Sunday, 31 May 2015

Jaws: 40 Years On...

Jaws, 40 years on: ‘One of the truly great and lasting classics of American cinema’
The true meaning of Jaws has been picked over by critics and academics ever since its release in June 1975, and even its status as the first summer blockbuster has been questioned. But isn’t it just about a killer shark?

Mark Kermode
Sunday 31 May 2015

First things first; Jaws is not about a shark. It may have a shark in it – and indeed all over the poster, the soundtrack album, the paperback jacket and so on. It may have scared a generation of cinemagoers out of the water for fear of being bitten in half by the “teeth of the sea”. But the underlying story ofJaws is more complex than the simple terror of being eaten by a very big fish. As a novel, it reads like a morality tale about the dangers of extramarital sex and the inability of a weak father to control his family and his community. As a film, it has been variously interpreted as everything from a depiction of masculinity in crisis to a post-Watergate paranoid parable about corrupt authority figures. But as a cultural phenomenon, the real story of Jaws is how a B-movie-style creature-feature became a genre-defining blockbuster that changed the face of modern cinema. In the wake of the epochal opening of Jaws 40 years ago, the film industry would find itself on the brink of a brave new world wherein saturation marketing and mall-rat teen audiences were the keys to untold riches. To this day, many consider the template of contemporary blockbuster releases to have been laid down in the summer of 1975 by a movie that redefined the parameters of a “hit” – artistically, demographically, financially.

According to David Brown, one of the film’s producers: “Almost everyone remembers when they first saw Jaws. They say, I remember the theatre I was in, I remember what I did when I went home – I wouldn’t even draw the bathwater.” I was no exception. I first saw the movie at the ABC Turnpike Lane in north London at the age of 12. It was a Sunday afternoon and I’d had to catch two separate buses to get to the cinema. I sat on the right-hand side of the packed auditorium and I remember very clearly finding the opening sequence so alarming that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through the rest of the film. As I told director Steven Spielberg several decades later, watching poor Susan Backlinie being dragged violently back and forth by an unseen underwater assailant, screaming blue murder, I genuinely feared that I would lose control of my bodily functions (“I like that!” laughed the director).

The lenient A certificate had meant that I’d been able to see the movie on my own, without an accompanying parent or guardian, merely the warning that “the film may be unsuitable for young children”. But the entire cinema seemed utterly traumatised by that unforgettable opening sequence, and in the wake of this ruthlessly efficient curtain-raiser (you see nothing, but fear everything), two people hurried to the exit. As they left, I remember whispering to myself in a state of sublime terror: “I am never going swimming again, I am never going swimming again…”

This, of course, had been the reaction of millions of cinemagoers in the US, where Jaws had become a summer movie sensation. In his influential essay, The New Hollywood, film historian Thomas Schatz notes that Jaws “recalibrated the profit potential of the Hollywood hit and redefined its status as a marketable commodity and cultural phenomenon as well”. Significantly, it achieved this success at a time when “most calculated hits were released during the Christmas holidays”. Not so Jaws, which according to David Brown was “deliberately delayed until people were in the water off the summer beach resorts”. Indeed, one of the film’s most memorable tag-lines was “See it before you go swimming!”. Yet it wasn’t just the resorts where Jaws showed its box‑office teeth.

Despite the fact that the summer months had traditionally been slow for cinemas (why go to the movies when the sun is shining?), Spielberg’s brilliantly constructed shocker struck a nerve with young audiences whose natural environment was not the beach but the shopping mall. Between 1965 and 1970, the number of malls in America had grown from 1,500 to 12,500 and Jaws rode high on the growing wave of multiplex cinemas that these urban meccas increasingly housed. Along with confirming “the viability of the summer hit, indicating an adjustment in seasonal release tactics”, Schatz also argues that Jaws struck a chord with a new generation of moviegoers who had “time and spending money and a penchant for wandering suburban shopping malls and for repeated viewings of their favourite films”. It didn’t hurt that these malls were air-conditioned, with the multiplex cinemas they increasingly housed providing a cool alternative to the sweltering summer heat.

In the wake of Jaws’s extraordinary success, film-makers and studios started to see the summer months not as dog days but as prime time, something that had previously only been true for the declining drive-in market. “The summer blockbuster was born on 20 June 1975, when Jaws opened wide,” wrote the Financial Times’s Nigel Andrews, adding: “In the years after Jaws, the entire release calendar changed.”

This change was apparently confirmed two years later by the May 1977 opening of George Lucas’s Star Wars, with its sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi setting new benchmarks for seasonal franchise profitability. In the process, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas became two of the most influential people in Hollywood, the men who, according to popular folklore, had invented the “summer blockbuster”.
Jaws opened across North America on 464 screens amid an unprecedented publicity blitz: $2.5m was spent on promotion, a substantial chunk of which went on TV advertising, still a novelty at that time. Promotional tie-ins, including Jaws-themed ice-creams, were everywhere. I remember being on holiday in the Isle of Man long before the film’s UK opening (it didn’t arrive here until December) and buying the novel, the T-shirt and a garish Jaws pendant, all on the strength of the insane levels of news coverage that the film’s US opening provoked. “Lifeguards were falling asleep at their stations,” remembered the film’s other producer, Richard Zanuck, “because nobody was going in the water; they were on the beach reading their book”. In the first 38 days of its release, Jaws sold 25m tickets; its rentals in 1975 were a record-breaking $102.5m. When adjusted for inflation, the film’s total worldwide box office is now estimated at close to $2bn.

Such staggering success proved game-changing, establishing the financial merit of the “front-loading” strategy, which used saturation marketing to turn a movie into an event. According to Carl Gottlieb, who shares Jaws’s screenwriting credit with Peter Benchley: “That notion of selling a picture as an event, as a phenomenon, as a destination, was born with that release.”

Today, received wisdom has it that Jaws essentially redefined the economic models of Hollywood. This change led to some staggering box-office bonanzas, but it has come at a price. “My husband keeps citing this as the movie that changed the way movies are made,” says Jaws actress (and wife of former Universal boss Sid Sheinberg) Lorraine Gary (Ellen Brody) in the 1997 BBC documentary In the Teeth of Jaws. “It got us to where we are today, which is, if it’s not a hundred-million-dollar movie, it doesn’t get the kind of support it needs from the studio. It was a good thing at the time [but] it’s an awful legacy to now have everyone used to an enormous hit-you-over-the-head television campaign which costs so much money.”

Whether or not Jaws really did change the film industry for ever is one of the subjects to be debated at the Jaws 40th Anniversary Symposium at De Montfort University, Leicester, later in June. Here, prominent academics Peter Krämer and Sheldon Hall will go head to head on the still-heated question of whether Jaws was indeed the “first blockbuster” (Hall thinks not), while others debate subjects as esoteric as “masculinity and crisis in Jaws”, “Jaws and eco-feminism” and (most tantalisingly) “Jaws: the case of the archetypal American villain as queer dissident attacking the heteronormative”.

Conference convener Ian Hunter says that the purpose of the event is to investigate the movie’s progress from popcorn hit to cinema classic. “The thing about Jaws is that it’s open to so many interpretations,” says Hunter. “It can be about Watergate, or the bomb, or masculinity, or whatever. Some critics have claimed that it marks the point that Hollywood became more interested in archetypes than characters, but it was also the birth of a new kind of family film. I remember seeing it in Plymouth on Boxing Day 1975 and thinking that this was really a film for us, for the generation of The Towering Inferno and Earthquake, offering the kind of thrills that had previously been the domain of X-rated movies. For me, it remains one of the truly great and lasting classics of American cinema, a perfect piece of movie-making.”
Jaws began life as a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley about a seaside resort named Amity that is terrorised by a great white shark. Police chief Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider in the film, orders the beaches to be closed, but the mayor and local businessmen insist they stay open – with tragic results. Eventually, Brody is forced to take to the sea with professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to hunt down the shark and save the town.

Film rights were secured by Zanuck and Brown for $150,000 (plus $25,000 for a first draft of the script) before the novel had been published (the book sold 5.5m copies before the movie opened). After potential director Dick Richards reportedly blew the assignment by repeatedly referring to the shark as “a whale”, the producers turned to rising director Steven Spielberg, who had just finished work on his feature debut, The Sugarland Express, and had made waves with the TV movie Duel, which pitted an emasculated Dennis Weaver against a giant, predatory truck.

“I always thought that Jaws was kind of like an aquatic version of Duel,” Spielberg told me in 2006, when I interviewed him for a BBC Culture Show special on the eve of his 60th birthday. “It was once again about a very large predator, you know, chasing innocent people and consuming them – irrationally. It was an eating machine. At the same time, I think it was also my own fear of the water. I’ve always been afraid of the water, I was never a very good swimmer. And that probably motivated me more than anything else to want to tell that story.”

The production of Jaws proved problematic from the outset. First, there was the screenplay, which was still in flux when principal photography began in May 1974 (Richard Dreyfuss famously declared: “We started without a script, without a cast and without a shark”). Three drafts of the Jaws script were produced by Benchley before playwright Howard Sackler was brought in to do uncredited rewrites. But still things weren’t quite right and 10 days before the shoot Carl Gottlieb was enlisted to work with Spielberg on some dialogue scenes, bringing more warmth and “levity” to the often unlikable characters. Gottlieb would continue to do rewrites throughout the production, often incorporating material improvised in rehearsal by the cast, with added input from John Milius.

With a projected budget of between $3.5m and $4m, filming got under way at the Massachusetts resort of Martha’s Vineyard. Several residents were cast in minor roles, but a few feathers were ruffled by the prospect of a Hollywood production rolling into town. “Martha’s Vineyard is a very upmarket place,” says Nick Jones, producer/director of In the Teeth of Jaws. “There is a somewhat snobby element of the super-rich, but the businesses rely on tourist dollars. So there was a little tension between those who wanted the film crew there and those who didn’t. For example, when the production needed to build Quint’s shack on a vacant harbour lot, they were refused planning permission even though it was only a set. Finally, they were allowed to continue on the proviso that they put everything back exactly the way it was, including the trash!”
Nowadays, Martha’s Vineyard attracts a steady stream of tourists eager to visit the locations where Jaws was filmed. “It really is like walking around a movie set,” says Jones. “Before Jaws, there was a certain notoriety from the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddick scandal, but the movie really eclipsed that. When we were making the documentary, we went with Lee Fierro [the Martha’s Vineyard resident who plays Mrs Kintner in the movie] to the stretch of coast where the beach scenes for Jaws were filmed. It’s very exciting to see those vistas that have become so iconic. And we got taken out to the wreck of the Orca [Quint’s boat], which was just a shell sticking out of the edge of the water. It was bizarre; we stood in it and touched it – it was like touching a piece of the true cross.”

The Jaws shoot was originally scheduled for 55 days, but the production swiftly turned into a logistical nightmare when the mechanical shark (three full-size, pneumatically animated models were constructed) consistently failed to play ball. Nicknamed Bruce after Spielberg’s lawyer, Bruce Ramer, the shark had been built by Bob Mattey, who had created the giant squid for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The models worked fine in the warehouse, but the minute they were dumped into seawater, they started to malfunction. Day after day went by without any usable footage being shot, storms and seasickness the film-makers’ only reward.

Recalling the ordeal of the shoot, Spielberg told me: “Jaws to me was a near-death experience – and a ‘career death’ experience! I went to a party on Martha’s Vineyard and a very well-known actress came over to me and said, ‘I just came back from LA and everybody says this picture is a complete stinker. It’s a total failure and nobody will ever hire you again because you’re profligate in your spending and you’re irresponsible. Everybody’s calling you irresponsible!’ I had never heard the scuttle before, I didn’t ever hear the noise that was coming from Hollywood about me. So I was halfway through shooting the picture and this person tells me that my movie’s a disaster, and I am a disaster, and it’s over. And I really believed for the second half of the film that this was the last time I was ever going to shoot a film on 35mm.”

The lengthy shoot took its toll on the cast too. In particular, tensions emerged between Dreyfuss and Shaw to match those between their respective characters, ichthyologist Matt Hooper and crusty shark-hunter Quint. Partly modelled on local character Craig Kingsbury (who has a small role in the movie as the ill-fated Ben Gardner), Quint is a hard-drinking troublemaker who takes pleasure in taunting his city boy colleagues. It was a role into which Shaw threw himself with scene-stealing gusto, to the alarm of Dreyfuss. “There was a kind of sparring that went on between us,” Dreyfuss told the BBC in 1997. “It was both playful and – on my part – desperate. [Shaw] knew how to dish it out so you had to learn how to dish it back. He could be very vicious and his humour could be very cutting.” And, like his character, Shaw enjoyed a drink.
But while Shaw proved a somewhat volatile presence, his work on screen was note-perfect, which was more than could be said for the shark. By the time the film-makers had enough usable footage in the can, the production was more than 100 days over schedule, with the budget spiralling toward the $9m mark, $3m of which had been blown on what Spielberg derisively called “the special defects department”. Yet Bruce’s failure to function proved the making of the film. Unable to get the shark action shots he wanted, Spielberg was forced to take a more Hitchcockian approach, working with editor Verna Fields to conjure tense sequences in which what we don’t see is more important that what we do. Meanwhile, composer John Williams filled in the gaps where the shark should be with an ominous score that has become as synonymous with screen terror as Bernard Herrmann’s themes from Psycho. The result was pure magic, causing Spielberg to concede that “had the shark been working, perhaps the film would have made half the money and been half as scary”.

It wasn’t until Jaws was test-screened at the Medallion theatre, Dallas, in March 1975 that the film-makers got the sense that they were on to a hit. “That was the first time I realised that the shark worked, the movie worked, everything about itworked,” Spielberg told me. “The audience came out of their seats. Popcorn was flying in front of the screen twice during the movie. And then I got greedy and thought, gee, could I make the popcorn fly out of their boxes three times? And that’s when I shot that scene in my editor Verna’s pool. I had this idea that maybe when Richard [Dreyfuss] goes underwater to dig the tooth out [of the sunken boat], what if Ben Gardner’s entire head comes out of the hole? And so I shot it in her pool with a prosthetic head and a plywood boat.”

The scene of Ben Gardner’s mutilated head floating into view did indeed prove a showstopper. It was just one of a number of intense, gory sequences that earnedJaws the reputation of being the most shocking movie ever to be awarded a family-friendly PG rating in the US. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, critic Charles Champlin complained that “the PG rating is grievously wrong and misleading… Jaws is too gruesome for children and likely to turn the stomach of the impressionable at any age.” (The Motion Picture Association of America defended its lenient rating by pointing out that “nobody ever got mugged by a shark”.)

All of which brings us back to the thorny question of what Jaws is really about. For years, I have insisted that Jaws is a classic monster movie “morality tale” in which the watery fate of potential victims is sealed by their on-land behaviour. Stephen King memorably wrote: “Within the frame of most horror tales we find a moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile”, and that certainly seems to apply to Jaws. Key to this reading is the character of Hooper, who [plot spoilers ahead!] dies in the novel after having a sordid fling with Brody’s wife, Ellen, but miraculously survives on screen, largely because the affair doesn’t happen in the film. Benchley, who makes a cameo appearance in the movie as a news reporter, remembers that the very first thing Zanuck told him when writing the script was to lose “that love story, the whole sex nonsense”. Spielberg agreed, confirming to me that “my first impulse was to get rid of the melodrama and the soap opera aspects of the novel, the whole love affair with the ichthyologist and the police chief’s wife”. Instead, he wanted to “go right for that third act”, cutting to the chase with dramatic results. But once the affair had been removed, so too was the subtextual justification for Hooper’s violent death.

Although the official explanation for Hooper surviving the shark-cage attack was the unplanned wrecking of the empty cage by a real-life predator (and stuntman Carl Rizzo’s understandable reluctance to get back in the water), it seemed clear to me that without the infidelity subplot Hooper became a heroic character who had to live. When I interviewed Spielberg in 2006, he reluctantly conceded that there was some logic in this. But by the time I spoke to him again in 2012, for BBC Radio 5 Live, he wasn’t buying it.

“The shark doesn’t care whether you’re married or single,” he laughed. “It just wants to eat ya!” But what about Hooper’s survival? I insisted. Surely that only makes sense because you cut out the affair? “Well, I cut the soap opera because I wanted to go out and do a sea-hunt movie,” Spielberg demurred. “I wasn’t interested in doing Peyton Place.”

So, Jaws isn’t a film about infidelity? (Or masculinity? Or Watergate? Or whatever?)

“No,” replied Spielberg definitively. “It’s a film about a shark.”

The Jaws symposium is on Wednesday 17 June at De Montfort University, Leicester

Friday, 29 May 2015

What Scared Alfred Hitchcock?

Hiatus at 4 a.m. - new books on Hitchcock reviewed
David Trotter
4 June 2015

Alfred Hitchcock by Peter Ackroyd Chatto, 279 pp, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 7011 6993 0
Alfred Hitchcock: The Man Who Knew Too Much by Michael Wood New Harvest, 129 pp, £15.00, ISBN 978 1 4778 0134 5
Hitchcock à la carte by Jan Olsson Duke, 261 pp, £16.99, ISBN 978 0 8223 5804 6
Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, Vol. II edited by Sidney Gottlieb
California, 274 pp, £24.95, ISBN 978 0 520 27960 5

Hitchcock liked assembly lines. In the long, consistently revealing interview he gave to François Truffaut in the summer of 1962, he described a scene he had thought of including in North by Northwest (1959), but didn’t. Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is on his way from New York to Chicago. Why not have him stop off at Detroit, then still in its Motor City heyday?

I wanted to have a long dialogue scene between Cary Grant and one of the factory workers as they walk along the assembly line. They might, for instance, be talking about one of the foremen. Behind them a car is being assembled, piece by piece. Finally, the car they’ve seen being put together from a simple nut and bolt is complete, with gas and oil, and all ready to drive off the line. The two men look at it and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful!’ Then they open the door to the car and out drops a corpse!

The putative scene has the makings of a classic Hitchcock prank or hoax. ‘Where has the body come from? Not from the car, obviously, since they’ve seen it start at zero! The corpse falls out of nowhere, you see!’ Hitchcock was just short of his 63rd birthday when Truffaut interviewed him. He had remained staggeringly inventive throughout a long, prolific and highly profitable career, and there were seven films yet to come, including The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964). Two American television series – Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-62) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-65) – converted the ‘master of suspense’ into an international celebrity. Since his death in 1980, his reputation has continued to soar. He must by now be the most written about film director of all time. In 2012, Vertigo (1958) displaced Citizen Kane at the top of Sight and Sound’s list of the best films ever made. But his art owed a great deal to its affinity with the assembly line.

Even the biographers, watching the life ‘start at zero’, have struggled to establish where the motivation for the inventiveness came from. The most popular hypothesis, not least because Hitchcock himself promoted it so vigorously, concerns timidity. ‘The man who excels at filming fear is himself a very fearful person,’ Truffaut observed, ‘and I suspect that this trait of his personality has a direct bearing on his success.’ The most substantial biography to date, by Patrick McGilligan, includes plenty of anecdotes about fear, but supplies little by way of evidence of its ultimate cause, and draws no conclusions. Peter Ackroyd, however, is firmly of the Truffaut school. His Hitchcock trembles from the outset: ‘Fear fell upon him in early life.’ At the age of four (or 11, or …), his father had him locked up for a few minutes in a police cell, an episode that became, as Michael Wood puts it, the ‘myth of origin’ for his powerful distrust of authority. Ackroyd rummages dutifully for further evidence. Was young Alfred beaten at school by a ‘black-robed Jesuit’? Or caught out in the open when the Zeppelins raided London in 1915? Did he read too much Edgar Allan Poe? It doesn’t really add up to very much. And yet – or therefore – the strong conviction persists. Fear is the key; and not just to the life. Interview the films, he once told an inquisitive journalist. Those who have interviewed the films often conclude that, like their creator, they too tremble. ‘Hitchcock was a frightened man,’ Wood writes, ‘who got his fears to work for him on film.’

For Wood, the question of fearfulness arises most pressingly when it comes to the tortures meted out to the women whose death or danger is a dominant feature of almost all the movies. ‘Is it sadism, as the dark view of Hitchcock proclaims, a pleasure in seeing beautiful women in harm’s way? The solitary joy of the otherwise uxorious director? A revenge on the mother the child thought might leave him for ever?’ Wood doesn’t believe that the motive was sadism. Nor does he think, like Hitchcock’s first biographer, John Russell Taylor, that Hitchcock, far from enjoying the distress he was able to inflict on them, identified strongly with his victims. The women in the movies are, Wood proposes, ‘whatever we most fear to lose’. This ‘we’ may be just a bit too comfortable. There presumably were and still are those, even among Hitchcock’s most ardent fans, who feel that they could get by in life without a regular supply of blondeness. Still, it seems possible to agree that the women in harm’s way represent whatever was most at risk, not just for Hitchcock, but for a culture heavily invested in blonde iconicity. At any rate, I find it difficult to disagree with Wood’s further conclusion. The lingering over the heroine’s demise could, he says, be masochism. ‘But it could also be just an act of thinking the worst, an act of propitiation to the gods who take these treasures away.’ Hitchcock’s films are at their most Hitchcockian, Wood proposes, when they think the very worst. They are certainly lavish in their propitiations: it takes Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) 45 seconds to die in Psycho, but the scene required seventy different camera set-ups. Ceremony enough, surely. But Hitchcock knew that the gods who took the treasures away were not the kind to be propitiated.

The best commentary on this aspect of Hitchcock’s films (and on a great deal else besides) may be Philip Larkin’s ‘Aubade’, a poem about the specific, all-consuming fear aroused by the most general and unavoidable (that is to say, banal) of all conditions. This is the fear not so much of dying, as of death, of mortality. Waking at 4 a.m. to ‘soundless dark’, the speaker sees ‘what’s really always there:/Unresting death, a whole day nearer now’. His mind ‘blanks’, not inwardly, in remorse or despair, but outwardly,

at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

‘And soon’: the mildly querulous bit of time-keeping tucked away among the sonorous negations strikes the authentic Larkin note. For the blankness he has in mind is ‘a special way of being afraid/No trick dispels’: not faith, not courage, not the sound a poem makes.

‘I work all day, and get half-drunk at night’ is how ‘Aubade’ begins. That’s pretty much what Hitchcock did for most of his life, except that as he grew older the drinking encroached increasingly on the work (champagne with lunch, vodka and orange in a flask on set). The justification for the briskness of Ackroyd’s account (259 pages of text, where previous biographers have required twice as much, or more) is that Hitchcock didn’t linger either. He liked to think he could complete one film in the studio while starting another in his mind. The transitions between films became almost as swift and as seamless as the transitions within them. ‘He already had another project in mind’ is Ackroyd’s constant refrain. By the same token, the rare periods of ‘suspended animation’ during the course of a long career, when there were ‘no stories to consider, no treatments to contemplate, no stars to pursue’, became a ‘form of torture’. The final months of his life seem to have been truly harrowing for all concerned.

As far as I’m aware, Hitchcock himself only ever approached the topic of our sure extinction obliquely, and in relation to his films. For example, he reassured Truffaut that staging violent death all day hadn’t given him nightmares. He would go home afterwards and laugh about it:

And that’s something that bothers me because, at the same time, I can’t help imagining how it would feel to be in the victim’s place. We come back again to my eternal fear of the police. I’ve always felt a complete identification with the feelings of a person who’s arrested, taken to the police station in a police van and who, through the bars of the moving vehicle, can see people going to the theatre, coming out of a bar, and enjoying the comforts of everyday living; I can even picture the driver joking with his police partner, and I feel terrible about it.

I think the police are a red herring here. All the vividness of the anecdote lies in the detail of the activities visible from the van, now conclusively beyond reach. Hitchcock identifies not so much with the suspected criminal as with the person (any person) whose number is up. The person taken out of circulation – it could be by a police van, or by an ambulance – sees, perhaps for the first time, what the world will be like when she or he is no longer in it. Hitchcock had already incorporated a version of the incident he so vividly pictures here into The Wrong Man (1956), a very good, uncharacteristically neo-realist film about a New York musician under arrest for a crime he didn’t commit. As he’s driven away by the police, the musician (it’s Henry Fonda) glimpses his wife, who doesn’t yet know he’s been arrested, moving around in the kitchen. When describing this scene to Truffaut, Hitchcock dwelled on details that either weren’t in the film to begin with, or got edited out.

At the corner of the block is the bar he usually goes to, with some little girls playing in front of it. As they pass a parked car, he sees that the young woman inside is turning on the radio. Everything in the outside world is taking place normally, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, and yet he himself is a prisoner inside the car.

It’s not just that the normality will soon be gone for ever. It’s that it seems to be making precious little effort to stay in touch. The jovial policemen merely perform the indifference society at large is now understood to feel at the removal from circulation of one of its members.

The second film Hitchcock directed on his own was The Pleasure Garden (1925), a British-German co-production made in Munich. At its climax, an alcoholic husband gripped by delirium tremens is shot as he’s about to stab his wife. ‘When he is shot,’ Wood notes, ‘he comes to his senses, no longer drunk at all; he mildly says, “Oh, hello, Doctor,” to the man who has interrupted his fury and dies.’ The version of the film I’ve seen has no intertitle at this point, so I can’t be sure of the exact words. But it’s hard to mistake the jauntiness on the man’s face. The German producer complained that the scene was impossible, and in any case too brutal to be shown. Hitchcock kept it (he may have sacrificed the clarifying intertitle by way of compromise). ‘There is a sense, though, in which a casual, almost negligent registering of one’s last moment is scarier – not brutal or incredible as the German producer thought, but too natural for art, as if the erratic truth of death’s timing were more than we could bear in a story.’ I think that’s dead right. Except of course that nature has little to do with the way people die in Hitchcock’s films.

It took a very special kind of invention to get an awareness of the ‘erratic truth of death’s timing’ into a medium of mass entertainment. In the course of a shrewd and properly demanding analysis of Vertigo, Wood draws attention to sequences of shots in the first hour of the film that mark a narrative threshold: a step-change in its relation to its audience. During these moments, our eyes and ears are ‘co-opted’ for the ‘sense of the world’ somewhat precariously maintained by the agoraphobic private detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), whose old acquaintance Gavin Elster wants him to trail his (apparent) wife, the luminous Madeleine (Kim Novak). We don’t exactly see what Scottie sees, Wood says. Rather, we see what he would see if his eyes were a camera. If Scottie can establish to his own satisfaction that Madeleine is prey to fugue states in which she assumes the appearance and personality of an ancestor, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide in 1857, he will feel justified in taking the job, and falling in love with her. In the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, Madeleine sits absorbed in a portrait of Carlotta, the bouquet on the bench beside her matching the one Carlotta holds. Scottie watches from across the room. As his gaze narrows, the camera moves in on the bouquet on the bench, and then by a swerve and sudden ascent, on its equivalent in the portrait. Scottie subsequently tails Madeleine home. He peers at her car, across the courtyard from him. Is that a bouquet on the dashboard? It’s as if he believes he could get closer just by wanting to. In the event, the camera does it for him, not by moving in, but by a new set-up, from a different angle, halfway across the courtyard. Yes, it is a bouquet. In Wood’s view, the sheer ‘extravagance’ of these manoeuvres ‘beautifully and scarily exploits the possibilities of the medium’, making our dependence on such possibilities ‘something like an addiction’. We become complicit with everything that has already happened, and everything that will happen, to Scottie.

Such moments had long been a feature of Hitchcock’s film-making, as much of an authorial signature as the famous cameo appearances, if a lot less obtrusive; and a great deal more consequential than the various motifs, riddles, visual puns, and other traces he is sometimes said to have scattered throughout his films. The earliest I can think of occurs in The Lodger (1927), which he himself described as the ‘first true “Hitchcock” film’. Quite distinct from the fluid, intricately choreographed camera movements which have been taken to exemplify his virtuosity (his ‘art’), these five-to-ten-second tracks forward – or, alternatively, the abrupt transition to a new and noticeably discrepant camera set-up within the space originally defined by an establishing shot – are strictly functional. In most cases, the dolly in or the discrepant angle follows a narrowing of the protagonist’s gaze, as it does in Vertigo. In Notorious(1946), for example, Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman), dining in Rio with the Nazi super-scientists among whom she has been planted, notices a commotion around the bottles of wine stood on the sideboard. A dolly in on a label shows us what she would like to see, but can’t quite from where she’s sitting. Now she’s truly hooked; and so are we. In The Birds, after the avian invaders have swept en masse down the chimney of the Brenner house and laid waste to the lounge, Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) watches Lydia Brenner (Jessica Tandy), the mother of the man she’s fallen in love with, picking up broken crockery and straightening a picture on the wall, while her son bickers with the sheriff, who’s come to inspect the damage. After a couple of medium-long shots of Lydia from Melanie’s point of view, a third shot, now from a position she very evidently doesn’t occupy, takes us in much closer. The change of distance and angle is an act of moral and emotional intelligence. While the men bicker, Melanie, noticing Lydia’s distress, has understood something both about her, and about the scale of the catastrophe they all face. It’s the sort of awakening conventional in melodrama. On this occasion, however, awakening has been outsourced to a machine.

The changes of distance and angle sometimes arise out of the fiction’s premise. The protagonist of Rear Window (1954), L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), is a photographer who finds himself confined to a wheelchair by a broken leg, so it makes sense for him to put down the pair of binoculars through which he has been scrutinising the suspicious goings-on in the apartment directly opposite, and pick up a telephoto lens instead. The closer view afforded by the telephoto lens reveals a man wrapping a saw and a butcher’s knife in some newspaper. It doesn’t in fact generate a great deal by way of additional detail; but we think it must do, because we’ve seen Jefferies swap the binoculars for a telephoto lens. Even more interesting are those cases – Blackmail(1929), Suspicion (1941) or The Wrong Man – in which the camera’s swift forward movement or repositioning doesn’t stem directly from the protagonist’s immediate point of view, but nonetheless takes place as it were on her or his behalf. In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), for example, a dolly in on Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) from a position other than that occupied by the person currently talking to him, his niece Charlie (Teresa Wright), confirms starkly to us, but not to her, that he is indeed the killer we already know him to be. In such cases, an alliance has been created between audience and camera, an alliance in suspense: sympathetic to the protagonist, but apart from him or her.

These threshold moments are engrossingly human. They engage us fully in the protagonist’s first full engagement with the world’s meaningfulness. We, too, have been reanimated – thanks to the surrogacy of a machine’s-eye view. The something too natural for art that Wood discerns in the death scene in The Pleasure Garden has found a means other than jesting last words to embed itself in the narrative. Hitchcock, who never forgot what he’d learned as a director of silent films, understood that he didn’t need words at all, jesting or otherwise. For all the light at their disposal, his threshold moments have something of the feel of Larkin’s ‘soundless dark’. They all occur either without a word spoken, or deliberately against (or over) the distractions of speech. Their discrepant soundlessness puts us back inside the police van. The threshold moment could be our last glimpse of the ‘comforts of everyday living’: a world in which a bouquet is a bouquet, a bottle of wine a bottle of wine, a saw a saw, and a woman tidying a tidy woman. We know that the people on the streets are talking to each other as people ordinarily do, but we can’t catch a word of what they say. Psycho confirms the soundless dark of the 4 a.m. hiatus. We expect the threshold to announce itself during the scene in which Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), having just set foot in the Bates motel, fences warily with Norman (Anthony Perkins) in a room full of stuffed animals. But this is a heroine who will be dead before she’s had a chance to notice anything truly suspicious. Hers is a post-mortem awakening. The camera starts on her lifeless face pressed against the bathroom floor, pans to take in the bedroom, and then speeds forward and up until it arrives at the newspaper on the bedside table which conceals the money she had stolen earlier in the day: the grim remnant of her all too human aspiration to a better life.

Of course, there are other kinds of Hitchcock film. He spoke sometimes of the need to adjust the ‘dosage’ of humour from one to the next, and the more humorous among them concern the special fear of dying only in so far as they resemble a trick used to quell it. In the films about nothing very much at all, we learn soon enough to stop worrying about what the villains have in store for the hero and heroine, and start worrying about what the hero and heroine have in store for each other. To demonstrate that romance, like danger, can keep us on tenterhooks, Hitchcock included in Easy Virtue (1928) a scene in which a switchboard operator eavesdrops on a marriage proposal. Pleasurable suspense, and its adroit resolution, took up a lot of space in his bag of cinematic tricks.

Hitchcock was an inveterate practical joker. Mercifully, the jokes themselves now seem too boring to merit much attention. But they certainly had a part to play in the publicity campaigns which transformed a film director into a media brand. Jan Olsson has shown in great detail how Hitchcock consistently manipulated celebrity gossip in order to project the image of a creative genius who was as much ‘prankster’ as ‘master craftsman’. The biggest prank of all was his own body. Despite periodic bouts of binge-dieting, Hitchcock remained until the end of his life mountainously fat. In the mid-1930s, as his ambitions turned increasingly towards a career in Hollywood, he began to parlay his corpulence – and the appetites which had brought it about – into an instantly recognisable public persona. ‘His film fame, food reputation, and fabulous physicality were supreme assets,’ Olsson observes, ‘when he signed up for Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1955, on the cusp of Hollywood’s television era.’ His Englishness, too, presumably: no more of a mere hoax than Larkin’s, it had nonetheless to be kept in full working order, like the corpulence, by constant reiteration (the sober suit and tie worn to work every day, regardless of the weather). Not everyone would accept Olsson’s linking of the food and the physicality to the films. Introducing the most recent of the two indispensable collections of articles, essays and stories by Hitchcock and interviews with him that he has edited, Sidney Gottlieb notes that he has chosen to exclude material concerned primarily with food, weight and family life, topics ‘perhaps worth investigating’ as an element in the construction of a public persona, but not as important as the comments on cinema. Still, the cameo appearances did put the corpulence on ample display in the films; while it’s the confirmed pranksters, like Melanie Daniels in The Birds, who undergo the most rigorous examination by 4 a.m. hiatus. Even when he was at his most serious, in his commentary on cinema, Hitchcock had the air of a conjuror explaining his tricks.

He thought that montage was cinema at its most pure. In theory, his method involved a subordination to the capacities of the camera upheld with such completeness and consistency at each stage of the production process, from script and storyboards through principal photography to editing, that it became a kind of mastery. Before cinema, montage meant the action of assembling mechanical components. Hitchcock defined it as the ‘juxtaposition’ of ‘pieces of film that went through a machine’ in such a way as to create ‘ideas on the screen’. His own conjuring was by sleight of machine rather than of hand. ‘Emotions of many varying sorts, shades, degrees and colours have to be manufactured,’ he said, ‘and all must be photographically clear.’ Montage used the machine against itself, creating out of its excess of indifference (the seventy set-ups for the shower scene) a spectacle guaranteed to wring the heart.

The best of the films about nothing very much at all end superbly, the fulfilment of the romantic fantasies they explore achieved by small miracles of montage. In his Hollywood memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade (1996), the scriptwriter William Goldman offers an admiring analysis of the conclusion of North by Northwest. When we recall what happened at the end of the film, Goldman says, we suppose that it must have taken a narrative age to get from the moment at which Eve Marie Saint dangles helplessly from Cary Grant’s hand on the face of Mount Rushmore – while America’s implacable enemies stand poised to tip them both over the edge and make off with the state secrets they’ve been safeguarding – to the moment at which he pulls her up beside him into a bunk in an express train about to enter a tunnel. In fact, it takes a mere 45 seconds, so economical is Hitchcock’s editing. North by Northwest was modelled to some extent on The 39 Steps (1935), which permits itself three minutes to get from the climax of a national emergency involving the design of a new warplane to the blissful union of hero and heroine. Both films conclude at a lick: the pieces don’t so much fall into place as cascade. There’s a kind of heartlessness in that, too. Montage has become cinema’s indispensable, delightful, futile prank. It’s not just corpses that tumble out of the vehicles rolling off the Hitchcock assembly line, but pairs of newly-weds, in radiant, fully automated succession.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Last night's set list

At The Habit, York: -

Unknown Legend
Too Far Gone
One Of These Days

In Ron Elderly's absence, total self indulgence was the order of the day with a full on Neil set. Having expected a quiet night after last week's mayhem, it was surprisingly full from the off. Some excellent turns too!

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

My Old School: The Origins of Steely Dan

Back to Annandale
The origins of Steely Dan -- Donald Fagen returns to campus and revisits the origin of his old grudge

by Rob Brunner
Entertainment Weekly

On Halloween 1967, a party is raging inside Ward Manor, an Elizabethan-style mansion-turned-dorm at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. On a small stage set up in the corner of the common room, a band called the Leather Canary tears through the Rolling Stones' ''Dandelion,'' Moby Grape's ''Hey Grandma,'' and Willie Dixon's ''Spoonful,'' along with a few recently penned originals. It's a typical late-'60s student shindig — most of the audience is tripping on acid — but it's hardly an ordinary band. Behind the drums is Chevy Chase, familiar around campus as a gifted musician and good-natured goofball who's been known to drop his pants after losing late-night games of ''dare'' poker. Just in front of him is a long-haired muso named Walter Becker, one of the school's most accomplished guitarists. And the shy singer behind the electric piano? That's Don Fagen, decked out in a leather jacket with feathers attached to it (hence the band's name). Just a few years later, Chase will find fame as one of the greatest comedians of his generation. Fagen and Becker, meanwhile, will evolve into Steely Dan, score huge hits with songs like ''Rikki Don't Lose That Number'' and ''Reelin' in the Years,'' and create several of the most beloved and enduring albums of the 1970s. And in 1973, on their second LP, they will record ''My Old School,'' an angry kiss-off that, for reasons that have never been entirely clear, takes a very public swipe at Bard. ''California tumbles into the sea/That'll be the day I go back to Annandale,'' Fagen famously sings. ''I'm never going back to my old school.'' You can practically hear him sneer.

Almost four decades after that Halloween gig, Donald Fagen is back at Ward Manor, gazing around the very same common room. In many ways, this quiet lounge — its ornate wood-paneled walls and elaborately plastered ceiling unchanged after all these years — is where Steely Dan sputtered to life. Fagen and Becker both lived here, and they wrote their first, now-forgotten songs together on an old piano that disappeared from the corner years ago. But despite this room's heavy history, Fagen, exploring the dorm's dark halls for the first time since college, seems a bit underwhelmed. ''Looks pretty much the way I remembered it,'' he says with a shrug.

If Fagen is reluctant to reminisce about beginnings, perhaps it's because these days he's more interested in how things end. His new album, Morph the Cat, is a typically wry and unflinching look at death. ''I was just 58 the other day,'' he says, sitting down at a table only a few feet from where the Leather Canary performed. ''You start to realize that you don't have that much time left. And also my mother died in 2003, which was a big shock to me. So it's something I've been thinking of.''

Morph is the third in a semiautobiographical trilogy, following 1982's The Nightfly, a look at his youth in New Jersey, and 1993's Kamakiriad, a surreal take on his middle years. On this latest installment, Fagen taps into the undercurrent of fear that's defined life in New York City after 9/11, weaving dirty bombs and burning buildings, airport security and authoritarian governments into deceptively upbeat-sounding tunes about a variety of tragic situations. Though most of the new CD's songs aren't overtly personal, some are based on fact, including the disc's most direct take on mortality, ''Brite Nitegown.'' ''I was mugged on the Upper East Side,'' says Fagen. ''I was almost sure I was going to buy it there. Two huge dudes sat me down and said, 'Give us all your money, we've got a gun.' They took the cash and booked. I sat there for a few minutes. Then I started to shake.''

The origins of Steely Dan

When Fagen arrived at Bard in 1965, he was shy and bookish, a kid from the Jersey burbs who smoked a bit of pot and played a lot of piano. ''Don sort of looked like a crow most of the time,'' says Chevy Chase. ''He'd walk around with this beak of a nose and he always wore black clothing and looked down with his hands in his pockets. People thought he was kind of weird and quiet. They didn't realize that he was really intelligent, a very funny, bright guy.'' A fan of bebop and Beat poetry, Fagen quickly fell in with a bohemian crowd. ''He hung out with some bizarre Bard students who were too dark and mysterious for some other people,'' says Terence Boylan, a friend and musical collaborator at Bard. ''They never came out of their room, they stayed up all night. They looked like ghosts — black turtlenecks and skin so white that it looked like yogurt. Absolutely no activity, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and dope. [Fagen was] immersed in an entirely Beat attitude. Very hip, very chip-on-the-shoulder, very jazz, very hat-down-over-the-eyes, saying, 'Hey, man, that's not cooool.'''

Today, as Fagen wanders around Bard, that lost world starts to come back. He stops in front of Stone Row, a series of Gothic-style buildings at the center of campus. Here is Fagen's freshman dorm, Potter, where he lived next to Lonnie Yongue, the leader of that boho Bard scene. Yongue would later show up in the 1973 Steely Dan tune ''The Boston Rag'' as a ''kingpin'' who goes on a two-day drug bender. ''Lonnie was king of Potter, that's for sure,'' says Fagen, gazing up at the imposing stone structure.

Bard was — and still is — an intensely creative environment, and Fagen soon found his way into regular jam sessions, which popped up all over campus. In Sottery Hall, Chevy Chase might be playing ''bad jazz'' with his singer girlfriend, Blythe Danner, while in a little practice room called Bard Hall, Fagen and Boylan might be rehearsing a 10-piece wall-of-sound version of ''Like a Rolling Stone'' for a class project. Fagen was already an accomplished pianist, and he started playing in a series of semi-serious and short-lived jazz and rock groups. At first, nothing really clicked. ''One of the problems in those days was finding a guitar player,'' he says. ''There were a few guitarists at school, but most still sounded like they were Dick Dale or one of the Ventures. They hadn't quite figured out how to play blues. They sounded sort of amateurish.'' One day in 1967, Fagen happened by a long-gone campus coffee shop, the Red Balloon. ''I hear this guy practicing, and it sounded very professional and contemporary,'' he says. ''It sounded like, you know, like a black person, really. And that was Walter. I walked in and introduced myself to him. I just said, 'Do you want to be in a band?'''

Fagen and Becker quickly forged the intimate collaborative relationship that would eventually form the core of Steely Dan. ''We had a lot of common musical background,'' says Becker. ''Donald and I had listened to the same jazz radio stations, we had all the same records, and there weren't that many jazz fans around at that time in our particular age group. Making rock & roll that was more sophisticated harmonically and more jazzlike was something that we had a common interest in.'' While at Bard, Fagen and Becker started concocting the distinctive jazz-rock sound that they've pursued over the course of nine studio albums together, including two recent comeback discs (2000's Two Against Nature, which won an Album of the Year Grammy, and 2003's Everything Must Go). Their trademark groove has evolved over the years, but it hasn't really changed much. Predictably, Morph the Cat sounds exactly like a Steely Dan record. ''On the one hand, it's not like I think it's any huge departure,'' says Fagen. ''I'm not that interested in revolutionizing music. But it happened the right way. I did the tracks in 10 days and that was it. It just worked.''

Becker produced and played on Fagen's last solo album, Kamakiriad, but he was completely uninvolved with Morph. ''We just decided to take a break and do separate projects for a while,'' says Fagen, who doesn't rule out another Steely Dan record but says there are no firm plans at the moment. And the band will continue to tour, most likely playing dates this summer after Fagen completes a solo road outing (his first ever).

These days, Becker lives in Hawaii much of the time, and the two chat only sporadically. In fact, Fagen isn't even sure if Becker has heard his new work. ''It's the kind of thing that we don't talk much about, actually,'' says Fagen. ''I would be interested, but... When I was halfway through, he said, 'How's your album coming?' I said, 'Oh, it's the usual s---.' That's the only conversation we ever had about it.''

Tucked in the woods behind Stone Row, down a narrow path many students never notice, sits a one-room, octagonal stone structure known as the Observatory. It is there that Fagen most wants to visit. ''I used to practice here,'' he explains, gazing around the room, which, it turns out, was converted into an office in the early '70s. This isolated space was one of Fagen's most cherished escapes. ''There was nothing in there but a grand piano,'' he says. ''I had wonderful hours in here practicing scales, things that no one else should hear, you know? I'd write tunes in here, too. And if you were rejected by someone you were in love with, you could scream. I was always in love with someone [who] ignored me completely. That was my Bard experience. There was a Sorrows of Young Werther vibe about it.''

One such unrequited crush might have been a professor's young wife named Rikki Ducornet, whose first name will be familiar to Steely Dan fans. Fagen won't admit it — he's always been extremely reluctant to explain his songs — but it's easy to imagine that Ducornet was the inspiration for one of his band's most famous tunes, ''Rikki Don't Lose That Number.'' ''I remember we had a great conversation and he did suggest I call him, which never happened,'' says Ducornet, now a well-regarded novelist and artist. ''But I know he thought I was cute. And I was cute,'' she laughs. ''I was very tempted to call him, but I thought it might be a bit risky. I was very enchanted with him and with the music. It was so evident from the get-go that he was wildly talented. Being a young faculty wife and, I believe, pregnant at the time, I behaved myself, let's say. Years later, I walked into a record store and heard his voice and thought, 'That's Fagen. And that's my name!'''

Fagen would have better luck with a former Bard student named Libby Titus, whom he encountered on campus in 1966 and married 27 years later. And that's hardly his only happy memory of the school. ''I was coming straight from a housing development in New Jersey, so it was great,'' he says. ''I loved the teachers and the girls, you know. I had friends here. Probably the only time in my life,'' he says with a laugh, ''that I actually had friends.''

So why, if Fagen harbors such fond memories of his alma mater, did he and Becker pen the nasty ''My Old School''?

Later on the Bard tour, an answer finally starts to emerge. On the edge of campus sits the small mid-19th-century house that used to be Adolph's, the school's most legendary hangout. In the late '60s, you never knew who'd show up in this out-of-the-way bar. A pair of Rolling Stones might drop in, or Bob Dylan and Bobby Neuwirth, who would come over from Woodstock. ''Bard was a very hip place,'' says Boylan, who used to let Dylan crash in his dorm room. Across the street from the former Adolph's still sits a now-famous pump, which to this day doesn't work because, as Dylan noted in ''Subterranean Homesick Blues,'' ''the vandals took the handles.'' ''It was a rocking bar,'' says Fagen, climbing the stairs to the front porch. ''The girls really danced in those days.'' He walks into the entryway of the building, now converted into Bard offices. There's little evidence of its former life as the coolest joint in Dutchess County. ''There's no reason to go any further,'' he says after taking a quick glance around.

But just outside of Adolph's, he sees it. The house. ''Right there is the house that I was busted in,'' he says, gesturing toward a two-story structure nearby. Here, finally, lies the story behind ''My Old School.'' It was around 5 a.m., a Thursday in May 1969, when a swarm of sheriff's deputies descended on Bard, sweeping through dorms and off-campus residences, including this small house, where Fagen lived with a roommate. ''They went up and down the halls, knocking on doors,'' says Boylan, who was in his room at Ward Manor at the time. ''Toilets were flushing everywhere to get rid of any pot that you had. I threw mine out the window. All you had to do was say to the cop, 'What are you doing?' They'd say, 'That's it, resisting arrest.' Somebody would say, 'What the hell is going on?' 'Oh, profanity! Arrest him.''' Fagen, Becker, and Fagen's girlfriend, Dorothy White, were all dragged off to jail.

''These were the days when there was a 'war on longhairs,' as they used to call it,'' says Fagen, ''and Bard's in this kind of rural district. They picked up about 50 kids just at random. There were a few warrants, and one was for me, which was based totally on false testimony. They handcuffed our hands behind our backs and put us in a paddy wagon and took us off to the Dutchess County Jail. They took all of the boys, about 35 of us, most with really long hair, and shaved our heads. I remember some of them were crying. I don't think any of them had seen their head for three or four years. It didn't make that much difference to me. But it was scary, you know? To hear the cell-block door slam shut, the whole business with the handcuffs and the paddy wagon. I'd never been arrested or put in jail before.''

Bard hired a lawyer and bailed out the 50 or so students who'd been hauled in during the raid. Problem was, Becker and White weren't technically students at the time. ''I asked them to bail my girlfriend out,'' says Fagen. ''She had nothing to do with this and was just visiting me. And they refused to do it. So when graduation time came I protested by not going. My case had already been dismissed—they had withdrawn the charges, actually. So I was sitting on a bench in front of Stone Row with my father and lawyer, just watching the graduation. A lot of the students were also angry because apparently the school had let an undercover policeman be planted in the building and grounds department. Their cooperation with the investigation was despicable.''

Four years later, Fagen and Becker released ''My Old School.'' While Fagen says the song is ''not literal'' (and Becker insists he ''never thought of it as an angry-sounding song; I think of it as a funny song''), he acknowledges that there was real fury behind the ''never going back'' chorus. ''I don't know how serious we were [about never returning],'' he says, ''but at the time both of us were very pissed off at the school, that's for sure.'' Fagen kept his promise for 16 years. Then, in 1985, he returned to campus for the first time, to accept an honorary doctorate. What finally made him relent and go back to Annandale? He thinks for a moment, as if pondering the question for the very first time. ''Well, you know. I'm not one to hold a grudge.''

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Great Escape

Jonas Gutierrez of Newcastle United celebrates scoring against West Ham United
Couldn't happen to a more deserving player.
And we finished ABOVE the mackems...

Saturday, 23 May 2015


And what do we have today?

Tom fucking Cruise...

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Ron Elderly: -
Make You Feel My Love
You Better Move On
Autumn Leaves

Da Elderly: -
I'm Just A Loser
Love Song
Is It Only The Moonlight?

This was an open mic night like no other at The Habit. In the audience was one Warren Atkins of The Voice, checking out York's talent. There must have been nearly 20 acts all told, with an early start to get everyone included and the place was packed from the off. York put on an excellent showing of new and not-so-new music makers.

Due to the need to cram everyone in, The Elderly Brothers were held in reserve for the after-show unplugged sing-along. It was a very late finish too!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Hitchcock/Truffaut by Kent Jones - Reviews

Hitchcock/Truffaut Documentary Film
Hitchcock/Truffaut review: Cannes dons rose-tinted specs for ace cinephilia study
This terrific retrospective on the week-long series of interviews between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock is a brilliant commentary on the discourse of cinema then, and now

Peter Bradshaw
Tuesday 19 May 2015

Kent Jones’s enjoyable documentary – presented in the festival’s Cannes Classics section – is a tribute to a pioneering act of cinephilia, cinema criticism and living ancestor worship. François Truffaut’s remarkable interview series with Alfred Hitchcock, conducted over a week at his offices at Universal Studios in 1962, was a journalistic enterprise which changed the way cinema was thought of as an art form. Nowadays, a young film-maker might envisage a similar exercise in terms of a film or cable TV series – but what Truffaut finally produced was text: a fascinatingly illustrated book, like the record of a supremely important cultural-diplomatic mission. Hitchcock was already famous as a director in a way that few directors were (partly as a result of his TV celebrity), but Truffaut insisted on his importance as an artist and, by this token, on the auteurist importance of directors generally.

Later, Peter Bogdanovich (interviewed here) would do the same with Orson Welles, but perhaps without quite achieving the compression and intensity of this primal encounter. Kent Jones’s film about this event elicits brilliant contributions from modern directors, reflecting on this interview. It includes James Gray, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Wes Anderson, David Fincher – and from France (perhaps representing the “Truffaut” team) there is Arnaud Desplechin and also Olivier Assayas – in whose fluency and eloquence, incidentally, there is something of the ingenuous and idealistic spirit of Truffaut himself.

Rather in the spirit of the original interview, the emphasis is on Hitchcock’s work, rather than Truffaut’s, but the master’s work is seen through the lens of Truffaut, whose brilliance as a critic shines through. Jones’s film takes us through what their childhoods had in common: a terrifying experience in prison. Truffaut was looking for a father figure – he found one in the great André Bazin of Cahiers du Cinéma (perhaps Hitchcock was closer to being an inspirational teacher than a father) – but it was Hitchcock who freed Truffaut and whom Truffaut, in turn, wanted to free from his reputation as a mere showman.

This documentary takes us through Hitchcock’s supreme reverence for the purity of silent cinema and the importance of the image (we hear him listen to Truffaut’s description of the scene in The 400 Blows where the boy discovers his mother’s infidelity, and then he asks, sharply and even testily, if Truffaut should not have kept the scene without dialogue). The interview, and this film, takes us into the question of Hitchcock’s dream-like use of images and situations which look like reality but are not – and the way his subversion and his hyperrealism and surrealism were smuggled into the realist tradition of commercial cinema. Is this the secret of his enduring popularity and importance?

Truffaut came from a generation which believed in allowing the action to emerge, at least partly, through looser improvisatory work with the actors – utterly alien to the controlling Hitchcock, who regales Truffaut with an anecdote about how method school Montgomery Clift once presumed to tell him how he felt his character wouldn’t do a particular “look” in I Confess which was vital to the plot.

Do we have a young director now with this kind of charisma – or an old director? Do we have the overwhelming sense of groundbreaking cinephile excitement that made the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview possible? I wonder. A fascinating film.

‘Actors are cattle’: when Hitchcock met Truffaut
Hidden necrophilia in Vertigo, glowing milk, an on-set spat with Montgomery Clift … in 1962, Alfred Hitchcock revealed his tricks, and the often shocking meanings behind his films, to fellow director François Truffaut. Now their talks have been turned into the revealing film Hitchcock/Truffaut

Stuart Jeffries
Tuesday 12 May 2015

There’s a derangingly perverted scene in the 1958 film Vertigo. The femme fatale Judy, played by Kim Novak, appears before Scottie, James Stewart’s retired cop, in a sleazy motel room. She’s dressed as the dead woman with whom he’s obsessed. “I indulged in a form of necrophilia,” the director Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut during a week-long series of interviews they did in Hollywood in 1962.

Scottie has insisted that Judy dye her hair blond and wear the outfit he bought. Only then will he be able to have sex with her. But there’s a problem. Scottie can’t consummate his desire because one detail is wrong: Judy is wearing her hair down. The dead woman, Madeleine, wore it up. “This means,” Hitchcock explains to Truffaut, “she’s stripped but won’t take off her knickers.”

Scottie sends her back to the bathroom and sits impatiently on the bed. “He’s waiting for the woman to come out nude ready for him,” Hitchcock adds. “While he was sitting waiting, he was getting an erection.” Then Hitchcock tells Truffaut to turn the tape off so he can tell a story. We will never know what it was, but the safe money says it was really dirty.

Kent Jones’s engaging new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut teems with such moments: the 30-year-old tyro French director asking his hero to explain how he made his films, and the 63-year-old responding in detail, often revealing the lubricious impulses behind such masterpieces as Psycho, The Birds and Marnie. For 50 years, these conversations have existed in book form. Jones has set them free, juxtaposing the audio recordings with relevant scenes from the films.

Hitchcock clearly revels in disclosing some of his secrets. As we watch the superbly sinister scene in the 1941 thriller Suspicion in which Cary Grant slowly, but implacably, ascends a spiral staircase towards Joan Fontaine’s bedroom, we may well wonder why the glass of milk he’s carrying looks so ominous and hyperreal. Because, Hitchcock explains, he lit it from inside with a little lightbulb. Truffaut gasps.

Truffaut had seduced Hitchcock into doing 30 hours of interviews by means of an imploring letter: “Since I have become a director myself, my admiration for you has in no way weakened; on the contrary, it has grown stronger and changed in nature. There are many directors with a love of cinema, but what you possess is a love of celluloid itself.” Hitchcock, flattered, telegrammed back in French from Bel Air: “Dear Mister Truffaut, your letter brought tears to my eyes, and I am very grateful to receive such a tribute from you.”

At the time, Truffaut had made just three films, including his semi-autobiographical debut, Les 400 Coups, while Hitchcock was editing his 48th, his extraordinary and probably self-revealing account of sexual repression, Marnie, starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery.

Truffaut’s aim was to liberate Hitchcock from his reputation (one that the Englishman cultivated) as a light entertainer and celebrate him for what he was, a great artist. “It’s wonderful that Truffaut got Hitchcock to talk because directors of his generation didn’t often,” says Jones, head of the New York film festival, and the director who collaborated on Martin Scorsese’s survey of Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy. “They were dismissive about their art, at least publicly. John Ford would say, ‘I only make westerns.’ Howard Hawks would say, ‘I only make comedies.’ They weren’t inclined to talk seriously about their work, partly because they needed to survive in the studio system.”

Hitchcock and Truffaut were from different cinematic cultures. Hitchcock had made the first of his pictures in the silent era and went on to work in Hollywood. Truffaut was initially a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma. Thanks to critics such as Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Godard and indeed Truffaut (all of whom who would become the iconoclastic hipster directors of the Nouvelle Vague), cinema for the first time became, as director Olivier Assayas puts it in Jones’s film, self-conscious. For the first time, it reflected on itself as art rather than dismissing itself as mere entertainment. The Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews were part of that revolution.

Truffaut and Hitchcock began their interviews on 13 August, Hitchcock’s 63rd birthday. Four years later, the interviews were published. “It has been an incredibly influential book,” says Jones, adding that it was pivotal in the education of film-makers such as Coppola, De Palma, Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Friedkin and Schrader. Today’s generation, it seems, is no less in awe. “When I asked David Fincher if he’d read it, he said, ‘Only, like, 200 times.’”
François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock and, Helen Scott, who collaborated with Truffaut, during the interviews 

There are only two moments when Hitchcock clams up. First, as Truffaut suggests, quite sensibly, that the lack of realism and plausibility in Hitchcock’s movies (think of the scene in North by Northwest when Cary Grant emerges unscathed from a fireball caused by the crop-dusting plane that’s been pursuing him crashing into a fuel truck) is because his pictures yield to a deeper logic, the logic of dreams. “Hitchcock just doesn’t want to go there,” says Jones. “He’s not comfortable with that level of disclosure.”

Yet, as Fincher, one of 10 present-day directors whom Jones interviews for the film, argues, one of the exciting things about Hitchcock is that his fears and fetishes, his nocturnal terrors and his sexual daydreams, are all over his work. Indeed, for Fincher, one of the lessons of Hitchcock’s cinema is that any film-maker who thinks they can stop their psychopathologies leaking on to the screen is, as he puts it, “nuts”. Jones says: “I think David’s right. Hitchcock does what he wants, and indeed, if you look at those film-makers who try to do what others want, or what they think the audience want, they come unstuck.”

The other moment is when Truffaut, again quite sensibly, argues that Hitchcock’s trademark omniscient shots (the terrifying airborne shot of the town on fire in The Birds; the camera descending from Olympian heights to find the compromising key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand in Notorious) could have been made only by someone raised, as Hitchcock was, a Catholic. Hitchcock asks Truffaut to turn off the tape so he can go off record. “Again, we don’t know what he said, but he clearly didn’t want to reveal his motivations,” says Jones. Instead, in Jones’s film it’s left to another Catholic director, Scorsese, to clinch the point: the God-like perspective of Hitchcock’s aerial shots induce terror.

“In the book of the interviews,” says Jones, “Hitchcock came over as stilted and formal, which you can hear he isn’t.” Quite so: Hitchcock is often droll and cantankerous. “Actors are cattle,” he tells Truffaut, underlining his reputation for giving them no scope but to fulfil his artistic vision. “He can’t mean that,” says Jones. “Yes, he started in cinema during the silent era, well before the post-war era after which, as Scorsese says, the power shifted to the actor. But he wasn’t contemptuous – he had immensely fruitful relationships with actors.”

True, but Hitchcock was always boss. The film recalls his on-set spat during I Confess with Montgomery Clift over a split-second moment in which the actor was required to look up at a building as he crossed the street. The method actor who had trained with Lee Strasberg said he needed to consider whether his character, a guilt-ridden Roman Catholic priest, would look up at that moment. Hitchcock didn’t care what Clift thought: he needed him to look up at that precise moment or everything leading up to and from that glance would not make sense. Truffaut, when Hitchcock explains this to him, agrees: if Clift refused, he would have ruined the story arc. Happily, Clift ultimately glanced upwards and the scene makes sense.

Truffaut, for all that he was profoundly influenced by this father figure, gave actors more leeway. He tells Hitchcock about a scene in Jules et Jim that his three actors improvised. Hitchcock is incredulous: he could never allow that.

Later, Jones reveals, Hitchcock worried that he was too rigid in his commitment to narrative rigour. Perhaps he should have given his actors more freedom. In one telegram to Truffaut, he says how difficult it would have been for Mondrian to paint like Cézanne: by which he means how difficult it would have been for Hitchcock to direct like Truffaut, or indeed like others in the Nouvelle Vague, still less like the great American directors of the 1970s who allowed their actors a great deal of freedom.

It’s a point taken up by Fincher, who wonders how Hitchcock would have got on directing such actors as De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman. “Sadly, we’ll never know,” says Jones. “But he did have conflicts with actors who were less willing to respect his authority, not just with Clift on I Confess and Paul Newman on Torn Curtain.”

In any case, he did try to loosen up, to mutate, as it were, from Mondrian to Cézanne. “There is some 16mm test film provisionally called Kaleidoscope/Frenzy, in which he tried to be freer and give some young kids in New York the chance to express themselves as actors.” But that film was never made. Instead, in 1972 he made Frenzy, his penultimate – and psychosexually deranged – film, in which Barry Foster strangles his victims with a necktie, grunting: “Lovely! Lovely!”

Almost two decades after Truffaut and Hitchcock recorded their interviews, the Frenchman was still lecturing the world on his hero’s merits. “In America,” Truffaut told the American Film Institute in 1979 during a homage, “you call him Hitch. In France, we call him Monsieur Hitchcock. In America, you respect him because he shoots scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder. We respect him because he shoots scenes of murder like scenes of love.”

The following year, Hitchcock died. All too soon Truffaut followed him in 1984, aged only 52, and at the height of his powers.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Federico Fellini and 8 1/2

Fellini’s 8½ – a masterpiece by cinema’s ultimate dreamer
Federico Fellini never stuck to the facts. At his best, his films strike a perfect balance between fantasy and reality – and nowhere is this more evident than in his autobiographical classic, 8½

Michael Newton
Friday 15 May 2015

Fellini once laid out the basic requirements for being a film director. They include curiosity, humility before life, the desire to see everything, laziness, ignorance, indiscipline and independence. While probably all these qualities pervade his films, it’s their curiosity and their openness to the world that enchant you, as he once put it, his “immense faith in things photographed”, the sense that film might allow a moment of communion between the viewer and things, between you and a human face.

The White Sheik (1952)

In his black and white movies, that almost unparalleled run of masterpieces from The White Sheik (1952) to 8½ (1963), Fellini stands as the Charles Dickens of cinema. As with Dickens, critics find him sentimental, exaggerated and chaotic. Where some see sentiment, his lovers perceive a capacity to feel, not for some idealised abstraction, but for the specific character. The outsiders, the marginalised, the victims in life attract him, and he looks at them face to face, never from above, and never from a place removed from their troubling difficulty. He is close to Dickens in pursuing a politics based on gentleness, on the thought that a good society will form when this person here acts justly and tenderly to that person there. As for the exaggeration, like Dickens he actually softens and takes the edge off the unexpectedness and weirdness of others, even as he remains alive to it. When it came to people and to places, Fellini said of himself, “My capacity for marvelling is boundless … I am not blase about anything”. The chaos is admittedly there, but it’s a creative one; he possessed the immense gift of never settling for a fixed view about life. He condemns no one. As he suggested, his films are trials, but as seen by an accomplice, rather than by a judge.
Like Dickens too he was nourished on a genuinely popular culture – comic strips such as Flash Gordon and the circus. His cinema belongs to the fairground, not the museum. The comics were a seminal influence on him – he didn’t so much write his films, as draw them, making sketches, doodles and designs that would open up the spirit of the movie.
It’s odd to remember just how despised Fellini was once, a man found guilty by critics on the left of sullying the doctrinal purity of Italian neo-realism with sentiment and solipsism. Such critics understood art as essentially political, a form that either embraced or denied true “commitment”. For Fellini, however, film meant a free space for fantasy and memory, and a form where fantasy might transform memory into a beguiling and truthful lie. 8½ provides a devious, side-stepping response to his critics, incorporating their adverse readings into the film; “commitment” is both the film’s problem and its hero’s, troubled as he is in his career and his marriage. In a sense, it’s Fellini’s version of Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, a record of a breakdown that leads to the hearing of many enticing or hostile voices.

Though all art finds its roots in a life, it’s remarkable how very few expressly autobiographical film-makers there are – Woody Allen, Andrei Tarkovsky in Mirror, Bill Douglas and a handful of others, all recasting their lives as a fiction. As a man often identified with his work, Fellini is perhaps the most notable among this select group. An “autobiographical vein” runs through many of his films, each one encapsulating a stage of his life. Yet no one should think when watching his movies that they’re learning the facts about Fellini; like Dickens in David Copperfield, he transfigures the past (or in the case of 8½, the present) into artifice, a puppet theatre. He was never one to let the facts stand in the way of a good story. His films charm us with the invention of a life, the marvellous being made otherwise marvellous; not the small truths of anecdote, but the evocation of how it might have been. They dance around the dividing line between the imagined and the real. In I Vitelloni (1953), Ostia stands in for his home town of Rimini, and in the process turns nostalgia into a stage-set, an improved and refined quintessence of memory.

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

In his early films, the characters have either the strong simplicity of children or the complexity of the devious; they are either kids or conmen. The greatest innocents of all are those played by his wife, Giulietta Masina, in La Strada (1954) and The Nights of Cabiria (1957). Both films are glorious, and Cabiria is certainly in my top five movies of all time. Here Fellini’s comedy – like much great comedy – works by breaking our hearts open and still finding there the muted capacity for hope. The great problem for his characters is that of loneliness. Its solution, where it can be contrived to occur, is the connection between people, including the most unlikely of pairs. Masina is the soul of these stories, an actor gifted with one of the most expressive and vital faces ever witnessed on screen. She is a holy fool in both films, an “Auguste” clown, a happy hooligan. Fellini said of her characters here that they’re not women, they’re asexual, figures beyond or above gender – a remarkable thought given that in Cabiria, Masina plays a Roman prostitute, though admittedlya rather hapless one.

Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (1960)

With La Dolce Vita (1960), Fellini’s style shifted, and we move from artful naivety to a bright, louche and fragmented world, one, as Fellini himself put it, marked by “the silence of God”. There is a book of essays on Fellini from the 1970s in which the hero’s angst is taken very seriously indeed, and the movie compared somewhat implausibly with The Waste Land. In fact, rarely has the collapse of western civilisation looked such fun – and “fun” is precisely what that civilisation collapses into. The film’s title, “the sweet life”, isn’t irony, it’s intoxication. More than any other movie, La Dolce Vita preserves the enchantment of parties, even their enchanted weariness; the film bestows on us that sense of the possibilities present in an evening out, as well as the light melancholy that falls as the possibilities dwindle. Fellini liked to drive through Rome, or walk its streets, glancing at the faces, giving himself to the casual encounter; here, too, Rome is a place glimpsed in motion, connections forming and falling apart, as the night sobers up with dawn. As the society journalist, Marcello, Marcello Mastroianni offers us the Italian Cary Grant, a man baffled by his own beauty as well as the essential elusiveness of the women he somewhat fecklessly pursues.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

When I saw La Dolce Vita, my first Fellini film, I thought he was a sophisticate; now, years later, I know he was a dreamer. 8½, his memoir of his illness, is replete with reveries; Fellini much admired Carl Jung, and it shows. One reason why he cast his wife in his films was Masina’s magical “gift of evoking a kind of waking dream quite spontaneously, as if it were taking place quite outside her own consciousness”. As his career went on, his films became increasingly hallucinatory, in a way not always for the best. In his defence, other kinds of coherence are brought in, a moving away from logic and consequence. In 8½, the balance is still perfect, a film that stands in the uneasy but productive space between fantasy and the real.
1963, 8 1/2 , EIGHT AND A HALF
It’s a fabulously messy film. The eye moves restlessly over things, rarely settling. We’re inside a crisis, with apparently nothing noble about it. The film’s hero, the harried director, Guido Anselmi (played again by Mastroianni, and clearly a stand-in for Fellini), is as silly, mean, self-regarding and empty as the film itself – and yet, for all that, this same fractured movie is utterly superb. It’s in the relation between the sorriness and the wonderful that 8½ casts its spell.
Ultimately, 8½ is a comedy of guilt, of a life riven by untruths. In a double sense, Guido lives in breach of contract. He compromises the deal he has made with his producers, declaring he has a film in hand when really he has nothing; and, more darkly, he undermines his vow to his wife, by his affair with another woman. A need for naughtiness, for narrative, prompts Guido’s adultery; yet we can also see how it is of a piece with an overwhelming tenderness, an aptitude for curiosity about others. The film portrays brilliantly the farcical nature of shame, exposing in Guido’s relationship to his mistress his shifty embarrassment, the way he both wants her there and seeks to deny all claim to her. Playing the director’s mistress, Carla, Sandra Milo grants us the apogee of this comedy of deceit: spotting, as she debonairly approaches, that Guido is in fact at the cafe table with his wife, she manages to walk in two directions at once, her legs heading leftwards as she darts to the right.

To add to the grubbiness of it all, Milo was not only Guido’s lover in the film, she was also Fellini’s lover in real life. This is only one of the ways in which 8½ draws us into a hall of mirrors, where reality and art prove indistinguishable from each other. We gaze into an endlessly receding abyss, and yet (and this is the miracle of the film) we can perceive how that abyss overbrims with abundance. In the end, the film seeks to imagine a loving settlement that will fulfil the promises Guido has broken: in spite of everything there is a film; his love for his wife, for everyone it seems, all the puppets he controls, is intact. The guilt doesn’t matter: there is in the end reconciliation. Some might see this resolution as venal and self-serving, using a film to get oneself off the moral hook. And yet, as it plays on the screen, it also conjures by sleight of hand a release from shame, from doubt.

It’s not the anguish, the uncertainty, but the laughter in 8½ that matters, the reflective humour of it. The film closes with a death that appears to end the possibility of Guido’s film becoming real. For a moment, things pause, and there is an atmosphere of wistful farewell. And then Fellini pulls off his masterstroke, reclaiming life as a party, and one to be shared. When Guido and his wife Lucia likewise join the dance that Guido directs, not directing it any more but being a part of it, it proves to be, for me at least, one of the most moving moments in cinema. It recalls what Rilke wrote of The Tempest, when he described that moment when the artist-magus pulls a wire through his own head and hangs himself up with the other puppets, and then steps before the audience to take their applause.

8½ continues its run at BFI Southbank, London SE1, until 28 May.

8½ review – Fellini’s meditation on films as dreams retains its irresistible pull 5/5stars
A cinematic rerelease of Federico Fellini’s hallucinatory masterpiece offers a chance to be blown away all over again – its opening alone is one of the most incredible things in cinema

Peter Bradshaw
Thursday 30 April 2015

Fellini’s 8½ is rereleased in cinemas: it is the director’s compellingly fluent and sustained meditation on films as dreams, memories and fears, and the way they offer a fascinating but illusory way of rewriting and reshaping one’s own life. The opening dream sequence is more sensationally disturbing than ever, still one of the most incredible things in cinema. And then we wake up to a reality that has the weightless quality of a dream. Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is a celebrated film-maker, a version of Fellini, who has arrived at a midlife crisis and creative block (watching 8½ on the big screen is a way of seeing just how tired Mastroianni looks).
After a stay at a ridiculous health spa, Guido retreats with elegant diffidence to a handsome hotel to take meetings with producers and interested parties: weird, almost hallucinatory exchanges that look more like the encounters from Last Year at Marienbad or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They must discuss his latest unnamed project – which appears to be an indulgent autobiographical reworking of his own life that includes versions of his wife, mistress, and various other women, but also needing a scene with a full-scale spaceship that has, staggeringly, been built on location. Everyone wants a piece of Guido, everyone makes demands, especially clamorous journalists. (“Are you for or against eroticism? Are you afraid of the atomic bomb? Do you believe in God?”) It exerts an irresistible pull.