Thursday, December 20, 2007

Kenneth Anger: Not Gay, But On Fire Like A Phallic Sparkler In A World Full Of Damp Squibs, Baby

Kenneth Anger’s films may have drawn the template for male eroticism, but he is careful with his words. He doesn’t like the term “gay”.
“It’s a distortion of language. I discussed the term with Christopher Isherwood and he said he hated it. He didn’t like ‘gay’, because it removes a perfectly wonderful descriptive word and distorts it into something else. Nietzsche wrote a book called The Gay Science that has nothing to do with ‘gay’ in a sexual sense. And there’s a wonderful book written by Otis Skinner, when I was growing up, called Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, and that’s the proper meaning of the word gay. Now you can’t even mention the word gay without people doing a double-take. So I don’t use it, I don’t like it applied to myself, even though I certainly like men.”
Anger has earned the right to be curmudgeonly, even if his influence on the culture isn’t always acknowledged. If he is known at all, it’s as the author of two volumes of Hollywood Babylon, which took scurrilous pleasure in debunking the myths of tinseltown. (A third volume is written, but awaits a publisher who is unafraid of the church of Scientology).
Such ignorance is unfair; Anger’s hallucinatory imagery, full of artful juxtaposition and loaded symbolism, invented MTV decades before the advent of pop promos. He was using pop music ironically while David Lynch was still sucking popsicles.
Anger’s obscurity is partly explained by his habit of working outside the system. He has finished fewer films than he started, and the completed ones have not always been easy to find. Now, with his early work restored and collected on a Fantoma DVD (The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol 1), his status as a pioneering artist is made more obvious. The DVD includes Fireworks (1947), a dreamy film he made at the age of 17. The sexual imagery – a sailor with a phallic sparkler – was so powerful that Dr Alfred Kinsey bought a print, and Anger continues to make reports on sexual behaviour to the Kinsey Instutute. A recent trip to London included a visit to a gay porn cinema, which Anger found depressing. “It was just the usual overly-handsome blokes doing obvious things like sticking their fingers in holes.”
Anger prefers suggestion. His biker film Scorpio Rising (1964) became a test-case for cinematic censorship when it was found to have “redeeming social merit” by a California court, and there is no mistaking the eroticism in Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965), which applies a fetishistic polish to the behaviour of a group of auto enthusiasts. “They had this way of dressing. It’s not a striptease, it’s the opposite. They’d put on the rings and the leather jacket, a special belt and a chain, in a tribal way, until they felt they were sufficiently geared-up, and then they would go out. It was all very natural. Of course, that was back in the 60s. Now all this fashion – leather and all that - have been opted by fashion, just like tattoos have. You have girls with roses on their butts, and tattoos used to be just bikers and criminals.”
Today, these films would seem obviously camp, but Anger’s subjects had no awareness of the kind of fantasy they were being invited to inhabit.
“They’re not gay. I mean, I never tried to seduce them. I just choose men I find beautiful. So did Rodin. It doesn’t mean I’m trying to yank their clothes off.”
Though his films have always been fiercely independent, Anger has been immersed in Hollywood lore since childhood. He appeared in the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and was instantly seduced by the ability of the movies to create fantasy. His films embrace this as keenly as his books debunk the myths of Hollywood’s golden age.
“Between divorces Randolph Scott and Cary Grant were living together, and there were these photographs of them at home which are so campy. You know: with the apron on, making breakfast. Now you’d say: ‘What were they thinking?’ But there have always been stars who had to have an arranged marriage or whatever. [Name removed for legal reasons] used to cruise round in his turquoise blue Cadillac convertible, picking up high school boys – 15, 16 years old. That’s not exactly the thing to do if you’re a Hollywood star. But it never hurt his career.”
Anger’s career as a “film poet” (a usage borrowed from Cocteau) continues at its own erratic pace. He is currently finishing a film on the singer Elliot Smith, and using festival appearances to hawk his DVD. Even so, he seems determined to not to abandon his hard-won obscurity. “I have a phobia about electronics,” he declares. “People can write me a regular letter, but I have no email or website. I don’t want all that.”

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Denzel Washington: From Watching Jimmy Cagney To Playing Frank Lucas As A Gentleman Gangster In A Chinchilla Coat

Is Denzel Washington narked, or is he sparring? He is certainly dressed for action: in white sneakers, track-suit bottoms, and black t-shirt over a slight paunch, he looks like a pugilist between caught between rounds. But his posture – slumped deep in a sofa at the Dorchester Hotel – could barely be more passive.
I have suggested, innocently enough, that Washington had a wild spell in his mid-teens. He has sometimes alluded to this by telling the story of his three teenage friends. One of them died of Aids (from injecting drugs), one was murdered, and the other is in jail. Washington got into a few fights at this time, but was spared the fate of his friends by his mother, who scrimped to send him to a private school, where he excelled and discovered acting.
But he doesn’t tell that story today. When I mention this wayward period, he pushes himself up from the spongy depths of the sofa and offers an incredulous stare.
“Is that something you read?” he says, laughing dismissively.
Well, I say, did you not?
“I was a teenager growing up in New York,” he replies. “Yeah.”
The hostility comes wrapped in laughter, but it feels real enough. Let’s correct the story if it’s wrong, I suggest.
“Well, you’re throwing something out there. I was a teenager for five or six years, what are you asking?”
The truth is: Denzel Washington is both thoughtful and obtuse. He is, we may speculate, bored of carrying out his promotional duties for his leading role in Ridley Scott’s parable of 1970s New York, American Gangster. This is the second-last interview of his second-last day on the promotional charabanc, after which he can get back to editing his next film, which tells the story of Melvin B Tolson, who led the black team at Wiley College, Texas, to success at the 1935 national debating championships.
Washington is the director and the star of The Great Debaters, and it’s easy to see where it fits on his CV. As an actor he rose from a regular role on the hospital drama St Elsewhere to the first rank of Hollywood stars, and – not unlike ER-graduate George Clooney – used his celebrity to make films that were socially-responsible. Washington is most often thought of as a good guy; playing anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, or Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s biopic. In 1989 he won an Academy Award (Supporting Actor) for his performance as an ex-slave in one of the US Army’s black regiments during the Civil War in Glory. But his Best Actor Oscar – for Training Day, in which he played a corrupt cop - shows that he sometimes walks on the dark side. It is notable, too, that he won his biggest prize for it.
American Gangster is more controversial entirely. Washington plays Frank Lucas, the heroin dealer who ran organised crime in Harlem during the 1960s and 1970s, and built his fortune by cutting out the middle man, importing drugs directly from South East Asia in the coffins of dead American soldiers.
In the film, Washington spars with Russell Crowe (playing Richie Roberts, the straight-arrow detective who, in an extraordinary twist, later became Lucas’s attorney). Ostensibly the hero, Crowe is scruffy and inarticulate. Washington, as Lucas, is a kind of superfly cowboy, pimped-up and easily charismatic. He is the bad guy but, this being Hollywood, his misdeeds are easy to forgive, and strangely thrilling. I intend to mention this, but before I do, I throw Washington a soft question: what was appealing about this character?
There is a long silence before he answers. “That suggests that’s why I did the movie, because of the character, which is not true. I actually turned the film down, first time I read it.”
He took a second look when Training Day’s Antoine Fuqua was attached to the project, and came back to it a couple of years later when Ridley Scott was confirmed as director. It was, he says, the combination of Scott and Russell Crowe that snagged his interest. “It wasn’t so much: ‘Oh I’m so in love with the character I gotta do it.’”
But, I say, there are moral complexities about the character of Frank Lucas.
“Unlike life!” Washington says quickly, again with the dismissive laugh. “That’s what’s interesting. People say: do you feel bad, glamorising a drug dealer? Well, once you make a film you’re glamorising everybody. It’s a movie. There’s a score, there’s music playing as you walk down the street. But if it’s sending a message, which I’m not sure it is, at the end of the movie he’s a small broken man, alone. He comes out of jail with nothing and nobody’s around to meet him.”
Washington can talk in these circles forever. His speech is an odd mix of ebullience and diplomacy. He speaks forcefully, but often in the service of saying nothing very much. But then, as a leading black actor, he seems to be under greater scrutiny than a white actor in the equivalent position. No one challenged Robert De Niro for making Al Capone attractive in The Untouchables, but Washington’s turn as Lucas has provoked forceful condemnation from both sides of the argument. In the New York Daily News, the columnist Stanley Crouch called American Gangster “a highly crafted piece of poisonous eye candy”. The real Frank Lucas, Crouch wrote, was illiterate and couldn’t count; he plotted to kill his own brother and cried in court.
“I don’t comment on things I haven’t read,” Washington says when I quote the text. “But I know Stanley.”
Well, I suggest, what if I said these things to you?
“Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. And go, if that’s what you feel. I got no problem with that.”
On the other hand, the critic David Thomson has condemned Washington for playing in “garbage” such as American Gangster, and concluded a peculiar attack in The Guardian with the suggestion that: “I’ll believe in progress the day Denzel Washington plays a black man who has a full-blooded physical love affair with a white woman. And it’s promoted as a big picture.”
So, while Crouch condemns Washington for glorifying a bad black man, Thomson condemns him for not kissing white women. Russell Crowe, you can be sure, doesn’t attract brickbats like that.
In which case, let’s back up a little. Washington is, without qualification, one of the leading actors of his time. His easy good looks undoubtedly helped – he looks a decade younger than his 52 years – but he has earned his spurs. His father was a Pentecostal minister, who worked for the Water Department and a New York department store. His mother owned a beauty parlour and was raised in Harlem. Washington has talked about how his mother used to tell him how heroin brought Harlem to its knees, and how “people who once stood proud ended up lying on their backs”.
Today, he is less-expansive. “First of all, understand, Harlem is a great community. There’s millions of people that live in Harlem. And this part of the story is not the Harlem story. A whole lot of things were going on in Harlem other than Frank Lucas and the heroin business.”
Washington says he has “great memories” of growing up. “I love New York. I’m a New Yorker, first, last and always. The same streets that we were filming on for this film, we were on the same block filming Malcolm X. So I know those streets, and a lot of the people in ’em. A lot of fond memories.”
Much has been made of the divorce of Washington’s parents, which occurred when he was 14. Was that not a difficult time?
“You’re reading too much. Don’t base your interview on what you read on the internet, man. It’s not that deep.”
It wasn’t a significant breach in his life?
“I’m not here to talk about that. Come on. Do you wanna talk about the movie? I’m here to talk about the movie. Not what I did at 14 years old. It’s nobody’s business, quite frankly. And I don’t say that because it’s that deep. It’s not that big a deal. It was 40 years ago.”
In which case, we had better get back to American Gangster. It is a typical Ridley Scott film, big and bold, stronger on mood than nuance, but satisfyingly epic. Washington is great, although the aura of goodness he brings to the role probably does make Frank seem a finer fellow than a murderous drug dealer has any right to expect.
In the movie, Frank’s fortunes turn on a moment of over-confidence, when his beauty queen wife persuades him to wear a chinchilla coat to the Ali-Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden. I tell Washington that this seems to be the moment when everything starts to go wrong.
“That’s where you thought he goes wrong? Not when he shot the man in the head?!”
The coat was a tactical error.
“Frank told me that was a big mistake, wearing that coat. It’s a bit of a twist on the story. What he said actually happened was, number one, his wife didn’t give him the coat. There were a lot of big shot gangsters coming to town for the big Ali-Frazier fight and the New York gangsters weren’t going to be outdone. He wasn’t always that flash guy, but for that event, he was going to play the role. So Frank Matthews, who was another big drug dealer, was there at the fight. Frank said: Sinatra was over here, Miles Davis, all these big shots. And Matthews was like: well I’m betting $100,000 on Frazier. Lucas liked Ali – he said I’ve got $200 000 on Ali. They’re yelling. Frank said: ‘Denzel we’re yelling so everybody could hear us.’ Well, little did he know, the Feds were watching Frank Matthews.
“And so, the Feds were like, well who is this guy that can bet half a million dollars, wearing this chinchilla coat? And they thought, he’s probably some small drug-drealer pimp, but wait a minute, this guy’s got better seats than your Mob guys. Who the heck is this guy?
“And Frank’s nature; he said: I had to be the biggest guy in the room. He said to me, if there was a party and I knew you were going, I wouldn’t go. He said his own ego was the beginning.”
Washington grew to know Lucas during filming, and considers him to be “a very interesting, complex man” who “did a lot of damage and paid the price for it”. Yet Lucas was gifted a house by Washington and producer Brian Grazer. Why?
“He asked for a Rolls-Royce. I promised him four years ago. He talked me into it. And I’m a man of my word. So when we came back to shoot the movie, he wouldn’t let me forget.
“And his oldest son said: listen, my father’s dirt poor. He doesn’t need a Roller, he can’t drive it anyway. He needs a roof over his head. So I said: all right, let me see what I can do.”
This rewarding of a criminal seems a more objectionable aspect of American Gangster than convoluted arguments about Washington’s responsibilities as a role model, but he remains unapologetic.
“He’s a criminal who went to jail. So, in theory when you go to jail, you served your time. This is 40 years later. I didn’t give it to him in 1974. I gave it to him in 2006. Why? Can you not help somebody out?”
The other aspect of Stanley Crouch’s argument is a comparison between American Gangster and Brian De Palm’s Scarface. Scarface’s amoral Tony Montana has, Crouch feels, been a pernicious influence on the rap generation, and Washington’s Frank Lucas crackles with the same malign energy.
“I must say that when I was a kid, I loved Cagney movies, Bogart movies,” Washington says. “There’s always been a fascination with gangster movies. There wasn’t an outlet like the hip-hop generation has now.”
On the link between violence and films, Washington says this: “‘Raise your kids,’ is my answer to that. That’s what I’m doing. Raise your own kids.”
Washington has four children, aged between 16 and 23, by his wife, actress Pauletta Pearson, who he met on the set of the 1977 TV movie, Wilma.
“I watched Bogart films, but I watched them at home. Dad was working, mom was upstairs. So the bottom line is, raise your kids. The fundamental problem we have right now is that parents aren’t raising their kids. Fathers aren’t there. That’s more of a crime than which movie you watch. The reason a movie like a Scarface can take hold on a young man or woman’s life is probably because they don’t have any other stronger influence than that. The first thing you hear when you talk to young kids that have joined gangs is that they didn’t have that strong influence at home. They have more of a sense of family with a gang.”
We talk in circles about Lucas, and Washington says that he was an awful man, but that now he is “literally broken in body”, and has had everything taken away from him. At the same time, Washington notes that Lucas is a churchgoer. “Some might argue he’s been overly glamorised, but my record speaks for itself.”
It does. And the fact that so many sparks are flying from American Gangster is a sign of Washington’s significance as an actor. He makes popular cinema of satisfying complexity. Next up is a remake of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three directed by Ridley’s brother, Tony Scott, with – Washington hopes – John Travolta co-starring.
As Washington’s mood brightens, I tell him that while I was waiting to see him, I listened to the female radio interviewers comparing notes on their time with him. One complimented him on his soft hands, the other replied that he had very white teeth.
He is greatly amused.
“I don’t do any hard work and I brush my teeth every day! People have told me that all along: soft hands and feet. I guess it’s because I don’t do any real hard work. But even when I lift weights I don’t seem to get heavily calloused.”
I tell him that my conversation with him reminded me of the time I interviewed the author Walter Mosley on the day of the OJ Simpson verdict. When I asked Mosley about OJ, the author spent ten minutes explaining why the question was racist. Washington, who starred in the adaptation of Mosley’s Devil In A Blue Dress, nods slowly.
“It is a sensitive thing, and you know, you don’t want to be corralled by what part you can play, or can’t play. Like I said, my record speaks for itself.”
And with that, the great debater sinks back into the sofa to await the man from the Irish Times. “I’m gonna stay right here in this position,” he purrs. “I’m not moving.”

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vic Godard: Dressed Like A Wartime Confectioner, But Still Opposing All Rock'n'Roll

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I don't really do punk nostalgia, as there's very little to be said for 50 year old men trying to recapture the spit and venom of their misspent youth, but Vic Godard has always been a special case. I saw him twice back then, with the Subway Sect. Once, supporting somebody (Elvis Costello maybe), and it was just at the point where punk became New Wave, and emetic fury became a blow-dried haircut and a skinny tie, and the Subway Sect came out dressed in dustbin grey, with coordinating rips in their jumpers, and they sounded like friction and sparks and art, with little shards of poetry squeezed out between the noise. And then, much later, I was camping in Paris and living on bread and pretending to read Le Monde in the tent and the rain, and I saw a poster for a concert by The Clash, who were playing at the Theatre Mogador, an ancient old wedding cake that was about to be demolished, and it was Sandinista!-era Clash, but that was OK, because I'd never seen them, and if you listen to that record there are enough great moments to make the indulgence worthwhile, and on the bill were The Beat and The Subway Sect, who by that time had turned into a French cafe jazz band, and Vic was crooning like Vic Damone, or Tony Bennett, or somebody, albeit with a less than expert control of the notes, and it was perfect, because this was Paris, and this was punk, and this was youth, and the Clash has a huge backdrop with ladders, and Futura 2000 was up there with his spraycans painting a graffiti skyline while they played. And it was great, a rush, and a thrill. And at the end, I was standing in the foyer, all ripped up with the strangeness of it all, when the Subway Sect came out and started handing out flyers for a jazz show they were doing later, but I didn't go, because the tent in the rain was waiting.
And so, a thousand years later, I go to see Edwyn Collins, who is great, and has a Muttley laugh, and a set full of songs that sound sadder than they ever did - like Falling and Laughing - because of Edwyn's illness. But at 8pm on the dot, out come Vic and the Subway Sect, dressed now like confectioners from a John Boorman movie about England in the war, and they play Ambition, their greatest song, but without the blooping organ, and it sounds rough and broken and spiky, and vital still. Later, on the stairs, Vic Godard walks past me, but I don't see him. I am still shook up, and surprised, and oddly happy. It is raining, obviously.

Monday, November 12, 2007

If You Really Want To Get Straight, Read Norman Mailer, Get A New Tailor (RIP, Norman)

Norman Mailer lives in a brick house on the left side of a wooden street, by the shore in Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod. His house is not hard to find. Drive past it, I was warned, and you'll end up in England.
Mailer was on the phone when I arrived, but he came to the door, walking slowly and heavily like a giant crab. He was wearing a denim shirt, open at the neck to reveal a snatch of white hair on red skin. There were chinos, tightly belted, and lace-up black shoes.
He put me on the sofa. Under a cushion there was a hardback by Zadie Smith and a pair of reading glasses. Mementoes everywhere. To the left, a proud display of family photos, the flashlit grins of the underexposed Mailers. To the right, a small painting of the author, his white hair flecked like surf. I was looking out to sea through the salt-streaked glass when Mailer emerged from the next room. "This," he said, motioning out to the grey brightness, "is as dull as it gets."
Provincetown is a fishing town where no-one fishes. Instead, it relies for its existence on tourism, and the fact that it has become the gay capital of the east coast. Commercial Street, the main drag, is like one of Pat Buchanan's nightmares: a clapboard idyll promenaded by gay couples and gym-toned cruisers riding mountain bikes against the flow of traffic.
Mailer has lived in the town for 15 years, but he first came in 1942. He arrived by train with his girlfriend Beatrice Silverman (who later became his wife, the first of six) and after a good weekend, they pledged that when the war ended they would spenda summer in the town.
That was the summer he started writing The Naked and the Dead, the book that made him a star.
"Agreeable things happened in Provincetown," he says. "It has always been the free-est small town in America. People took it for granted that marriages ended here and new marriages began. People lived together. In those days it didn't matter if you were gay. That you could also do."
Mailer, of course, shows no sign of being gay. Indeed, he may take an amount of pride from the fact that, in a town with such relaxed mores, he remains a misfit, a macho in khakis.
Sex, he calls "the great divide".
"Most women are totally opposed to the idea that being a man is a matter of substance and vigour, and think that they're just all brutes. But I am a great believer in opposition. The idea that you get the men to be exactly like the women is part of the horror right now. They had this women's revolution and they opened up a great deal for themselves, and where did they go? They've all gone to the corporation. There are the women all dressed in those little black uniforms with their laptop computers o n the aeroplane, trying to take over the corporation, which they won't be able to do very well, because it takes a big man to lose.
A mediocre man holds on to what he's got. And most people who work for the corporation lean more toward the mediocre than the huge and impressive.
"Women have sold their revolution for a mess of pottage, the corporation. They are more like men now than they used to be, and less interesting as a result.
"Put it this way: this is very romantic and old-fashioned, but the combination of the fire in a man and the profundity of a woman - human nature finds its best potential in that. Not in two people that are virtually interchangeable."
Mailer's approach to life is founded, he says, in a remark made by Somerset Maugham. "He said that nobody was any better than they ought to be. And I lived with that remark for a while, and then I decided no, that unless people are a little better than they ought to be, or a little worse, then the universe is nothing but an elaborate crock. So, I think you should be a little better than you ought to be. That's what manhood's all about. Being slightly more manly than the role of the dice predicted fo r you."
At the age of 77, with his legs and his hearing fading, Mailer's reputation has reached a plateau. He is the heavyweight champion of literature in a culture where books don't seem to matter. He keeps putting them out, sparring with big themes, but his efforts are grudgingly received and the value of his early work is open to revision.
His career seems to have been a long preparation for the Great American Novel, although none of his books has yet been accepted as that. But still he keeps jabbing away.
Mailer's contribution to the process of re-evaluation, the 1998 greatest hits album The Time of Our Time, was grandiose and brilliant, confusing and frustrating. It mixed Mailer's journalism with his fiction, splicing old material with new. In the end, it was hard to know what was true and what wasn't, which may have been the point. If the muscularity of Mailer's prose is put on one side, it becomes clear that his fiction has been grounded in truth, and his reporting flecked with invention.
It's a small claim, and one he may not care to make, but Mailer's subjectivity makes him the father of New Journalism. In his essay Superman Comes to the Supermarket, he employed a Rolodex of adjectives to conjure up the muddy fug of American politics. In The Naked and the Dead, he conjured the word "fug" to denote an expletive that would otherwise have been deleted. It is a mark of how far we have travelled that the f-word might be deemed too shocking to print (in a book, at least), but in other ar eas,the culture seems to have rolled back from the world of "hip" which Mailer chronicled. Mind-expansion has given way to the war on drugs, Muhammad Ali has been replaced by Mike Tyson, Marilyn Monroe by Madonna, John F Kennedy by Bill Clinton.
Mailer, an evangelist for marijuana, says this about drugs: "America's always spoken of as a puritanical country, but if it were really a puritanical country, everything would be much more clear-cut. You'd be on one side or you'd be on the other. The trouble is, this is a half-puritanical country. Even the people who are puritanical are only half-puritanical. And so, because of that, there's a terrible anxiety to be puritanical about certain things. It's almost as if they divide the pie. You've got to be puritanical about this, and not about that.
"Most of the people who are against drugs have a terrible fear that if they took them they'd become deranged and go out and kill their spouses.
And the other half of the fear is that the blacks are, in their minds, associated with drugs. And that there is" - he adopts a gruff, patrician voice - "this problem that we good Americans have. That's the way they think. So there's nothing they can do about drugs. They'd have to face in to the fact that there are whole groups of people in this country whose lives are so essentially without promise that the only excitement in their lives is the deep promise they feel on drugs. Anyone who has ever taken drugs knows that you realise how extraordinary you are. For a little while. And this feeling of being extraordinary is why people go to drugs. That's why it's so hard to eradicate it, because if you eradicate it, what have you got?"
Mailer's advocacy of drugs is unfashionable and almost quaint, but it is founded on good intentions. It was, he says, part of an effort to get closer to the nature of God in a world where the Holocaust and the gulags and the threat of nuclear destructionmade the possibility of a beneficent all-powerful force hard to believe in. "And when you take drugs you begin to feel closer to huge, numinous forces that you can't quite name, but you feel as if you are in the presence of something much larger than yourself."
Mailer's great subject is fame. He has pondered the curves of Marilyn, taken the temperature of Madonna and looked at Jack Kennedy from both ends of the rifle. In the Executioner's Song, he saw fame refracted through the death wish of a bad man, the killer Gary Gilmore.
I suggest to Mailer that the triumph of fame in our culture is related to a collapse of faith in God.
"Well," he says, "fame: there are black tribes in Africa that believe that if you're successful it's because God either believes in you, or has rewarded you, or likes you. So successful people are immensely admired, And I think that's true here now. There's a feeling of 'Donald Trump is closer to God than I am'. Perhaps Donald feels that."
Norman Mailer's fame began suddenly. It wasn't something he expected, and by the time he got used to it, the light was beginning to dim.
"It started with The Naked and the Dead. I was 25. On the one hand I'd written the book, but on the other I had absolutely no idea what it was like to be a success. I always thought I would be working away. Maybe I could make a success of writing, maybe I couldn't. I hoped I could. And this was a huge success. It was Number 1 on the bestseller list for a long time and I was a celebrity. It was absolutely unthinkable. I made the remark that I felt as if I was secretary to someone named Norman Mailer, andto meet him they had to meet me first.
"It took a long time to realise that fame and celebrity, which I had shunned and disliked in the beginning, got to be an acquired appetite.
As the Marquis De Sade said once, there's no pleasure greater than that obtained from a conquered repugnance. So celebrity and fame became a conquered repugnance, and then I began to want more and more of it.
"Well, about the time I wanted more and more of it, my star was beginning to go over the horizon because my second book was a big failure. I was, say, eight years out from The Naked and the Dead. and people said: 'Oh poor guy, he's a has-been, he's through, he had one book in him', all that.
"About that time I began to realise that celebrity and fame did have their values and their virtue. And one of them was that being a celebrity was great for one-night stands. But it took me, oh, maybe ten years before I really began to feel that when people meet me they are meeting somebody called Norman Mailer. As well. Rather than that the two were separate."
Does that mean he had to live up to the image of himself?
"You have to adopt yourself. And then of course, further down the road, you can begin to realise that you are cut off from normal life now, because people won't look at you the same way. On the other hand, what it had given me was a sense of how ... not tenuous, not fragile... how delicate, perhaps, is identity. And that I now had another identity. And so my experience was now of interest, and I could use it, because I could now write about the identity of people who had a certain amount of power.
"Very slowly over the years you begin to acquire some of the sophistication you need to be a celebrity. It's a very odd position.
Most actors get the bends. I was shot out of a cannon."
Pursuit of fame wasn't his end?
"No. Probably at one point I got much more interested in maintaining my fame. Fame maintenance." He laughs. Ack Ack. "Now there's a new concept.
Fame maintenance. Because although the fame has its disagreeable
aspects: I once said that fame is a microphone in your mouth, that's all it is in most daily situations. It isn't that agreeable having the fame, but it sure is disagreeable losing it."
But fame maintenance is PR.
"But I don't like PR. I've never had public relations. Things were bad enough without having public relations put into the equation. Actually, the worst stories ever told about me were put out by other people's public relations people. People come up to me and say: 'Hey, is that true, what Tallulah Bankhead said to you'? She was reputed to have met me and said: 'Oh, you're the young man who doesn't know how to spell 'f***'.' So, for years people would come up to me, and I would say:
'I've never met Tallulah Bankhead'. I'd say it with gritted teeth."
So we talk about Madonna. Mailer's interview with Madonna is one of the stranger interludes in his career. It happened after Madonna appeared on the David Letterman show and was castigated for swearing several times.
Mailer admired her spunk and was dispatched to meet her. The resulting story is dominated by Mailer's personality. He is bigger and brighter than the star he is supposed to be charting. But he does not accept my suggestion that Madonna is a rough-edged facsimile of Marilyn Monroe.
"They're very different. Madonna's much more of a warrior, much more.
Marilyn lived in a different period and women had to be much more circumspect, but she had a quiet sense of how to promote herself.
Madonna is just angry about a lot of elements, she has ideas, she wants those ideas to prevail and so she pushes them forward. She's much more of an ideological activist than Marilyn was."
But he did compare Madonna to Princess Diana.
"Yeah. That was more a matter of looks. I saw an odd similarity in the looks. You can't see it in all photographs."
We talk about politics. Mailer tells me a story about meeting John McCain, the Arizona senator who ran a populist campaign for the Republican nomination against George W Bush. Mailer was impressed by McCain, so much so that he approached him at a book party, something he rarely does. As he waited to speak to McCain, he noticed he was flexing his neck, bobbing from side to side. Finally, he came face to face with the senator. "After a moment or two," Mailer recalls, "I said to him:
'Senator, did you everdo any boxing?' He said: 'Yes, I did some in the navy.' And then he looked at me and he grinned, and he said: 'I was a mediocre boxer'." Mailer laughs. "And I grinned, and I said: 'So was I'.
"Well, that was the first time in my life that I ever described myself as a mediocre boxer. 'Cause it's not something you do. If you box, you don't speak of yourself as mediocre. It's like, can you imagine a guy saying 'I'm a mediocre lover'? I was struck with the candour. And I was relieved when I said, yes, so was I. Because that put something in place for me forever. Yes, that's what I was. I was a mediocre boxer. That puts a little bit of the ego to rest. The ego needs more sleep than any other part of us."
Had he never said that before?
"Never said it before. And I'd never heard anyone say it before."
The trouble with politics, Mailer says, was that the morals were all eaten out by the termites of political correctness.
"There's a saying on Broadway that if there's anything more obscene than a failure on Broadway, it's a success. And that's also true in politics.
You have to succeed because there's absolutely no second life if you fail. So they do everything they can towin, in such a way that they degrade the political process. In the old days, the political process was corrupt. You had old political bosses who would determine a lot of what would happen. But at least what they had, corrupt as they were, was they ha d acertain kind of practical life wisdom. Whereas now, people are just bending to every new current that's out there. For example, the Democratic Party has been gutted out entirely by women's liberation.
"[Al] Gore, I must say, reminds me prodigiously of Richard Nixon. This is nothing to do with his politics. Gore has the same fatal thing that Nixon had that made people dislike Nixon and distrust him. Which is, Nixon never could say anything spontaneously. The thought 'go f*** yourself' would occur to him, and he'd censor it, and he'd say 'next question'. But you always felt that pause, where he censored it. And Gore's the same way."
I tell Mailer I saw Gore give a speech at the HQ of Timberland, in New Hampshire. He was a vision in oatmeal.
"You're making fun of the food I eat each morning for breakfast."
But he was dressed in Timberland clothes. No politician in Britain would wear the company's clothes.
"Well look at the kids here; they wear logos on their T-shirts to advertise the company they bought it from. I remember when my youngest son was about 13. He was wearin', oh, I forget, one of the people who sell T-shirts. I said to him: 'John, would you wear a T-shirt that said 'Norman Mailer' on it? He said: 'Hey Dad, cut it out'. I said: 'Well, you're wearing this company's name. You not only buy their shirt, but now you advertise them'. He said: 'Dad, you just don't get it'.
"Now he's through college and ... he was marching on Washington with the other people who were opposed to global capitalism. But it's a sign of the brainwashing that's going on with the corporations. So that most people think you're ahead of the game if you're lined up with the corporation. I mean, they talk about how the Russians used to brainwash people. It's nothing compared to how we've brainwashed our young people."
I suggest that it is a voluntary process.
"No, no," he says, meaning "yes, yes". "People really want to join the corporation. They applaud at graduations if they hear you're going to work for some big Wall Street firm. This has truly became a wholly capitalist, market-driven corporate country."
He says this with a smile, and a shrug of resignation. Is the sense of moral disgust which illuminates his work beginning to wane? No, he says, he feels it more strongly the older he gets.
"But people get so weary of hearing you complain. Moral disgust has very little to offer in a period of economic prosperity. Most people never begin to have enough money, so when they finally start beginning to have enough money the last thing they want is for somebody to come along and
say: 'Well, this isn't going to work either.' So in that sense my moral disgust is intense.
"A lot of people," he says, meaning himself, "when they're young think that their ideas are going to have an enormous effect - the shape of what is to come. And then they discover as they get older that, indeed, you have very little effect. You don't getany wiser as you get older.
It's horrendous. The fact is that everything I've hated has triumphed and succeeded.
"Think of it. I hate plastic. It's everywhere now. I hate those high-rise buildings that have about as much architectural distinction as a box of Kleenex. I hate superhighways. I hate the plastic interior of aeroplanes. I hate the whole notion of living your life in the market.
"Everything has won that I contested. So ... I once wrote a line in The Naked and the Dead. 'He felt the kind of merriment that men know when events have ended, in disaster.' I have that kind of merriment. That line is true. One of the pleasures of writing is that you discover that something you wrote, at the moment you wrote it you didn't even know why you were writing it, turns out to be true, 20, 30, 50 years later.
That's not bad. So I'm sort of merry these days."
He straightens up in his cane chair and looks out at the sea.
"Aw, to hell with it, piss on it."
(Published in The Scotsman Weekend, 22 July, 2000)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Banksy, a boy with a pizza slice, and Dudley D Watkins

Banksy boy
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
It was like Piccadilly Circus up at the new Banksy - a woman with a ten billion megapixel camera, a ladder, and a 4x4; a mum phone-picturing her boy; a pensioner stopping to admire the view. Everybody was happy. Up close, you can see that Banksy is deeply indebted to Oor Wullie.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Donovan and David Lynch

Sanderson Hotel, London, 23/10/07. My phone was ringing in my pocket as I took this picture. "Does that feel good?" David Lynch asked in his best Ronald Reagan voice.
For more Lynch wisdom, see

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Razor Blade

Razor Blade
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
I was walking round Clarksdale, Mississippi, when this car pulled up and stopped. "My name's Razor Blade," the driver said, "do you want to hear the real blues?" I asked Razor Blade if I could take his picture. "Not in the car," he said, "cos then everyone'll see that I drive a Toyota."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Warhol, Money, and the Emperor's New Clothes: The Art of Gavin Turk

Gavin Turk
Originally uploaded by Herschell Hershey
The whites of Gavin Turk’s eyes are red. It is the afternoon after the night before, and the artist is wearing the same T-shirt he had on at the opening of his latest exhibition, Me As Him. Monday blurred into Tuesday with a karaoke session to celebrate the fact that all but two of the works in the show had sold at £23,000 each (with another going on Wednesday morning). Not a bad return for a set of screenprints in which Turk pays “homage” to Warhol, putting his own face beneath the fright-wig of the Pop pioneer.
A few days later, I see Turk again, at the Art Car Boot Fair on Brick Lane; a kind of summer fete for Young British Artists, some of whom are younger than others. On one side of the old Truman Brewery car park, Peter Blake is selling inkjet prints for £25. Turk has been more ambitious. He has taken a literal interpretation of the theme, and is hawking signed “Art Car Boots” – the tailgates of wrecked vehicles – at £1000 a go. He sells 15 of these in little more than an hour, which is nice work, if you can get it.
His studio is an unprepossessing shed on a winding industrial road in East London, stuffed with artistic flotsam. There are silkscreens of Turk as Warhol’s Elvis, cabinets loaded with casts of the artist’s face, and a realist bronze, which looks exactly like a box of Boddington’s ale, until you lift it up. In a drawer, you may find chewing gum cufflinks, or bronze polystyrene cups. An almost-completed sculpture of Turk as a Buckingham Palace bandsman, with red tunic and beaver hat, lurks in a side-room, near the marionettes of Warhol, Beuys, Duchamp, and a tastleless art collector called Scratchi, used in his Beckett-inspired puppet show Waiting For Gavo. Scratchi, whose resemblance to any person living or dead is surely coincidental, arrived on stage with the line: “I would not associate with artists such as yourselves unless you were going to make me a great deal of money.”
Turk’s prominence among the YBAs, of course, was cemented by Charles Saatchi’s Sensation exhibition, which included his sculpture Pop (the artist as Sid Vicious) and Cave, the spoof English Heritage plaque he entered as his degree show at the Royal College of Art, reading “Borough of Kensington: Gavin Turk, Sculptor, Worked Here 1989-1991”. (He failed his degree).
Sensation came at the height of the YBA hype, and felt, Turk says, “like Charles Saatchi consolidating his project. It was a bit odd, actually, because it didn’t have anything to do with the art. At that apex moment, I felt absolutely distant from it.”
Since then, Turk has been in the slipstream of the YBA superstars Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, perhaps because he has been less adept at self-promotion. One of Turk’s works was a fake cover of Hello! “The suggestion was that you achieved fame and glory through art, and you’d become a celebrity, so you were inviting people in to look at photographs of you and your house. In a weird way this is more what people want to see – and not the thing that made you famous in the first place. So, it’s almost as if success breeds failure”.
He is quick to point out that he isn’t criticising Hirst or Emin. “They’re massive now. And they’re personalities – probably Tracey more than Damien. But Tracey’s personality and her work are synonymous. Her work is exposing her personality. My project is more distant. I make work which is about being an artist. It’s almost as if I’m not sure whether I am or not.”
It has been a good summer for this Turk. A fortnight ago, his Dumb Candle sculpture – a five-inch section of broom handle carved into the shape of an extinguished candle – won the £25000 Charles Wollaston Award at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, earning comparisons with Magritte and Duchamp. That win has boosted his profile and inflated his prices, at a time of astonishing activity in the London art market, headed by the crowning of Damien Hirst as the world’s most expensive living artist, with the sale of a pill cabinet for £9.6m. Over £400m was spent in a record-breaking week of London art auctions last month.
Turk is philosophical about the money which is sloshing around. “The value of Damien’s work is something that a lot of people have been working on, very hard, for many years. The value of an artwork is what people are prepared to pay for it. And yes, it’s all about financial confidence and futures and various kind of esoteric things. It seems fair enough. I’m shocked, but I can understand it.”
Certainly, Turk is smart enough to play the market. The value of those car boots is, if one is generous, in the concept. If one is cynical, it’s a lot of money for an autograph. Before I can frame this question, Turk has started answering it.
“Everyone’s obsessed with the idea of the Emperor’s new clothes, and because there’s this sense that you’re not able to see what it is that makes it art, then people are being cheated. To start with the Emperor’s new clothes: I find it annoying that the Emperor being naked can’t actually be OK. What’s wrong with the birthday suit? And what gets pointed out is that the king is deluded. But he’s perfectly happy in his delusion. Somehow, I don’t really care. If I see something and I’m motivated intellectually, that’s what counts. In that sense, it can’t be a con. It’s got to be good.”
He is not entirely glib about the vast fortunes which are being invested in art. “It’s a sign that there is an apex section of society that has lots of disposable income. That’s rather a scary thought, because as one section of society has all this money, there is a larger section of society which has nothing.”
Art, he says, “has an uneasy relationship to money. On some levels it just doesn’t exist in the same place. I don’t ever go into the situation of making an artwork because I’m going to sell it. I make artworks because I need to feel those things existed in the world for me. That’s on a spiritual level. But if you sell the work, people kind of respect it because it has a financial value.”
This must surely be the case with Turk’s bin bag sculptures, made of bronze, but designed to look exactly like bags of rubbish, with a price tag of £30,000. (Hirst’s agent, Frank Dunphy, keeps one of these at the foot of his stairs, and proclaims them to be “genius”).
“Obviously, in selling a filled bin bag that looks like a filled bin bag, it’s contained within the thing itself that intellectually you, go, ‘Oh, it’s just rubbish,’” says Turk. He compares the process to the Warhol pictures: if the viewer gets the joke straight away, then – he hopes – they will be free to divine some deeper meaning. It does seem to be a circular process, though, as Turk works within the reference points of art. And what is the deeper meaning of those car boots? You might decide that they are to do with the throwaway society, or the power of celebrity, or – and this seems most plausible with Turk’s work – the nature of art itself. Which is possibly more interesting to art students than the broader populace. When I suggest to Turk that his theories sound fuzzy, he replies: “But did you study art history?”
Last year, his contribution to the Art Car Boot Fair was signed Rich Tea biscuits, at £25 a dunk. When I ask him how a biscuit becomes art, he offers a lengthy explanation, to do with the cultural history of Britain as a tea-drinking nation, the landscape, Constable and Henry Moore, William Morris, and Ruskinian romanticism. Importantly, the biscuits had a bite out of them. “The bite was almost like the loss of innocence, it was the bite of the apple. And I liked the circularity of the biscuit.” Possibly noting my bafflement, he concludes: “It seemed to make sense at the time.”
By his own account, Turk became an artist by accident. At school (a grammar in Ashstead, Surrey, followed by Sixth Form college), he had to resit his O-levels. “I ended up with an art A-level and 14 O-levels. My CV’s a bit like I’ve done time.”
Turk’s uncertain journey through the educational process saw him progress through various levels of art school, before washing up in Shoreditch just as the YBA movement was bursting into life. He has happy memories of the time before the hype, when today’s celebrity artists were just students, putting on shows in makeshift galleries. With art prices in the stratosphere, and Shoreditch now operating as a trendy dormitory for the City, all of that seems far away.
“I feel very nostalgic about Shoreditch. I arrived in the mid-90s, and we got this very cheap warehouse apartment. Everything was for rent. The industry that was there had died and it hadn’t picked up. When we arrived, there was nothing there. There was The London Apprentice, which was a big dark weird pub on the corner of Old Street, which has become 333. That was open late. Opposite there was a takeaway pizza place called The Great American Success. There was the Bricklayers’ Arms, which was a little pub, where if you took a cassette in, the guy behind the bar would put it on. There was the Barley Mow. That was it, though. There was no Cantaloupe. No Cargo. No Rivington Bar and Grill.
“But the whole area picked up really fast. On a commercial level, with the bars and the night-time economy it’s become a second West End. I think that maybe it was inevitable – maybe it’s good. It couldn’t really stay as it was.
“Shoreditch was just too close to the City to be a bohemian ghetto. It’s just too convenient. It could never have survived. But London’s becoming one of the most expensive places to live. In the end, it’ll just be the few who can who end up living here. Everyone else will have to go away, to the countryside. But that’s all right. We can go and grow vegetables, and be self-sustained.”
With those vegetables in mind, he goes off to phone his agent.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Hilly Kristal RIP: Patti Smith on the founder of the legendary New York punk club, CBGBs, who has died, aged 75

"In 1974, there was nowhere for a young rock band with any innovative ideas to play in New York City. Sometimes we would get a slot opening a folk act or a cabaret act or a transvestite singer. That’s as much as you could hope for. Max’s Kansas City had a little stage upstairs. Mostly it was folk music. We were lucky ’cause we got a lot of chances ’cause Phil Ochs liked us, ’cause we were all anti-war. Sometimes we’d play in an art gallery or somebody’s rooftop, but there wasn’t really any place to explore what you were doing night after night.
“Then I met Richard Hell and he told me he had this band Television, and he really wanted me to see it, at this place called CBGBs, which was down on the Bowery near where William Burroughs lived. I knew just where it was ’cause I used to visit William all the time. Easter of 1974, I went in there with Lenny Kaye to see this band, not knowing what to expect, ’cause what was CBGBs? It was this crappy little place with a bar and a stage, and there was about nine people there, (CBGBs’ founder) Hilly Kristal bein’ one of them, me and Lenny bein’ two of them. I saw Television. And I said: that’s it. This is what we are doing. This is present-future. Truly, the group was so great. So we traded off – Max’s Kansas City gave us the chance to play for a couple of weeks – we asked Television to come and play with us. People liked it, then we went back to CBGBs. We weren’t the biggest people that came out of CBGBs, but I do know that we were the first band to fill it. After we filled it, it was hardly ever unfilled.
“What Hilly did was give us a place where could do what we wanted – I could explore all the poetry, and rock’n’roll I wanted. I didn’t have to watch my language, I didn’t have to watch my concepts. I could talk about political or poetic or sexual things – whatever excited or interested us. Hilly slept in that place in a cot, lived in the worst circumstances for years. And that was his life. He put up with so much crap, and the place was noisy, smelly, and not much money was made. Our tickets were $2, and he gave us a portion of that.
“Hilly went for years to shepherd us."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

"People Make Compromises And Keep Going": The Precarious Life Of Joyce Carol Oates

In the epilogue of The Gravedigger’s Daughter – the epic story of a woman’s life of violence, misery and survival – Joyce Carol Oates abruptly changes course to make a few points about autobiography. Her character, Freyda Morgenstern, a professor who has written a blockbusting memoir of her flight from the Holocaust, confesses that the story which has made her famous is not strictly true. “It was a text I composed of words chosen for ‘effect’.”
At this point, Oates seems to be writing to herself. Because although The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a work of fiction, it is dedicated to the author’s grandmother Blanche Morgenstern, whose father was a gravedigger, and whose life runs parallel to that of her heroine, Rebecca (who later changes her name to Hazel Jones).
Oates’s grandmother was a vital figure in her life. It was Blanche who gifted young Joyce her first serious book, Alice in Wonderland, followed – when Joyce was 14 – by a typewriter. If Oates was writing her life story for Hollywood, the symbolism of this moment would need no elaboration. It was the point at which her childish introversion, and her love of literature, turned into something more serious.
From tapping out those early stories about the animals on the family farm in upstate New York, Oates became one of the pre-eminent writers in the US, winning the National Book Award in 1970 for them, which chronicled a family on the fringes of the 1967 Detroit riots: Oates and her husband, book editor Raymond Smith, lived two blocks from the burning buildings in Detroit. (At this point in the biopic, the camera might fade from the awards ceremony to a sepia image of a waif-child pulling paper from her typewriter, and reading it to her smiling grandma).
Having achieved literary pre-eminence, Oates didn’t relax. At 69, she remains astonishingly prolific, while also working as a professor of humanities at Princeton University. In 1996, her short stories were recognised with the PEN/Malamud lifetime achievement award, and she continues to balance a literary sensibility with mainstream popularity, brilliantly re-imagining the interior life Marilyn Monroe in Blonde in 2000, and plunging deep into the mainstream in 2001, when We Were The Mulvaneys was patronised by Oprah Winfrey’s book club.
Oates has a habit, on completing a manuscript, of filing it away to see how it matures. The Gravedigger’s Daughter stayed in the drawer for longer than usual. “It’s so much personal material,” she says. “And it seemed very important to me and very close to my heart. It’s an ambivalent thing, because when you write you do want people to read it eventually. But you do feel very vulnerable, and almost reluctant to publish it. This is not the case usually.”
Looking back at her grandmother’s life, Oates realised she didn’t know her. “I knew her as someone like Hazel Jones, who is very warm and gracious and generous, but who seemed to have no personal life, no history. She never talked about herself.”
At this point, her voice begins to crack.
“It’s just very hard to talk about. I think I wrote the novel to try to give her the life that I imagined she must have had. And how she dealt with it, and how strong she was. Really determined to survive and take care of my father.”
In the novel, Rebecca/Hazel’s son becomes a concert pianist. Oates’s father was a violinist. “My grandmother’s parents came from Germany. They were German Jews and they settled in upstate New York in the 1890s. Her father was a gravedigger. They were very poor. It seemed so sad and ironic when I found out that they had been Jewish, that my great-grandfather was working in a Christian cemetery. But there all kinds of ironies in life – people make these compromises, and they keep going.”
In the book, the grandfather turns a shotgun on himself. “My great grandfather did commit suicide, in exactly that way. But my grandmother did keep going.
“I don’t want to suggest that the book is about my grandmother,” she says suddenly. “It’s basically a novel with much fiction in it.”
I ask her to think about what traits she inherited from her grandmother and she stays silent for a while. “That’s a good question. I think that we always would try to make the best of something. Everything could have gone so badly and yet it didn’t. My grandmother did come home from school and her father was there, literally with a shotgun, and he didn’t kill her. She was trying to open the front door, and…”
She pauses again. “I don’t know what happened, but he didn’t kill her, he killed himself. If he had killed her, of course, I wouldn’t be born. It was like a shake of the dice, and so you may as well try to be grateful and happy.”
Oates says she is “haunted” by the lives of past generations. “I look at their photographs and I feel they lived in a time that was much more difficult and treacherous than our own time. In the United States at least, there was no social welfare protection; if a person didn’t make money to live, the person would not live. If you couldn’t walk a couple of miles to a school, you couldn’t go to a school.” days.”
The Oates family farm was seven miles outside Lockport in upstate New York. “It was not a prosperous farm; it was just barely getting along. I used to do a lot of walking, just looking around. I wouldn’t say that I was lonely exactly because I was alone.” She agrees that she was self-contained. “Yes, and there wasn’t the emphasis that we have today on girls being very confident in school. None of the things that make life so difficult for adolescents today was operating then. You had family tasks; you had household and farm work to do. People didn’t hang around after school. There was nothing there. There were no extra-curricular activities and there weren’t any sports. All the things that bedevil young people today, and make them very competitive, didn’t exist.”
Oates was able to escape from this world by winning a college scholarship but she looks back “with fascination and a kind of nostalgia, though I would not want to live in that world.”
Her parents survived the Depression, apparently without complaint. “I’m fascinated that my parents did so well, and kept going. They both had to quit school when they were only about 12 years old, and they were so proud of me when I went to college. They were very grateful that they had what they had.
“We live in an era now where people are forced to be resentful and envious, because they can see through television and other media how relatively obscure they are. But decades ago there wasn’t any television. You might listen to the radio, and newspapers were not very international, so you could be quite poor, and not even know it. That’s the world that I came from. We were actually better off than our neighbours; we never knew, on some grand scale that the Carnegies and the Rockefellers were way up at the top, and we were way near the bottom.”
Oates is, by any standards, a peculiar kind of optimist. For, though The Gravedigger’s Daughter is a celebration of resilience and reinvention, and the achievements of her heroine are mirrored by the author’s own successes, Oates’s writing is characterised by self-consciousness and a swirling sense of dread; never more so than in Black Water, her brilliant take on Ted Kennedy’s car crash at Chappaquiddick, viewed from inside the mind of a drowning girl. She concedes that she does have a sense of trepidation, even when things appear to be going well, something she attributes to the hardness of her parents’ upbringing. “Even though one leaves that world, and many decades have gone by, I think one does have a sense that life is more precarious, perhaps, than it would appear.”
Of course, Black Water is also an allegory for the ruthless pragmatism of contemporary politicians. The book viewed Kennedy’s accident through the lens of the Reagan era, and was far from enamoured, but Oates feels politics has deteriorated further since then.
She laughs at her own cynicism. “You wonder how things could go downhill. Things just seem to always be going downhill. I don’t know whether the country’s in the throes of disintegration or deep cynicism. We scarcely have a democracy here anymore. It seems to be controlled by lobbyists. By bribe takers and bribe givers. Every day there is an expose of some corruption which suggests that much more corruption will not be exposed. I’m not even sure that electing a new president is going to make that much difference in terms of the loss of idealism.”
She sounds genuinely bereft at the thought of it. I hesitate to mention the name of the president. She sighs deeply. “I have no comment on Bush. There are some things that are so unspeakable that it might be better to pass by in silence. Wittgenstein says ‘of that which we cannot speak we must be silent’, and that’s the only situation in all of history where George W Bush and Wittgenstein will be in the same sentence.”
She has scant enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton either. “She’s a pragmatic and practical politician. She certainly knows where the bodies are buried. It was the same with [Bill] Clinton. What can one say about these people? They are the people that have the stamina. I don’t know how they do it. I would be exhausted after two hours of giving speeches. Days, weeks, months, years, they’re out there. Who else is going to do that?
“It always used to be said about boxers, by people who don’t know boxing, that the boxers are vicious and mean and they want to hurt people. And I thought, well, who else is going to be a boxer? Jack Dempsey was very vicious in the ring, and so was Muhammad Ali. He was a very nasty opponent to get into the ring with. You’re not going to get a sterling, Christ-like character to be a boxer. So too with politicians.”
She notes, with faint hope, that her students are idealistic about their ability to change the world. “It might be so.”
I suggest that perhaps older generations always feel the world has deteriorated. “Because it has,” she says. “It’s hard to think of an American presidency that will come anywhere near this one. The whole world has sat back in wonderment. It’s like a Shakespearian tragedy that turned into a farce. Except for the fact that people are dying in Iraq and elsewhere and being maimed and crippled. All that’s very real.”
And so she sits, in her office in Princeton, with a photograph of her grandmother by her side, dreaming of harder, better times.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Keith Allen: "Compared to public school, borstal was wonderful."

Keith Allen is telling me about the first moments of his daughter Lily’s career as a pop performer. A long story, it begins on a wild night in New York with Joe Strummer, Allen and artists Damien Hirst and Douglas Gordon forming a marching band and busking in the restaurants of Manhattan, and ends with 15 year-old Lily in the basement of the London Astoria, singing backing vocals to a jazz version of Strummer’s punk anthem, White Riot, at the 2000 Poetry Olympics. Jump forward six months, and Allen is in Paris on one end of a mobile phone while Lily waits to go onstage with Strummer in front of 15,000 fans at Wembley Arena. Allen, the concerned dad, asks whether she is nervous, but Lily replies that she is not. “Well,” counsels her father, “phone me back after you’ve been on.”
When the call comes, Lily is revved-up with excitement. Keith tells her: “Remember that moment, because you’re going to spend the rest of your life chasing it.”
When Allen speaks about his popstar daughter, it is with a mixture of pride and concern. He was never worried about her becoming a performer. “You have to remember that Lily went around India on her own when she was 15 ½. I worried then.
“She’s very resilient, but that was before the whole enterprise got hold of her. She’s finding it tough, but I think she’ll get through it.”
His concern arises from the way Lily’s habit of blogging her innermost thoughts can be misinterpreted. Her recent comments about her weight insecurities made national headlines, and her playground spat with Cheryl Tweedy of Girls Aloud rumbles on absurdly (in the latest bulletins, Gordon Ramsay, Beth Ditto and a Kaiser Chief have pledged allegiance with Lily).
“The blogs are personal,” Allen says. “And I think Lily realises that she’s lost sight of that because of the nature of the beast. Then she starts to feed the beast, and to lose the quality of the original blogs. There’s a great danger that you can be too honest.
“I spoke to her before she got on the plane to go back to America, and she was so down. You have to remember that Lily is a girl. She’s a little girl, man. She’s out there on her own with a pick-up band, and they’re all guys. And she’s constantly being used as a comparative figure in the press. They generate this dreadful stuff by comparing her to Kate Moss – and she quite rightly points out: what are you doing comparing me to Kate Moss? It’s ludicrous. Why compare her to Amy Winehouse? They’re two entirely different artists. The media do want to generate this war. And Lily – she’s kind of snapped with this Girls Aloud thing, but there’s a part of me that’s really glad that she did it. What she said was nasty, but if Lily gives it out she’s got to learn to take it. Simple as that.
“I just hate to think that she will lose sight of her songwriting capabilities and get involved with that shit. Lily takes after me in many respects. A lot of my bravado and fun was about insecurity and fear.”
And Allen has had his share of bravado and fun. We meet in the snooker room of the Groucho Club, an institution which has been his second home. He is dressed in a windcheater with jeans, and serious sandals. “That,” he says, peering over red glasses at the green baize, “is the very snooker table I fucked Janet Street-Porter on.” He can do this kind of talk in his sleep, but apart from a gratuitous raising of the middle finger in the direction of AA Gill, showbiz revelations are largely absent from his autobiography.
Perhaps there wasn’t room. Allen’s story is a riot of incident, from a childhood as a petty thief to spells in borstal and prison, as he journeys from the squats of Notting Hill through punk to the birth pangs of alternative comedy. Before his first period of notoriety with a Channel 4 show and the Comic Strip movies (a period which fizzles into hedonistic underachievement with bit parts in Shallow Grave – the corpse - and Trainspotting) he washes up in Glasgow, at the Citizen’s Theatre. Cast as Lady Macduff, he breaks his leg playing poker in his rehearsal skirt, and has to take to the stage wearing a plaster cast. He has a lunch of cottage pie with director Giles Havergal (“a more apt dish you couldn’t have wished for since the Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre Company was largely gay”) and manages to blag a temporary Equity card, to allow him to take his part in a show he describes as “pretentious middle class bollocks”.
Disenchanted with theatre, he returns to post-punk Notting Hill, and falls into alternative comedy with a stream-of-consciousness routine at the emerging Comedy Store. He supports the Clash on tour, and is cast as Joe Orton in Stephen Frears’ film Prick Up Your Ears. The cover image on Allen’s book, of a sneering Allen, in trunks, on a deck chair, with oiled torso and legs apart, was done for the film, only for him to be replaced at a later date by “the safer option”, Gary Oldman.
And so it goes. In Allen’s version of his life, he is a kind of punk Oliver Reed, raising hell, never quite fitting in, and self-destructing before his due rewards can be denied him. He has a habit of standing next to success, and isn’t always gracious about it. (He claims to have inspired the Little Britain “only gay in the village” sketch, but hasn’t noticed that he lacks the cartoonish appeal of Matt Lucas and David Walliams). His one incontrovertible success was the World Cup song he recorded with Damien Hirst and Blur’s Alex James. “The only dough I ever got was from Vindaloo. That’s another myth about me, that I’m rich.” He confesses to being “genuinely flabbergasted” when he sees the houses of his former Comic Strip colleagues. “They do commercials. That’s where the money is. I’ve done one. I was the Listerine tooth fairy. I did it because I owed £110,000 in tax.
“Obviously, I’ve evaded the responsibility of money. But the only reason I came to the Groucho for so long is that it’s the only place they would let me drink and eat for no money.”
The central figure in Allen’s story is his father, who is frequently absent – posted abroad on a submarine. He admits he hated him for a while. “I wanted the approval. My dad was very much a man of his generation. He didn’t give it. But that’s nothing new.”
His father hasn’t read the book. “I think he might be appalled by some of the stories. But hopefully he’ll know that I love him.”
I tell Allen that he doesn’t seem to have linked his father’s absence with his own attention-grabbing behaviour. “If I’d come from the most wonderful, warm, open, compassionate liberal environment, I’ve got a feeling I’d be exactly the same.”
His childhood thieving was opportunistic, he says. “The only thing I ever planned to do was to rob the supermarket that I worked in. But I was watching too much Mission Impossible, and there was a telephone relay box on the floor: I thought it was lasers, so I didn’t get into the safe! Me and my mate crawled round the front and just nicked all the fags. Fuckin’ idiot!”
Borstal sorted him out. His physical education teacher, Mr Dennis, put him on an outward bound course, giving him the chance to become a team leader, and began to concentrate on his exams.
“My experience of institutions up to that point had been a comprehensive school, a public school, a detention centre, remand homes, and hostels. And all of them were shit. Compared to public school, borstal was wonderful, and very funny.
“If you just bled out the class, the hierarchical structure of it was very much like boarding school. But they weren’t like me, because I never once felt like a criminal.”
There has been much human wreckage along the way, notably two broken marriages: the first to film producer Alison Owen (mother of Lily and actor Alfie Owen-Allen); the second to producer Nira Park. His BBC biography counts eight children - the latest being his one-year old baby girl, Teddie, with his Bodies co-star Tamzin Malleson.
I attempt an inventory of his offspring, and Allen’s exuberance flattens to a brief sulk. Before he met Alison, he had two children as the result of one-night stands. Kevin’s mother was 18, Allen was 27. She wanted a baby, and he didn’t. Soon after that, another fling produced Grace.
“Alison and me get on fantastically well. Myself, Alfie and Lily are very close. And that’s because of who we were and what we’ve done, not in spite of it. I don’t feel guilty – I just know that if I had my time again I’d do it in a different way.
“Kevin is the only birth I feel bad about. Grace: her mother was a much older woman, she was in her thirties, she wanted another child as company for her son Philip. She got that. She never contacted me, she got on with it, she lived with another guy who brought Grace up. In fact, Grace phoned me the day before yesterday, I’m going to her wedding.”
Allen first met Kevin when Lily invited him and Grace to his 50th birthday party. “She has a sense of drama, Lily.” That meeting “opened negotiations” between him and Kevin. “When we first met, I said ‘I’m going to be brutally honest with you. I’m not going to pretend that I love you. I can’t, it’s impossible. I’m your biological father, and of course I’ll do anything to make your life easier than it is.’ That’s all you can do. He has said it’s just recognition that’s important to him. I can’t do any more than that.”
When I ask about his latest baby, he coos. “I don’t want to sound like Woman’s Own, but it’s fantastic. Of course it’s different this time around. I guess as you get older, you grow up. You come to appreciate and value time. And I spent an inordinate amount of time with my kids – when I was married – partying. And even if you’re sober, you’ve got a hangover. It’s just shit. It’s not real time. It’s not fair on them. It can be so much more fun if it’s just real.”
So, at 53, has Keith Allen grown up? Well, professionally, he is stable, doing good, mainstream work, such as his turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the BBC’s Robin Hood. His friend Brian Travers (of UB40) recently reminded him that he had always told him his time would come when he was 50, and Allen is tempted to agree. “I’m much more comfortable about who I am, now, and I’m more complete as a person. I don’t like looking at myself young when I’m acting because I can see all the insecurities. It’s posturing, most of it. Whereas now, I’m so pleased. You must be happier as you get closer to your grave, not sadder. Honestly, as a philosophy, that might be it for me.”
He is, he concedes, a late developer. By his own account he did nothing until he was 28, “apart from have a brilliant time”. He was 34 when he first took cocaine (he would get it out of the way earlier, if he had his time again).
“Sometimes I can’t grasp how Lily copes with it,” he says suddenly, “because I’ve always been an outsider. It took me years to work out that I never went for gold because I was too scared. I could easily argue, coming third, it’s being in the race, not winning it. Whereas Lily – I don’t think I could cope with what she’s got.”

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Shrek The Third: Recommended For The Burping And Farting Of The Ogre Babies. And The Wet Cat

The first two Shrek films were masterpieces of their kind, but they also carried the seeds of their own destruction. They were knowing, and designed to appeal to adults as much as kids. They did this by playing around with the mythology of fairytales, and particularly the Disney versions of these stories. They were sweet and cynical at the same time, which is a hard recipe to repeat, as those viewers who were attracted by the cynicism will, most likely, be repelled by the familiarity of a film franchise. This could have some small impact on the success of the film in theatres, as adults may be marginally less inclined to buy tickets, but it may not matter, because – unlike the Disney movies at the time of their release – today’s children’s films are watched endlessly on DVD. Though they were amongst the highest-grossing theatrical releases of all time, the DVDs of Shreks 1 and 2 have sold 90 million copies between them. Familiarity, in the end, is the point.
And whatever else it is, Shrek the Third very familiar. The jolly green ogre – a benign cross between Gordon Brown, Alex Salmond and Dumbo the elephant, voiced by Mike Myers – finds himself married to a broody Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), whose father, the frog king (John Cleese), is on the verge of croaking. Meanwhile, on the dinner theatre circuit, the charmless Prince Charming (Prince Charles, channelled through Barbie’s former escort Ken by Rupert Everett) is acting out his grievances in front of a restless audience of peasants.
The kingdom which Shrek is keen to avoid inheriting is Far Far Away, a cartoon spoof of Hollywood, in which – for example - Versace becomes Versarchery. On its first airing, this joke seemed mildly subversive, particularly when allied with Shrek’s mischievous treatment of Disney’s moral code. Third time around, the joke feels more laboured, not least because Shrek’s status as a happy underdog has been undermined by the social mobility he acquired as a by-product of two happy endings. And, when you put aside the diversion of all those snarky in-jokes, Shrekworld has a fairly conventional moral code itself, in which everyone feels like an underdog, and ogres are beautiful in their own way. Shrek the Third goes a little further than this, and has a Message for the kids (roughly speaking: be yourself, and don’t worry what others say). At the screening I attended, these moments were accompanied by an increased restlessness among the infant audience.
The adult audience is targeted with jokes about Shrek’s reluctance to become a father, including a dream sequence in which he is overrun by mini-ogres, and an emetic moment in which a baby vomits in his face for a very long time.
The film’s Journey is prompted by Shrek’s decision to shirk the responsibilities of becoming king by tracking down the other king’s son, Artie, a dweeb (Justin Timberlake) who is being educated in the art of teenage resentment in Worcestershire. (This storyline suggests that Far Far Away has a peculiarly progressive constitution. In other fairytale monarchies, such as the United Kingdom, Shrek – as the husband of the monarch’s daughter - would have no fear of being crowned).
The school (motto “Just say nay!”) is an Olde Worlde American high school, in which Artie is busy being shunned. He is an obnoxious kid, made worse by the promise of power. He tells the school assembly: “I’m building my city, people, on rock’n’roll.”
It’s not as simple as that, of course. On encountering the dithering wizard Merlin (Eric Idle) – retired from magic after a “level three fatigue” – Donkey and Puss In Boots accidentally swap bodies, giving the animators the challenge of drawing a cat that thinks it is an ass, and vice versa. In another corner of the kingdom, Prince Charming is rounding up all the other fairytale losers – Captain Hook (Ian McShane) the Ugly Sisters, the Three Blind Mice – and asking: “Who wants their happily ever after?” The losers run riot, Ye Olde Bootery is turned into Hooters, and the Gingerbread Man sees his life flashing before him. The ladies of the court burn their bras and embrace girl power, Captain Hook discovers his inner daffodil grower, and – well, you can guess the rest. The best bit is a wet cat.
It’s all good fun, even if the story is less impressive than the burping and farting of the ogre babies, and the soundtrack music is more conservative than previously. Stick around for the closing titles, in which Puss in Boots and Donkey impersonate Sly and the Family Stone.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Ocean's Thirteen: The Manliness of Men Being Manly In Vegas, In Sunglasses

Somewhere towards the end of Ocean’s Thirteen, with Frank Sinatra singing “this town is a lonely town” on the soundtrack, Elliot Gould has a philosophical turn. Before considering the wisdom of his words, it is worth remembering that Gould’s role in the Ocean’s series, as Rueben Tishkoff, is to wear shell suits and medallions, and glasses which are bigger than his face. He is a cartoon, but not a fool, and his every appearance on the screen is a cause of levity. So, what he says, while chewing a stogie on a fine Las Vegas night, is: “The moment you become embarrassed of who you are, you lose yourself.”
Well, Ocean’s Twelve was a bit of an embarrassment, and it showed every sign of being lost, as it traipsed forgettably across Europe. Thirteen – which goes under the tagline “revenge is a funny thing” - is much better. The good humour of Ocean’s Eleven is restored, as is its natural geography. The first film, remember, was a remake of a self-indulgent heist caper with George Clooney (Danny Ocean) and his pals replacing Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. For director Stephen Soderbergh, it was an exercise in nostalgia, not for Vegas, but for movie stars, and for a time when men were men.
The Ocean’s films are, in a very specific sense, buddy movies. They are about friendship and easy chatter and guys being guys as much as they are about diamond robberies and casino cons. Women are peripheral and decorative, though Ellen Barkin makes a memorable contribution here as Abigail Sponder, the generously-cleavaged sidekick to the movie’s Bad Guy, Willy Bank, played in his lower registers by Al Pacino. Pacino and Barkin don’t quite re-create the onscreen chemistry they displayed in Sea of Love, but they wave at its memory, which is a fine thing.
The story is complicated and very simple. The simple part is the motive: the guys (Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac et al) reconvene to exact revenge for Rueben, who has suffered a heart attack after being double-crossed by Bank, who is opening a supercasino, The Bank.
The complicated part is the doing of it. The casino – a CGI tower in the shape of a twisted sail – is designed to be as secure as it is luxurious, so Ocean’s men attack it on both fronts. In a comic side-story, they make ensure that the journalist sent to review the hotel (a hangdog David Paymer) has a hellish stay. Foul smells are pumped into his suite, his food is poisoned, and when he uses his special hotel reviewer’s microscopic spectacles to check for cleanliness, the sheets on the bed are revealed to be a refugee camp for bacteria.
It would be stretching matters to claim that Ocean’s Thirteen has a point, but it does offer a satire of the luxury industry. The Bank is a casino where the silverware is gold, Pacino’s tan has a tan, and, as Miss Sponder, Barkin’s job is to banish ugliness. Only happy faces are to be seen front-of-house, and waitresses are fired when they display a healthy Body Mass Index. (To make this legal, their job title is “models who serve”.)
For Soderbergh (acting as his own Director of Photography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) it is an exercise in visual dynamism. He uses the camera as if spying on his actors – watching through windows as they eat, creeping across the room like a stalker. He makes nostalgic use of split screens during the action sequences, and uses filters to distort the colours (green on Clooney in the Vegas night, blue on Matt Damon in a London street). Though there is a lot of talk, the funky soundtrack makes sure the viewer has neither the time nor the inclination to consider the more extreme improbabilities of the plot. (Could you really import the Channel Tunnel drill into Nevada and burrow undetected beneath the streets of Las Vegas? Oh, what the hell…)
So, what remains is a witty hymn to suaveness, and to the chiselled beauty of movie stars being movie stars in what may be the most expensive home movie ever made. The character names are comic, and almost irrelevant. This is George and Brad and Matt having fun. Clooney wears a droopy moustache, Pitt a hippie wig, Damon a hooked nose. You know, from a minute in, when Brad Pitt removes his balaclava and throws a sideways smile, that it’s going to be all right. These men are fooling with stardom. They are playing their idealised selves. “You think this is funny,” Andy Garcia asks. “Well,” says George Clooney, “it sure ain’t sad.”
It ends where it begins, with handsome men in sunglasses waiting for a plane.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Meet the new Bob: A new film accompanies DA Pennebaker's classic Dylan documentary Dont Look Back

Scene one: In a room at the Savoy Hotel, in Spring 1965, Bob Dylan meets the British press. The singer holds a giant lightbulb. “What’s the lightbulb for?” a reporter asks, not unreasonably. “I usually carry a lightbulb,” Dylan replies, deadpan.
Scene two: Bob Dylan and his tour manager Bob Neuwirth arrive at the Royal Albert Hall, for a concert with the Beatles. The auditorium makes an immediate impression, and they gaze around in wonder. In a Spinal Tap moment, Neuwirth speaks: “Queen Victoria built it for her dude.”
Thirty years after it was first release, DA Pennebaker’s fly-on-the-wall documentary of Dylan’s 1965 tour of Britain still surprises. The opening sequence, in which Dylan flips cue-cards with phrases from Subterranean Homesick Blues, was inspired by the films on French Scopitone jukeboxes, but came 16 years before the launch of MTV. As a piece of filmmaking, it is a landmark. If the film now carries echoes of Spinal Tap, that’s because it drew the template for rock documentary. Pennebaker was amongst the first filmmakers to use a hand-held camera, and his jerky imagery was thought to be so amateurish that no mainstream distributor would touch it. The film was shown first in a porn cinema, where they were more used to that kind of camerawork.
Watching it now is to see pop culture being born. It was Pennebaker’s good fortune to be in the room at a moment of great significance. (“You could never go back to Cole Porter,” he notes on the commentary.) Dylan was on the cusp: this was his final solo acoustic tour, though he is clearly planning his next move. One scene has him staring wistfully at a shop window full of electric guitars. But the street scenes of a rainy Britain are drab – there is hardly any traffic, and no pop radio, apart from the pirate Radio Caroline.
There’s a sense, too, of the generation gap. Dylan’s fans are smart teenagers. The journalists who are sent to document the whirlwind are squares in suits, asking questions of varying degrees of irrelevance, and receiving gnomic replies for their troubles. Reading a newspaper story about the tour, Dylan remarks, “I’m glad I’m not myself.”
Dont Look Back is about the charisma of Dylan and the circus surrounding him. But for his new film, 65 Revisited, Pennebaker re-examined the footage he had discarded, and discovered the reason for all the hoopla – the music. In the original film, the songs were cut short, to preserve the sense of dramatic flow. Here, he lets the music run, and when you see Dylan sing To Ramona or It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue it’s obvious what the fuss was about. What you see isn’t a protest singer – it’s a romantic balladeer of considerable intensity. The music continues offstage. Pennebaker catches Dylan playing piano, and dueting with Joan Baez on old folk songs. Onstage, doing It’s Alright Ma, It Ain’t Me Babe or She Belongs To Me, the ferocity of the performances is breathtaking. .
Pennebaker was understandably reluctant to return to his discarded footage, and while 65 Revisited has a less coherent narrative than Dont Look Back, it is a fine film. Of the non-musical moments, the best is a peculiar scene inside a Newcastle department store – a real Grace Brothers affair – where Bob tries on a double-breasted suit, and is invited to choose from a selection of psychedelic ties. He opts for the pink one. His manager, Albert Grossman, looks on, impressed. “We can eat in the hotel now,” he growls.
[First published in UNCUT magazine.]

What is the new material?
“We started to call it Outtake, because it was a whole lot of outtakes from Dont Look Back, which I got into a little bit grudgingly. I was dragging my feet because I thought ‘I’ve made a film, here I don’t want to do it again. But when I started looking at it, and particularly listening to it, it got very interesting for me. What I found was that when I did the first film I cut off a lot of the music. I didn’t want it to be a musical film. I wanted it to be about Dylan and not the music. I figured if you wanted the music you could go buy the record. Well when I started watching his performances – particularly of the throwaway songs; the love songs which people didn’t take very seriously, as opposed to the folk songs or the protest songs – as I listened to them in their entirety I felt like I might have made a mistake. I began to see something that I kinda missed, just because I was so tight and inside that group – I hadn’t realised the effect that he was having on people came from listening to all those songs in their entirety. That’s kind of what he put out there. It was revolutionary – it was amazing, and it brought me up with a start. The film is an appraisal of what I missed – of how dumb I was. It's not Dont Look Back because Dont Look Back Was about Byron and not Shelley, you know?
It shows Dylan’s romantic side.“At the time, everyone was busy saying: ‘He’s no damn poet, so don’t get mixed up’. I thought: he may not be a poet in the accepted sense, but he thinks in lines that are, to me, kind of poetic. He leaves out words, or jumps over words, in a way that takes more than just an attitude or street training. It’s something that he understands. Looking back on the whole thing, he was somebody that put something out that people understood right away was important. Looking at it now, those are some of the most important songs he ever sung. When I hear them now – Don’t Think Twice and whatnot – boy, I tell you they really get to me.
Dylan has changed his opinion about Dont Look Back hasn’t he?
“Well, listen. What Dylan says at breakfast he’s gonna deny at lunch. You’re dealing with a person born in June, the double-head. That’s the way he is. I’m always interested his reaction to things, but I always take it with a grain of salt, Like, once he said to me, ‘All words that rhyme mean the same thing’. I thought, well, that’s interesting. I better tell that to Robert Graves, it might interest him. There’s nothing wrong with that – but it just makes you hang in to see what else he might say.”
You had great access to him. Did you think he was developing a persona?
“I didn’t know too much about him. I knew that he was interesting to me and I wasn’t sure why. I never interviewed him – I never thought I’d find anything that way. I just watched him. But I was pretty tight with him. I was part of that little group.
“I don’t think he had any idea that I was making a film. The camera was not very impressive looking. It was home made and not very big. A lot of times I was all by myself with it, so it didn’t seem like what he must have thought movies were. Whatever I was doing was funny and foolish and that was OK.”
Was he self-conscious with the camera?
“Sometimes. Like anybody, he knew what a camera did. But I don’t care what people do in front of a camera. It’s the action that I’m following and not the self-absorption. That could put you off – but if it's there, continually – on its own merits you’re bound to put it aside and not judge the action by whether or not he’s aware of it or he’s putting something down on you. If he is, that’s his business. I don’t look on that as anti-filmic. The idea of anybody that’s doing something interesting in the world, sitting in the corner watching them – it’s worth doing, because you learn something.”
Where did the idea for the lyric signs come from?
“That was Dylan’s idea. When I first met him down at this bar in the Village, he said ‘Do you think it’s a good idea if I write out the words to the song?’ - his new song was Subterranean Homesick Blues – I said, it’s a great idea. So we got a whole bunch of cardboards and carried them around with us for the whole trip.
Was your new film affected by the Scorsese documentary: the spine of that was your material.“Yeah. It was mostly stuff I shot. I was happy to see someone re-use it. It was never going to be my film. The arrangement I had with Dylan was I would shoot it but it would be his film. Dont Look Back was my film, he called Dont Look Back “Pennebaker by Dylan”. The Scorsese thing was good. It hinged on a lot on the interviews that Jeff did with Dylan, but it was entertaining. There’s other stuff that isn’t in it that will surface one day.”
Are you surprised by how mythic Dylan has become?
“Sorta. If you’d fled with Byron to Switzerland and Italy, when he was getting thrown out over his divorce, you wouldn’t have imagined that you were watching anything of earth-shaking consequence, except another tired old Brit on the run. Dylan, even though he was just in his thirties, he initiated a kind of Byronic thing that has prevailed down to now. The idea of the artist as ‘fuck you’ is now a savage cry from every gallery, and it was not that way before. Artists didn’t have any rights to the game at all.”
What happened to the film Something is Happening?
“Scorsese used that in his film. Dylan had said ‘I’m going to make a film and I want you to shoot it’. So I said ‘cool’. Dylan didn’t know anything about directing and I didn’t either. So between us we were like a couple of thumbs pointing in the wrong direction. But it still was interesting because he drew people like flies – they would come in through the windows and that set things in motion. And I could only make the film that I knew how to make. He didn’t want to make Dont Look Back, but there wasn’t anything else really. Scorsese saw at least how to put it together.”