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 —
— 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And a young, entirely sexy Helen Mirren as his evil nemesis.
Plus one of the most priapic, Jungian/Freudian (take your pick) sex scenes in movie history (you know the one….)
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 and knock 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.
Boorman recounted how he and Lee Marvin became close friends, and he told several wonderful stories about their friendship.
After Marvin and Boorman had completely reworked the original script for Pont Blank and it came time to start filming, Marvin literally threw 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
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…..?”
Living and working in Hollywood one is inclined, somewhat more than the general population, to suffer from a variety of movie states of mind. After all, wanting to escape reality is what brought us to California in the first place, and the Hollywood in our heads is substantially preferable to the reality. (Have you ever been to Hollywood and Highland, where they’ve turned the gates of Babylon from D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance into a mall? And that’s the upscale bit of Hollywood!).
Old Hollywood Babylon —
— and New Hollywood Babylon
Hollywood is also intrinsically hyperbolic and, since making movies is actually a pretty arduous process, I’ve heard grown men who have Oscars in their cloakrooms liken it to war. Ridiculous? Maybe not so much. A little mental meandering can be a healthy counterbalance to too much Hollywood reality. (Or unreality).
In fact, going from that blissfully innocent initial movie idea (“How about a shark terrorizing a resort? We can build a mechanical Great White, no problem, and film it in the real ocean so we don’t have to fake it. Easy!”), to actually opening a film is kind of like finding oneself in the third act of The Shining. During the required three plus years it takes to get a film made one mostly feels like that film’s seven year-old endeavoring to elude the unwanted homicidal attentions of an axe-wielding paternal figure (a Freudian mash-up of the studio, investors, critics, paying public).
The only way to offset the seemingly inevitable drop of the blade is to take one’s life into one’s own hands and, like little Danny, run out into the petrifying night, and lure the enemy into a frozen maze from which neither of you may return in one piece.
Of course I exaggerate. No one would work in movies if it was really like that. (Yes they would! They want to meet movie stars!) It’s really no worse than being a lawyer or member of Congress. (Where are the axe murderers when you really need them?).
So, getting back to my point about Hollywood’s denizens entering into Hollywood states of mind, let’s consider some possible favorite choices.
The writer – for example – is susceptible to Sunset Boulevard. He’s found himself floating face down in a swimming-pool so many times he’s forgotten how he ever got there (or how to stop it happening again).
Of course, writers live mostly in their heads anyway, and in Hollywood that can be a nice place — all that sun, sand and, well….
What’s in the box, Barton?
Yes, any writer who’s gone through what is politely called Development Hell will feel a particular empathy with Barton Fink. The prospect of seeing John Goodman’s gun-toting psycho charging down a spontaneously combusting corridor screaming “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” will almost seem like a relief compared to another round of studio notes.
The producer – a much-maligned creature in movie lore – might veer between two possible models of how to go about getting the show on the road. There’s The Bad and the Beautiful, in which a group of filmmakers reflect on how they were aided in their careers, and then terrorized, by the Machiavellian producer played by Kirk Douglas, who will charm, swarm, cajole and bully to get his way.
And then there’s The Producers, wherein the titular characters set out to make a deliberate flop out of an all-singing, all-dancing Nazi musical, and end up with a smash hit.
Just another day at the office
But which of these two films represents how one should go about being a producer? Which one is the cautionary tale, and which one the blueprint for success?
The eternal dilemma of how exactly to go about producing hit movies is played out, second-guessed and dissected in the trades after every opening weekend. However, for every producer who yearns to cut through all the crap, Get Shorty will hold a special place in his or her heart for its gangster-turned-producer hero played by John Travolta because, deep down, every producer wishes he could make the odd recalcitrant collaborator/executive/critic/second-guesser an offer he cannot refuse.
The studio executive on the wrong end of Travolta’s pistol will always have Robert Altman’s The Player to console him. Tim Robbins’s sleazy protagonist does, after all, get away with murdering a difficult writer – and ends up marrying his victim’s girlfriend. (Add this film to the writer’s list of grievances).
The director who’s knocked around a bit channels Richard Mulligan’s beleaguered auteur in Blake Edwards’ sublime satire of Hollywood, S.O.B. (short for “Standard Operational Bulls**t”).
Driven to the brink of insanity by a mega-flop, Mulligan decides to wrestle victory from the jaws of box office defeat, and Robert Vaughan’s cross-dressing studio boss —
— by reshooting for an R-rating. How does he do this? Well, he persuades his star (and ex) Julie Andrews that her wholesome family-friendly image needs retooling (literally). To accomplish this he revamps his central MGM-style musical number as a porno.
Its climax (ahem) is Mary Poppins going all spring break on us (“You like my boobies?”a squiffy Julie declaims in a state of deshabillé).
That Mulligan gets shot to death for his pains —
— and is buried at sea in a viking helmet by William Holden and his buddies (after a spot of fishing) —
— is merely a tribute to his auteur credentials.
Actors adore All about Eve, Joe Mankiewicz’s paean to theatre folk, and dissection of the naked ambition (and unsheafed knife) lurking in the sweet smile of one’s understudy.
Cinéaste actors go nuts for Les Enfants du Paradis, Marcel Carné’s Dickensian canvas of a theater troupe’s lives and loves.
Why are we so fascinated by actors and movie stars? Because life is a performance, and we’re all acting a part — as Shakespeare so pithily pointed out. Movie stars just do it bigger and better than we do. David O. Russell’s latest, American Hustle, hardwires into our pop cultural obsession with everything actorly. It finds the intersection between performance and the con in the pursuit of the American dream, and milks the results for all their worth. And as per usual Russell pushes his cast out onto an emotional high wire — the resulting thespian high jinks and precarious balancing acts are glorious to behold.
But for me the film that maybe most perfectly embodies the surrealistic double-think a screen actor must hold in his head is Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. This is the one where a daydreaming projectionist —
— wanders into the movie he is screening.
Surviving a series of jump cuts that launch him from one perilous, and hilarious, scene to another —
— he ends up solving the mystery and getting the girl, because he entered the movie. Now that’s what I call commitment to a role. What an endorsement of film’s curative powers. (For a later spin on this idea, see Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.)
But if you had to select just one film to embody all the obsessions of Hollywood in one convenient package, I suspect that would be —
But, I hear you say, that movie has nothing to do with the movies. Au contraire, I counter. It is, in effect, the ultimate metaphor for making pictures. Consider.
Jimmy Stewart falls in love with a fabrication, an illusion of a person, who in this case happens to be Kim Novak.
“Screen siren obsession” is, in my opinion, a completely certifiable medical condition; a symptom familiar to moviegoers everywhere since the dawn of moving pictures. (Erotic fixation upon fantasy figures lies at the heart of film’s mesmeric dance of seduction). Then, when Novak “dies”, Stewart sees another woman who reminds him of the earlier one, and proceeds to refashion her into a replica of his earlier love.
What he does not know is that both women are actually one and the same.
That he’s the victim of an intricate con-job to cover up a murder is largely co-incidental, and barely relevant to what the film is really about. That crafty Hitch – he made a movie about making movies, and the danger of trying to build real-world romances upon the flickering shadows of fantasy and obsession, projected or otherwise, with death as the trickster “I do”.
“So what!”I can hear many a movie guy say. So what if the gal’s a fake, the guy’s a basket-case, and no-one gets to say “I do”. We’re making movies! How great is that! I know people who would kill to do what we do.
Yup, in Hollywood, Vertigo is the one you come home to.
‘Tis the season of mysteries. And in the movie world one of many recurring mysteries is why so many film directors insist on shooting themselves in the foot, music-wise.
As in: wrong music, too much music, not enough music, music in the wrong places, and, in the most peculiar scenario of all, going to the trouble of hiring a great composer and not letting him (or her) do the job.
This comes to mind since I was recently sitting in on a film music class at UCLA, and under discussion was the issue of a director’s and composer’s intent. We looked at scenes with cues that had been shuffled to see how readily an audience picks up on music that was not originally intended for the images it played with. The answer is that film sends pretty strong signals as to what kind of music will work in any given scene, and an audience intuitively gets all of them. So mess with the natural order at your peril.
I once witnessed the phenomenon of a director shutting down his composer, and thereby unintentionally hobbling his film, during the sessions for An American Werewolf in London.
I was at university, incurring the wrath (or at least the healthy skepticism) of my professors by writing a thesis on the film music of Bernard Herrmann. This was not quite the done thing within a traditional academic syllabus, especially since I was attempting to examine the interrelationship between music and image in detail, in a truly cross-disciplinary way. I was certainly no expert in film theory; but I felt I knew enough to make the attempt. The thesis included a cue-by-cue analysis of Citizen Kane and Psycho, but I could not lay my hands on the scores for these films. Herrmann had passed away some years earlier (the night of completing the final mix for Taxi Driver), so I contacted his last producer, Christopher Palmer, in the hopes that he could help me find the material I needed.
At that time Christopher Palmer was the guy in film music, the only one who was writing about it seriously in the mainstream media, and helping to put together recording projects like the RCA Hollywood Classic Film Score Series and the Herrmann Phase 4 records, touchstones for how to present film music properly on LP. He was also working as an orchestrator and composer in his own right.
Back then, few people took film music seriously. Certainly not the music establishment, classical or pop. I was one of a growing number of avid film music fans whose obsession was beginning to ripple through popular culture owing to the chart topping success of John Williams’s scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters. Suddenly one was starting to see dedicated film music concerts taking place, and the RCA series of records had paved the way for new LP compilations. While Williams was the rock star of film music, Herrmann was considered the Old Master — albeit an entirely modernist one.
One memorable day, Christopher handed over bound photocopies of the autographed scores to Citizen Kane and Psycho.
“So, Mark”, Chris said, as my mouth fell open at the sight of Herrmann’s own handwriting on the scores, “Have you ever been to a film scoring session?”
“No,” I replied.
“Well, if you are going to write about film music you’d better come and see how it’s done. I’m producing a session for Elmer Bernstein in a couple of weeks. Come and sit in.”
Bernstein and Palmer in 1995
It turned out the session was around the corner from where we lived, in the London village of Barnes, on the shores of the Thames. The annual Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race used to pass by the high street.
As I walked through the doors of Olympic Studios I had little idea of the roll call of legendary musicians in whose footsteps I was following. I quickly found out, since the equally legendary engineer for the sessions, Keith Grant, had also done the honors for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and King Crimson. And during breaks he liked to tell stories. Boy do I wish I had written them down.
B.B King (center right) recording in Studio One at Olympic in 1971, with Ringo Starr (far left) plus bassist Klaus Voormann, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green on guitar and Steve Marriott on harmonica (all centre left).
Anyway, as Christopher Palmer settled in for the session I noticed a bearded gentleman sitting in the corner of the control room. He wasn’t saying much, at least not yet, but I quickly gleaned he was the director. On hearing his name I got pretty excited, because John Landis had made one of my favorite guilty movie pleasures at university: National Lampoon’s Animal House. Back then, this would screen regularly on a Friday night at 11 to a packed house of pale English students, eager to soak up the anarchies of American campus life, complete with John Belushi gross-outs and topless co-eds, as we munched on greasy chips out of newspaper, smothered in salt and vinegar.
As the session got under way Landis lived up to all my expectations of what a young, hot-shot American director would be like. He was heavily bearded and wore a baseball cap like Steven Spielberg, and was constantly, brashly conversational, full of banter, movie gossip and opinions.
Bernstein (l) and Landis
Out on the floor of Studio One, Elmer Bernstein, the distinguished composer of such classics as The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Escape, who had also written the music for Animal House, was revving up his scratch orchestra, a selection of the top studio and orchestral musicians in London. Recording film music is a profoundly technical process, because everything has to time out perfectly. As I watched Bernstein, baton at the ready, scrutinize the screen with its specially prepared clips from the film (cued with dots and moving lines scatched into the film, known as punches and streamers) and repeatedly cue in his musicians perfectly, I marveled at the marriage of musicianship and mathematical precision by which he had composed his cues in meters that ran in tandem with set numbers of film frames. You were never aware of the technological underpinnings: the music flowed with the images as if it had been conjured with no need to perfectly match markers in the film’s action. It was just magically “right”. Never doubt the extraordinary craft and artistry it takes to sync your musical composition to a film, let alone come up with the melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, orchestration that work with the film’s action, its emotion, its sub-text – and do not distract.
Anyway, as the film unspooled it rapidly became clear that it was something quite unusual for a horror film. Two American students were backpacking around England. The tone was light and breezy. And then something odd happened.
Getting lost, they got caught out on the moors at night. There was a full moon. Suddenly they were attacked by a wild animal, and one of them was brutally, bloodily killed.
The hero, David (David Naughton) languished in hospital having his wounds tended to by Nurse Alex. Alex was played by the actress who had been the object of a generation of English schoolboys’ fantasies, Jenny Agutter. Naturally she was wearing a nurse’s uniform, at the sight of which swathes of english manhood were felled on the spot.
David started to have odd dreams, and in the cartoonish nightmare imagery of those dreams it was clear this was a film which was taking the usually predictable horror form and upending it with something fresh, fun, and still very scary.
Nurse Alex starts to take more of a personal interest in her charge, and when he is discharged she invites him home to stay with her. Pretty soon she is tending to more than his wounds.
Now we arrived at the scene which Landis had been proclaiming to the assembled control room was going to “blow the movie out of the water”: the first transformation scene, in which the hero gets fully in touch with his inner lupus. But an odd thing happened. As Bernstein lifted his arms to record the cue, Landis leaned into the mixing console microphone and pressed the talkback button.
“Er, Elmer, that’s fine, but we’re not gonna use it.”
Bernstein shot back: “You haven’t heard it yet.”
“Yeah, I know, but we talked about this. We’re gonna use Blue Moon.”
“Have you got the rights?”
At this point Landis’s equally bearded producer, George Folsey, Jr., chimed in: “We’re waiting to hear back.”
“What if they say no?” persisted Bernstein.
“They won’t”, said Landis, though it was clear from the look he exchanged with his producer that they might.
“Yeah, they might,” said Bernstein, who was as canny an old-hand in the music biz as you’ll ever meet. “Then what’ll you do? You need music here. You might like what I’ve got better”.
“Ok, Elmer,” Landis said, clearly not thinking this was possible.
Bernstein was determined. He raised his arms. Up went the bows. Silence. The film cued up.
The scene began, and so did the music. And both were something else.
The full moon rose. The hero, alone in the nurse’s flat, screamed, fell to the ground. And something started to happen, unlike anything I, or anyone else at the session, had seen on film before.
His clothes ripped, his muscles rippled, his skeleton and skin stretched. But it was all happening on-screen in real time. There were no dissolves as in the classic werewolf movies I had grown up with. A man was violently turning into a very large, rapacious werewolf indeed. It was brilliant.
The work of now legendary make-up designer Rick Baker, then relatively unknown, was extraordinary. This was the first time we saw animated prosthetics on camera, and they were combined with carefully animated visual effects to create a vivid illusion of metamorphosis. Bones expanded, fur grew, nails turned into claws, ears elongated, and eyes darkened as the beast within was unleashed.
In the final coup de théâtre the hero’s elongated wolvine jaw pushed forward, stretching the human face into a fanged canine muzzle. The newly birthed American Werewolf howled to the moon.
And with every extravagant metamorphosis on screen the music more than kept pace: it drove the transformation. It gave voice to our horror, and the character’s terror, at what was happening, at the same time as capturing all the grand beauty of the spectacle. As the sequence ended and the music smashed to its conclusion, the orchestra and control room erupted into applause. This is a rare thing. London session musicians have seen and heard it all. But it was clear that what we had just witnessed, music and image together, was a showstopper. The combination of groundbreaking visuals and barnstorming music was one for the ages. It would, in the words the director had spoken earlier in the session, “blow the movie out of the water”.
Rick Baker (l), David Naughton (c), John Landis (r)
The orchestra and conductor/composer waited for the pronouncement from the control-room.
“It’s great, Elmer.” John Landis’s voice was authoritative. “But if I get Blue Moon I’m using it. Let’s move on.”
No one made a comment, but we all knew what we were thinking.
What are you thinking?
A year later, venturing into a cinema to see the completed film, I secretly prayed that the rights to Blue Moon had been denied, and that the world would see what I had seen and heard that memorable afternoon in Olympic Studios. As the film neared the transformation scene I braced myself. The hero pottered around Jenny Agutter’s flat, the moon rose and –
The unmistakeable tones of Sam Cooke rang through the theatre. As the hero submitted to his bodily eruptions I kept hoping John Landis had come to his senses and would segue into Bernstein’s apocalyptic cue. But no. I was left to intellectually appreciate the director’s ironical juxtaposition of music and image, rather than submit to the terror and awe-inspiring horror of a man becoming a beast, red in tooth and claw. The transformation, while still striking, was robbed of its ultimate animal ferocity. It became oddly prosaic, fully serving neither the story nor the audience. Since this was a film that, for all its jokiness, had at its core the tragedy of a man destroyed by his true nature, then playing down the moment when that nature emerged for all the world to see seemed an odd choice. Knowing as I did what the scene could have been with Bernstein’s cue, it was something worse than a missed opportunity. It was a regrettable example of a director remaining wedded to his original concept, rather than listening to what the work itself and his highly experienced collaborator were telling him.
In the end, the scene did not “blow the movie out of the water” — but it certainly blew.
FILM MUSIC AFICIONADOS AND COMPLETISTS, PLEASE SEE MY EXPANDED THOUGHTS ON THIS IN THE COMMENTS BOXES BELOW.
ADDENDUM (September 2019): As you will see from my comments below, a lively discussion took place on the site FSM (Film Score Monthly) after this article was published. We all agreed that the missing cue turned up as “Metamorphosis”, later re-recorded by Nic Raine and the Prague Philharmonic. An enterprising soul, Mr. von Kralingen, has now synced that cue with the original scene, more or less as it would have originally played — and here it is. Enjoy!
As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences welcomes Kevin Brownlow to introduce two of his classic silent movie restorations, “The Crowd” and “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg”, here is my tribute to this maverick filmmaker and inspirational film historian. I begin with an overview of his career, followed by an interview about Brownlow with his colleague and admirer, Sir Alan Parker.
Director Alan Parker
There are many who would argue that film lost a certain magic in the transition from “silents” to “talkies”. The literalness of adding speech, the specificity of anchoring images to sound, created a new filmic “reality”. In the process we lost an elusive element of poetry that suffused the combination of image and music that was the silent film. (The “silents” were never silent — there was always live music, both in the theaters, and on set when filming).
Some would say the “talkies” have never fully recaptured that original magic, that poetry.
One of the people who would be first to agree is Kevin Brownlow, the man who can rightly claim to have alerted more people to the wonders of the silent era than any other. And not just from writing about it, although he has done that better than anyone. Through restorations, theatrical presentations and documentaries, Brownlow has always used his own considerable filmmaking skills to turn faded curiosities into vibrant, vital film experiences for packed houses and millions of television viewers.
As a boy he fell in love with the forgotten silents he watched in his makeshift home cinema, the classics and rare treasures he would bring home from flea markets and buy in catalogues. He became a filmmaker himself, co-directing with his friend Andrew Mollo the startling It Happened Here (1964), a nightmarish fugue that imagined life in England if the Nazis had won the War. It was the original low-budget indie before such a thing existed. He also worked as an editor in the British film industry – on films like Tony Richardson’s iconoclastic Chargeof the Light Brigade (1968) (which he described to me as “professionally the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had.”)
Polish poster for Charge of the Light Brigade
But his greatest passion remained that long forgotten era in Hollywood, when the most recognizable people on the planet – Valentino and Garbo, Chaplin and Keaton, Pickford and Fairbanks – created a new art-form among the orange groves of Hollywood.
Hollywood c.1906 (the High School is the white building in center)
Chaplin’s Film Studios in the 20s
I first became aware of Brownlow’s work at school, thanks to the same enterprising schoolmaster who had introduced me to the notion that film could be more than just entertainment via movies like Stagecoach and Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game and Un Chien Andalou. He screened a documentary Kevin had made about the French director Abel Gance, and his “lost” silent epic Napoleon, that Kevin had been painstakingly reconstructing over the years. That documentary, The Charm of Dynamite, was revelatory. I had never seen film used like this. Every element of the medium was pushed to the limit to immerse the viewer as deeply as possible into the drama, the emotion, the poetry of what was unfolding on the screen.
I immediately read Kevin’s seminal history of the silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, and was transported into another world. Through the detailed reminiscences of everyone from stars to cameramen to stunt-men and directors, the silent era was transformed into a kind of cinematic Camelot. It was a gilded age of kings and queens, princes and princesses; with court intrigues and pretenders to the throne; errant knights, court jesters and the occasional damsel in distress — all working to create a new art-form and entertainment industry first in New York, then in the wild, wild west of California. The Parade’s Gone By was to form the basis for the subsequent groundbreaking, 13-hour television series, Hollywood.
In an irony not lost on its creators, Hollywood was funded and produced by a television company, Thames, part of Britain’s commercial network. The dreaded box in the living-room, which had brought the film industry to its knees in the 50s and 60s, turned out to be the vehicle that preserved and celebrated Hollywood’s neglected history at a time when the studios were still mindlessly chucking out their archives, to end up as landfill for freeway construction. And it was a British television company to boot.
The success of Hollywood brought unforeseen gifts. One Saturday morning I found myself with my best friend riding a train from Oxford to London to attend an occasion neither I, nor, I suspect Kevin, ever imagined would take place. It was a full theatrical screening of the now completed Napoleon, accompanied by a symphony orchestra performing a specially composed score,in one of London’s grand movie palaces, the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square.
It all started in the morning. No film started in the morning! Well this one did, because it lasted all day! Up to the podium strode composer/conductor Carl Davis, a striking figure with a flowing mane of curly hair, Liszt-like, every inch the showman and maestro.
He had to be. He was going to be spending the next five-and-a-half hours leading his musicians without anything to keep him in sync with the film beyond his own instincts and sheer nerve. In musical terms, it was a high wire act, without a safety rope, over the Grand Canyon. With forecasts of windy gusts and rain.
The theatre was full of London’s cultural elite and movie buffs, with assorted movers, shakers and politicos thrown in for good measure. What were we expecting? Something great, something special, but absolutely not the utterly overwhelming experience that was actually delivered. As the drama reached its climax with Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, the film exploded the bounds of the frame by expanding onto three screens in the final triptych sequence. With Beethoven’s Eroica theme and Carl’s own transcendent “Destiny” theme thundering (with added organ now) from the orchestra, the theatre trembled, whole rows of grown men and women shaking with emotion.
The triumph of Napoleon ushered in a golden age for Kevin, his producing partner David Gill (at right), and composer Carl Davis (center).
They embarked on a series of documentaries and theatrical rebirths of silent classics, all presented in exquisitely restored prints with brand new orchestral scores.
Ben-Hur, The Big Parade, Thief of Baghdad, Flesh and the Devil, The Wind — I saw them all and more, and began writing articles about what was fast becoming an exciting phenomenon in festivals and movie houses across the world: “live” cinema.
I got to know the team, and during the season at Radio City Music Hall, found myself chatting with Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Lauren Bacall, John Gilbert’s daughter, and other luminaries of old Hollywood. When I moved to Los Angeles, Kevin delighted in telling me that one of the greatest of all Hollywood directors, Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco), had lived a couple of blocks away from my apartment; his son still resided in the same house.
During one of my visits to Kevin and David’s offices, I noticed their walls were decorated with a series of acerbic, and very funny, cartoons about the biz by the British director Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments).
It turned out that Kevin, like every film maker struggling to make a career within the insular, perennially on-the-edge-of-the-abyss British Film Industry, recognized a fellow rebel when he saw one. He mentioned something about Alan being a regular at their screenings, and having “borrowed” Abel Gance’s idea of using a camera suspended from a pendulum for his film of Pink Floyd The Wall. I was always a fan of Alan Parker, especially of The Wall and Shoot the Moon, the latter a searingly honest examination of a disintegrating marriage that contains career-topping performances by Diane Keaton and Albert Finney. Parker was an unabashedly commercial director who brought real fire and passion to his work, and wasn’t afraid to cock a snook at the doggedly inward-looking (some would say constipated) ethic of mainstream British film. For me, his act of hommage to Abel Gance confirmed his class: he stole only from the best.
So when, last year, I was writing a piece about the triumphant screenings of Napoleon at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I thought it would be interesting to contact now Sir Alan Parker for his thoughts on another maverick, now Oscar-winner Kevin Brownlow.
This is what he had to say….
Alan Parker (l.) shooting Pink Floyd The Wall
When and how did you first meet Kevin Brownlow? What were your impressions of him?
I first met him in David Puttnam’s office in the early seventies but didn’t really get to know him until about 1982/3 when he and David Gill asked me to do one of the segments for their Thames series “British Cinema: A personal view.” I wrote and directed one of these films: it was called “A Turnip Head’s Guide to British Cinema.” Kevin was a fan of my rather irreverent and subversive cartoons commenting on the film industry, which we developed into the film.
Lindsay Anderson and Richard Attenborough also did segments of their own. David Lean was also meant to do one, but pulled out.
My first impressions of Kevin were of a shy, owlish, bookish individual: he looked like a history teacher from Tom Brown’s Schooldays or a bureaucrat from MI-6 .
I was fascinated by the miniature notebooks he carried; the pages of which he covered with the tiniest handwriting. It could be a quote, an obscure film fact, or a rude put-down – into the book it all went.
Did you read his book “The Parade’s Gone By”, and if so what kind of impact did it have on you?
I loved The Parade’s Gone By. It’s one of the best books on the history of film and probably the best on the silent movie era.Although scholarly and erudite it was totally engaging, put together by someone who not only knew his stuff but also loved every person and every frame in it. He was the first to realize that an entire generation responsible for early cinema might not be around much longer, and his interviews with the significant, surviving players became an evocative and definitive history of the period.
Can you talk about your experience of seeing “Napoleon” for the first time: your impressions of the film, the effect of the music, and any influence the experience had on your own work?
I was certainly influenced by it. After seeing the film I built a giant pendulum rig over a swimming pool at Pinewood Studios for a scene in Pink Floyd The Wall where Bob Geldof, with flailing arms, seems to be drowning in his own blood.
Bob Geldof as Pink
We also threw the camera around at any opportunity, influenced by Gance. A lot of the film was hand-held cameras. Gance taught us that all the usual rules could be broken to create cinematic energy, and a surreal, anarchic, in-your-face film like The Wall was a perfect vehicle.
Earlier, before the film, Pink Floyd and Gerald Scarfe in the mammoth stage version of The Wall (early 1980) had used three projectors in sync, creating a triptych image on the giant ‘wall’ screen.
The Wall “live” in 1980
Scarfe’s animation looked extraordinarily powerful in this form. Whether they borrowed this from Gance I don’t know, as it was before my time.
For anyone who has never seen “Napoleon”, what would you tell them to prepare themselves for?
Everything that was ever invented in cinema is here. It’s a masterpiece of course and overwhelming. A lot of people find the acting rather over-the-top and earnest but the film is so big, seemingly no screen is big enough to contain it. And how can you resist the smouldering, sharp nosed features of the actor who plays Napoleon with the dramatic god-given name of Albert Dieudonné!
Brownlow introducing Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne)
How did Kevin’s and David Gill’s series of live presentations of silent movies with live orchestra, and their various documentary series, change your perception and opinion of the silent film era in movies?
I think, as a young filmmaker, it was impossible not to be affected by the invention and sheer craft of the work. And unlike us lot, following in their large footsteps, they were the first to do it. They were making up the rules, the grammar as they went along. The power, simplicity and beauty of images and music together is an extraordinary way to communicate to an audience.
John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926)
Lillian Gish in The Wind
The Phantom (Lon Chaney) arrives at the Ball, Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Sets for Thief of Baghdad (1924)
I had been captivated by the original Unknown Chaplin series in particular – being a Chaplin nut – and so the Chaplin films would have been particularly important to me.
You have always used music very creatively in your own films — why do you think Carl Davis’s scores for these silent films are so effective?
First and foremost they are an adjunct to the storytelling and not too self important or distracting. They meld with the pictures, creeping up on you rather than set you humming. They are not flashy, but serve the images.
Carl Davis and friend
Why do you think Kevin has been such an effective force in the promotion of the silent era in film-making?
His endless fascination with the minutiae of film is extraordinary. It seems he lives and breathes and loves it.
Kevin is a great film historian who made us all realize the wealth of our cinematic heritage at a time when people had all but forgotten it. And he realized it fifty years before The Artist.
Brownlow and Gill talking to Gloria Swanson
What were the most striking qualities of Kevin Brownlow’s own films “It Happened Here” and “Winstanley”? Why you think it was so challenging for Kevin to make these kinds of films at that time in Britain?
Both It happened Here and Winstanley were films that just wouldn’t have been made in the run of normal British film fodder.
There was no such thing as “Indie film” at the time and It Happened Here took so long to make the trials and tribulations of making it were like Werner Herzog films: probably more interesting than the films themselves. I have the powerful image in my head – that has stayed since seeing the original film – of a platoon of German soldiers, in immaculate Andrew Mollo [brother of Star Wars costume designer John Mollo] uniforms, marching past Big Ben.
British film at the time was a curious sixties potpourri from brilliant to dire – and all financed by the mainstream film companies. It was a mixed bag from dopey Carry on… films, to the brilliance of Kubrick and Lean, to the sixties visions of Dick Lester and the Beatles. Brownlow must have appeared as a maverick loony.
Do you have any particularly good stories about Kevin?
I remember a dry sense of humour.I was bemoaning the unpleasantness of the film critic, Alexander Walker, and Kevin said: “The problem with Alex is that his ad libs sound like they’re on their eighth draft.”