TALES FROM LOS ALAMOS

The character of J. Frank Parnell, played by Fox Harris in the original REPO MAN, was an invention. I’d read enough about the Neutron Bomb to make me speculate on the sanity of its creator, and to create a fictional dramatic character based on that person. But I didn’t know Sam Cohen at the time, and Parnell and Cohen were distinct in numerous ways, while being just as insane.

Now an email from Robby in Los Alamos arrives, to relate the following strange tale…

“I’m writing to tell you thank you for creating Repo Man so many years ago. I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and when your film came out in 1984 it showed at the Los Alamos movie theater. Half of Los Alamos High School were beyond thrilled that our town was featured in the opening map scene, and the portrayal of the scientist in the film was beyond perfect. Your film came out at a time when we were just getting introduced to punk rock and all that (information moved slowly up to the mountains in New Mexico), so it was just perfect for us.

“I’ve read online about your call from Sam Cohen, the father of the Neutron Bomb, and that’s really interesting. We had some really amazing characters in Los Alamos, oddball scientists and their weird families and all (I’m probably included in that!), but when your film was released, we all thought it was based on a Los Alamos scientist named Ken Ewing. By most accounts he was legally blind, and would walk around town talking to himself, wearing a fannie-pack and had these thick, crazy taped-up glasses. He’d go to all the art openings and gorge himself on the free food, and would have that same 1000-yard stare and freakish demeanor that the scientist character you portrayed in the film had. It was beyond uncanny. When the film premiered in town, all of us yelled “Ken Ewing!! when the scientist character first appeared. it was just too coincidental how similar they were.

“Ken was a neighbor and my parents knew him from the amateur archaeological society they were all volunteering for. For his daytime job, Ken was an explosives expert. He never mowed his lawn (much to the consternation of his neighbors), to make sure the horned toads could have a good habitat. He lived with his mother until she died, and kept on living at the run-down house. He was an avid hiker, I don’t think he drove, and to get downtown it was a good 5-mile walk up and down canyons and stuff, he’d chug along talking to himself, wearing an old parka and a fannie pack…”

I never knew about Ken, but am sure he fit right in with the nuclear labs crowd. And to his credit he supported the horny toads! Robby reports that the Los Alamos High School almost voted REPO MAN their 1984 Class Film, but it lost to RISKY BUSINESS. Instead, they arranged to have the film re-played in the cinema on graduation night, at midnight.

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TO LOS ANGELES

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Pearl of the Pacific and at the end of next week I’ll be in Hollywood CA to present four fims at the American Cinematheque: EL PATRULLERO (HIGHWAY PATROLMAN) and WALKER on Friday 15 March; and REPO MAN and TOMBSTONE RASHOMON on Saturday 16 March. Both screenings start at 1930hrs at the Egyptian Theater.

This is the LA premiere of TOMBSTONE RASHOMON and also of the new 4K transfer of EL PATRULLERO, which got a very nice write-up from J. Hoberman. I’m hoping that Lorenzo O’Brien, who wrote and produced EL PATRULLERO and produced WALKER, will be there on Friday, if his NARCOS duties permit.

The REPO and TOMBSTONE screening may be of interest since it’s a double bill of my first feature – released 35 years ago; US rights just reverted to me! – and my most recent one. An opportunity to see if I’ve improved, or only got worse.

There will be a Q&A between shows on both evenings. (UPDATE: The first evening was attended by my dear friend Zander Schloss, composer of EL PATRULLERO and Strummer’s partner on the WALKER soundtrack. Dick Rude and Olivia Barash from REPO MAN and Eric Schumacher and Rogelio Camarillo from TOMBSTONE RASHOMON were present the following evening, as were Lorenzo, and Merritt Crocker, producer of TOMBSTONE. Thanks for your presence, and to the American Cinematheque for two great evenings.)

10000Ways-1.1Also! Entirely unconnected, I’ve completed the second edition of my Italian Western book, TEN THOUSAND WAYS TO DIE, which will be coming out from Kamera Books later in the year. Just received this attractive piece of cover art, in my favourite colour.

MORE BRUEGEL

I can’t stop thinking about that Bruegel exhibition. Now I wish that I had bought the catalogue first, read it from cover to cover, and then seen the show. Twice.

Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have spent time looking at the sketches or the prints — they are handsomely reproduced in the catalogue. I would have spent the whole time studing the paintings. And not taken my camera along on day two.

The camera had its advantages, though. I now have a ton of detailed images from Dulle Grillet and The Triumph of Death (the image of Mad Meg in the catalogue is pretty messed up, since they’ve managed to put her face on a two-page spread right where the staples are. But in general it’s still a nice book). And some of the more interesting pictures I took are the ones which show a bit of the crowd, as well…

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The Battle Between Carnival And Lent

On the day I visited, it was a pretty old crowd. White haired codgers like myself, for the most part. I’m sure the school parties had been hustled through earlier in the day. But the oldsters were all having a good old time with the Elder’s paitings.

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The Triumph of Death

Check out the expressions of those viewing The Triumph of Death. The man in front seems appropriately perturbed, but the people behind him look rapt with delight! Or fascination. While this view of the Rotterdam Tower of Babel becomes for me even more haunting and intimidating seen over the shoulders of others…

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The Tower of Babel

It turns out that Gratz, home of one of the two divergent copies of The Triumph of Death, which I mentioned in the last post, is not far from Vienna, in another museum filled with extraordinary stuff. So I have a new excuse to visit Austria, when I next pay a visit to my mum…

BRUEGEL IN VIENNA

To Vienna, to see the Bruegel exhibition at the Kunst Historisches Museum.

It’s the largest Bruegel show ever – two thirds of his paintings, and many of his sketches and the prints thereof. If you like Breugel and can make the trip, you should. Sixteenth century paintings don’t travel well, and it’s unlikely that so many of the Elder’s works will ever be assembled in one place again.

The first piece of art I ever took an interest in came on loan from the local library in Bebington. It was a tiny print of his Triumph of Death – just the kind of thing a morbid fourteen-year-old Wirralian would love. When I lived in Tabernas I made multiple trips to Madrid to visit the Prado – still my favourite art museum – and never failed to visit The Triumph, and Bosch’s Hay Wain, located nearby. Though the subject matter is in theory different, the two paintings have a lot in common… but I’ll save those observations for another time. When I last went to the Prado, in January of this year, The Triumph was gone – off for conservation work in Brussels. From there it went straight to Vienna, where I caught up with it yesterday.

The show is a bargain at 20 euros (which includes the rest of the museum, including a selection of art pieces drawn from the stacks by the American film director, Wes Anderson, and his partner – some of which are fascinating). But beware! There are big crowds at the Bruegel show, and you have to buy a ticket with a specified entrance time. I’d planned to spend two days at the Museum, but on the day I arrived, Bruegel was sold out. On the second day I couldn’t get in until 15:50 hrs. Usually the Museum closes at 18:00, but fortunately it was a Thursday, when the place stays open till 21:00. (In theory you can jump the queue by paying 30 euros, but in fact you can’t – the queue-jumper tickets are limited, and on both days were sold out.)

The exhibition begins at the beginning with early landscape drawings. The first painting is The Drunk Cast into the Pigsty, borrowed from a private collection (so if you don’t see it here, you may never see it at all). Next come pastoral scenes painted much later: including Hunters in the Snow, a lovely painting full of irony: two hunters with their posse of 13 dogs return with a single dead fox to show for their efforts. These are the famous winter paintings which include much ice-skating. After the prints of seven vices and seven virtues (which you could spend many hours on), more big paintings appear – The Battle Between Carnival and Lent and Childrens’ Games. These, I learned, are called “wimmelbild” – busy pictures. You probably know them both (they are quite famous, and part of the Museum’s permanent collection).

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After several seafaring prints and paintings (the Elder was clearly knowledgeable about how ships were built and sailed) we enter a room which features two more large paintings: The Triumph, and Dulle Grillet. The catalogue gets a bit forlorn at this point, as the exhibition wasn’t able to include The Fall of The Rebel Angels, which like the other two is hugely influenced by Bosch. Why The Fall wasn’t included isn’t clear. Some of Breugel’s paintings – such as The Blind Leading The Blind – are too frail to travel. Perhaps this was the case with The Fall, which remains in Brussels (however, The Sermon of John the Baptist was denied an export license by the Hungarian authorities – it remains in a private collection, so we may never get to see it at all).

But what wonders The Triumph and Dulle Grillet are! Both were recently restored at the same place, and the work done is marvellous. The colours in The Triumph are much improved; its vision of multiple skeletons rampaging across a ruined landscape, stabbing, hanging, murdering, catching humans in nets or driving them into a hideous box, is clearer and more timely than it’s ever been. As the catalogue observes, by the standards of the sixteenth century, this is a very odd painting. Unlike Bosch’s Last Judgement (which I saw at the Theatre Museum the same day), there is no God and there are no angels: no one escapes death, no one is found worthy of heaven, all are doomed. For some reason this painting isn’t described as a “wimmelbild” although it certainly looks like one.

The Triumph of Death is a very contemporary painting. I love and admire it still, and yet… I think I admire Dulle Grillet even more. This – using a similar colour palate and technique – depicts the harrowing of Hell, by an army of women, led by the eponymous Mad Margaret. I’m not a Christian and so won’t attempt any theological explanation. All I know about the harrowing of Hell comes from Caryl Churchill’s great play Top Girls, in which D.G. recounts invading and ransacking the Devil’s kingdom. She is the largest character to appear in any Bruegel painting yet – with a metal helmet, lugging a sword, a knife, and much booty, including a frying pan. Again, there is no judgement or redemption in the painting: just a nightmare Boschian landscape full of monsters, and a band of women, led by Margaret, battling the monsters and the men.

I could have spent a day looking at just these two paintings. But the crowds were thick, and the next room presented a sight almost as tremendous: two paintings of the Tower of Babel. The large one, perhaps slightly more famous and familiar, is part of the Museum’s permanent collection. The smaller painting, on loan from Rotterdam, depicts a tower twice as high (you can tell from the size of the tiny figures at work on the massive structures). Either painting takes the viewer’s breath away. If you would like to see them side by side, make haste to the Kunst Historisches Museum.

The exhibition winds down with Peasant Wedding and Peasant Dance, paintings in which the landscape and backdrop give way to larger, foreground characters. Near the end is another small painting: the two chained monkeys, borrowed from Berlin, with a fascinating side display showing the stages in which the artist created the work.

Seeing the paintings all together in one place enables one to make connections which might otherwise be missed. Do the two monkeys reappear in a window in Hell, looking out over the battle of women against all in Dulle Grillet? A sightless face-mask appears at least twice: worn by a child in a window in Children’s Games, and again by a skeleton, pouring away wine (no longer needed!) in The Triumph of Death.

If I could wish for anything (besides all the missing Bruegels), it would be for the exhibition to include one of two copies of The Triumph, made, perhaps, by the painter’s nephew Jean. Both were done around the turn of the century, and reside in Gratz and Lichtenstein, I think. They are not exact copies: a man in a blue robe, captured by a skeleton, is depicted with a red robe in the re-makes – so he is a Cardinal (his captor also wears a red Cardinal’s hat). It would be nice to see two or three Triumphs side by side! But this is the old guy’s exhibition, and it has its priorities.

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Two notes about Vienna, where I had never been before. I was trepidatious about travelling there, since I speak no German, and even less Austro-Bavarian: but of course almost everyone I met spoke English, and was entirely welcoming. And in three days I didn’t see a single baseball cap. Not one. Is this a cultural sea-change?

The Bruegel exhibition ends on January 13. If you like the old guy, and can afford the trip, well, you just must go.

ITALIAN WESTERNS IN TUCSON, ARIZONA

If you find yourself in the American Southwest during the month of August, please feel free to visit The Loft Cinema in Tucson, any Sunday. You’ll find me there, deosa volenti, introducing four of what I think are the best of these films, and hawking copies of my book, 10,000 Ways To Die – about Italian Westerns.

The films are FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, screening on Sunday 5 August; Lizzani’s REQUIESCANT, screening the following Sunday; Questi’s SE SEI VIVO SPARA / DJANGO KILL! on 19 August, and Corbucci’s IL GRANDE SILENZIO / THE BIG SILENCE on the 26th.

IL GRANDE SILENZIO is a new HD transfer and looks very nice: it’s Corbucci’s masterpiece, and one of a bleak handful of Westerns-in-the-Snow. You’ve perhaps seen DJANGO KILL! on DVD or even VHS, but the experience of watching this insane and brilliant picture in the theatre cannot be beat. REQUIESCANT is almost as demented, with a fabulous cast of villains and a Pier Paolo Pasolini in a supporting role, as a revolutionary priest.

If you’re in Tucson, come on by!

Cox and Lizzani, 1984(The illustrative image, by the way, is of my younger self shaking hands with Carlo Lizzani, director of REQUIESCANT. He was directing a play in Rome. I had just made REPO MAN, my first film. Perhaps you can see my Jesse Jackson for President badge… Lizzani was a very gracious man to waste time shaking hands with such a bozo when he had his play to attend.)

TWO GOODBYES

Sad news from the diaspora of REPO MAN. Robby Muller, the cinematographer, and Martin Turner, the stills photographer, both died last week. Robby’s passing was noted by the MSM, and he was rightly celebrated for some of the wonderful work he did. Our hiring him for REPO MAN was strictly fortuitous: Michael Nesmith, our executive producer, had rejected my first choice of cameraperson. Peter McCarthy told me, “Take this as an opportunity. Now you can ask for anyone you want!” Having been awestruck by his work on THE AMERICAN FRIEND, I asked for Robby Muller. Nesmith was all in favour, and we got him. It was his second American film.

Robby was a genius of lighting, and of composition. He didn’t like closeups, preferring wider shots which celebrated the performances of all the actors in the frame. He wasn’t much interested in camera movement when we worked together. On his other American film he’d been given a Steadicam. He and his crew took it out of the boxes, marvelled at how heavy it was, put it back in the boxes, and used them to sit on.

Robby was a great artist – as was Martin Turner, though he’s perhaps known to fewer people. “Stills photographer” doesn’t do justice to his work on REPO MAN, as he was also a supporting actor and – together with Jonathan Wacks – came up with the concept for the film’s finale. I met Martin at film school – what was then the Radio, Film and TV Studies course at Bristol. He and David Hutt made a highly ambitious student film called NEARLY WIDE AWAKE, based on Knut Hamsen’s “Hunger.” (We paid no attention to things like Copyright! We were students!) I acted in it.

Martin worked for Lindsay Anderson in the art department on THE OLD CROWD and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL. He was responsible for the slide show which the guests in THE OLD CROWD enjoy, and which causes the death of “Tottie.” THE OLD CROWD greatly offended the London critical fraternity, and is rarely seen. I don’t know if a DVD exists. [Update — THE OLD CROWD does exist on DVD! A friend has found it in a set of TV Dramas by Alan Bennett, available on the Network label: Network clearly have good taste since they also distribute THE PRISONER.] But it is a wonderful film – perhaps Anderson’s best work of all, part Buñuel, part Brecht – and Martin had a lot to do with its insane inventiveness.

Back in the days of a government quango called “British Screen” Martin wrote two very good feature screenplays: THE BATTLE OF TORREMOLINOS and INTO A DESERT PLACE (the latter was an adaptation of Graham Mackintosh’s book about travelling Baja California on foot; I was to direct it). I thought them great scripts. But times were increasingly conservative, money was said to be scarce, and if you didn’t have a TV personality from The Young Ones or The Comic Strip pre-cast, it was hard to get a British film going. Too bad! Because they were great stories – especially TORREMOLINOS, an original script in which Martin pitted the English hooligan class against itself, and everything else, in a Spanish seaside tower block.

Martin was also a painter and sculptor. He painted a number of canvases depicting dreadful scenes from THE BATTLE OF TORREMOLINOS, and received a commission to display them at the Torremolinos Festival of Comedy, some years later. Martin and our mutual friend Karl Braun hung all the artwork, and went around the corner for a beer. In their absence the President of the Festival arrived, saw Martin’s art works, and ordered the building locked until the offending paintings could be removed.

Somehow Martin’s stories seemed to end that way: a great idea, a great piece of creative art somehow uncreated, or unseen, or banned, or – in the case of THE OLD CROWD – completed then mercilessly disparaged by clowns. No matter! Martin did his work. in the footsteps of Derek Jarman he moved to Dungeness, where he bought a lighthouse and renovated it, with his own hands. His wonderful partner, Brenda Morris, died a few years ago. Martin died at the lighthouse, at the end of last week. He’s survived by an ace daughter, Kathryn.

drunken turner Picture of Martin in his nautical days, by David Hutt.

CACTUS DISASTER IN SPAIN

About a week ago I went to Almeria in the south of Spain to visit my pal, Rafa. He picked me up at night, and so I didn’t see what had happened until the next morning. Then I set out for a walk up the hill to the old ruined Moorish castle, as you do. And I encountered this:

Nopal_Disaster_1 copyYou’re looking at a forest of dead nopal cactus. What the gringos call prickly pear, and the Spanish call la chumbera. Fried to dessicated chunks of black or brown. It’s as if a wildfire had torn up the hillside, and burned only the cactus.

Years ago, when I lived in Tabernas, Malcolm McLaren came to visit: he and his wife were staying in the beautiful hotel in the Alhambra, and Charley Braun and I had driven over to meet him and extol the virtues of the Tabernas desert, where we had a little office supposedly dedicated to the production of feature films. We took McLaren on a tour, which included a scramble up the side of that hill, back when it was thickly garlanded by clusters of spine-covered nopales.

Now Malcolm was a very intelligent and knowledgeable person. He had managed the Sex Pistols, and had just released a wonderful album of his own –Madam Butterfly. But he was not worldly in a desert-oriented sense. As our little party neared the castle walls, I looked back down and saw Malcolm pulling himself up the hill by holding onto the cactus bushes… Mrs. McLaren spent the rest of the afternoon extracting spines from her husband’s hands, as the rest of us marvelled at how many of them there were.

Not any more. The “cactus plague” has blasted all spines and living tissue away.

Nopal_Disaster_2 copyThe disaster began to unfold in Murcia in 2012. Apparently a company making lipstick dyes had imported a large number of cochinilla insects from the Canary Islands; the bugs escaped and immediately swarmed the province’s nopal cactus, planting eggs and killing them. When I visited Tabernas in 2013 the town and the hillside were still verdant with nopales. They are all dead now. Over the last five years the bugs have swept across Andalucia, wiping out nopal populations in Valencia, Albacete, Almeria and Granada.

I saw some stands, sick-looking but surviving, near the coast in Almeria, and from the train north of Guadix. But it is a disaster both ecological and aesthetic. The nopales were an invasive species, brought back by the Conquistadores, but they produced outstanding fruit (and rajas) and were a vision of green beauty in an arid land.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA As you can see, the colour version of this history is even sadder than the infrared.