Monday, 30 March 2015

Lobotomy Room 21 March 2015 DJ Set List

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The cover girl for the 21 March 2015 Lobotomy Room is the enigmatic Gertrude Forstner (stripper name: Lady Chinchilla). Between burlesque engagements (she was famous for her savage “cage act”) she was French sex kitten Brigitte Bardot's screen stand-in. Read more about Lady Chinchilla here / 

As described in the Facebook events page:

Skulk in the depths of drunken depravity - at LOBOTOMY ROOM!

At last - a club night for the hillbilly beau monde! LOBOTOMY ROOM! Where sin lives! A punkabilly beer blast! A spectacle of decadence for the permissive Continentally-minded! A Mondo Trasho evening of Beat, Beat Beatsville Beatnik Rock’n’Roll! Rockabilly Psychosis! Wailing Rhythm and Blues! Twisted Tittyshakers! Punk Cretin Hops! Kitsch! Exotica! Curiosities and other Weird Shit! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs The Cramps Taught Us, hosted by Graham Russell (of Dr Sketchy and Cockabilly notoriety). Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock!

Gay greasers, cry-babies, prison wives and juvenile delinquents of all ages are welcome at LOBOTOMY ROOM! The semi-regular cult club night returns to the suitable environs of a low-ceilinged subterranean sex dungeon basement in Dalston (aka downstairs at Hysteria)! No musical guests this time – just me playing all your putrid vintage sleaze favourites until you’re losing your mind!

All this and admission is gratuit. (That’s French for FREE!)

Lobotomy Room: Faster. Further. Filthier. 

A tawdry good time guaranteed!

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/ This Lobotomy Room coincided with the birthday of "King of the Nudies", breast-fixated maverick film director Russ Meyer (21 March 1922 - 18 September 2004). I interpreted this as a good omen - and was right! Here is the delicious Lorna Maitland shakin' it in Meyer’s boob-tastic 1966 masturpiece (sic) Mondo Topless /

Wow! Saturday was dramatic! As revealed in my previous installment, the day started on a considerable high: seeing The Bob Mizer Foundation’s red hot vintage physique film The Golden Age of the American Male at The British Film Institute’s Flare Festival – and then encountering Fifties beefcake incarnate Tab Hunter (sigh!) backstage.

When I got home, I was puttering around getting ready to DJ later and gradually started feeling increasingly, dramatically rough. It kept getting worse until next thing I knew I was hugging the toilet bowl dry-heaving - and then projectile vomiting my lungs out! So odd, as I rarely get sick. (In retrospect I can confirm it was a sudden bout of the flu rather than food poisoning – Pal caught it within days!).

And what suck-y timing: not a great state to be in the night I had a Lobotomy Room scheduled! Cancelling wasn't an option – it would definitively burn a bridge with the venue if I cancelled with such short notice. I would never be able to approach Hysteria again! So – dashing to the bathroom to vomit every few minutes right up until I had to leave the house to head for Dalston - I sucked it up and carried on like normal. It was a long night and I was shivering and sweating profusely behind the DJ booth the whole time – but I stuck it out!

About the venue Hysteria: everyone seemed to love the ultra-minimalist soot-black basement. On the night it turned out the DJ booked for the bigger ground-level bar cancelled so I had the option of re-locating Lobotomy Room upstairs – but I infinitely preferred the dark and squalid S&M dungeon with exposed bricks illuminated by just a few red light bulbs – perfect for my purposes!

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Hysteria was also my first ever venue with a proper late licence: on weekends it’s open until 3 am. That was definitely a learning curve. Between 10:30 pm until 12:30 the crowd was worryingly sparse and I was reconciling myself to a poorly attended night. But then at about 12:45 the place exploded with people and stayed frantically busy right up until chucking-out time. It was a big consolation to glance up and see throngs of people dancing! So the tenth-ever Lobotomy Room (and the first of 2015) was a painful night in some ways (by 3 am I was so drained I was virtually hallucinating), but ultimately successful.

/ Craig and Christopher /

/ Pal and Charlie (note Pal's beautiful La Rocka! t-shirt. I got him that for Christmas) /

/ Italian Barbara and I (I'm chewing a wasp, like usual - every damn photo every taken!)

/ Nell and Chris /

/ Hedonism - Lobotomy Room-style! /

/ Ginger beards unite: Christopher and Pal /

/ Stylish new face /

/ Pal and Sarah /

/ The adorable Sarah /

/ Mal (Cockabilly) and Christopher /

/ David, Vanessa and Sean / 

Wimoweh - Yma Sumac
Fever - Edith Massey
These Boots Are Made for Walkin' - Mrs Miller
Mama's Place - Bing Day
The Sneak - The Towers
That's a Pretty Good Love - Big Maybelle
The Slouch - Ray Gee and His Orchestra
Little Miss Understood - Connie Stevens
I Will Follow Him - Little Peggy March
How Much Love Can One Heart Hold? Joe Perkins and The Rookies
Wiped-Out - The Escorts
Let's Go, Baby - Billy Eldridge
Poor Little Baby - Billy Crash Craddock
Wailin' - The Fabulous Wailers
Jailhouse Rock - Masaaki Hirao
Rip It Up - Elvis Presley
Action Packed - Johnny Dollar
Hoy Hoy - The Collins Kids
Run Chicken Run - Link Wray
Chicken Rock - Fat Daddy Holmes
Chicken - The Cramps
Chicken Walk - Hasil Adkins
Chicken Grabber - The Nite Hawks
Beat Generation - Mamie Van Doren
Vesuvius - The Revels
Johnny Lee - Faye Adams
Here Comes the Bug - The Rumblers
Comin' Home, Baby - The Delmonas
Beat Party - Ritchie and The Squires
He's the One - Ike and Tina Turner
I Live the Life I Love - Esquerita
Sick and Tired - Lula Reed
Lover Boy - Gene Wyatt
Love Me - The Phantom
I'm a Juvenile Delinquent - Ronnie Allen
I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent - Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers
Funnel of Love - Wanda Jackson
Intoxica - The Centurions
Scratching on My Screen - Ric Cartey
Lucille - Masaaki Hirao
The Girl Can't Help It - Little Richard
I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield - The 5,6,7,8s
That Makes It - Jayne Mansfield
Batman - Link Wray
Goo Goo Muck - Ronnie Cook and The Gaylads
Torture Rock - The Rockin' Belmarx
Party Lights - Claudine Clark
Welfare Cheese - Emanuel Lasky
Roll with Me, Henry - Etta James
Jim Dandy - Sara Lee and The Spades
Whistle Bait - Larry Collins
Dirty Robber - The Fabulous Wailers
Khrushchev Twist - Melvin Gayle
Viens danser le twist - Johnny Hallyday
Peter Gunn Twist - The Jesters
Peter Gunn Locomotion - The Delmonas
Boss - The Rumblers
Tina's Dilemma - Ike and Tina Turner
Blockade - The Rumblers
Fools Rush In - Ricky Nelson
Devil in Disguise - Elvis Presley
Wipe-Out - The Surfaris
Margaya - The Fender Four
She Wants to Mambo - Johnny Thunders and Patti Palladin
Mambo Baby - Ruth Brown
De Castrow - Jaybee Wasden
Dragon Walk - The Noblemen
Breathless - X
Rock Around the Clock - Sex Pistols
Let's Have a Party - Wanda Jackson
Tongue Tied Jill - Charlie Feathers
C'mon Everybody - Sid Vicious
Dance with Me, Henry - Ann-Margret
Sweetie Pie - Eddie Cochran
Honolulu Rock'n'Roll - Eartha Kitt
Rock-a-Hula Baby - Elvis Presley
Beat Girl - Adam Faith
Tornado - Dale Hawkins
No Good Lover - Mickey and Sylvia
Cry-baby - The Honey Sisters
The Big Bounce - Shirley Caddell
Ain't That Lovin' You, Baby - The Earls of Suave
You're Driving Me Crazy - Dorothy Berry
Hanky Panky - Rita Chao & The Quests
Bombora - The Original Surf-aris
Pussycat Song - Connie Vannett
Sweet Little Pussycat - Andre Williams
Can Your Pussy Do the Dog? The Cramps
Revellion - The Revels
Little Darlin' - Masaaki Hirao
I Want Your Love - The Cruisers
Fujiyama Mama - Annisteen Allen
Jim Dandy - LaVerne Baker
How Does That Grab You, Darlin'? Nancy Sinatra
Somebody Put Something in My Drink - The Ramones
Nothing Means Nothing Anymore - The Alley Cats
Year 1 - X
I Stubbed My Toe - Bryan "Legs" Walker
Save It - Mel Robbins
Shortnin' Bread - The Readymen
Muleskinner Blues - The Fendermen
Surfin' Bird - The Trashmen
Willie Joe - The Mystery Trio
Wild, Wild Party - Charlie Feathers
Rock-A-Bop - Sparkle Moore
Lucille - Little Richard
Shout - Johnny Hallyday
My Boy Lollipop - Sakura and The Quests
Handclapping Time - The Fabulous Raiders

Further reading:

Read about all the Lobotomy Rooms to date herehereherehereherehereherehere and here.

See the rest of the photos - raw, uncensored and uncut - from this Lobotomy Room on the flickr album

Lobotomy Room is kindly sponsored by the frou frou and chi chi Vivien of Holloway - for all your faux vintage bad girl glamour needs!

Lobotomy Room flyer designed by the muy guapo and muy talented Ego Rodriguez.

Follow me on tumblr for all your rancid kitsch and homoerotic vintage sleaze needs!

On 1 April 2015 I split for the annual Viva Las Vegas rockabilly weekender, followed by a few days in New Orleans. My blog about Viva Las Vegas 2010My blog about Viva Las Vegas 2011My blog about Viva Las Vegas 2012 (and trip to San Francisco). And finally, Viva Las Vegas 2013. 

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/ From the 1965 Doris Wishman sexploitation film Bad Girls Go to Hell /

Saturday, 21 March 2015

17 March 2015 Cockabilly DJ Set List

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/ Heartbreaker: luscious young Swiss greaser punk photographed by the great Karlheinz Weinberger circa 1962 /

I won’t lie! This post will be a bit of a rush job – long on pretty pictures, short on text. At the moment I am one distracted mofo. Tonight (Saturday 21 March) is the latest installment of my own semi-regular trashy club night Lobotomy Room (the first one of 2015) in Dalston and I am vibrating with nerves. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, my stomach is full of vomiting butterflies!

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/ The ever-fierce Esquerita (1936-1985) is the sassy and defiant face of Cockabilly! Like his friend and contemporary Little Richard, the outrageous Esquerita qualified as both the King and Queen of rhythm and blues. Click on a pair of diamanté shades and freak out the squares in his honour! /

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/ In Bed with Tab Hunter /

First off: some red-hot gossip. Courtesy of literary roué Rupert Smith I was privileged to be snuck into this afternoon’s sold-out screening of The Golden Age of The American Male at The British Film Institute’s Flare Festival as his “plus one”. Screening afterward was Tab Hunter Confidential – a revealing new documentary in which the dreamy heartthrob actor confides what it was like being a closeted gay celebrity in atomic-era Hollywood. Rupert and I were in the VIP “green room” afterwards drinking when the team behind Tab Hunter Confidential arrived – including Tab himself, his long-term boyfriend and entourage. He sat directly opposite me and as I confided to Rupert, my heart was pounding and I couldn't stop staring! A quick Google search confirmed Hunter is 83 now – and still stunningly, remarkably jaw-droppingly handsome! Silver hair, powerful shoulders, and a jaw line chiseled out of granite. (I could hear him speaking to people and his manners are old-school impeccable). Rupert and I were swooning!

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/ Sexy hillbilly Larry Harris photographed by Athletic Model Guild. Those rockabilly sideburns! /

The Golden Age of the American Male was a compilation of the Athletic Model Guild’s short homoerotic beefcake / physique films from the Fifties and Sixties. Think greaser punk hoodlums in posing pouches and engineer boots wrestling and spanking each other – delicious! About 75% of all the vintage gay porn I post on here and on tumblr inevitably originates from AMG - that studio represents the acme. It was a symphony of juvenile delinquent rough trade, all gap-toothed smiles (some of the younger models straight out of their teens still had acne), oiled quiffs and sprinkled with crude reform-school tattoos cavorting to a soundtrack of obscure rockabilly and surf music. (The most famous – and instantly recognisable – face among them was teenage pre-Warhol Joe Dallesandro). In other words – my definition of heaven!  There were nice segments with guys dressed as black leather-jacketed The Wild One-style bikers, sailors and Roman centurions. But for me the most joyous sequence was intercut bits of AMG boys frantically go-go dancing stark naked (think jiggling “helicopters”) – life-affirming! The main man behind AMG was photographer, filmmaker and connoisseur of firm male flesh Bob Mizer (1922-1992). Today The Bob Mizer Foundation is working on preserving, digitising and gradually making these films commercially available as DVDs. I dream of projecting this stuff against the wall when I DJ at Cockabilly or Lobotomy Room!

On 1 April 2015 I jet out for this year’s Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender (2-5 April) – followed by a few days of recuperation in the torrid voodoo realm of New Orleans. I've never been there before and I’m really intrigued.  I intend to luxuriate in and absorb New Orleans’ sleazy Southern Gothic underbelly by hopping between atmospheric dive bars and channeling Tennessee Williams and John Rechy’s City of Night. In my research I've already learned that Tennessee Williams’ regular watering hole was Cafe Lafitte in Exile. My guide and host will be New Orleans-based journalist Kevin Allman, who’s tipped me off that John Waters’ favourite local bars when he’s in town are the Double Play (described as “a really seedy trans/hustler bar”) and the Corner Pocket (similar to The Fudge Palace in Waters’ 1998 film Pecker. Tea-bagging ahoy!). What better recommendation?

Anyway:  this month Cockabilly (London’s only regular monthly queer rockabilly night! Rock around the cock!) fell on a Tuesday. Let’s face it: Tuesday night just isn't anyone’s idea of rock’n’roll no matter how you cut it. Nonetheless, Cockabilly boss man Mal and I did our damnedest to stir-up a raunchy and desperate ambience. Here is what I played.

Scorpion - The Carnations
Dangerous Lips - The Drivers
I Want Your Love - The Cruisers
Tina's Dilemma - Ike and Tina Turner
Bombora - The Original Surf-aris
Lucille - Masaaki Hirao
The Girl Can't Help It - Little Richard
Action Packed - Johnny Dollar
Boss - The Rumblers
Jim Dandy - Ann-Margret
Gunnin' for Peter - The Fabulous Wailers
Big Bounce - Shirley Caddell
Dragon Walk - The Noblemen
Year 1 - X
Chicken Grabber - The Nite Hawks
Suey - Jayne Mansfield
Beat Party - Ritchie and The Squires
I Love the Life I Live - Esquerita
Roll with Me, Henry - Etta James
Chicken - The Cramps
Run Chicken Run - Link Wray
Whistle Bait - Larry Collins
Jim Dandy - Sara Lee and The Spades
Cooler Weather is A-Comin' - Eddie Weldon
Cry-baby - The Honey Sisters
Party Lights - Claudine Clark
Welfare Cheese - Emanuel Laskey
Honolulu Rock'n'Roll - Eartha Kitt
Rock-a-Hula Baby - Elvis Presley
Blockade - The Rumblers
Salamander - Mamie Van Doren
Handclappin' Time - The Fabulous Raiders
Black Tarantula - Jody Reynolds

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/ Ideally, the scene at the bar Tuesday night would have looked more like this /

Further reading:

Last blog post I expressed my anxiety about Google’s proposal to clamp down on “adult content” and what it meant for the future of my blog. Happy days! After a tsunami of bad publicity and much rage amongst bloggers, Google has climbed down and are now maintaining their existing policies. Phew! My message of filth continues!  

Read about the sordid antics at previous Cockabillies hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere,  here, herehere and here. 

Follow me on tumblr for all your retro, kitsch and homoerotic vintage sleaze needs! 

Details of my next Lobotomy Room club night (Saturday 21 March 2015 at Hysteria in Dalston)

Thursday, 26 February 2015

18 February 2015 Cockabilly DJ Set List

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/ Pure essence of Cockabilly - in the raw! /

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/ “Hell-o? What’s that you say? COCKABILLY is returning to Shoreditch epicentre of gay bohemia The George & Dragon this Wednesday night? Our asses are there!” /

As I wrote in the essential Beige website on the lead-up to the 18 February 2015 Cockabilly:

Drag a comb through your quiff, swallow a fistful of bop pills and rock around the cock – at Cockabilly! 

After a long hiatus, London’s only regular queer rockabilly night returns on Wednesday 18 February 2015 to the louche surroundings of The George & Dragon in Shoreditch. 

Gay greasers, cry-babies, prison wives, juvenile delinquents of all ages and international sex kittens of all genders are welcome at Cockabilly - freaking out the squares since 2008! 

Featuring DJs Mal Practice, Graham Russell (Lobotomy Room) and Emma Peters (Twat Boutique) spinning all your rancid vintage sleaze classicks!

Admission: Free!

8 pm - midnight

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This was the first Cockabilly since September 2014 and Mal, Emma and I were freaking salivating to get our asses back behind that familiar George & Dragon mezzanine DJ booth.

My DJ set was heavily inspired by Scorpio Rising (1963), the homoerotic / occult biker underground art movie by His Satanic Majesty, Kenneth Anger - but when are they not?! That film is a sacred text to me!

So as well as the usual rockabilly psychosis, desperate rhythm and blues and sleazy bump’n’grind tittyshaker instrumentals, I threw in a clutch of the deliriously kitsch songs Anger featured in Scorpio Rising (like Ricky Nelson’s “Fools Rush In”, Elvis Presley’s “Devil in Disguise”, “Party Lights” by Claudine Clark, “Heatwave” by Martha and The Vandellas).

The surprise hit of the night was “Party Lights.” While I doubt anyone there was already familiar with this pretty obscure 1962 Top Five single, people suddenly jumped up to dance, unable to resist Claudine Clark’s sassy siren call. In “Party Lights”, Clark (a talented rhythm and blues starlet who wrote the track herself) belts-out the lament of a teenager grounded in her bedroom, yearning to join her friends at the raucous party across the street. (“They’re doing the twist / the fish / the mashed potato too / I’m here lookin’ at you” she wails, distraught, at her mother).

I’m allergic to Motown. There - I said it. With the exception of The Supremes, for me the whole Motown canon is overly familiar, synonymous with baby boomer nostalgia and too omnipresent in naff romantic comedies and beer, fried chicken and jeans commercials. Give me frantic, greasy unvarnished rhythm and blues in the vein of Ike and Tina, Esquerita or Andre Williams over Motown any day. But I was feeling generous, hence “Heatwave.” It is after all included in Scorpio Rising and how can anyone not love Martha Reeves’ impassioned wail?  

Wailin' - The Fabulous Wailers
You're the One for Me - Wanda Jackson
How Much Love Can One Heart Hold? Joe Perkins and The Rookies
Here Comes the Bug - The Rumblers
Little Miss Understood - Connie Stevens
I Will Follow Him - Little Peggy March
Little Darlin' - Masaaki Hirao
Vesuvius - The Revels
Salamander - Mamie Van Doren
The Swag - Link Wray
Johnny Lee - Faye Adams
He's the One - Ike and Tina Turner
Love Me - The Phantom
Khrushchev Twist - Melvin Gayle
Garbage Man - The Cramps
That Makes It - Jayne Mansfield
I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield - The 5,6,7,8s
Margaya - The Fender Four
Devil in Disguise - Elvis Presley
Fools Rush In - Ricky Nelson
Intoxica - The Centurions
Party Lights - Claudine Clark
Wiped-Out - The Escorts
Heatwave - Martha and The Vandellas
Dance with Me Henry - Ann-Margret
Boots - Nero and The Gladiators
Fujiyama Mama - Annisteen Allen

If you read blogs like mine on, you’re probably aware of Google’s recently announced abrupt, puritanical and draconian new policy about “adult content.” While my blog is hardly a “porn site”, it does have vintage atomic-era beefcake and cheesecake nudie cutie pin-up photos liberally scattered throughout that might well make a Sunday school teacher blush. These soft-core pics are pretty much all approximately fifty years old and tame by today’s standards - but obviously there isn't much scope for debating nuances with a faceless and soulless mega-corporation like Google and strictly speaking they are “graphic nude images.” Obviously this raises fuzzy issues of what’s “porn” and what’s erotica or artistic. (Apparently “artistic” is OK). These images were lovingly chosen by me, part of my vintage sleaze mid-century rock'n'roll aesthetic and integral to the stories they illustrate - so I’m opting not to comb through years worth of posts and deleting them. Somehow I've sailed under Google’s radar up to this point. (From anecdotal evidence, they are definitely singling out queer bloggers. Some of my favourite bloggers have understandably already deleted their blogs on here and re-located to tumblr or Wordpress - but those sites are hosted by Yahoo, another mega-corporation who might well cave in and follow in Google’s twitchy footsteps over the next few years). Anyway, if my blog suddenly vanishes from your feed or Google searches, it’s because it’s been arbitrarily re-set from “public” to “private” by the Google overlords. When that happens I’ll figure out what to do next. 

Further reading:

While you still can: read about the squalid proceedings at previous Cockabilly nights hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere,  here, here and here.

Follow me on tumblr for all your defiantly NSFW and homoerotic retro, kitsch and vintage gay porn needs! 

Details of my next Lobotomy Room club night (Saturday 21 March 2015 at Hysteria in Dalston)

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Thursday, 19 February 2015

Love is Strange: Reflections on ... The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

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Tony Lo Bianco and Shirley Stoler as Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck in The Honeymoon Killers (1969) /

I was buggin’ out with excitement to re-visit The Honeymoon Killers (on Thursday 12 February 2015 to be precise) when The Barbican screened it as part of their My Twisted Valentine mini-season. It’s been well over twenty years since I've watched this vicious 1969 black comedy cult movie. I know because I last saw it at London’s much-missed grindhouse repertory cinema The Scala in then-derelict Kings Cross which was defunct by 1993. It absolutely blew me away then. Happily, I can report The Honeymoon Killers is un-mellowed by time. It still packs a nasty jolt!

A true tale of amour fou, The Honeymoon Killers is based on the lurid true story of serial killer couple Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez. Dubbed “the Lonely Hearts killers” by the tabloids (they lured their female victims to their deaths using personal ads), their homicidal rampage between 1947 and 1949 and subsequent trial gripped the public’s imagination. Both were ultimately executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison in 1951, still declaring their devotion to each other.

Director Leonard Kastle’s film (the only one he ever made) recreates their story in grainy, atmospheric black and white. The Honeymoon Killers looks and feels harsh, stark and immediate - like a gritty documentary or a Diane Arbus photograph come to life. The murder scenes, captured by tense and jittery handheld camera in long real-time takes, suggest a gruesome and nightmarish home movie. They force you to contemplate how long it takes and how unpleasant it is to actually kill someone. Forty-five years later, these sequences still disturb.

The Honeymoon Killers explores the banality of everyday suburban evil:  this is a realm of stifled and compromised lives, disappointments, Catholic kitsch, comfort-eating and lace doilies.  Perhaps because of budgetary constraints (the film was made on $150,000), The Honeymoon Killers makes no attempt to recreate the 1940s in costumes or decor – it’s firmly set in the late sixties (thus presumably unintentionally, it evokes the spectre of the Charles Manson murders). Like the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, it is inspired by the story of the real-life murder spree couple rather than slavishly faithful to the facts. The details are pared-down, simplified to just the austere essentials. For example, the actual killers reportedly murdered twenty women; in the film, they are only shown killing a handful. It also omits the fact that Martha had children by a previous relationship, which she abandoned to be with Ray.

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Sold to contemporary audiences as a straight exploitation horror movie (see the misleading trailer), The Honeymoon Killers is stranger and more original than that.  The tone is unsettling: it frequently feels like broad black comedy with deliberately overripe acting, predicting the cinema of John Waters. There are arty avant garde moments (the climactic underwater bit where Martha tries to drown herself in a jealous rage; soaring classical music on the soundtrack). The film bristles with paranoia and thwarted lust.

The casting of the murderous lovers is inspired. Tony Lo Bianco’s gigolo Ray is a swarthy and manipulative charmer with a thick Spanish accent, a toupee and Latin rhythm in his hips. (As an added bonus, the fleeting glimpse of Lo Bianco’s pert naked cafe con leche butt certainly makes an impression).With her freckles, mane of teased hair, 1960s eyeliner and steely demeanour Shirley Stoler is riveting as the imperious and petulant Martha. Stoler (1929-1999) went on to have a distinguished career as a character actress, specializing in sinister villainesses in both film (Klute, Desperately Seeking Susan) and TV (soap operas The Edge of Night and One Life to Live, Charlie’s Angels, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). Her towering performance here anticipates Divine. Is there any higher compliment?

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Monday, 2 February 2015

Reflections on ... Nico in Philippe Garrel's Le bleu des origines (1979)

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/ Nico in the film Le bleu des origines (1979) by Philippe Garrel / 

“I film women with a soul.” Interview with Philippe Garrel

[I recently had the high honour of being referenced as a source on Dennis Cooper’s blog. OK he didn't mention me by name, but Cooper recently devoted a blog entry to uncompromising French filmmaker Philippe Garrel and the paragraph on Garrel’s ultra-obscure / rarely-seen 1979 film Le bleu des origines was lifted from my IMDb review. I saw the film at The British Film Institute in 2007. It prompted me to post it here in its entirety and make it look prettier than it does on IMDb.]

Le bleu des origines is an uncompromising example of old school avant-garde cinema at its most cryptic, enigmatic and inscrutable. Made by Philippe Garrel in 1979 using a hand-cranked silent camera, bleu represents absolute year zero in film-making, a return to the starkest basics of film's origins in early silent cinema, replacing any trace of narrative or even dialogue with an emphasis almost exclusively on close-ups of women's faces. The film is black and white and absolutely silent for its near 50-minute duration. 

The total silence feels oppressive: silent cinema, after all, was accompanied by music. The silence, though, serves to ensure the focus on the actresses' faces is absolute, with no distraction.

The faces in question belong to the former Velvet Underground German chanteuse, Warhol Superstar and cult figure Nico, and bohemian French starlet Zouzou. By 1979 Nico had been Garrel's lover, muse and collaborator for a decade. Le bleu des origines was the seventh and last film they made together and marked the end of their off-screen relationship as well.

The film's tone is intimate but mysterious and ultimately despairing. It is essentially a portrait of two women, Nico and Zouzou, who are offered up for endless existential contemplation. There is no hint of even the most basic narrative but it is human nature to try to construct one, to try to thread together scenes, which are alternately jagged and brief, and sometimes-long Warholian takes that frankly court boredom. 

Garrel offers hints of symbolism that are probably highly significant but remain opaque: Nico examining a jewel in her hand; many shots of both women reading manuscripts or poetry by candlelight; a glimpse of Nico's passport; Nico pointing at the sky; Zouzou writing; Nico folding a letter and putting it in an envelope; Zouzou wielding a knife; Nico as an angel of death with waist-length hair in a billowing black cape, filmed in high winter on the roof of the Paris Opera House among the stone gargoyles. Most strikingly, Nico in some kind of dungeon or prison slowly climbing a stone staircase, pausing on each step, in jerky zombie-like movements straight out of a lost German Expressionist masterpiece. 

/ Consider this a trailer for Le bleu des origines: eerie dirge "We've Got the Gold" from Nico's 1974 album The End providing a soundtrack to clips from Le bleu des origines /

Nico and Zouzou are mostly filmed alone but sometimes together. What links them? Both women were frequent collaborators with Garrel and had appeared in his films several times separately before. Nico was romantically linked with Garrel: I’m uncertain whether Zouzou was. Like Anita Pallenberg, both women had been involved with the doomed Rolling Stone Brian Jones. In the 1960s both Nico and Zouzou had been glamorous art-y girls of the moment, fashion models turned singers and actresses. By 1979 both women had hit hard times. Nico, Zouzou and Garrel are all known for their heroin addiction. (Later in her life Zouzou did jail time and was reduced to selling the Parisian equivalent of The Big Issue outside Paris metro stations).

Again and again Garrel films them in scenes that emphasise their alienation, anguish, distress, isolation, solitude. Both Nico and Zouzou were great beauties and there is genuine pleasure in lengthily scrutinising them in long silent takes; from shot to shot, though, depending on how the light hits their faces, both can look suddenly, startlingly ravaged, older than their years. Maybe the film is about the hell of heroin addiction? 

There is actually a third woman in the film who appears so briefly she is almost subliminal: Jean Seberg. (Seberg and Nico had already appeared together in the earlier Garrel film Les hautes solitudes in 1974). In some shots a barely glimpsed heavy-set but still beautiful older woman appears, standing behind Nico while Nico plays the piano like the phantom of the opera. Later, and shockingly, Seberg inexplicably slaps Nico hard across the face. Seberg committed suicide in 1979, the year this film was released. This surely represents her last-ever film appearance.

While Zouzou gets equal screen time and is certainly charismatic, it must be said the film belongs to Nico. In her haunting close-ups she suggests the post-punk Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich of underground art cinema. Even in the “talkies” of the 1930s some of Garbo and Dietrich's most mesmerising on-screen moments were silent close-ups of their faces (i.e. the concluding scenes of Queen Christina and Morocco). Their allure was non-verbal, not dependent on dialogue or voices – they cast a spell with just their eyes. In Le bleu des origines Nico does the same. 

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/ The famous concluding close-up of Queen Christina (1933) in which the serenely impenetrable Greta Garbo stares into the horizon, her inner world sealed off to us. I’d argue this anticipates the lengthy, unfathomable close-ups Andy Warhol and then Garrel would devote to Nico in their underground art films  /

As the film continues, the mood of distress and impending tragedy grows more overt. Towards the end Nico is shown wrapped in a headscarf, crying genuine inconsolable tears, her breath visible in frosty night air, seemingly not acting. Her depression is tangible. For someone frequently lazily described as an ice queen who sang in a bored monotone, Nico here convincingly projects raw emotion: her presence aches with a heavy sadness. 

Sometimes hypnotic, sometimes catatonic, Le bleu des origines is as bleakly beautiful as Nico's best music and was obviously a heartfelt personal and artistic statement. If the film does represent the end of their relationship, it is certainly a last cinematic love letter from Garrel to Nico.

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/ Portrait of Nico circa her 1981 album Drama of Exile /

/ You can watch Le bleu des origines in its entirety on the Youtube link above. How lucky I was to see it in an exquisite sparkling print at The British Film Institute: this is clearly a bootleg (I think someone filmed it sitting in a cinema!) but Garrel has never released it on DVD and for now this represents your best viewing source. For a soundtrack to this silent film I suggest you load your CD player with Nico's essential trilogy (her "gravest hits" if you like) - The Marble Index (1969), Desertshore (1970) and The End (1974) - and crank it up loud /

Further reading:

Read the Dennis Cooper blog for an excellent overview of Garrel's career

Fascinating 2002 interview with the then-58 year old Zouzou in The Guardian. What a life.

I've blogged about the ever-inscrutable Nico (“possessor of the most haunting wraith cheekbones of the 20th century” - thank you, James Wolcott of Vanity Fair) many times: her contemporary Marianne Faithfull reflects on Nico here; the historic encounter When John Waters Met Nico; Nico’s 1960s modelling days; how the old jazz standard "My Funny Valentine" (and heroin) connects Nico with Chet Baker; and  finally, When Patti Smith Met Nico.