Ken Russell thought he was all washed up after his 1977 film Valentino failed at the box office. Things became so bad that “nobody in Hollywood would give me even a B-movie to direct,” he told Nancy Mills at the Guardian in 1981.
Then he was offered a second chance - to direct a troublesome script called Altered States, by the Oscar-winning author of Marty and Network, Paddy Chayevsky .
“I was the twenty-seventh director Warner Brothers approached for Altered States. Arthur Penn had stuck it for six months and then left. They tried everyone else before they dared risk me.”
Strange to think that a man of Russell’s genius was considered a risk. A sad reflection on the lack of quality at the very top of Hollywood. Eventually, the studio did take the risk and Russell was appointed director.
“They wanted a director who has a very visual imagination, and they knew I had that. They were a bit doubtful about my ability to handle actors. I must say, I don’t bother about actors too much. The Warner Brothers people screened two of my films that showed I could handle actors if I had a mind to - Savage Messiah, which was just two people talking, and Song of Summer about Delius. Between the two, they thought they’d take a chance.”
Once on board, Russell came to “loggerheads” with Chayevsky, which ended in the writing walking off the picture, as Russell explained:
“I couldn’t work with someone else judging everything I did. Chayevsky told me, ‘I’ll just be on the set as a benign influence.’ The producer said, ‘How do you spell benign, Paddy?’ He answered ‘W-I-C-K-E-D’ He was joking but he wasn’t joking.’
Russell thought Chayevsky’s script ponderous, pretentious and labored. He had the actors mumble their lines, or give speeches in between mouthfuls of food or wine. It worked as the film centered on the relationship between Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) and Emily Jessup (Blair Brown). It also allowed Russell to concentrate on the incredible visuals.
“There are scenes in Altered States that are on screen for a third of a second, and they took perhaps three days to shoot. That’s $30,000 or maybe $300,000. They are expensive. In this case the studios realized the visuals were very much key to the story.”
Yet, when it came time for the film to be released, the executives at Warner Brothers started to get worried. But when the film was first shown to a preview audience of mid-western housewives, they were left mystified, which confirmed the studios unease. But when a young audience saw the film, it received a highly favorable reactions, leading the cinema manager to assure Warners they had a hit.
He proved to be correct, and Altered States proved Russell was a far greater talent than Hollywood had ever imagined.
These are pages from one of my scrapbooks on Ken Russell, looking at the response to one of the most daring and original Hollywood films of the 1980s.
More clippings on ‘Altered States’ plus trailer, after the jump…
Curtain up on a starry night. Comets fire across the sky. Center stage, one star shines more brightly than the rest, its spotlight points towards a globe of the earth, as it spins form a thread. Glitter falls, as a white screen rises, the lights glow brighter filling the stage.
Single spot tight on a woman’s face
We are unsure if she is in pain or ecstasy. No movement until, at last, she exhales, then pants quickly, rhythmically. Her face glistens. The spot widens, revealing 2 nurses, dressed in starched whites, symmetrically dabbing her face.
The woman is Mrs. Kemp, and she is about to give birth. 3 mid-wives are guided by house lights through the audience to her bedside. Each carries a different gift: towels, a basin of hot water, and swaddling.
It’s May 3rd 1938, and Lindsay Kemp is about to be born.
Though this maybe a fiction, it is all too believable, for nothing is unbelievable when it comes to Lindsay Kemp.
Lindsay Kemp has agreed to give a telephone interview. He is to be called at his home in Italy, by Paul Gallagher from Dangerous Minds, who is based in Scotland. We never hear the interviewer’s questions, only Kemp’s answers and see his facial expressions as he listens to questions.
Photographs of Kemp’s career appear on screens. We hear a recording of his voice.
I began dancing the same as everybody does, at birth. The only difference was, unlike many other people, I never stopped. In other words, you know, I love movement. Movement gave me such a great pleasure, such a great joy.
Dance is really my life. I’ve always said for me ‘Dance is Life, Dance is Living, Dance is Life and Life is Dance’. I’ve never really differentiated between the two of them. It’s always been a way of life, a kind of celebration of living.
Kemp is an exquisite dancer, a fantastic artist, and a brilliant visual poet. No hyperbole can truly capture the scale of his talents.
In the 1960s and 1970s, his dance group revolutionized theater with its productions of Jean Genet’s The Maids, Flowers and Oscar Wilde’s Salome.
He shocked critics by working with non-dancers. At the Traverse Theater in Edinburgh, he often cast his productions by picking-up good-looking, young men in Princes Street Gardens - good looks, an open mind and passion for life were more important than learned techniques, or a classical training. His most famous collaborator was the blind dancer, Jack Birkett, aka The Great Orlando – perhaps now best known for his role as Borgia Ginz in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee.
Kemp was the catalyst who inspired David Bowie towards cabaret and Ziggy Stardust. He taught him mime, and directed and performed in Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from mars. He also taught Kate Bush, and choreographed her shows.
As an actor, he gave outrageous and scene-stealing performances in Jarman’s Sebastiane, Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man.
“I’ve never really differentiated between dance and mime and acting and singing. I’ve always loved all aspects of performing, though I still can’t play the trumpet, but I’d like too. Well, it’s never too late to learn.”
He has performed across the world, from department stores in Bradford, through the Edinburgh Festival, the streets and cafes of Italy, to London’s West End and Broadway.
Kemp is a poetic story-teller, and his performances engage and seduce as much as the words that spill from tell such incredible tales. His voice moves from Dame Edith Evans (“A handbag!”) to a lover sharing intimacies under the covers.
A house in Livorno. A desk with a telephone. A chaise longue. A deck chair and assorted items close at hand. Posters and photographs of Kemp in various productions are back-projected onto gauze screens.
Kemp makes his entrance via a trap door.
The phone rings once. Kemp looks at it.
Rings twice. Kemp considers it.
Rings three times. He answers it.
Lindsay Kemp is on the ‘phone.
Hello. (Pause.) Where are you in Scotland?
My grandparents are from Glasgow. I always pretend to be Scottish because I was born accidentally in Liverpool when my Mother was saying bye-bye to my Father, who was a sailor, and he was off to sea from Liverpool’s port, you see.
Well, I don’t quite know where that came from, unless I said it one drunken night, maybe when I chose to be more romantic than Birkenhead, where I was in fact born. I was born in Birkenhead on May the 3rd, 1938, but my family hailed form Scotland, between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and for many years I lived in Edinburgh, when I returned there for the first performance of Flowers, that show that put me on the map, you know.
Lindsay Kemp> debuts his new production Histoire du Soldat (‘A Soldier’s Tale’) by Stravinsky on 5th May, in Bari, Italy. You can buy tickets for the World Premiere here.
Lindsay Kemp – The Last Dance is a film currently being made by Producer / Director Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky – check here for more information.
Going through old correspondence, I came across a collection of cards and letters from a personal hero - J G Ballard.
It’s always amazed me that Ballard took the time to respond to my daft letters full questions and queries he must have answered innumerable times. It said much about Ballard’s great humility and character.
The first, dated April 27 1993, was written on a postcard of Carel WillinkDe Zeppelin, the blue ink (probably a Pentel pen) has faded somewhat, but still visible are his kind words and enthusiasm for a short story I’d sent him, which he over-praised as “a powerful + original piece of work”, and his explanation of the biographical elements of The Kindness of Women:
‘...which is about my writing as much as my life - my life seen through the spectrum of everything I’ve written.’
During the 10 years of our intermittent correspondence, Ballard was always kind, gracious, encouraging and helpful - an example we all can learn from.
Dear Mr Gallagher,
Many thanks for your letter from LA - I think probably you should make the documentary about the city - I on the whole rather enjoyed the week i spent there some years ago - but then no one mugged me or shot at me on the freeway - part of the problem there have been too many films about LA on TV over the recent years.
I started reading Christopher Isherwood in my late teens, when I became a “paying guest” to an elderly spinster, who lived in an old tenement in the west end of Glasgow. She lived in the top floor apartment, where I rented the large front room, with a view onto the oval-shaped park below. My landlady was in her late seventies, bird-like, translucent skin, who whistled and took snuff in large pinches, sniffed from the back of her hand. She had inherited the apartment from her sister, and the interior had remained unchanged since the 1930s. The hallway with its bell-chimes for Maid, Bedroom 1, Bedroom 2, Parlor, and Dining Room, all still worked. In the kitchen was a range, and a small scullery with its fold-down bed, where the servant would have slept. Coal fires were in all of the rooms except mine. Of course, there was the occasional modern appliance, a TV, a one-bar electric fire, and an electric cooker, which was still in its plastic wrapping, and not to be used “under any circumstances”. Food was cooked over something that looked like a bunsen burner (what my landlady called “a blackout cooker”), and chilled products were kept in a larder. As for hot water, well that was never available, as the boiler was kept under lock and key, and toilet paper was sellotaped, to ensure I bought my own. The front door was locked at eight o’clock and the storm door bolted at nine. After ten, she never answered the door.
At the time, I was reading Goodbye to Berlin, which as you can imagine very much suited my surroundings. Like Isherwood’s character, Herr Issyvoo, I was surrounded by “the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class.” A mantel-clock, a heavy glass ashtray, a green baize card table, orphaned figurines of a shepherd boy and shepherd girl, tending to their flocks, a large wooden bed (one leg broken) made in the 1920s. But perhaps, most significantly, was the fact my landlady had worked in Berlin as a furrier for a department store during the 1930s, and she often told me tales of her time in Germany. “Oh those Hitler Youth,” she once said, “Such smart uniforms, but the terrible things they did.”
At times it all made me feel as if I was living in Ishwerwood’s world, as in the evenings I would hear the whistles out in the park below. But unlike Herr Issyvoo, these were not young men calling up to their girlfriends, but dog owners calling to their pets.
The son of landed gentry, Christopher William Bradshaw Isherwood was born in 1904, at the ancestral seat of his family, Wybersley Hall, High Lane, England. His father was an army officer, who was killed during the First World War. His mother, Kathleen, had a fractious relationship with her son, and she later featured in his stories.
At school he met and became life-long friends with W. H. Auden and Edward Upward. He attended Cambridge University, but found he had no interest in his studies, and was sent down for writing a facetious answer to an exam question. It was while at university that he became part of the famous literary triumvirate with Auden and Stephen Spender, who were hailed by the Left as “intellectual heroes.”
Instead of studying, Isherwood wrote an anarchist fantasy with Upward, centered around the fictional Mortmere:
...a village inhabited by surreal characters modelled on their Cambridge friends and acquaintances. The rector, Casmir Welken, resembles a ‘diseased goat’ and breeds angels in the church belfry; his sidekick Ronald Gunball is a dipsomaniac and an unashamed vulgarian; Sergeant Claptree, assisted by Ensign Battersea, keeps the Skull and Trumpet Inn; the mannish Miss Belmare, domineering and well starched, is sister to the squire, and Gustave Shreeve is headmaster of Frisbald College for boys.
Though none of the stories were published at the time (and Upward destroyed most of them later on), it was the start of Isherwood’s writing career, and led on to his first novel All the Conspirators in 1928.
Stifled by England, Isherwood followed in his friend Auden’s footsteps and moved to Berlin. It proved an historic re-location, one that inspired the first of Isherwood’s important novels Mr Norris Changes Trains and Goodbye to Berlin. Literature aside, Isherwood’s main reason for going to Berlin was “boys” - blonde, working-class youth.
Isherwood supported himself in Berlin by working as an English tutor, and he used this experience to form the basis for his Berlin stories, and the creation of his eponymous central character. “I am a camera,” Isherwood famously wrote at the start of Goodbye to Berlin, for he saw Herr Issyvoo as “unobtrusive, sexless,” someone who could only observe, and examine the lives of those around him. When later asked why he had not been more explicit about his character’s homosexuality, Isherwood said that if he had come out, then it would have been “a production,” something that would have “upset the apple cart” for the other characters. The poet Stephen Spender claimed Isherwood once claimed he couldn’t imagine how people behaved when he was not in the room.
During the 1930s, Auden and Isherwood wrote a series of plays together, The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of F6 and On the Frontier, which dealt with their own identities and the idea of masculinity as exemplified by a hero. They also traveled to China to cover the Sino-Japanese War, and published a diary of their exploits. It was this war that convinced Isherwood to become a pacifist.
Perhaps because of the horrors the pair had witnessed in the East, Auden and Isherwood traveled to America in 1939, just before the Second World War began. It was an event that led the two writers to be castigated as “cowards” and “deserters”, for leaving their country in its moment of need - as if Auden or Isherwood’s presence would in some way stop the advance of Germany. Auden stayed in New York, living in a house with the stripper and pulp writer, Gypsy Rose Lee, and novelist Carson McCullers; while Isherwood moved to the west and California, which he described as more “dreamy and strange”, more theatrical.
Here he reworked some of his Berlin stories, but he lacked the zest to keep him inspired. Like many other writers, Isherwood turned to Hollywood for financial security, but had the sense to realize he wasn’t “some great genius prostituting [himself]”:
“I always realized it was very good training, and it made you realize things that you often lose sight of, by getting so arty and literary, that is to say, the fundamentals of telling a story, and the very simple things of putting A before B, and B before C, and getting it all sorted out, and telling it in a direct visual way, and that is always you can learn by working for the movies, and it doesn’t matter what it is.
Auden thought it nice work if you can get it, and said “At least you sold dear what is most dear.” Isherwood scripted a Rage in Heaven (1941), starring Ingrid Bergman and Robert Montgomery and The Great Sinner (1949), starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. Later, in the 1960s, he co-wrote the screenplay, with Terry Southern, for the classic film version of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1965), and then co-wrote, with Don Bachardy, a memorable take on Mary Shelley’s gothic horror, Frankenstein the True Story (1973), with James Mason, Michael Sarrazin,Jane Seymour and David McCallum.
During all this time, he continued to write novels, most notably Prater Violet, based on his first dealings with film-making and the rather brilliant, but under appreciated, Down There on a Visit. On a more personal level, in 1953, he met Don Bachardy, the man who became his life-long partner.
In the sixties, Isherwood achieved considerable success with his “devastating, unnerving, brilliant book” about middle-age, A Single Man. The novel’s central character George, is like Isherwood, and describes a day in his life, when he no longer fears annihilation but survival, and all the debilitating side affects old age will bring. Isherwood said the book was about:
“...middle age, because what I wanted to show was the incredible range of behavior in middle age, part of the time on eis quite tending towards senility, and other times one is rash that is way a way boyish, and apt to indulge in lots of embarrassing behavior, at the drop of hat.”
In the 1970s, Isherwood returned to the Berlin of his youth with his autobiographical memoir Christopher and His Kind, it was a crowning achievement to a literary career that had already delivered at least three or four of the twentieth century’s best novels.
Gore Vidal has said Isherwood is “the best prose writer in English,” which is perhaps true, as Isherwood’s writing is subtle, clever, and is always fresh, even after repeated readings.
This documentary A Single Man: Christopher Isherwood 1904-1986 wa smade not long after his death and composed from a selection of interviews from British TV from the 1950s-1970s.
For fans of Isherwood, the BBC has just completed a drama Christopher and his Kind, adapted form Isherwood’s book, starring Matt (Doctor Who) Smith in the title role, which will be broadcast later this year. Further information can be found here
The rest of ‘A Single Man: Christopher Isherwood 1904-1986’, after the jump…
Michael Prince‘s photographs of the last days of the George Hotel, capture the faded elegance of this once famous location, now sadly replaced by anonymous shops. The pictures were taken in the spring of 1998, just months before the Hotel stopped accepting bookings and closed its swivel-doors for the last time. Michael is a Glasgow-based director and photographer, who has now collected these historic photographs together in a book called Goodnight George.
Situated at the top of the city’s Buchanan Street, the George Hotel kept its doors open for 162 years of business, offering accommodation to actors, performers, the rich and not so famous. Stan Laurel stayed here when he performed at the city’s Britannia Panopticon Theatre, just before he left for America, as did Cary Grant (then just Archie Leach) and later Joan Crawford. The hotel was known as the “nearest”, for it was handily situated between the main points of entry into the city, and ideally placed for all of Glasgow’s theaters. At one time it had over a 100 staff, including twenty-two chefs in its kitchens.
Things change, and by the late nineteen-seventies the George fell in to disuse, and its owner, Peter Fox, a former ballroom champion, let its rooms out to the homeless and unemployed. By the nineteen-nineties, the building’s faded grandeur proved an attraction to film-makers and promo directors. It was amongst these rooms that key scenes for Trainspotting (the scenes in the circular hotel room doubled for London, where the drug deal takes place) and The Big Man (Liam Neeson getting his rocks off) were filmed.
I lived here, on-and-off, from 1996, moving room-to-room, often as the hotel’s only tenant (apart from Mr Fox), until the George closed its doors in 1998. It was a great place to live, with 4 floors, six unused bars, a large kitchen, smoking rooms, a cocktail lounge, and a dance parlor, where a few club nights were had. After it closed, the interior was demolished and replaced with retail units, like Virgin Records. Where once I laid my head is now pop, and my feet, country and western, which is a shame, as the George should have been Glasgow’s answer to the Chelsea Hotel.
More of Michael’s work can be viewed here, and his book Goodnight George is available here.
More of Michael Prince’s photographs, after the jump…
A version of this appeared last week in The Huffington Post, but as Richard Metzger and myself think Joyce Farmer’s graphic novel Special Exits a truly amazing work, we’ve decided to re-post here.
There’s a line in Joyce Farmer’s excellent graphic novel Special Exits that hit home with me this week. Her rather more than semi-autobiographical book tells the story of Farmer’s alter-ego, Laura, as she copes with the declining, final years of her father and step-mother, Lars and Rachel Drover. In it, there’s a line said by Lars, which captures the slow erosion of time: “Things get worse in such small increments that you can get used to anything.”
The line hit home because over the past week, I found myself stranded while visiting my parents, as Scotland ground to a halt under heavy snowfall and sub zero temperatures. My father’s 84-years-old, with a heart condition, which means he may drop dead at any moment; my mother, in her seventies, is breathless but still feisty. They both thought it fortunate I was there to help clear the drive, get the groceries, do the chores, and tend to those things my parents would hope to do. As the winter moved in, we became snowbound and the snow, like age, slowly closed down the once busy highways, until all transport ceased.
Farmer’s beautiful, moving and truly exceptional book deals with the very real closing down age brings. Rarely have I read such an honest, heart-breaking, yet darkly humorous tale. It is understandable why Robert Crumb has compared Special Exits to
such classic graphic novels as Maus by Art Speigelman and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, for truly Farmer’s book is in that league.
In Richard Metzger’s interview for Dangerous Minds, Farmer explained how the impetus for the book was her step-mother’s treatment in a nursing home. “I was so outraged by her experience,” she said.
As her father was too frail and Joyce didn’t have the time to take care of both her father and step-mother, it was decided to find her
step-mom a nursing home.
“The way to do that was to take her to an emergency room, where they would then recommend a nursing home because
of the situation. And I’ve dealt carefully with this in the book, but when I took her to the emergency room the doctor said ‘She’s perfectly
healthy, there’s nothing wrong with her’ and you can take her home.”
This indifference to her step-mother’s plight put Joyce in a difficult position.
“I was forced to find the quickest nursing home I could find, because they wouldn’t hold her in the emergency room, I couldn’t take her home and then take her out again It was an ambulance trip every time and it wasn’t possible.”
One was found, and her step-mother, who was ill and blind, was admitted. What should have been an ideal respite, turned into a nightmare.
To ensure the nursing staff knew her step-mother was without sight, Joyce wrote the word ‘BLIND’ on a sign and placed it above her bed. Joyce hoped the staff would see the sign and then help her step-mother to be fed and looked after properly.
“When I would visit her, every time I visited her, she was enormously hungry, and I didn’t realize they weren’t reading the sign, and then I’d go and the sign would be torn in half or non-existent. I realized there was a bunch of angry people taking care of helpless people in the nursing homes.
“Ten days after this healthy woman went into the nursing home, they left the sides of her bed down, and she decided to go get her own
food. She was hungry, and she fell and broke her hip, and the nursing home hospital didn’t recognize this for several days and when they did, there was nothing that could save her and she just ended her life after two-and-a-half months of pain and suffering. It was beyond my ability to handle anything at that point. I was completely outraged at the nursing home and how they took care of elderly patients.”
It was this sense of outrage that later inspired Joyce to start work on Special Exits. Over thirteen years, she worked on the book, drawing, penciling, inking, writing each page frame-by-frame. She worked in black and white, as Farmer thought she might have to publish the book herself, and didn’t know how to publish in color, let alone know who would take her stories or even if they would be interested.
But Farmer shouldn’t have feared, for this was really a return to her talents than starting something anew. Back in the 1970s, Farmer and creative partner Lyn Chevli kicked off a feminist revolution in comics. Horrified at the “violent take on women” depicted in the
underground press and through magazines like Playboy and Penthouse, they decided to do their own “violent take on men and get even.”
“But we soon realized we couldn’t do violence, and we thought, ‘What else can we do?’ We’re angry and we realized none of these magazines that were out there at the time, that thought they had a bead on what women wanted, were all off track and just saw women as photographs that needed to be air-brushed and women who were bed mates and not much else. We started looking at ourselves and our sexuality and we realized our idea of sex had a lot to do with birth control, and menstruation and sanitary pads going FLOP on the ground when you didn’t want them to.”
This was how Farmer and Chevli started the legendary proto-punk Tits & Clits Comix, which ran intermittently from 1972-87. Tits & Clits was condemned on both sides, but has now rightly proven to be an inspirational influence on younger feminists, as it “exposed the phoniness of what men thought about women.”
In the same way her comics changed views on sexism in the 1970s, Farmer hopes Special Exits will inspire people to think differently about older people and the aging process today.
“If anything I hope the book gets people who are working with the elderly, to understand that the elderly have had a past life that is way more interesting than you’ll ever know. And if that’s interesting to you, well that’s interesting to them, and they should be honored for having lived that long.”
Special Exits by Joyce Farmer ($26.99) is available from all good bookstores or direct from Fantagraphics
In 2001, Channel 4 television, in the UK, broadcast a 20-part sci-fi short animation series called Workgroup Alpha. It starred Ed Bishop and dealt with a team of inter-dimensional consultants, lost on an intergalactic space mission. Bishop, with his association as Commander Straker from Gerry Anderson’s cult TV hit UFO, was ideally cast as Aquarius, the Enterprise Class Visionary, who with his fellow travellers explored “a whole new dimension in universal solutions.”
Though there is the passing hint of Frederick Pohl’s satirical sci-fi classic The Space Merchants, which imagined a world run by ad agencies, Workgroup Alpha offered an intelligent and witty critique of the growing cultural obsession with corporate speak, focus groups, PR consultants, and all those other anemic constructs that have depersonalized our world.
The end credit to the series was attributed to the Butler Brothers, the name by which John and Paul Butler operate. Paul is the co-producer, writer and conceptual consultant. John is writer, designer, animator, composer, co-producer, and director.
I first heard about the Butler Brothers through friends, though it was always John Butler who attracted the most attention. His name was mentioned with that hushed reverential tone and nodding head of respect that said we had touched on some sacred matter. It made Butler seem almost mythical – a great creative artist who lived somewhere (no one seemed quite sure where, or if they did, didn’t say), a garret most likely, where he created, with help from his brother, these incredible digital animations, of such intelligence and imagination.
I sent Paul a quick note last week that I had enjoyed his interview and he replied:
“Butler’s latest animation, Children of the Null, was inspired by Dennis Wheatley and to an extent, more Stephen King. When I asked him about it, he said the Children of the Null was about the occult practice of finance.
“I tend to think of Finance as an occult concern, hence the masks of the Transactors. The fact that during the collapse, derivatives were described as being too complex to understand confirms this suspicion.”
Though John is an atheist - he sees capitalism as an evil.
I think he just might have something there.”
Do androids dream of eclectic sheep? – an interview with John Butler (Planet Paul)