It’s Ken Russell’s birthday, and what better way to celebrate the genius of British film, than to share one of his classic biopics. From 1968, here is Delius: Song of Summer, the story of a young amanuensis, Eric Fenby, and his relationship with the monstrous, blind, womanizing and syphilitic composer, Delius. Perfect material for a Russell film, but here Unkle Ken shows his mastery as an artist by creating a subtle, moving and highly effective tale of the relationship between composer and his assistant. The film was co-written by Russell and Fenby, and based on Fenby’s memoir, Delius As I Knew Him. It contains excellent central performances from former ballet dancer, Christopher Gable, and the great Northern Irish actor and founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Max Adrian. Song of Summer also shows why Ken Russell was such a brilliant director, and why he is still sadly missed.
Susan Tyrrell always brought a unique and offbeat magic to movies she starred in…even the ones that sucked. Her film credits read like the index for a book on cult films. From Andy Warhol’s Bad to Marco Ferreri’s Tales Of Ordinary Madness and Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone, Tyrrell could ignite flicks that strained to be weird with flashes of her eccentric brilliance, often salvaging otherwise unwatchable pieces of crap.
Tyrrell’s free and fearless spirit was a rare thing in the increasingly uptight world of commercial cinema. And when she had a good role in a good movie she could create something great. Her performance as Oma in John Huston’s Fat City is absolutely heartbreaking, an embodiment of the dark night of a woman’s soul, and deservedly garnered her a Oscar nomination in 1973.
Tyrrell suffered from a rare blood disease, thrombocythemia, and lost both of legs in 2000. But despite the handicap, she continued to take on some small film roles, including an appearance in the Felliniesque Masked and Anonymous starring Bob Dylan.
I’m a loner. I don’t like beautiful people, but I find beauty in the grotesque. And in the sweet soul inside someone who has been able to get through their life without being a rat’s ass. Such people should be collected, should be swept up immediately and kept in a box of broken people. I’ve collected people my whole life. Sometimes it ends badly, but it’s absolutely never on my part. Because I know how fabulous I am. You’re just going to have to take my word for it - I’m an incredible person. I do good deeds, and I love people, but the only way I can do these things is to stay apart. Because you can just stand so much. But the people who you meet in your life, who cross your path, the ones who are decent, should be collected.” Susan Tyrrell.
Tyrrell died this past Sunday. She was 67 and living in Austin. Details of her death have yet to be released.
Here’s a clip from 1982’s Forbidden Zone, featuring a delightfully demented Tyrrell as Queen Doris of the Sixth Dimension.
When she found him in the early hours of the morning, it seemed as if he was sleeping. Lying on the bed, with an ink-marked script beside him, still dressed, his shoes carelessly kicked off, a television flickering in the corner. The room smelled of smoke and sweat, a table lamp, cigarettes, an overfilled ashtray. It seemed as if he’d fallen asleep as he worked on his latest screenplay Rosa L., a film about the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg. He looked pale. An unlit cigarette drooped from his lips, a small trickle of blood glistened from one nostril. For 4 years, Juliane Lorenz had been his partner, she had seen him tired out like this before, falling asleep while working late at night, geed-up by cocaine and alcohol, but this time there was something different. Juliane listened. He was too quiet. When he slept he snored. But now, all she heard - the ticking clock, the television, the hush of traffic outside - was his silence. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was dead.
It’s still hard to believe Fassbinder managed to do so much in his short thirty-seven years of life. That fact he was working on a script at the moment he died, says everything about his dedication to his art. In less than 15 years, Fassbinder made 40 feature films, 3 short films; 4 TV series, 24 stage plays and 4 radio plays. He also acted in 36 productions and worked scriptwriter, cameraman, composer, designer, editor, producer and theater manager.
Born into a middle class family, his father was a doctor who worked near Munich’s red light district. His mother helped with her husband, and neither had much time for their son. After their divorce, Fassbinder lived with his mother, who worked as a translator but was often absent, hospitalized with tuberculosis. Then, Fassbinder spent his time with neighbors, listening to their life stories or, going on his own to the cinema - he later claimed he saw a film a day during his childhood.
“The cinema was the family life I never had at home.”
His favorite films were melodramas, his favorite director Douglas Sirk, of whom Fassbinder said:
“The important thing to learn from Douglas Sirk’s movies is that on the screen you are allowed to, or better still, supposed to, enlarge people’s ordinary feelings—as small as they may be—as much as possible.”
Fassbinder started writing plays, and read about the Spanish playwright Lope de Vega, who had over 1,800 plays attributed to him. This became the gold standard to which Fassbinder aimed his ambitions. At 18, he joined a theater group, and the first hint of his incredible talents and ambitions became apparent.
Within 2 months of joining the Action Theater group, he became its leader. This proved too much for other, older members, who led to the group’s disbandment. Fassbinder then created a new company and drew together a team, or family of actors - Peer Raben, Harry Baer, Kurt Raab, Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann - who were to work with him until his death.
His first movie was a “deconstruction of the gangster films”, called Love is Colder than Death, it caused considerable controversy at its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in 1969, where Fassbinder was jeered and denounced as a “dilletante” by members of the audience. Even so, it established his reputation as a talent to watch, and led on to his next film, Katzelmacher, which was adapted from his stage play. It was the start of his movie career that saw such an unparalleled output. Everything in Fassbinder’s life went towards his film-making. He was often ruthless and allegedly pimped some of the theater group actresses to raise money for his films.
“I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.”
The turning point came in 1971 with the release of The Merchant of the Four Seasons, the tale of a merchant who is slowly destroyed by circumstances beyond his control. the story epitomized Fassbinder’s world view as tragedy. Life was battled out against insurmountable odds, at great cost to its players. Though his films were often described as “bleak”, I never found them less than engrossing, for the theme to all his films is love - the cost love has on us all.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Fassbinder made such unforgettable films as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) (adapted form his play); World on a Wire (1973); his first major international success Fear Eats the Soul (1974), the story of love between an older woman and Moroccan immigrant, played by Fassbinder’s then lover El Hadi ben Salem; Effi Briest (1974); Fox and His Friends (1975); Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975); Despair, his first English film, with a script adapted by Tom Stoppard form the novel by Vladimir Nabokov; In a Year of Thirteen Moons (1978), Fassbinder’s bleakest and personal movie, made in response to the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier; The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), which became a breakthrough movie in America; Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), a 13-hour TV series adapted form Alfred Döblin’s novel; Lili Marleen (1981), another big budget English movie; Veronika Voss (1982) which was inspired by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard; and his last major feature, which progressed cinematic narrative in a new and original way, Querelle (1982), adapted form the novel by Jean Genet. Fassbinder had just finished editing Querelle when he died.
The official cause of his death was “an overdose of cocaine and sleeping pills”. The cost of his lifestyle and his ambition took too great a toll. Before he died, his body had bloated from an excess of drink, food and drugs, and he once said, he became fat to make it harder to be loved. Fassbinder used his body, as he used chain-smoking, or his excessive drinking, as means to protect and distance himself from others. His sense of being unloved or, of being unworthy of love, stemmed from the parental indifference of his childhood. When he was older, he often treated his lovers and those closest to him badly, testing their loyalty and love for him. Emotionally, Fassbinder was childlike, as he always searched for that imagined lack, which would make him feel loved. It was this, Fassbinder’s own emotional biography that underscored his films.
Thirty years after his death, we can more fully appreciate the scale and quality of Fassbinder’s genius; and see the real beauty of the man who was Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles, died yesterday, June 5th, at the age of 91. Bradbury was a colossus of modern fiction, writing everything form fantasy, science-, and speculative-fiction to comedy, crime and mystery. He wrote twenty-seven novels, several screenplays, most notably for John Huston’s film version of Moby Dick, as well as plays, and hundreds of classic short stories.
Bradbury was an immense talent, yet in the early part of his career, his success as a mass market “pulp” author often led critics to overlook the quality of his writing, and its seismic influence on others - his fiction formed the template for future speculative science-fiction and fantasy writers to follow. Bradbury had a beautiful, poetic and lyrical style of writing, most notable in Dandelion Wine, which made his authorial voice unmistakable.
Indeed the quality of Bradbury’s writing helped science-fiction out of the pulp ghetto into the hallowed groves of literature. Though most associated with that genre, Bradbury denied he was a science-fiction writer, instead claimed he was a fantasy writer whose work owed much to the traditions of classical literature:
“First of all, I don’t write science fiction. I’ve only done one science fiction book and that’s Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. It was named so to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it’s fantasy. It couldn’t happen, you see? That’s the reason it’s going to be around a long time—because it’s a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.”
Born in Waukegan, Illinois on August 22, 1920, Bradbury grew up in small town America - a world of dusty roads, with few cars, and tarmac avenues with old trolley buses ploughing the metal rails along main street. He also once claimed, in a BBC documentary, that his memory and experience was the source for much of his writing, and said his memory stretched back to his earliest experiences as a baby, being breast-fed in his mother’s arms.
He grew up reading books and watching Flash Gordon serials at the local cinema, and monster movies with Boris Karloff, while following the adventures of heroes in the early garish comics that later went on to deliver Batman, Superman and Tales from the Crypt.
“Libraries raised me. I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
Reading inspired his writing and Bradbury started his own fictions, eventually submitting short stories to pulp magazines in his teens - his first published story was “Hollerbochen’s Dilemma”, which appeared in the fanzine Imagination! in January, 1938. He received his first check of $15 for his story “Pendulum” (co-written with Henry Hasse) in 1941, when it was published in Super Science Stories. By 1942, he was able to have a career as a writer, writing stories for the various pulp magazines that were then available.
He progressed from stories to novels, with first big success being The Martian Chronicles, which was aided by a chance meeting with author Christopher Isherwood, who admired Bradbury’s work, and passed the book onto a critic who gave it a glowing review. From there, Bradbury had a career befitting the talents of such a great and marvelous man.
Bradbury’s influence has infused much of our cultural world - from films to comics, science to the imagined landscape of small town America, which is still very much as he described it in his fictions. Indeed, Bradbury’s vision of small town America was a precursor to Stephen King’s Castle Rock.
I greatly admire Bradbury’s work, and like everyone else grew-up reading his books, and regularly returned to them in my adult years. It seems as we grow older that all we reap is death, and this year has been a harsh harvest. Still, we should perhaps recall Bradbury’s line from Fahrenheit 451:
“Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made up or paid for in factories.”
The first class, Life and Death Mask Making Workshop, will be held on Sunday, June 3, from 10 am - 4 pm. Admission is $100 (includes $40 materials fee). This class is part of The Morbid Anatomy Art Academy.
In this class, students will learn to create their very own Life Masks working with alginate—a non-toxic seaweed-based mold making product that is easy on the skin—and plaster. Students will pair up and cast one another, but don’t be alarmed; the workshop’s instructor Ms. Sarda assures us that you will love this experience, and that most everyone who has been cast comes out feeling relaxed to the point of jello, with the extra insentive of a free facial. All materials are included, and each student will leave class home with their face immortalized in plaster.
The second second class, Anatomical Wax Votive Making Workshop, will be held on Sunday, June 24, from 10 am - 4 pm. Admission is $145 (includes $63 materials fee).
In this class, expert wax worker and artist Sigrid Sarda will teach students to create an uncannily lifelike wax votive of the body part of their choice. Each student will leave class with a finished wax votive as well as a knowledge of mold making, wax craft, and the history and meaning of the anatomical votive.
Both of these classes will be held at the Observatory located at 543 Union Street in Brooklyn. RSVP at morbidanatomy [at] gmail.com if you’re interested.
When he moved back to Dundee, Billy Mackenzie didn’t have any recording equipment in his home, and would spend hours in the local ‘phone booth, singing his latest ideas down the line to his record producer. It was typical of the maverick singer and musician whose life ran like a series of connected film scenes, from his early marriage in Las Vegas, to the excesses and glamor of his career as one half (with the prodigiously talented Alan Rankine) of the perfect pop duo The Associates.
Starting out in the mid-1970s, The Associates went on to create a giddy, euphoric soundtrack, around Billy Mackenzie’s incredible voice, which thrilled throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. From the opening chords of “Party Fears Two”, a new world of sensation opened - a world of expectation, excitement, pleasure, hurt and despair - emotions that in time came to reflect Mackenzie’s life.
As their success grew, so did the money (reputedly millions) and drugs (there’s a story of Rankine and Mackenzie being kept on heart monitors for 4 days after ingesting excessive amounts of cocaine), and the fears about performing (a tour of America was canceled days before it was to take place). Rankine eventually quit the band. Mackenzie carried on. Until in the 1990s, the record label were no longer willing to pay for Billy’s unfettered genius. Told of their plans over lunch, Billy only asked for one thing, a taxi home. An account cab was booked, thinking Mackenzie was only returning to his London address, instead he took it all the way back to Dundee, in Scotland.
As Marc Almond points out in this documentary on Mackenzie, The Glamour Chase, Billy must have known genuine heartache to sing with such painful beauty. Tragically, it was such heartache, this time over his mother’s untimely death, that led Billy Mackenzie to commit suicide, at the age of 39, in 1997. Such a terrible loss that revealed the darkness at the heart of The Associates’ music.
With contributions from Alan Rankine, Paul Haig, Siouxsie Sioux, Marc Almond, Martin Fry, Glenn Gregory and Billy’s family, The Glamour Chase is a moving testament to the scale of Billy Mackenzie‘s talent.
From one disco legend to another, Nile Rodgers has just posted this to his Facebook wall, saying:
“Our pre-CHIC tribute to the Bee Gees “You Should Be Dancing.” Robin Gibb RIP”
The Big Apple Band was indeed Rodgers’ pre-Chic project, and are not to be confused with composer Walter Murphy’s disco outfit of the same name. The sound of The Big Apple Band is rawer and grittier than either Chic or the Bee Gees (even though the Chic rhythm section of Rodgers on guitar, Bernard Edwards on bass and Tony Thompson on drums are all present and correct).
Rodgers says this of the Big Apple Band (who have another clip, this time performing Earth Wind And Fire’s “Get Away,” here):
It’s The Big Apple Band, which is us pre-CHIC playing live in a video recording studio. It was made by Kenny Lehman, the co-writer of CHIC’s debut single “Dance, Dance, Dance.” Kenny was also a booking agent who was trying to get us gigs doing high-school proms. We never got one prom gig but did lots of gigs on the chittlin’ circuit, and the seeds of CHIC were being planted.
In my memoir “Le Freak,” I tell how Bernard and I were developing into sophisto-funkers while others around us weren’t quite convinced. Notice that only he and I are wearing suits while our band mates are more Rock & Roll casual. The band was forced to change its name after composer/arranger/producer extraordinaire Walter Murphy, had major success with a great disco reworking of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He called it “A Fifth of Beethoven” by Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band.
It’s been a bad few weeks for fans of disco and soul, with the passing of Donna Summer, Donald Dunn and now Robin Gibb. Rodgers himself has been very ill recently with cancer (which he writes about movingly on his blog), so here’s hoping he’s not added to that list.
And here’s a great testament ot the songwriting genius of the brothers Gibb. Rest In Peace Robin:
Moved by the news of Donna Summer’s death, South Bronx-bred aerosol artist and DJ, SERVE (a/k/a SERVE ONE), wasted no time painting the stunning mural pictured above in homage to the late singer. With “Last Dance” – the title of Summer’s 1978 classic – emblazoned by an iconic image from the cover of her Live & More LP of the same year, it’s a beautiful piece of work. “I just had to do it…” SERVE wrote on his Facebook wall to the enthusiastic response of friends. Props, SERVE. RIP, Donna Summer.
Here’s another thing of rare beauty, Donna performing the wonderful “Spring Affair” from the Four Seasons Of Love EP on Soul Train: