Oooh Betty

Originally published August 2010

One of the pleasures of living in a big city is the cosmopolitan cultural pleasures it offers and when I was a fresh-from-college designer working in London in the late 1980s I took full advantage and went through a phase of seeing tons of foreign films. And there were a lot to see too, back then it seemed like every week you’d open Time Out and there’d be a Jean De Florette, Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Au Revoir les Enfants, Cinema Paradiso, or Delicatessen that was packing them in at The Lumiere, Screen On The Green, Chelsea Cinema, or the Riverside Studios, and few things made me feel more like a sophisticated boy-about-town really living the metropolitan life than going to see a film with subtitles.

The one that really reminds me of that era and stuck with me ever since (not just for the reasons you might think) was Betty Blue from 1986 which is about the Frenchiest French movie I’ve ever seen. The plot is the classic Gallic cinema story of l’amour fou or “crazy love” with everything turned up to 11: a man living in a state of existential ennui falls for a wild, emotionally-unstable girl given to burning down houses and stabbing people with forks. They spend most of the film bonking the merde out of each other and the affair leads to madness and death — Fin.

It was something of a succés de scandale at the time because of the amount of naked flesh on display and the lusty nature of their rumpy-pumpy — as a friend of mine said at the time about it’s notorious opening scene: “that’s not making love, that’s fucking. But it was also memorable for the explosive performance of the astonishing-looking Beatrice Dalle as Betty.

Betty had to be played by an actress who could make you believe a man would happily follow her to Paris even after she had attacked his boss and set fire to his house, and Dalle was the sort of girl who could make you kill your own mother if she asked you to. I used to wonder if there was a factory in France somewhere that did nothing but turn out pouty nymphettes for their movies as there seemed to be a never-ending stream of them from Bardot onwards and Dalle looked like the model they produced the day they had an excess of parts to use up, giving her the most swollen bee-sting lips and biggest gap-toothed Gallic overbite you’ve ever seen. She looked like she’d just been punched in the face but also almost obscenely sensual as if she was permanently quivering with sex and just one look could melt you to a puddle on the spot.

I was a little obsessed with the film for a while, buying the video, poster, soundtrack album, and the (excellent) novel it was based on. If they made Betty Blue underpants I probably would have bought those too. Several years later while living in Florida I had a fling with a “Betty” of my own too: a dark-haired girl with the same voluptuous lips and big wonky overbite together with the same volcanic emotional ups and downs. Girls like that can be addictive, like Betty’s lover Zorg I put up with all sorts of crazy behaviour and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t worth it. Men, we’re such idiots sometimes.

Aside from it’s luscious cinematography the other part of the movie that was as gorgeous as Dalle was the superb soundtrack by Gabriel Yared, one of the few scores I can listen to on it’s own as a piece of music, with the best saxaphone theme in a movie since Taxi Driver.

Download: Betty et Zorg – Gabriel Yared (mp3)
Download: C’Est Le Vent, Betty – Gabriel Yared (mp3)


The Dark Stuff

Originally published June 2013

A lot of 1970s cinema was a reflection of the decade itself: grim, cynical, often violent, with very few happy endings. It was also the era when I started going to the pictures seriously — meaning without parents and not to see some Disney or Ray Harryhausen movie — so my initial grown-up cinematic education was in films like Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, Eraserhead, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I first saw all of those in my late teens, mostly at late-night showings in small art-house cinemas with my schoolmate Martin who had an old Mini that made coming home from the movies at 2am a lot easier.

Our favourite haunt was the Paris Pullman cinema in Fulham (long closed now) which showed a late-night double bill of cult movies every weekend that attracted the sort of night-owl crowd of punks, hippies, insomniacs, film nerds, and other reprobates who you imagine would be up for seeing both The Exorcist and Dawn of The Dead after the pubs had closed. It was a shabby but friendly little place and, despite the “No Smoking” sign on the wall, the air was always thick with the smoke of cigarettes and other, um…substances. If we didn’t fancy what was showing there we usually ended up at the Scene cinema on Wardour Street (also closed now) which showed a double bill of Taxi Driver and Midnight Express that must have run for about 10 years. We never got tired of going to that.

Like most young men with pretentions and a sense of intellectual superiority we loved these films because they were edgy and gritty, often taboo and morally murky, which at that age you think is more “real” and meaningful than mainstream culture which seems fake and plastic — and not cool — in comparison. Plus, there was violence and the occasional naked woman, that’s always good.

Now you can pretty much see any film you want, whenever you want, in the comfort of your own home, there’s no need to check Time Out every week to see what’s on and then sit in a musty, dark room with a bunch of strangers. But that convenience probably won’t give you the same illicit thrill I had as a teenager being in a little fleapit cinema in the wee small hours watching Robert DeNiro shoot some guy’s hand off, Linda Blair doing obscene things with a crucifix, and whatever the hell was going on with those baby chickens in Eraserhead.

I lost count of the amount of times we saw Taxi Driver back then so it’s the defining film of that era for me, not least because of its terrific Bernard Herrmann soundtrack with that gorgeous saxaphone which just reeks of seedy urban jungles and late nights in dark rooms.

Download: “Taxi Driver” Main Titles – Bernard Herrmann (mp3)
Download: I Still Can’t Sleep/They Cannot Touch Her (Betsy’s Theme) – Bernard Herrmann (mp3)

Day Dreaming

Doris Day was one of those stars you think is going to live forever and I’m genuinely upset that she’s gone. She was always there, from watching her films on the telly as a kid with my mum — our favourite was Young At Heart with Frank Sinatra — right up to my own daughter going through a cowgirl phase and loving Calamity Jane.

Though probably more famous now for the fluffy rom-coms she made in the 60s (which are mostly delightful) I prefer the films she made, as the joke goes, before she was a virgin. In movies like Calamity Jane, Love Me Or Leave Me, The Pajama Game, and Teacher’s Pet she was an acting and singing double threat with a firecracker presence. Watch her opposite big male screen icons like Cagney, Gable, and Sinatra, and she more than holds her own. Not that it means anything but I thought she was dead sexy too.

I think her huge mainstream popularity and sunny, sweet image meant that she was always underrated. In 1962 she made the album Duet with the Andre Previn Trio and shines in the intimate, cabaret setting, showing what a great Jazz vocalist she was. I just wish she’d recorded more stuff like this.

Download: Close Your Eyes – Doris Day with The Andre Previn Trio (mp3)

The Pictures

I watched Goldfinger on the telly with my son the other week. It was his first Bond film and I was very happy that when it ended and the line “Bond will be back in Thunderball” appeared on screen he asked if we could watch that one too. More than happy actually, I came over quite sentimental because watching Bond films was always something I did with my dad — including those two which we saw on a double bill. The first one I actually saw at the pictures was OHMSS with my mum, but I saw them all from Diamonds Are Forever to The Spy Who Loved Me with my dad, mostly in Leicester Square the first week they were out.

My old man was a real movie nut and going to the pictures was always his default thing to do whenever he took me and my sister out for the day. There were occasional trips to places like Windsor Safari Park and Richmond Common but nine times out of ten we saw a movie (we never went to a museum for some reason) so a lot of my childhood memories of my dad are related to that.

Besides all the Bond and Disney films, I saw Jaws, Star Wars, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, Close Encounters, and, um, Digby, The Biggest Dog In The World with him — even Zulu, which he took us to twice when it was re-released (he loved that movie). I also watched a lot of old films on the telly with my mum and thanks to her was never one of those kids who didn’t like black and white films or musicals.

So I feel like I’m carrying on a tradition when my kids enjoy an old movie or, especially, when I take them to the pictures and they can experience the thrill of sitting in the dark watching something magical on a big screen — and it nearly always is magic when you’re a kid, way better than a movie at home. The first film my daughter saw at the cinema was How To Train Your Dragon, and her brother Big Hero 6. Those visits meant almost as much to me as their first words and first steps, on both occasions my heart swelled with nostalgia and thoughts of my Dad.

They saw Jaws for the first time last year and I’m not exaggerating much when I say that I had been looking forward to showing them that since the day they were born. My daughter was more upset by the dog being eaten than Alex Kitner, and my son declared that he never wanted to swim in the ocean ever again which I think means it was a success. I swear I got a bigger kick out of that than if he’d told me he loved All Mod Cons.

Download: He Took Her To A Movie – Ladytron (mp3)

Numanoids Dream of Electric Sheep

Seeing as we are now living in the year that Blade Runner was set I thought I’d repost this from May 2017.

There’s a Blade Runner sequel coming out later this year which you may or may not be wetting your pants about. Though the original is regarded by many as a classic now it wasn’t when it came out in 1982. It got mixed reviews and wasn’t a big hit either. Even the cast were a bit dubious about it. I saw it at the pictures back then and remember being a bit underwhelmed too. Obviously it was a visual knockout but I thought the script was clunky, Harrison Ford was dull, and his voice-over narration like something out of a bad “hard-boiled” detective novel.

A lot of great films are underappreciated at first, but Ridley Scott must have thought it had problems too otherwise he wouldn’t have kept tinkering with it over the years. I have a DVD set with three different versions of the film and apparently there are seven in all. I do like it more now than I did in 1982 and watch it whenever I want to inhale some pure cinematic eye candy, but I still don’t love it as much as some people or take it as seriously as it does itself.

The film might have been a flop but I’m sure Scott made a few quid out of these ads he did for Barclays Bank.

As any fule knos, Blade Runner was based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which differs from the movie in several ways. In the book Deckard takes the job of killing the androids because he wants the money to buy a real animal to replace his robot sheep. The terms “Blade Runner” and “Replicant” aren’t in it either. I still have no idea why a cop who kills androids would be called a Blade Runner which always sounded like a generically meaningless Hollywood title to me (in fact it comes from a completely different science fiction story).

Philip K. Dick was one of those cult authors often name-dropped by Post-Punk musicians in their NME interviews along with William Burroughs and JG Ballard. Their dystopian visions of alienation, drugs, violence, and tower blocks made them perfect for the bleak late-70s mood, and a well-thumbed paperback of one of their books was a lifestyle accessory as essential to the moody young man as a copy of Unknown Pleasures. Joy Division’s “Atrocity Exhibition” was named after a Ballard novel, and The Human League called their first demo The Taverner Tape after a character in Dick’s novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.

But Dick’s biggest influence was on young Gary Numan. With its songs about androids (Machmen) who murder humans, and characters with false memories (“Little white lies like ‘I was there'”), Tubeway Army’s 1979 album Replicas is basically Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? set to music. Just the title alone of “Are ‘Friends’ Electric?” shows the influence of the novel. On top of that, Numan often acted like a robot pretending to be human himself. I wonder if he would pass the Voight-Kampff Test.

I sometimes think that Replicas might have been an influence on Ridley Scott and the movie. Numan’s dark synth music and vision of shadowy figures in long coats and grey hats smoking cigarettes certainly evokes the noir atmosphere of Blade Runner more than the trippy and paranoid discombobulation of the book. I even wondered if the scriptwriter got the word “Replicant” from the album title, but apparently not. That’s another great theory ruined by internet research.

Download: Me! I Disconnect From You – Tubeway Army (mp3)

Grim All Over

Originally published December 2006. The second ever post on this blog. The general shittiness of 1970s England was to become a theme.

Just how bleak were the 1970s in England? Well, we had a miner’s strike that brought down the government, power cuts that plunged homes into cold darkness, a 3-day work week, bombs going off in pubs, the Winter of Discontent, the National Front, a bankrupt treasury, and “Love Thy Neighbour” on television. No wonder brown was the dominant color for home decoration back then, very appropriate for a country totally in the shit.

Things were so grim that even our pop stars were making depressing movies. First there was pretty boy David Essex dying of a drug overdose at the end of Stardust, and then Slade came up with Slade In Flame in 1975. Given their image as fun-lovin’ glam bovver boys who wrote simple, dyslexic songs, you’d expect a colourful “Help!”-style romp but what you got was a gritty, cynical kitchen-sink drama about the rise and bitter break up of a Northern rock band. Though it had it’s funny moments it was generally as dour as an old Yorkshireman at closing time. If Ken Loach made a rock and roll movie it would have been like this. I only saw it once and remember liking it but my best friend at school was a Slade fanatic and claimed to have seen it 13 times.

The movie’s theme “How Does It Feel?” was another bitter pill and is probably the only time you could ever use the word “plaintive” about a Slade record. I think this is one of the best singles of the 70s, a reflective, melancholy ballad built around some very non-Slade things like piano and flute and a massive wall of brass. There’s something about that brass sound that reeks of leather coats and dirty pavements, I can’t really explain why. Much as I love their mindless headbanging numbers this gem shows that Noddy Holder and Jimmy Lea could write proper songs – with proper spelling too!

The British public didn’t warm to Slade as serious artistes, the movie wasn’t a big smash and “How Does It Feel?” was their first single in three and half years that failed to make the Top 10, so they reverted back to being cartoon characters and stayed that way ever since. Shame. a few more songs like this and their reputation could have been very different.

Download: How Does It Feel? – Slade (mp3)

Stiff Upper Lips

Originally published February 2009

Alec: We know we really love each other. That’s true. That’s all that really matters.
Laura: It isn’t all that really matters. Other things matter too. Self-respect matters, and decency.

Brief Encounter is one of those lovely old British movies full of plummy voices, stiff upper lips, and dreary tea rooms which the BBC used to show all the time on Sunday afternoons (along with Genevieve, The Way To The Stars, and The Dam Busters). Its atmosphere of monochrome miserablism was perfectly suited to that post-lunch, rainy Sunday dead zone where there was nothing better to do than sit in front of the fire and watch a great old movie.

The picture of England these films painted was of a genteel and polite country which probably only exists today in the minds of ageing Daily Mail readers. It was a place of deference and impeccable manners where the last thing anyone wants to do is cause a scene or, God forbid, get all emotional about something.

It’s a cliché about us English that we’re all a bit reserved and repressed and in Brief Encounter Alec and Laura are like the poster children for stiff English formality, living in a buttoned-up world of afternoon tea and polite chat about trains and library books. When they fall in love it threatens to tear that tidy world apart and they’re thrown into a panic by it. Laura in particular is completely discombobulated by her sudden feelings — “I’ve fallen in love. I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” — and it’s heartbreaking to see them try to be sensible and frightfully British about something as irrational and powerful as love.

Before she meets Alec, Laura’s life has all the flavour and excitement of a stale British Rail ham sandwich, with a house in the suburbs and a dull husband who looks like he probably goes to bed in the pinstriped suit he wears while doing The Times’ crossword puzzle in front of the fire every night. It’s the sort of dreary suburban trap that would later be made out to be a soul-destroying hellhole to be escaped at all costs, but Laura is a sensible middle-class housewife and people like her just don’t run off with a handsome doctor. Passion and romance might be alright for the French, but she’s British! So she does the “decent” thing and gives up Alec even though it tears her apart. At the end of the film it looks like she’ll never be happy again, but you know that she’ll pull herself together, keep it all bottled up and soldier on making the best of things, hiding her misery behind a polite English exterior. Order must be preserved, emotions must be kept in check, or England and the Empire will crumble.

It’s easy to mock (and parody) their frightfully proper manners and old-fashioned English reserve in general, especially in this post-1960s era when we’re told it’s bad to bottle your feelings up and to let it all hang out, man. But really, don’t you wish more people these days would resist the urge to share the almost pornographic details of their inner selves in public and keep the lid on a bit more? And just because the “stuffy” Brit isn’t inclined to swing naked from the emotional chandelier doesn’t mean they have no feelings, we just find it a little vulgar and juvenile to advertise them to the world in great big neon letters which is why we get embarrassed in the presence of loud Americans who will insist on talking about their bloody feelings and hugging you all the time. That’s when we start looking at our shoes and talking about the weather.

Download: I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You – Tom Waits (mp3)

Caroline Hello

Originally published May 2007

My Dad was a big movie fan and his idea of a grand day out with me and my sister was to take us to the pictures. I loved it too, sit me in the dark with a Kia-Ora and I was a happy kid. A big event was seeing the latest James Bond film on the day it came out at the Odeon Leicester Square (I think Diamonds Are Forever was the first one I saw there) which I still think is the greatest cinema in the world with its football-pitch size screen. Aside from Bond, Dad also worshipped Michael Caine which meant we got dragged to see Zulu twice when it was re-issued in the 70s (no videos in those days of course).

My own cinematic tastes ran more toward the ouevre of Ray Harryhausen and the stop-motion creatures he created for movies like Jason & The Argonauts, so when The Golden Voyage of Sinbad came out in 1973 the old man took me to see it. Even though it wasn’t his cup of tea I’m sure he didn’t mind because the film had some rather nice eye candy in the form of Caroline Munro who played Margiana, a slave girl and love interest for lucky old Sinbad. Munro had been in the kitschy Hammer film Dracula AD 1970, but her main claim to fame was being the girl in the Lamb’s Navy Rum billboards that were plastered all over London at the time. She wasn’t the sort of actress to give Meryl Streep sleepless nights and her part in the movie consisted mostly of standing there looking scared and trying not to burst out of her costume, but she did that brilliantly. Even though I was only 11 at the time I knew what girls were for by then and she was burned into my subconcious at a very impressionable age.

A few years before all this Caroline had a romance with former Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone and I don’t know how long it lasted or how serious it was, but when it ended Colin was moved to write a song about her on his debut solo album One Year in 1971. The plaintive “Caroline Goodbye” is a gorgeous record with a whispery and sad Nick Drake-ish mood. He does sound a bit wet though, no wonder she dumped him.

Download: Caroline Goodbye – Colin Blunstone (mp3)

As a bonus feature to our program today here’s a one-off single Caroline made in 1967 when she was only 16. This is very nice 60s girl pop produced by “Teenage Opera” man Mark Wirtz and the musicians on it include Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker. Like her acting, she isn’t the greatest singer in the world but she sure sounds pretty.

Download: Tar and Cement – Caroline Munro (mp3)

The X Factor

Originally published April 2008

The first X-film I ever saw at the pictures was Midnight Express which I managed to blag my way in to at the tender age of 16, two years before I was legally allowed to. That might not sound like much of an achievement but I was young-looking for my age (still am!) and had failed to get into X- and even AA-rated films before. I’d just started going to pubs by then and never had any problems being served, but getting into an adult film seemed like a much more difficult proposition. A pint of lager was one thing but at an X-film there was sex, violence, nudity (lots and lots of that in the 70s, everyone got their kit off in films back then) and all sorts of mysterious grown-up stuff, so attempting to bluff the old lady in the ticket booth of your local Odeon or ABC was as nerve-wracking as trying to buy a dirty magazine at the corner shop. And it almost always was an older person selling tickets at the pictures back then, not the spotty teens they have these days who would probably let a coach load of Boy Scouts in to see I Spit On Your Grave.

So it was with a huge sense of relief that I settled into my seat at the Odeon Kensington High Street knowing that I was in and no one was coming to chuck me out. Even more so because I’d gone to see it with the beautiful Jackie Bolton, the curly-haired and curvy temptress from the local girl’s school I had an unrequited crush on. Though sadly it wasn’t a date, she was with a group of her mates and had asked me along as a “friend” — that dreaded word. But still, can you imagine the humiliation if I’d been turned away for being too young right in front of Jackie Bolton? I wouldn’t have been able to show my face in public ever again.

Midnight Express had plenty of the “grown-up stuff”: boobs, bums, masturbation, drugs, homo-eroticism, and lots of gory violence, though I was less shocked by that as I was uncomfortable to be watching Brad Davis have a wank while I was sitting next to Jackie Bolton. I liked it a lot at the time but I think the older, more sophisticated me wouldn’t be as impressed. Director Alan Parker and scriptwriter Oliver Stone both tend to be as subtle as a knee in the balls and I’ve feeling if I was to see it now I’d find it all a bit sensationalist and lurid — like a beautifully photographed exploitation flick.

The soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder still sounds great though, and supposedly was the first electronic score to win an Oscar. We used to play the soundtrack album a lot when I was working at WH Smith and every time we did someone would ask us what it was and buy a copy (Jeff Wayne’s War of The Worlds opus had the same effect.) Alan Parker gave Moroder the job after hearing “I Feel Love” and the 8-minute “Chase” has a similar throbbing EuroDisco beat and is something of an early Techno classic (Daft Punk did a version of it).

Download: Chase – Giorgio Moroder (mp3)

Destroy Me

Very happy to hear that dark synth-wavers Ladytron are going to be releasing their first new album in seven years. I thought they’d disappeared for good.

Seeing as they’re back in action I think it would be a good idea for the producers of the next Bond film to get in touch with them about doing the theme. As they showed with this absolute beauty back in 2005 they could do a lot better than the limp Adele and Sam Smith rubbish of the last two films.

Download: Destroy Everything You Touch – Ladytron (mp3)

Photo: Margaret Nolan filming the opening titles of Goldfinger.