Cracked Actor


This is one of those TV documentaries that it’s tempting to think everyone must have seen by now, but if it’s over-familiar to me it’s undoubtedly new to others. Cracked Actor: A film about David Bowie was broadcast by the BBC in their Omnibus arts strand in January 1975. Director Alan Yentob followed David Bowie around the US during the Diamond Dogs tour, and while it’s good to see some of the numbers from that album being performed live, I’ve always found it odd that Bowie’s stage persona is that of the Young Americans album, all big hair and padded shoulders; it’s a look that doesn’t work with Diamond Dogs‘ theme of dystopian futurism. Despite Yentob’s directorial coup this was one of many BBC documentaries that were screened once then not shown again for a long time, so that viewers such as myself who saw the original broadcast would be left to reminisce about memorable moments.


The most significant moment for me was Bowie demonstrating his own application of the cut-up method as he applied it to lyric writing, a sequence that was not only my first exposure to William Burroughs’ writing techniques but also my first introduction to Burroughs’ and Gysin’s names. Subsequent viewings confirmed that Bowie was as drug-addled as people claimed at the time (confirmed by the man himself in later years), especially in the limousine scenes which prefigure those in The Man Who Fell To Earth.

The amount of music in this film attracts the attentions of the YouTube copyright police so the upload linked here may not be around for long. Watch it while you can.

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Strange fascination

George Melly’s Memoirs of a Self-Confessed Surrealist


It’s a short step from Dada to Surrealism, and George Melly provides a brief skate through the philosophies of both in this 25-minute BBC film from 1978. Melly, like JG Ballard, was struck by Surrealism at an impressionable age, and the love affair was a lasting one. Both Melly and Ballard championed Surrealism during periods when it was deeply unfashionable, an oppositional stance that Ballard at least often seemed to relish.


Melly’s enthusiasm was so well-known that he was often called upon as a token advocate of Surrealism whenever one was required by the TV channels, hence this film whose title implies an admission of something disreputable. A major exhibition of Surrealist art was taking place 1978 at the Hayward Gallery in London, and it’s to this exhibition that Melly journeys, explaining (and demonstrating) what it means to be a Surrealist along the way. I saw this when it was first broadcast, and the absurd phone calls to strangers inspired myself and a few school-friends to similar activities; teenage pranks seemed less frivolous with an artistic justification. There’s a slight connection to yesterday’s post in Melly’s recounting of an anecdote from the 1950s when he was spared a night-time beating by his reciting of Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate to a group of belligerent youths. Elsewhere you get to see punk band The Stranglers scowling at the camera—Melly suggests that the punks might be inheritors of the Dadaist attitude—and director Alan Yentob standing at a urinal.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Secret Life of Edward James
René Magritte by David Wheatley