Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Reflections on ... Nico in The Closet (1966)

/ Nico and Randy Bourscheidt in The Closet (1966) /

(In honour of what would have been Nico’s 80th birthday (16 October 1938), here – a day late! – is my analysis of her first-ever Andy Warhol film collaboration, The Closet (1966). I saw it many years ago when the British Film Institute held a comprehensive retrospective season of Warhol films).

The Closet (1966) was Nico's first film with Pop Art visionary Andy Warhol and represents her cinematic unveiling as a Warhol Superstar. It would be a fruitful relationship. As the Factory's inscrutable Garbo / Dietrich equivalent she would star in several more Warhol films (most famously Chelsea Girls) while also featuring as chanteuse for Warhol's "house band" The Velvet Underground.

The "plot" is absurdist and minimal: a couple living in a closet kill the time (they make small talk, split a sandwich, share a cigarette, kvetch about their cramped surroundings) and contemplate leaving but never do.

For the first few moments the camera is focused on the exterior of the shut closet door in grainy black and white as we hear only their voices (audible but muffled; in fact the sound remains muffled for the rest of the film, poor sound quality being a stylistic trademark of Warhol's films at the time). Creeping horror that the entire 66-minute film will stay like this is averted when the door belatedly does open and we are finally permitted to see Nico and leading man Randy Bourscheidt (a preppy, cute art student-type) seated inside the closet surrounded by hangers, ties, clothes, etc. While the couple talk or sit in silence, Warhol's camera either sits totally stationary or prowls restlessly and randomly.

The film is unscripted: instead we get an improvised, wandering conversation between the duo who have obviously been instructed to ad-lib for the 66-minute duration. Most Warhol Superstars were amphetamine-fueled, garrulous exhibitionists; Nico and Bourscheidt are atypically more reticent. Both seem shy and hesitant and their conversation is often stilted but characterized by a genuine sweetness on both parts. Some viewers have deciphered the hint of a physical attraction between them which is complicated by the pretty, long-lashed and collegiate-looking Bourscheidt's apparent homosexuality (I could be wrong about this. The expression "coming out of the closet" was probably already in use in the 1960s and could be a relevant coded meaning to the film's title).

Certainly Bourscheidt seems dazzled by Nico, which is understandable: The Closet presents her at the height of her flaxen-haired beauty. It also reveals the complexity of her persona. The performers in Warhol films are essentially playing themselves, so The Closet is a snapshot of Nico the woman at this particular point in her life rather than an actress performing a role. She looks like a statuesque Nordic Amazon but is wispily-spoken, reserved and uncertain rather than intimidating or forbidding -- her sweetness dispels the cliché of Nico as ice maiden. And her voice - routinely described as guttural or "Germanic" - is infinitely softer than you expect.

As an avant-garde filmmaker Warhol withholds most of the conventional pleasures audiences expect from films (narrative, character development, editing, technical proficiency , etc) but with his Superstars in lead roles he does provide one of the enduring attractions of film-watching: scrutinizing beautiful people. So while "nothing happens" in The Closet, we do get to appreciate the physical attractiveness and hip wardrobes of both Nico and Bourscheidt at great length. Nico wears what was then her signature look: an androgynous white pants suit, turtle neck and boots combo that would be the pride of any Mod boy, feminized by a curtain of long blonde hair.

Nico would have been in her late twenties by the time of The Closet, and Bourscheidt (at a guess) between 19 and 22. She speaks to him in tones that are somewhere between maternal concern and big sister-ly teasing. Both seem vaguely embarrassed and self-conscious on screen, but unlike Bourscheidt Nico has the poised armour of sophistication: by 1965 she had already modeled since her teens, spoke several languages, acted in films like La Dolce Vita (1959) and Strip-Tease (1963) in Europe, was the mother of a young son, and had started her singing career.

She also has the skills of a fashion model: she is clearly un-phased by the camera's roaming gaze and is skilled at graceful self-presentation. She has a neat trick of looking down moodily so that her long blonde bangs obscure most of her face and then suddenly looking up and tilting her head, dramatically revealing sculpted cheekbones, Bardot lips and sweeping false eyelashes.

"Are you afraid of me?" Nico suddenly asks Bourscheidt towards the end of their awkward filmic encounter. He looks startled and doesn't know how to reply. "I'm not trying to embarrass you!" She assures.

At the the film's conclusion Bourscheidt teasingly asks Nico if she's forgotten his name. She has, and tries to cover by asking him, "Is it Romeo?" He says no and she says, "Why not?" He asks if she wants him to be Romeo and should he get down on one knee. She replies, "Oh, no. You be Juliet and I'll be Romeo."

Further reading:

I’ve blogged about the Nico - the doomed chain-smoking Edith Piaf of the Blank Generation - many times: her contemporary Marianne Faithfull reflects on Nico; 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; When Patti Smith Met Nico; Nico in the film Le Bleu des origines; Nico in the Warhol film Ari and MarioLeonard Cohen's personal and musical fixation on Nico.  

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Reflections on ... Autumn Leaves (1956)

Friday night (5 October) we watched the gloriously tortured melodrama Autumn Leaves (1956) – an ideal way to conclude the British Film Institute’s Joan Crawford retrospective (Fierce: The Untameable Joan Crawford, August - October 2018). 

I was very disciplined about this Crawford season and only saw two other films: the freaky silent horror movie The Unknown (1927) (all about extreme body modification / amputation and obsessive love, which teamed young starlet Crawford with Lon Chaney as an armless knife thrower!) and A Woman’s Face (1941) (in which Crawford portrays an embittered facially-disfigured criminal who changes her ways once she undergoes plastic surgery and finds love). 

In the fifties, cinema’s bitch goddess extraordinaire Crawford made a whole cycle of middle-aged women-in peril-films that found her in love with dangerous younger men (see also Sudden Fear (1952) and Female on the Beach (1955)) - all of them great. In Autumn Leaves Crawford is Millicent Wetherby, a prim, lonely and quietly desperate forty-something spinster who finds herself unexpectedly romantically entangled with dishy, significantly younger man Burt Hanson (Cliff Robertson). They impulsively marry, and Millicent soon discovers – too late! – that she knows almost nothing about her profoundly troubled, weirdly childlike and secretive new husband. 

Millicent is meant to be a frumpy and sexually repressed typist, thus Crawford’s onscreen wardrobe is mostly restricted to high-necked, ultra-modest blouses and full skirts, with cardigans draped around her shoulders – but that “mousy” wardrobe is by Hollywood costume designer deluxe Jean Louis! Think haute couture librarian. (Crawford also wears a seriously pointy and gravity-defying underwired bullet bra throughout).

(An aside: Crawford was the original choice to play the role of Karen Holmes in the film From Here to Eternity (1953). Deborah Kerr was ultimately cast instead when the producers balked at Crawford’s demand that she bring her own cameraman. The single most famous image from From Here to Eternity is of Kerr and leading man Burt Lancaster kissing passionately on the beach while the surf crashes and foams around them. Interestingly, Autumn Leaves painstakingly recreates this scene!).

If – like me – you love watching Crawford undergo heavy emotional anguish, this is the film for you! In a mesmerizing, almost operatic performance Crawford’s face gradually becomes a taut, tense mask of suffering. (No one does eyes-glistening-with-tears quite like Crawford). Cliff Robertson is impressively tormented as Burt (a study of 1950s masculinity in crisis to compare with Robert Stack in Written on the Wind or James Mason in Bigger Than Life) and is fit as fuck (especially when wearing a white t-shirt so tight the outlines of his nipples are visible!). Stir into the mix Nat King Cole crooning the lushly romantic title track, Lorne Green and Vera Miles as a pair of genuinely sleazy villains, a  shocking scene of domestic violence and brutal close-ups of electric shock therapy and you get a vividly memorable and exemplary atomic-era “woman’s picture”. 

Perhaps the zenith of Crawford’s performance is when she encounters Green and Miles on the street and tears into them with a vengeful rant. "Where's your decency?” Millicent demands. “ In what garbage dump, Mr Hanson? And where's yours, you tramp? You his loving, doting fraud of a father and you, you slut! You're both consumed with evil so rotten your filthy souls are too evil for hell itself!" 

Autumn Leaves was directed by the hard-boiled Robert Aldrich (who makes some virtuoso, jarring stylistic choices. I especially love Aldrich's strange, dream-like flashback to Millicent's life as a younger woman). As viewers of Feud: Bette and Joan already know, Crawford and Aldrich would triumphantly reunite in 1962 for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Lobotomy Room DJ Set List at Fontaine's 28 September 2018

/ Twist like Jayne Mansfield - at Lobotomy Room! /

Revel in sleaze, voodoo and rock’n’roll - when incredibly strange dance party Lobotomy Room returns to the basement Bamboo Lounge of Dalston’s most unique nite spot Fontaine’s! Friday 28 September!

Lobotomy Room! Where sin lives! A punkabilly booze party! Sensual and depraved! A spectacle of decadence! A Mondo Trasho evening of Beat, Beat Beatsville Beatnik Rock’n’Roll! Bad Music for Bad People! Rockabilly Psychosis! Wailing Rhythm and Blues! Twisted Tittyshakers! Punk cretin hops! White Trash Rockers! Kitsch! Exotica! Curiosities and Other Weird Shit! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs the Cramps Taught Us, hosted by Graham Russell. Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock! Vintage erotica projected on the big screen all night for your adult viewing pleasure!

One FREE signature Lobotomy Room cocktail for the first twenty entrants!

Admission: gratuit - that’s French for FREE!

Lobotomy Room: Faster. Further. Filthier.

It’s sleazy. It’s grubby. It’s trashy - you’ll love it!

A tawdry good time guaranteed!

/ Pagan! Primitive! Taboo! Revel in sleaze, voodoo and rock’n’roll – when incredibly bizarre dance party Lobotomy Room returns to Fontaine’s on Friday 28 September! /

Phew! The September 2018 Lobotomy Room dance party downstairs in the Tiki paradise of Fontaine’s Bamboo Lounge progressed dreamily. This was a massive relief because the July club night was catastrophic and really shook my confidence (let’s just say I DJ’d to a completely empty room for most of the night!). That’s why I never even bothered posting a July 2018 DJ set list on here. (We skipped doing an August 2018 Lobotomy Room club night because it fell on a bank holiday weekend – always a dicey time to do a club night). But flash-forward to end of September and we managed to pull a glamorous, sexy, hip and appreciative clientele. (No of course there are no photos from the night – you’ll have to just take my word for it!). In this racket, I’ve learned to take nothing for granted. Heartfelt thanks to everyone who came! To quote the great Lola Heatherton: I want to bear your children!

/ Scala Cinema flyer from 1982 /

In other news: two nights before Lobotomy Room, it was divoon to DJ at London's Scala for Jane Giles’ book launch on Wednesday 26 September 2018! (Giles was one of The Scala Cinema's former programmers. Her book – a lavish history of the much-missed temple of cinematic sleaze / Sodom Odeon entitled simply Scala Cinema: 1978 – 1993 - is an exquisite deluxe coffee table tome). To be honest, I was thrilled just to be asked. Luckily, I moved to London just in time to experience the final year or so of the Scala Cinema. (I remember feeling bereft when it closed!). The first double bill I ever saw at The Scala was within a month or two of arriving in London and it was Girl on a Motorcycle / The Wild Angels – in other words, both Marianne Faithfull and Nancy Sinatra as black leather-clad biker mamas! This was when Kings Cross was still a genuinely dangerous grungy red-light area / junkie central (just getting from the tube station to the cinema felt like risking your life!). From there, I plunged into underground classicks (sic) like Pink Narcissus, Thundercrack and double-bills of John Waters, Russ Meyer, Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Richard Kern and Bruce LaBruce films. The Scala truly warped me at an impressionable age! It shaped me into the dysfunctional hot mess I am today. Wandering the staircases and corridors of The Scala on Wednesday felt Proust-ian because – since the cinema closed in ’93 – I’d never really spent much time there. Popstarz was never my bag (I’ve never been an indie kid!) and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a music gig there. Someone had expertly-edited together five-hours’ worth of representative Scala film trailers playing on an endless loop on the big screen. It included films I personally associate with The Scala from first-hand experience (Daughters of Darkness, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Myra Breckenridge, Polyester, Glen or Glenda?) and films that were big at the time that I’d pretty much forgotten (The Fourth Man, Down by Law, Drugstore Cowboy). I DJ’d for an hour (in a cage!). My first job was to evoke the seedy sexploitation / grindhouse ambiance of The Scala with Divine, Elvis, Jayne Mansfield, The Cramps, punk, rockabilly, surf instrumentals and selections from films like She-Devils on Wheels, Pink Flamingos and Scorpio Rising. My second job: to keep the bevy of glamorous onstage go-go dancers shakin’ it hard! I hope I succeeded! 

Anyway, here's what I was laying-down at the September 2018 Lobotomy Room:

Der Karibische Western - Lydia Lunch
Steel Pier - The Impacts
Road Runner - The
Kismiaz - The Cramps
Mau Mau - The Fabulous Wailers
Katanga - Ike Turner and His Kings of Rhythm
Monkey Bird - The Revels
Esquerita and The Voola - Esquerita
Working On Me, Baby - Tiny Topsy
Fever - Edith Massey
Money Money - Big John Taylor
Surf Rat - The Rumblers
Drive Daddy Drive - Little Sylvia
The Swag - Link Wray
She Wants to Mambo - Johnny Thunders and Patti Palladin
Mambo Baby - Ruth Brown
I Don't Need You No More - The Rumblers
Ridin' with a Movie Star - L7
I Wanna Be Sedated - The Ramonetures
Three Cool Chicks - The
Salamander - Mamie Van Doren
Woodpecker Rock - Nat Couty and The Braves
Year 1 - X
Vampira - The Misfits
Pedro Pistolas Twist - Los Twisters
Bombora - The Original Surfaris
These Boots Are Made for Walkin' - Mrs Miller
Lightning's Girl - Nancy Sinatra
Harley Davidson - Brigitte Bardot
Touch the Leather - Fat White Family
Bad Boys Get Spanked - The Pretenders
Be Bop A Lula - Alan Vega
Viva Las Vegas - Nina Hagen
Somethin' Else - Sid Vicious
Breathless - X
Funnel of Love - Wanda Jackson
Bottle to the Baby - Charlie Feathers
Let's Go, Baby - Billy Eldridge
The Big Bounce - Shirley Caddell
Juvenile Delinquent - Ronnie Allen
I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent - Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers
Fools Rush In - Rickie Nelson
Devil in Disguise - Elvis Presley
Sweetie Pie - Eddie Cochran
Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On - Big Maybelle
Run Chicken Run - Link Wray
Chicken Grabber - The Nite Hawks
Chicken Walk - Hasil Adkins
Chicken - The Cramps
Chicken Rock - Fat Daddy Holmes
Jukebox Babe - Alan Vega
Atomic Bongos - Lydia Lunch
Forming - The Germs
Margaya - The Fender Four
Muleskinner Blues - The Fendermen
Shortnin' Bread - The Readymen
Surfin' Bird - The Trashmen
Batman - Link Wray
Boss - The Rumblers
He's the One - Ike and Tina Turner
You're Driving Me Crazy - Dorothy Berry
Party Lights - Claudine Clark
I Just Don't Understand - Ann-Margret
Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad - Tammy Wynette
One Night of Sin - Elvis Presley

Further reading:

In August I spoke my brains to To Do List magazine about the wild, wild world of Lobotomy Room, the monthly cinema club – and my lonely one-man mission to return a bit of raunch, sleaze and “adult situations” to London’s nightlife! Read it - if you must - here. 

Upcoming dates for all your Lobotomy Room-related needs:

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Who doesn’t love a lesbian vampire movie? Decades before Ingrid Pitt in The Vampire Lovers (1970), Delphine Seyrig in Daughters of Darkness (1971) or Catherine Deneuve in The Hunger (1983), the original Sapphic glamour ghoul was Dracula’s Daughter (1936)! Embracing the macabre spirit of Halloween, on 17 October Lobotomy Room presents this compelling classic from the same cycle of 1930s Universal Pictures horror masterpieces that includes Bela Lugosi as Dracula (1931) and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

Accompanied by her faithful hunchbacked assistant, mysterious and wraith-like Hungarian Countess Marya Zaleska (portrayed by the morbidly beautiful Gloria Holden, sporting a dramatic wardrobe of capes and gowns) arrives in London following the death of her father Count Dracula. Offered a glass of sherry, the Countess quotes her late father (“Thank you. I never drink . . . wine”). Before long she’s leaving a trail of drained corpses in her wake! The most elegantly Art Deco of vampire films, Dracula’s Daughter is the ideal choice to watch over cocktails at Fontaine’s.

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar (Dalston’s most unique nite spot!) devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specialising in the kitsch, the cult and the queer! Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. We can accommodate thirty people maximum on film nights. Arrive early to grab a seat and order a drink! Full gruesome details on event page.

Friday 26 October 2018

It’s creepy and it’s kooky … mysterious and spooky … it’s all together ooky … it’s the Lobotomy Room Halloween dance party! Revel in sleaze, voodoo and rock’n’roll on Friday 26 October at the punkiest, campiest, kitschiest low-brow Halloween bash this accursed month! Downstairs at Fontaine’s bar (Dalston’s most unique nite spot!). 

Lobotomy Room! Where sin lives! A punkabilly booze party! Sensual and depraved! A spectacle of decadence! A Mondo Trasho evening of Beat, Beat Beatsville Beatnik Rock’n’Roll! Bad Music for Bad People! Campy 1950s and 60s Halloween novelty songs all night, with added Rockabilly Psychosis! Wailing Rhythm and Blues! Twisted Tittyshakers! Punk cretin hops! White Trash Rockers! Kitsch! Exotica! Curiosities and Other Weird Shit! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs the Cramps Taught Us, hosted by Graham Russell. Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock! Vintage erotica projected on the big screen for your adult viewing pleasure! Fontaine’s special Halloween-themed cocktail menu available on the night!

One FREE signature Lobotomy Room cocktail for the first twenty entrants!

Admission: gratuit - that’s French for FREE!

Lobotomy Room: Faster. Further. Filthier!

Full putrid details here.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Reflections on ... The Beauty Jungle (1964)

“From the Boardwalk... to Monte Carlo Villas... the inside story of the men behind the beauty racket!”
Recently watched: The Beauty Jungle (1964), a fabulously seedy and tawdry long-forgotten British melodrama. Filmed in garish colour, it’s a sensational exposé into the exploitative and degrading secret world of the beauty contest con. 

Janette Scott stars as naïve young typist Shirley. On a seaside holiday with her girlfriends in Weston-Super-Mare, Shirley is “discovered” by hustling, hard-bitten local reporter-on-the-make Dan (Ian Hendry). Taking more than a professional interest in the leggy beauty and eager for some column inches, Dan encourages her to enter a small-time boardwalk beauty competition. From there, Shirley becomes addicted to the glamour, artifice and attention and Dan (now her manager) falls helplessly in love with her. 

Courtesy of campy hairdresser Lucius (an outrageous old-school gay stereotype), Shirley goes from demure brunette to Jayne Mansfield-esque platinum blonde sex goddess with a cotton candy bouffant ‘do. Abandoning her disapproving family, priggish but dependable fiancé and job in the typing pool in Bristol, Shirley plunges headlong into the mad whirl of beauty pageants, graduating from local contests like Cardiff's Brigitte Bardot and Pontypool's Crumpet Quest to glitzy big-scale national competitions like the Rose of England Beauty Pageant and finally the pinnacle – the Miss Globe contest in Cannes! Just how ruthless the corrupt dog-eat-dog realm of beauty pageants is comes as a nasty shock to poor disillusioned Shirley and The Beauty Jungle builds to a devastating climax! 

Like many movies of its vintage, The Beauty Jungle promises more tantalizing sexploitation thrills than it can possibly deliver. The film is tame by contemporary standards (it frequently resembles an early Carry On movie. Note that Sid James gets fourth billing on some posters but in fact he makes only a fleeting cameo appearance, playing himself) but evokes a nicely sleazy atmosphere. The print screened on TV was evocatively faded, scratched and grainy - as if viewed through a retro Instagram filter! The rise-and-fall show biz cautionary tale theme (whereby the heroine learns she should never have left her home town in the first place) is certainly overly-familiar. Completely overlooked today, Janette Scott was a popular leading lady of the time – and the daughter of national treasure / character actress Thora Hird! Scott retired from films by 1966 when she married jazz crooner Mel Tormé.  Her performance - a bit hesitant, a bit remote and detached - is beguiling in the Kim Novak acting style. The film is almost stolen from her, though, by Edmund Purdom as slick, perma-smiling lounge lizard movie star Rex Carrick - who has a dark secret! I was totally unfamiliar with this handsome, dimpled British actor who was briefly a promising “golden boy” leading man at MGM in the mid-fifties (he co-starred with Lana Turner in The Prodigal in 1955!). Purdom’s reputation for being difficult, scandals (he had an affair with Tyrone Powers wife!) plus a series of box office flops curtailed his Hollywood stint and he spent the rest of his career making European cheapies (like this one!). The Beauty Jungle is such a great lurid pulp-y title (invoking the 1955 Jayne Mansfield crime drama Female Jungle), but when the film was released for the American exploitation / grindhouse circuit it was re-titled to the far more innocuous Contest Girl!

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Reflections on ... Viva Las Vegas (1964)

From the Facebook event page:

Elvis Presley died on 16 August 1977. In theory, Lobotomy Room should have organized a 40th anniversary tribute last year – but it totally slipped our minds until it was too late! Instead – ever perverse – we’re commemorating the 41st anniversary of The King’s death at the August film club on 15 August with a screening of Viva Las Vegas (1964)! 

Let’s face it: ALL Elvis Presley films are terrible - but Viva Las Vegas is easily the least worst! It’s filmed in glorious lurid Technicolour, features some sensational musical numbers and is set in glittering, neon-lit “old Vegas” in its kitsch atomic-era prime. (Trust me: Las Vegas does NOT look like this anymore!). Best of all, Viva Las Vegas co-stars Presley’s greatest leading lady – definitive sex kitten-gone-berserk, that red-headed vixen Ann-Margret! 

Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specializing in the kitsch, the cult and the camp! Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. We can accommodate thirty people maximum on film nights. Arrive early to grab a seat and order a drink! There will be a special Elvis-themed peanut butter-and-banana cocktail on the night!

Yes, Elvis’ cinematic oeuvre is notoriously bad but this one is the best by a long shot. Viva Las Vegas was Elvis' most commercially successful film, it looks spectacular (it's got that luxe better-than-life, candy-coloured Technicolour look of the era.  Ann-Margret’s shade of orange-y pink strawberry blonde hair, for example, exists nowhere in nature), memorable songs (plus some undeniably mediocre ones) and it offers a glorious glimpse of what glittering Las Vegas looked like in the early 1960s. (Pretty much every casino glimpsed here has been razed long ago. Their neon signs are probably preserved in Vegas' neon graveyard). 

Most significantly, there is genuine smoldering chemistry between Elvis and his definitive leading lady Ann-Margret, who more than matches him for charisma, sensuality and wanton shake appeal. (His second greatest leading lady would be white-lipsticked pop siren Nancy Sinatra in Speedway (1968) four years later. Having said that, I’ve never seen Wild in the Country (1961) which intriguingly partners Elvis with pouty and perverse nymphette Tuesday Weld).

Elvis and Ann-Margret famously had a romantic relationship during the making of Viva Las Vegas. This has always put Ann-Margret in a tricky position: you get the impression she yearns to openly discuss their romance (and perhaps claim she was the great love of his life), but Elvis was engaged to Priscilla Beaulieu at the time, making Ann-Margret "the other woman" in this triangle. (Elvis and Priscilla would marry in 1967.  Elvis would apparently confess he regretted never marrying Ann-Margret. I wonder how that made Priscilla feel?). At the very least, Viva Las Vegas initiated a 14-year friendship that lasted until the end of Elvis' life. He would send Ann-Margret an elaborate guitar-shaped floral arrangement every time she opened a new show in Vegas for the rest of his life. Ann-Margret was also reportedly the only Hollywood co-star to attend Elvis’ funeral in 1977.

The plot of Viva Las Vegas feels perfunctory, an afterthought, something that could have been scrawled on the back of a cocktail napkin. Narrative strands are introduced and dropped. Elvis Presley is Lucky Jackson and Ann-Margret is Rusty Martin. (Those names!). It begins as a romantic triangle with Lucky and his suave rival Count Elmo Mancini (Cesare Denova) vying for the affections of pert swimming instructor Rusty. This is quickly forgotten: in an Elvis Presley film, there’s never any real doubt over who will get the girl and the Count seems to just shrug good naturedly in defeat. Rusty and Lucky’s first date montage is sublimely kitsch. It encompasses multiple costume changes, a helicopter ride over the Hoover dam, doing wildly dangerous death wish motorcycle stunts (Ann-Margret climbs atop her moving bike to do the Watusi!), having an inexplicable faux Western shoot-out and water-skiing (I cherish the ultra-fake rear projection behind them during the water-skiing segment!). Aspiring race car driver Lucky, though, urgently needs money to buy a new engine for his car, so he can compete in the upcoming Grand Prix Race. He hopes to win it by entering the hotel’s talent contest. (He’s been working as a waiter at the same hotel where Rusty gives swimming lessons. I forgot to mention that). But Rusty has entered it too, so they’re competing directly against each other, which in theory should threaten their burgeoning romance! SPOILER ALERT: Lucky wins and Rusty comes in second – but it doesn’t really impact their relationship in any meaningful way. (In the talent competition Elvis belts the glorious title tune surrounded by showgirls and Ann-Margret performs the jaw-droppingly camp “Appreciation” burlesque in white fur backed by male dancers. This is meant to be a lowly amateur talent contest for hotel employees, but their musical numbers are lavish, huge-budget extravaganzas!). The finale ramps-up the suspense by focusing on Lucky racing in the Las Vegas Grand Prix.  Gee – do you think Elvis will win?

It may sound surprising now, but in pop culture terms, Ann-Margret was a hotter property in ‘63 than Elvis himself. Viva Las Vegas was only her fourth film and there was a buzz of excitement over this incendiary emergent starlet (whose image then was a hybrid of "female Elvis" and "new Marilyn Monroe"). Elvis himself had made his film debut in 1956 and already had a slew of forgettable movies under his belt (Viva Las Vegas was already his 15th film. To give an indication of how fast Elvis was cranking ‘em out at the time, in the same year as Viva Las Vegas Elvis also released two more films: Kissin’ Cousins and Roustabout).

Elvis' corrupt manager Colonel Parker was keenly aware of Ann-Margret's "threat" to his client's primacy and resented director George Sidney including so many adoring, lingering close-ups of the female lead. (It didn’t help that Sidney had directed Ann-Margret in her triumphant breakthrough role in Bye, Bye Birdie the year before). Parker wanted to ensure Elvis was the centre of attention! This was meant to be an Elvis Presley film, not an Ann-Margret one! As Penny Stallings writes in her 1978 book Flesh and Fantasy: “Elvis Presley, for instance, was absolutely crazy for Ann-Margret while they were making Viva Las Vegas together till one of the film’s assistant directors became so smitten with the lady himself that he ended up virtually cutting Elvis out of the movie. Elvis eventually warmed up to his co-star again once the Colonel had the lovesick assistant canned.” Elvis may have been in love with Ann-Margret, but business is business and reportedly some of her screen time wound-up on the cutting room floor to restore balance. An example: we see Elvis croon the ballad “Today, Tomorrow and Forever” alone. That was originally meant to be a duet between them.

/ Above: the talent contest /

Some unexpectedly sexist moments in Viva Las Vegas: Rusty is introduced shapely legs first, rising to a brazen crotch and ass shot of Ann-Margret mincing past in tiny white hotpants. It’s a moment as lecherous as anything out of a Russ Meyer sexploitation film! (She’s taken her car into the garage where Lucky works. Her first line in the film is, “Excuse me. Can you check my motor? It’s whistling”). And for no good reason, Rusty’s whole demeanour changes mid-way through the film. When Lucky first pursues her, she’s sassy, smart and independent (in “The Lady Loves Me” duet, she pushes him in the swimming pool – guitar and all - for making advances!). Towards the end, with the big race impending, out of nowhere Rusty turns into a silly nuisance getting in the men’s way, the red-headed equivalent of the dumb blonde stereotype. Character consistency and development is not a priority in an Elvis film!

Really, I hadn’t re-visited Viva Las Vegas for many years before scheduling it for the Lobotomy Room cinema club in August and it’s much better than I remembered. In fact, it’s 85-minutes of escapist bliss! If you haven’t watched Elvis onscreen in a while, it’s a revelation what a good, relaxed and self-mocking comedic performer he can be given the chance. A particular highlight is when Elvis sings the Ray Charles rhythm-and-blues song' "What'd I Say?" in a nightclub where the dance floor is a giant roulette wheel. (It’s been noted that in this sequence Elvis plays an electric guitar which isn’t plugged-in). Elvis and Ann-Margret frolic wearing coordinated pale creamy lemon-yellow outfits (a suit and cocktail dress, respectively) and look so incomparably gorgeous together they single handedly give heteronormativity a good name. With her manic energy, Ann-Margret devours the screen! In particular, she attacks her musical numbers. Witness the unforgettably sexy spectacle of tigress Ann-Margret cavorting in complete abandon in nothing but a tight sweater and black leotard at her dance class. (This bit anticipates her freak-outs in Ken Russell's Tommy (1975)). It was interesting gauging the audiences’ reactions afterwards. Maybe it was the after-effects of Fontaine’s potent peanut butter-and-banana cocktails, but I think everyone left with a crush on Ann-Margret. The film vividly captures her when she just may have been the prettiest girl in the world. In fact, maybe Viva Las Vegas is an Ann-Margret film after all!

Further reading:

I saw Ann-Margret perform at The Stardust Casino in 2005 - one of the kitschiest, campiest experiences of my life! It was like a fever dream! She was 64 at the time and still every inch a sex kitten. She sang two Elvis songs: "A Little Less Conversation" and - yes! - "Viva Las Vegas." (She also sang Shania Twain's "Man I Feel Like a Woman" while go-go dancing around a Harley Davidson). Read the full scene report here.

In 2016 we screened the truly wild Ann-Margret juvenile delinquent b-movie Kitten with a Whip (1964). Read about it here.

I recently spoke my brains to To Do List website about Lobotomy Room, the cinema club - and my determination to return a bit of raunch and "adult situations" to London nightlife! Read it here.

Dates for your social calendar:

International supermodel. Warhol Superstar. Moon Goddess. Velvet Underground chanteuse. Heroin-ravaged punk diva. Possessor of the most haunting wraith cheekbones of the 20th century. The eternally enigmatic Nico (née Christa Päffgen) was all of these and more! 2018 represents a double anniversary for the inscrutable Marlene Dietrich of Punk: she was born 80 years ago (16 October 1938) and died 30 years ago (18 July 1988). On Wednesday 19 September the Lobotomy Room film club pays tribute to the doomed femme fatale’s memory with a screening of the 1995 documentary Nico Icon

Hosted by Graham Russell, Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club downstairs at Fontaine’s bar in Dalston devoted to Bad Movies We Love (our motto: Bad Movies for Bad People), specializing in the kitsch, the cult and the queer! Doors to the basement Bamboo Lounge open at 8 pm. Film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. We can accommodate thirty people maximum on film nights. Arrive early to grab a seat and order a drink! NOTE: this screening is looking full already! Details.

Revel in sleaze, voodoo and rock’n’roll - when incredibly strange dance party Lobotomy Room returns to the basement Bamboo Lounge of Dalston’s most unique nite spot Fontaine’s! Friday 28 September!

Lobotomy Room! Where sin lives! A punkabilly booze party! Sensual and depraved! A spectacle of decadence! A Mondo Trasho evening of Beat, Beat Beatsville Beatnik Rock’n’Roll! Bad Music for Bad People! Rockabilly Psychosis! Wailing Rhythm and Blues! Twisted Tittyshakers! Punk cretin hops! White Trash Rockers! Kitsch! Exotica! Curiosities and Other Weird Shit! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs the Cramps Taught Us, hosted by Graham Russell. Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock! Vintage erotica projected on the big screen all night for your adult viewing pleasure! 

One FREE signature Lobotomy Room cocktail for the first twenty entrants! 

Admission: gratuit - that’s French for FREE!

Lobotomy Room: Faster. Further. Filthier.

It’s sleazy. It’s grubby. It’s trashy - you’ll love it!

A tawdry good time guaranteed! 

Monday, 27 August 2018

Reflections on ... Mademoiselle (1968)

Mademoiselle (1968, Tony Richardson). The wildest screenplay I can remember written by none other than Saint Jean Genet himself. In a remote French farming village lives a frustrated school mistress (Jeanne Moreau) whose suppressed sexual desires explode into secret wanton acts of violence. She delights in smashing birds’ nests, poisoning the farm animals’ drinking water, drowning pigs and setting fire to her neighbor’s houses, all in the name of sexual gratification. But the village blames the new stud in town for all her mayhem, so Jeanne springs into action. She lures him into a field and, in what is easily the most startling scene in the film, seduces him by crawling on all fours like a dog and licking his hands and boots. That accomplished, Jeanne immediately cries rape and the villagers stone him to death. A heroine only Jean Genet could create in this midnight movie way before its time.”

From John Waters’ book Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters (1983).

I would have read Waters’ intriguing description of Mademoiselle when I was still in my teens but only just now got around to watching it. (When Jeanne Moreau – one of the essential faces of mid-century European art cinema - died last year, I added loads of her films to my Cinema Paradiso wish list). Mademoiselle is less lurid and sensational than Waters makes it sound – it’s actually a punishingly austere and slow-moving, bleak art movie. But boy, it’s still genuinely bizarre and disturbing! (Especially the images of animals in torment. Apparently, the audience booed at Mademoiselle’s Cannes premiere in '68. I can kind of understand why!).  Genet’s script explores his recurring preoccupations: the nature of evil, sadomasochism, violence, Catholic hypocrisy. The school teacher’s thwarted erotic obsession with the Italian lumberjack finds a twisted expression in acts of deliberate destruction: sexual and emotional repression unleashes evil. Interestingly, Genet wrote the script with Anouk Aimee in mind.  Much as I love Aimee, who else but Moreau – with her hints of perversity and eerily aloof self-possession - could essay a role like this? I love her secret Mona Lisa-like half-smirk as she surveys the chaos and flames she’s created. (In real life, Mademoiselle’s director Tony Richardson was then married to Vanessa Redgrave but would abandon her to be with Moreau). Richardson wanted Marlon Brando for the male lead but thank god it went instead to the insanely rugged and handsome Ettore Manni. He’s so sexy you can understand why Moreau goes berserk over him! Mademoiselle was a French-English co-production: the Italian characters speak in Italian with English subtitles while the French peasants are dubbed in English, with British-accents, which feels weird. The film’s message about anti-immigrant prejudice and the scapegoating of minorities certainly feels timely. Fifty years later, time has not mellowed Mademoiselle!

Further reading: many years later Moreau would star in another Jean Genet adaptation - Querelle (1982), R W Fassbinder's last film.

Read my epic 2010 interview with John Waters here.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Reflections on ... A Dirty Shame (2004)

“Her name is Caprice and she has shingles!”

“I’m sorry I spoke so harshly about your vagina this morning”

“I’m just a horny woman with a head injury.”

“What’s good about a morning with dildos in it?”

Recently watched: A Dirty Shame (2004) by John Waters. I hadn’t seen it in many years and my boyfriend Pal had never seen it, so I decided to re-visit A Dirty Shame, Prince of Puke John Waters’ last film to date (it bombed so comprehensively no one will finance another film. The budget was $15 million and it earned just $1.9 million at the box office).

I actually first saw A Dirty Shame in its brief UK theatrical release with my friends (and fellow Waters obsessives) Petra and Rob 14 years ago. I’d love to say it’s improved over time! The first thirty or forty minutes feel like a delirious, wildly enjoyable return to Waters’ gleefully trashy and perverse bad-taste prime. Tracey Ullman stars as Sylvia Stickles, a prim and frumpy middle-aged housewife in Baltimore’s suburban Harford Road. Chris Isaak is Vaughn, her sexually-frustrated husband (which stretches the imagination. Can you imagine being married to Chris Isaak and not regularly jumping his bones?). Selma Blair co-stars as their freakishly buxom bad girl go-go dancer daughter Caprice (stripper name: Ursula Udders), currently being held under house arrest after being charged with public indecency for the third time. (Her crimes include nude loitering and nude drunk driving. “I wasn’t drunk!” Caprice protests. “I was on pills!” Had A Dirty Shame been made in the seventies, Caprice would have been portrayed by Cookie Mueller). En route to work at the convenience store, the prudish Sylvia is concussed in a freak accident – and is transformed into a raving, insatiable nymphomaniac. (“My pussy is on fire!”). She joins forces with tow truck driver Ray-Ray (Johnny Knoxville), leader of the local sex addicts, to bring about a sexual revolution on Harford Road.

The pluses: some of the kinky dialogue is glorious. The sublime cast re-unites many of the familiar veteran faces from Waters’ movies, including Mink Stole, Alan J Wendl, Jean Hill, Mary Vivian Pearce and Ricki Lake.  Brilliant character actress Jackie Hoffman (aka Mamacita from Feud: Bette and Joan) crops-up as a masturbation addict and almost steals the whole film. The exquisite soundtrack – perhaps Waters’ best - encompasses rockabilly, rhythm and blues, surf instrumentals and obscure dirty novelty songs. Best of all, rubber-faced Ullman’s wildly game, fearless and juicy performance as perennially horny, hot-pool-of-woman need Sylvia makes you wish she and Waters got the chance to collaborate again.

The minuses: Waters had apparently read an article about how victims of head injuries often lose sexual inhibitions afterwards and he built a film around that single premise. So it’s a comedy about brain damage? It’s a one-joke film that rapidly runs out of steam and becomes a chore as it progresses.  The writing and direction fatally slackens, with characters being repeatedly hit on the head and chasing each other back and forth for no particular reason. By the end, it feels frantically, wearyingly and almost offensively unfunny. A Dirty Shame isn’t Waters’ worst film (that’s Cecil B Demented), but let’s hope he gets another chance to direct so that it isn’t his cinematic epitaph.

Further reading: read my epic 2010 interview with John Waters here