JOHN BOORMAN IN HOLLYWOOD ( “QUEEN AND COUNTRY” AT THE AMERICAN CINEMATHEQUE )

John Boorman color

I will never forget the first time I entered the unique film world of John Boorman. I was around 17 or 18. A matinee screening of Zardoz at the National Film Theatre on London’s South Bank. I wandered out of a misty Autumn day into the mist-shrouded strangeness of the opening of that film and was spellbound. A giant stone head floats across a rocky wasteland —

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— and Sean Connery emerges reborn out of the ashes of his tour of 007 duty as a bare-chested, mustachioed enforcer in a post-apocalyptic society populated by actors I knew from British sitcoms.

ZARDOZ Connery enforcing

Strange does not even begin to describe this film and yet….. Yet…..

This was film making that did not play it safe. It tackled big themes and mythological subtext was pushed to the foreground. It was artful, adventurous, and frequently fell on its face. The performances pushed the envelope. In short, it was everything that mainstream British film-making of the time mostly wasn’t: risk-taking, emotionally naked, larger-than-life, intellectually challenging, and willing to put it all on the line.

Zardoz chamber

I was hooked. I sought out Boorman’s previous work in late-night screenings at the Penultimate Picture Palace on the outskirts of Oxford, my film school at university. There was Deliverance; the masterpiece Point Blank (the ONLY truly great color film noir that is also the quintessential, ground-zero genre exploration of existential angst); the extraordinary Hell in the Pacific, in which Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune play two combat soldiers from World War II still fighting the war on a remote Pacific atoll long after VJ Day.

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In 1981, Excalibur was released.  This was Boorman’s vast, sprawling telling of the Arthurian legends, and I was spellbound. It was (and still is) the only time that a film has utterly committed to telling myth as if it was real history, with magic and the supernatural acting as strongly on the protagonists as their own turbulent emotions. Yes, the film is occasionally wayward, and elicits giggles in some of its more on-the-nose moments, largely because of memories of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which had been released some years earlier.  But then again there are images, scenes, juxtapositions which are as breathtaking as any in cinema.

Excalibur in forest

And then there’s Merlin: Nicol Williamson’s entirely off-the-wall, off-kilter, playful, eccentric characterization that was savaged (and I mean savaged) by the critics of the time, but which I believed then, and certainly believe even more now, is one of the most iconoclastic and brave performances ever put on celluloid.

Excalibur-Merlin

And a young, entirely sexy Helen Mirren as his evil nemesis.

Excalibur Helen Mirren

Plus one of the most priapic, Jungian/Freudian (take your pick) sex scenes in movie history (you know the one….)

Excalibur sex scene

The best book written about Stanley Kubrick is by the leading critic of the French journal Positif, Michael Ciment. Which other director did he choose to write about in similarly expansive fashion? John Boorman. There’s a good reason for this. Like Kubrick, Boorman has consistently challenged our expectations of what a mainstream genre film can and should be. Both books have sat prominently on my bookshelf since they were published, and I dip into them often.

Michael Ciment (left) with John Boorman

Michael Ciment (left) with John Boorman

These thoughts were much in my mind last night as I strolled into the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to see the Los Angeles premiere of John Boorman’s self-declared final film, Queen and Country, presented by the American Cinematheque.

Queen and Country

It’s a sequel to his masterly autobiographical film about growing up during the London blitz, Hope and Glory. In attendance was Boorman himself, a spritely octogenarian, his eyes sparkling with all the wit and impishness that drives the originality and risk-taking at the heart of his work.

The author (l.) with John Boorman outside the Aero Theatre

The author (l.) with John Boorman outside the Aero Theatre

The film itself was as fresh and surprising as any of its predecessors. It focuses on the young hero’s experiences as a conscript doing his British national army service during the Korean war. In characteristic Boorman fashion, the film serves partly as an anthropological investigation of a social group adrift from its moorings – in this case an army that is not actually fighting a war. The absurdities of the hierarchies and rituals of the institution are thrown into relief as Britain and its inhabitants reach for meaning in a post-War world.

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Within this world we follow our hero through the travails of first love, the complexities of adult relationships, and discovering his passion for movies.

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The film ends with the hero and his girl locked in a playful embrace, sinking beneath the waters of the Thames, as his abandoned camera film the scene. It’s a lovely, perfectly apposite image on which Boorman ends his film maker’s journey, recalling the many rivers that run throughout his work, conduits of destruction and rebirth – tactile, universal, mythological.

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Deliverance rapids

Excalibur 40

Emerald Forest

After the screening, the director took the stage to a standing ovation. He offered insights and advice that any film maker would do well to heed, including the recommendation to seriously consider an alternative career: he reflected that he had spent more time on films that never got made than on ones that did.

And he told some great stories about working with two of the cinema’s greatest acting legends: Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune.

hellinthepacific on the beach

Boorman’s relationship with Mifune could best be described by the title of the film they were shooting: Hell in the Pacific. Boorman recounted how, at one particularly fraught juncture, he let fly with his criticisms, then insisted that the interpreter through whom they communicated repeat his words verbatim to the star. Mifune listened, then proceeded to punch out the interpreter. Without missing a beat he turned to the director, smiled and nodded. At one point in the shoot, Boorman fell ill and production halted. Worried producers offered Mifune the opportunity to replace Boorman, which they thought the actor would jump at. Mifune instead insisted they stick with Boorman.  It was, he said, a matter of honor.

Not a familiar concept to your average Hollywood suit, commented Boorman.  The audience at the Aero ate this up.

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Boorman recounted how he and Lee Marvin became close friends, and he told several wonderful stories about their friendship.

LEE MARVIN, UN PORTRAIT SIGNE JOHN BOORMAN

After Marvin and Boorman had completely reworked the original script for Pont Blank and it came time to start filming, Marvin literally flew the script out of the window. At a meeting with the studio brass Marvin said that he was ceding all his story and casting control to the novice director. Boorman never forgot this support. He noted that the film, about a man who is shot and left for dead, then goes in search of his killers, became a means for Marvin to confront his own demons from combat duty during the war.

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and John Boorman on set

Angie Dickinson, Lee Marvin and John Boorman on set

On a lighter note, Boorman recalled a memorable evening out with Marvin who, by closing time, was very drunk indeed. Boorman struggled to prevent Marvin from taking the wheel of his car to drive home, finally wresting the keys from him. Marvin proceeded to jump onto the roof of the car and refused to come down. Boorman decided to drive him home anyway.

There they were, weaving their way up the Pacific Coast Highway to Marvin’s home in Malibu, Boorman at the wheel, the star clinging to the roof. Suddenly a siren sounded, and the cops pulled him over. Up walks the patrolman.

“Sir, you do realize that Lee Marvin is on the roof of your car…..?”

How many directors can tell a story like that?

John Boorman in river

 

HOLLYWOOD by STEICHEN

steichen gloria swanson

Years before Gloria Swanson declared she was ready for her close-up and took the long walk down that storied staircase on Sunset Boulevard, she sat for another close-up with the legendary photographer Edward Steichen, and created the indelible image above.

It’s an image which embodies something essential about our relationship with screen goddesses. The combination of her direct gaze, mediated by the presence of a veil, captures the pull-push dynamic of the Hollywood glamour shot at its zenith. “Come here, this is all for you, just for you, EXCEPT — don’t touch! Merely watch. Keep your distance. Get too close and you might end up like William Holden — face down in my swimming-pool.”

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The other day I was strolling with my 16 year-old daughter through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which, funnily enough, we had reached by driving down Sunset Boulevard), when we found ourselves confronted with the arresting image of Gloria Swanson in her prime.  We were in an obscure corner of the American galleries and had stumbled upon a treasure trove of Edward Steichen’s work, some of it less well-known.

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It was a newly endowed collection of Steichen’s photos, focusing mainly on Hollywood stars and some choice photos from the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. It’s fair to say that during his years working for Conde Nast, Steichen more or less invented glamour photography and the high toned advertising money-shot. “Steichen was a perfectionist,” says Howard Schatz, a fashion photographer whose portraits of actors appear in Vanity Fair. “His precise eye for lighting and design makes his pictures from the ’20s and ’30s, though clearly of their time, still much admired by fashion photographers today.”

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Steichen is the photographer by whom all others must be judged.  His photos feel as if they are alive, and his portraits – drawing on his background as an accomplished painter – use light and shade to draw out the inner life of his subjects like an old master.  Indeed, walking past a Sargent and a Rembrandt later in our perambulations we did not find Steichen wanting in the comparison.

In fact, in this early self-portrait which opens the exhibit, you can see how Steichen has physically manipulated the emulsion to bring a mysterious, painterly quality to the image. It’s as if the subject of the self-portrait wants to hide within the image.

steichen self portrait

Contrast this with his famous self-portrait of later years which is all about the virtues of modern photography: clarity and candor in the pose and lighting.  Yet there is a mysterious force in those eyes, a power that draws the viewer in. “See what I see” they temptingly offer, “if you dare.”

Steichen self portrait w:camera

Looking at the photos of Hollywood celebrities, it was striking how Steichen had managed to reveal some of the more hidden corners of his subjects’ personalities, and in the process modify the way we view them.

Chaplin’s obsessiveness –

chaplin steichen

Lillian Gish’s poise, confidence, and a beauty more profound than that habitually revealed by the moving camera in her films….

lillian gish steichen

Clara Bow’s sadness and even loneliness – all the flap of the “It” girl lost in a gaze to a horizon she can no longer see….

Steichen clara bow

Garbo’s abiding discomfort within her own skin….

garbo steichen

Loretta Young, stranded at the top of a staircase, seems lost and imprisoned at the same time….

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Douglas Fairbanks, almost lost in shadow, shares an intimacy with Joan Crawford…

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This photo of Walt Disney (not in the exhibit, but I just had to include it) is prescient in its placing of Mickey and Minnie in the power position. Walt looks like a man trying to shake off a pair of gremlins whose malevolence has been manifested in oversized ears. “Yes” he seems to say of his teenage offspring,”I know they’re mine, but you can’t hold me responsible for everything they get up to!”

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Again not in the exhibit is this portrait of legendary interpretive dancer, Isadora Duncan. The setting perfectly mirrors her absorption in classical notions of dance….

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The exhibit is rounded out by some non-celebrity photos, providing a resonance that seems to then inform how one looks at the more famous portraits. (Unfortunately I could not find online samples of Steichen’s early “product placement” advertising shots).

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My daughter declared the following her favorite. I am inclined to agree. Steichen has caught a sublime moment of connection between a couple. Completely wrapped up in each other, they see not the world around them. But for the prescience of the lurking photographer, we easily might not have seen them either.

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Steichen in 1955 assembling an exhibition of photos for New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Steichen in 1955 assembling an exhibition of photos for New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.  

Edward Steichen (1879 – 1973)

The Child Man Steichen

THE GARBO EFFECT

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Today would have been Greta Garbo’s 108th birthday. She is still considered one of the greatest sirens of the silver screen, a truly iconic figure embodying all the mystery and allure that the camera can bestow on the feminine form.

Garbo The Temptress

Want proof? Look no further than the following.

The year was 1926.

Filming a pivotal scene for Flesh and the Devil, the story of an illicit romance á la Anna Karenina, director Clarence Brown had little idea of how life was about to mirror art.

It was the scene where the leading lady, Greta Garbo, was to meet her great love, John Gilbert, for the first time. In real life as well as on screen.

Flesh and the Devil station

It’s the scene in the train station (alas, not available in clip form). When you watch it, you can almost believe you are watching the actors falling in love at the same time as their characters do. According to Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, whom I met at a screening of the film in New York, that is exactly what happened.

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Director Clarence Brown later remarked upon his leading lady:  “She had something behind the eyes that told the whole story. On the screen Garbo multiplied the effect of the scene I had taken. It was something she had that nobody else ever had.”

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Creating Garbo’s deliriously sensual aura was the work of cinematographer William Daniels, a veteran collaborator of maverick director Erich von Stroheim. Using heavy gauzes and filters over the camera lens, he wraps the lovers in a shimmering passion and eroticism.

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Listen to how Carl Davis’s score enhances the effect with its allusions to Richard Strauss, especially the Moonlight music from Capriccio.

You’re about to watch the climactic scene where the lovers kiss for the first time. It begins at a ball. Gilbert can think only of the woman he met at the train station. Will he see her again?

They move into the garden…..

Gilbert and Garbo were to marry. The story goes that, on his wedding day — a grand, Hollywood affair — Garbo failed to show. Gilbert got drunk and took it out on his boss, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer swore he would destroy Gilbert’s career. Gilbert never made the transition to talkies, ostensibly because of his reedy voice. But maybe the apocryphal version of how events unfolded holds the greater truth: could any man ever survive loving Garbo? (Or pissing off Louis B.?)

Garbo insisted that Gilbert co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933)

Even though Gilbert’s career was in decline, Garbo insisted that he co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933)

While Gilbert spiraled downwards, Garbo continued to ascend higher into the Hollywood heavens. With the arrival of talkies her accented voice beguiled as much as her looks, and she later revealed a talent for comedy in Lubitsch’s sublime Ninotchka (1939). Audiences were so accustomed to Garbo smoldering rather than smirking that the studio used her new-found levity as a log-line on their posters.

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If you’re ever in need of a cinematic pick-me-up, look no further.

Garbo and Lion

Even MGM’s Leo the Lion seems cowed by the Legend that was Garbo

Forget Helen of Troy.  It was Garbo who not only launched a thousand and more ships of romantic dreams, but then dashed them upon the rocks of her early retirement and retreat from the world. She was, finally, alone.

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But in the garden of film immortals she awaits her lovers still….

Garbo reclining

STILL ‘FATALE’ AFTER ALL THESE YEARS ( “The Last Picture Show” Returns )

Cybill Shepherd 3

Paul Simon wasn’t there (but he should have been) to gently coo the adjusted lyric to his classic song “Still Crazy After All These Years”, as Cybill Shepherd — the femme fatale in question — took her bow on the stage of the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills.  The occasion was a sold-out screening of The Last Picture Show, celebrating the 40th anniversary of a modern American classic.

The Last Picture Show poster

No, not director Peter Bogdanovich’s movie — or at least that’s not how it was starting to seem at the Academy that night.  No, we were here to revisit another Hollywood classic: the director’s notorious on-set extra-marital affair with his leading lady, carried on under the nose, literally, of his wife and creative collaborator, Polly Platt, who was also the film’s production designer.  Hollywood, like the elephant it is, and all protestations to the contrary, never entirely forgets sins a little too close to hearth and home.

Polly Platt with her husband Peter Bogdanovich and daughter.

Polly Platt with her husband Peter Bogdanovich and daughter.

The affair ended her and Peter’s marriage, and was the scandal of the day.  And now, forty years on, it was almost as if no time had gone by, no water had flowed under the bridge, as cast members pointedly teased and taunted Bogdanovich and Shepherd about their off-screen shenanigans all those years ago.  Clearly “The Last Picture Show starring Pete and Cybill” still got the thumbs-down.

Who needs marriage anyway?

Who needs marriage anyway?

The evening had started out as a more conventional anniversary celebration of one of the best American movies the 70s have to offer, with a gorgeous, newly struck print and the presence of cast and crew luminaries, but by the end of the Q&A the only thing anyone (cast and director included) was talking about was how Miss. Shepherd was still getting it done.  By getting it done, I mean getting her co-stars all riled up about those far off days of high jinks, and still looking so hot that her director seemed about ready to melt into his younger self (and Cybill) right there and then on the stage of the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. And could we blame him?  I mean, Cybill — damn!

Cybill Shepherd 4

Of course we’d all caught the fever from the movie we’d just watched, which portrays the sexual fumblings and tumblings of a 1950s small town citizenry as the last gasp of lives and of a town – of a picture show – that were all essentially over long ago.  It’s just that the inhabitants don’t yet fully grasp the fact of their own obsolescence, and keep going through the motions anyway.  This is a place where watching movies and getting laid are the only escape from the inexorable, slow-motion death of hope. Maybe we’re not so far from Beverly Hills after all…..

The only picture show in town.

The only picture show in town.

Film companies out on location are like two years of high school crammed into a couple of months.  The intensity of the work, the long hours, the isolation and distance away from hearth and home combine with flammable egos and jacked-up emotions to create a unique petri-dish of carnal possibilities.  It was probably inevitable that the film’s makers would be drawn into the vortex of lust games they were laboring to capture onscreen. To judge from its effect at the Academy on that night four decades after the shooting, the film hadn’t lost any of its power to combust and discombobulate.  By the time the lights came up, the air was heavy with a potent mix of melancholia and yearning for lost innocence, combined with that musty, close aroma you get in a basement where a bunch of teenagers have been heavy petting all night.

How uniquely Hollywood, I thought, as the director and cast members variously ambled, staggered, and stumbled onto the stage.  Here they are, our stars of the movies, destined always to be confronted by these giant images of their own eternal youth and erotic angst, alive but also embalmed up there on the silver screen.  Yet each day, every day, looking into the mirror — that other silver screen — they must bear witness to their present, mortal, in some cases almost unrecognizable, selves, the fragments and remains of those same immortal images up on the bog screen.  Alive, “live”, in the flesh, but now being photographed and filmed again for the Academy archives, they have lived long enough to become archives for the archives.

At the Academy  (clockwise top l. to r.: Bogdanovich, Shepherd, moderator Luke Wilson, Eileen Brennan, Timothy Bottoms, Cloris Leachman)

At the Academy (clockwise top l. to r.: Bogdanovich, Shepherd, moderator Luke Wilson, Eileen Brennan, Timothy Bottoms, Cloris Leachman)

You go to one of these Academy get-togethers and it’s like finding yourself sitting next to both Dorian Grey and his portrait at the High School reunion dance.  What a dilemma.  Which one is real? Who do you take out onto the floor for a spin?  The young beautiful one with skin like warm silk, who promises to reconnect you with your idealized younger self; or the one sitting in film-noir shadows, his deep eye-wells of experience daring you to dance with him into the dark, and beyond?  It’s the kind of situation or dilemma that is compelling, fascinating, a little unsettling, and absolutely one of the reasons why I love living in L.A., because this kind of weirdness is going on all the time.  It’s what powers this town: the primal energy derived from protons of illusion gun-barrelling towards nuclei of reality.

The other thing that is clearly going on all the time is Cybill Shepherd, who sweeps down through the audience and onto the stage like she has a story to tell.  And boy does she tell it!

"Pussycat! Pussycat....!"  Lolita eat your heart out.

“Pussycat! Pussycat….!” Lolita eat your heart out.

Notions of the passing of the years softening her libido, or of her youthful indiscretions being a thing of the past be damned.  Cybill looks about ready to pick up right where she left off on that diving-board 40 years ago, awkwardly stripping down to her panties in front of a room of drooling teenagers, then casually flinging her last shred of modesty to the waiting pack of celebrity watchers before plunging into stardom and beyond: the black hole of fickle fandom.  And the Academy audience, already plugged-in and jacked-up on its two-hour, black-and-white make-out session, is primed and ready to wave her into home base.

So Cybill marches up onto the stage and sits right next to Peter Bogdanovich — naturally.  She gives him that “You know I’m still a gorgeous movie-star, don’t you?” look, straight in the eye:  “Go on.  I dare you”.

Bogdanovich directing his star - and lover - on set for "The Last Picture Show"

Bogdanovich directing his star – and lover – on set for The Last Picture Show

You can feel the tension ripple through the cast — naturally, for this was the woman who destroyed the life of their friend and colleague, remember, with sex.  Young sex.  Young blonde sex.  The room goes quiet.  We’re all teenagers back in that swimming-pool, waiting for the blonde in her skivvies to prove she’s the real deal. Is she really going to do it?  Is she really going to take it all off?

Lights!  Camera!  ACTION!

Cybill Shepherd strip