times). The male characters on display in the songs are far from attractive (they are represented on the front of the first LP by a screaming capuchin monkey). The protagonist of No Pussy Blues comments on how he sucked in his gut and combed his hair over his head – hardly a typical example of priapic rock god self-mythologising. It’s all staged with knowing assurance, with the players fully aware of their own absurdity, but enjoying themselves immensely anyway. When it’s all over, they can put away the masks and return, fully refreshed, to their other artistic personae in the Bad Seeds and the Dirty Three.

Walking back through the West Hall on my way to the cinema, I listened to a few songs by The Telescopes. All were loud, hazy aurorae of shimmering noise produced by overdriven and fx pedal moulded guitars and a violin played vertically like a cello for extra drone layers, with largely incidental vocals buried somewhere beneath. The unvarying nature of the initial songs suggested that a sample effectively represented the whole. I went to the cinema to watch Peter Whitehead’s Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London, a portrait of the swinging 60s capital which took its title from a line in an Allen Ginsberg poem, intoned towards the end. Whitehead had made a film about the 1965 international poetry gathering in the Albert Hall in which Ginsberg had prominently featured. This documentary was rather pretentiously subtitled a ‘pop concerto’, a rather transparent attempt to disguise the fact that its disparate elements completely fail to cohere. It’s a mix of talking head interviews, concert and recording studio footage and roving observations of the London of the time. There was plenty of inadvertent comedy, as the giggles emanating from the audience indicated. Vanessa Redgrave exhibited her painfully earnest militancy, expressing solidarity with the Cuban revolution (which had, I’m sure, just been waiting for validation from the British luvvie branch) in an odd received pronunciation attempt at Spanish. The spectre of Stella Street was never far away as Mick Jagger offered his opinions on the social issues of the day and the correct way to conduct a revolution (well alright, yeah). He revealed that in the leisure society of the future, which was surely just around the corner, we would not be ‘jumping around and swimming’ as everyone believed (?). Michael Caine had begun to outline his views on nation’s loss of ‘moral fibre’ as reflected in the length of women’s skirts when the dvd, perhaps mercifully, stuck. This left us with a bifurcated Caine visage for a while, the upper half of his face grotesquely distended and perched over a diminutive mouth and chin. Skipping on to the next scene meant that we missed David Hockney and Lee Marvin, unfortunately. Julie Christie gave the most interesting interview, which she prefaced with the plea to Whitehead ‘you will be kind, won’t you?’ She was much less full of the certitude displayed by the other interviewees, and more reflective in her self-interrogation, attempting an honest response to the more personal questions put to her. Quite the opposite was the cockily self-assured Andrew Loog Oldham, a proto 80s figure who embodied the way in which the ethos of that decade was embedded in disguised form in the 60s. He talked about the artists whom he produced as if they were his puppets (something about which I’m sure Marianne Faithfull, seen here wandering amongst the roses in a fey daze, might have a few words to say). We see footage of a couple of these artists recording in the studio, one of whom is none other than Vashti Bunyan. If only we could have heard less of Oldham’s self-important prattling and heard something of her voice. Or at least more of the song which she was singing, Winter Is Blue, which, of her Oldham productions, most resembles the songs which would later make up the Just Another Diamond Day LP. She would soon be free of his baleful influence, anyway, and begin her journey through the British Isles in her horse drawn wagon. The film ends up in Alexandra Palace, the building in which it was being projected, for the 1967 14 Hour Technicolor Dream (claims for 24 hours are exaggerated). But Whitehead muffs what could have been a significant document of the event by attempting to create a subjective impression of what it was like to be there (or perhaps just making the best of some poor quality footage), sequencing a series of blurred colour stills to create a stroboscopic semi-animation. It’s far from being a great film, but the few snapshots of the London of the time now have an intrinsic value as a visual record of an era more usually recollected through an obscuring veil of intoxicated hyperbole.

Back in the Great Hall, I enjoyed a second viewing of the latter half of Portishead’s headlining set, which was well worth seeing again. They messed up the new Neu-ish song this time, stumbling over the opening several times before finally deciding to give it up as a bad job. A shame, since it sounded really good on the first night. The crowd were in a forgiving mood, however, and encouraged the band at every slip. Beth claimed that the mishaps were Portishead’s attempt at comedy, and it did indeed provide an unintended interlude of relief from the otherwise intense and inward material. They ended up issuing thanks to all involved in the weekend, and there was a sense of fulfilment, of months of planning having come to fruition and events having concluded in a satisfying manner. They seemed happy, which is not something you can generally say when talking about a Portishead concert.

Minor (or medium-sized) gripes about the weekend on my part included a certain feeling of having been herded around like depersonalised cattle at various points. The porter from the local Redemption Brewery was gorgeous, but they proved wholly inadequate to the task of supplying the festival, running out completely halfway through the first day and failing to deliver any further barrels (surely that was one of the reasons for using a local supplier). A missed opportunity for them, I would have thought. This left us with nothing but cans of San Miguel and Gaymers cider on offer, at £4 each!) Worst of all, no-one was allowed to bring in bottles of water, all of which were confiscated at the door and thrown into a large bin placed just for that purpose. I discovered on the second day that this extended to bottles without any water in them; my protestations that I was not in fact bringing in any food or drink, as stipulated, fell on disinterested ears. In crowded rooms and halls on a hot weekend, this risked being seriously deleterious to people’s health. Evidently they were expected to but the small bottles of water on sale at £2 each inside. The result was that there was a queue in the Gents for the one water fountain on site, at which people refilled whatever receptacle they had to hand (I clutched my teacup throughout). Such deliberate creation of scarcity in a market sector over which you have complete control represented capitalism at its shabbiest, and hardly lived up to the ATP festivals’ claims to ‘alternative’ status. A certain creeping corporatism also seems to be suggested by their insistence on turning everything into an acronymic brand (ATP, IBYM etc). Of course, they have to make money, but there are ways and means. Anyway, I managed to sneak in an orange and a couple of bananas, so take that, The Man.

But let’s not leave on such a negative note. There are not many other places you can go to see such an eclectic and bold mix of diverse music and film. There was also a great art installation created by David Wilson, who set up three ranks of praxinoscopes, early illusionistic moving image viewers. These use a central column of faceted mirrors which reflect pictures painted on encircling strips which are spun around, in this case on turntables, with the result that the images move in an animated loop. Wilson focussed on the natural world, creating flying owls, a deer into the black reflective lens of whose eye our perspective zoomed, wolves whose devouring maws loomed into close-up (last second) view, and turning and twisting leaves which shaded from spring greens into autumnal browns. All this was backed by the atmospheric sounds of Blanck Mass (whose debut LP is excellent). It was hypnotic and enchanting, and exerted that kind of primitive yet potent magic which such mechanically contrived illusions still cast. Walking out into the warm night air after Portishead had finished, a similar atmosphere of enchantment hung over the illuminated prospect of London, from this elevated perspective a city of tiny lights. The vista stretched from Highgate Hill to Crystal Palace tower, from Shooters Hill to Barking. The magic city and beyond. It was a great view to stand and contemplate for a few minutes, recollecting the events of the weekend.