THE Friday Boys are a disparate group of men spread across Tyneside who meet once a week - 'always on a Friday' - to talk about the arts, raise a glass to recently departed heroes and villains and, at the evening's end, down a whisky or two. The FBs have only one golden rule - talk of the working week is strictly off-limit.
The paintings of Ellsworth Kelly, who died on Sunday, at the age of ninety-two, have the suddenness of miracles, and the improbability. Their emphatic shapes and clarion colors, in myriad formats, are unreasonably rational and ascetically luxuriant. No modern movement or general style—not minimalism, Pop, or Op, not geometric or hard-edge or color-field abstraction—usefully contains them. You are on your own when you look at them. I think that their open secret is innocence, maintained at fantastic levels of talent, dedication, and savoir-faire.
Like a lot of people over the seven-decade course of Kelly’s career, I came to appreciate his greatness slowly, even grudgingly, and then all at once, and permanently. His independence was a problem for me as a tyro aesthete in the sixties. It was hipness-proof. His paintings weren’t a kind of art. They seemed to present themselves as art in essence, immaculately conceived. They made me feel, precisely, dumb, with nothing to say.
My epiphany occurred thirty-some years ago, in a now defunct uptown gallery, with a white, shaped canvas—an elongated fan shape, gently curved along the top. It was probably about ten or twelve feet long, though in my memory it feels very much longer. The unhurried curve got me. It was like the horizon of a world that made a non-world of all of the space outside it. While my eye was tracing it, I felt a brief, intense flash of something that I can’t name: a perception of perception, perhaps. A short circuit in the brain. And yet the curve was just a contour of a wall-hung object. I wasn’t surprised, though a little spooked and lonely, to observe the apparent obliviousness of other people in the gallery.
Who could make such a thing happen?
Kelly’s story is now a legend: the art-smitten, bird-watching, shy, gay kid from Newburgh, New York, who served in the “Ghost Army”—camouflage experts who dissembled Allied military deployments before and after D-Day—and was staked by the G.I. Bill to six years in Paris, from 1948 to 1954. There he absorbed Matisse’s mergers of drawing and color, Arp’s methods of composing by chance, and other modern-art innovations. He distilled them into a mode of chaste abstraction based on observed fact: details of architecture, happenstances of light and shadow. Call it Ghost Art, a translation from reality into something fully real, itself, only different.
Study for Meschers
Being in Paris—where his chagrin at his bad French made him decline a chance to talk with Picasso—Kelly missed out on the glory years of Abstract Expressionism in New York. How lucky was that, for him and us? When finally he moved here, to indigent digs on the downtown waterfront, it was with faint hope of fitting into an art scene dominated by the painterly rhetoric of Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko, which would surely have distracted him if he had encountered it earlier. Even when emerging Pop art and minimalism made him seem, retrospectively, a prophet of their audacious and reductive ways, he stood apart. He had French taste on the chassis of a pragmatic American soul.
Red, Blue, Green
Some great art enfolds us in sensuous pleasures, making us happier, and some snaps us to rigorous attention, making us better. Kelly’s does both at once, if you let it.
Ian 'Lemmy' Kilmister obituary
Motörhead frontman whose reputation as one of rock’s hell-raisers belied his keen intelligence and interest in social and political issues
Tuesday 29 December 2015
Few musicians have walked the rebel’s walk with as much conviction as the Motörhead frontman Lemmy, who has died aged 70 of cancer. Despite his high-profile image as a hell-raiser, Lemmy’s influence as a musician and songwriter should not be underestimated.
His bass guitar style was unique, combining a heavily distorted tone with chords for a sound that more resembled rhythm guitar. The amphetamine-fuelled tempo of Motörhead’s songs in the 1970s made the band – in any of its many lineups – stand out from the more leisurely heavy-metal sound of the day, inspiring younger admirers such as Metallica. Despite the rawness of his music, Lemmy’s melodies were indebted to classic 1950s rock’n’rollers such as Little Richard, giving Motörhead a recognisable and popular sound. Indeed, Lemmy always insisted that Motörhead were a straight rock’n’roll band, while all around him critics and fans told him that he played heavy metal.
Lemmy expressed his views of the world with great venom and precision on albums such as Overkill (1979) and Iron Fist (1982), with audiences responding with enormous enthusiasm to songs such as Ace of Spades, Bomber and I Got Mine. While Motörhead’s songs were often a simple celebration of debauchery (Born to Raise Hell) or a general hatred of authority (Eat the Rich), he also addressed subjects such as war (Get Back in Line) and child abuse (Don’t Let Daddy Kiss Me). Never afraid of taking a stand about any issue that interested or irritated him, Lemmy committed his views on a variety of subjects for posterity in his 2002 autobiography, White Line Fever, and in an eponymous documentary in 2010.
Unusually in the field of heavy music, Lemmy was a thinker, debater and philosopher of great intuition and compassion. Interviewers were routinely surprised by Lemmy’s keen understanding of social and political issues, although he was far from optimistic about the progress of mankind. “The world’s going to end up with everybody sitting in their room punching keyboards,” he said. His antagonism towards religion, governments and indeed any established authority was clear.
Lemmy’s interest in history was at the root of his controversial habit of collecting Third Reich memorabilia. He recalled that visitors to his West Hollywood apartment would blanch at his huge assortment of Nazi daggers, flags, medals and uniforms, to which he would riposte: “Well, my black girlfriend doesn’t have any problems with it, so I don’t see why you should.” He said: “By collecting Nazi memorabilia, it doesn’t mean I’m a fascist, or a skinhead. I just liked the clobber. I’ve always liked a good uniform, and throughout history, it’s always been the bad guys who dressed the best: Napoleon, the Confederates, the Nazis.”
He was born Ian Kilmister in Stoke-on-Trent, on Christmas Eve 1945, later celebrating the date with typically dry humour in Motörhead’s song Capricorn. An only child, Lemmy lived a relatively solitary existence, first in Stoke-on-Trent and then in rural north Wales, where his nickname was bestowed upon him by locals. (Contrary to later rumours, he insisted it was not derived from the phrase, “Lend me a fiver”.) Lemmy’s father, an army chaplain, left the family when he was young: as a result, Lemmy was close to his mother and always enjoyed the company of women.
After leaving school he worked as a horse breeder and on a factory assembly line before taking up the guitar and heading to London in order to take advantage of the burgeoning counterculture. He imbibed copious quantities of LSD as a roadie for Jimi Hendrix in the late 1960s and early 70s, and then as a bass player with the space-rock band Hawkwind. He said that hallucinogens made him more tolerant. In the late 70s and 80s, Lemmy took amphetamines in order to battle exhaustion when Motörhead toured for months on end. Even when he restricted his drug use from the 1990s onwards, due to hypertension and diabetes, and underwent an operation in 2013 to implant a cardioverter-defibrillator into his chest, Lemmy continued to drink and smoke: “Dogged insolence in the face of mounting opposition to the contrary,” as he put it.
In 1975 Lemmy was fired from Hawkwind after being arrested for drug possession on the Canadian border while on tour. His response was to form Motörhead with the guitarist Larry Wallis and the drummer Lucas Fox, although his manager dissuaded him from his initial choice of Bastard as a band name. After some early attempts to gain a profile, Motörhead’s personnel stabilised as Lemmy with the guitarist “Fast” Eddie Clarke and drummer Phil “Philthy” Taylor, the lineup which many fans regard as Motörhead’s finest and which was certainly the band’s most commercially successful. Their golden era – 1979 to approximately 1983 – peaked with the live album No Sleep ’til Hammersmith, which reached No 1 in the UK.
The musicians backing Lemmy came and went in subsequent years, but he kept the band going through many difficult times. The current Motörhead lineup, featuring the guitarist Phil Campbell and the drummer Mikkey Dee, is its longest-serving to date, having toured and recorded without a break since 1995.
Lemmy never married, explaining on many occasions that the love of his life had been Susan Bennett, a girlfriend who had died aged 19 from a heroin overdose. He had a lifelong hatred of heroin, and contempt for ineffectual governmental attempts to curb its use. One of many surreal meetings of minds between Lemmy and the establishment came in 2005, when the Conservative politician William Graham invited him to address the Welsh Assembly on the subject of heroin. To Graham’s embarrassment, Lemmy recommended the drug’s total legalisation. “Lemmy certainly has an alternative solution to the one presently being tried,” said Graham afterwards.
He was a man bruised by his upbringing, but who loved his son, Paul, with whom he was reunited in middle age after decades of separation. He adored and respected women, but worked his way through hundreds of one-night stands (“I’ve had my share … and yours too!” he said). His music was abrasive, but his tastes were cultured: Monty Python and PG Wodehouse were lifelong companions. “I’ve had a whale of a time out of rock’n’roll,” he once said, “and rock’n’roll has had a whale of a time out of me. That’ll do.”
He is survived by his son.
• Lemmy (Ian Fraser Kilmister), rock singer, born 24 December 1945; died 28 December 2015
Lemmy appreciation: a life lived hard, a death too soon
Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister confounded categorisation although his hard partying ensured he lived up to the reputation of the heavy metal genre
Tuesday 29 December 2015
Some will praise him for his musical legacy, and others for his seemingly nihilistic behaviour, as at times his hard partying ways and insistence in living a dedicated life to the music threatened to overshadow his musicianship.
Others will note that Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister created music that while loud and heavy, was beyond musical categorisations.
Inspired by both Elvis and Little Richard, his insistence on performing music on his own terms was first apparent during his short stint as the front man for the space-proggy Hawkwind.
The band greatly benefitted from his unique bass tone, created because when he joined in 1970 he couldn’t play or sing. After being fired for drug use in 1975, he immediately started Bastard, a power trio that nourished Kilmister’s burgeoning passion for punk rock. Pleadings from his manager about the economic and social viability of the name eventually led him to re-christen his trio as Motörhead.
While the band has always been accepted within the heavy-metal scene, Kilmister described the foundation of the music as coming from another musical style. The abrasiveness and the urgency of Britain’s punk scene inspired him and punk rock’s attitude matched his outsider perspective.
“Basically, I wanted to be the MC5, playing fast, loud rock’n’roll,” he told SPIN in 2009. “We were never a metal band. Judas Priest and Black Sabbath were metal, but we were never like them.”
But the accessibility and Motörhead’s popularity among the new wave of British heavy metal fans, created a miscategorisation that would stay with the band for decades.
Kilmister’s tall, longhaired, unconventionally attractive biker look, coupled with his mullet chop sideburns, led him to be the poster child for the heavy metal scene.
Motorhead’s rise to fame in North America coincided with the glam metal craze of the mid-1980s and when he moved to Los Angeles in 1990 he took advantage of the bevy of women who flocked to his favourite bar, the legendary Rainbow Bar and Grill.
Whether solo or with his band, Kilmister often appeared in press photos with a scantily clad model, often in a sexually suggestive (if not downright vulgar) pose.
According to the 2010 documentary, Lemmy: 49% Motherf**ker, 51% Son of a Bitch, his penchant for female company didn’t lessen with age. In the film, he uses the services of a prostitute to keep him company at his apartment, a cramped, two-room unit (crammed with Nazi memorabilia) just off Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip.
Despite his tongue-in cheek lyrics in the single Killed By Death (If you squeeze my lizard / I’ll put my snake on you / I’m a romantic adventure / And I’m a reptile too), the never-married Kilmister discovered, mentored and collaborated with Girlschool, the all-female hard rock band, and was one of the very few men in the heavy metal/hard rock scene who was vocal about the mistreatment of women rock artists.
“All of these (female) bands, people treat them like second-class citizens, because they’re chicks,” he told Crypt Magazine in 2010. “There’s all this ‘show us your tits, and we’ll give you a gig’. And all of that shit. It’s really like, poor.”
His dedication to exploring other musical genres not only led him to form The Head Cat, an LA-Based rockabilly band, but also a rumour of a musical collaboration with Janet Jackson in 2005. There was also talk of a project that would have him working with longtime friend, Skin, the black female vocalist for Skunk Anansie which, if it were ever to materialise, would surprise fans of both bands.
In the month prior to his death, a visibly weak Kilmister received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 Bass Player Live! Event in California, where noted colleagues such as Metallica’s Robert Trujillo sang his praises as someone who not only was respected for his talent, but whose personality had inspired a legion of metal fans to pick up a bass guitar.
Up until his death, four days after his 70th birthday, he was preparing to head to Europe to kick off the band’s 40th anniversary tour. Despite some serious health concerns, including diabetes, Kilmister compromised with his doctor by switching from whiskey to vodka. But he refused to get off the road.
Former Newcastle United goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek dies aged 47
• Srnicek was in induced coma after suffering cardiac arrest earlier this month
• He also appeared for Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham
Tuesday 29 December 2015
The former Newcastle United, Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek has died at the age of 47 his agent has confirmed.
Srnicek suffered a cardiac arrest while out running in his native Czech Republic on 20 December and was left in a critical condition. He had been in an induced coma since then but a decision was taken to switch off his life support machine.
His agent, Steve Wraith, said in a statement: “It is with deep sadness that I have to announce the passing of former Newcastle United player Pavel Srnicek.”
Srnicek had been in the north-east this month to launch his autobiography before returning to his family home for Christmas. Newcastle supporters could be heard chanting his name during their Boxing Day match with Everton.
Signed by Jim Smith, Srnicek played for Newcastle between 1991 and 1998, helping them win promotion to the top flight during the 1992-93 season. He returned to the club on a season-long deal in September 2006 as cover for the injured Shay Given.
He also had a couple of seasons at Sheffield Wednesday, made a handful of appearances for Portsmouth and West Ham, along with spells in Italy and Portugal.
His release from Newcastle in 2007 brought an end to his playing career but he remained in the game and was working as goalkeeping coach at Sparta Prague when he collapsed.
The statement continued: “Pavel suffered a cardiac arrest before the Christmas period in his home country and had been in an induced coma in hospital with his close family around his bedside.
“Despite the best medical attention the final brain scans on Monday showed irreversible damage and the decision had to be taken to switch off the life support machine. Pav passed away on the afternoon of Tuesday, December 29 2015 with his family by his side.
“Pavel, the goalkeeping coach at Sparta Prague, had recently been on a whistle-stop tour of Tyneside to promote his autobiography, ‘Pavel Is A Geordie’, something that he was very proud of.
“My final conversation with him was about getting the entertainers team back together one more time for charity next year as it will be 20 years since that Newcastle team almost won the Premier League. We will make that happen and celebrate this great man’s life together.”
Srnicek played 49 times for the Czech Republic and was a member of the squad that lost to Germany in the 1996 European Championship final.
Haskell Wexler, Oscar-Winning Cinematographer, Dies at 93
New York Times
27 December 2015
Haskell Wexler, who was renowned as one of the most inventive cinematographers in Hollywood and an outspoken political firebrand, died on Sunday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his son Jeff.
With two Academy Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Mr. Wexler was a prominent member of the artistic elite. But he was also a lifelong advocate of progressive causes whose landmark “Medium Cool” — a fiction film shot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — demolished boundaries between documentary and fiction, reflecting his refusal to recognize limitations in either art or politics.
Mr. Wexler received the last Oscar that would be given for black-and-white cinematography, for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). He won again a decade later for “Bound for Glory” (1976), a biography of the folk singer Woody Guthrie (whom Mr. Wexler had met during World War II, when both served in the merchant marine). He had five Oscar nominations in all, over a career that began more than auspiciously: His first genuine credit was on an Oscar-nominated 1953 documentary short, “The Living City.”
Among his many other honors, Mr. Wexler received an Independent Spirit Award for “Matewan” (1987), about West Virginia coal miners, the first of four films he would shoot for the director John Sayles and the producer Maggie Renzi. In an interview for this obituary, Ms. Renzi recalled trying to hire Mr. Wexler for the film.
“We got back to the Econo Lodge from a long location scout,” she said, “and the lady at the desk said, in her deep West Virginia accent: ‘A fella named Hacksaw Wexler called for you. From a phone in his car. He says, ‘Tell them whatever they want the answer is yes.’”
Mr. Wexler was a member of a rare Hollywood breed, the celebrity cinematographer.
He collaborated with many of the best-known directors of his times, beginning with Elia Kazan in 1963 (“America, America”) and including Mike Nichols, Milos Forman, Hal Ashby, Norman Jewison and George Lucas, who credited Mr. Wexler as “visual consultant” on his breakthrough 1973 comedy, “American Graffiti.” In “Tell Them Who You Are” (2005), a documentary about Mr. Wexler directed by his son Mark, Ron Howard, one of the stars of “American Graffiti,” recalled the making of that film:
“Everybody involved on the acting side didn’t know much about George Lucas,” Mr. Howard said, “but was very impressed that Haskell Wexler was killing himself to come work on this movie. I mean, it was insane. He would shoot a commercial during the day in Los Angeles, then fly to San Francisco, drive to Marin County, work there till dawn and then go get on a plane. And not once in a while. He was doing this three or four nights a week.”
Mr. Sayles said Mr. Wexler was one of the few cinematographers whose first reaction to a script was not about lighting the scenes (“which he did beautifully, with an incredibly high speed-to-skill ratio”) but to discuss what the story was about — thematically, morally, politically. “A lot of directors find this to be a problem,” Mr. Sayles said in an interview in 2010. “But as Haskell would say, ‘There are no problems, only opportunities.’ ”
Mr. Wexler was known for his signature use of contrasts and shadows: He was colorblind, so he worked differently from others in his field, especially after color became dominant.
“I remember turning the TV on and seeing an empty backyard, in black and white, and thinking ‘Haskell Wexler shot this,’ ” Mr. Sayles said. “Sure enough, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton sloshed out into the scene, in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ Just something about the depth, the layers of light, very natural but very alive.”
In the Heat of the Night
Mr. Wexler directed a documentary, “Who Needs Sleep?” (2006), that examined the routine overworking of Hollywood film crews (and, by extension, America’s 24/7 work ethic), and he seemed to sleep little himself. In addition to the studio features he shot over the years (“In the Heat of the Night,” “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Coming Home”) he worked on non-mainstream fare like Michael Moore’s satire “Canadian Bacon” and Frank Zappa’s unfinished “Uncle Meat.” He also directed a dozen documentaries, whose titles indicated his point of view: “Brazil: A Report on Torture” (with Saul Landau, 1971), “War Without Winners” (1978), “Latino” (1985), “Bus Riders Union” (with Johanna Demetrakas, 2000).
Mr. Wexler, who described himself as a radical, believed that his work on the documentary “Underground” (1976), which featured interviews with members of the Weather Underground who were fugitives at the time, led to his dismissal as director of photography on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), a film that would go on to win five Academy Awards. But the director of that film, Mr. Forman, said the dismissal actually stemmed from artistic differences, adding that Mr. Wexler was difficult to work with.
“I was devastated,” Mr. Wexler said in a 2010 interview for this obituary. “There’s only about a minute or two minutes in that film I didn’t shoot.” (Mr. Wexler and Bill Butler received Oscar nominations for the film’s cinematography.)
Born in Chicago on Feb. 6, 1922, to Lottie and Simon Wexler — his father was the founder of Allied Radio, a mail-order and retail electronics firm — Mr. Wexler grew up in a household both affluent and left-leaning.Photo
Wexler, John Sayles and Doug O'Kane on the set of Silver City (2004).
“When Paul Robeson came to town he stayed at our house,” Mr. Wexler said in 2010. “We had civil rights discussions early on and were actively supporting the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, less hostile relations with the Soviet Union, supporting the federal anti-lynching law.”
Mr. Wexler attended the University of California, Berkeley, but dropped out after a year and joined the merchant marine. During World War II, the ship he was on was sunk by German torpedoes, and Mr. Wexler spent nearly two weeks in a lifeboat with 20 other people.
“And it was a terrible experience,” he recalled. “They say when people get close to death, as we were, it probably has some effect on you.”
Mr. Sayles said Mr. Wexler had once told him the story of being torpedoed. “He said the U-boat surfaced as the sailors were swimming to their lifeboats,” he said, “and they all were afraid it was coming up to machine-gun them. Instead, the captain lifted a small movie camera to document his kill, and Haskell remembered thinking, ‘I wonder if he’s shooting color or black and white?’”
After a stint making industrial films, Mr. Wexler became an assistant cameraman. He worked on documentaries and short subjects, the 1959 docudrama “The Savage Eye,” the classic sitcom “The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet” and other television shows. In the mid-1970s, he and a friend, the cinematographer Conrad Hall, founded Wexler-Hall, a commercial production company. Mr. Hall died in 2003.
Mr. Wexler’s most audacious artistic and political statement, and his proudest moment, was “Medium Cool” (1969), a fictional story set amid the real-life chaos of the 1968 Chicago convention and a harbinger of today’s hybrid docu-fiction. “I wrote it, I shot it, I had to fight my way through to get it seen, and I think it expressed what I wanted to do,” he said.
Much has been made of the film’s prescience about the violence that erupted on the city’s streets. Mr. Wexler did not see it that way.
“I wrote a script that was registered with the Writers Guild about a month earlier,” Mr. Wexler said in 2010. “I knew something was going to happen, but the script just said there was a demonstration and they arrested some hippies. I had no idea about the scope of it.
Robert Forster in Medium Cool
“I knew the antiwar people were planning a demonstration, and I knew that if the Democratic Party did not respond to the antiwar movement, there would be some kind of conflict. But it’s not like Abbie Hoffman called me up and said, ‘Look, we’re going to do this.’ No, I just figured something’s going to happen. It was just bigger than I’d thought.”
The story involved the political awakening of a news cameraman, played by Robert Forster, whose footage is used by the F.B.I. to find and arrest antiwar agitators. It wed the cinéma vérité style of documentary making that Mr. Wexler had helped develop to a story that cracked the wall between actors and audience.
“I was interested in a cameraman going out and seeing the world and being challenged by his interaction with the world, where he’d previously been an observer,” Mr. Wexler said.
In addition to his his wife, the actress Rita Taggart, and two sons, he is survived by a sister, Joyce Isaacs; a daughter, Kathy Wexler; four grandchildren; and one great-granddaughter.
In “Tell Them Who You Are,” his son Mark’s documentary, Mr. Wexler comes across as either a naturally irascible character or someone without a lot of time for blather. Asked about his approach to his art, and whether he had any kind of philosophical perspective on cinematography, he says that the way he shoots is “more deeply personal than anything I could comprehend and maybe than a psychiatrist could comprehend.” He adds:
“I don’t attack any kind of script or shooting with some philosophy that is discernible even to myself. It might just be art and love: When I got my Academy Award for ‘Virginia Woolf’ in the middle of the Vietnam War, I said, ‘I hope we can use our art for peace and love.’ I was telling someone that a few weeks ago, and they said, ‘What was the big deal?’ And I told him at that time those were revolutionary words. And I think they came from a deep place.”
Haskell Wexler dies at 93; two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer and lifelong activist
Dennis McLellan and Jack Dolan
Los Angeles Times
27 December 2015
Haskell Wexler, a two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer — for “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory” — and the writer-director of the landmark 1969 film “Medium Cool,” died Sunday morning. He was 93.
Despite his success shooting big-budget films for major studios, Wexler, a lifelong liberal activist, devoted at least as much of his six-decade career to documentaries on war, politics and the plight of the disenfranchised.
“His real passion was much larger than just making movies,” said son Jeff Wexler a few hours after his father's death at a hospital in Santa Monica. “His real passion was for human beings and justice and peace.”
At age 89, Wexler, camera in hand, was an early and regular visitor to the Occupy L.A.encampment at City Hall in 2011. He said he was drawn to both the cause of economic justice and the political theater, feeling a kinship with the protesters despite what he acknowledged was the comfortable lifestyle of a successful Hollywood cinematographer.
“You can take that insulation and figure you're an old guy and you [already] did your thing,” Wexler said at the time. “Then something inside me gets reminded that my ‘thing' is what makes me alive — to be able to have a camera and an idea and an urge that gives me pleasure.”
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
One of the few cinematographers to have received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (in 1996), Wexler won his first Oscar for his black-and-white photography on “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” director Mike Nichols' 1966 debut starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
His acceptance speech was among the briefest in Hollywood history: “I hope we can use our art for peace and for love. Thanks.”
He won his second Oscar for “Bound for “Glory,” director Hal Ashby's 1976 movie starring David Carradine as legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie.
Wexler also received Oscar nominations for best cinematography for the 1975 film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” (shared with Bill Butler), “Matewan” (1987) and “Blaze” (1989).
In the Heat of the Night
Among Wexler's other feature film credits as a cinematographer are “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Coming Home,” “Colors” and “The Babe.”
He also was visual consultant on George Lucas' 1973 classic “American Graffiti.” And he received an “additional photography” credit on Terrence Malick's 1978 film “Days of Heaven,” for which cinematographer Nestor Almendros won an Oscar.
Wexler made his feature directorial debut with “Medium Cool,” a low-budget 1969 film that he wrote and for which he served as a producer and as the director of photography.
Described by Wexler as “a wedding between features and cinema verite,” the drama about an emotionally detached TV news cameraman was partly shot in Chicago during the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention.
At one point, as the camera inches closer to a tear-gas cloud and a wall of police officers, a voice off-camera famously can be heard warning, “Look out, Haskell — it's real!”
Considered “a seminal film of '60s independent cinema,” “Medium Cool” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2003.
Wexler also directed and wrote the 1985 feature film “Latino,” a war drama shot in Nicaragua that movie critic Michael Wilmington described as “an indictment of U.S. involvement in Nicaragua that pulls no philosophical punches and was made under conditions of real danger, near actual battle zones.”
Once named one of the 10 most influential cinematographers in movie history in a survey of International Cinematographers Guild members, Wexler became the first active cameraman to receive the American Society of Cinematographer's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993.
Describing his work in an interview that year with American Cinematographer magazine, Wexler said: “Movies are a voyeuristic experience. You have to make the audience feel like they are peeking through a keyhole. I think of myself as the audience. Then I use light, framing and motion to create a focal point.”
As a cinematographer, Wexler was known for being difficult — as several filmmakers attested to in “Tell Them Who You Are,” the highly personal 2004 documentary on Wexler made by his son, Mark, himself a target of his father's prickly nature.
Wexler was fired from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” more than halfway through shooting because, according to director Milos Forman, “He was sharing his frustrations with the actors.”
For his part, Wexler said in the documentary: “As a director of photography, I always have worked as if it's my film. I don't think there is a movie that I've been on that I wasn't sure I could direct it better. But certainly also, as a director of photography, I have to serve the movie in whatever way I can as a filmmaker.”
A child of wealth — his father made a fortune in electronics and continued to prosper during the Depression — Wexler was born Feb. 6, 1922, in Chicago.
Despite his privileged background, he showed his rebellious streak and political bent at 17 when he helped organize a workers' strike at his father's electronics factory.
After a year at UC Berkeley, Wexler dropped out in 1941 and joined the merchant marine. By the end of World War II, he had become a second officer and had survived 10 days in a lifeboat with 20 other merchant seamen after their supply ship was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean.
Back home after the war, Wexler was asked by his father what he wanted to do.
“I told him I wanted to be a filmmaker,” Wexler recalled in his interview with American Cinematographer.
Although he had previously shot only home movies with his father's 16-millimeter camera, Wexler received financial backing from him to open a small studio in Des Plaines, Ill.
The filmmaking enterprise was not a success, and in 1947 Wexler began working as a freelance assistant cameraman on industrial, educational and other films.
By the late 1950s, he had begun amassing feature film credits as a cinematographer.
Once described by Times film columnist Patrick Goldstein as “a fire-breathing old lefty with the crusty soul of a sensitive artist,” Wexler made a string of documentaries on subjects including the civil rights movement (“The Bus”), the Weather Underground(“Underground”) and the Vietnam War (“Introduction to the Enemy,” for which he traveled with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden to North Vietnam).
“We have a responsibility to show the public the kinds of truths that they don't see on the TV news or the Hollywood film,” he once said.
In the mid-1970s, Wexler and a friend, Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, launched a TV commercial company. Between shooting feature films, Wexler directed and shot commercials for products such as Miller Beer, STP and, most memorably, for Great Western Savings and Loan with John Wayne.
In 2001, he received an Emmy nomination for outstanding cinematography for a miniseries or movie for “61,” the Billy Crystal-directed HBO film about New York Yankee sluggers Mickey Mantle's and Roger Maris' quest to break Babe Ruth's single-season home run record.
More recently, Wexler, who was a board member of the International Cinematographers Guild, returned to social commentary with the 2006 documentary “Who Needs Sleep?,” which addressed the movie industry problem of sleep deprivation among film crews who must work excessively long hours.
“The main difference in documentaries is that it's closer to the skin,” Wexler said. “You're more in control, it's more yours and maybe two other people that are working with you. Documentaries, I really like.”
Pamela Yates’ latest documentary, REBEL CITIZEN takes you on a revelatory tour of two time Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s political documentary work, letting the veteran artist and activist share his vision of how to be a citizen in the world. Created for the Cinéma du Réel festival in Paris, the film was selected for the New York Film Festival in a surprise development and will have its world premiere October 6th 2015.
Mark Ford! Neil Corcoran! Greil Marcus! Terry Kelly! And More!
CONTENTS Comrades From The North
As we write this piece Dylan’s European tour has just come to an end. The response to these shows has been positive, often very positive, from fans and media alike. To anyone who has not witnessed the shows or heard recordings of them might have viewed this tour with some trepidation given the unvarying set-list and the quantity of cover versions. However, Dylan seems to have settled upon a batch of songs with which he is very comfortable and suit his vocal range these days. Certainly he has once again re-invigorated She Belongs To Me, Tangled Up In Blue, Blowin’ In The Wind and Love Sick. More often than not he has nailed Long And Wasted Years and there is absolutely no doubt that he sings all seven of the cover versions with complete authority and great love. If one is to be critical then it would be on two counts. Firstly the sets are unbalanced by the fact that there are so many Shadows In The Night-related covers. Once Dylan gets into the cycle of these (4th song in the set) they came every other song and there is a sense of inevitability about it all. Secondly, it could be argued that songs like Early Roman Kings, Spirit On The Water and Pay In Blood would benefit from a spell ‘on the bench’ to be replaced by fresh numbers with strident tunes. Notwithstanding that, this was a tour of great shows and Dylan makes his own decisions, not us fans, so there!
The Cutting Edge is finally available and what a set it is. It has taken some time to work through all 18 of the discs but it has been worth it. It is fascinating to listen to Dylan and the musicians chase and catch the quicksilver time after time. Some songs form very quickly and require few takes, others are more problematical and need more work. Some songs are abandoned to a later session and a few are abandoned, the best of which is She’s Your Lover Now where we hear Dylan’s exasperation at the end of the last take undertaken with the band – in frustration Dylan says “I can’t hear this song anymore”. Afterwards Dylan knocks out the superb solo piano version that collectors have long treasured. At least he recycled some of the ideas in the band version in One Of Us Must Know (Sooner Or Later). What is also evident is that Dylan/Johnston made the right calls about the takes used on the three keynote albums. Often the subtle change in lyrics between takes bears this out – in almost every case where there is lyrical variation, the lyrics used on the released versions surpass those on earlier takes.
Though the 18-cd set purports to present every note recorded in 1965-1966 it is unclear that this is the case as there are a few cuts that end abruptly, as though cut by the compiler, when you would expect an uncoordinated ending and a bit of chat. At least one track cuts in halfway through a verse suggesting that there is something missing beforehand. Also, it seems that some of the studio chat may not have been included resulting in what sound like a mixture of complete sessions with banter balanced alongside those that contain takes but no chatter. But that’s after one complete listening so it’s back to the CD player for another solid week! You draw your own conclusions – we know you will anyway.
Due to the large and varied contributions to The Cutting Edge forum we are sorry to have to hold over the second part of Philip Horne’s article to issue 54 of The Bridge. Apologies.
In addition we have included, on the inside back cover, the photograph which some how went missing from page 104 of issue 50.
As we move towards the end of the year may we take this opportunity to thank you for your continued support and wish you a very pleasant festive season.
May you climb on every rung ..........
Mike & John
THE CUTTING EDGE FORUM Featuring:
The Cutting Edge By Sean Wilentz
'I Can't Complain': Recording 'Just Like A Woman' By Peter Robinson
The Cutting Class By Toby Thompson
Cutting Edge By David Pichaske
Audio Variorum By Gavin Selerie
Sooner Or Later By Ged Keilty
Dylan The Cutting Edge By Neil Corcoran
Thoughts By Greil Marcus
'It's Pulling My Ear' By John Hinchey
A Fish Head an’ a Harpoon By Terry Kelly
The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: 1965-66 The Cutting Edge By Jim Beviglia
Like A Rolling Stone By David Lindsey
Cutting Edge By Mark Ford
THE 1978 WORLD TOUR: A FILMOGRAPHY By Anders Lindh
YOU GOTTA HEAR THIS SHOW: Newcastle-upon-Tyne 19th September 2000 By Two Riders
Jotting Down Notes Compiled by: John Wraith, Mike Wyvill, Terry Kelly, Bob Cohen, Roy Kelly, Ged Keilty, Dave Cox and Paul Kelly
Billy and me: why I love The Apartment
The Jerry Maguire director loves Billy Wilder's films so much he's written a book about them. Here, exclusively for the Guardian, he explains how he got the inside track on The Apartment, his favourite of them all
Friday 3 December 1999
Growing up, I often heard my father's favourite joke. It was a quip that was useful on many occasions. It meant "Hurry up." Or it meant "Get to the point." Sometimes it was a joke in itself, an ode to good-natured impatience. The phrase was "Shut up and deal." I never knew the origin. I always assumed it came from my dad's real-estate business, or something a buddy told him once in a card game.
Years later, I embarked on a lengthy home-study programme of film classics. Any such journey leads rather quickly to the work of Billy Wilder, the great writer-director of such enduring films as Some Like it Hot, Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. On this day I was watching Wilder's 1960 comedy-drama, The Apartment. It was a potent martini of a movie, sad and hilarious, subversive and somehow sweet. And then came the last line, as the broken-hearted hero CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is finally reunited with the elevator girl he adores (Shirley MacLaine). Lemmon professes love, and with playful indifference, MacLaine whips out a deck of cards. "Shut up and deal," she says.
Such is the enduring effect of Billy Wilder. Through films like Sabrina, Stalag 17, The Seven Year Itch, Ace in the Hole, and the aforementioned Sunset Boulevard and Some Like it Hot, Wilder has infiltrated modern society and changed our sense of humour in ways we don't often realise. Whenever we see the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe, her white dress billowing above the subway grating, we are looking at a writing and directing invention of Billy Wilder. When Audrey Hepburn still pops up in every other issue of Vogue, wearing the stunning attire of Sabrina, it is again the lasting influence of Wilder. Whenever an actor jokes, "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr DeMille," they are quoting Wilder's Sunset Boulevard. And though he was born in Vienna, escaped Berlin in the 30s and came to Hollywood with only a partial mastery of the language, his clear-eyed portraits of American romance and opportunism have somehow survived as definitive snapshots of his adopted homeland. Though I'd never even known it, Billy Wilder had scripted my family's best joke.
Over the past few years I have had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Mr Wilder himself. I met him first as a director imploring him to act in Jerry Maguire (he said no, with relish), and later as an interviewer attempting Wilder's first book-length question-and-answer session (he said yes, after much cajoling).
Now 93 and still going strong, Wilder still reports to his office almost every day and follows current film-making with a passion. Spending time with Wilder is much like spending time with his films. His long-time wife Audrey is not unlike a Wilder character herself. It was Audrey, in fact, who came up with one of the great lines in Ace in the Hole, spoken by an unsentimental almost-widow: "Kneeling bags my nylons." The two live in Westwood, California, in a house filled with a stunningly eclectic mix of art that Wilder has collected over a lifetime. While Wilder never acquired art with an eye toward investment, it was a positively Wilderesque turn of events that some years ago he auctioned off part of his collection to the tune of $32.6m, more than he ever made in his entire career as a film director.
Our conversations for the book spanned several years. Wilder played the part of the reluctant but fastidiously accurate subject, and I assumed the role of director playing hookey from his own career. Together we discussed his every script and film, though the lesser-known failures in his body of work would often cause him physical distress to recall. But recall he did, sometimes just before throwing me out of his office. ("Please, no more about Kiss Me Stupid!")
There were many differences between us, from hair-length to musical tastes to my own problems with exact punctuality ("You are always five minutes late!"), not the best habit to indulge with the gentleman who is still complaining about Marilyn Monroe's lateness more than 40 years later. Wilder enjoyed jabbing me over those differences, though it was a mistake to arrive at his home wearing basketball shorts one day. Later, I learned he was somewhat horrified. He thought I had shown up in my underwear.
So yes, the differences kept him entertained, but the one subject that always united us was The Apartment. We would return to it again and again, as a symbol of film structure and a rare example of all the elements coming together to create a movie that was almost exactly what the director had intended. Since our book has been published, I've become well acquainted with the sometimes militant factions of Wilder loyalists. Some call Ace in the Hole and Sunset Boulevard the unfiltered brutal best of Wilder. Others select Some Like It Hot as the director's comic masterpiece, the one that made it all look easy. Some love the romantic concoctions of Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon best. Others choose the dark-horse Cagney comedy, One-Two-Three. There is much gunfire between these camps, but if you just look at the bigger picture, as Wilder does, the very fact that these films are still being discussed is "goddamn great." And I will happily take all the bullets necessary. When the smoke clears, The Apartment will still be my favourite.
There is controversy over the origins of The Apartment. As with any success, there are many who claim credit. Some have said the New York columnist Sydney Skolsky presented Wilder with a treatment of the idea. Others say the movie was influenced by a Hollywood scandal in which an agent, Jennings Lang, was caught (and shot in the groin) having a tryst in the apartment of an underling. Even Tony Curtis, in his autobiography, suggests authorship of the idea.
Wilder rejects all these theories, and gives credit to an unlikely source - director David Lean. Seeing Lean's brilliant early film, Brief Encounter, about an adulterous affair conducted in the apartment of a third party, Wilder scribbled this idea in his notebook: "What about the poor schnook who has to crawl into the still-warm bed of the lovers?" Years would pass before Wilder felt he could slip this concept past film censors.
It was during the making of Some Like it Hot that Wilder first suggested to Jack Lemmon, his cross-dressing hero, that he had another picture in mind for him. Lemmon would play CC Baxter, named after Wilder's favourite assistant director, CC Coleman. Baxter was the quintessential button-down schnook, a little man in a big insurance company. At first unwittingly, then ambitiously, Baxter would loan out his apartment for the afternoon and evening trysts of his philandering higher-ups. Juggling appointments, unable to enter his own apartment even when suffering from a cold, Baxter would try but find it hard to conduct a budding romance of his own with the plucky elevator girl, Fran Kubelik.
Kubelik, a modern working girl, was a cutting-edge creation for 1960. Forty years later, the part still feels fresh. A sexually active loser-at-love with only fleeting moments of self-pity, it was not an easy part for Wilder to cast. When Marilyn Monroe, fresh from the rocky shoot on Some Like it Hot, sent out feelers to play Fran Kubelik, Wilder avoided the temptation. "It would not be real," he told me later. "Everybody in the whole company would be after the elevator girl." He settled on a young actress named Shirley MacLaine, then coming off a dramatic turn in Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running. It was perfect for the story. On first look, you might miss her. On second look, you were infatuated. What lies beneath the cheery kid-sister demeanour of the elevator girl? The answer, as CC Baxter would soon find out, was plenty.
Even today, decades after winning three Oscars for the film, Wilder is still tweaking the story of The Apartment. He sometimes wonders if he should have given Jack Lemmon "a limp, or some physical deformity" to increase sympathy for the character. And he expresses surprise that audiences would root for MacLaine and Lemmon as lovers. But it is their very lack of traditional smouldering qualities that make the union of Baxter and Kubelik a celebration of romantic misfits everywhere. And when Lemmon discovers that he is actually assisting his boss, played by Fred MacMurray, in a secret affair with Kubelik herself, it is one of those moments where audiences weep and screenwriters drool. Wilder accomplishes this aching plot turn wordlessly, as MacLaine offers Lemmon her cracked compact mirror to check his look. The compact is the very same one that had been left behind in his apartment, the one Lemmon had unctuously returned to his boss for brownie points. The shot still delights Wilder, as it well should. "Three things are accomplished in that one moment," he points out. "Very nice."
The casting of Fred MacMurray as the no-good boss Sheldrake (a lucky charm name that appears in several of Wilder's films) is the kind of Wilder touch that still inspires me in my own casting process. The part originally belonged to actor Paul Douglas. When Douglas died just before filming, Wilder turned to MacMurray, an actor mostly known for lighter family fare. MacMurray complained, but took the part anyway, just as he did in joining the cast of Double Indemnity. In Wilder's films, comic actors often shoulder the drama. Dramatic actors, like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, find themselves playing comedy. When the formula works, as it often did for Wilder, the whole film becomes more textured and unpredictable. In a movie like The Apartment, the only thing black-and-white is the colour of the film.
Wilder's celebrated collaborator IAL Diamond once aptly described Wilder's style as a blend of "the sweet and the sour". Perfected through previous pictures, that happy-sad quality reached a pinnacle in The Apartment. And though Wilder is famously adverse to self-conscious camerawork, anyone lucky enough to see The Apartment on a big screen will find themselves with enormous visual delights as well. Early sequences showing Jack Lemmon at work in the vast insurance company are as striking today as when the film was released. Making Jerry Maguire, I was the very epitome of a strident director, demanding a huge studio set filled with extras to create a similar effect in showing Maguire leaving his sports agency. Only later, interviewing Wilder, did I learn I could have saved a lot of money and set space. Wilder himself shot the scenes on a very small stage, utilising the tricks of visual perspective. Behind Lemmon, the desks get smaller and smaller and so do the actors. At the very back of the office, the co-workers are played by midgets.
Billy Wilder was at the peak of his directing powers negotiating the tricky mix of melancholy and humour. Shirley MacLaine recalls Wilder never sitting, often chain-smoking and pacing while directing. Every word mattered. (Diamond stood nearby, policing the exact delivery of each line.) Sometimes she would take a relieved breath after completing a long speech, only to find she'd left out an "and" or a "then". The takes continued until the dialogue was perfect.
This is not to say that Wilder couldn't swing with a good suggestion. MacLaine, who was then embroiled in a difficult love affair of her own, once casually sighed: "Why do people have to fall in love with other people anyway? Why couldn't they fall in love with a kangaroo?" Wilder rebuilt the entire set, and re-filmed a key scene to include the line. And again, when MacLaine shared the trials of learning how to play gin, lessons she was then getting from Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Wilder and Diamond wrote that into the script too. And so was born the gin game between Lemmon and MacLaine that continues throughout The Apartment.
When filming on The Apartment was completed, so exact was Wilder's execution that the entire movie was edited in a matter of days. "There was about five feet of unused film," Wilder remembers with only slight exaggeration. It was, he also recalls, one of the few occasions when he knew the power of the picture while filming. Reviews were not uniformly excellent, with some critics attacking the raciness of the film's subject matter, not to mention Lemmon's pimp-hero, but audiences responded quickly. The film was a hit, and the roll continued through Oscar night.
When Wilder was at the podium, accepting the Academy award for best director, playwright Moss Hart half-seriously whispered in his ear: "It's time to stop." But Wilder did not stop. Moments later, he was awarded the Oscar for best picture as well. And Wilder would go on to direct nine more films. He often discusses future ideas, though he wonders if his physical stamina could match his still-racing mind. He is, as he says with characteristic lack of pretension, a writer. But if you look hard enough around Wilder's apartment, you can spot his Oscars standing in a clump within the cabinet by his den. And the one out front, standing guard among the other statuettes, is his best picture award for The Apartment. He offers the film his highest compliment. "It worked."
Though our book is finished, our relationship continues. Just the other day, a small miracle happened when Wilder agreed to a rare on-camera interview for The Today Show. I sat beside him in the NBC studio that was once the home of Johnny Carson, and listened as the interviewer leaned forward and posed what was clearly an important question.
"We are doing a show on the Century's Great Thinkers," he said, "and I'd like you to comment on the next millennium. What would you like to say about the future?"
In our current world where anyone of even questionable importance feels a duty to offer lofty thoughts about The Next Thousand Years, Billy Wilder blinked suspiciously behind large glasses.
"Nothing," he said, slightly incredulous, as if to answer would condemn him to a prison filled with pretentious twits. "Nothing." I watched the frustrated interviewer with some sympathy. Wilder is, after all, not the easiest interview. Just as he has for some seventy years of film-making, today Wilder will leave the chest-beating to others.
The interviewer thumbed through his pages of questions. "What's next," Wilder asked, professionally pleasant, stealing a look at his watch. "How else can I help you?"
My favourite Christmas film: The Apartment
Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic comes complete with a festive office party, booze-fuelled flirtations and the liberation that comes with finding love
Wednesday 23 December 2015
Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning romance-farce isn’t a Christmas movie exactly – elves, Santa and reindeer are in very short supply – but the holiday season, as it specifically manifested itself in the drunken, libidinous era of the Mad Men early 1960s, is central to its maudlin, sentimental tone. Which is, of course, what makes it absolutely brilliant, as if the entire cast and crew were operating through a fug of whisky fumes and a cacophony of party tooters.
The origins of The Apartment are reasonably well known, and fundamentally non-Christmassy: after watching Brief Encounter, Wilder wrote a note to himself, “What about the poor schnook who has to crawl into the still-warm bed of the lovers?” Sticking this bedroom-shuffling scenario – with its potential for misunderstandings, embarrassments and humiliations – into the Christmas/New Year week, with its heady atmosphere, booze-fuelled fumblings and lowered inhibitions, was a stroke of genius, and makes the whole film hum brilliantly.
The famous office-party scene is a case in point: a white-collar bacchanal on the cusp of the permissive era, through which a charmingly oblivious CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) steers the love of his life, elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Having got a few drinks down himself, Baxter’s open-book expressiveness is entirely in keeping with the general mood, while having everything crammed into the space means key encounters – Miss Olsen, the Sheldrake family photo, the cracked compact – can all be arranged in quick succession. That last shot, as Wilder told fellow director Cameron Crowe, was one of his favourites in the entire film: “Three things are accomplished in that one moment. Very nice.”
If this set up – of misery and deflation to the background interference of middle-aged men hitting on their secretaries – is extraordinary enough, its counterpoint at the point of the New Year countdown is, in stark contrast, almost unbelievably life-affirming. Kubelik ducks out on Sheldrake during a streamer-festooned Auld Lang Syne, and heads for Baxter – her excited race up the stairs to his landing is one of my favourite moments in cinema. (Touchingly, she still calls him “Mr Baxter”, even when she thinks he’s shot himself. Full liberation, clearly, had not quite yet arrived.) Rewatching the ending, though, shows that The Apartment is itself subject of a bit of memory-fugging nostalgia: while Baxter’s devotion shines through, Kubelik is not nearly so committed. You get the feeling her main emotion is relief. But there’s a place for that at Christmas, too
The Apartment: No 6 best romantic film of all time
Billy Wilder, 1960
Saturday 16 October 2010
Fresh off Some Like It Hot, the director, Billy Wilder, his co-writer, IAL Diamond, and their star, Jack Lemmon, bowled straight into making The Apartment. Two perfect comedies in a row: how's that for a double whammy? The germ of the idea for The Apartment had actually sat in Wilder's notebook for many years, ever since he watched Brief Encounter and scribbled down the words "Movie about the guy who climbs into the warm bed left by two lovers."
CC "Bud" Baxter (Lemmon) is the poor sap in question. He's rising fast at work, one promotion after another, but the secret of his success is that he loans out his apartment to the company executives for their trysts, one 45-minute slot at a time. It's a sleazy little set-up, and Wilder keeps the movie galloping along so briskly that we can overlook the unpleasantness at first. But then reality starts to creep in as Baxter realises that the woman he longs to bring home in his arms – chirpy elevator assistant Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) – has already been to his apartment, in the company of his boss (Fred MacMurray). The question of how Baxter finds out allows Wilder and Diamond to demonstrate their knack for succinct storytelling: one broken compact mirror is all it takes to make his heart break. They're unbeatable at turning out these "moments" – witness also Baxter's classic straining-spaghetti-through-a-tennis-racket scene, born out of Diamond's realisation that "Women love seeing a man trying to cook in the kitchen."
Such stand-out scenes never impede the film's precise, fluid rhythm. Wilder shot the picture in 50 days flat, and edited it in under a week. "We had three feet of unused film," he said proudly. This is funny, fat-free film-making, expertly paced and played, ending in a romantic flourish to swoon over. It won five Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best screenplay. Wilder said it was "the picture [of mine] that has the fewest faults." Everyone else knows it as a masterpiece.
Christmas ghost stories: A history of seasonal spine-chillers
As the chill of these dismal days begins to bite and you settle in front of a roaring fire, apparently safe from harm, it's the perfect time for a terrifying tale or two.
Keith Lee Morris
Monday 21 December 2015
Possibly the most famous story about telling stories in all of English literature begins on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in June 1816. During a historically wet, cold and gloomy summer – 1816 would become known, in fact, as "The Year Without a Summer" – two of the leading poets of the age, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, were vacationing near each other, Shelley with his then-future wife Mary and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (who was, in fact, pregnant with Byron's child at the time), and Byron with his friend and physician John Polidori (who would go on to write what is now often referred to as the world's first vampire novel).
There were no excursions in the woods or on the lake, no romps through fields. The days were cold and dreary and spent indoors, and Byron, inspired by a volume of ghost stories he had received from a friend, decided that each of his companions should write a ghost story. Polidori struggled with one about an old woman who peeks through keyholes on unspeakable acts. There is no record of Claire Clairmont even trying. Percy Shelley was never really one for narrative and he, too, quickly gave up the ghost, so to speak. Byron came up with a partial tale about a vampire that would eventually serve as the basis for Polidori's novel.
Only Mary Shelley succeeded, with a tale that began: "It was on a dreary night of November…" When the story later became the novel Frankenstein, the author changed the story's opening to "December 11th, 17--." Clearly, in spite of the inspiration coming in summer, the frigid weather had a dramatic effect on her, transporting her and her tale to the depths of winter. And so the novel begins in the Arctic, with "stiff gales" and "floating sheets of ice", and ends with Frankenstein's monster, doomed to a slow death, receding into the distance on an ice floe. Frankenstein is, in essence, a winter's tale.
The notion that cold, snowy days are the best for stories designed to frighten and appal us goes back at least to the early 17th century. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, written in 1611, Mamillius says: "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one / of sprites and goblins." But it was in the Victorian era that telling ghost stories became an indispensable custom of the Christmas season – indeed, the genre's popularity had been dwindling somewhat until writers such as Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell breathed new life into it. Families relished the chance to gather around the hearth on Christmas Eve to try to scare one another half to death with tales of mysterious, menacing apparitions or, in one story by MR James, a master of the genre, a "vengeful ghost boy… with fearfully long nails". The practice even finds its way into Christmas songs. A verse in "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" mentions "scary ghost stories" right alongside singing to neighbours and hanging mistletoe as the very substance of the season.
One of the most familiar examples of the Christmas ghost story is Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843 as a way of cashing in on the renewed demand for the form. The novel amounts to an acknowledgement of the ghost story's seasonal ubiquity. It's not just a ghost story that one could tell at Christmas, but – with Scrooge sitting in his armchair as his life's story is unfurled before him – it is a story about ghost stories at Christmas, a kind of meta-Christmas ghost story, if you will.
The Turn of the Screw, the US Anglophile Henry James's own take on the Christmas tale, published in 1898, operates in much the same fashion, structured as it is to position its readers by the Yuletide hearth listening to tales of horror. It begins: "The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child." If the last words of that sentence don't cause your hair to stand on end, you're probably simply not susceptible to ghost stories.
The tale, which relates a series of strange events that befall a young governess, centres on the supposed – and that word is key – possession of a boy by the spirit of a hostile figure named Peter Quint. To begin with a recounting of the telling of the story around a fire on Christmas Eve would, James decided, be the most effective context for the story's macabre twists and turns, part of a framework designed to make the whole somehow more believable, more unsettlingly so – to ensure that the chill sinks deep down into the reader's bones.
Maybe the impulse to thrill each other with these tales of the grisly and supernatural is spurred by Halloween; as the leaves die off and fall to the ground before disappearing, we observe a holiday that features witches, ghosts and demons – a veritable festival of the dead. That sets the mood and liberates the spirits which accompany us through the following months as the days get colder, and Jack Frost stretches his fingers across the window pane. Winter is tantalisingly terrifying, and it's undoubtedly to do with its nearness to death – for, in the days before antibiotics, these were the months that would claim the most lives.
We relish the sense that our warm, happy homes, with their firmly closed doors and crackling fires, can keep death's frigid hand from our throats. So the writing that truly haunts us is almost always set in cold, barren landscapes. Consider this from Edgar Allan Poe's narrative poem "The Raven", the tale of a lover's death and the agonising chant of an avian visitor, who tells the narrator, over and over, that his departed love will appear to him "nevermore": "Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December / And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor." Or this, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's long poem "Christabel", ostensibly about a ghostly visitor and replete with unnerving omens, which served as an influence for Poe's eerie tales: "The night is chill; the forest bare / Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?" The list goes on.
One of my favourite winter tales is the short story "Silent Snow, Secret Snow" by Conrad Aiken, published in 1934. It is about a boy who lapses into a state of schizophrenia, a condition which – due to new and deeper scientific investigations in the early 20th century – captured the public imagination with stories of hallucinatory voices and "unnatural" behaviour. The dream world into which Aiken's protagonist slips becomes – silently, slowly, inch by inch – engulfed in bright white. The most terrifying aspect of the story is how quietly it proceeds, how the snow seems literally to settle in the reader's mind, exerting a chilling, mesmerising pressure much like that experienced by the boy himself: "The hiss was now becoming a roar – the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow – but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep."
And we're all familiar with the story told in The Shining – whether in Stephen King's original novel or Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation – with the vast blanketed spaces surrounding the Overlook Hotel, and their eerie, transforming solitude. As Jack Torrance loses his grip on reality, the mood darkens and the tension increases in line with the dropping temperature and the rapidly layering snow. The result is perhaps the world's most celebrated case of "cabin fever".
Even a story that isn't intended to be scary, such as James Joyce's "The Dead", from 1914's Dubliners, distils haunting effects from its winterscape. The final scene is the telling of a story, narrated by the main character's wife, about her first love, a man named Michael Furey, who died for her love by standing outside her window in a snowstorm and contracting pneumonia. The main character, Gabriel Conroy, listens to the melancholy story, in which his wife reveals that she never truly loved him, while he stands at a window himself and watches the snowflakes "falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead". So apt is Joyce's tale for this time of year that, until 28 December, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe in London is staging a candlelit reading of the short story as part of its Winter's Tale season, with Joyce's words, read by the actor Aidan Gillen, set to an unsettling piano score played by Feargal Murray. This is the second year in a row that the Wanamaker has hosted an adaptation of the tale; it's becoming something of a tradition.
How many other scenes have we read in which characters observe the snow through a window? Time and again, writers have called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss, and isolation. But the trope can also be used to reverse effect – to emphasise the warmth of the fire and the comforts of the home, as in this passage from the French writer Jean Giono's Joy of Man's Desiring, published in 1936: "The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its putty with the cold… There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the window pane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind…"
Winter's ability to capture our imagination is at its strongest precisely when we are the farthest removed from its more harmful aspects. Take this passage from Eowyn Ivey's 2011 story The Snow Child, set in a frozen Alaskan landscape in the early 1900s: "Through the window, the night air appeared dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black. It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched." The jovial imagery belies its melancholy context, for Ivey's novel is about an elderly man and wife who are unable to conceive a child and who live with their grief in a hostile landscape – often brutally so. In a rare moment of levity and togetherness they construct a little girl out of snow. The next morning, they find that she has become real – as if by magic. The story, which combines one of nature's most deep-seated anxieties about fertility, or its lack, with a primitive distrust of intruders and that which cannot be rationalised, is based on an old Russian folk tale; Ivey's retelling demonstrates how enduring the appeal is of these icy tales, for writers and readers alike.
In some ways, the stories by which we love to be unsettled are also a form of preparation – often for the very worst. Curled up in a favourite armchair, we still ourselves against the things we know can harm us. When the weather outside turns gloomy or threatening, we can crank up the heating and lighten the burden of our thoughts by turning to fantastic tales designed to mask the things that scare us most.
That summer of 1816, during which Mary Shelley and the others invented ghost stories, would turn out to be the party's final carefree season. The travellers returned to England to find that Mary's half-sister had committed suicide; Percy Shelley's first wife, pregnant with his child, drowned herself a few months later. Shelley's son from his first marriage died of a fever in 1818. In the next few years, Percy and Mary Shelley would have two children, neither of whom would reach their second birthday. Percy Shelley and Lord Byron themselves would both die within the next 10 years. Sometimes, the frightening stories we tell each other are not nearly as horrifying as the events that real life holds in store for us. In this sense, the effect is twofold: the tales transport us from our everyday anxieties at the same time as they enable us to confront them, however obliquely; they are a means to exorcise our demons by acknowledging them – in a homely environment.
But the secret lure of these tales – of the horrifying creatures we call into being, the ghosts that stalk us, and the demons that we discover at work within our own minds – is that, while the stories themselves are fictions, the underlying dangers they conjure up, and the thrill that we feel in confronting them, are in the end quite real. Think of that on a winter's night.
Keith Lee Morris's novel 'Travelers Rest' is out next month.