Monday, October 5, 2020

A ‘dirty story’ told by Deceased Artiste Michael Lonsdale

With Michael Lonsdale’s death, it’s like three performers have died — the Lonsdale that appeared in mainstream, commercial films (usually international coproductions), the one that always made time to act in experimental films where the directors trusted him to develop his character (and sometimes improvise or alter his dialogue), and the Lonsdale that forged a stunning list of appearances on the French stage (performing in works by Beckett, Ionesco, Pirandello, Stoppard, Albee, Anouilh, Handke, and his good friend Marguerite Duras).

The second of those three identities interests non-French auteurists the most, and so, since I’ve already written about the films of Marcel Hanoun that starred Lonsdale and Out 1, the mega-masterwork of improvisation by Rivette, I want to focus here on just one film, Jean Eustache’s very unusual and incredibly significant Une Sale Histoire (A Dirty Story, 1977).

The film is one of the most important pictures of the Seventies for several reasons. Among them the fact that the notion of documentary offers the “truth” of a situation, that the film offers a sleazy but entirely valid metaphor for moviegoing (or theatergoing, for that matter), and that it explores sexism in its purest state — men who view women solely as a set of genitals.

The later, hairier
I’ve discussed the film with people who were entranced by it and others who were disturbed by it, although it should be noted that nothing graphic is ever seen. It’s simply a film about a man telling a story.

In fact, the film shows two men telling the same story. Une Sale Histoire is comprised of two shorts Eustache made from the same material. The first features the great Lonsdale — as suave as he could be — telling a group of people at a party in an apartment a story about a weird “ritual” he took part in.

A group of men in a Paris cafe are aware that there is a hole in the ladies’ room door in that cafe’s basement. If one kneels on the floor in front of the door (curiously like the Muslim prayer ritual), one can see the women using the toilet — not the woman herself, just her vagina. Lonsdale’s character tells the story with an odd sort of reverence and a philosophical bent, describing how this ritualistic act of voyeurism became a habit for him that took the place of having sex.

Once he finishes his story, we see the second short film, a 16mm documentary chronicle of another man (Jean-Noël Picq) telling the same story. He is sleazier-looking than Lonsdale (with a front row of quite awful teeth), and one quickly realizes that this is the man who ultimately went through this experience.

Picq’s telling of the story goes quicker. The 16mm film is six minutes shorter because it is told more quickly (although both Picq and Lonsdale say the exact same words), contains no introduction, and the questions asked of the storyteller at the end are fired at Picq, while the actresses quizzing Lonsdale ask their queries in a slower way.

The ideal way to read this piece would be to now watch the film if you haven’t seen it already. It is currently available on YouTube, with English subtitles in the Closed Captions.

The Lonsdale version:

The Picq original:

Going back to the three themes mentioned above, it can now be revealed that Eustache’s decision to contrast “fiction” (an actor telling a story) against documentary (a real-life individual, with the bad teeth to prove it) is a brilliant one, but is not as clear-cut as it seems.

The signs of the two modes of filmmaking are there: the Lonsdale film was shot in 35mm, is most clearly an acted piece, and is more elegantly made. The Picq version is on 16mm, it has the spontaneity of a documentary (esp. in the brisk way it moves), and is more raggedly shot (one of the women listening to Picq is left out of camera range, even when she’s asking him a question).

So, Eustache’s purpose in making the Lonsdale film appears to have been to contrast the “real” telling of a story with a staged “fiction” version containing the exact same dialogue (including the same questions and answers at the end). It’s a brilliant conceit and one of the reasons Histoire is indeed a landmark of Seventies cinema.

There’s just one problem with the above description of the film — namely, that Picq’s story never happened. But before we get into that matter, let us find out what Lonsdale himself thought of the film. In the invaluable interview book Michael Lonsdale: Entretiens avec Jean Cléder (François Bourin Éditeur, Paris, 2012), he offered these thoughts. [This and the quote below are loosely translated from the French by yrs truly.]

“First, the distance came from the fact that [Eustache] invented half of things. It’s physically impossible for a man to put his head on the ground in the hall outside the toilets, especially in La Motte Piquet, where it’s very busy. In reality, it wouldn’t be very clean if one knelt on the floor to look through a hole at the genitals of women who are urinating! One would have to be pretty crazy… People asked me, ‘How could you have done that?’ And I responded, ‘Listen, this stuff exists, there are people like that! They have the right to be heard.’

“As I had never worked with Jean Eustache, who was for me one of the great filmmakers, I accepted the role. Before that, with no budget, he had already filmed with his friend the ‘dirty story,’ where Jean-Noel Picq had the lead role. But he wanted to make a “cleaner” version (if I can put it that way) in 25 minutes, with a good camera and good film.

“As for the characterization, he let me do what I wanted. He filmed three reels, in three shots, so we didn’t need to stop to load the film. I thus recounted my story calmly, without interruptions or direction.  When he asked me, ‘Do you want to see what Jean-Noel Picq did?’ I answered ‘No, certainly not!’ I noticed later that we had the same inflection on certain words, curiously….

“Because showing it meant projecting the two films, it was a novelty: the program was made up of the old version with Jean-Noel Picq, then the new version with me. For distribution, it was interesting, because each film was too short for a normal screening at a movie theater.” [pp. 48-49]

The oddly assembled but also invaluable book le dictionnaire Eustache, edited by Antoine de Baecque, (Editions Leo Scheer, 2011), includes a statement from Picq written to journalist Jean-Luc Douin.  Picq wrote to Douin in 1993 that the original short was “autobiographical because it was fictitious.” To double-down on his wonderfully Gallic wordplay he also claimed the short was “an imaginary autobiography, like all true autobiographies.” He added:

“This autobiographical fiction is perhaps about voyeurism, but it is also about the insurmountable differences between the sexes, which don’t allow … either gender to have a discourse about sex that transcends differences and reaches an agreement. Except to stammer something that is not readily understandable, as it goes down to the gutter and lowers the debate.” [pp. 298-299]

The juxtaposition between fiction and reality bleeds into the second theme of the film  the notion that Picq’s story is a metaphor for the act of moviegoing. The “ritual” described has a religious aspect to it (with the reference to praying in the Muslim style), but there is clearly also a peep-show, fetishistic element, as the voyeur sees only one body part. And the act of storytelling itself, which always encompasses embroidering a tale, is akin to seeing a performance onstage or screen. The storyteller in both versions in fact mentions his desired audience — he notes that he prefers to tell his story to women to get their reactions, since men will “understand” what he’s saying from the first.

The odd prologue to
American Boy.
The Picq short in fact prefigured Scorsese’s American Boy (made one year later, in 1978), in which Scorsese’s friend Steven Prince tells a series of stories that are immaculate — but seem too honed to be entirely true. Scorsese takes much more time to set the stage than Eustache does (one gets the impression that Prince’s storytelling session was augmented by, um…. a certain powder). But the two filmmakers allow their seedy friends to take center stage, and they and other friends assume the role of onscreen audience and interlocutors. Eustache let himself be seen as a listener in the Picq version of the material, but he is only seen briefly on camera and never asks Picq a question. Scorsese, on the other hand, is an active participant in American Boy. (The presence of both filmmakers on-camera serves to make their friends’ stories seem more “real.”)

Picq’s tale also contains unknowing “performers” (the women being “peeped,” who are being victimized without even knowing it  until the storyteller lets the last woman in on the “act”) and an "audience" (the sleazy men at the cafe). Thus, we as viewers watch an onscreen audience hearing a story from a man who declares that he ended up preferring seeing unknown women’s genitals (read: being a spectator) rather than having sex with a partner (being an active participant in a performance).

… Which leads us to the third and most overpowering theme: sexism. Une Sale Histoire would never have been made in the U.S., even during the “maverick” period of the Seventies (when a film like John Byrum’s Inserts could indeed be made but had to be shot in England). The current state of American film finds sex completely missing from mainstream films of any kind, as dealing with it bring up topics that are (that most abrasive and prevalent of phrases) “problematic.”

Jean Eustache (in a Rocky shirt!)
and Lonsdale.

Here Eustache tackles the male libido at its most base and crude. The storytellers in both short films are quite matter-of-fact about the story they tell, while the women who hear it are very receptive, to the point of asking a bunch of questions. These questions are fired off in the Picq version, which makes them seem like real subjects of curiosity. The slightly slower pace of the Lonsdale version makes the questions seem more like a part of a certain storytelling ritual.

The most important element of this exploration of sexism is indeed the fact that the storyteller states he got to the point where he preferred “peeping” to sex. (Thus foreshadowing Internet cam-culture?) He says, quite pointedly, “… the desire wasn’t to fuck her afterwards, not at all. It was only in the pleasure of seeing. Just seeing. That’s all.”

From the Picq version.

Picq’s story includes the fact that the forbidden thrill he got from the act of voyeurism was that it gave him “direct access” to the woman’s private parts — he didn’t have to go on dates, go to the movies or dinner, find common points of interest, or otherwise relate to the woman in question. He could just cut to his desired chase and see what he wanted to see.

He laments that women will now (in the late Seventies) discuss their orgasms and that the vaginas of the woman he’s involved with on a romantic or sexual level are “domesticated.” This part of the story synchs up quite nicely with Eustache’s 1973 masterpiece, The Mother and the Whore, where the male protagonist (Jean-Pierre Leaud) talks and talks until the moment where the quieter female lead (Françoise Lebrun, who conspicuously appears in the Picq film as a listener/questioner) finally delivers a monologue, which changes the whole focus of the piece and makes it more of a film about relationships (and the need to listen rather than talk), whereas up to that point it is an account of the adventures of a cool young man who never stops talking.

Picq and Eustache.

Our storyteller pines for the Victorian era at one point, saying the sexuality of the Seventies is “disillusioned.” This goes back to the theme of worship in Picq’s dirty story. He knows that what he is doing is unhealthy (and quite ugly, as he is essentially bent over, kneeling on a piss-laden floor). But he is able to justify what he did because of that same aspect of sleazy idolatry.

The film’s best dialogue in fact comes when he discusses how the world changed for him when he got addicted to his peeping ritual. He began, he says, to believe “the hole came first!” and that a defect in a door (which he acknowledges must’ve been created on purpose when the door was designed) became the center of his universe. The door, the cafe, the streets, the city — all of it existed because of that sacred hole.

And the grace note of this look inside the mind of a voyeur is when he declares that his peeping was a kind of “work” that consumed him for a period of time. The last line, delivered differently but emphatically by both Lonsdale and Picq, is “I had my dignity while doing this!”

Thursday, September 17, 2020

She was needed: Deceased Artiste Diana Rigg

It’s hard to write about Diana Rigg — Dame Diana Rigg, that is — without gushing. She was that rarest kind of individual — one who is equally loved and obsessed over by male and female fans, a cult figure who was both a sex symbol (of a very new, Sixties kind) and a fine actress.

Her work in movies and TV and on the stage spanned nearly six decades, but it is commonly agreed (except among “Game of Thrones” fans) that her roles from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies made that decade the most exhilarating part of her long, storied career.

Rigg studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and had a five-year stint in the Royal Shakespeare Company. When it came to the mainstream, however, she did get cast in rather silly little items in the early Sixties.

A teleplay featuring the young Diana is available on YouTube. “The Hothouse” (which appeared as part of “Armchair Theater” in 1964) is a coy comedy about the owner of a supermarket chain whose wife (Rigg) is becoming restless. It’s a very standard sitcom set-up and of interest mostly because of Rigg’s outsized personality:

“The Avengers” continues to have a strong cult following because it was so wonderfully assembled (and yes, it’s rather sad that younger folk and dim-witted oldsters hear “Avengers” and only think Marvel movie pap). The casting was, of course, sublime (both the leads and the guest villains). And the scripting was a great balance of tales of mystery and espionage, which also functioned as spoofs of these types of stories.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the fan-favorite episode “The Winged Avenger,” which is a comic book reader’s delight (with no trace of fx and not a single explosion in sight).

Curiously, all the items discussed here can be found in their entirety on YouTube, except for the other massive fan-fave episode, “A Touch of Brimstone.” This was the episode in which the kinky side of the show’s producers (and the British national character) was openly displayed.

Steed and all his partners (Rigg, Thorson, Blackman).

Sure, Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale character has worn a leather jumpsuit and “kinky boots,” but Emma Peel (whose very name derived from the demographic research phrase “male appeal” — “M. Appeal”) in this episode dressed in dominatrix garb (which Rigg reportedly designed) for the first time in mainstream culture, on ITV in the U.K. and ABC in the U.S.

The episode is solidly entertaining as an “Avengers” intrigue saga, but it truly has become a sort of touchstone for men (and certainly women as well) who like dominant women. 

Unlike the other major artifact of this mindset — Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) — “Brimstone” was produced to have commercials punctuate its kinky thrills. And so, for whatever reason (too adult? Copyright troubles with this ep but not “The Winged Avenger”?), it is not on available on YT, but “fan appreciation” videos devoted to it are up in profusion...

As could be expected, “Avengers” rarities that could previously only be found on bootleg VHS/DVDs from overseas are now readily available. Here is some Pathe News footage of the filming of the finales to the color “Avengers” episodes with Rigg (the bits where Steed and Peel would luxuriate in having defeated the villain, as they drove in an old-fashioned car):

And this oddity, an interview done for German TV that is quite clunky in its interludes for translation. Here we see the charming rapport that Rigg and Macnee had in real life. As I noted in my Deceased Artiste tribute for Macnee, he was much beloved by the women he worked with on the series. Rigg tried to keep a distance from the “Avengers” fan fervor but, when requested, she would indeed show up at events to pay tribute to Macnee:

Although she is the best remembered female Avenger, Rigg did only two seasons of the series. She fought for equal pay (and got it) on the second season, but felt that she had the leave the show or else be typecast. 

In one of those lovely show-business turnarounds that are (as always) dictated by financial remuneration (as the phrase was laid upon Sean Connery, “Never Say Never Again”), two of her three movies following her exit from “The Avengers” found her playing similar roles — as an adventuresome journalist in The Assassination Bureau (1969) and as James Bond’s first-ever movie wife in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (also ’69). In the latter she was the first kick-ass female match for Bond until Michelle Yeoh costarred in Tomorrow Never Dies in 1997.

Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren in
A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968)

But this should not be a tribute simply to Rigg the Entertainer (and sex symbol) rather than a recognition of Rigg the Artist. While she didn’t immediately run back to theater after leaving “The Avengers” and did play spies again, her first film after doffing her “Emma Peelers” (yes, that was the name for her jumpsuit duds on the show) was Peter Hall’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1968).

Hall, who did his best work in the theater (his resume is a frighteningly comprehensive list of the best modern theater and most of the classical repertoire), had already done a version of the show as a teleplay in 1959. The cast is a dream in that instance: Laughton, Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Roy Dotrice, Zoe Caldwell. But two of the younger cast members who were nobodies (except, possibly, for those keeping their eyes on the RSC ensemble) are in both that ‘59 TV version and the ’68 feature film: the recently departed Ian Holm (Deceased Artiste tribute here) and Diana Rigg. (Ian was 28 in ’59; Diana was 21.)

But that version is not available online. What we can see is the 1968 feature, which is decidedly “mod” in its approach, since Hall — who also directed most of these actors onstage and did give the sublime film of Pinter’s The Homecoming (1973) — decided to have the actors play their monologues (and even stray bits of dialogue) straight to the camera. There he seems to be influenced by Godard; in various playful bits of the play’s comic scenes, it seems like he’s also very aware of Richard Lester. (Who wasn’t, at that time?)

Rigg and Mirren

The cast, as with the first production, is sublime, but the crop of performers in the starring parts were relative “youngsters” in general and, almost to a person, went on to have long careers in acting. Rigg, Holm, David Warner (who had already starred in some features), Helen Mirren, Michael Jayston, and Judi Dench (wearing barely anything except green body paint as Titania). Rigg is Helena and delivers her lines with a playful matter-of-factness (since all the characters except the “spirits” are certainly dimwitted pawns).

It’s a fairly good length for an adaptation of the play (just a hair under two hours) and does keep to a laudably ridiculous-but-not-frantic pace throughout.

The most puzzling rarities of all, which found Rigg again playing a super-spy, are a pair of dialogue-less short films that Rigg made in 1969. Made by a German production company in Spain and Germany, they were only available on 8mm (!) for home projectors and were, until the advent of the Net, left out of Rigg’s filmography.

There are several reviews of the shorts online, but only one forum board actually provides any background info on how and why they were made. A poster to an Avengers fan board (whose post was reposted on a classic horror board) noted that the two shorts were intended to be shown at gas stations while “people remained sitting in their cars at the filling station, waiting for their fuel, having their oil or tyre pressure checked etc. So the idea was to ‘entertain’ them by showing short (4-5 min) films — which explains why there is no dialogue.”

According to the poster, this info was imparted in a German TV special about cult series, in a segment devoted to “The Avengers.” Diana was reportedly paid 10,000 DM (“whether for all or one of these films remained unclear”), and the shoot took place in 4-5 days (but, then again, one short was shot in Germany and the other in Spain, so who the hell really knows?).

The poster noted that an actor in the film revealed this info on the TV special — the epilogue being that the company funding this odd enterprise went bankrupt, thus the odd appearance of the films on 8mm. There the films are promoted as “Krimi” (crime thrillers) featuring Rigg as Emma Peel. (The 8mm company apparently didn’t want to use the title “The Avengers” in their cover copy but were okay with saying that she was playing a copyrighted character.)

The first of the two, minikillers (1969), is four-part saga that pits Diana (wandering through a lovely, tourist-laden part of Spain) against a bunch of drug-smuggling crooks who have hidden drugs, explosives, and a blinding acid in baby dolls. The film is enjoyable but obviously lacks the urbane dialogue of “The Avengers.”

minikillers has the dual-strength, straightforward kinkiness that was borrowed from the TV series — wherein Diana is first overcome (usually tied up, like a heroine from the old cliffhangers) and then is able to overpower her captors and/or ambush the crooks in their hideout.

Rigg did her own stunts, in the manner of the color season of “The Avengers” that she was on — judo flips for the villains and punches, chops, and kicks to the camera to simulate actual violence. (The color season is singled out here because one can quite clearly see in the b&w season that she was doubled by a man in a wig.) Still, any film with Rigg as a spy is worth watching....

The second short, “Diadem,” is even less plotted. It plays like a series of spy-movie cliches with the appropriate musical punctuation (made to sound very much like Laurie Johnson’s music for “The Avengers”).

Rigg then played the only prominent female role in a filmed production of Julius Caesar (1970) with an odd assortment of British thesps (John Gielgud, Richard Chamberlain, Christopher Lee), American theater actors (Jason Robards), and American hambones (Robert Vaughn and Charlton Heston in the title role).

The cast of Julius Caesar.

Her next film after that was Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital (1971), a VERY dark comedy that is both
 very much of its time and also a timeless story of chaos in a hospital (in which the valuable and very valid medical phrase “forgotten to death” was coined). Rigg represents vitality and sexuality to the ever-grizzled George C. Scott, who is fighting both administrative apathy and impotence.

Rigg’s flair for deadpan dark comedy is on display in the delightful Theater of Blood (1973), one of those absolutely perfect Vincent Price horror vehicles. Vinnie is outraged actor “Edward Lionheart” who vows revenge on a group of critics, whom he then kills using Shakespearean  murder methods. Diana is his daughter “Edwina” who assumes various disguises (including curly hair and a mustache) to help her father kill those dastardly reviewers.

The film was mounted as a theater piece in 2005, starring the great Jim Broadbent in the Price role, and Rigg’s daughter Rachael Stirling (who is quite talented in her own right, and also looks and sounds incredibly like her mother) in her role.

Here’s the whole film. (It makes great Halloween viewing.)

We’ll end chronologically on a derivative downer, the 1973-’74 sitcom “Diana,” in which Rigg starred as a fashion coordinator for a department store. (From supermarkets in “The Hothouse” to a department store here…) The show was clearly modeled after “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and the sample episode found on YT is quite dull.

Interestingly, the scripter chose to reference Mary Tyler Moore directly in the dialogue — talking about her as Laura Petrie on “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” As was the case with the opening scene of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (where Lazenby oddly references Connery), it’s never wise to bring up other people who’ve played a similar role….

Now, to jump the chronology for the closer: There are some gorgeous performances by Rigg on YouTube in classic and modern British fare, but it seems most fitting to close out with her performance in A Little Night Music (1977), in which she has one solo song. 

Rigg in later years.

At first the singing voice sounds dissimilar from her speaking voice, but online sources point to the fact that she (unlike star Liz Taylor) did her own singing. Her musical performance is not especially rousing, but her performance of the song is quite moving.