Why I (Still) Believe in Magic

"Every man and woman is a star", Aleister Crowley .

I should explain, by way of introduction- Alistair's been devoting time of late to reappraising David Bowie's output, which has coincided with recurring intrusions by Mick Jagger and related figures into my world recently. And while I still think Lester Bangs got it splendidly right when he pointed out the juvenile self-absorption of Bowie the lyricist there's a lot to be said for the line about being heroes just for one day. Similarly, it's time to unburden myself of some of those Jagger connections, joining them up with thoughts inspired by the quote from Crowley used so pointedly in Kenneth Anger's delirious Hollywood Babylon. Wasn't that always less about Hollywood tragedy than the need to gnaw away at the outer vestiges of fame, taking the most stark pot pourri of unhappy endings and fatal beginnings and turning the macabre rotten mess into a compulsive narrative of truncated lives and severed body parts. Paralysis and paranoia, shot by both sides.

And wasn't it the Crowley acolyte Genesis P. Orridge who penned the shimmering psychedelic hymn to youth and fragile beauty 'Godstar', which I remember seeing on The Tube one Summer evening in the mid-'80s? His take on the man and woman is a star theme was fuelled less by hero worship than the need to celebrate the virtues of simple heroism, "this is a song about Brian Jones…", about playing guitar in other words, taking bedroom fantasies and splashing the walls of the commonplace with your signature. The same paint which daubs Nicolas Roeg and that other Crowleyite Donald Cammell's Performance, blurring the lines between faces and bodies, who you want to be and who you're allowed to be or, more disturbingly, who your inner censorship allows you to be. James Fox/Mick Jagger bursting with energies, some focussed some demonic, destined to be released in a gnarled spit or tossed into a snake pit. Jagger's wall decorated with a poster-sized blow-up of that shot from The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond, he riffs stolen words from Lightnin' Hopkins, mad as he can be, chasing the androgynous ideal through flickering candle-light, a speedball flying straight and true from the barrel of a gun. Persian exoticism forming the backdrop to a utopian ideal, making the dream real and turning violence and spontaneity into an exploration of dissolved egos and contorted bodies. Cammell's editing performance, eliciting from Jagger a vision of faded intensity, Chas Turner's parasitism feeding off the allure of his nemesis and troubled muse, pretty boy Fox's post-The Servant pin-up gangster.

It's a troubling thought, but so many of the most direct expressions of pride and fiery belief in some shining ideal become compromised- slips of the tongue, slips of memory. Mick Jagger in the Hyde Park tribute to Brian Jones, reciting verse by Shelley, but misheard by many a young fan as being a poem by Che Guevara. As George Melly tells it in Revolt into Style, his nasal twang clearly came across as "n'here for Bry is a pome by Che". The accidental takes on its own poetic vengeance in those circumstances. Or Godard's judicious use of the Stones piecing together "Sympathy for the Devil" in the studio, replaying stretches of rehearsal until the familiar becomes vampiric. There's a hypnotic intensity to those splintered scenes which gets inside your mind, a jumbled mosaic, leaving behind its own half-eaten shadow which dissolves in the morning sunlight. Godard didn't care too much about the complete version of the song, and knew the power of memory to transform the bits of songs we want to remember. The rest is fit for the dustbin- he understood pop culture, and was prepared to kill rock monstrosity for it. Seeing Jagger in rushes for the original conception of Herzog's overblown Fitzcarraldo too, alongside Peckinpah stalwart Jason Robards, there's a fumbling search for meanings within and behind verbal declarations, alongside the play with bells and bell-towers, as enigmatic as anything in the world of Losey, Val Lewton or Albert Lewin. It's in that search that the interest resides for me, rather than the sledge-hammer stone(d) walls of Kinski's preordained stare.

From necrophilic cling film to the cartographic desire to explore new territories, to rewrite the fossilized script of history, Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco Da Gama. Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is just one of those products- unfairly pigeonholed as an overly literary filmmaker, he was one of the rare directors who knew how to harness the full talent of George Sanders. Take Sanders as the Baudelairean figure in Lewin's gorgeous Picture of Dorian Gray, which reminds me that Dan Treacy once wrote a wonderful song of the same name, all rapier slash guitars and defaced canvases. Then of course there's Sanders' declaration to David Niven in his youth, that he would take his life at the age of 65, which he duly did, leaving a note to the outside world that he'd finally succumbed to boredom. If Lawrence had got his facts right, it would have meant being deprived of one of his most startling lines. So he won't be the first person in history to die of boredom, but then again nor was Sanders. And there's Sanders' sneering cad in All About Eve, with all the presence of a Richard Hell before his time, the waspish Addison De Witt telling some dark truths about self-belief, the pressures of fame and staying true to your deepest instincts. Lewin's Pandora does more than just retread the old myth of the sailor doomed to steer a ghost ship until redeemed by the love of a woman willing to sacrifice her earthly chains for him. Lewin chose to shoot in deliciously faded Technicolor, drawing on reference points as diverse as the Omar Khayyam's exotic Arabic poetry and European folk myths. Far from being a compendium of forgotten arcana, Lewin achieves the enviable feat of drawing the viewer closer to the heart of crazed yearning and obsession which motivates his two anchorless heroes, James Mason and Ava Gardner. By creating a framework of distant, untouchable characters, adrift from the landlocked world on shore with its imposing arches and doom-laden bells wrenched out of Edgar Allan Poe, he allows time for the inhuman face of legend to solidify into palpable awareness of the fragility of dreams. The plastic beauty of their journey gives us plentiful evidence of Lewin's desire to nurture the will to being an outsider, in the name of conjuring magic, dangerous leaps and twists in the tale of everyday alchemists. His sorcery works by taking the fantastic motivation and wringing every bead of hard truth into exquisitely formed shape, so that the film plays like a waltz through a camera obscura, taking the material of dreams and moulding it until Mason and Gardner seem to sway as Cocteau-esque moving shadows with the texture of statues. The atmosphere which Propaganda steeped themselves in on their first album, mixing Poe and Fritz Lang expressionism- "all that we see or seeing is but a dream within a dream".

There's a different kind of intense heroism which feeds into Rossellini's extraordinarily raw Journey to Italy. Shot in difficult circumstances, more so even than his Stromboli with Ingrid Bergman again, to the extent where he succeeded in drawing tears from the otherwise imperious impenetrable Sanders, who played alongside her. Here a trip to Pompeii takes on the grave clamour of late Freud, alone in the darkness it's not just the sandman who's out to get you, the volcanic lava of oblivion is about to pour forth another wave of destruction. Unsurprisingly the journey takes you into as primitive a cave as you can imagine, attempting to draw the cinema back to the Lascaux hieroglyphics, clasp-knife images wrenched from half-understood impulses. Numb to the world, driving up and down Roman motorways in a forlorn mood of abandoned hope. Those great scenes on the road, careworn faces framed in tight close-up, would be reworked and recast in the hand-held stylings of Godard's inspirational debut A Bout de Souffle. There's something so perfect, so right, in the way their faltering odyssey achieves a sublime grandeur as the wandering couple embrace the inevitability of destruction and decay and are lifted jolted into a marble embrace, a waking sleep of quiet ecstasy. Imagine those soaring leaps from Dexys' "This is What She's Like" or "Reminisce", mixed with the caffeine explosion of The Rascals' "I Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore". Or the fragmented twilit Buenos Aires world of cheap dives and tango jazz which courses through Astor Piazzolla's amazingly evocative compositions- infusing the native tango freneticism with the tight control of 50's small combo jazz, threading Gary Burton vibes through dark nights of relentless neurotic interrogations. Music to cry for, which is exactly what Rossellini achieves when his frigid travellers renew their love in the most achingly simple way imaginable. Which is the trademark style of Wong Kar Wai, who managed to build on his hyperkinetic Hong Kong night train Chungking Express- where "California Dreaming" seemed miraculously fresh and desire could emanate from an expired tin of pineapple chunks- with Happy Together recently. There he took his concerns to Argentina, bringing the Godard influence to the world of Manuel Puig, whose work is steeped in noir, resonating with the claustrophobia of Val Lewton's RKO horror films. From it emerges a starkly shot evocation of the sinuous contours of romance, set to Piazzolla and Zappa. And The Turtles, of course. But who out there will set the screen ablaze with "Cattle and Cane"-inspired reverie? Or would take Guy Clark's "Desperados Waiting for the Train" with that heart-rending line "to me he's one of the heroes of this country" and create the most bruising encounter with memory and loss, carving out bleeding sequences etched with the ornery pride of the Depression-era hobo train-jumper? I'm still waiting for the man (or woman)…

©Marino Guida 2000



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