1970’s television was rich with quirky detective shows where every week some maverick cop or P.I. solved a seemingly unsolvable crime. These characters were larger than life, entertaining and very much the antithesis to many of today’s downbeat, under-lit cop shows. There was the sparkle-eyed William Conrad as LAPD detective Cannon, Peter Falk as the jovial, bumbling Columbo, James Franciscus as handsome, blind insurance investigator Longstreet, Telly Savalas as the bald, cigarette-smoking, candy-eating Kojak, the odd couple of Karl Malden and Michael Douglas in The Streets of San Francisco, and let’s not forget that seldom seen cop show Quinn Martin’s Beckett starring playwright Samuel Beckett.
Beckett was the gangly, laconic cop who didn’t always get his man but knew if the bad guy got away that he would have to try again, fail again but fail better. His catchphrases were “Book ‘em Godot!” and “Birth was the death of him, Murphy.” And who can forget his sidekick and pal in real life, Andre the Giant as handy henchman Little Bim, or the starry supporting cast that included Jean-Paul Sartre as sleazy Walleye Molloy (“Hell is other peepholes”) and Jean Cocteau as Huggy Bear. Sadly this modernist cop show never took off with US audiences and was quickly dropped from the TV schedules. However, over the years Beckett has gained a cult following and today fans of the show are still waiting for the long promised DVD release, which is bound to turn up sooner or later, maybe. But until that day comes, here’s a taster of the classic opening title sequence to the series. Now, book ‘em Godot!
Prior to his death in 1963, Jean Cocteau, the great French artist, filmmaker, novelist and poet, made his cinematic last will and testament, a time-capsule titled Jean Cocteau s’adresse… à l’an 2000 (“Jean Cocteau speaks to the year 2000”). Cocteau, seen seated in front of his own work at Francine Weisweiller’s Villa Santo-Sospir (where his Testament of Orpheus was shot), offers advice and perspective to a generation just being born. Cocteau gives his definition of genius and of the poet, “an intermediary, a medium of that mysterious force that inhabits.” He also discusses the technical progress of science and how it must not be impeded by intolerance and religion.
In his Cocteau biography James S. Williams wrote:
Just a couple of months before his death, in August 1963, he made one last film: a 25-minute short entitled Jean Cocteau s’adresse à l’an 2000 (Cocteau addresses the year 2000). The film comprises one still and highly sober shot of Cocteau facing the camera head-on to address the youth of the future. Once recorded, this spoken message for the 21st century was wrapped up, sealed and posted on the understanding that it would be opened only in the year 2000 (as it turned out, it was discovered and exhumed a few years shy of that date). If in The Testament Cocteau portrays himself as a living anachronism, a lonesome classical modernist loitering in space-time in the same buckskin jacket and tie while lost in the spectral light of his memories, here he acknowledges explicitly the irony of his phantom-like state: by the time the viewer sees this image, he, J. C., our saviour Poet, will long be dead.
Temporality is typically skewed: speaking from both 1963 and 2000 Cocteau is at once nostalgic for the present that will have passed and prophetic about the future. There is thus both a documentary aspect and projective thrust to the film, another new configuration of ‘superior realism’ and fantasy enhanced by Cocteau’s seamless performance as himself and his now ‘immortal’ status as a member of the Académie Française. He reiterates some of his long-standing artistic themes and principles: death is a form of life; poetry is beyond time and a kind of superior mathematics; we are all a procession of others who inhabit us; errors are the true expression of an individual, and so on. The tone is at once speculative and uncompromising, as when Cocteau pours vitriolic scorn on the many awards bestowed upon him, which he calls ‘transcendent punishments’. He also revels in the fact that he can say now what he likes with absolute freedom and impunity since he will not be around to suffer the consequences.
The status of Jean Cocteau s’adresse à l’an 2000 remains ultimately unclear. Is it a new testament or confession, or a heroic demonstration of the need for human endurance, or a pure ‘farce of anti-gravitation’ as he puts it? Or everything at once? It is entirely characteristic of Cocteau to leave us hanging on this suspended paradox. What is certain, however, and what we have consistently seen, is that Cocteau’s life and body are his work, and his work in turn is always mysteriously alive. This is Cocteau’s final gift to his fellow human beings. Let us retain and celebrate the force of that gesture. He is resurrected before our eyes, ever-present, defiant and joyfully queer.
Jean Cocteau is dead, long live Cocteau!
If you are a Cocteau aficionado, the film is a delight. Here are a few transcribed moments:
We remain apprentice robots.
I certainly hope that you have not become robots but on the contrary that you have become very humanized: that’s my hope.
But I have no idea who you are or how you are thinking, or what you are doing. I don’t know the dances you are dancing.
The dance of our time is called “The Twist.” Maybe you have heard
You most certainly have your own dance.
I wonder what Cocteau would have made of The Beatles, hippies, punk, Internet pornography, Facebok or the iPhone, but this we’ll never know.
I told you that nowadays youth is straddling contradictions. It has lost the kind of humanity that ours was and yet it isn’t quite robotic yet.
That’s why the young are always being accused of being too sad and worried: it’s only normal.
You certainly must still know the great painter called Picasso.
Picasso said to me: “It takes a long time to grow young.”
And he was right in the sense that someone young doesn’t yet know which way to go, but contemplates whether to go left or right.
Being worried is also being old, but slowly one finds one’s way.
Cocteau died of a heart attack in his Milly-la-Forêt chateau in Essonne on October 11th at the age of 74. Legend has it that Édith Piaf, upset by the news of her friend’s death, on that same day, choked so strongly that she suffered from a heart attack and died as well.
Happy Birthday to Jean Cocteau—man of many (p)Arts: artist, novelist, poet, playwright, film-maker, and designer, born today in 1889.
Cocteau was firstly a poet, who described himself as a lie that always told the truth.
He was also a highly controversial figure—often criticized for being a mere dilettante; he was easily swayed in his political views (he thought Hitler a pacifist and once speculated about the Führer’s sex life); had an obsession with underage boys; and was addicted to opium.
Yet for all the questionable things Cocteau’s life is always redeemed by his Art.
Je suis Jean Cocteau is a short film that collects together moments from Cocteau’s films (Testament of Orpheus, Blood of a Poet, Beauty and the Beast, Orpheus, and Les Enfants Terrible) creating a showreel to his imagination.
“When I make a film, it is a sleep in which I am dreaming.”
Dreams that have inspired subsequent film-makers, writers and artists.
(And today is also my brother’s birthday, so Happy Birthday Michael!)
The idea of a film had its germination during a house party given by Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles at Hyeres in 1929. Georges Auric, Cocteau’s lifelong musical collaborator, surprised his hosts by announcing that he wanted to compose the score for an animated cartoon. Cocteau was asked on the spot to provide a scenario. After some discussion, the Noailles agreed to give Cocteau a million francs to make a real film with a score by Auric. This became The Blood of a Poet, still one of the most widely viewed of all Cocteau’s screenworks. Cocteau described its disturbing series of voyeuristic tableaux as “a descent into oneself, a way of using the mechanism of the dream without sleeping, a crooked candle, often mysteriously blown out, carried about in the night of the human body.”
Blood of a Poet can’t even be classed as the first Surrealist film, as Entr’acte had been made by René Clair, in 1924; The Seashell and the Clergyman (La Coquille et le clergyman) arguably the first true Surrealistic film, directed by Germaine Dulac, and written by Antonin Artaud, was made in 1928; and Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí had made two landmark Surrealist films, Un Chien Andalou (1928) and L’Âge d’Or (1930), by the time Cocteau was ready to put his thoughts on celluloid.
While there are undoubted references to Surrealist imagery (i.e. the lips on the artist’s hand), The Blood of a Poet shouldn’t be tied into any group or movement, for it is a film very much centered in Cocteau’s artistic sensibilities:
The Blood of a Poet like so much of what Cocteau created, abounds in autobiographical motifs: the macho Dargelos and the snowball fight, the opium smoker, the poet with his sexual stigmata, and the gunshots that, intentionally or not, echoed his father’s suicide long before.
Like all great artists, Cocteau sourced ideas from what was around him, what was new, to create his own distinct artistic vision. Of course, such magpie instincts left him open to the criticism of dilettantism, which was unfair, when considered against the range and diversity of his output as artist, writer, film-maker, designer, poet and man-about-town.
It was while out on the tiles at his favorite hot-spot “Le Boeuf sur le Toit” that Cocteau met the model, and later photographer, Lee Miller. Cocteau was casting for his film, and Miller breathlessly volunteered her services. It was her only film, and she would later describe the difficulties in making the film:
Feral Benga, the black jazz dancer who played the angel, sprained his ankle and became an angel with a limp. Cocteau put a star on Enrique Riviero’s back to cover an old bullet wound from the pistol of some cuckolded husband. The mattresses used to soundproof the studio walls were, unfortunately for the cast, infested with ravenous fleas and bedbugs. When the “bull” (really an ox) rented from an abattoir arrived at the studio with only one horn, Cocteau made a second one himself.
The film was financed by Charles, Vicomte de Noailles at a cost of one million francs. The Vicomte and his wife agreed to appear in the film, a scene where they talked amongst themselves and, on cue, began applauding. However, Cocteau intercut this footage with a another sequence, which ended in a suicide. Upon seeing the completed film, they refused to let Cocteau release it with their scene included. It was therefore re-shot with Barbette, the well-known female impersonator, and some extras.
Prior to its release, there was further controversy when it was rumored the film was filled with hidden symbolism:
Cocteau himself always denied the presence of hidden symbolism in the film, but word got about that it had anti-Christian undercurrents. This greatly distressed the Noailles. After the scandal caused the Viscount to be expelled from the elegant Jockey Club, and even brought threats of excommunication from the Church, they forbade Cocteau to allow public release of The Blood of a Poet for over a year.
It is often said that The Blood of a Poet is a surrealist film. However, surrealism did not exist when I first thought of it. the interest that it still arouses probably comes from its isolation from the works with which it is classified. I am speaking of the works of a minority that has opposed and unobtrusively governed the majority throughout the centuries. This minority has its antagonistic aspects. At the time of Le sang d’un poète, I was the only one of this minority to avoid the deliberate manifestations of the unconscious in favor of a kind of half-sleep through which I wandered as though in a labyrinth.
I applied myself only to the relief and to the details of the images that came forth from the great darkness of the human body. I adopted them then and there as the documentary scenes of another kingdom.
That is why this film, which has only one style, that, for example, of the bearing or the gestures of a man, presents many surfaces for its exegesis. Its exegeses were innumerable. If I were questioned about any one of them, I would have trouble in answering.
My relationship with the work was like that of a cabinetmaker who puts together the pieces of a table whom the spiritualists, who make the table move, consult.
The Blood of a Poet draws nothing from either dreams or symbols. As far as the former are concerned, it initiates their mechanism, and by letting the mind relax, as in sleep, it lets memories entwine, move and express themselves freely. As for the latter, it rejects them, and substitutes acts, or allegories of these acts, that the spectator can make symbols of if he wishes.
The other day I was looking at some old issues of the Village Voice from the later part of the 1960s and the early 1970s that I have in boxes in my garage. They’re really interesting and you can read some “coded” things in between the lines of a lot of the advertisements, such as coyly-worded ads for head shops and various diversions for people looking for something kinky to do. I think the preservation of the Village Voice as an archive of life in NYC will provide quite a lot for future anthropologists who’ll want to better understand how we lived in the second half of the 20th century and how quickly sexual mores changed over the decades. Launched in 1955, the Voice was really the first underground paper. New York City would obviously be one of the best microcosms of society to view at any time for the sheer diversity and number of its residents, but when you zero in on the time between 1965 until the end of the 1980s, and you look at the subculture, a hell of a lot changed in the margins before going wider in the culture. Some of the seeds planted then are still blooming today.
One thing that I noticed is that as the Sixties went on, the advertisements for gay-related films such as Jack Smith’s notorious Flaming Creatures, and Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks or Scorpio Rising start to creep into the listings for films like Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls and other more, uh, mainstream “underground film” fare of the era. And it’s always these same films, like they were playing constantly at the same two or three theaters, for like… years. Usually on a double or triple bill. Later Vapors directed by no-budget gay “outsider” auteur Andy Milligan gets rotated into the prurient programing circulating at these Times Square sin pits that had names like “The New David Cinema,” “The Adonis Lounge” and “The Tomkat.”
To the average Joe on the street, to the average Village Voice reader in 1967, or even to the NYPD’s vice squad, there was nothing much alarming in and of itself that a film titled Vapors was playing in Times Square. To someone who knew what Milligan’s short film was about (an awkward encounter in a gay bathhouse) these ads took on an entirely different connotation. In other words, these films were coded “dog whistles” indicating most likely that cruising (at the very least) would be tolerated in the balconies and toilets of these run down cinemas, often in buildings owned by the mob.
The fleabag movie theaters catering to an all male clientele ultimately lined 8th Ave. near 42nd Street until they cleaned up Times Square in the early 1990s. By the 1970s, the demure ads in the Village Voice ads were dispensed with completely and explicit gay porn ads begin to appear for movies with titles like Inches and Ramrodder. (Interesting to note that the Voice had quite an anti-gay tone in the 1960s until petitioned by the Gay Liberation Front to stop using terms like “faggots” when reporting on the Stonewall riots).
Another movie that showed up a couple of times in the pages of the Voice back then is French author Jean Genet’s short film, Un chant d’amour (“A Song of Love”). Directed by Genet in 1950, based loosely on his novel The Miracle of the Rose and with the rumored assistance of Jean Cocteau, the film was impounded in France when it was first screened and it became circulated as gay porn for French intellectual homosexuals in the years following. The silent b&w film shows the encounters two men in a French prison have, their dreams and fantasies, and the voyeurism of a sadomasochistic guard who is titillated by their relationship, spies on them and abuses one of them because of jealousy. It seems to be very influenced by Anger’s Fireworks, a film Genet most certainly would have seen via Cocteau, who considered the young Ken Anger his protege.
Fifteen years or so later, bootleg prints of Un chant d’amour must have made it to Times Square and this obscure work of poetic homosexual quasi-porn with a literary pedigree, more about the longing for human contact than the actual contact itself (flowers, a gun and cigarettes stand in—for the most part—for male genitalia) sent the Bat-signal to those for whom it was meant and they assembled by its flickering lantern to do who knows what?
By the mid-80s, when I saw Un chant d’amour on a triple bill with documentaries on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the Thalia Cinema arthouse, not a single vice cop in New York City would have given a shit about something as ultimately kinda tame as Genet’s film. Still, bearing in mind that it was once something confiscated by police, became something that was passed around hand to hand amongst gay French intellectuals like a stag film, then screened in cinemas straight out of John Rechy’s novels, how odd/weird/amusing (or alarming, I suppose, depending on your viewpoint) is it to think that Un chant d’amour (and Vapors and Anger’s films and Jack Smith’s as well) can now be watched on YouTube?
And here is a chunk of Andy Milligan’s Vapors, from 1965, one of the very first films of its kind: a narrative softcore homosexual exploitation film.
Former Siouxsie and The Banshees’ co-founder, bass-player and all round musical genius, Steven Severin is currently touring the U.K. with his brilliant score for Jean Cocteau’s 1930 debut film Blood of a Poet
Since 2002 and the demise of The Banshees, Severin has been writing soundtracks for TV and cinema, including superb scores for London Voodoo and Richard Jobson’s The Purifiers. More recently, Severin has composed and toured with his compositions for The Seashell and The Clergyman and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. His four treatments for Caligari was one of the highlights of last year’s Edinburgh International Festival.
Now, having successfully toured with Blood of a Poet across America and Canada earlier this year, Britain has the chance to catch one of the must-see events of the year.
It is always possible to subvert, to rebel. A strong idea can be a salve, an inspiration to some whilst the very same idea is an irritant, a disruption to others. I just try to do things that move and excite me and hope I am capable to transmitting those emotions in the most eloquent way possible.
- Steven Severin
York CITY SCREEN 7th. Oct.
Bradford PLAYHOUSE 8th. Oct.
Leeds HYDE PARK 9th. Oct.
Liverpool FACT 10th. Oct.
Norwich CINEMA CITY 12th. Oct.
Kensal Rise LEXI 15th. Oct.
Southampton HARBOUR LIGHTS 16th. Oct.
Brighton DUKE OF YORKS 17th. Oct.
Brixton RITZY 19th. Oct.
Greenwich PICTUREHOUSE 21st. Oct.
Derby QUAD 28th. Oct.
Cardiff CHAPTER ARTS 29th. Oct.
Oxford PHOENIX 30th. Oct.
Exeter PICTUREHOUSE 31st. Oct.
Bath LITTLE THEATRE 1st. Nov.
Bristol WATERSHED 2nd. Nov.
Inverness EDEN COURT 4th. Nov.
Croydon CLOCKTOWER 8th. Nov.
Sheffield SHOWROOM 11th. Nov.
Nottingham BROADWAY 12th. Nov.
Birmingham ELECTRIC 14th. Nov.
Leicester PHOENIX 15th. Nov.
Edinburgh CAMEO 18th. Nov.
Steven Severin’s ‘Cesare Variations’ after the jump…