In 2015 I did an audiobook with comedian and actor MATT KING (Super Hans). Here's a little thing I wrote about it at the time. Also includes a link to the audiobook.
Even though Dodson and Fogg, my music project, is my main focus, I also like to mix it up with bits of writing, whether it be Hound Dawg (yes, the charming publication you happen to be reading) non fiction books or comedy audiobooks. I've just done one of the latter actually, The Hunt for the Mayor of Smoochyville, a mad comedy about two odd balls who go and track down a feral mayor who has fled the town, tired of the snobbery he is faced with from day to day, The papers are offering a cash reward for his capture, so Smithy and Martin head out, faced with many distractions on the way.
Segments of this comedy were from a few years ago, but I always ended up dumping the stories they were a part of and just keeping my favourite bits. I finally wrote it into this form a few weeks back. In truth, I had one actor's voice in my head for it. I've done this before and it always works out pretty well. In 2010 I wrote Cutey and the Sofaguard with Rik Mayall's voice in my head as a guide, and ended up recording the audio version with him. I did one for surreal comedian Charlie Chuck, and that was a good laugh. This time, I had actor Matt King in my mind. To those unfamiliar with his real name, he plays Super Hans in Peep Show, has appeared in many films such as Bronson, London Boulevard and Rock n' Rolla, as well as TV shows like Dog face and IT Crowd. He's naturally funny and has this marvelous delivery, effortlessly lifting lines up to a new level with his drawl.
We arranged for him to record it where he lives in Indonesia and got the files sent over to me via the wonderful world wide web. I had a chat with him on the phone about characters, but my instructions were simple; just be you!
The resulting audiobook is actually my favourite I have done, save for the work me and my dad did in the past which is definitely brill, mainly because we had such a laugh doing it. But this one has come out really well. Check it out at:
With the news that this lost classic is being restored and re-released, I thought I would post my piece on it which was featured in my book, DENNIS HOPPER THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE. So here it is...
Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue is a nihilistic, anarchic and shocking piece of cinematic destruction, a terrifying deconstruction of the family unit and a buried treasure in cinema history. It's also a definitive stand out from Hopper's own supposed "lost" years. Written initially by Leonard Yakir, who was also due to direct the movie before Hopper stepped into his shoes, it follows a young girl called Cebe (played by Linda Manz), who worships the recently departed Elvis, loves punk rock and insists to everyone she meets that "disco sucks." She's also waiting for her father to come out of prison. Don, played with vile, self involved exuberance by Dennis Hopper, ran his truck into a school bus drunk out of his mind, killed the children on board and served five years in prison for his sins. Cebe lives with her mother, drug addicted floozy Kathy (Sharon Farrell) and both are excited about Don's release, despite the fact he's a drunken mess who can barely hold himself together, let alone a family. Put in the uncomfortable sexual elements, the references to incest and the devastating, violent ending, and it's little wonder that this film was banned, shelved and hidden away upon its original release. All these years on though, the Canadian made psycho drama is actually very interesting, a brave study of adolescence, idolisation, disappointment and the strange other worldly feeling of living in a small town, and heading nowhere slowly.
In an article entitled "Not a Picnic," the Village Voice said wrote that it was "a genuinely alarming miasma of misplaced sexuality and rock ’n’ roll fetishism—Dead Elvis lives! Neil Young mourns!—Out of the Blue is basically a family drama with Dennis the Menace directing himself as the world’s supreme fuckup."
There is something perversely enjoyable about seeing Dennis Hopper direct himself as a down and out alcoholic, seen pouring whiskey over his head, recklessly drink driving even after his five year sentence, stealing dynamite and being a general psychopath. Given that it was made during Hopper's troubled years of drink and drug abuse, there is something darkly ironic about his highly effective performance. In fact, it's rather unsurprising that he gives one of his finest ever efforts, clearly closer to the role than we can possibly imagine.
As Cebe, Linda Manz carries the movie, roaming the haunted town like an aimless, angry ghost, someone who belongs elsewhere; London in 1977 perhaps. In her father's absence, she's taken on his role, manned herself up, and is even slightly paternal to her own mother. The eerie sounds of Neil Young's brilliant Hey Hey, My My echo throughout like the church bells at an impending funeral, the horrific climax, which not only ends the film in a mighty, unforgettable fashion, but also convinces us that this messed up family are much better off dead than alive.
Although the very closing scene does stun you with its abruptness, it's also unforgettable and acts as a perfect end to this most strange, deprived and thoughtless journey through a lost world. While the punk ethos, which was still alive in 1980, is never really used as a direct tool for Manz's anger and alienation, it does act as a good side line to the confusion, dissatisfaction and muddled detachment she has with her family - although to really call it a family is a mistake. This junked up unit has had it from the opening reel of the film, and we know it.
It's funny to think that one of Hopper's seminal directorial efforts didn't even begin as his work. He spoke to Interview Magazine all about it, saying "When I went out to do Out of the Blue, it was initially only to act in the movie. What happened was that Out of the Blue was written by this husband-and-wife writer team, and the guy who was going to direct it had never made a real movie before. So I go to Vancouver to play this father character, and I’m sitting in my trailer ready to work for two-and-a-half weeks, and (my manager) Paul keeps coming to me and saying, 'This guy can’t direct, man. This is awful. There’s no usable footage.' He said, 'You go in there.' So I said, 'I’m not going to go in and fucking intimidate this guy. I’m going to stay here until he wants me to work.' So after two-and-a-half weeks, it’s a Friday, and Paul and I are having dinner and he said, 'I’m closing down production.' So I said, 'What? I haven’t even worked yet!' He said, 'There’s no usable footage.' But, he said, 'You could make it in three-and-a-half weeks. But we’ve got all of these locations. We can’t move them.' I said, 'I’m going to move them all to the centre of Vancouver.' So, it’s like, boom! I move all the locations, rewrite the whole thing, and shoot it all in three-and-a-half weeks. I do it and I get it into competition at Cannes, but Canada refused to put their flag behind it. Then they renounce it as a Dennis Hopper movie. Afterward, we tried to distribute it, but we couldn’t get it out for a wide distribution—it’s about incest, so no one wants to touch it."
OK, let's be honest; technically, Out of the Blue is at times a little shambolic, but this fits perfectly to Hopper's vision of self destruction. The artistic imperfection can also be seen as a metaphor for the family's detachment from reality and their refusal to go along with ordered society; or in this case, ordered film making. In fact, the flaws in the final product only heighten the movie's punch, accentuating their trashy life styles. After all, Hopper is driving through the junk yard while drinking scotch in numerous scenes, surrounded by flocks of flapping birds out to get scraps of food or whatever they can find; he is a man on the rubbish tip of life in more ways than one. Would such a man warrant a cleanly edited, organised movie centred around him? Hopper's slightly disordered handling of Yakir's original film is near to genius, the end product, as ramshackle and ugly as it often is, defining the lost years in the wake of 1960s idealism, through the nothingness of the 1970s, and leading coldly into the vile, selfish greed of the 1980s. Like Easy Rider, Out of the Blue is, as Hopper himself said, something of a time capsule, capturing the end of a culturally empty, desolate decade. The characters can't reach a level of contentment within themselves, with Cebe the girl wanting to be a boy, but still wanting to hang on to her feminine side; to be "a ballerina" as Hopper said. As Easy Rider caught a distinct moment in time, namely the end of the dreamy, idealistic sixties and the start of the harsher, more back to earth realness of the seventies, Out of the Blue leaves the 1970s behind, hand in hand with the anger, tuneless rage and frustrations of punk rock, the death of Elvis and "real" rock and roll. Neil Young's anthemic track from his classic Rust Never Sleeps album is a perfect theme tune (Hopper heard it on the radio one day driving to the set and decided it would be a great movie title), rather fittingly the same song Kurt Cobain quoted in his suicide note. This is a film for the disaffected, for the outsider gazing in longingly, but not really wanting to be a part of anything. Hungry but rejecting an embrace of any kind. It's just a shame that so few people get to see it. But let's face it, selling a film about incest was never going to be easy.
"It's difficult for people to look at things as symbols rather than what's actually going on in the movie," Hopper later commented. "That movie is more symbolic of the society of the time and the place." He later called it his best directorial film, and many agree - for the record, me included.
Although some may struggle with the raw qualities of this movie -"a film of its time - the punk generation" as one interviewer called it when speaking to Hopper - it's essential viewing for anyone interested in cultural movies and Hopper's grander visions of society.
Here's a Q and A I did a few years ago with Isy Suttie for the old PDF's of Hound Dawg Magazine. I thought it was worth re posting... so here it bloody is!
Isy Suttie is one of the most reliable and consistent faces on TV these days. The actress turned comic is a veteran of the stand up circuit, and among numerous other things starred as Dobby in the immensely popular comedy classic Peep Show. She's also written a book, The Actual One, done scripts for TV and even made her own short film starring JJ Burnel of The Stranglers. She was born in Hull, so as a fellow Yorkshire being (I'm from Leeds), I salute thee...
You started off studying acting. How did you make the shift to comedy?
I couldn't see it at the beginning, but I've always been drawn to comedy in some way or another. Sometimes when I thought I was doing serious parts at drama school, I'd feel most comfortable when I could find some kind of comedy within the character - even just a smidge. That said, I would love to do some drama too and I like it when there's a nice mix within a script, so if something's funny it's sometimes rooted in something sad.
Who influences you in comedy? Who are some of your favourites?
I tend to be drawn to people who do stories rather than gags, and who make you feel kind of despair and hope at the same time as laughing, like Johnny Vegas, Phil Kay. There are some people I love but they are good friends of mine so it always feels too weird to say them. Sharon Horgan, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Holly Walsh are brilliant writers.
What were some of the memorable moments from your first Edinburgh Festival shows?
Just feeling so nervous that I could barely eat all day, then the adrenaline once it was over no matter how well or badly it had gone. Very cramped dressing rooms, studying tiny cracks on the wall just before you went on. Listening to Kraftwerk on the way to The Comedy Zone in 2005. Living with Danielle Ward and Josie Long, and there always being some kind of household catastrophe like the washing machine flooding and people getting locked into small corridors for hours.
When was the breakthrough moment when you realised people were responding to you and you were good at stand up?
There wasn't really a single moment like that, it was more a long, arduous clamber up a mountain with nice little springs along the way, which is still going on. I guess there was a nice moment at college where I'd gone in for a songwriting competition with a song about the perfect guy and I was living with a French guy who said I should do it in a French accent. I took the risk and for some reason it made the song much funnier. I remember people laughing and that was the first time people had laughed at me doing something I'd written myself. That was such a brilliant feeling.
How did you end up in Peep Show? Were you nervous about joining the cast?
I went for the audition with lots of other actors and then when the recall came I stayed up half the night learning the script so I could look down the lens. Yes I was terribly nervous as it was such a brilliant iconic show and I think I hardly spoke for the first week.
What are your personal fave Peep Show episodes and memories of filming?
On the last series there was a lovely moment when I was drinking soup with Matt King (Superhans) in a night shoot for the scene where Dobby, Mark and Superhans have been chucked out of a car after hitchhiking. It was an innocuous moment but there's something quite exciting about night shoots (probably not if you're doing them every night). Also in the last series we did lots of exploring as the location we were based at contained a pet cemetery so me and Sam (one of the writers) kept searching for it. Rob and David are always a laugh. Favourite episodes - my favourite ever episode is the one where Mark joins the gym.
I am also interested in some of your other work, like the film you made with JJ Burnel. As a big Stranglers fan, how did this come about and what was JJ like to work with? I met him once and he picked me up in the air.
I met JJ doing a radio show (I'm not surprised he picked you up in the air - sounds like him!) and I just loved him as he's like a mischievous teenager, so much fun and so rock n roll but also really kind and funny. Then I thought of the idea for the film and he was up for doing it, which I was bowled over about, and we went to my mate's flat in Camberwell to record the song for the film which was quite surreal. He was a real joy to work with and be around.
What was the inspiration behind your new book and what has reaction been like?
I just wanted to write about a time when things haven't been entirely easy and my late 20s/early 30s seemed like a good fit as I was doing quite a lot of overdramatic soul searching. I really loved writing the book as there's more time to get to know the reader and you're allowed to take longer to say stuff.
You've also established yourself as a TV writer, do you enjoy this side of your work?
Yes - the main thing for me is variety so I like doing that and then perhaps just acting in something where I have no input into the lines, then something else. I feel quite lucky that I get that variety in my job.
Also read the Hound Dawg Archives here:
This post if from my book on Italian Cinema of the 1960s....
L'Avventura, like Fellini's La Dolce Vita of the same year, was one of the truly heroic, iconic master works of Italian cinema in the sixties. Michelangelo Antonioni had already made a name for himself to a certain degree in the 1950s, but it wasn't until the 1960s, with minds broadening thanks to the advances of Italian cinematic boundaries, and of course the alternative French New Wave led by Truffaut and Godard, that Antonioni's reflective, inward brand of philosophical cinema could enter the mainstream radar. As much as Italian cinema in the sixties was dominated by Fellini, Antonioni also made some vital movies which act as direct parallels to Federico's lavish pictures. Whereas Fellini's work was psychological in a different manner, in that we were shown the dreams and fantasies of the mind which were projected without question on to the screen, Antonioni rarely let us have a glimpse into what was going on in the heads of his characters. It was up to us to guess, judging by expressions, body language and movement. Still, quite often the characters remained indecipherable mysteries to the end.
L'Avventura is possibly Antonioni's most important work. It is the first part of his tetralogy of alienation, which also included the following year's La Notte (an equally important picture) and 1963's L'eclisse. Written by Antonioni with Elio Bartolini and Tonio Guerra, the film is another tale of modern disconnection, telling the story of a young woman named Anna, played by Lea Massari, who goes missing during a boat ride. Gabriele Ferzetti is Sandro, her lover, who with the girl's friend Claudia, played by the iconic Monica Vitti, go on a quest to search for her. Sandro is a typical Antonioni character, a middle class intellectual not attuned to his inner emotions, in this case an architect, a man concerned with aesthetics and outside appearances, a perfect character-metaphor for Antonioni's disjointed, alienated universe. As one might expect, it is during the search that Sandro starts an affair with the picturesque Claudia, though one can guess from the start that their affair is misguided and ill advised.
Antonioni began shooting the film in August of 1959, wrapping it up in January of 1960. Michelangelo and his crew encountered many problems during filming, and the island sequences shot on Lisca Bianca, which were set to be completed in under three weeks, took a whole four months due to plagues of rats and reptiles, not to mention the unnaturally cold weather. Antonioni must have felt his project was doomed, especially when the naval boat intended to take them back and forth from the island failed to turn up, and the crew had to construct their own rafts to transport filming equipment to and from the so called set.
L'Avventura was also very nearly not completed, when the production company in charge of the film went bankrupt. Antonioni, thankfully hanging on to some film stock of his own, convinced the cast and crew to finish the film without pay. When food dried up for three days, the whole crew went on strike, forcing Antonioni and his assistant director to take on all tasks themselves and get to work alone. Thankfully, funding did come back in from another source and despite the serious hiccups, filming picked back up again.
The film was met with mixed reviews upon release, but soon gathered steam when various fellow filmmakers insisted it was the best film that had been screened at Cannes, even though it was met with hostility by the press upon its premiere there. Against all odds, it bagged the Jury Prize at Cannes, not to mention gongs from the BFI, the Golden Globes and various other organisations. Not only did it set the tone of the rest of Antonioni's oeuvre, and his outlook as a filmmaker, but it also raised the bar for European directors and the whole film industry if it wished to call itself an art form. While Hollywood was struggling to keep its youth audience with out of touch, socially irrelevant blockbusters and comedies, the Italians and the French were pushing the boundaries and reaching out. Antonioni in particular spoke to the isolated soul, anyone who had been made to feel alienated by society and its expectations of the individual - which, as it turns out, was quite a few people.
La Dolce Vita had reflected empty lives in a so called high society with exuberance and vitality, all of it hiding a void beneath the pretty surface. In L'Avventura, Antonioni didn't bother with the gayety and liveliness of Fellini's world at all, and reflected the barren meaninglessness with gestures and actions. These spoilt people have nothing left inside, no passion, no joy, bored as they are with all they have got and what they more importantly lack. When they fail to find Anna, they also fail to find themselves and a meaning to their bourgeois, empty existence. She becomes a metaphor for their quest for self fulfilment. Antonioni said his film was "expressed through images in which I hope to show not the birth of an erroneous sentiment, but rather the way in which we go astray in our sentiments. Because as I have said, our moral values are old. Our myths and conventions are old. And everyone knows that they are indeed old and outmoded."
L'Avventura is one of the key films of the era, not just in Italian film but cinema as a whole. It is the start of the cinema of alienation, miscommunication, the cinema of looking inward while deluding oneself about the physical reality around us. It is also one of Antonioni's true visual and intellectual masterpieces.
Here is an article on one of my very favourite films - one I can watch repeatedly for its strangely soothing melancholic qualities - THE BEEKEEPER (1986). This is taken from my book, Marcello Mastroianni: The Myth and the Movies.
The film world of Greek master Theodoros Angelopoulos is certainly an acquired taste, even for those attuned to the slower rhythms of world cinema, but if one does have the patience for his style of slow, meditative, careful but paradoxically complex film then his work can be thoroughly rewarding. Harvey Keitel, who ten years later was cast in Theo's masterpiece Ulysses' Gaze, once made a joke that if you sit down in the cinema for one of Angelopoulos's films you could go out for popcorn and come back five minutes later to see it was on the same shot. Though partly true, viewers would be wise to stick around, for even one of his most static, stationery camera set ups usually reveals a detail so fine that it hits you more directly than a frantic camera movement ever could. His framing, use of slow zoom and expertise with stillness is hypnotic to say the least, and his films never fail to pull me in from their first scene onwards. The Beekeeper, his second film in the "trilogy of silence" is no exception, a careful, precise work which grabs you with ease and keeps you hooked until the very end. Quite how Theo achieves this, with little dialogue, slow movements and often bleak surroundings, is a testament to his brilliance.
The Beekeeper, often unfairly overlooked in his oeuvre, stars Marcello Mastroianni as Spyros, a teacher just giving up his post at a school to take off on the road with his van full of bees for their yearly ritual. We first encounter him at the wedding of his daughter, where we learn there have been complications in the family which have caused a rift. Unhappy amongst the gathered revellers, Spyros slopes off and begins his journey. Dissatisfied with his life and family, Spyros is detached from his surroundings, only happy when seeing to his bees for their annual honey trip, taking them from place to place, and being completely absorbed in the task.
One day he picks up a female hitchhiker, played by Nadia Mourouzi, a young drifter who has lost her way. Though they speak very little, the girl feels a connection to Spyros and sticks to him as much as she can. When he sets down in his lodgings in a tiny Greek town, without speaking she follows him inside. Both settling down on a single bed each, the pair drift to sleep, though Spyros is angered when she brings back a young soldier and has sex with him, loudly, in the middle of the night., Ordering her to pack her bags, Spyros tries to shake her off. Yet something keeps bringing them together and after he tries to ditch her, he finds her pull too much. After visiting his wife one last time to say goodbye, Spyros finds the girl sitting in a cafe. In one of the film's most shocking moments he drives his van into the cafe window and the girl, though stunned, instinctively jumps in the passenger seat and re joins her friend on the road.
These two lonely lost souls stick together. On a boat trip Spyros tries to have sex with her, but she fights him off and objects to his forcefulness. Eventually they come to a run down row of buildings by a railroad track and enter an abandoned cinema owned by Spyros's old friend. It is about to be closed down and the kind old man working the projector allows them to sleep on the stage beneath the projector screen. In a passionate, overwhelming scene the pair have sex, but after their physical merging, which was a long time coming, things are never the same. They go for a walk in the town, disconnected form one another, and attempt to have dinner. But the girl knows it is all wrong and that their union is doomed. "Let me go", she says. She storms out, he follows and they enjoy one last embrace before she retrieves her belongings from the cinema, leaving Spyros standing by the tracks, alone and pensive. Later he heads to a field with his bees, where in a rage he lets off all the lids and succumbs to a death by bee sting. The final shot is of his hand, as the life leaves his twitching body, before the camera zooms up to the blue sky, covered by the frantic buzzing of the bees Spyros had been dedicating so much time to.
In my view, The Beekeeper is one of the finest films in the history of Greek cinema, and for me of the most effective and affecting films of the 1980s. Though unfairly sidelined, this downbeat but strangely compulsive film is consistently engaging, due largely to Theo's imaginative and unusual camera movements and techniques. He is also aided by Marcello Mastroianni, delivering the subtlest and perhaps most devastating performance of his career. Spyros is a mysterious figure, who says very little in words but speaks volumes in his detached demeanour and slow, careful movements. He is not a likeable man, but we find that we begin to care for him, despite his shortcomings. It is clear from the wedding scene that he is not a great father to say the least, a man who wants to escape his past but simply cannot, and is equally as dissatisfied with his present. Not only is he stuck in the past but he is tormented by it, a cold man whose eyes say nothing on the surface but reveal hidden depths as the film goes on.
Nadia is bewitching also, an enigmatic girl who first appears to be free but is in fact as lost as can be. She clings to the old man like a child to a disinterested father, admitting that he is the only person who has ever been kind to her. Yet she still teases him, like the spoilt brat who does not appreciate true kindness. He at first tries to brush her off, but finds his obsession intensifying. Only when he says a final so long to his wife can he pursue the girl and this doomed future. He is ageing, has seen better days and unable to face up the fact. The bees offer him a goal, a purpose and the girl promises new horizons. In reality, neither brings him anything of lasting worth.
Throughout the film, Mastroianni seems to carry his own cinematic legacy around with him, and though he could not be more different here than in Fellini's City of Women and his earlier iconic roles, his iconic status seems strangely apparent behind the anonymous moustached face of Spyros. In the scene when he and the girl sleep beneath the blank cinema screen, Marcello seems to address his past directly; and seeing as the cinema itself is closing down, he even seems to be lament the decline of cinema (Marcello did it more directly in 1989's Splendor, where he played the manager of an ailing small town cinema) while referencing his own illustrious past and intimidating career on screen. On set, his co star was extremely nervous about working with Marcello, especially when considering his legendary status. But he soon calmed her down by spending time relaxing and drinking with her so they could work together more freely, spared of his legacy and stature.
One of the saddest scenes, one proving that Spyros is a man stuck in the creases of time, is when he and two old friends - one he has snuck out of a hospital - go and drink wine on a beach. The ailing friend dances before the sea, while the other, a rich business man equally disenfranchised with his lot, strips naked and runs fearlessly into the water. Even in this scenario, Spyros is dissatisfied, seeing the sad truth of him and his friends' fates.
Yet it is the girl, never named, who gives the film its real dramatic impact and gives Spyros the only bit of spark he displays in the whole movie. There is a strange tension in their relationship, with him paradoxically seeing her as both an object of desire and rebellious daughter; she sees him both as a father and a rock, though is more than aware of the doomed fate of their union. They are drawn to one another but remain detached, a fact which is repeated in the visuals and camera choices of Theo. One of the key moments between the pair comes when the girl is leaning off a refreshment van while he goes to find his childhood home, which has been abandoned and left to ruin. He returns to see her drunk and in a slow zoom beginning from around fifty metres away, Theo comes in close to observe the girl biting Spyros's hand and drawing blood. It's a disturbing scene but also makes perfect sense.
What is most striking about The Beekeeper is how it prefers the importance of body language and imagery over dialogue. Subtlety is not quite the word; Theo's use of camera techniques invites the kind of careful minimalism which may exhaust fans of Hollywood blockbusters but please anyone drawn to a human story. It's a film where every brush stroke is applied with care, from the nuanced performances, the bleak but strangely comforting locations, to the precise choices of angles, zooms and framing.
Unfortunately The Beekeeper did not set the world alight, though Theo probably knew it was not going to be a money spinner. Reviewers at the time seemed to miss the point and didn't have the patience for the delicacy of Theo's vision. Janet Maslin in the New York Times said it wasted Marcello's talents, and wrote that "not even those inclined to dwell on the film's occasional honeycomb imagery or its heavy sense of foreboding will find much to command the attention."
Time Out were even less impressed, writing in their small minded review, "Angelopoulos' odyssey of a middle-aged man in the grip of terminal emptiness has a stately pace and a shortage of event or information that are a lot to take. It's always raining, usually evening, and the settings are mainly petrol stations and sad rooming houses in Greek tank towns. Spyros remains uncomplaining, wordless and lifeless throughout. They finally get it on in a neglected cinema, which not only fails to buck up his ideas, but appears to confirm his disenchantment, because the next day he surrenders to death by bee-sting. A muffled, deeply interior film."
Retrospectively however, the film has made new fans and contemporary reviews reveal more understanding. When the film was re-released on DVD in 2010, the Independent wrote "the film is tender but tough-going, its air of melancholy beginning with a grim wedding scene and not letting up till the inevitable conclusion. The beekeeper's journey leads him away from strained family relations and into a new, but equally fraught, interaction with a young, cheekily charming hitchhiker. There's an ambiguous sexual charge in the air, and The Beekeeper includes some extremely uncomfortable scenes as Angelopoulos pushes at the boundaries of the relationship. But the directing is assured, and the performances restrained and heartbreakingly believable."
In his book, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, Dennis Grunes wrote of the film: "O melissokomos, from Greece, Italy and France, is a mostly silent, sleepy piece saturated with the honey of melancholy. It is pure ache, and a reminder of how penetrating an artist Angelopoulos could be. Fleetingly reminiscent of late Visconti, some of it wears a bit thin; but most of it deeply moved this viewer with its sense of a cultural and cross-cultural abandonment of vivid feeling. In this context, the girl, drunk, draws blood by biting Spyros’s wrist. It is a perilous rush for all of us."
The Beekeeper is one of those films which are rare today, a restrained, realistic, often harrowing but perversely relaxing film which reveals truths in mere zooms and camera pulls, taking these two tragic figures to places few filmmakers would think or even dare to go. In the hands of a lesser talent The Beekeeper could have easily been clichéd, a predictable girl-meets-older-man-father-figure-type yawn fest, falling in love despite the sea of differences between the two but succeeding in the end in finding her true soul mate, the only man who understands her. In Theo's vision however it is a hopelessly sad, gritty, unflinching depiction of what might happen if two very different people found themselves drawn together in a bleak and unforgiving landscape which offers them no salvation as a duo or lone crusaders.
Theo himself called it a film about "the conflict between memory and non memory". Though the girl is potential company for the old man, she is in fact physical proof of his desperate loneliness and isolation in a world he has fallen out of love with. In the end, there is only one place to go. Marcello's performance is a tour de force, absolutely flawless, and he never puts a single foot wrong in his journey to his sad realisation. He worked with Theo again on The Suspended Step of the Stork, perhaps just as effectively. Though few would rush straight to it for their fix of Mastroianni, I believe The Beekeeper is among his most effective work.
Here is a sample from my book on Sophia Loren's film career. This section covers her 1963 classic Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, directed by Vittorio De Sica and so starring the great Marcello Mastroianni.
YESTERDAY TODAY AND TOMORROW (1963)
By 1963, Sophia Loren had become a worldwide sensation, one of the most glamorous and loved movie stars in the world. She'd conquered Hollywood and become the first non-American to win the Best Actress Oscar, for Two Women in 1960. However, she remained loyal to her native Italy and ventured back there after numerous American pictures to work on a pair of films which would go down in history as prime examples of Italian cinema at its finest.
Whenever Sophia Loren teamed up with Vittorio De Sica the results were always special. However, when she happened to get together with both De Sica and Marcello Mastroianni, the films became magical. Perhaps their finest work as a threesome was Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, another iconic film (perhaps Loren's most iconic of all, though Marcello enjoyed equally sensational moments in Fellini's movies) in which Loren displayed both her timeless beauty and her versatility as an actress, while Marcello retained his crown as world cinema's most paradoxical figure, a movie star who could seamlessly become the everyman. It was followed by Marriage Italian style, an equally enjoyable but much more serious work. Both were a double whammy, released one after the other, revealing the greatness of the three major forces behind them.
The film consists of three separate stories, each one you could say predominantly presenting a different aspect of Loren's multi faceted public persona. In the first story she is the down to earth Italian mother, selling cigarettes on the black market to support her husband, played by Mastroianni. Fined by the authorities, the whole village get together by hiding her furniture so it will not be repossessed. When the threat of prison looms, Loren falls pregnant, for by Italian law no woman expecting a child can be locked up. She repeats the ploy for seven years running, having child after child and exhausting her husband to the point of near mental collapse. When he refuses to impregnate her again out of sheer exhaustion, she accepts her fate and is imprisoned. Showing their loyalty once again, her friends and neighbours gather together as much money as possible to pay her bail and attempt to get her a pardon, after the success of which she is freed and reunited with her family.
This installment is very much a celebration of Italy and its decent, honest, loyal people. Working together, they look out for one another, very much against the system and willing to do whatever it takes for the man or woman next door. Loren embodies this now rare breed of woman wonderfully, being both hilarious and formidable as the gutsy Adelina, tired and put upon by her difficult life but too stubborn to give into the law, until the situation becomes impossible. Marcello is excellent too, displaying his gift of comedy. When he becomes too exhausted to give her more children, he produces genuine belly laughs, being the very picture of absolute despair. But he is also a man who will do as much as possible for his wife and his children. This is one of Marcello's more decent characters, not a womaniser or self centred egotist, but a family man doing what he can to keep things running.
The second story features Loren as Anna, the wife of a rich industrialist who takes a ride with her lover Renzo (Mastroianni) and must choose between her fondness for Renzo and the material riches her husband can provide. Renzo hates the greedy side of her, and though drawn to her beauty is put off by her materialistic shallowness. Following an incident which damages her precious Rolls Royce, Renzo sees her for what she is and his mind is made up for him. Loren excels yet again in a part that could not be more different to the woman she plays in the first story. Empty, callous and vein, Loren makes the woman so believable it's hard to accept she is the same actress who only a matter of minutes earlier was bringing the pure Adelina to life before our eyes. Marcello again remains a kind of conscience. He is not only literally driving the car, but driving forward that whole segment of the film, moving it along with his moralistic sturdiness, his likeability and that everyday quality so hard to define without making him come across as some great enigma. Clearly, there is a technique here, as there is with Loren, with Marcello applying the correct amount of gestures to hone the part. His Renzo is a decent man, plain and simple, a man so believable and strangely intriguing it would have been nice to see a full film just focusing on him and his adventures round Rome.
The third part of the film has become the most famous, in which Sophia plays Mora, a prostitute who works from her Rome apartment and finds herself the object of obsession of her number one client, Augusto (Marcello at his best), who is the son of a rich industrialist based in Bologna. On their balconies overlooking the vibrant city below, Mara regularly chats with her neighbour, Umberto, a handsome and wholesome young man training to be a priest, rattling Mara's morals with his purity and decency. He falls for Mara, much to the objection of his disapproving Grandmother, and promises to join the foreign legion if she turns him down. Mara sets it upon herself to convince him to take up his studies at the seminary, vowing celibacy for a week if she achieves this.
Loren is superb as Mara, another turnaround from her cold and shallow creature from the preceding film. Here she is at her most lively, vivacious and gorgeous, faced with moralistic trials and challenges which threaten her way of life and idea of who she is. The famous strip tease scene, as sexy as it is believable, has gone down as the most famous and re-watched scene in Loren's career. Though it was not in the film for sensationalist reasons, it is undoubtedly sizzling, though is present to remind the viewer of the seriousness of her celibate vow. Yet Marcello is equally important in the scene, even if most viewers will barely notice him. His hysteria as each piece of clothing comes off is hilarious and his wolf howls produce more genuine belly laughs. He is a man head over heels in love, but also torn morally and ruled over by his strict father. Augusto is a ball of nerves in what is perhaps one of Marcello's most neurotic characterisations. He is also purely likeable in this segment too, a silly but fundamentally decent man who has just happened to fall for this beautiful lady-for-hire.
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow is a masterpiece of storytelling, filmmaking and performance. De Sica directs beautifully, the script flows with ease and the performances are perfection. Loren is at her finest. Though Two Women remains her most impressive and dynamic single performance, no film but this one illustrates her range and charisma. Had she made this one film alone she would forever be a legend.
Yet without Marcello to play off, the movie would not be as effective. He is often the straight man, the spring board, the selfless actor unveiling Sophia in all her wonder. Marcello provides the morals, the reality and the predicaments. Without his tiredness in the first chapter, she would keep on having babies; without his plain decency in chapter two, he would have simply gone off with the spoilt rich girl; and in the third one, without his red blooded intoxication for this gorgeous being, Mara would not have felt the need to enforce her celibacy. Again, he is the everyman, able to give his characters that extra something which makes them more real, believable and easy to relate to. Any father knows what it's like to be the exhausted dad in the first part of the film, while we can see our own neurosis and moralistic niggling in the other two men he plays. He pulls off each part with an ease that makes you believe they all have a past and a future beyond the movie they are captive in.
Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow bagged the Oscar for best foreign film and Marcello also won a BAFTA for best foreign actor. It was a hit everywhere and nearly sixty years on has aged very well. It's feel good cinema from start to finish, not without its harder hitting moments, but mostly a film to revel in. Loren had given us the much darker Two Women before this, and Marcello had nailed the detached male in a line of Italian classics, but here they let loose, shed their inhibitions and provide the film with its energy, its life and its vigour.
Here's a little bit of a Q and A with Mike Heron himself, the legend of The Incredible String Band...
You have said in the past that the first album was one of the best ISB records, for its purity and rawness. Do you still like the album?
The first album is not really my favourite but it represents what happened when Robin, Clive and myself put together a band and a repertoire. It brings back memories of meetings, places, taking the show we'd made around the folk clubs, and finally the three of us in a circle at Sound Techniques studios round a clutch of microphones making an album in a day. So I have warm feelings for it.
The 5000 Spirits album was quite radically different. How do you look back on the making of that album?
Robin went off to Morocco and Clive to India; the band had really broken up. Six months later Robin returned inspired and carrying lots of North African instruments and a bundle of songs. The two of us played the songs we'd written on our holidays and thus was born 5000 Spirits. We still recorded in Sound Techniques, but using a different recording method. We would put down a basic song and embroider it with overdubs.
How do you look back on the Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter album?
Hangman was moving on but now incorporating Rose and Licorice. Our Very Cellular Song was my attempt to write a piece that used as many styles and combinations of the four people’s attributes. It's a "trip" through consciousness starting with the domestic and moving through awareness of the spectrum of life’s conditions, to a prayer for the well being of all.
Do you have a personal favourite ISB album at all?
When it comes to favourite albums I've always been drawn to songs. So when the songs on an album blend to make a whole experience bigger than themselves, that's a special bonus. And for me Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter would be far and away the best example.
Here you can get my book on the band's music. It also includes other Q and As too.
Below is a sample from a book I did on two Madonna films, Dangerous Game and Body of Evidence, both underrated in my view. The book is still available to read on Kindle.
The famed cinematographer Ken Kelsch spoke to me from New York about the making of Dangerous Game, his view on Madonna's performance and the films of his great collaborator Abel Ferrara.
That was an interesting time for you and Abel, that transition from Bad Lieutenant straight into Dangerous Game...
Well, you know, Bad Lieutenant was almost like an after thought. It really was a very low budget film, and it was extremely difficult to really realise to make it happen, for only two million dollars. Also the fact that we shot it in Mickey Rourke's loft for the last five days and we did the rest in three weeks of five days each. It was very compressed in terms of shooting, but there was very little coverage. It was like a documentary. We would just shoot. But we never knew exactly was Harvey Keitel was gonna do. So coming off that and into Dangerous Game, which was really a studio film - 14 million dollar budget or whatever it was - the biggest problem there really was Madonna and her expectations of the film. She had a five page contract on her trailer, so you know... The chemistry between Madonna and Kietel just was not there. Personally I like the film. I think it's the most underrated of all Abel's films. Easily the most underrated.
Oh, I love it. I have loved it for years, such a long time.
Yeah. A lot of directors I have worked with, film directors and commercial film directors, they love the film. It's interesting because it's caught between the director's life, his marriage falling apart, and making this ponderous Mother of Mirrors heavy tale. And Madonna loved the movie at first, in its four hour cut, when it was her movie. When basically what happened is they restructured it and recut it to two hours, it went from being Madonna's movie to Harvey's movie. I mean, listen, it's the best acting she ever did. The best she will ever do in her life.
I have to agree.
Yeah, but Keitel is basically amazing. I mean he is just amazing in that film. There are two different plays. Madonna couldn't keep up. Harvey's big thing is the danger of the actor going through the dialogue. He is in character, the character is driving it, not someone else's words. Whereas I don't think she really had the chops to do that, to pull that off. I mean, my favourite shot is when Keitel says she's a commercial piece of shit.
I was going to mention that. I think that's an amazing shot. Her reaction is something else!
The look on her face, it's like she's been slapped. Look, I was surprised. I am not gonna put her down. But when Russo slugs her and knocks her wig back, I was not expecting it. They had all worked that out but they did not tell me. I almost blew the shot because I did not expect that at all. So there were a lot of pyrotechnics on the set. James Russo is one of the best actors out there. So you had Russo and Keitel, they can carry someone who doesn't have the chops. On the other hand, when you do not have that razor sharp ability, the best thing you are gonna do is go along with the show. Another thing is I never really understood what a shit magnet she is, critically I mean. So when the New York Post did their front page, it said "Madonna Movie Bombs"... that was the front fucking page!
The thing is, for me, toy wise it was great. I went from crappy stuff to better equipment, a great operator. I could basically carry the camera around on my shoulder. I shot it wide open. I had everything I wanted technically, shooting in the studio in Hollywood. That was great. It was a big change. It didn't necessarily make the movie any better but it made it easier to realise the technical aspect of the movie. I mean Bad Lieutenant is a better movie, because of that performance. Harvey Keitel should have won the Academy Award for that.
It shows how ridiculous the Academy is for not spotting that performance though. I mean, come on!
Come on, the Academy is run by old white guys. I think Bad Lieutenant opened a lot of doors for a lot of movies. Especially films like Trainspotting. And we could not have made a semi autobiographical movie, which is what Dangerous Game is, without making Bad Lieutenant first. I don't think so.
No. But I remember getting those two films in the late 1990s when I was a teenager. I actually bought them from a church jumble sale, believe it or not!
(Much laugher) Oh God!
Yeah, well I got them because I was big on Keitel at that point, with Reservoir Dogs, and I was a Madonna fan. I was stunned by Bad Lieutenant, and I read a lot of good things about it too in magazines. But I used to get frustrated, because no one has ever talked about Dangerous Game at all. It's a fantastic film and I really do think Madonna is great in it!
Yeah me too, I really do. I was actually surprised how she could even be in the same room as Harvey. I mean Harvey, when he wants to be, is one of the best actors who has ever walked the boards. Period! When he wants to be that is. I mean, The Piano... come on! Reservoir Dogs is good, but I am not a big fan of Tarantino. I do not know how Tarantino gets given so much money. I think Harvey's best stand out character is the Lieutenant. So when you get to his character in Dangerous Game... a lot of directors I speak to, they see themselves in that movie.
Well I was always curious about the stuff that Eddie Israel and Frank say to her, Madonna... all the put downs and the fact she is a commercial piece of shit. Just how much of that was worked out without her knowing? How much was worked out before the cameras started rolling, just off the cuff?
Well, there was a lot of improv on the set, a lot of different takes. Some stuff was scripted, other stuff was Harvey just going off and the other two responding. Listen, Abel is a guy who lets the actors make the decision. So that's part of his work. They say that casting is sixty percent of direction. But maybe I would even give it seventy five percent of direction. The deal with Abel is that he always casts incredible actors; Walken, Keitel, Willem Defoe, Dennis Hopper, Gerard Depardieu.. Actually, Blackout with Dennis Hopper is another underrated Abel film.
I think they all are underrated to be honest.
I think so too. Well, the thing is what happen with Abel is he doesn't get much of an advertising budget. You really need that. You get that problem with other movies, but more with Abel. So it's a shame. He's underrated.
Well the good thing is that he always gets to make what he wants. Well, I think he does. Does he have that freedom?
Yeah he does! That is the upside of it, that if you are making a studio film, you have the audience consideration, the casting and all the other stuff that comes along with it. There are two reasons to make an independent movie. One is if you are dealing with something outside the normal mainstream field. The other thing is with guys like Tarantino, who make their own version of the studio narrative style, cross a few barriers, but ultimately want to make big budget mainstream films.
So Dangerous Game was a great experience?
Yeah, Madonna was great. I had no problems with her., She was not a diva. There were some conflicts with Abel, but hey, in the end there are always some kind of problems. But the end product is the end product. And that's it...
Read the book on Kindle:
Here is a sample from my book CHARLIE CHAPLIN: THE COMPLETE FILM GUIDE, available on Amazon and eBay. This section focuses on the 1916 film, THE VAGABOND.
It was clear when he emerged with his next film, July 1916's The Vagabond, that Charlie Chaplin took on board the feedback of that one fan who thought he was repeating himself and relying too much on his past work. Though its location and setting was inspired on a comedic level, The Fireman had been something of a tired retread back into old ground, while The Vagabond was completely fresh, beautifully poetic and among the best films Charlie had made up to that point - which is quite a lot when you line up that filmography.
In many ways, The Vagabond is almost like a follow up to The Tramp, and not only because Chaplin's lovable little fellow was back at centre stage. Stylistically, in its presentation and tone, it shared the pathos and sad humour of the earlier film, but The Vagabond is also its own film completely. This time, the Tramp is a musician, a violinist in fact, who early on in the film has an unfortunate encounter in a bar with some competitive musicians. The film really gets interesting when Charlie leaves the dingy bar and heads outside, where he comes across a gypsy caravan. Here he meets the beautiful Edna Purviance, a downtrodden gypsy who enjoys Chaplin's violin playing but is dragged away by her cruel captor, Eric Campbell, who having kidnapped her, has her living a slave like existence. Thankfully, Chaplin is feeling brave and decides to step forward and rescue this fair maiden. After beating up her vicious keeper, Charlie and Edna ride away in the caravan and wake up the next day in a new life together. While Charlie makes some morning breakfast, Edna goes out to collect water. There she meets an artist and, quite quickly, ends up as his muse. A jealous Charlie finds himself sidelined in this new romance, and feels bitter given the circumstances of her escape from the gypsies. In the end however, despite leaving for the artist via limousine and being reunited with her mother for a "better" life, she realises Charlie is her true love and rushes back to the battered old caravan to embrace him. It's a rare happy ending for the Tramp, this time with no underlying sadness.
The Vagabond is, in short, a mini masterpiece. Chaplin's Tramp was so fixed in the world's collective mind by now that any scenario featuring him was bound to grip them from the start. When he enters the film, feet first I might add, as seen below the saloon doors, one can imagine the collected applause of many millions of moviegoers, content that their unlikely hero, the little fellow, had arrived on screen for his latest adventure. Chaplin is always brilliant of course, but here, as the Tramp yet again, desperate for any money he can raise with his sad violin, our hearts are his from the word go. We are on his side, plain and simple.
In the old Keystone days, The Vagabond would have surely stayed there in the bar. At this stage however, countless films into his career, mere bar room antics would have quickly become tiresome, and Charlie just may have received another letter from that most critical of fans. Wisely he decided to shift things away from the familiar. The Vagabond swiftly, four minutes into the film in fact, moves towards Edna. After his pub trouble, we see Edna's mother (in a nice, smooth side tracking shot) holding a picture of her lost beloved daughter, then cut to Purviance herself being manhandled by the vicious brute who has abducted her. Charlie mounts a fence and comes across this pretty woman, run down by her treatment, and opens his heart to her. The attraction and chemistry between the two comes exploding off the screen. Indeed, Edna says more with a glance and a slight smile than most modern actresses can do with a full scene of dialogue.
When Charlie puts it on himself to be her hero, the film takes a sharp turn. The contrast between Campbell's huge bulk and Chaplin's diminutive scrawniness raises a laugh, and naturally ensures we goad on his inevitable victory all the more. When they ride away triumphantly, one cannot help but be overcome with emotion that Charlie and sweet Edna are on the road to freedom. Chaplin, clever as always, then takes us on yet another twisted turn when we might least have excepted it, slipping away the joy we felt for Edna's escape from underneath us and making the Tramp a figure to pity when she meets another man and seemingly forgets about Charlie's brave kindness. Again though, ever the sensationalist to have us laughing one minute and weeping the next, Chaplin ensures the little fellow gets the girl. It's one of the most enthralling of Chaplin's early films (all this in 25 minutes or so!), with one of the most gratifying of finales.
All the elements in The Vagabond had been present before in Chaplin's best work before this, but The Vagabond feels like a step up. There is some fine slapstick early on, the obligatory daftness of that era of silent comedy, but the film then ensures we invest our hearts in the fate of the Tramp and Edna. She plays it wonderfully too, which helps a great deal, and there are genuinely touching moments between the pair; when he washes her face for instance, it's very moving.
Chaplin doesn't so much as manipulate our emotions, but leads them with developments so complete it's hard to resist, heading straight to the places he would like them to go, though he does so with such delicacy that we far from object. Indeed, the Tramp is sympathetic, so much so that it's impossible to dislike him. The way Charlie plays the jealous guy when she clicks with the artist is tastefully done too; so subtle in fact is his acting that we never feel like we have to be on his side, but rather choose to be. There is a great sequence when the artist and Edna are really connecting over the dinner table and a rather foolish Chaplin uses the tablecloth as a bib, acting more like the infant child with the two adults. Chaplin times it perfectly, as he does with all the film's vital moments. The careful acting ensures that, while the film is undoubtedly old fashioned, it is never corny, and we buy every second of Charlie and Edna's winding love story. It's played straight faced, without unnecessary dramatics and flamboyancy in the gestures and movements. Charlie was becoming a master of understanding his craft, and the audience who had paid to come and see it.
As actor and director, Chaplin arguably had done nothing better than The Vagabond up to that point. Though there were inspired moments in many works before it, there is a flow and togetherness about the film that ensures, for me at least, it established itself as a new high for the rapidly improving artist. The direction is similar to previous films, but it seems somehow sharper and straighter to the point, never indulging in fanciness for the sake of it and being very much for the film in keeping with its brisk pace. Chaplin once described a film as a tree, one which you must shake to remove all the dead weight. This theory is proven correct with The Vagabond.
In 2015 the BFI, who have released sublime editions of the Mutual movies, claimed The Vagabond to be Chaplin's first masterpiece. On their website, Graham Fuller writes, "Easy Street and The Immigrant are generally regarded as the best of the Mutuals. Almost as famous are The Pawnshop, for its plethora of visual gags, and The Rink, for the Tramp’s trouncing of the black-socketed heavy Eric Campbell on roller skates. Yet there’s a case to be made that The Vagabond, Chaplin’s third Mutual film and a reworking of his Essanay release The Tramp, was his pivotal work of the period – and his most touching."
Even fans of the film however have criticised aspects of The Vagabond; the happy ending for one is seen as a cop out (though it wins me over every time) and the idea of the Tramp settling down with Edna's upper class family, and them accepting him, is hard to swallow. Chaplin did apparently write an alternative ending where he tries to kill himself after being rejected by Edna by jumping into a river, but as no footage exists of this sequence David Robinson, the finest writer on Chaplin there is, says it's another Chaplin myth and should not be taken so seriously. It's plain to see that for once, for whatever reason he had, Chaplin wanted an upbeat ending, a traditional finale we might have seen in more straight forward dramatic films of the time. But for me it works, though I do love a downbeat Chaplin ending, pathos and all, as much as the next fan.
Get it on Amazon now:
Also, do yourself a favour and watch the film itself below... Might cheer you up if you're in the UK..
Here is a sample from my book on Buster Keaton's later years, this section focusing on an obscure TV special called THE AWAKENING...
Buster Keaton Gets Serious As the Man
Working outside his comfort zone, Keaton found himself being cast in more out-there productions on the small screen. In 1954 Buster appeared in an episode of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Presents, called The Awakening. It was remarkable for a few reasons. For one, Buster played it straight, and the results were truly fabulous. Called simply The Man in this wonderfully shot TV film, Buster takes centre stage in an update of Nikolai Gogol’s story and delivers a fantastic performance. I think it’s one of his finest efforts, a man showing his natural talent as an actor and using his charisma to get by, without the aid of falls and gags. It was another edge to the Keaton prism.
As the bureaucrat who rebels against the strict regime of the machine (we are in Orwellian 1984-esque territory here), Buster’s part was rumoured to be a reference to the red fears of the 1950s, and The Awakening was being whispered about as an anti communism piece of propaganda disguising itself as entertainment. Though you might be excused for labeling it a Better Red Than Dead piece of metaphorical mind control, that’s just too lazy a conclusion to come to. Besides, Fairbanks Jr. was adamant it was not the case. “Our story is anywhere or nowhere," he enigmatically explained. "The time; yesterday, today or in the tomorrows to come.”
The story itself, with Keaton being in charge of a sizable database listing all the notable and minute details about people’s lives, seems more relevant today than ever before, especially in regards to Facebook, social media and the control the digital medium has on us all. Fairbanks, in his introduction, says it’s a film about a man who forgets the true meaning of freedom, and is willing to sacrifice himself on the altar. For American TV, it was deep stuff.
The plot moves on when Keaton goes to a tailor and asks him to fix up a coat. But the tailor deems it unfixable. “What am I, a tailor or a magician?” asks the tailor, pointing to the rubbish people bring him. When the tailor advises Keaton to invest in a new coat, Buster is shocked when he is told it will cost 200 dollars. “I can’t afford a new coat!” he objects, “I have hardly any money.” Regardless, Buster/The Man saves up his money and purchases the coat, and then notices things have changed for him. People treat him better and elevate him above themselves. When his coat is stolen however, he goes on a downward spiral, messes up the system at work and ends up in prison. Keaton’s Man rebels, and takes out the figure of authority, The Chief. Then he wakes up in the tailor’s shop, clear that the whole mess has all been a dream. In the real world, the tailor convinces The Man to get his new coat, and he agrees to have it made as some kind of feeble act of revolt.
From his opening scene, Keaton is a natural at drama, but his smooth transition into the serious territory comes as no surprise to seasoned Buster fans, and in fact makes a lot of sense. Though in movies for the technicalities and the thrill of assembling a picture, he was also in it for the laughs. Though he made the globe chuckle with hysteria, he never laughed himself. The key was to always play it straight, to move as few facial muscles as possible. In light of this, a drama such as this seems to be a realistic progression. He applies that Great Stone Face wonderfully and delivers his dialogue like a pro. Lest we forget, Keaton may have made his name in silent films, but at this point he had a couple of decades worth of talkies behind him too. For a man who started on the broad vaudevillian stage fifty years earlier, and connected to his viewers not with words, but with the purity of his own breed of physical language, he excels triumphantly. The story is effective and well written, delivering valid messages on free will and thinking while coming to a conclusion about what freedom really is, but Buster and his subtle efforts are what last in the memory long after viewing.
Fairbanks Jr. was thrilled to be working with the old legend and later stated, “There was quite a lot of discussion and interest in it, and I don’t think there was one negative reaction that I could remember for it. I remember everybody praising what Buster did and how he did it. It struck me as a beautiful idea - a novel idea - to put him in a straight part, because he was such a beautiful actor and a great talent. Like any good artist, he would experiment with different ways of reading a line, looking, moving, or interpreting a particular scene. He would try it out and, with the aid of the director [Michael McCarthy], the writers worked out different ideas. He was very creative. He was quite an inspiration on all the young people on the set. There was the uniqueness of the story itself, plus the artistry of this great talent which was Keaton. I was one of the many who regarded Keaton as a great artist, and I was so pleased when I was able to convince him to play a serious part in one of my TV movies.”
The teleplay script by Laurence B Marcus is tremendous, and provides food for thought in our soulless digital age. It’s scattered with brilliant observations and nuggets of social-political satire, but one line in particular stays with me; when Keaton is being trialed and he says, with all the conviction he can muster, “This system which reduces a broken heart to a number in a catalog”. One can only imagine how strong this would have been if fleshed out as a feature length movie. Seeing the mini film as evidence for Keaton’s skilled straight acting, The Awakening is extraordinary, and one can only dream about what kind of sub career he might have had if he had landed more dramatic parts on screen.