The Disappearance, a film by Stuart Cooper

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If you’re an obsessive cineaste there’s a good chance you maintain a mental list of the films you’d like to see, the films you’d like to see again, and the films you’d like to see reissued on DVD. The vagaries of distribution and ownership often conspire to make older films fall out of sight even when they’ve been produced and promoted by major studios, have had TV screenings and so on. This was famously the case with five of Alfred Hitchcock’s features—Vertigo and Rear Window among them—which managed to remain out of circulation for two decades; more notoriously there was Stanley Kubrick’s neurotic embargo on any screening of A Clockwork Orange in the UK which meant that my generation of Kubrick-watchers had to make do with a variety of pirate VHS recordings.

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Penguin edition, 1973. Photo by Van Pariser.

DVD reissues have chipped away at my “must see again” list with the result that Stuart Cooper’s The Disappearance (1977) recently found itself at the top of the catalogue. This film has never been as inaccessible as some: it received at least two TV screenings in the UK, and was available on VHS cassette for a time. There was also a DVD release although by the time I started looking for it the only available copies were secondhand ones commanding high prices. A year or so ago I read Derek Marlowe’s Echoes of Celandine (1970), the novel on which the screenplay is based, and as a result became more eager than ever to see the film again. Having finally watched a very poor-quality transfer of a VHS copy on YouTube I now feel sated, even if the experience was unsatisfying.

The Disappearance is one of those odd productions that ought to have all the ingredients to make a very memorable film but which never works as well as you might hope. The screenplay was by Paul Mayersberg, written between his two films with Nicolas Roeg, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Eureka (1983); there’s a great cast: Donald Sutherland, David Warner, Peter Bowles, David Hemmings (who also produced), John Hurt, Virginia McKenna, Christopher Plummer; Kubrick’s cameraman of the 1970s, John Alcott, photographed the film shortly after winning an Oscar for his work on Barry Lyndon; the source material is very good: Marlowe’s novel is described as “a romantic thriller” but when the quality of the writing easily matches any literary novels of the period such a description makes it sound more generic and pot-boiling than it is.

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Viddy well: Back in the Chelsea Drug Store

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The Chelsea Drug Store, 49 King’s Road, London, circa 1970.

How quickly things change. It was almost six years to the day that I posted an unapologetically sedulous analysis of the record shop scene in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, something that’s still one of the most regularly visited of all the entries here. That post concerned the excitement of being able to at last scrutinise on DVD a single shot whose details had earlier been obscured by no end of noise and interference, the embargoed film having previously been available in the UK on various bootleg videos. Fuzzy warbles indeed. The DVD wasn’t ideal, however, and many of the frame enlargements looked pretty shoddy. Last month I acquired a box of Blu-ray Kubrick films so all the images on that post have now been upgraded. There isn’t a great deal more to see in a shot that lasts all of sixty-six seconds, but John Alcott’s wide-angle photography is now crystal clear.

As for the location of the record shop, I noted in the original post that the famous Chelsea Drug Store building is now a McDonald’s. A place that once sold music and magazines becomes another outlet for an international burger chain; that’s the real future horror, not rampaging youth. See it up close on Google’s Street View.

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Alex and the sounds of 1970.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Kubrick shirts
A Clockwork Orange: The Complete Original Score
Juice from A Clockwork Orange
Clockwork Orange bubblegum cards
Alex in the Chelsea Drug Store

Snowbound cinema

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A satellite view of snow across Great Britain on January 7, 2010.

Walking the snow-laden streets this week felt like a considerable novelty when we rarely have snowfalls of any depth here and what there is never lasts much longer than a day. The current low temperatures which began just before Christmas may be inducing a national trauma but the genuinely wintery weather makes a change from the dreary weeks of rain and cold which usually prevail until April.

Whilst trudging through the crusted ice I found myself remembering favourite films which make the most of winter landscapes. Here’s a short list to follow the earlier winter-themed posts.

McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
Several Westerns before this one had featured winter scenes but I think Robert Altman’s was the first to be set at the height of winter in a snowbound town. Memorable for Vilmos Zsigmond’s photography, Leonard Cohen’s lugubrious songs, Warren Beatty’s doomed businessman stomping around wrapped in furs muttering “Pain, pain, pain!”, and the finale when he’s hunted down by a trio of assassins.

The Shining (1980)
Has anyone not seen this film? Despite the artificial snow, Kubrick’s direction and John Alcott’s photography communicate authentic chills, both meteorological and metaphysical.

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Yes, it’s a genuine Christmas postcard from Oregon’s Timberline Lodge which became the model for Kubrick’s Overlook Hotel. Writer Tom Veitch sent me this some years ago.

The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s grisly Antarctic horror is the film I still find to be his best. Like his earlier Assault on Precinct 13, this is another siege situation borrowed from Howard Hawks only this time the enemy is within. Until someone films At the Mountains of Madness, this is the closest you’ll get to Lovecraft’s polar nightmares.

Runaway Train (1985)
Few people know this: escaped convicts Jon Voight and Eric Roberts find themselves on the titular train with rail worker Rebecca De Mornay, and it’s a long ride through frozen landscapes as they try to escape the law and the train itself before it crashes. Andrei Konchalovsky directs a story by Akira Kurosawa rewritten by Edward Bunker (who has a cameo) and others. The result is a strange blend of hardboiled drama and existential symbolism with a great score by Trevor Jones.

Fargo (1996)
One of the Coen Brothers’ best. Watching this again over Christmas along with many of their other films, it was amusing to see Steve Buscemi transform from Fargo‘s vicious and splenetic kidnapper to the mild-mannered character he plays in The Big Lebowski. Despite the statement at the beginning of the film, Fargo isn’t a true story but its existence became tangled with some curious real-life events.?

Update: I was reminded on Twitter about Altman’s bizarre future Ice Age drama, Quintet, which I should have mentioned above. Not as successful as the earlier film but its setting certainly suits the weather.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Bruegel in winter
Winter panoramas
Winter music
Winter light
Kubrick shirts
At the Mountains of Madness
Images by Robert Altman

Stanley Kubrick 1928–1999

Welles: Among those whom I would call “younger generation” Kubrick appears to me to be a giant.
Interviewer: But, for example, The Killing was more or less a copy of The Ashphalt Jungle?
Welles: Yes, but The Killing was better. The problem of imitation leaves me indifferent, above all if the imitator succeeds in surpassing the model… What I see in him is a talent not possessed by the great directors of the generation immediately preceding his… Perhaps this is because his temperament comes closer to mine.
Orson Welles, from a 1965 interview.

kubrick.jpgONE OF THE MORE notable things about the obituaries following Stanley Kubrick’s death in March this year was the lack of consensus with regard to his achievements. All were agreed that the man had made great films, but which films those might be varied widely, the choices spanning his entire career: Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paths of Glory, even The Killing was mentioned. A lack of accord would seem inevitable given such a varied career. Critic David Thomson has always chosen The Shining, citing its fairy tale qualities and a perceived autobiographical subtext about artistic crisis (“Why does Jack Nicholson look and dress like Kubrick?” he asks). In France the often vilified Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange (L’Orange Mecanique) still receive cult veneration.

After the death of Orson Welles in 1985, Kubrick became (arguably, of course) the greatest living filmmaker, the dubious status of “living legend” having been achieved a decade earlier. (In Sight & Sound‘s 1992 Critics Top 10 2001 crept into tenth place, the only film listed by a living director.) The international acclaim, his presence on English soil and a refusal to barter with hacks was, no doubt, one cause of the extraordinary level of carping in the March notices. Another would be due to a common syndrome, that of intelligence and popular culture being seen as mutually exclusive. Where cinema is concerned we live in times which, as Robin Wood once said, “regards Heaven’s Gate as ‘a disaster’ and Return of the Jedi as ‘a triumph'”. Orson Welles himself is rarely mentioned without reference to sherry commercials and, in other quarters, James Joyce is routinely described as ‘unreadable’ (this, from people who buy Nick Hornby books). In an atmosphere of elevated mediocrity, Kubrick’s powerful intellect and artistry, combined with an understandable reluctance to talk to people who think Ossessione is a brand of perfume, formed unavoidable provocations. The media landscape has changed enormously since the days when Kubrick would still appear at the premier of Lolita; it’s hard to imagine John Ford or Sam Peckinpah tolerating an interrogation from Jamie Theakston or Magenta DeVine. The voracious appetites of style mags and entertainment TV demand a constant drip-feed of interviews, talk show appearances and promo tours (backed by massive PR budgets). Anyone who doesn’t play the game is regarded as insane or as some kind of traitor. To be a name director working with ‘stars’ verges on the suicidal. Those two great elusive Thomases, Pynchon and Harris, both also taking years between works, escape censure by being mere writers. No one cares about Pynchon (he’s in Joyce’s ‘unreadable’ camp) while Harris has film gossip and a miscast Anthony Hopkins to deflect attention.

Nearly all the post mortem articles managed to repeat the standard litany of Kubrick complaints which have dogged him like the sherry ads dogged Welles. One of the worst, repeated in a recent biography, was that he was the bane of actors. If so, then Sterling Hayden, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel, Peter Sellers, Leonard Rossiter, Margaret Tyzack, Patrick Magee, Godfrey Quigley and Steven Berkoff et al, were gluttons for punishment, having come back for more when asked. Philip Stone, presumably bidding for a BFI endurance award, appeared in A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon and The Shining. Leon Vitali, who played the elder Lord Bullingdon in Barry Lyndon, had such a terrible time of it he left acting completely to join Kubrick’s permanent production staff. It seems significant that most complaints about Kubrick from the acting side came from those with prodigious egos: Kirk Douglas (who described him as “a talented shit”), Malcom McDowell (“inhuman”) and, on One Eyed Jacks, that paragon of flexibility Marlon Brando. No one who was as difficult as is so often claimed would have had talents such as Ken Adam and John Alcott returning constantly to work on his films, nor inspired such loyalty in those around him (see Anthony Frewin’s remarks in the current issue).

Invariably these kind of ill-informed comments say more about the critic than about Kubrick or, more importantly, his films. A metropolitan media that measures artistic success by the quantities of cocaine snorted in a Dean Street bar has few terms of reference for dealing with someone who chooses to sit at home for most of their life. Hence the recurrent headlines: “Kubrick the recluse”, “Kubrick the secretive, paranoid control-freak”.

Focus on Kubrick’s eccentricities often ignored the accuracy of his artistic choices. What is still seen as perversity in making a Vietnam film in the ruins of Beckton gasworks is, when the equivalent scenes are compared with Gustav Hasford’s novel, a stroke of brilliance which improves on the original by taking it out of its over-familiar jungle locale and into an area of potent metaphor. The entire last quarter of Full Metal Jacket has an nightmare quality as the film spirals through multiple deaths into darkness (with a Rolling Stones’ coda of ‘Paint It Black’). The flaming ruins seem to reach to infinity; where a jungle setting would connect only with Vietnam, the rubbled streets are the theatre of all present and future warfare, corresponding to Berlin, Beirut, Sarajevo and wherever the apocalypse is scheduled to visit next. And what other director anywhere, having shown his matchless ability to choose the perfect classical selection, would have the audacity and consummate good taste to pick out ‘Surfin’ Bird’ by The Trashmen?

This ability to crystalise ideas and metaphors in unforgettable images (the bone to spacecraft transformation in 2001) set Kubrick apart from his contemporaries, and his concentration on ideas as well as story makes him seem increasingly unique. Even acknowledged admirers like Michael Mann and Ridley Scott are unwilling or unable to compete on this level. Fortunately we have a final film left to see (setting aside the troubling presence of Tom Cruise; Ryan O’Neal was also pretty wooden during his Seventies’ heyday). Eyes Wide Shut seems to bring Kubrick’s career to a fitting close, based as it is on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle. Schnitzler also wrote the play La Ronde which was filmed in 1950 by Max Ophüls, virtually the only director Kubrick ever referred to in interviews as a subject of admiration (by coincidence, Nicole Kidman was acting in The Blue Room, Howard Brenton’s version of La Ronde, shortly after completing her duties on the film). Eyes Wide Shut has already caused a stir in the US by having to be altered to secure an ‘R’ rating (as A Clockwork Orange was before it).

To be controversial to the last is the least one can expect of any artistic maverick. Kubrick, king of the Hollywood Mavericks, was always more than that.

John Coulthart, 1999. First published in The Edge.

Alex in the Chelsea Drug Store

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The Chelsea Drug Store, 49 King’s Road, London, circa 1970.

“I went down to the Chelsea Drug Store,”
“To get your prescription filled…”

The Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, 1969

How much Stanley Kubrick trivia can you stand? One of the delights of DVD over VHS tape is the ability to step frame by perfect frame through any given film sequence without the picture being disturbed by noise. This reveals a lot more detail should you wish to scrutinise a favourite scene such as the dolly shot in A Clockwork Orange where Malcolm McDowell makes a circuit of the “disc-bootick” before chatting up a couple of devotchkas.

The scene was filmed in the then very trendy Chelsea Drug Store on the corner of Royal Avenue and the King’s Road, London SW3. In 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) the world as it might be forty years was created with models and some elaborate and expensive sets. For the more satirical A Clockwork Orange Kubrick adopted the same approach as Jean-Luc Godard in Alphaville, with carefully-selected views of the contemporary world standing for a fictional future. There’s no attempt made in this scene to disguise any of the cultural products of 1970, the year it was filmed.

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The location as it is today, rendered safe and banal courtesy of McDonald’s.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s A Clockwork Orange was unavailable in Britain in any form due to a bizarre embargo by the director. This means that Kubrick enthusiasts like myself who were too young to have seen the film in the cinema had to rely on bootleg videos of depressingly limited quality (often copies of copies) that did no justice to John Alcott’s superb photography or to Wendy Carlos’s electronic soundtrack. Especially frustrating was spotting Tim Buckley’s Lorca album on one of the shelves in the record shop scene but not being able to make out what else might be there. This might seem like a rather fatuous complaint but there aren’t many places you find such a pristine snapshot of a British record emporium in the early 70s. More to the point, with a clearer view you have a chance here to enjoy some sly Kubrick humour. So what does the DVD reveal?

Before Alex appears we can see two albums in the racks, Livin’ the Blues by Canned Heat and The Time is Near… by the Keef Hartley Band.

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When Alex wanders in he passes a large rack of albums, some of which elude my occasionally sketchy knowledge of 70s’ rock. I can recognise these: 1) U by The Incredible String Band, 2) Atom Heart Mother by Pink Floyd, 3) As Your Mind Flies By by Rare Bird, 4) Get Ready by Rare Earth and 5), the one that started it all, Lorca by Tim Buckley.

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Alex passes a booth stacked with magazines and newspapers. The one at the lower right is a popular film magazine of the time, Films and Filming.

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He passes the other side of the magazine booth, selects a magazine and leafs through it while he walks. I’d never paid much attention to this before until I was stepping through the scene again and recognised the cover as a copy of Cinema X (The International Guide for Adult Audiences), an exploitation mag that existed solely to show people stills of nude scenes in current films. This is Kubrick’s first joke since Cinema X is exactly the kind of title that would attract Alex’s attention even though he discards it a few moments later.

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Cinema X, vol. 2, #11 (1970). 

The magazine above is the issue Alex selects (minus the censored boobs). The logo was easy to spot because I own the issue (below), volume 4, no. 6, which has as its main feature…A Clockwork Orange.

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Cinema X, vol. 4, #6 (1972).

Alex leafs through the mag and passes a poster for Ned Kelly, a film starring Mick Jagger who’d sung about the Chelsea Drug Store only a couple of years before. No idea how I recognised this, it was a lucky guess.

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Two more Kubrick jokes: on the left there’s a copy of the soundtrack to SK’s earlier film 2001: A Space Odyssey at the front of the album racks. On the right there’s a gentleman who many people assume is the director although I believe this has been soundly refuted. Besides his face there’s another joke, the sleeve of the Missa Luba album by Les Troubadours du Roi Baudouin, an album of gospel songs sung by an African school choir that was released in 1959. The ‘Sanctus’ song from side two was played throughout Lindsay Anderson’s film If…. which featured Malcolm McDowell in his first major role playing another figure of rebellion. It was this role that landed him the lead in A Clockwork Orange.

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Alex ditches his Cinema X and passes a copy of the debut album by British rock trio Stray.

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Arriving at the record booth we can see a number of albums on display. On the upper shelves there are copies of Magical Mystery Tour by The Beatles and another copy of Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. In the racks at the front there’s a more prominently displayed copy of the 2001 soundtrack (in a different sleeve) next to John Fahey’s “fake” blues album, The Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death.

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Might there be a reason for placing Fahey’s not-at-all futuristic blues record next to the 2001 soundtrack? How about this: one of the songs on Fahey’s album is Bicycle Made For Two (aka Daisy Bell), the very thing that the HAL 9000 computer famously recites when it’s being shut down.

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Lastly, that big graphic swirl above the booth is the symbol of the Vertigo record label.

Places like the Chelsea Drug Store were the magical homes of music before the corporations moved in and turned high street stores into warehouses flogging albums in bulk. In this scene at least A Clockwork Orange serves less as a warning of the future and more as a window on a world that’s disappeared.

Update: All the images have been upgraded from a Blu-ray edition of the film.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive