Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dressing For Pleasure (1977) by John Samson

If the strange brilliance of John Samson’s career as a filmmaker could be reduced to one scene, it would be a sequence from his 1977 documentary, Dressing For Pleasure. The scene would involve Jordan – the original Jordan, the suburban punk with the beehive and the kohl-slash eyes – squeezing the ample milkiness of her hourglass frame into a rubber twin set and stockings, a buttock here, a breast there, while talking sweetly about silliness of wearing latex during a heatwave. Or, it would be the scene involving Jordan, Malcolm McLaren, and an inflatable helmet: the Sex Pistols’ manager is fully-enclosed inside the pneumatic outfit, looking like a perverted deep sea diver, as Jordan squeezes the pump. Soon enough, McLaren is transformed into a Year Zero Michelin man.
Certainly, these are the most widely-seen moments of Samson’s oeuvre. When Vivienne Westwood had her 2004 career retrospective, Dressing For Pleasure ran on a loop at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as a record of Westwood and McLaren’s punk boutique Sex. And Julien Temple included the sequence in his Pistols’ documentary The Filth And The Fury. “It was a very powerful illustration of Malcolm’s vision of that shop at the time,” Temple says.
Watching these sequences today is a matter of nostalgia, but they are no less peculiar now than they seemed in 1977. Back then, McLaren and Westwood were exploiting subcultures to make a point; or possibly just blow raspberries in the direction of British hypocrisy about sex. It was an act of mischief, designed to annoy as much as it stimulated. As a rubber nun observes in Dressing For Pleasure, it was “queer material.” But observe it now, sniff the elastomer, and what you inhale is the spent jet-fuel of an accelerated culture. The 1970s now look like the 1950s – a drab decade struggling to emerge from the shadow of the war. There’s something charming, too, about Jordan, the Sex shopgirl. For all her kinkiness, she seems wedded to a very British tradition of titillation. What was branded then as anarchy, now seems close to being something of a Carry On.
“It wasn’t fetishism,” says Temple. “It was a provocative art statement, which people like Jordan were very much into. I don’t think she would have considered herself a rubber-club type person. It was approaching it with a wilder sense of fun.”
If Samson had done nothing else, Dressing For Pleasure would earned him a worthy footnote in the annals of punk. But gradually, posthumously – he died in 2004 - the Scottish filmmaker’s reputation is beginning to emerge from decades of neglect. Last year, a Hoxton gallery showed his work as an art installation, which led to Samson being selected for a retrospective at the 2009 London International Documentary Festival. As well as Dressing For Pleasure, the festival will show Arrows, his brilliant study of the darts player Eric Bristow; Tattoo, which investigates the cult of body decoration; Britannia – The First And Last, which documents the activities of stream railway preservationists; and The Skin Horse, a more traditional documentary from the early years of Channel 4, which explores attitudes to disability in collaboration with Nigel Evans.
Samson didn’t start out as a filmmaker. Born in Ayrshire in 1946, he grew up in Paisley, and left school to become an apprentice in the Clyde shipyards. He was quickly politicised, and acted as the spokesman for the first Glasgow apprentices’ strike. He became involved with the Anarchist movement and the Committee of 100, which advocated civil disobedience against the establishment of the US nuclear base at the Holy Loch in 1961. Anarchist activist Stuart Christie – later jailed for an assassination attempt on General Franco - encountered Samson around that time. “Remember you’re talking about a time, especially in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we thought the whole world was going to be destroyed – it was a countdown to the cataclysm.
“It was just part of the radical milieu. It was a time where you were encouraged to use your imagination.”
There is a photograph of Christie and Samson in Queen’s Park, Glasgow, on the famous day – May Day 1962 - when Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell was confronted by anti-nuclear protestors, and responded by saying: “Let them go to the Kremlin and tell Mr. Khrushchev to ban his bomb. Go and march with the goose-stepping Nazis in East Germany.”
“The whole audience erupted, says Christie, “and we ran to storm the platform and try to drag him off. It was absolute pandemonium. I’m convinced it triggered the death of Gaitskell a year later.”
Samson’s life also changed in 1963, when he met his wife Linda. “He worked in Easterhouse as a social worker after he left the shipyards,” says his producer, Mike Wallington. “Somewhere in there Linda met him. He was highly politicised. He had seen films all his life, and comics and popular music, but I don’t think he’d seen what you get away with in the art game. Linda was studying at the Glasgow School of Art. So he chose photography.”
Samson fell in with a crowd which included Alasdair Gray. “Both John and Linda were friendly with a very beautiful woman who I was very keen on,” Gray recalls. “She was used to having a certain effect on men, and wasn’t particularly interested in being anything more of a friend.”
Gray drew the woman, and John and Linda, and wasn’t surprised when Samson’s creativity found an outlet in film. His first short, Charlie, was made for a BBC competition in 1973. From the start, the principles of Samson’s filmmaking were in place. The subject, Charlie Williamson, was a Glasgow busker.
“He was somebody who had given up a married life,” says Gray, “and the film was basically him speaking of the life he led. John wasn’t the kind of filmmaker who condescends by taking a character and trying to expose him. He let the man speak for himself, and that was what was so interesting and good about it.”
Mike Wallington recalls that although Charlie came second in the contest, one of the judges, director Joseph Losey, advised Samson to call Colin Young, the founding head of the new National Film School. Samson had no qualifications, but was admitted on the strength of Charlie. Tattoo and Dressing For Pleasure were made with Wallington at Beaconsfield.
“It wasn’t a period of celebrity,” says Wallington. “What we developed was a style of documentary filmmaking that didn’t use voiceover or commentary.”
Temple was younger than Samson, but remembers him from film school. “He was a bit of an enigma to me. He certainly wasn’t a punk – he was older, with longer hair. He had a perspective that was different, but understood the curiosity and the impact that punk went on to have before other people did.”
Film school, says Temple, was documentary-oriented because of Young’s influence. “They had the usual TV documentary guys teaching, which seemed very boring to me, and John seemed not to be part of that school at all.
“I always had this sense that he stood apart and had a cooler, less didactic approach to telling documentary stories, and he had visual flair as well. Dressing For Pleasure was beautifully-lit. There’s an almost Kenneth Anger-like feel to it.”
Actually, time has done a strange thing to Samson’s documentaries. He was, according to Wallington, uninterested in nostalgia, but the cumulative effect of his films is wistful. They capture the unreported margins of a Britain that was about to be destroyed – she would say transformed – by Margaret Thatcher. Sometimes, the symbolism is overt. Britannia splices excitable footage of the launch of the steam train Britannia in 1951 (a voiceover boasts that “Britain still leads the world with the steam locomotive”) against the efforts of enthusiasts to restore the rusting hulk of the train. It is more John Betjeman than Kenneth Anger, but Samson’s hands-off style conceals a deep concern for the decline of a skilled trade.
“John never looked back,” says Wallington. “But his idea of a really great time would be to sit down in the pub next to someone he’d never met before and find out that they were a piemaker. He really used to go on about the end of the apprenticeship system, where working class people could no longer even hand their sons and daughters their trade; which at least kept a lot of self-respect alive. We used to talk about how in all these working men’s clubs where we filmed Arrows, they’d have huge libraries. That’s the nostalgia – for an uncompromised working class that was willing to fight.”
Punk is actually just a sidebar in Dressing For Pleasure. The film presents rubberists and leatherists, and those to whom very heaven was the suggestive rustle of a belted Mackintosh, as quiet types who enhanced their lives with fantasy.
“There was a certain friendly boyish brightness about John,” says Gray. “A kind of guileless openness. You’d a feeling that he found life in general quite an interesting adventure. He’d sympathy for folk who might be regarded as eccentrics.”
“The whole thing is so well-judged,” says Wallington. “That’s John for you, because it could have gone another way. And don’t forget that fetishists don’t talk to each other. A rubberist has nothing in common with a leatherist! And the sado-masochists never talk to each other, because of the contractual basis of what they’re into. Yet we got them to share a stage. We mixed the Mackintosh brigade with the leather guys, and amongst the leather guys you’ve got the motorcycle guys, you’ve got the transvestites, and the more straightforward power thing where if you put the leather on it gives you added status and ties you into a master-slave relationship. They all mixed so well with the guy from the BBC, with the all-over rubber suits with the gas masks. He was remarkable – he had dozens and dozens of those kits. It was like he was a comic book superhero in each one.”
Tattoo is similarly egalitarian, observing no hierarchy between Britain’s Most Tattooed Lady (an oddly pragmatic and unassuming woman) and a chap with an erect penis etched in his armpit. The film has the poetic choreography of a dance, treating its subjects as still sculptures to be observed in a mood of curious contemplation. An element of sex is unavoidable, but when the camera zooms slowly towards a tattooed butterfly above a pair of breasts, the gaze is anatomical, with not a hint of Suicide Girls. The participants are so studied and polite, and presented with such an absence of sensation, that they resemble the waking dreams of Gilbert and George, except that Gilbert and George tend to make normalcy seem strange. Samson’s camera makes strangeness normal.
Arrows is a more conventional piece, following Eric Bristow on a winding tour of working men’s clubs on the road to being anointed the first superstar of darts. The sense of period is intoxicating, from Simon shirts to pub carpets, and Bristow’s rise – which has yet to take him out of a modest terraced house – is accompanied by the distinct sense that Britain is flushing down the pan. Even so, there is an odd majesty about it, and the quirks of realism – the can of McEwan’s Export on the train, the “star” mirror with three lightbulbs - are spliced between artistic shots of darts being released from nicotine-stained fingers. The film is a slow-motion bullseye.
It was the start of a brilliant career for Bristow, and it might have been for Samson. Instead, he and Wallington embarked to Paris, where they made “frivolous” propaganda films for Iran (not long before the fall of the Shah) and Libya, which was easier, as anti-imperialism came as second-nature.
The coming of Channel 4, with its hunger for the marginal, should have been a god-send, but Samson’s contribution was limited to his work on The Skin Horse, and a lengthy list of unmade great films. A plan to film Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam came to nothing, as did the film about a bare knuckle boxer, and the documentary on Oor Wullie. There was talk of collaborating with Alasdair Gray, and grand plans for a film exploring the sex lives of the disabled. In the late 1990s, Samson and Wallington made a documentary about people living in the London Underground, but it never got beyond a rough cut.
Aside from the Iranian and Libyan adventures, there is one completed short film missing from Samson and Wallington’s catalogue – a spin-off from Dressing For Pleasure, which investigated the subculture of genital appendages. It was shown once, then disappeared. The broader tragedy is that the style of documentary embraced by Samson and Wallington – poetic and without commentary - has been lost too, replaced by talking heads and celebrity presenters.
“John was visionary, very visual, and yet he had the common touch,” says Wallington. “People liked him, so he could get close to them, and at the same time draw back and put them into a metaphor.
“I thought we had changed something back there in the 1970s, but it proved to be a golden age. Commentary’s easy, and weak, and pernicious. Finally, if one really wanted to put a word on it, it’s authoritarian and almost fascist. And it’s the given aesthetic mode in 2009.”
Originally published in Product magazine. Samson’s films can be seen on Stuart Christie’s website: www.christiebooks.com