Documentarian Richard B. Weide likes to focus on the lives of comedians in his films and in Lenny Bruce he has powerful material to work with. Combining rare archival footage and interviews with Lenny’s mother Sally Marr, ex-wife Honey, daughter Kitty, Paul Krassner, Nat Hentoff and Steve Allen, Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth manages to be both richly informative and emotionally engaging. It’s a terrific movie.
With lean narration by Robert De Niro, Weide digs deep into the life of a comedian prophet driven to an early death by drugs and a government hellbent on shutting his mouth. Bruce was a punk Jesus who railed against hypocrisy and injustice with the low key deadliness of a man armed with the truth and a razor blade tongue.
Terms like “interactive theater” may give you visions of cheesy plays, bad magic acts and pretentious performance art. However, if you root around to the modern day origins, with such art constructs as the Theatre of Cruelty, there are rewards to be found. Namely, Brian DePalma’s Dionysus in ‘69. “Dionysus” is part filmed documentation of a live theater event and part experimental cinema, complete with being shown mostly in split-screen. (Predating 1973’s dual-vision feature Wicked Wicked, starring Tiffany Bolling and Ed “Kookie” Byrnes, by at least three years.)
The final result feels like Antonin Artaud meets Charlie Manson, with a growing sense of witchiness that lays dormant until a little past the half-hour mark. It snakes out and slowly wraps around you until the shocking and darkly funny ending. Adding to the Helter Skelter vibes, intentionally or not, all of the Dionysus devotees could be siblings of Atkins, Fromme, Watson, Beausoleil, Krenwinkle, Van Houten, et al. The only thing missing is a reference to the Beatles’ White Album. (Though if my had my druthers, I would use a Mort Garson album for the score. Though the live soundtrack, ranging from loose music to chants, is quite fine too.)
The first half hour, while good, comes across as what you would expect from a bunch of college students and actors putting on an alternative version of the famous Greek play, “The Bacchae.” It’s all half nudity, smiles, chanting, with the proceedings taking place in a large garage rather than a traditional stage set-up. It’s not until our lead Dionysus (the late, great William Finley) breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience, introducing himself as the former William Finley and is now the “reborn” Dionysus. We then get to witness the surrealistic ceremony of squirming bodies and our lead deity born.
The seemingly sweet hedonism quickly has a menacing flower-child in the form of a slight but strong in presence Pentheus (William Shepherd, whom DePalma fans might recognize as the freak-out concert goer in the finale of “Phantom of the Paradise”). Initially lurking around the pseudo-orgiastic goings-on like a bad penny until he makes himself known, revealing his intentions to murder Dionysus. But, it is only a matter of time before Pentheus is seduced by the lanky, golden-curled god. As the seduction happens, the sexuality and vibe in general goes from hippie-free-love to something in the milk ain’t right. At one point, audience members get involved in the breathing-tomb of flesh, while cult-like humming and chanting can be heard in unison for minutes on end in the background. It’s hypnotic and pregnant with ill-will until the inevitable death of Pentheus, as he is ripped apart by Dionysus’s followers.
But that’s not the real end and thanks to the glory of YouTube, you too are privy to the brilliant and dark as dirt finale. Despite the ancient roots of the play, Dionysus in ‘69 is more en point with the cultural and social atmosphere of the late 1960’s. Which is terribly fitting since no one quite did witchy and disturbing like the ancient Greeks. This is a tradition beautifully and faithfully upheld in DePalma’s infant work here. Now, if only more theater pieces were this good, then or now.
My co-conspirator here at DM Paul Gallagher covered this last year, but I found a nice new high quality upload of the video in full and thought I should update the article and share it with you all once again. I’m sure our new readers will appreciate it.
Here is David Bowie in the BBC production of Brecht’s play Baal, from 1982. It was directed by Alan Clarke, the talent behind such controversial TV dramas as Scum with a young Ray Winstone, Made in Britain, with Tim Roth, and Elephant.
Baal was Brecht’s first full-length play, written in 1918, and it tells the story of a traveling musician / poet, who seduces and destroys with callous indifference.
There are eighty thousand topics under the sun that can inspire great filmmaking. Out of that ocean of inspiration, the world of literary hoaxes, is not the first thing that comes to mind. But a handful films have come out of this weird wellspring, including Radley Metzger’s Naked Came the Stranger. (Directed under the cinematic equivalent to a purple-prose pseudonym, Henry Paris.) Originally crafted as a sarcastic response to the lurid and highly popular works of bestselling writers like Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann, the book, “Naked Came the Stranger,” featured twenty four writers coming together to create one tawdry tale of marital infidelity in late 60’s America.
Now, leave it to a maestro like Radley Metzger to take this lovely bit of salacious NY Times chart topping pulp and turn it into a funny, sexy and whimsical film. A din of television noise begins the proceedings, all set in a bedroom riot of early 70s florals and crayola colors. A well executed shot reveals a slow sweep of the room, as an announcer intones “Immortal film classics to fall asleep by!” Speaking of which, an old fashioned alarm clock, with its face displaying a photo of legendary cinematic goddess, Marlene Dietrich, goes off, waking up Gilly (pronounced J-i-l-l-y and played by the woefully unsung Darby Lloyd Rains). Slipping off her sleep mask, she tries to rouse her hubby, Billy (Levi Richards) up with some well intentioned hanky panky before being stopped in her tracks as he calls out the name “Phyllis” in his sleep. Yes, something is afoul in marital Denmark, which is all too apparent to Gilly, from her husband’s bad bluffing about his dream to the comically flirty looks Phyllis (Mary Stuart) keeps shooting his way while the couple prepare for another installment of their radio morning show.
Phyllis and Billy, our two illicit lovebirds, carry on their affair with all the subtlety of a meat hammer, with Gilly finding solid evidence after she follows him down to his mistress’s (nice) NYC apartment. Hanging out on the stairwell, she listens in on their dirty talk, which is undoubtedly the worst kind of its stripe. I’m not talking Barry White, Big Daddy Kane or even Black Oak Arkansas, here, I’m talking the dreaded cutesy baby talk. They literally refer to each other as “love bunny,” much to Gilly’s horror, though it doesn’t stop her from having some manual fun.
This incident ends up being a catalyst for Gilly, feeling that to better understand her husband, she must depart on a series of her own little affairs. No love bunny nonsense here, just a grown woman exploring herself through the willing partners in her life, ranging from a high-strung “ineffectual creep” who is momentarily transformed by Gilly’s transgressive gift to a beautifully shot “silent film” encounter with one suave friend. (How suave? The man invites her to “capture a moment of lost elegance.” Bryan Ferry just swooned.) But the real question remains-will our heroine be able to better understand her husband or realize the grass is greener and move on? (Seriously, “love bunny”??? Grounds for divorce RIGHT THERE.)
Naked Came the Stranger is a perfectly polished and funny film. It’s definitely one of the more whimsical efforts of Radley Metzger, with the tone being very light and cheeky. Taking a book that was critically maligned and making a legitimately good movie out of it is a borderline alchemical move, but one that, in the hands of a master like Metzger, feels like a piece of cake.
The cast is terrific, with Rains taking the lead as the plucky and adventurous Gilly. She brings a likability and a strong sense of confident femininity to her role. This is a great contrast to the girlishness of Stuart’s Phyllis. Rains is alternately very funny, beautiful and sexy. The image of her in top hat and tails, Ala Marlene, is a striking one. Darby Lloyd Rains has the kind of powerful gravitas to pull it off without seeming like she is aping Dietrich. Stuart is also good as the cute but love happy annoyance mistress, making this a 180 from her role in Gerard Damiano’s masterful Memories Within Miss Aggie. All of the male actors are good too, but this is really the ladies’ show. (Though, Marc Stevens’ cameo during the costume party sequence is a huge highlight.)
With being a Metzger film, everything looks good. Paul Glickman, who was also responsible for the cinematography for Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann, did an equally wonderful job here, with even the urban jungle of NYC looking a bit dewy and pretty. There is also an assortment of fun touches throughout, including a reference to Metzger’s serious Camille 2000, with the film playing on the television, prompting Billy to remark, “Why don’t they show the Garbo version?” There is also a brief mirror shot, as you see the reflection of Gilly gently remove a wig off of Phyllis. Mirrors and reflection itself tend to be a trait of Metzger’s work, whether it is his softcore work with Camille 2000 and The Lickerish Quartet or his latter works, like Pamela Mann. This all gives further proof that you can have depth with beauty.
Distribpix has once again done right by both Radley Metzger’s work and the viewer by presenting this film in a gorgeous restoration of the original 35mm print. Artists like Metzger deserve to have their work preserved with the level of detail and love that companies like Distribpix provide. In addition to the restoration, there is also a bounty of extras, including a Director’s commentary from Metzger himself, a split-screen featurette comparing the “hot” and “cool” versions of the film, a “film facts” subtitle track, deleted scenes, trailers, ephemera gallery and much, much more. There’s also a photo card and a 40 page booklet, detailing the origins of the book, the movie and even the soundtrack. It does not get much spiffier than this.
Naked Came the Stranger is a fun and sweet-natured film featuring good visuals and a pitch-perfect performance from Darby Lloyd Rains. It would make a fun, couples-stepping-out double bill with the previous year’s Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann.
These photographs of the legendary Chelsea Hotel, an epicenter of New York City’s cultural life for decades, as it undergoes a potentially soul-destroying transformation, look like stills from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining as re-imagined by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Spooky, creepy and very sad.
The landmarked hotel has been undergoing changes that no one seems to support (no one that doesn’t currently have stake in it)—residents have been practically forced out, rooms have been gutted, and a rooftop bar may soon be coming to the gorgeous oasis above 23rd Street, which is still home to a handful of people. (Yes, people live on the roof.)
Click through for what our photographer Sam Horine saw while inside—he tells us, “the vibe was depressing—very dark and dusty in the hallways… all the doors had plastic over them to keep out the dust. You could tell that the management had just quit doing anything for the long term residents a long time ago in an effort to encourage them to leave.” A security guard came along soon after and told him he could only go to the one room that he signed in to visit, and escorted him back there.”
Samuel Beckett painted from life in Paris by Reginald Grey, 1961
“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—The Unnamable
The great Irish modernist/minimalist writer Samuel Beckett was born on this day, April 13th, 106 years ago. Greatly influenced by his friend and mentor James Joyce, with plays like Krapp’s Last Tape, Waiting for Godot and Endgame; and his novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable, Beckett established himself as the last of the great 20th century modernist writers.
Much of Beckett’s work dealt with the breakdown of communication, repetitive, pointless activities, hopelessness, loneliness and the general shitty bleakness of the human condition. He was closely associated with the post-war dramatic movement that the influential critic Martin Esslin dubbed “The Theatre of the Absurd” which also included Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee and others. Samuel Beckett died on December 22, 1989 at the age of 83.
The late Anthony Minghella’s superb interpretation of Beckett’s Play from the 4-disc Beckett on Film set featured Harry Potter’s Alan Rickman in, uh, urn-ist with Kristen Scott Thomas and Juliet Stevenson. If you’ve never sampled Beckett’s work before, I reckon this Play is a great place to… hit “play”!
It was the French thriller Pépé le Moko, with its infamous gangster hiding out in the casbah of Algiers, that inspired Graham Greene towards writing his classic treatment for The Third Man. When he reviewed the Jean Gabin film in 1937, Greene wrote that it:
“...raised the thriller to the level of poetry…
It would take his collaboration with Carol Reed, firstly on an adaption of his story “The Basement Room”, filmed as The Fallen Idol in 1948, with Ralph Richardson and Michèle Morgan, and then on The Third Man for Greene to equal and better his original influence.
In Frederick Baker’s masterful documentary Shadowing The Third Man from 2004, we learn this and a host of other facts, as Baker delves into the making of one of cinema’s greatest films. I’m a great fan of Greene and adore The Third Man and can assure you there is much to treasure in this near perfect documentary.
Holy cow! What a goldmine! Someone wonderful uploaded all the 70s issues of Synapse Magazine for your reading pleasure. Seriously, if you’re an electronic music buff, be prepared to spend days soaking it all up!
January/February 1979: Read this issue in its entirety here.
Summer 1979: Read this issue in its entirety here.
We all know that writer, William S. Burroughs is one of the “people we like” on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, but did you know that Burroughs was around when Paul McCartney composed “Eleanor Rigby”? Apparently so. Over the weekend, I noticed the following passage in the book With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker by Victor Bockris:
Burroughs: Ian met Paul McCartney and Paul put up the money for this flat which was at 34 Montagu Square… I saw Paul several times. The three of us talked about the possibilities of the tape recorder. He’d just come in and work on his “Eleanor Rigby.” Ian recorded his rehearsals. I saw the song taking shape. Once again, not knowing much about music, I could see that he knew what he was doing. He was very pleasant and very prepossessing. Nice-looking young man, hardworking.
The connection here was, no doubt, author Barry Miles. Miles started the Indica Bookshop in London with McCartney’s financial backing. Miles states in his book In the Sixties that Burroughs was a frequent visitor to the shop. When the Beatles started their experimental label Zapple, with Barry Miles at the helm, the idea was to release more avant garde fare, such as readings by American poets Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Brautugan and comedian Lenny Bruce. McCartney set up a small studio that was run by Burroughs’ ex-boyfriend, Ian Sommerville, who also lived there, and this is why Burroughs would have been around.
It’s always thought that John Lennon was the far-out Beatle, but it was Macca who was obsessed by Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Morton Subotnick, not Lennon (he got there later via Yoko).
Robert Snyder’s excellent 1969 documentary The Henry Miller Odyssey takes a joyful look at the Buddha of Brooklyn and his fascinating world.
The colossus of Big Sur at work, living in, and revising old haunts in Brooklyn and Paris. Miller generously reveals how he saw his era, his peers and himself. He recalls his painful youth and his struggle to survive as a writer; talks about art, dreams, and the allure of Paris; reads passages from his works and enjoys himself with friends, including Lawrence Durrell, Anais Nin, Alfred Perles, Brassai, and Jakov Gimpel. What emerges in this insightful documentary is Miller’s charm, his gentleness and his lust for life.
Mostly narrated by Miller, this warm-hearted and playful film captures the essence of a man who did indeed have a lust for life.