Hamfat Asar, a film by Lawrence Jordan

jordan1.jpg

I was reminded of Lawrence/Larry Jordan recently when reading Deborah Solomon’s biography of Joseph Cornell, Utopia Parkway, in which Jordan receives passing mention for helping Cornell with some of his film work in the 1960s. One of Jordan’s short films was featured here in 2014 but I’d not been very diligent in looking for more, a considerable oversight when he was an early and accomplished practitioner of animation using collaged engravings and illustrations. He wasn’t the only animator producing work like this in the 1960s, Harry Smith, Jan Lenica and Walerian Borowczyk also used these methods, but Jordan seemed to favour the idiom more than others.

jordan2.jpg

Hamfat Asar dates from 1965, and is immediately notable for moving its collaged figures over a shoreline landscape which remains fixed for the entire running time. The narrative, such as it is, concerns a stilt-walking figure attempting to cross from one side of the screen to the other but whose progress is continually impeded by a succession of figures, creatures and bizarre assemblages. The film has been described as representing “a vision of life beyond death” although this isn’t very evident at all. Jordan’s films are much more Surreal in the true sense of the word than many other collage animations which tend towards satire or comedy, Terry Gilliam’s work for Monty Python being an obvious example of the latter. The combination of Surreal engravings with black-and-white film stock gives Hamfat Asar a distinct Max Ernst flavour, which is no bad thing. Watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Carabosse, a film by Lawrence Jordan
Labirynt by Jan Lenica
Science Friction by Stan VanDerBeek
Heaven and Earth Magic by Harry Smith
Short films by Walerian Borowczyk

Oscar (1985)

oscar1.jpg

I’ve mentioned John Hawkesworth’s three-hour television biography of Oscar Wilde in previous Wilde-related posts, but was never able to point to a viewable copy until now. Oscar was broadcast by the BBC in three parts in 1985, and if it was ever shown again I don’t recall it; I certainly missed capturing it on tape. This was frustrating because I always remembered Michael Gambon’s portrayal of Wilde as being the best I’d seen, but the only reissues for home viewing were long-deleted tapes and discs produced for other countries. Having watched the drama again I’m pleased to find it as good as I remembered, possibly more so since I’ve read a several Wilde biographies in the interim so I’m better able to judge its accuracy.

oscar2.jpg

Oscar examining Aubrey Beardsley’s Salomé illustrations.

As a writer and TV producer John Hawkesworth specialised in period drama, creating and writing episodes for The Duchess of Duke Street, Danger UXB (about wartime bomb disposal), and the celebrated Granada TV Sherlock Holmes series featuring Jeremy Brett’s definitive portrayal of the detective. Oscar was based on biographical books by H. Montgomery Hyde, an MP who lost his seat for his campaigns in the late 1950s and 1960s against the British laws forbidding homosexual acts. Knowing this it’s significant that Hawkesworth’s opening scene in the first episode is a brief parliamentary discussion about the notorious Labouchere Amendment of 1885 (“The Blackmailer’s Charter”) which the narrator informs us would send Oscar Wilde to prison ten years later. Hawkesworth divides his drama into three distinct phases: Gilded Youth (concerning Wilde’s relationship with Alfred Douglas, his artistic success and the ire of the Marquess of Queensberry); Trials (the personal as well as legal variety); and De Profundis (imprisonment and its aftermath).

oscar3.jpg

In the dock at the Old Bailey.

The arc of tragedy is a familiar one, of course, but other dramatisations are seldom as well-balanced as here. Feature films about Oscar Wilde generally have shorter running times so devote their larger budgets to a recreation of the glamorous fin-de-siècle rise and the terrible downfall. Oscar is a typical BBC production of the period, mostly recorded on video in studio sets with occasional film work for exteriors. What we see of Victorian London appears sparse compared to the Sherlock Holmes episodes which were being filmed at this time. Hawkesworth may have been restricted by budget but three hours allows him to pay greater attention to the later episodes, especially the trials. Oscar was the first screen biography to give us include the discussion of sexual details in the courtroom, as well as to show Wilde alone with a naked boy. This was a considerable advance at a time when gay sex of any kind was a rare sight on British television, and when even the straight variety could cause problems, as it did for Gambon and co. a year later when Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective inspired the contemptible Mary Whitehouse to complain to the BBC. Hawkesworth also runs through the later years to the very end, a period of decline usually avoided or, as in Brian Gilbert’s Wilde (1997), disingenuously truncated so as to provide a “happy” resolution. Given this, I would have preferred some of the earlier scenes to be longer, and to offer a sense of Wilde’s status as a serious thinker about art and aesthetics. Wilde’s flamboyant persona made him famous but he was influential not for his dandyish manner but for his ideas and their articulation in essays, lectures and the plays; his aesthetic theories were the foundation of all his writing. The most famous line from his final poem is still a statement of philosophic principle: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves”.

oscar4.jpg

Oscar and Bosie.

Aesthetics aside, the public perception of Oscar Wilde presents a hurdle for dramatisations which risk the representation being a mere caricature, like the Monty Python sketch about Wilde and his cohorts. Michael Gambon’s performance shows Wilde as a human being, not merely a charming dispenser of witty aphorisms. This has always seemed to me crucial for any actor; it’s not enough to merely look like Wilde—as Robert Morley and Stephen Fry did—but you have to be able to convey the horrors, the indignity (and, with regard to his wife, the culpability) of his later years. Stephen Fry is a good comic actor but he never could have played the Singing Detective. Gambon’s seductively purring voice is another plus, and he even allows a hint Irish brogue to slip through now and then. Of the other actors, Robin Lermitte looks more like Alfred Douglas than does Jude Law in Brian Gilbert’s film, but Law is better at conveying Bosie’s mercurial and tempestuous character; likewise Tom Wilkinson made the Marquess of Queensbury seem a little more human in Gilbert’s version, at least in the beginning, whereas Norman Rodway presents the man from the outset as a perpetually furious goblin. Missing from Hawkesworth’s drama are Wilde’s good friend Ada Leverson, and his mother, Speranza, whose urging him to stand tall and remain in England when the police were coming for him was one of the factors that sealed his fate.

Oscar may be seen here: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

For now, and possibly the foreseeable future, this is the only way to see this drama so I’d suggest downloading it if you can. It’s a rare work that could easily vanish once again.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Importance of Being Oscar

Blood And Rockets by The Claypool Lennon Delirium

blood1.jpg

In an overburdened media landscape the words “Terry Gilliam-like animation” could easily mean some hastily-compiled film with a few nods to the collage style that Gilliam popularised in his interludes for the Monty Python TV series. Rich Ragsdale’s music video for The Claypool Lennon Delirium (Les Claypool and Sean Lennon) is much more than this, being a witty and inventive pastiche of the complete Gilliam style, replete with an abundance of sight gags, and familiar touches such as fizzing bombs, clutching hands and chattering heads.

blood2.jpg

The subject of the song is Jack Parsons, the ill-fated Californian rocket engineer whose wild life and entanglement with the West Coast chapter of Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis led to scandal and an untimely death. Parsons’ story is one of the more curious episodes in 20th-century occultism—a pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard was also involved in the Crowley shenanigans—but this must be the first time the history has been recounted in the form of a psychedelic ballad. Ragsdale is no slouch with the occult symbolism either, adding a number of Thelemic touches to the inevitable Satanic iconography. As befits the sex-obsessed Parsons the video also contains a fair amount of phallic imagery and boob constellations that somehow evaded the attentions of the YouTube Penis Police. Watch it here. (Thanks to Erik Davis!)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Aleister Crowley: Wandering The Waste revisited
Occult gestures
Konx om Pax
Aleister Crowley: Wandering The Waste
Brush of Baphomet by Kenneth Anger
Rex Ingram’s The Magician
The Mysteries of Myra
Gilliam’s shaver and Bovril by electrocution
Aleister Crowley on vinyl

The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine

feldman.jpg

A final Orson Welles post for this week of Wellsiana. Welles was a familiar face on UK television in the early 70s, mostly for the notorious sherry adverts but he was also popular on chat shows. For Anglia Television he presented a number of short story adaptations in Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries, but had nothing else to do with the series. His appearance on The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine (1971) is unusual for being an acting role in a sketch series, with Welles presenting and narrating a film about the preservation of endangered British aristocrats. There’s some crossover here with the London sketches Welles had filmed a couple of years before (see yesterday’s post): Welles played an English Lord in one of those sequences, and one of his co-actors was Tim Brooke-Taylor, a writer on Comedy Machine.

I’d hope that Marty Feldman needs no introduction. Most people know him as Igor in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein but in the late 60s and early 70s he was almost another member of the Monty Python team, writing and performing in the pre-Python At Last the 1948 Show (the origin of the Four Yorkshiremen sketch). The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine, which ran for 14 episodes, is very Pythonesque—there’s even a Terry Gilliam title sequence—but the format is much more traditional. Besides Orson Welles, a highlight of this episode is Spike Milligan reading some of his nonsense poetry, and performing in a sketch about competing undertakers. Watch it here:

The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine Part 1 | Part 2

Previously on { feuilleton }
Orson Welles: The One-Man Band
The Immortal Story, a film by Orson Welles
Welles at 100
The Fountain of Youth
The Complete Citizen Kane
Return to Glennascaul, a film by Hilton Edwards
Screening Kafka
The Panic Broadcast

The Case of the Mukkinese Battle-Horn

mukkinese1.jpg

I probably should have posted this when the Monty Python reunion shows were in progress since the first time I saw it was as the support film for a screening of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1974.

The Case of the Mukkinese Battle-Horn (1956) is one of the few film outings for The Goons, the radio-comedy troupe who famously influenced the Pythons and The Beatles. Joseph Sterling was the director. The 27-minute film features a diminished Goons cast: regulars Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan, with Dick Emery replacing Harry Secombe; all three have multiple roles, as they did in the Goons, and Emery did later in his TV shows. It’s a cheap production but packed with silly sight gags, some of which draw attention to the film medium: no wonder the Pythons liked it. Most surprising of all is seeing Michael Deeley listed as producer; Deeley started out producing lowly fare such as this but went on to produce some very notable British films including The Man Who Fell to Earth and Blade Runner.

mukkinese2.jpg

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film