Tuesday, 26 May 2015

My Old School: The Origins of Steely Dan

Back to Annandale
The origins of Steely Dan -- Donald Fagen returns to campus and revisits the origin of his old grudge

by Rob Brunner
Entertainment Weekly

On Halloween 1967, a party is raging inside Ward Manor, an Elizabethan-style mansion-turned-dorm at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. On a small stage set up in the corner of the common room, a band called the Leather Canary tears through the Rolling Stones' ''Dandelion,'' Moby Grape's ''Hey Grandma,'' and Willie Dixon's ''Spoonful,'' along with a few recently penned originals. It's a typical late-'60s student shindig — most of the audience is tripping on acid — but it's hardly an ordinary band. Behind the drums is Chevy Chase, familiar around campus as a gifted musician and good-natured goofball who's been known to drop his pants after losing late-night games of ''dare'' poker. Just in front of him is a long-haired muso named Walter Becker, one of the school's most accomplished guitarists. And the shy singer behind the electric piano? That's Don Fagen, decked out in a leather jacket with feathers attached to it (hence the band's name). Just a few years later, Chase will find fame as one of the greatest comedians of his generation. Fagen and Becker, meanwhile, will evolve into Steely Dan, score huge hits with songs like ''Rikki Don't Lose That Number'' and ''Reelin' in the Years,'' and create several of the most beloved and enduring albums of the 1970s. And in 1973, on their second LP, they will record ''My Old School,'' an angry kiss-off that, for reasons that have never been entirely clear, takes a very public swipe at Bard. ''California tumbles into the sea/That'll be the day I go back to Annandale,'' Fagen famously sings. ''I'm never going back to my old school.'' You can practically hear him sneer.

Almost four decades after that Halloween gig, Donald Fagen is back at Ward Manor, gazing around the very same common room. In many ways, this quiet lounge — its ornate wood-paneled walls and elaborately plastered ceiling unchanged after all these years — is where Steely Dan sputtered to life. Fagen and Becker both lived here, and they wrote their first, now-forgotten songs together on an old piano that disappeared from the corner years ago. But despite this room's heavy history, Fagen, exploring the dorm's dark halls for the first time since college, seems a bit underwhelmed. ''Looks pretty much the way I remembered it,'' he says with a shrug.

If Fagen is reluctant to reminisce about beginnings, perhaps it's because these days he's more interested in how things end. His new album, Morph the Cat, is a typically wry and unflinching look at death. ''I was just 58 the other day,'' he says, sitting down at a table only a few feet from where the Leather Canary performed. ''You start to realize that you don't have that much time left. And also my mother died in 2003, which was a big shock to me. So it's something I've been thinking of.''

Morph is the third in a semiautobiographical trilogy, following 1982's The Nightfly, a look at his youth in New Jersey, and 1993's Kamakiriad, a surreal take on his middle years. On this latest installment, Fagen taps into the undercurrent of fear that's defined life in New York City after 9/11, weaving dirty bombs and burning buildings, airport security and authoritarian governments into deceptively upbeat-sounding tunes about a variety of tragic situations. Though most of the new CD's songs aren't overtly personal, some are based on fact, including the disc's most direct take on mortality, ''Brite Nitegown.'' ''I was mugged on the Upper East Side,'' says Fagen. ''I was almost sure I was going to buy it there. Two huge dudes sat me down and said, 'Give us all your money, we've got a gun.' They took the cash and booked. I sat there for a few minutes. Then I started to shake.''

The origins of Steely Dan

When Fagen arrived at Bard in 1965, he was shy and bookish, a kid from the Jersey burbs who smoked a bit of pot and played a lot of piano. ''Don sort of looked like a crow most of the time,'' says Chevy Chase. ''He'd walk around with this beak of a nose and he always wore black clothing and looked down with his hands in his pockets. People thought he was kind of weird and quiet. They didn't realize that he was really intelligent, a very funny, bright guy.'' A fan of bebop and Beat poetry, Fagen quickly fell in with a bohemian crowd. ''He hung out with some bizarre Bard students who were too dark and mysterious for some other people,'' says Terence Boylan, a friend and musical collaborator at Bard. ''They never came out of their room, they stayed up all night. They looked like ghosts — black turtlenecks and skin so white that it looked like yogurt. Absolutely no activity, chain-smoking Lucky Strikes and dope. [Fagen was] immersed in an entirely Beat attitude. Very hip, very chip-on-the-shoulder, very jazz, very hat-down-over-the-eyes, saying, 'Hey, man, that's not cooool.'''

Today, as Fagen wanders around Bard, that lost world starts to come back. He stops in front of Stone Row, a series of Gothic-style buildings at the center of campus. Here is Fagen's freshman dorm, Potter, where he lived next to Lonnie Yongue, the leader of that boho Bard scene. Yongue would later show up in the 1973 Steely Dan tune ''The Boston Rag'' as a ''kingpin'' who goes on a two-day drug bender. ''Lonnie was king of Potter, that's for sure,'' says Fagen, gazing up at the imposing stone structure.

Bard was — and still is — an intensely creative environment, and Fagen soon found his way into regular jam sessions, which popped up all over campus. In Sottery Hall, Chevy Chase might be playing ''bad jazz'' with his singer girlfriend, Blythe Danner, while in a little practice room called Bard Hall, Fagen and Boylan might be rehearsing a 10-piece wall-of-sound version of ''Like a Rolling Stone'' for a class project. Fagen was already an accomplished pianist, and he started playing in a series of semi-serious and short-lived jazz and rock groups. At first, nothing really clicked. ''One of the problems in those days was finding a guitar player,'' he says. ''There were a few guitarists at school, but most still sounded like they were Dick Dale or one of the Ventures. They hadn't quite figured out how to play blues. They sounded sort of amateurish.'' One day in 1967, Fagen happened by a long-gone campus coffee shop, the Red Balloon. ''I hear this guy practicing, and it sounded very professional and contemporary,'' he says. ''It sounded like, you know, like a black person, really. And that was Walter. I walked in and introduced myself to him. I just said, 'Do you want to be in a band?'''

Fagen and Becker quickly forged the intimate collaborative relationship that would eventually form the core of Steely Dan. ''We had a lot of common musical background,'' says Becker. ''Donald and I had listened to the same jazz radio stations, we had all the same records, and there weren't that many jazz fans around at that time in our particular age group. Making rock & roll that was more sophisticated harmonically and more jazzlike was something that we had a common interest in.'' While at Bard, Fagen and Becker started concocting the distinctive jazz-rock sound that they've pursued over the course of nine studio albums together, including two recent comeback discs (2000's Two Against Nature, which won an Album of the Year Grammy, and 2003's Everything Must Go). Their trademark groove has evolved over the years, but it hasn't really changed much. Predictably, Morph the Cat sounds exactly like a Steely Dan record. ''On the one hand, it's not like I think it's any huge departure,'' says Fagen. ''I'm not that interested in revolutionizing music. But it happened the right way. I did the tracks in 10 days and that was it. It just worked.''

Becker produced and played on Fagen's last solo album, Kamakiriad, but he was completely uninvolved with Morph. ''We just decided to take a break and do separate projects for a while,'' says Fagen, who doesn't rule out another Steely Dan record but says there are no firm plans at the moment. And the band will continue to tour, most likely playing dates this summer after Fagen completes a solo road outing (his first ever).

These days, Becker lives in Hawaii much of the time, and the two chat only sporadically. In fact, Fagen isn't even sure if Becker has heard his new work. ''It's the kind of thing that we don't talk much about, actually,'' says Fagen. ''I would be interested, but... When I was halfway through, he said, 'How's your album coming?' I said, 'Oh, it's the usual s---.' That's the only conversation we ever had about it.''

Tucked in the woods behind Stone Row, down a narrow path many students never notice, sits a one-room, octagonal stone structure known as the Observatory. It is there that Fagen most wants to visit. ''I used to practice here,'' he explains, gazing around the room, which, it turns out, was converted into an office in the early '70s. This isolated space was one of Fagen's most cherished escapes. ''There was nothing in there but a grand piano,'' he says. ''I had wonderful hours in here practicing scales, things that no one else should hear, you know? I'd write tunes in here, too. And if you were rejected by someone you were in love with, you could scream. I was always in love with someone [who] ignored me completely. That was my Bard experience. There was a Sorrows of Young Werther vibe about it.''

One such unrequited crush might have been a professor's young wife named Rikki Ducornet, whose first name will be familiar to Steely Dan fans. Fagen won't admit it — he's always been extremely reluctant to explain his songs — but it's easy to imagine that Ducornet was the inspiration for one of his band's most famous tunes, ''Rikki Don't Lose That Number.'' ''I remember we had a great conversation and he did suggest I call him, which never happened,'' says Ducornet, now a well-regarded novelist and artist. ''But I know he thought I was cute. And I was cute,'' she laughs. ''I was very tempted to call him, but I thought it might be a bit risky. I was very enchanted with him and with the music. It was so evident from the get-go that he was wildly talented. Being a young faculty wife and, I believe, pregnant at the time, I behaved myself, let's say. Years later, I walked into a record store and heard his voice and thought, 'That's Fagen. And that's my name!'''

Fagen would have better luck with a former Bard student named Libby Titus, whom he encountered on campus in 1966 and married 27 years later. And that's hardly his only happy memory of the school. ''I was coming straight from a housing development in New Jersey, so it was great,'' he says. ''I loved the teachers and the girls, you know. I had friends here. Probably the only time in my life,'' he says with a laugh, ''that I actually had friends.''

So why, if Fagen harbors such fond memories of his alma mater, did he and Becker pen the nasty ''My Old School''?

Later on the Bard tour, an answer finally starts to emerge. On the edge of campus sits the small mid-19th-century house that used to be Adolph's, the school's most legendary hangout. In the late '60s, you never knew who'd show up in this out-of-the-way bar. A pair of Rolling Stones might drop in, or Bob Dylan and Bobby Neuwirth, who would come over from Woodstock. ''Bard was a very hip place,'' says Boylan, who used to let Dylan crash in his dorm room. Across the street from the former Adolph's still sits a now-famous pump, which to this day doesn't work because, as Dylan noted in ''Subterranean Homesick Blues,'' ''the vandals took the handles.'' ''It was a rocking bar,'' says Fagen, climbing the stairs to the front porch. ''The girls really danced in those days.'' He walks into the entryway of the building, now converted into Bard offices. There's little evidence of its former life as the coolest joint in Dutchess County. ''There's no reason to go any further,'' he says after taking a quick glance around.

But just outside of Adolph's, he sees it. The house. ''Right there is the house that I was busted in,'' he says, gesturing toward a two-story structure nearby. Here, finally, lies the story behind ''My Old School.'' It was around 5 a.m., a Thursday in May 1969, when a swarm of sheriff's deputies descended on Bard, sweeping through dorms and off-campus residences, including this small house, where Fagen lived with a roommate. ''They went up and down the halls, knocking on doors,'' says Boylan, who was in his room at Ward Manor at the time. ''Toilets were flushing everywhere to get rid of any pot that you had. I threw mine out the window. All you had to do was say to the cop, 'What are you doing?' They'd say, 'That's it, resisting arrest.' Somebody would say, 'What the hell is going on?' 'Oh, profanity! Arrest him.''' Fagen, Becker, and Fagen's girlfriend, Dorothy White, were all dragged off to jail.

''These were the days when there was a 'war on longhairs,' as they used to call it,'' says Fagen, ''and Bard's in this kind of rural district. They picked up about 50 kids just at random. There were a few warrants, and one was for me, which was based totally on false testimony. They handcuffed our hands behind our backs and put us in a paddy wagon and took us off to the Dutchess County Jail. They took all of the boys, about 35 of us, most with really long hair, and shaved our heads. I remember some of them were crying. I don't think any of them had seen their head for three or four years. It didn't make that much difference to me. But it was scary, you know? To hear the cell-block door slam shut, the whole business with the handcuffs and the paddy wagon. I'd never been arrested or put in jail before.''

Bard hired a lawyer and bailed out the 50 or so students who'd been hauled in during the raid. Problem was, Becker and White weren't technically students at the time. ''I asked them to bail my girlfriend out,'' says Fagen. ''She had nothing to do with this and was just visiting me. And they refused to do it. So when graduation time came I protested by not going. My case had already been dismissed—they had withdrawn the charges, actually. So I was sitting on a bench in front of Stone Row with my father and lawyer, just watching the graduation. A lot of the students were also angry because apparently the school had let an undercover policeman be planted in the building and grounds department. Their cooperation with the investigation was despicable.''

Four years later, Fagen and Becker released ''My Old School.'' While Fagen says the song is ''not literal'' (and Becker insists he ''never thought of it as an angry-sounding song; I think of it as a funny song''), he acknowledges that there was real fury behind the ''never going back'' chorus. ''I don't know how serious we were [about never returning],'' he says, ''but at the time both of us were very pissed off at the school, that's for sure.'' Fagen kept his promise for 16 years. Then, in 1985, he returned to campus for the first time, to accept an honorary doctorate. What finally made him relent and go back to Annandale? He thinks for a moment, as if pondering the question for the very first time. ''Well, you know. I'm not one to hold a grudge.''

Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Great Escape

Jonas Gutierrez of Newcastle United celebrates scoring against West Ham United
Couldn't happen to a more deserving player.
And we finished ABOVE the mackems...

Saturday, 23 May 2015


And what do we have today?

Tom fucking Cruise...

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Last night's set lists

At The Habit, York: -

Ron Elderly: -
Make You Feel My Love
You Better Move On
Autumn Leaves

Da Elderly: -
I'm Just A Loser
Love Song
Is It Only The Moonlight?

This was an open mic night like no other at The Habit. In the audience was one Warren Atkins of The Voice, checking out York's talent. There must have been nearly 20 acts all told, with an early start to get everyone included and the place was packed from the off. York put on an excellent showing of new and not-so-new music makers.

Due to the need to cram everyone in, The Elderly Brothers were held in reserve for the after-show unplugged sing-along. It was a very late finish too!

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Hitchcock/Truffaut by Kent Jones - Reviews

Hitchcock/Truffaut Documentary Film
Hitchcock/Truffaut review: Cannes dons rose-tinted specs for ace cinephilia study
This terrific retrospective on the week-long series of interviews between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock is a brilliant commentary on the discourse of cinema then, and now

Peter Bradshaw
Tuesday 19 May 2015

Kent Jones’s enjoyable documentary – presented in the festival’s Cannes Classics section – is a tribute to a pioneering act of cinephilia, cinema criticism and living ancestor worship. François Truffaut’s remarkable interview series with Alfred Hitchcock, conducted over a week at his offices at Universal Studios in 1962, was a journalistic enterprise which changed the way cinema was thought of as an art form. Nowadays, a young film-maker might envisage a similar exercise in terms of a film or cable TV series – but what Truffaut finally produced was text: a fascinatingly illustrated book, like the record of a supremely important cultural-diplomatic mission. Hitchcock was already famous as a director in a way that few directors were (partly as a result of his TV celebrity), but Truffaut insisted on his importance as an artist and, by this token, on the auteurist importance of directors generally.

Later, Peter Bogdanovich (interviewed here) would do the same with Orson Welles, but perhaps without quite achieving the compression and intensity of this primal encounter. Kent Jones’s film about this event elicits brilliant contributions from modern directors, reflecting on this interview. It includes James Gray, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Wes Anderson, David Fincher – and from France (perhaps representing the “Truffaut” team) there is Arnaud Desplechin and also Olivier Assayas – in whose fluency and eloquence, incidentally, there is something of the ingenuous and idealistic spirit of Truffaut himself.

Rather in the spirit of the original interview, the emphasis is on Hitchcock’s work, rather than Truffaut’s, but the master’s work is seen through the lens of Truffaut, whose brilliance as a critic shines through. Jones’s film takes us through what their childhoods had in common: a terrifying experience in prison. Truffaut was looking for a father figure – he found one in the great André Bazin of Cahiers du Cinéma (perhaps Hitchcock was closer to being an inspirational teacher than a father) – but it was Hitchcock who freed Truffaut and whom Truffaut, in turn, wanted to free from his reputation as a mere showman.

This documentary takes us through Hitchcock’s supreme reverence for the purity of silent cinema and the importance of the image (we hear him listen to Truffaut’s description of the scene in The 400 Blows where the boy discovers his mother’s infidelity, and then he asks, sharply and even testily, if Truffaut should not have kept the scene without dialogue). The interview, and this film, takes us into the question of Hitchcock’s dream-like use of images and situations which look like reality but are not – and the way his subversion and his hyperrealism and surrealism were smuggled into the realist tradition of commercial cinema. Is this the secret of his enduring popularity and importance?

Truffaut came from a generation which believed in allowing the action to emerge, at least partly, through looser improvisatory work with the actors – utterly alien to the controlling Hitchcock, who regales Truffaut with an anecdote about how method school Montgomery Clift once presumed to tell him how he felt his character wouldn’t do a particular “look” in I Confess which was vital to the plot.

Do we have a young director now with this kind of charisma – or an old director? Do we have the overwhelming sense of groundbreaking cinephile excitement that made the Hitchcock/Truffaut interview possible? I wonder. A fascinating film.


‘Actors are cattle’: when Hitchcock met Truffaut
Hidden necrophilia in Vertigo, glowing milk, an on-set spat with Montgomery Clift … in 1962, Alfred Hitchcock revealed his tricks, and the often shocking meanings behind his films, to fellow director François Truffaut. Now their talks have been turned into the revealing film Hitchcock/Truffaut

Stuart Jeffries
Tuesday 12 May 2015

There’s a derangingly perverted scene in the 1958 film Vertigo. The femme fatale Judy, played by Kim Novak, appears before Scottie, James Stewart’s retired cop, in a sleazy motel room. She’s dressed as the dead woman with whom he’s obsessed. “I indulged in a form of necrophilia,” the director Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut during a week-long series of interviews they did in Hollywood in 1962.

Scottie has insisted that Judy dye her hair blond and wear the outfit he bought. Only then will he be able to have sex with her. But there’s a problem. Scottie can’t consummate his desire because one detail is wrong: Judy is wearing her hair down. The dead woman, Madeleine, wore it up. “This means,” Hitchcock explains to Truffaut, “she’s stripped but won’t take off her knickers.”

Scottie sends her back to the bathroom and sits impatiently on the bed. “He’s waiting for the woman to come out nude ready for him,” Hitchcock adds. “While he was sitting waiting, he was getting an erection.” Then Hitchcock tells Truffaut to turn the tape off so he can tell a story. We will never know what it was, but the safe money says it was really dirty.

Kent Jones’s engaging new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut teems with such moments: the 30-year-old tyro French director asking his hero to explain how he made his films, and the 63-year-old responding in detail, often revealing the lubricious impulses behind such masterpieces as Psycho, The Birds and Marnie. For 50 years, these conversations have existed in book form. Jones has set them free, juxtaposing the audio recordings with relevant scenes from the films.

Hitchcock clearly revels in disclosing some of his secrets. As we watch the superbly sinister scene in the 1941 thriller Suspicion in which Cary Grant slowly, but implacably, ascends a spiral staircase towards Joan Fontaine’s bedroom, we may well wonder why the glass of milk he’s carrying looks so ominous and hyperreal. Because, Hitchcock explains, he lit it from inside with a little lightbulb. Truffaut gasps.

Truffaut had seduced Hitchcock into doing 30 hours of interviews by means of an imploring letter: “Since I have become a director myself, my admiration for you has in no way weakened; on the contrary, it has grown stronger and changed in nature. There are many directors with a love of cinema, but what you possess is a love of celluloid itself.” Hitchcock, flattered, telegrammed back in French from Bel Air: “Dear Mister Truffaut, your letter brought tears to my eyes, and I am very grateful to receive such a tribute from you.”

At the time, Truffaut had made just three films, including his semi-autobiographical debut, Les 400 Coups, while Hitchcock was editing his 48th, his extraordinary and probably self-revealing account of sexual repression, Marnie, starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery.

Truffaut’s aim was to liberate Hitchcock from his reputation (one that the Englishman cultivated) as a light entertainer and celebrate him for what he was, a great artist. “It’s wonderful that Truffaut got Hitchcock to talk because directors of his generation didn’t often,” says Jones, head of the New York film festival, and the director who collaborated on Martin Scorsese’s survey of Italian cinema, My Voyage to Italy. “They were dismissive about their art, at least publicly. John Ford would say, ‘I only make westerns.’ Howard Hawks would say, ‘I only make comedies.’ They weren’t inclined to talk seriously about their work, partly because they needed to survive in the studio system.”

Hitchcock and Truffaut were from different cinematic cultures. Hitchcock had made the first of his pictures in the silent era and went on to work in Hollywood. Truffaut was initially a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma. Thanks to critics such as Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Godard and indeed Truffaut (all of whom who would become the iconoclastic hipster directors of the Nouvelle Vague), cinema for the first time became, as director Olivier Assayas puts it in Jones’s film, self-conscious. For the first time, it reflected on itself as art rather than dismissing itself as mere entertainment. The Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews were part of that revolution.

Truffaut and Hitchcock began their interviews on 13 August, Hitchcock’s 63rd birthday. Four years later, the interviews were published. “It has been an incredibly influential book,” says Jones, adding that it was pivotal in the education of film-makers such as Coppola, De Palma, Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, Friedkin and Schrader. Today’s generation, it seems, is no less in awe. “When I asked David Fincher if he’d read it, he said, ‘Only, like, 200 times.’”
François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock and, Helen Scott, who collaborated with Truffaut, during the interviews 

There are only two moments when Hitchcock clams up. First, as Truffaut suggests, quite sensibly, that the lack of realism and plausibility in Hitchcock’s movies (think of the scene in North by Northwest when Cary Grant emerges unscathed from a fireball caused by the crop-dusting plane that’s been pursuing him crashing into a fuel truck) is because his pictures yield to a deeper logic, the logic of dreams. “Hitchcock just doesn’t want to go there,” says Jones. “He’s not comfortable with that level of disclosure.”

Yet, as Fincher, one of 10 present-day directors whom Jones interviews for the film, argues, one of the exciting things about Hitchcock is that his fears and fetishes, his nocturnal terrors and his sexual daydreams, are all over his work. Indeed, for Fincher, one of the lessons of Hitchcock’s cinema is that any film-maker who thinks they can stop their psychopathologies leaking on to the screen is, as he puts it, “nuts”. Jones says: “I think David’s right. Hitchcock does what he wants, and indeed, if you look at those film-makers who try to do what others want, or what they think the audience want, they come unstuck.”

The other moment is when Truffaut, again quite sensibly, argues that Hitchcock’s trademark omniscient shots (the terrifying airborne shot of the town on fire in The Birds; the camera descending from Olympian heights to find the compromising key in Ingrid Bergman’s hand in Notorious) could have been made only by someone raised, as Hitchcock was, a Catholic. Hitchcock asks Truffaut to turn off the tape so he can go off record. “Again, we don’t know what he said, but he clearly didn’t want to reveal his motivations,” says Jones. Instead, in Jones’s film it’s left to another Catholic director, Scorsese, to clinch the point: the God-like perspective of Hitchcock’s aerial shots induce terror.

“In the book of the interviews,” says Jones, “Hitchcock came over as stilted and formal, which you can hear he isn’t.” Quite so: Hitchcock is often droll and cantankerous. “Actors are cattle,” he tells Truffaut, underlining his reputation for giving them no scope but to fulfil his artistic vision. “He can’t mean that,” says Jones. “Yes, he started in cinema during the silent era, well before the post-war era after which, as Scorsese says, the power shifted to the actor. But he wasn’t contemptuous – he had immensely fruitful relationships with actors.”

True, but Hitchcock was always boss. The film recalls his on-set spat during I Confess with Montgomery Clift over a split-second moment in which the actor was required to look up at a building as he crossed the street. The method actor who had trained with Lee Strasberg said he needed to consider whether his character, a guilt-ridden Roman Catholic priest, would look up at that moment. Hitchcock didn’t care what Clift thought: he needed him to look up at that precise moment or everything leading up to and from that glance would not make sense. Truffaut, when Hitchcock explains this to him, agrees: if Clift refused, he would have ruined the story arc. Happily, Clift ultimately glanced upwards and the scene makes sense.

Truffaut, for all that he was profoundly influenced by this father figure, gave actors more leeway. He tells Hitchcock about a scene in Jules et Jim that his three actors improvised. Hitchcock is incredulous: he could never allow that.

Later, Jones reveals, Hitchcock worried that he was too rigid in his commitment to narrative rigour. Perhaps he should have given his actors more freedom. In one telegram to Truffaut, he says how difficult it would have been for Mondrian to paint like Cézanne: by which he means how difficult it would have been for Hitchcock to direct like Truffaut, or indeed like others in the Nouvelle Vague, still less like the great American directors of the 1970s who allowed their actors a great deal of freedom.

It’s a point taken up by Fincher, who wonders how Hitchcock would have got on directing such actors as De Niro, Pacino and Hoffman. “Sadly, we’ll never know,” says Jones. “But he did have conflicts with actors who were less willing to respect his authority, not just with Clift on I Confess and Paul Newman on Torn Curtain.”

In any case, he did try to loosen up, to mutate, as it were, from Mondrian to Cézanne. “There is some 16mm test film provisionally called Kaleidoscope/Frenzy, in which he tried to be freer and give some young kids in New York the chance to express themselves as actors.” But that film was never made. Instead, in 1972 he made Frenzy, his penultimate – and psychosexually deranged – film, in which Barry Foster strangles his victims with a necktie, grunting: “Lovely! Lovely!”

Almost two decades after Truffaut and Hitchcock recorded their interviews, the Frenchman was still lecturing the world on his hero’s merits. “In America,” Truffaut told the American Film Institute in 1979 during a homage, “you call him Hitch. In France, we call him Monsieur Hitchcock. In America, you respect him because he shoots scenes of love as if they were scenes of murder. We respect him because he shoots scenes of murder like scenes of love.”

The following year, Hitchcock died. All too soon Truffaut followed him in 1984, aged only 52, and at the height of his powers.


Sunday, 17 May 2015

Federico Fellini and 8 1/2

Fellini’s 8½ – a masterpiece by cinema’s ultimate dreamer
Federico Fellini never stuck to the facts. At his best, his films strike a perfect balance between fantasy and reality – and nowhere is this more evident than in his autobiographical classic, 8½

Michael Newton
Friday 15 May 2015

Fellini once laid out the basic requirements for being a film director. They include curiosity, humility before life, the desire to see everything, laziness, ignorance, indiscipline and independence. While probably all these qualities pervade his films, it’s their curiosity and their openness to the world that enchant you, as he once put it, his “immense faith in things photographed”, the sense that film might allow a moment of communion between the viewer and things, between you and a human face.

The White Sheik (1952)

In his black and white movies, that almost unparalleled run of masterpieces from The White Sheik (1952) to 8½ (1963), Fellini stands as the Charles Dickens of cinema. As with Dickens, critics find him sentimental, exaggerated and chaotic. Where some see sentiment, his lovers perceive a capacity to feel, not for some idealised abstraction, but for the specific character. The outsiders, the marginalised, the victims in life attract him, and he looks at them face to face, never from above, and never from a place removed from their troubling difficulty. He is close to Dickens in pursuing a politics based on gentleness, on the thought that a good society will form when this person here acts justly and tenderly to that person there. As for the exaggeration, like Dickens he actually softens and takes the edge off the unexpectedness and weirdness of others, even as he remains alive to it. When it came to people and to places, Fellini said of himself, “My capacity for marvelling is boundless … I am not blase about anything”. The chaos is admittedly there, but it’s a creative one; he possessed the immense gift of never settling for a fixed view about life. He condemns no one. As he suggested, his films are trials, but as seen by an accomplice, rather than by a judge.
Like Dickens too he was nourished on a genuinely popular culture – comic strips such as Flash Gordon and the circus. His cinema belongs to the fairground, not the museum. The comics were a seminal influence on him – he didn’t so much write his films, as draw them, making sketches, doodles and designs that would open up the spirit of the movie.
It’s odd to remember just how despised Fellini was once, a man found guilty by critics on the left of sullying the doctrinal purity of Italian neo-realism with sentiment and solipsism. Such critics understood art as essentially political, a form that either embraced or denied true “commitment”. For Fellini, however, film meant a free space for fantasy and memory, and a form where fantasy might transform memory into a beguiling and truthful lie. 8½ provides a devious, side-stepping response to his critics, incorporating their adverse readings into the film; “commitment” is both the film’s problem and its hero’s, troubled as he is in his career and his marriage. In a sense, it’s Fellini’s version of Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, a record of a breakdown that leads to the hearing of many enticing or hostile voices.

Though all art finds its roots in a life, it’s remarkable how very few expressly autobiographical film-makers there are – Woody Allen, Andrei Tarkovsky in Mirror, Bill Douglas and a handful of others, all recasting their lives as a fiction. As a man often identified with his work, Fellini is perhaps the most notable among this select group. An “autobiographical vein” runs through many of his films, each one encapsulating a stage of his life. Yet no one should think when watching his movies that they’re learning the facts about Fellini; like Dickens in David Copperfield, he transfigures the past (or in the case of 8½, the present) into artifice, a puppet theatre. He was never one to let the facts stand in the way of a good story. His films charm us with the invention of a life, the marvellous being made otherwise marvellous; not the small truths of anecdote, but the evocation of how it might have been. They dance around the dividing line between the imagined and the real. In I Vitelloni (1953), Ostia stands in for his home town of Rimini, and in the process turns nostalgia into a stage-set, an improved and refined quintessence of memory.

Nights of Cabiria (1957)

In his early films, the characters have either the strong simplicity of children or the complexity of the devious; they are either kids or conmen. The greatest innocents of all are those played by his wife, Giulietta Masina, in La Strada (1954) and The Nights of Cabiria (1957). Both films are glorious, and Cabiria is certainly in my top five movies of all time. Here Fellini’s comedy – like much great comedy – works by breaking our hearts open and still finding there the muted capacity for hope. The great problem for his characters is that of loneliness. Its solution, where it can be contrived to occur, is the connection between people, including the most unlikely of pairs. Masina is the soul of these stories, an actor gifted with one of the most expressive and vital faces ever witnessed on screen. She is a holy fool in both films, an “Auguste” clown, a happy hooligan. Fellini said of her characters here that they’re not women, they’re asexual, figures beyond or above gender – a remarkable thought given that in Cabiria, Masina plays a Roman prostitute, though admittedlya rather hapless one.

Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita (1960)

With La Dolce Vita (1960), Fellini’s style shifted, and we move from artful naivety to a bright, louche and fragmented world, one, as Fellini himself put it, marked by “the silence of God”. There is a book of essays on Fellini from the 1970s in which the hero’s angst is taken very seriously indeed, and the movie compared somewhat implausibly with The Waste Land. In fact, rarely has the collapse of western civilisation looked such fun – and “fun” is precisely what that civilisation collapses into. The film’s title, “the sweet life”, isn’t irony, it’s intoxication. More than any other movie, La Dolce Vita preserves the enchantment of parties, even their enchanted weariness; the film bestows on us that sense of the possibilities present in an evening out, as well as the light melancholy that falls as the possibilities dwindle. Fellini liked to drive through Rome, or walk its streets, glancing at the faces, giving himself to the casual encounter; here, too, Rome is a place glimpsed in motion, connections forming and falling apart, as the night sobers up with dawn. As the society journalist, Marcello, Marcello Mastroianni offers us the Italian Cary Grant, a man baffled by his own beauty as well as the essential elusiveness of the women he somewhat fecklessly pursues.

La Dolce Vita (1960)

When I saw La Dolce Vita, my first Fellini film, I thought he was a sophisticate; now, years later, I know he was a dreamer. 8½, his memoir of his illness, is replete with reveries; Fellini much admired Carl Jung, and it shows. One reason why he cast his wife in his films was Masina’s magical “gift of evoking a kind of waking dream quite spontaneously, as if it were taking place quite outside her own consciousness”. As his career went on, his films became increasingly hallucinatory, in a way not always for the best. In his defence, other kinds of coherence are brought in, a moving away from logic and consequence. In 8½, the balance is still perfect, a film that stands in the uneasy but productive space between fantasy and the real.
1963, 8 1/2 , EIGHT AND A HALF
It’s a fabulously messy film. The eye moves restlessly over things, rarely settling. We’re inside a crisis, with apparently nothing noble about it. The film’s hero, the harried director, Guido Anselmi (played again by Mastroianni, and clearly a stand-in for Fellini), is as silly, mean, self-regarding and empty as the film itself – and yet, for all that, this same fractured movie is utterly superb. It’s in the relation between the sorriness and the wonderful that 8½ casts its spell.
Ultimately, 8½ is a comedy of guilt, of a life riven by untruths. In a double sense, Guido lives in breach of contract. He compromises the deal he has made with his producers, declaring he has a film in hand when really he has nothing; and, more darkly, he undermines his vow to his wife, by his affair with another woman. A need for naughtiness, for narrative, prompts Guido’s adultery; yet we can also see how it is of a piece with an overwhelming tenderness, an aptitude for curiosity about others. The film portrays brilliantly the farcical nature of shame, exposing in Guido’s relationship to his mistress his shifty embarrassment, the way he both wants her there and seeks to deny all claim to her. Playing the director’s mistress, Carla, Sandra Milo grants us the apogee of this comedy of deceit: spotting, as she debonairly approaches, that Guido is in fact at the cafe table with his wife, she manages to walk in two directions at once, her legs heading leftwards as she darts to the right.

To add to the grubbiness of it all, Milo was not only Guido’s lover in the film, she was also Fellini’s lover in real life. This is only one of the ways in which 8½ draws us into a hall of mirrors, where reality and art prove indistinguishable from each other. We gaze into an endlessly receding abyss, and yet (and this is the miracle of the film) we can perceive how that abyss overbrims with abundance. In the end, the film seeks to imagine a loving settlement that will fulfil the promises Guido has broken: in spite of everything there is a film; his love for his wife, for everyone it seems, all the puppets he controls, is intact. The guilt doesn’t matter: there is in the end reconciliation. Some might see this resolution as venal and self-serving, using a film to get oneself off the moral hook. And yet, as it plays on the screen, it also conjures by sleight of hand a release from shame, from doubt.

It’s not the anguish, the uncertainty, but the laughter in 8½ that matters, the reflective humour of it. The film closes with a death that appears to end the possibility of Guido’s film becoming real. For a moment, things pause, and there is an atmosphere of wistful farewell. And then Fellini pulls off his masterstroke, reclaiming life as a party, and one to be shared. When Guido and his wife Lucia likewise join the dance that Guido directs, not directing it any more but being a part of it, it proves to be, for me at least, one of the most moving moments in cinema. It recalls what Rilke wrote of The Tempest, when he described that moment when the artist-magus pulls a wire through his own head and hangs himself up with the other puppets, and then steps before the audience to take their applause.

8½ continues its run at BFI Southbank, London SE1, until 28 May. bfi.org.uk


8½ review – Fellini’s meditation on films as dreams retains its irresistible pull 5/5stars
A cinematic rerelease of Federico Fellini’s hallucinatory masterpiece offers a chance to be blown away all over again – its opening alone is one of the most incredible things in cinema

Peter Bradshaw
Thursday 30 April 2015

Fellini’s 8½ is rereleased in cinemas: it is the director’s compellingly fluent and sustained meditation on films as dreams, memories and fears, and the way they offer a fascinating but illusory way of rewriting and reshaping one’s own life. The opening dream sequence is more sensationally disturbing than ever, still one of the most incredible things in cinema. And then we wake up to a reality that has the weightless quality of a dream. Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, is a celebrated film-maker, a version of Fellini, who has arrived at a midlife crisis and creative block (watching 8½ on the big screen is a way of seeing just how tired Mastroianni looks).
After a stay at a ridiculous health spa, Guido retreats with elegant diffidence to a handsome hotel to take meetings with producers and interested parties: weird, almost hallucinatory exchanges that look more like the encounters from Last Year at Marienbad or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They must discuss his latest unnamed project – which appears to be an indulgent autobiographical reworking of his own life that includes versions of his wife, mistress, and various other women, but also needing a scene with a full-scale spaceship that has, staggeringly, been built on location. Everyone wants a piece of Guido, everyone makes demands, especially clamorous journalists. (“Are you for or against eroticism? Are you afraid of the atomic bomb? Do you believe in God?”) It exerts an irresistible pull.


Friday, 15 May 2015


BB King was that rare thing – a game-changer who was also beloved
The blues legend, who has died aged 89, pioneered a style – and did so with a grace that made him a hero to fans and musicians alike

Charles Shaar Murray
Friday 15 May 2015

Very few 20th-century musicians were able to combine the roles of game-changing, creative, innovative virtuoso and beloved popular entertainer. Within this tiny elite group, BB King ranks second only to the late Louis Armstrong, who not only charmed the world with his jovial, winning personality but virtually invented the concept of the jazz soloist, and on whose broad shoulders all successors stood. Who else is there? Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra and, of course, the Beatles in general and Paul McCartney in particular.
BB King in 1949
Genius and popularity alone are not enough: despite their brilliance, Bob Dylan and Miles Davis were too taciturn, too mysterious and too sharp-clawed for an audience to feel entirely comfortable and relaxed in their presence. BB King’s impact on the way blues guitar – and, by extension, rock guitar – is played to this very day is immeasurable. It is impossible to imagine how Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Albert King, Freddie King (both of whom dropped their birth surnames in favour of BB’s), Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary Moore or Joe Bonamassa, to name but a few, might have played had BB King never existed.

Yet his instrumental virtuosity and the seamless interaction between the liquid, vocal tone he conjured from the numerous Gibson semi-acoustic guitars that have borne the nickname “Lucille” over the past six-and-a-half decades and his warm, chesty singing (“First I sing and then Lucille sings”) was only one part of the reason for his pre-eminence not only in his chosen field of the blues but in the broader expanse of the past musical century’s popular mainstream. BB King was also one of the planet’s consummate entertainers; his expansive stage presence, enveloping generosity of spirit, patent willingness to drive himself into the ground for his audiences and ability to put virtually any crowd at their ease took him from the backbreaking labour and harsh racism of the rural Southern states to the biggest stages of the world’s capital cities. As an old man he would duet on Sweet Home Chicago with Barack Obama at a gala blues concert in the White House. Along the way, he collected enough awards, trophies and honorary degrees to fill a small warehouse and was the subject of a biographical documentary feature, The Life of Riley, narrated by Morgan Freeman.
Playing guitar, 23 July 1969.
And, for what it’s worth, that “nice guy” bit was no mere act: 65 years in the business and absolutely no-one ever had a bad word to say about him. His generosity to peers and protégés alike was as much the stuff of legend as his manifest talents. For much of his performing life he averaged 300 shows a year and devoted any energy left over after each performance to meet and greet his fans until utter exhaustion set in. No wonder he was taken to the world’s collective heart in a manner unlike any blues artist before or since; no wonder he was called “The Chairman of the Board of Blues Singers.”

And yet, and yet, and yet … it was perhaps unsurprising that a man in his 80s who was drastically overweight and struggling with type 2 diabetes should have to slow down and acknowledge a decline in his once-formidable powers. For some time, he had been seated on stage rather than standing up; his concert schedule, which would have been intimidating for a performer half his age and weight, had been reduced to a mere 100 or so gigs a year, and he had not released a new album of fresh recordings since 2008’s One Kind Favor.

When he played the Royal Albert Hall in June 2011, I wrote: “As his 86th birthday looms, BB King remains King of the Blues, with Buddy Guy, at a mere 75, as his heir. No surprise, then, that a long line of distinguished guests showed up at the Al to pay affectionate tribute and help the ancient titan shoulder the weight of a two-hour show: please meet and greet Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Ron Wood, Slash and (to sing some of the lyrics BB can no longer remember) Mick Hucknall.

“Also no surprise: the set is no longer a stately procession through 60-odd years of greatest hits, but more a combination of party, informal jam session and family visit to a mischievous, cantankerous but benevolent granddad. Forgetting lyrics (and even the names of some of his long-serving band-members) and occasionally starting a lick on the wrong fret of his guitar, BB’s immaculate comic timing turned each potential embarrassment into an endearing gag … The voice is still miraculous, once it’s cranked up, and that guitar tone is still authoritatively unmistakable. He roared through The Thrill Is Gone, Sweet Sixteen and Rock Me Baby, caught all the rock guitarists out with the tricky chord changes of the glutinous Vegas ballad Guess Who and made his triumphant exit to – shades of Louis Armstrong – When the Saints Go Marching In.
Performing in Frankfurt on 13 July 2004, the first concert of his German tour.
“Losing the plot? Maybe. But he’s still BB King ... and nobody else is.”

Despite all attempts to put the most positive possible spin on the evening, the occasion was still somewhat dispiriting. The Big B had become a magnificent ruin, like the Coliseum or the Sphinx: a monument to be visited not in the hope of seeing it as it was in its halcyon days, but to marvel at the fact that it was still here and, indeed, that such something so marvellous existed in the first place. Last year, a concert at St Louis’s Peabody Opera House disintegrated into an outright debacle, with BB actually getting heckled as he rambled and stumbled through a formless attempt at recapturing former glories.
At the 43rd Grammy awards in Los Angeles on 21 February 2001. King won for best traditional blues album, Riding With the King, and best pop collaboration with vocals for the album, Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t.
BB had always claimed that he would continue to perform as long people still wanted to see him, but by the end it had come to seem as if neither mind nor body were any longer equal to the task. He had the admiration of his peers, the affection of much of the world and an eight-figure bank account, none of which were anything less than fully deserved and thoroughly earned. Maybe he should have made the decision to take it easy at last: to rest on his considerable laurels and spend his last years taking pleasure in a lifetime’s achievement: a job well done.

In 2010, he and Buddy Guy recorded an affecting duet entitled Stay Around a Little Longer. If only he could have been able to take his own advice: then he might have celebrated his 90th birthday this September by putting his feet up, secure in his extraordinary legacy and enjoying the knowledge that what he has left us is, for all practical purposes, immortal.