Saturday, 15 August 2015



A film director is rightly celebrated when they produce one masterpiece in their career. I would argue Stanley Kubrick did this twice, with two consecutive films. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY took technical accomplishment and mind-bending psychedelic ideas to a level that set a new benchmark for thought-provoking challenging cinema. With A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, he re-invented himself once again with a more shocking dystopian future vision of ourselves that captivated generations to follow with striking longevity.

The source was a novel by Anthony Burgess, a tale of an unrepentant gang leader who, as the poster neatly sums up, has the main preoccupations in life of ‘Rape, ultra-violence and Beethoven’ until the government unsuccessfully tries to brainwash him into docility. For Burgess, writing the famously horrific rape sub-plot was a form of catharsis. One of his wives had been traumatised for life by such an awful crime. Also, he had been diagnosed with a brain tumour and in the white heat of fearing early mortality he dashed off five novel first drafts in a single year. This explains the urgent pace of the book of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

Kubrick was given the novel and initially was reluctant to make it, thinking no-one would be able to get past the Nadsat youth language Alex and his Droogs speak (composed of roughly two hundred words of Russian, some cockney and a smattering of Romany gypsy dialect). Evidently he reconsidered, and after throwing out a screenplay written by Burgess himself, he elected to essentially film a very faithful version of the novel, even lifting much of Alex’s vital voice-over straight from the original tex.

Kubrick was already in for a challenge when he began pre-production on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Despite his stellar reputation, he was given a relatively very low budget and needed to prove to Warner Brothers that he could work to something of this scale. When you see the film in repeated viewings it’s surprising that it hides its paucity of budget incredibly well. It seems more lavish and high-tech somehow that it really is. A clever move was to film as much as possible in real locations without need of creating expensive futuristic sets. They used existing urban tower-blocks and the just-finished Thamesmead estate to feature its distinctive granite block designs.

In the casting of Malcolm McDowell as Alex, the film plays one of its most powerful cards. He’s an immensely charismatic presence; the charming villain who takes you into his confidence like RICHARD III, daring you to like him and will him to triumph. His narration through-out is an intimate friend’s confession in your ear without malice or cynicism and McDowell’s native West Yorkshire accent gives him a disarming working–class credibility without a southerner’s patronising fake northern-ism . He loves the exercise of power and cruelty and getting away with it with a cheeky grin and a super-fast car. Who could fail to love him? Kubrick had seen him in Lindsay Anderson’s IF and knew he had the perfect blend of insouciance, youth, rebellious joy and intelligence. Indeed, its Alex’s intelligence that’s an uncommon part of his appeal for a youth gangster. He’s cleverer than his TV-zombified family, his gang of Droogs (not difficult), and the authorities in all their manifestations - and it takes the full weight of the system to bring him down in the second half of the movie.

Alex’s passion for Beethoven is no accident either. It establishes a cultural sophistication and another of Kubrick’s master-strokes was to take that fetish and make it dominate the sound-track. As ground-breaking as his use of Ligeti and Strauss in 2001, here the director uses Beethoven as a rock music score would be used now. Since it floods Alex’s mind, it should engulf our senses as well – and it does so exhilaratingly. He also uses a speeded-up synth version of Rossini’s William Tell Overture for a ribald sex scene with two girls Alex picks up in a record shop.
Industry fans of Kubrick have rightly praised Kubrick’s films for how consciously-designed they are for effect. Although he had an intimidatingly super-human focus and perfectionism, he was always open to ideas from anyone regardless of their position and would incorporate all kinds of elements that would perfectly translate to his vision. This film was no exception, Alex’s look was conceived carefully; the co-opted bowler-hat to annoy the establishment, the single glam eyelash suggested by the make-up artist Barbara Daly.

Alex’s gang of thugs itself in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has its own attractive mystique. The slow-motion shot of him strolling menacingly with his Droogs Dim and Georgie (Warren Clarke and James Marcus) has influenced many a film’s group solidarity image (RESERVOIR DOGS for example). They dress in a believable way that youths could copy cheaply because gangs typically will salvage what they can from what’s around them (right from the Teddy Boys through to the DIY gear philosophy that punk would famously use a few years later). The tribal Nadsat dialect is a gift as well as it creates a secret code that the older generation are not privy to.

Unfortunately, the seductively copy-able look of the gang and the stylised ‘comic’ style of the rape of Adrienne Corri and the beating of the old tramp (both to the tune of ‘Singin’ In the Rain’) had an awful, sobering side- effect. Although the song’s use had been conceived innocently enough as an enlivening device because Kubrick found the rape scene flat and dull (and it was the only song McDowell knew by heart), it found itself being hijacked to form an undeniable link to real copycat violence and worse. After A CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s release had permeated real youth culture, there were incidents of gang troubles where the accused would quote the movie’s influence on them in the dock. Even more alarmingly, there was a reported case of a Dutch girl holidaying in Lancashire who was raped by men singing the song in imitation of the film. A sickening story like this was too specific to be ignored in the way we have done since over ‘video nasties’ and their ludicrously unproven connection to murder. Kubrick was advised by police officers that since he, his wife and three children all lived together in similar vulnerable seclusion to the couple invaded horrifically in the film, he might have to consider a potential visit from real life Droog-esque gangs.

Kubrick felt forced to take an unprecedented step; one which not only impressively showed his life-long love of family above art to those who thought him a dispassionate man, but also demonstrated an unheard-of power in Hollywood. He made Warner Brothers pull the film from all UK cinemas from then right until his death in 1999. Such was his close relationship with the studio and their respect for him, that it was honoured, It’s doubtful that any film-maker will ever exert that kind of influence again. This no doubt added to the film’s compelling underground curiosity value from then till it’s re-release in a more enlightened, de-sensitised time.

At the same time though, in foreign territories like North America Kubrick’s visionary ability to capture the public imagination had a more positive outlet. His very hands-on direction of foreign marketing campaign imagery is widely accepted as being a chief reason for the film’s success abroad.

Viddy well….

Friday, 14 August 2015


2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)

Many film-makers have described 2001 with reverence as one of the most ground-breaking films released during their formative years in the business and a vital influence in their work. Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, George Lucas (each of whom would go on to have an enormous impact on the style and content of movies) and countless other fans would revel in 2001’s hugely ambitious ideas and scope of vision. Though it equally has its detractors, and I’ll examine why, this science-fiction masterpiece defines what a pioneering artist does and the importance of an undiluted vision in art.

The criticisms of 2001 could in some cases be seen as strengths, for example it takes some time to ‘get going’ but that’s only if you think of it in terms of traditional story-telling. This is a film of sophisticated ideas and that doesn’t play out in the usual three act boy meets girl structure. The epic sweep of the story begins with a prologue of primitive apes dealing with their precariously rough daily lives before a large black slab Monolith appears in their hunting ground. On making physical contact with its smooth alien appearance, we see that it teaches them/us a step in their/our evolution. Arguably, the acquisition of bones as weaponry is possibly a retrograde one, but nevertheless it enables the apes to defend themselves and the triumphant ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ nails the profundity of this historic moment in man’s development. Then comes the celebrated ‘match-cut’ where the upwardly-tossed bone falls and cuts suddenly to become a space station, thus neatly jumping millions of years in a single frame. (This moment has often been erroneously described as a ‘jump-cut’; this is not true as technically the image is deliberately matched to another similar one not jumped to a different one).

We discover that an identical Monolith has been found on the moon. A cover story disguised the discovery (and even a suspicious pre-Rigsby Leonard Rossiter with an even more suspiciously non-Russian accent can’t get any answers) but a harsh radio signal emitted from it has us cut to eighteen months later when the US vessel Discovery One is heading to Jupiter. The ship contains Drs Poole and Bowman (Kier Dullea and Gary Lockwood) and three other scientists kept in computer-controlled hibernation by their highly-advanced computer system called HAL 9000. HAL has a calm human voice (courtesy of Douglas Rain) and is in command of every aspect of the spaceship yet functions in perfect accord with his human masters – until he gradually displays signs of a separate agenda. This results in Poole being cut adrift and sent spinning out into space till Bowman can retrieve him and then take necessary action to de-activate the rogue HAL.

Kubrick’s critics usually cite 2001 as the lightning-rod for their accusations of an intellectual cool, an emotional distance. I agree that the pristine antiseptic whites of the beautiful interiors, the precision designs of the models and the at-times languid pace can be off-putting for some. I’ve also always felt that Dullea and Lockwood’s performances are oddly blank cyphers, largely devoid of personality. This may be purposeful if one was to suggest that it enables them to be viewed as, say Everyman, but it’s ironic that for an artificial life-form HAL has more character than they do. Rain’s voice possesses a no-doubt intentional disarming quality for space work, yet his subtle ambiguous choice of words betrays a sly mind at work. HAL is a diplomat who draws a veil over his cunning plans for take-over just like his human creators did in disguising the moon’s Monolith sending signals to Discovery’s destination. He lip-reads the two scientists’ secret conversation about shutting him down (hence the cutting loose of Poole). Kubrick keeps cutting to shots of HAL’s lens as though it’s the inscrutable face of a wise mandarin giving nothing away as he schemes.

It’s hard then to fully level a charge of coldness at a director when he can invest human qualities in such a seemingly inanimate invention as a computer. The best example of this humanity is the undeniable poignancy in HAL’s gentle, child-like bewilderment as his personality and memory gradually disintegrate under Bowman’s dismantling of him. When he suspects what is about to happen to him, his famously portentous question “What are you doing, Dave?” could just as easily be addressed to ‘Daddy’. Also, Kubrick had enough self-awareness of his tendency toward a certain emotional reserve to ask Spielberg to direct A.I. instead of him as he felt the younger director’s warmth would be a better fit for that project’s needs.

And so we come to the last part of 2001 which is remarkable in a number of ways. Firstly, there are the transcendent neon grid opticals as Bowman passes through the ‘Stargate’ to Jupiter. This is a brave move to allow an extended visual effect the time to show his transition between dimensions. It’s a strikingly powerful psychedelic ‘trip’ with eerie cuts to freeze-framed close-ups of the crewman caught in facial expressions of torture and shock as he undergoes the unimaginable path to a hitherto-unknown world, and like most of the film’s visuals it has dated amazingly little. Also, it appears that this section and the epilogue are what transformed the film from a critically-mixed reception to huge success. Projectionists wrote to the studio warning them not to pull the release following dispiriting reviews as there was a gradual trickle of young counter-culture fans which turned into a flood, coming in to experience 2001’ as a head –trip, smoking pot to accentuate Bowman’s voyage for themselves. Clearly the crucial EASY RIDER fan-base was taking this film to heart as well and no-one could have bought that kind of tremendous publicity.

The other key factor that makes the ending so important for longevity is that it is open to endless interpretations. Why does Bowman see aging versions of himself? Where is this curious room they inhabit with its retro Earth furniture? Why does the Monolith arrive at his death-bed and what’s the significance of the floating Starchild in space that he ultimately becomes? 2001’s power to invoke a rare wonder is so strong that strangely it almost doesn’t matter; my theory is that the alien object causes Bowman to surpass the prologue apes with an even greater leap in evolution to a form of higher human purity. I remember in Arthur C Clarke’s novel, the final chapter beautifully described the Starchild gracefully evaporating a series of nuclear missiles fired at him from Earth with a mere thought and contemplating his next move. He is beyond the base desire for dominance through weaponisation. There is hope for us.

2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is composed of leaps of innovation in itself for the industry to follow. The brilliant model effects work and ship instrumentation, zero-gravity sets achieved with clever construction and ingenious camera positioning all take cinema technical achievement to new heights. The music score, aside from the unnervingly effective Ligeti choral cues, broke new ground in choosing classical music in lieu of a composed ‘futuristic’ soundtrack - which would have dated quickly and diminished the emotive grandeur and playful lilt that Strauss gives to the visuals. (This was almost accidental as the editor was initially only using Strauss as a ‘temp’ track for pacing until Kubrick heard it and felt it was perfect). Lucas took note of this when asking John Williams to compose the iconic score for STAR WARS.

Turn on, tune in and drop out. Far out…

Thursday, 13 August 2015

No.33. PAM GRIER - Part IV: FOXY BROWN (1974)


Once Jack Hill and Pam Grier hit their stride as an effective team of writer/director and actor muse with COFFY, of course they would do it again. What is exploitation if it doesn’t make use of a winning team? For that matter, a wining formula is one to which all of Hollywood aspires.

Knowing that black audiences found in Grier a strong non-tokenistic female action heroine to cheer on, Hill distilled her appeal into a full-blooded vigilante hell-cat with FOXY BROWN. It was originally meant to be a direct sequel to COFFY but when AIP nixed that idea, hasty changes had to be made and there was no time for example to establish what job Foxy had compared to her previous role's nurse duties.

FOXY BROWN is a fun action vehicle though with some relishable dialogue and vengeance mayhem for Grier to savour. This is signalled from the start as she is telephoned by our old Blaxploitation friend Antonio Fargas as her brother ‘Link’. His nervy hustler persona is perfectly suited to playing her ne’er-do-well sibling who can’t stay out of trouble and needs help in being extracted from mobster bad debt repercussions. With a sigh, Foxy gets out of bed (giving us the first of many unnecessary but welcome boob shots), reaches for her pistol and rescues him. She does this by mounting the pavement in her car, having Fargas get in at speed, plummeting face-first through the sun-roof and depositing one of the tenacious hoods who clings to the hood into the harbour.

Shady Fargas cannot resist easy opportunity. His lack of self-awareness is over-shadowed by a burning desire to channel his creative energy: “You tell me what I’m supposed to do with all this ambition?” he moans. He justifies his scheming against what he sees as black social failure all around him, including Foxy’s lover Michael Anderson (Terry Carter) whom he denigrates as a ruined informer, when he is in fact an undercover federal agent who’s undergone plastic surgery to enable him to go incognito back on the streets. Foxy visits him as he’s completing his recovery and almost administers some non-medicinal TLC before a nurse spoils it. Link spoils things even more by treacherously informing on Anderson after Foxy tries to hide his old identity. The mob shoots Anderson to death and Foxy threatens to kill her spineless scum-bag brother when she finds out he was responsible for the tip-off. “You think you’re back in with these people? They got a stick of dynamite up your ass and the fuse is burning!” She has a solution to rectify the situation:
“The only way to handle these smart-ass hoods is with a bullet in the gut!”

Foxy leaves her apartment, having roughed up Link and his girlfriend like the Angel of Death. “That’s my sister – and she’s a whole lotta woman”, he mutters fearfully.

Foxy herself now goes undercover to get revenge, posing as a hooker for a ‘modelling agency’ run by the curiously androgynous villain Miss Katherine (Kathryn Loder). Her first customer is a corrupt judge who likes black women: “The darker the berry, the sweeter the juice”, purrs Foxy before  dispatching the “pink-ass corrupt honky judge!”. Lines like these are scattered like Blaxploitation pearls throughout the script.

Foxy cuts like a scythe through the forest of gangsters, stopping off for help at a lesbian bar that is murkier than the dock-side dive in AIRPLANE. “I got my black belt in bar-stools” she rages during a brawl. She enlists the help of a pilot in the unlikely form of genre familiar Sid Haig. I say unlikely because aside from his dress sense of floppy hat and bushy beard making him resemble a boho painter, he refers to his skills as an airplane ‘driver’. (Surely a scripting or actor’s line faux-pas).
Foxy flies to the henchmen’s lair, where she ‘propels’ one hood into dismemberment by gunning the plane at him, and for good measure cuts off the penis of Miss Katherine’s lover. Back home, fetchingly leather-clad and bouffant of afro, she completes her mission by visiting the brothel madame and presenting her with her partner’s bottled appendage and then shooting her with the pistol she concealed in her hair.

Overall, FOXY BROWN pushes all the right buttons for sheer crowd-pleasing no-brainer fun. The executions and one–liners Grier delivers are a bravura answer to the male vigilante figures sparked off by Charles Bronson, but with more humour and the uncommon sight of a woman (and a black woman at that) in the driving seat. 

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

PAM GRIER - Part III: COFFY (1973)

COFFY (1973)

In 1973, Pam Grier re-unted with writer/director Jack Hill and finally started to hit her stride in vehicles that were worthy of her after the tacky ‘Women in Prison’ of THE BIG BIRD CAGE and BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA. COFFY has much much higher production values and cast courtesy of MGM. 

After a misfire of an opening theme song, featuring the lame lyrics: “Coffy is the colour of your skin/Coffy is feelin’…somethin’ deep’, we meet Pam as what appears to be a junkie willing to trade herself for a fix from a dope-dealer. Once back at his apartment, she fixes him instead with an injection of shotgun bullets and the glorious trailer line: “This the end of your life, you motherfuckin’ dope pusher!”. Pam is theatre Nurse Coffin by day and a dealer-exterminating vigilante by night. A ‘rare black pearl’ indeed.
Coffy has a doting patrolman friend Carter (William Elliott) but prefers the charms of ambitous councilman Howard Brunswick (Booker Bradshaw). She attempts to get them separately on side with her nocturnal mission but stops short of revealing she is wiping out society’s ills in her chosen way. As part of her secret activities, she visits an addict she patched up in hospital and gets valuable street intel about a high-rolling sexually-perverted gangster Mr Vitroni (Allan Arbus) and his pimp conduit King George (Robert DoQui).

Pam infiltrates the drug network by posing as a gorgeous exotic Jamaican. Her physical confidence in her looks is so alluring, your attention is taken away from her weak accent which consists of calling people ‘Maan’ by way of a cover. On entering, King George is so conspicuous a dresser he makes Antonio Fargas look subtle with his camel-coloured jumpsuit, matching coloured oversize glasses, broad-brimmed hat and cane. It isn’t long before Coffy uses him to get to Vitroni. Having the quality of future M*A*S*H regular Arbus is a plus in a film like this. He looks like a sleazy ‘70s record producer and enjoys a preliminary and laughably exploitative party scene food-fight that’s just an excuse for the ladies to rip each other’s tops off, girl-on-girl. Pam secretes razor-blades in her hair which famously cut one of the hookers who dares to tangle with her. Coffy is on resourceful lady. Arbus surveys Pam’s feistiness with evident ardour. “She’s like a wild animal. I’ve got have that girl tonight!” He relishes the gangster’s inhuman cruelty in bedroom violence and racism role-play well.
Jack Hill also re-teamed Grier with genre regular Sid Haig, here effortlessy adding to his rogues gallery of unsavoury villains, notably when torturing George to death by giving him the “new necktie” of a noose around his neck and dragging him to a protracted comedically over-extended death behind his car.

As Pam works her way toward finishing off all the villains including her corrupt boyfriend, the music score hits the cues a little too literally: “You can’t see right from wrong/Danger waits for you” the singer trills. Our heroine ensures when she’s about to be offed, its heroin of a faked kind she’s pumped full of before offing Haig and Bradshaw.

COFFY is a cut above the usual straight exploitation genre movies in that Hill slips a little socio-economic conscience into the mix. Rather than the usual irresponsibility of drugs sub-plots, there are references to the poverty trap and how drug-dealing is a sorely tempting easy profit for those on the breadline with no other options. Bradshaw makes a case to Coffy for the social good he can do, but as this is an obvious desperate measure at gunpoint, he scuppers his special pleading by revealing a new woman in his bedroom. Coffy ends his campaign – permanently.

With this film, at last Pam Grier was given an opportunity to develop her range and her dialogue delivery is more certain. Her inner torment when Bradshaw tries to brainwash her into compliance at the end is the most convincing she’s been in deeply emotional scenes. Hill may also have helped in giving her the time that previous potboiler trash wouldn’t have allowed.  Pam emerges as a resourceful, capable action star with an appealingly unforced, radiant sexual confidence and a maternal warmth supported by compassionate story-lines. Rightfully, she is one of the most important role models for female emancipation in 1970s cinema.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015




Where I come from, this is…not.

BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA is another of the Blaxploitation Women in Prison movies set in Filipino locations, as used to dismal effect by Jack Hill in 1971’s THE BIG BIRD CAGE. Here, the difference is that two of the ladies, a feuding inter-racial pair (Pam Grier and Margaret Markov) escape, chained together like Poitier and Curtis in THE DEFIANT ONES.

The drastic bid for freedom is understandable as the Women’s Rehabilitation Centre they were newly-incarcerated in features a butch female guard, Densmore (Lynn Borden) who from the opening establishes herself as in favour of intimate relations as part of prisoner ‘socialisation’. (She enjoys herself peeping on the showering newbies through a secret glory-hole). She’s also psychotic, slapping Grier with a black leather glove when her advances are rejected.

Lee and Karen (Grier and Makov) are a strikingly different pair physically and temperamentally and initially fight, causing them to be imprisoned for punishment standing up close together in an unbearably hot outside chamber called the Oven. We’ve already established their disparate backgrounds beforehand, helpfully exposited by being told: “A terrorist and a hooker. You two should have a lot to talk about”. Its side-effect is to allow the audience more gratuitous boob shots.  (Hey, this is an AIP studio release after all).

The two troublemakers are scheduled for transfer to a maximum security prison, but are freed in a shootout by revolutionary comrades of Karen led by a low-rent Che Guavara, Ernesto (Zaldy Zschornak). They make a break for it cross-country, at one point briefly posing unconvincingly as nuns.

It turns out Lee had hidden away $40,000 belonging to her former pimp and dealer Vic Cheng (Vic Diaz), who is also a rival of the cops, and with the aid of genre regular Sid Haig as the Stetsoned Ruben, it seems everyone wants a piece of the ladies.  Haig at least has the benefit of some pleasure at the hands of the two daughters of one of his associates, and manages to humiliate the pursuing cops by threatening to shoot off their ‘old chaps’ before he is blown away in gunplay with the revolutionaries. In the ensuing blood-bath Karen dies as Lee flees, leaving only the cops to ruminate on the insanity of a career in crime-fighting.

Roger Corman’s AIP gave many film-makers a start in the business. Film director Jonathan Demme co-wrote the story for this trashy, haphazard grindhouse filler and the director Eddie Romero had made many films within the genre in the Philippines such as THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND.

If you want a women’s prison drama with characters and quality, go to Netflix’s series ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.

Watch BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA and you’ll soon be asking for yours…

Monday, 10 August 2015



This Blaxploitation WIP (Women in Prison) movie was a non-sequel follow-up to 1971’s THE BIG DOLL HOUSE. There are a lot of other things this film isn’t as well.

Re-teaming Pam Grier with director Jack Hill, it concerns a bad-ass guerrilla fighter (Pam of course) with a floppy-hatted equally radical boyfriend Django (an almost unrecognisable Sid Haig) who for kicks decide to liberate an outdoor jungle women’s prison. It turns out that one of the inmates is Terry, a libidinous girl- about-town (Anitra Ford) who ended up jailed due to a haphazard robbery the two tried to commit earlier. Terry is a very peculiar character who seems to have no discernment about who she sleeps with, even to the extent of a very poor-taste exchange with Django early on when after he threatens to take advantage of her, she replies “You can’t ‘rape’ me. I like sex”. No wonder she is incarcerated, although psychiatric observation might be better.

The prison is not only extremely low-budget, being composed of mud-huts and a central mill (the titular Bird Cage), it’s also laughably low-security and run by a similarly low-rent version of Ricardo Montalban (the warden played by Andre Centenera). There only seems to be about three lazy guards running the place and in the exterior day scenes when they should be supervising the women’s labour you can hardly see them. Why don’t the ladies just escape? Probably they are too busy trying to lay each other as there are endless scenes of posturing and threats of girl-on-girl but no ‘action’ between the amazons, Hispanic, blacks and Caucasians.

Things look up though when Pam is imprisoned as well. She quickly installs herself as the Big Momma after a canteen tussle where she pins her racist assailant to the ground with “That’s Miss N***er to you!’ Eventually, it all descends into the inevitable break-out after one of the revolutionaries infiltrates the compound by posing as gay so one of the guards will try to get him a job there. (This elaborate effort also makes zero sense as with such a skeleton guard detail, they could take over the place with a spud-gun and free the inmates any time they like). Still, Pam blasts away with a machine-gun so someone gets to have fun at least.

It’s hard to imagine any audience flocking to see this in the grindhouses in the early ‘70s, unless they were winos looking for a warm place in the daytime. The poster is wonderfully lurid and aside from being a totally bogus come-on, contains a sensational strapline that manages to be both offensive and inexplicable at the same time:


Pam Grier and Jack Hill would collaborate much more effectively in movies over the next few years, so don’t bother rattling this cage…

Sunday, 9 August 2015



This documentary filmed and released in 1967 is a somewhat rambling but useful and sincere document of the times that were a-changing in San Francisco’s famous mecca of Haight-Ashbury. It’s valuable as an archive from the period rather than a rose-tinted retrospective, composed of great footage of the concerts and streets populated by the hippies at play and overlaid with voice-overs culled from the young and older disapproving authority figures alike.

One younger participant reflects honestly on the typical teenager who flocked to the district anxious to prove: “Now he is longer a neurotic juvenile. He’s a hippy. But you know what? He’s still a neurotic juvenile”. At the ‘height of Haight’ as it were, the area accommodated 200,000 people crammed into an area of only roughly ten blocks: ‘That’s about one person to every five or six feet. I think they have more space in China,’ he speculates.

We are shown concert footage of beaded, bandanna’d hippies grooving in the open, bathed indoors in the lava-lamp and Pink Floyd-esque psychedelic slide-shows of the time to the soundtrack of extended music by the Love Generation. We’re even treated to alluring body-painted cuties on display. It’s all here. There is even a sequence detailing their own charming American idea of Strawberry Fields (actually a Liverpool Salvation Army children’s home the Beatles’ John Lennon grew up near). To the hippies, it a peaceful country spot away from the city. “A gas” remarks one truth-seeker.

In hindsight, it’d be all too easy to simply mock the attitudes and expressions of the hippies as hopelessly na├»ve, and yet the overwhelming numbers who tried to understand and capture the counter-culture aspect is really quite moving. There has been no movement like it before or since to galvanise young people into an active, well-informed body willing to challenge their own perceptions and oppose the authorities’ traditional war-mongering and rules for rules’ sake. At one point during a concert, the camera picks out a slogan saying ‘LIKE FATHER. LIKE SON. LIKE HELL’.
The most oddly fascinating aspect of the film is the eavesdropping on hippy conversations in revealing, endearing and funny clips. “I was as a tree. I could be a tree”. The fuzzy attempts to explain a profound ‘trip’ and the unfathomable logic of late-night party conversations are relatable by anyone who remembers being young enough to clumsily articulate their new experiences. “The total absence of God and the total presence of God is really the same thing”.
“Do you wanna get rid of ego?”
“No, I just wanna transcend mine”.

After offering the Bible, Christ and Mohammed as inspirations to a troubled friend, one of the group admits: “I don’t know anything about them. I just know the feeling of ‘em”.
The reason they sound like Dennis Hopper or Woody Allen parody characters reciting bad dialogue is that this really is the received language the young used back then just to try to make sense of it all. “Just keep expanding your consciousness, man”. A young woman ends one stream-of-consciousness spiel about grooving with everyone with ‘What’s your birth sign?’ Actually, the Woody Allen comparison is even more apt later when she sounds exactly like Louise Lasser’s hilariously earnest but commitment-confused student in 1971’s BANANAS: “I can’t receive love as well. I can’t share…I put it in giving where it should be sharing”

There’s no arguing with the genuine engagement at the end though in scenes of political rally footage against the Vietnam war. Here, the clarity of passion is admirable. “Think of an alternative to killing” one young woman urges a soldier.
If only…

PSYCH-OUT (1968)

(89 minute 2003 DVD version)

In 1968, exploitation studio AIP released Richard Rush’s film PYSCH-OUT designed to catch the mood of counter-cultural Haight-Ashbury self-exploration. The previous year he made HELL’S ANGELS ON WHEELS, another zeitgeist piece, (and would later make the brilliant THE STUNTMAN), and reunited with Jack Nicholson as his leading man to make a film examining the search for enlightenment through ‘better chemistry’ for the young people of the late ‘60s. It was also backed, improbable as it seems, by Dick Clark of ‘straight’ TV’s AMERICAN BANDSTAND. The original title was to have been THE LOVE CHILDREN which would certainly have been as aptly ‘60s a name as any other, but it changed to avoid misunderstandings that it dealt with illegitimacy.

PSYCH-OUT was issued on a double-bill DVD in 2003 alongside the other AIP drug movie THE TRIP, with which it shares the DNA in its LSD of psychedelic art, visuals and a worthy attempt to depict trip effects that means both films still, as far as I know, have never been shown on British TV.
(There is a 101-minute cut now available on Bluray but as I’m lead to believe it doesn’t make a substantial difference, I watched the 89 minute version)

Susan Strasberg plays a deaf girl, Jenny, who enters the hippie drug subculture looking for her brother Steve Davis, an artist. (Any resemblance to the snooker player will vaporise as soon as you see him) She is befriended by the pony-tailed Stoney (a prickly Nicholson) and his friends who agree to help her, whilst exploiting her charms a little as a conventional ‘chick’ for themselves.  The clothes, the feeling and the music are very much from the time as are the attitudes. Despite their radical ideas outside the mainstream, Stoney and his male pals still treat women as servile playthings which apparently was how it was even inside rebellious politicised organisations.

Before they head out on the search, Stoney’s friend Warren has to be helped down from his latest acid episode where he is flipping out in the kitchen. Under the influence, he imagines everyone as zombies and is horrified at the infection spreading to his own hand. In a move foreshadowing the drastic measures of Ash in THE EVIL DEAD, he makes to perform some mad impromptu surgery with an electric saw before they restrain him.

The only clue that Jenny has to her brother’s whereabouts is a cryptic message "Jess Saes: God is alive and well and living in a sugar cube" which leads them to a junk-yard tussle with some locals who disapprove of hippies.  She also discovers her brother goes under the name of the Seeker. When we do ultimately meet Steve, he’s an elusive wild-eyed Jesus freak played by Bruce Dern (who else? This is AIP).

Along the way, one of Stoney’s mates Dave (Dean Stockwell) puts the moves on her. Dave is a classic self-styled guru. He’s full of smug pronouncements on how to live outside the system: “One big plastic hassle” and poses as being free from the need for attachments, whilst not being quite detached enough to stop himself trying to get into her loon pants. Long-haired and head-banded, Stockwell convincingly captures the assumption of inner profundity whilst inspiring anyone to eschew passivism in favour of giving him a good kicking.

Jenny tries to go after Steve after Dave has foolishly invited her to try acid. She freaks out on the streets in pursuit of her brother, imagining running through apocalyptic fires in an effectively nightmarish sequence before being stranded in the middle of the Golden Gate bridge. Dave redeems himself by making the ultimate sacrifice to save her. In his touching final moments as he lies dying he muses: “Reality’s a deadly place. I hope this trip is a good one”. It’s a finely judged ending, showing the casualties of the counter-culture.

PSYCH-OUT is by no mean a great film, but it’s a significant movie of the period following the Summer Of Love, tackling the colossal infusion of new stimuli in a very uncertain period for the young – and winningly backed by the fabulous psychedelic songs of Strawberry Alarm Clock.