Friday, March 13, 2020

On Spike Milligan, Ken Russell, and ‘the Richard Lester style’

The Milligan in his prime.
When I interviewed Unkle Ken Russell (his chosen social media handle) in 2008, I asked him a question that couldn’t be “illustrated” by the film in question, because it was under lock and key at that time on the BFI website. That film, the 1959 TV short “Portrait of a Goon” with Spike Milligan, is now available in various places online, and so I can return to the discussion about Unkle Ken, “the Richard Lester style,” and the one and only Spike Milligan.

Let me preface this discussion by noting my deep admiration for Lester — the two Beatles films, The Knack..., The Bed Sitting Room (a dazzlingly, wonderfully weird end-of-the-world comedy based on a Milligan play), and Petulia are all seminal films of the Sixties. Although his visual/editing style, which is credited as being the “beginning of the modern music video” (since Soundies were probably the first Golden Age music videos), was not as original as it seemed in 1964. Tracing influences is something I love to do on the Funhouse TV show and on this blog, so I once again want to “follow the trail” of a style back to its inception.

The Goons: Sellers, Milligan, Secombe
The “Richard Lester style” seemed to appear on the scene full-blown in the Beatles’ big-screen debut, the comedy A Hard Day’s Night (1964). Lester was not unfamiliar with madcap anarchy— his first big-screen comedy was the 1959 short “The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film,” starring two of the three stars of the milestone radio comedy show, “The Goon Show,” Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. The film was scripted by Milligan, Sellers, Mario Fabrizi, and “Dick” Lester, and is now credited as being directed by Lester and Sellers, along with the performance artist-inventor Bruce Lacey (who was profiled in a short made in 1962 called “The Preservation Man” by none other than… Unkle Ken!).

John Lennon was reportedly very happy Lester got the assignment to direct the Fabs’ first feature, because of his love of the Goons and his familiarity with Lester’s short. One other, sorta important figure in the Beatles’ career had an intersection with the Goons — their 1962 LP “Bridge on the River Wye” was produced by some guy named George Martin. (The cast on the LP included two younger Goon fans, Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook.)

Brian Epstein, Richard Lester, producer Walter Shenson,
and four likely lads.
Lester’s approach in Hard Day’s Night was what was later called “an inventory of effects” (in another context, by Marshall McLuhan). Jumpcuts, oblique angles, sped-up and slowed-down action, breaking the axis (and the fourth wall). He certainly would’ve been familiar with silent comedy (the wellspring for visual invention), avant-garde shorts, Golden Age cartoons (esp. the Looney Tunes ones), and chaotic features like Hellzapoppin’ (1941).

“… Standing Still Film” has a much simpler approach. All the bits take place in a field and are filmed in long shot. The only two disjunctive techniques used are speeding up the film (from silent comedy; often confused with the way the films look when shown at sound speed) and a soundtrack that clashed with what is happening onscreen (loud bird chirping noises especially seem to have come out of the avant-garde playbook). The paucity of means — the film was made for just 75 pounds — surely led to the simple, anarchic (yet simplistic on a visual level) style of the short.

There is one element that connects this rather “flatly” shot short to the full-blown flowerings of the Lester style with the Beatles, namely the wild imagination (and surprisingly tight scripting) of Spike Milligan, who was cited by all the important U.K. comedians of the Sixties (and many of the Seventies) as a key influence. And yes, Spike was admired and loved by hoards of British musicians as well.

The setting of moments like the "Can't Buy Me Love" scene
—an open field — retains the "foolish behavior in open spaces" concept of "Standing Still." This concept was openly stolen by "Laugh-In," which, in its earliest episodes, actually had recreations of "Standing Still" gags, including a character being summoned to the camera, whereupon he is punched in the face by a hand in a boxing glove.

Milligan was one of two comedians who suffered for his brilliance by being “put away” for a time (the other being Jonathan Winters). At its best, his humor was absurd, non-linear and, most important, it was fast — to the extent that, even if it was scripted, it seemed ad-libbed. It’s no wonder that any filmmaker who tried to adapt his work for film and television felt they had to work in a similar groove.

To provide some background for the Lester/Goon connection, here is one of the surviving episodes of the TV series “A Show Called Fred” from 1956, which starred Sellers and Milligan among others (for whatever reason, the third Goon, Harry Secombe, was not included in any of the non-Goon-titled endeavors by Spike and Peter; contracts reportedly held him back, since he was a professional singer when not Goon-ing). The show is directed by one “Dick” Lester. (Born in Philly in 1932, he moved to England in 1953.)

The cast of "A Show Called Fred." (with a bearded Spike.)

“Fred” isn’t as miraculously weird as “The Goon Show,” but it does show Spike and company crafting a program that plays with the medium. The camera pulls back to reveal the studio during certain sketches, with other BBC cameras in view and crew members standing around. At one point (starting at 14:25) a sketch called “The Count of Monte Carlo” explodes into a weird journey one character takes off the set and around the studio, ending up in a BBC cafeteria (or a set intended to be a cafeteria).

To provide some context for this weirdness, we should note that other experimental humor was being presented at this time, but it was independent of Spike and he was independent of it. In America, Ernie Kovacs had been playing with the medium for several years by ’56 (but none of his work was seen in the U.K.). A closer (geographically) connection was that the Theater of the Absurd (which “A Show Named Fred” is very close to, in terms of its constant commenting on itself) had begun in earnest in 1950 France (with Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano).

Waiting for Godot premiered in England in 1955, but Spike’s cousin in surreal absurdity, Eugene Ionesco, didn’t have a breakthrough on the British stage until 1960, when Orson Welles staged Rhinoceros with Olivier in the lead.

Here is Spike’s Cathode Ray of the Absurd:

Back to Lester and the Goons: “Running Jumping...” was first shown in the U.S. in November 1959. A month later, on Dec. 6, another Milligan movie appeared, Unkle Ken’s promotional short “Portrait of a Goon,” produced for the culture program “Monitor.” The proximity of the projects makes it unlikely that either director saw the other’s work, and yet both films have an identical pace and rhythm (that of the Milligan).

Russell’s short was made to promote Spike’s book Silly Verse for Kids. The film is a fascinating glimpse into Spike’s mind, as the carefree, jumpcut-riddled comic sequences (narrated by Spike) frame what is, essentially, a serious interview in which Spike speaks about humor and childhood quite eloquently. He laments the loss of childhood silliness and notes that humorists are different than the average person in that they realize that “in this moment of tragedy, half an hour from now, lots of us will be laughing at it. But right now the snobs won’t laugh at it. But they will laugh at it later on when it’s been rewritten by somebody else like me.” Around such declarations are images of Spike cavorting in a park in what look like ad-libbed moments.

The most interesting thing about comparing the Russell short and Hard Day’s Night is that they both contain jumpcuts, a technical “mistake” that became de rigueur in modernist cinema after Godard’s Breathless (1960) hit cinemas. Russell couldn’t have seen the film when he made his short. (Godard’s debut feature was released in December of 1960 in the U.K.) Certainly Ken had seen the “trick films” that grew out of Melies’ work, though, where magical images were achieved via jarring edits that severed the rules of continuity in time and space. (For his part, Lester used some of Godard’s techniques in his 1965 comedy The Knack and How to Get It.)

When I interviewed Unkle Ken, he was directing the off-off-Broadway show Mindgame by Anthony Horowitz at the SoHo Playhouse. At one point the Playhouse had been the Thalia Soho, which had screened a program of Russell shorts, including “Portrait of a Goon.” I was thus inspired to ask him about the short and “the Richard Lester style.”

I am very happy that the BFI finally took the short out from under lock and key and put it on their social media accounts, which led to a fan posting it on YouTube.

So, on the list of things comedic that Spike had a hand in originating, let us now add the “Richard Lester style.”

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Real American arthouse: The brilliance and beauty of Malick’s ‘A Hidden Life’

In a season when Scorsese’s extra-long, extra-dramatic, CGI-tainted Irishman is the foremost topic of conversation among U.S. cinephiles, it has been both reassuring and instructive to see an epic-length American film that is both “smaller than life” and possessed of a singular poetry. Terrence Malick — he who endlessly frustrates the folk who want simple, linear, multiplex-safe narratives — proves he is “as tough as Bresson” (Scorsese’s own stated goal, which he hasn’t come near since the Eighties) with his latest, visually sumptuous film that concerns a moral dilemma and has a foregone conclusion.

Both Malick and Scorsese are products of the sublime “maverick” era in early Seventies American cinema. Scorsese has since reinvented himself as a new-model “Arthouse Lite” version of the old Hollywood studio system director. As he has grown older, Malick has becomes even more of a maverick, making lengthy features that have generally eschewed linear plotlines for an assemblage of striking images and slices of life that convey a mood and a rhythm rather than a storyline in the standard Spielberg/Tom Hanks/Marvel mode.

Malick (right) is as different in his approach and goals from Scorsese as he is from David Lynch (with whom he has shared a common production designer, Jack Fisk). Even though his films are lengthy, they are indeed smaller than life, in that he favors character, behavior, and setting over plot. His work draws on the avant-garde American tradition, foreign cinema (Tarkovsky, among others), and a knowledge of both fine art and philosophy (he worked as a philosophy prof before becoming a filmmaker) to offer a collage of elements that conveys characters’ inner lives, while showing them moving toward often melancholy conclusions.

His latest feature, A Hidden Life, is his first film since The New World (2005) to have a linear plotline — perhaps the experimental structures of Knight of Cups (2015) and Song by Song (2017) revealed even to the filmmaker himself the negative aspects of fragmenting characters’ lives too much.

A Hidden Life is the real-life story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian who refused to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler during WWII. The film is narrated by three characters: Franz, his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), and his mother (Karin Neuhäuser). It is “a message picture,” but Malick isn’t Stanley Kramer (nor is he Spielberg, an early adapter of “production design cinema”). As a result, the film moves through the plot while also emphasizing moody moments in Franz’s life, and Fani and Franz’s moments of happiness and separation.

Malick has injected Christian themes into his films since The Tree of Life (2011). He is, however, a more subdued Christian than Scorsese, whose recent Silence (2016) and The Irishman (2019) have cringeworthy moments where the Catholic faith is depicted as the one right, unassailable position. For his part, Malick is intent on depicting lowercase “c” Christian behavior more than doctrinaire belief, so here Franz and his wife are seen helping other people while they are being persecuted by the Nazis.

Along these lines, a priest (Michael Nyqvist) is a prominent supporting character. He is on Franz’s side, but he serves as a devil’s advocate as well, asking Franz what he is really achieving by refusing to sign the loyalty oath — the Nazis won’t be affected in the slightest and, most importantly, Franz’s small family (wife, her sister and his mother, and their two children) will be left alone to run the family farm.

The priest’s supremely logical argument is taken up later by Franz’s lawyer and the head of a Nazi tribunal (the superb Bruno Ganz, in his last movie role; above). Franz is reminded that war is about to end shortly and it’s possible to secure him a position as a medic in the Army, so that he is taking no part in Hitler’s destructive activities. Franz holds fast, though, and his moral stance is shown to be a completely private decision (supported by his wife) that is the only path which the headstrong and resolutely moral Franz can take.

Images in Malick’s films are everything — he is a modern American master of dreamlike montage — but here the “forward thrust” of the plot does give a greater importance to the dialogue. In Knight of Cups and Song by Song, the dialogue was poetic but ornamental. At various points here, Franz spells out his beliefs with simple phrases, especially when pressed by the other characters. When he is told that signing the loyalty oath will set him free, he responds with beatific calm, “But I *am* free…”

Malick is indeed so “imagistic” that one can sometimes forget the fine work done by his actors. Diehl is excellent in the lead, conveying Franz’s rigid morality as both a sort of selfishness and a deep caring for others. Neuhäuser is also excellent, as the film is as much Fani’s journey as it is her husband’s.

Hidden Life is not the usual WWII drama. It was ignored by the Oscars for obvious reasons — there’s no conventional uplifting finale, it’s profoundly moral but not preachy a la Spielberg, and it’s not “production design cinema,” of the kind that Scorsese and Tarantino now make. Sympathy for the lead character is not even elicited (as it would be in a Best Picture Oscar-winner) through violence. Malick in fact abstracts the little violence we see through montage and slow motion. American viewers need and want clear cut heroes and villains and things to be outraged about, even in a fictional context. A film about memory and choice rather than suffering isn’t a “satisfactory” WWII story for most audience members.

Malick was recently included in the newly written (in 2018) foreword to Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader, who himself proved his work was “as tough as Bresson” in the very Bressonian First Reformed (2017). Schrader labels Malick a practitioner of “dream cinema” in his (Schrader’s) chart of “slow cinema” filmmakers. Malick is in the “Tarkovsky ring” (meaning his films play in theaters, not just at film festivals and at museums) in the “Art Gallery” designation.

Ever the minimalist, Bresson would’ve frowned at Malick’s reliance on professional actors and the length of his films, as well as their intentional non-linearity even in chronological works like Hidden Life. However, Malick is very similar to the French master in his ability to depict — Schrader’s favorite phrase — transcendence. Bresson’s final films ended pessimistically, with little hope for mankind, while Malick (now age 76) has remained a hopeful, upbeat artist. Who thankfully continues in his senior years to craft indelible images and create work that challenges viewers.

Monday, January 6, 2020

How Sweet to Be an Idiot: Deceased Artiste Neil Innes

Though he was best known for his collaborations with the Pythons and his perfect spoofs of Beatle songs as the Rutles, Neil Innes was a really sublime songwriter whose best band and solo work covered a great deal of ground in the rock, pop, and singer-songwriter genres. I want to sing the praises of his absolutely sublime parody songs, in which he would summarize a certain performer’s work in one song (or more impressively, an entire subgenre).

Before that, though, some Funhouse history and a musical interlude — a Bonzo Dog Band song he sang often in concert, perhaps one of the clearest collaborations between his sensibility and that of his Bonzo co-founder, the genius spoken word artist Viv Stanshall:

I had the sheer joy of interviewing Neil back in 2010 when he was appearing in NYC at B.B. King’s and he was staying at a hotel in N.J. right off the Hudson. Neil preferred to be interviewed outdoors, so in that brightly lit setting we went through the Bonzo years.

Also, the cross-currents — which I believe were very strong — between the Bonzos and the Beatles, who “opened up” to humor in their songs in 1966, the year that the Bonzos burst on the scene.

Neil steadfastly declared that the Beatles were very funny gents long before meeting the Bonzos when I queried him on the influence, but also noted that, once the Fabs saw the Bonzos, Lennon took to hanging out drinking with Stanshall into the morning hours, with John’s limo driving past Viv’s house and ejecting him once they’d reached the door.

The young Bonzo Dog Band (Innes second from right)
Both Lennon (whose “You Know My Name (Look up the number)” has some Goon-ish sounds but is also very, very Bonzo) and McCartney (who produced the band’s sole Top 40 hit “I’m the Urban Spacemen”) were obvious fans of the Bonzos. Today, countless British comedians testify to their brilliance — the combination of Stanshall’s velvet tones and deranged wordsmithing plus Innes’ sharp satirical bent and pure pop sensibility (plus the brilliant playing of the band’s other members) made the Bonzos both a perfect psychedelic band and truly the best U.K. comedy act to appear between the “satire boom” (when Beyond the Fringe and “TW3” changed British comedy forever) and the emergence of the Pythons.

The connections between Innes and the Pythons have been documented everywhere, as have the absolutely perfect Rutle tunes, which were beloved by both Beatle fans and the Beatles themselves. Here Neil reflected on his friend George’s responses to the assortment of Innes tunes that became the album Archaeology.

At the time we did the interview Neil had released a download of his “final” song as Ron Nasty, the Lennon-esque witty and performance art-oriented Rutle. It’s a great goodbye to the character, and also one of Neil’s songs that combined social satire with a serious statement (and, as with many of his best, was damned catchy in the process).

When we did the interview we were told by a security guard that we had to leave the outdoor location we were shooting at (some business complex “plaza” looking out on the Hudson). Neil then allowed us to “finish” up the talk in his hotel room, where his lovely wife Yvonne (with whom he was married for 53 years) waited as I spent yet another hour asking him questions about his career and opinions on the music business (and TV and comedy in general).

His generosity with his time was much appreciated (we hadn’t realized that both Yvonne and Neil were waiting for us to finish to have their dinner!) and yielded some fascinating reflections by Neil on some of his most prominent collaborators, including Viv and a certain pipe-smoking, medically trained Python.

We also discussed something he was not known for — his serious songs.

A good example, a touching song visualized on his TV series “The Innes Book of Records.”

We discussed the MIA “The Innes Book of Records,” which has never been issued on DVD and was unknown to non-U.K. viewers until the advent of YouTube. The show lasted three seasons (1979-81) and then pretty much disappeared. When visualizing his songs on the series (which also featured pieces by guest artists) he frequently went back to his art school training.

Neil did much work for British children’s TV and, when not touring, did guest on chat, panel, and variety shows. He had strong opinions about TV programmers in the U.K., based on his experiences.

Neil had many legacies, but my definite favorite was his skill at parody. As noted above, he was able to synthesize entire bodies of work, or genres, into the space of a three-minute pop song. For example, his take on the chanson française, as visualized on his “Book of Records” series.

Perhaps the finest of all his spoof songs, his three-minute distillation of the early ’70s work of Elton John, replete with a title borrowed from W.C. Fields and lyrics filled with homespun mottos: “If all the trees were candles/and who’s to say they’re not/the world will be a birthday cake/and we could eat the lot/But too many cooks can spoil the broth/ and a stitch in time saves nine/A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush/and I’ll never change my mind...”

A personal favorite, his spot-on spoof of Pete Townsend’s rough boy, “on the verge of a break down” songs. With wonderful visuals spoofing Funhouse fave (and interview subject) “Unkle” Ken Russell.

To close out, a non-parody. Neil’s anthem, a song that perfectly embodies his solo work, filled with beautiful nonsense and an actually touching message. What makes it most special? It’s the work of a very smart and talented man, being exceptionally silly.