“I’m in love with eternity . . . I don’t care about how many changes that go on, as long as it keeps going on.”
In 1965 a bohemian American expat in Paris named Tom White shot an almost silent B&W art film “happening” titled Who’s Crazy? His movie depicted the inmates of an insane asylum who are being transported somewhere by bus when they are able to escape to a farmhouse where they frolic, eat, dance, prance, primal scream, make a mess, pull faces, drip candle wax on each other, light stuff on fire and generally “act out” and get their Vietnam-era freak frenzy on, plus there is a kangaroo court enacted at one point. And a wedding. If this sounds like what a Living Theatre production of King of Hearts might have looked like should they have attempted one, well you’re in the immediate ballpark already as the inmates were in fact played by actual members of the Living Theatre, then living in exile in Europe while their married leaders Julian Beck and Judith Malina did a stint in prison back home in America for tax troubles. White’s film was screened at the 1966 Cannes Film Festival and Salvador Dali was reported to have loved it, although the Becks hated it, telling White that his film did not represent the Living Theatre’s “energy vector.” (“Well they would think that, wouldn’t they?” I can almost hear you saying under your breath.)
Who’s Crazy? never found any sort of distribution and was forgotten for fifty years, with just one extant 35mm print stored in White’s garage when it was rediscovered in 2016 by Vanessa McDonnell, a programmer at Brooklyn microcinema Spectacle. Since then the film has screened at Lincoln Center and Anthology Film Archives and been written about in the New York Times.
“To be a man, whatever a man is… There is something that is very important about being a man. And it’s not necessarily your honesty, or your philosophy; but it has more to do with you being able to get away with what you can do and someone else saying, ‘Well that’s him.’”
But White’s oddball film is not really our topic here, it is the film’s remarkable soundtrack, which was improvised in Paris by Ornette Coleman and the two other members of his trio—David Izenzon on bass and Charles Moffett on percussion, the same musicians who accompanied Coleman on his classic Golden Circle albums. In 1966 Ornette Coleman would have been considered perhaps the most far-out of the furthest-out avant garde jazz musicians of that era (and long past it) and in the mid-1960s he was on a creative hot streak that had been going on for quite some time. He met White while touring in France and agreed to do the soundtrack for Who’s Crazy? The trio improvised some nervous and beautifully chaotic music whilst watching the film as it was screened for them in the recording studio. A young Marianne Faithfull sings lyrics written especially for her by Ornette “Is God man? Is man God?” in a track titled “Sadness.”
But Coleman’s music—released as bootlegs in the late 70s and a Japanese CD in the early 90s—was not the only ancillary result of Tom White’s pre-hippie art film: English documentary filmmaker Dick Fontaine made his own short film, titled David, Moffett, and Ornette, about the soundtrack recording session. The film is an amazing treat, by far the most intimate portrait we have of this giant of jazz at the height of his powers. Comparable to being able to watch the master painting in The Mystery of Picasso or indeed the footage of Miles Davis and his Quintet similarly improvising as he watched Louis Malle’s film noir, Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (“Elevator to the Gallows”) unspool, we get to SEE a great musical genius at work and in Ornette’s case we see his fingers on his violin and piano (yes piano, an instrument Coleman never played on any album) and his lips on his horn. You get to see him THINK and it’s absolutely an extraordinary thing to be able to witness.
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