follow us in feedly
‘The Balcony’: Peter Falk, Leonard Nimoy & Shelley Winters frolic in Jean Genet’s twisted whorehouse

balpostcony.jpg
 
The Savage Eye was an early example of American cinema vérité that began as a film project worked on (over several years at weekends and days off) by three friends Ben Maddow (famed and award-winning screenwriter of Asphalt Jungle amongst many others), Sidney Meyers (radical film-maker and documentarian), and Joseph Strick (successful businessman and ambitious film-maker). Their movie mixed social documentary and drama that told the story of one woman’s (low) life in big, anonymous, brash, modern Los Angeles. It became a major hit at the Edinburgh Festival and won the trio a BAFTA—the equivalent of a British Oscar—in 1960. Encouraged by the film’s success, Strick sought out another project to work on.

He tried and failed to option James Joyce’s Ulysses, a project he had long cherished, though he would eventually film Ulysses with Milo O’Shea in 1967, and later produce and direct the big screen adaptation of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with Bosco Hogan and John Gielgud in 1977. Having failed on a first attempt with Ulysses, Strick approached Friedrich Dürrenmatt to option his play The Visit—in which a woman offers her home village money and success at the cost of killing her ex-boyfriend—but was also knocked back. He then approached Jean Genet and asked to option the film rights to his highly controversial play The Balcony. This time he was successful.
 
baltenegj.jpg
Jean Genet.
 
The Balcony is a brilliant and often disturbing drama, hailed as either the play that re-invented modern theater or the first great piece of French Brechtian theater—take your pick. Set in a high-class whorehouse situated in some unnamed city during an apparent bloody revolution, the play works as a metaphor for the different classes and corrupt structures of society. Genet wrote the first version of The Balcony (and a first version of The Blacks) in the spring and summer of 1955. Over the next ten years, Genet constantly wrote and rewrote The Balcony and between 1955 and 1961 he published five different versions. (There are some—like the play’s editor Marc Babezat—who believe Genet destroyed the script through his incessant revisions.)

In his introduction to the first version of The Balcony, Genet explained the drama’s story:

This play has as its object the mythology of the whorehouse. A Police Chief is infuriated, chagrined, to notice that at the ‘Great Balcony’ there are many erotic rituals representing various heroes: the Abbe, the Hero, the Criminal, the Beggar—and others besides—but alas, never he Police Chief. He struggles so that his own character will finally, through an exquisite act of grace, haunt the erotic daydreams and that he will thereby become a hero in mythology of the whorehouse.

Though Genet claimed he had no interest in films (“Cinema does not interest me”), he agreed to Strick’s offer to produce a movie version of The Balcony. Edmund White in his biography of Genet described the original meeting between French playwright and American film-maker:

Strick first encountered Genet in Milan, where Genet had reserved rooms in two different hotels ‘in case he had to reject my idea—he’s that sensitive,’ said Strick. Genet had seen one of Strick’s earlier films The Savage Eye, the story of a sad, recently divorced woman and her view of the seedy side of California life. Genet instructed Frechtman to speak to Strick for him: ‘Tell him that a lot of the images in his film touched me, but that the plot construction, the under-pinning appeared to me very weak. He doesn’t prove to us that this woman has changed at the end of the film. Now, a film adapted from The Balcony needs a very solid structure. Who will provide?’

While Strick stayed in the luxurious Hotel Negresco, Genet preferred a ratty hotel he called the Horresco. He was clean and neat but always dressed in the same corduroy trousers, turtleneck sweater and black leather jacket. Genet wrote a long treatment, a detailed description of the action without dialogue. Two stumbling blocks were the character Roger’s self-castration, and the whole end of the play, which is not well integrated with the preceding scenes. In the final version the castration was indeed removed. Genet worked four hours a day. Strick wanted Genet to do a shooting script and promised to follow every shot, but Genet didn’t want to invest any more time in the project. He latter told Marianne de Pury that he found the collaboration very irritating. He was still working on The Screens. He did accept, however, the idea that The Balcony should take place in a film studio and not a whorehouse.

 
balcofalwint1.jpg
Peter Falk as the Police Chief and Shelley Winters as Madame Irma in Strick’s ‘The Balcony’.
 
Ben Maddow was then employed to write the final script. The movie was then shot a very low budget, with the actors all working for minimum wage. Strick originally wanted Barbara Hepworth as Madame Irma, but she refused working for a minimum fee. Strick therefore approached the Hollywood star Shelley Winters to play the madame. Peter Falk, in only his second movie, agreed to play the Chief of Police, while future Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy played the role of Roger. Ruby Dee reprised her stage role as one of the prostitutes. Though considerably tamer than the Genet’s play, Strick still manages to maintain much of the play’s integrity. However, critics were mixed on the film’s release, with some papers, like The New York Times—quelle surprise—hating it. Watching it now, Strick made a bold and brave venture of a difficult and powerful drama.
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
An attraction to darkness: A revealing interview with Jean Genet, 1981
07.02.2013
06:29 pm

Topics:
Literature
Queer

Tags:
Jean Genet

tenegnaej
 
Jean Genet in conversation with Antoine Bourseiller, summer 1981.

“I don’t why I shouldn’t talk about myself. I’m the person who knows the most about myself. Right?”

And so we are led to believe, as novelist and playwright Jean Genet begins this revealing interview, before going on to describe his attraction to darkness, “even to the point of going to jail.” He may have stolen to eat, but something intuitively drew the young Genet towards the darkness of prison.

Over the course of the interview, Genet explains how this attraction shaped him, and his imprisonment at the Mettray Penal Colony at the age of fifteen, was instrumental in making him a writer.

This is gold for those with an interest in Jean Genet, his life and writing.

Recorded in French, with English subtitles available under the “CC” Closed Caption icon.
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Lindsay Kemp’s ‘Flowers’: A legendary dance production inspired by Jean Genet’s novel

Lindsay_Kemp_Flowers
 
Jean Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers while in prison in 1942. It was published anonymously the following year, and sold around 30 copies. It wasn’t until after the Allied Forces liberated France in 1944 that the bulk of the copies were bound and sold.

Due to its sexual content Our Lady of the Flowers was sold as high class erotica, but Genet never intended it as such. It would take until the book had been revised and reprinted by Gallimard in 1951 that Our Lady of the Flowers received the critical accolades it richly deserved - even if Jean-Paul Sartre described it as “the epic of masturbation.”

It was an over-the-wall conversation with a neighbor that led Lindsay Kemp to create and produce his now legendary dance production of Flowers in 1974. As Lindsay recounted to Dangerous Minds last year:

‘I’d just rented a little cottage, a country retreat, in Hungerford in Berkshire, and my next door neighbor - it was one Sunday morning and we were listening to Round the Horne, we all did on those Sunday mornings - and my neighbor across the fence leaned over and said.

“Oh hi, I think this book might interest you.”

And it was Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. And I began to read it, and as soon as I began to read it I could already see it on the stage, and I could see myself as Divine, the central character. And two weeks later, we opened it.

Only someone of Kemp’s incredible talents and vision could have produced Flowers, and the production put Kemp and his dance company literally “on the map.” Since then, Kemp and Co. have performed Flowers all across the world to incredible acclaim.

In 1982, a video was made of the Lindsay Kemp Dance Company performing Flowers at the Teatro Parioli, Roma. It is rarely been seen since, and the video is a incredible treat for anyone interested in dance, performance and theater.
 

 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

Lindsay Kemp is on the ‘phone: Scenes from his life from Genet to Bowie

 

Lindsay Kemp: Seldom seen interview about his production of ‘Salome’ from 1977

 

David Bowie and Lindsay Kemp’s rarely seen production ‘Pierrot in Turquoise’ from 1968


 
With thanks to Lindsay Kemp’s Last Dance
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Existential gay porno from the 1950s: Jean Genet’s ‘Un Chant d’Amour’
11.21.2012
11:14 am

Topics:
Literature
Movies
Queer

Tags:
Jean Genet


 
In 1950, the great French criminal, poet, novelist, playwright and homosexual Marxist revolutionary, Jean Genet—one of the towering literary talents of the 20th century—directed his only film, Un chant d’amour (“A Song of Love”), a silent, 26-minute black-and-white short depicting the sexual fantasies of two male prisoners, one young, one older, and a self-loathing prison warden who gets off watching them. In the role of the younger prisoner, Genet cast his then lover, 18-year-old Lucien Sénémaud, who would later leave him for a woman.

Un chant d’amour is one of the earliest classics of LGBT cinema and the film caused scandal and censorship crackdowns for several years when attempts were made at public screenings.

From an extensive and thoughtful essay about the Cult Epics DVD release of Un chant d’amour at Jim’s Reviews:

With the film’s unapologetic, indeed rapturous, homoeroticism, the announced premiere at the legendary Cinémathèque Française had to be scrapped. So Genet, ever the hustler, sold “the only print” to, well, several wealthy gay collectors around the world, who had earlier purchased sumptuous private editions of his books. The few attempted public screenings turned the film into a key work in the fight against censorship.

With Genet’s works banned in the US, Jonas Mekas had to snip the film into several pieces and hide it inside his clothes. As he recounts in his fascinating introduction to this DVD, he was lucky to be seated on a London-to-New York flight next to Harold Pinter, then the superstar of British drama, whose masterpiece The Homecoming (1964) was soon to open on Broadway. Pinter helped distract the starry-eyed customs agent, Mekas slipped by with Genet’s film.

When Mekas screened the picture at the Film-Makers’ Cooperative (which he’d co-founded, as he later would Anthology Film Archives and Film Culture magazine), police burst in, beat Mekas, threw him in jail, and sneered that he should be shot for “dirtying America.” The case was later dropped, since Genet was himself something of a celebrity, with two plays running in New York; but Mekas received a suspended six-month sentence for screening another landmark GLBT film, Jack Smith’s gender-bending Flaming Creatures. Déjà vu: more police raids a few months later in San Francisco when Genet’s film was shown to private groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union brought suit, enlisting the expert testimony of the brilliant critic Susan Sontag, but to no avail. The California District Court of Appeals banned the film, and the decision was upheld by the US Supreme Court.

Unwittingly, Genet had helped narrow the US’s legal definition of obscenity, which had earlier been expanded to include explicit works with “literary or scientific or artistic value.” In the UK, despite a scattering of underground screenings over the years, the film was not even presented to the British Board of Film Classification (i.e., censorship) until 1992. Happily, times have changed – even if it’s taken several decades – and we can now appreciate Genet’s film on its own terms… even if, ultimately, Genet himself could not.

Today, perhaps the most shocking aspect of Un chant d’amour is Genet’s denial of it, beginning around 1975 when he huffily refused a 90,000 franc award from the Minister of Culture, of office which he equated (not unjustly) with censorship: and by the way, hadn’t he made the film a quarter of a century earlier. Edmund White offers some intriguing speculations about Genet’s denunciation: “perhaps because as his sole film it seems a slender accomplishment given his overwhelming lifelong ambitions towards cinema, perhaps it reminded him of a sterile, unhappy period in his life and of his now-dead love for Lucien, or perhaps because it was one more instance of his trafficking between art and pornography in an ambiguous territory he never felt happy about… [And] the extra-artistic reactions to his work – legal, moral, titillated – irritated him. He told Papatakis he didn’t like the film because it was too bucolic and not sufficiently violent. It is also Genet’s last attempt to portray homosexual desire.”

If you look at late 60s issues of The Village Voice, there were often small ads advertising screenings of Un chant d’amour along with films like Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks or Scorpio Rising (or Andy Milligan’s Vapors, which mostly takes place in a gay bathhouse) at cinemas with names like “The Tomkat Theater” or “The Adonis Lounge.” These film titles were pretty much code words indicating gay cruising scenes, but in a manner likely to fly right over the heads of the NYPD’s vice squad.

Interesting to note that today, Un chant d’amour, this once ultra-controversial film—along with Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, mentioned above—is just another YouTube clip.
 

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
‘Long live the authentic revolution!’ Peter Falk shined in Jean Genet’s ‘The Balcony’

image
 
Peter Falk’s death today will bring back memories to Boomers and Gen X-ers of his title role as the good-natured and shambling L.A. detective in the ‘70s TV show Columbo. But by the time he donned that character’s famous trenchcoat, he had about 15 years of acting under his belt, most famously in gangster roles in films like Murder Inc. and Frank Capra’s last, Pocketful of Miracles. (Of course, he augmented the Columbo years with amazing performances like his role as Nick in John Cassavettes’s masterful A Woman Under The Influence.)

He also appeared as the Chief of Police in Joseph Strick’s 1963 adaptation of Jean Genet’s surreal play The Balcony. The film stayed faithful generally to Genet’s meditation on revolution, counter-revolution, and nationalism, which is set in a brothel/movie set/fantasy factory designed for its authoritarian allegorical characters while unrest boils over in the fictional country outside.

Here’s Falk’s big segment after his character breaks up the party. May he rest in peace.
 

 

Posted by Ron Nachmann | Leave a comment