Thursday, 30 April 2009


... which could be anywhere, but in this case we are in the East End of London, and specifically Dalston, London Fields and Shoreditch. Psychic Precincts follows, slowly, several days in the meandering trajectory of a gentleman named William (Kenneth Inch, in his only acting appearance). He is 96. He wanders the streets, making notes of everything; he suffers from (we are told during a memorable hospital scene, during which William tells a young nurse the day she will die, making her cry), apophenia. He wanders the streets, quoting a textbook to passers-by:
'Apophenia is the experience of seeing patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. The term was coined in 1958 by Klaus Conrad, who defined it as the "unmotivated seeing of connections" accompanied by a "specific experience of an abnormal meaningfulness"'

More than a story about the plight of the lonely, sick and old in big cities, Psychic Precincts contains confounding joys because of the hopeful attitude of William; this also makes us, supposedly wiser, feel sorry for him. The central plotline of the film involves William trying to get people to read a draft of his novel, which he carries around in a holdall. The thousands of scrawled pages are what he describes as 'a psychogeographic murder mystery set in Dalston in the sixties. And then... (pause) at the beginning of chapter three... (long pause) the narrator wakes up and realises he is stuck in a dream'. He repeats this line to all kinds of people: Yawning checkout girls, the homeless, toddlers. Because of his curious aspect, William is constantly dismissed, but is never disillusioned. He just ambles along to the next person, spreading his stories, and witnessing the shape-shifting city.

One of the most beautiful moments comes at night: Clubbed shouts and traffic discolour the edges of the soundtrack, and William stops along the canal to talk to a young runaway who is asleep. No hellos are exchanged, William just nods politely and starts into a typical monologue:

I had a premonition of my death, and I am relieved: It is as I had hoped. The moon can't come too soon. I always wanted to die like a man, in a Paris bordello from a sexual injury, while the angels and whores stand all around reading my poetry. They'll say 'He can't shake it anymore; He can't shake it anymore...' I will be eighty-one years old... It was confidently predicted by a family member that I would write a book. Now my family has seen off many a flighty pre-cog who, with 'funny feelings' and dour cardigans, has come to inform us of our destinies. We don't take rash forebodings lightly; our own future radars are subtle and wise, and our own keen acumen has always sufficed. My sisters' births were pre-empted by dreamy visions. Other presentiments have been delivered as promised. And yet, I still have not written a book. This prediction hangs like a curse, a curse of a particular kind of genius, and yet it is something that I am loathe to turn my back on, as it's possibility is a comfort. Only in seeing its effects repeated in younger siblings, predicted themselves to perform great feats, does it ring hard and cold..... but this will be the book. On the cover will be a quote, from the greatest amn to have ever lived: Orson Welles, who I met on a film set in South America forty years ago. He said 'William, you're always moving; like a cat before they let it out of the bag... ' ha. And so how can this book fail, with a blessing from Mr Welles on the cover, that says 'He's like a cat before they let it out of the bag...'

Later in the film we come to doubt not only what William says, but what we are seeing; each time William bothers someone on the street with an anecdote we see his surroundings shift to convey these memories, with maybe a reflection of The Great Orsini in a shopfront, or echoing music from a passing car that bleeds into the electronic throb of Paddy Kingsland's music, and then into an image of a ballroom, Stoke Newington, in the fifties... the constant chatter of William's voice, the disorientating spin of the city's refracted lights throw images across our ceilings like car headlights in the night: I knew Lionel Bart. When he came to me and said 'William, I'm doing a musical of Oliver Twist' I said 'Terrible idea, Lionel. Forget about it.' Later, after Oliver! had won many Oscars, he asked me what I thought now. 'Terrible idea, Lionel. Popular, mind, but a terrible idea.' The London we see is so informed by William's future plots and reminiscences that it appears as if through a looking glass, its most speculative and vague aspects to the fore.

In another running together of fiction and fact, the lead actor Kenneth Inch was found by film-maker Bill Rice when scouting locations for the shoot. 'Kenneth appeared, as he does in the film, wandering around, in a battered suit. He was like a Dickensian waif aged hundreds of years in the pickle jar of Tom Waits. I had to have him'1 Rice said. Inch wore his own clothes in the film, improvised many of his lines, and insisted on being known as 'William' off-set for the duration of the shoot. By the end of filming, Rice had discovered that Kenneth Inch wasn't his real name (Inch Kenneth is an island to the West of Scotland), and that he refused payment for the film. Inch then disappeared. He was found by a BBC documentary crew2 in 1995, and claimed to be called William. He fled a proposed meeting with the film-makers, and was found dead on Brick Lane a week later. He was holding a battered paperback copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.3 He was presumed to be at least 105 years old.

Psychic Precincts Directed by William Rice Produced by Paul Heller Written by William Rice, 'Kenneth Inch' Music by Paddy Kingsland Handmade Films. Release Date: US N/A, UK: November 1984 Tagline: 'There Is a City Within the City (Within the City) of His Mind'

1. Sight and Sound interview, July 1996
2. The Cat In The Bag (John Home, 1996) was an investigation into the possible past and present of the man known as Kenneth Inch.
3. The following passage in the novel was marked:
'That was not only his oldest memory, but his only memory of childhood. The other one, that of an old man with an old-fashioned vest and a hat with a brim like a crow's wings who told him marvellous things framed in a dazzling window, he was unable to place in any period. It was an uncertain memory, entirely devoid of lessons or nostalgia, the opposite of the memory of the executed man, which had really set the direction of his life and would return to his memory clearer and clearer as he grew older, as if the passage of time were bringing him closer to it.'
In the front cover, Inch himself had written the following:
'London is a hubbub of experimental auras, waiting to smash urgent sons and their bucking and braying theorems. It can offer apparent verifications for impossible philosophies and withdraw them suddenly, like little deaths. But still, I find futures, presents and other districts to investigate, and I travel for my health, plotting geographical emotions among the sacred boroughs around me. Everything evokes something. Lush precincts do not necessarily recall lush precincts, as we know. Like a world imagined from past experiences, each new house seen is a composite of previous ones, each new face a Frankenstein of schoolmates now grown.'

Monday, 27 April 2009


'I said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. Lexxie reckons he is Jesus. Dozens of Jesuses' John Lennon, 1975.

We find secondary evidence everywhere; we see it there, on the screen, the famous Beatle talking, in that famous voice, and saying things, but where are we? When are we? And most pertinently, Who? Appearances deceive; for, if you were to watch this document to Lexington Saffron-Digard, you might believe him to be one of the most notorious artists of his day; you would believe him to be, if you trusted the producers (and do we not, always), an enfant terrible who died only weeks after his difficult memory was pieced together here; he apparently expired of a coma overdose in 1995, but don't look through the archives of obituary fame and infamy: He is not there, and the latter part of this documentary, in contrary design, confronts us with a proposition as to why this is (besides the more probable: the people forgot; they grew bored; he didn't compel us to remeber, et cetera, et cetera): We are expected to hang our disbelief from the ceiling as fanciful decoration, and instead swallow a claim so big that, we must surely believe it, heartburn and all.

But first: if we take the narrative at face value, then, and this happens:

Saffron-Digard was 62 when he died, so the story goes, and left behind him a trail of carnage that perhaps might have made him a household name, had his fitful creativity matched it. Born John Saffron in Marseille in 1933, John's mother, (famed?) English starlet of stage and screen Joan Saffron, gave up her career to be a mother and raise her boy overseas. John never knew his father, but was soon taken with his stepfather, anarchist painter Jean Digard. At the outbreak of war in 1939, the celebrity family moved to New York, where young John went to art school with other rich refugees. We see interviews with many of the people whose bodies were subsequently touched by Digard, and are offered a compendium of quotes, a veritable billboard of taglines. 'His life and art swung from the deliciously peurile to the fabulously bland', says Andy Warhol, seen here in a genuine talking head appearance, whereas William Burroughs (appearing sideways, bust-like) describes him as 'a morality vacuum, sucking lizard-like the freshness from stony-broke sonnofabitches'.

Chronologically, then, if we are to follow this string... continuing with how, when at art school he grew disillusioned with the limitations of his mediums, and became obsessed with inventing a new primary color. He was vindicated when the Federation of American Gradings included his new tone 'Vari' alongside Red, Yellow and Blue in their Annual Completist Encyclopedia (the collated data of 'everything', the eighty-sixth edition of which in 1966 ran to twenty five thousand volumes, and by 2001 had hungrily expanded to almost twice that). The invention of a new primary colour hugely infected the fashion industry, and a loving montage of late sixties mods in various Vari outfits (including the timeless Vari-toned vest that Clint Eastwood wore in One Fun Gun (Segio Leone, 1968) acts as a triumphant pivot in the middle of the film.

After Vari, things grew harder for Saffron-Digard. His ambitions caused his subsequent life to be an unsatisfying one, and his dreams only grew larger. Dozens of Jesuses doesn't disappoint, lingering on never before seen video of Saffron-Digard in action during these times. We see the derring-do of the time he covered Manhattan Island in red paint thrown from five hundred Red Baron style biplanes in his 'live art show' Paint The Town Red (1969), a stunt which granted infamy, and we also witness the building and firing of an oversized handgun for Shoot The Moon (1972). The pistol, three hundred feet high, managed to down an orbiting satellite, to the delight of a roaring audience and the consternation of NASA.

Subsequent art shows were increasingly extreme, but got him less attention: His carving of his initials into the sun using laser technology in LSD (1973) was deemed a failure when no-one noticed, and it wasn't until his retooled muse came up with Invisible (1985) a show at the Museum of Modern Art, that he regained some credibility in critical circles. The show featured three walls of a room, containing a chair, a table and a TV. Digard sat in the chair, in a shirt that was the same colour as the walls. He stayed there, completely still, for months, until he grew faint and vague to the eye, for the minor camouflage combined with the lack of movement rendered him almost unseeable. 'I didn't become like a stick insect, or a chameleon. There was no magic, just a performance of the concept that we are visible through our actions. If we are inactive, we disappear, forgotten' said Digard himself, on leaving the room.

And so we get to the final, thrusting claim of the film, the twist which casts doubts over the entire enterprise: that this fidgeting prankster, in an age of impossible visibility, performed the greatest vanish of all: He not only disappeared from view, but he managed to eradicate all memory of his life from the collective consciousness. No mean feat: even the most minor of artists leaves a bloody tooth or a layer of skin in someone's basement. But Saffron-Digard managed it: To erase himself. The last scene of the documentary involves Williams himself explaining how a strange man came to him one day, saying that he was Saffron-Digard, and that this meant nothing to anybody on the planet, due to a 'humungous sleight of hand'.

'He was sickly. Ill. He knocked on my door in New York. He told me he was dying, and that he wanted someone to document his life. He gave me a scrapbook and a reel of film, and left.'

The reel contained the period footage that appears in this film: The filmed interviews with Warhol, Lennon, Burroughs and Onassis that provide the testimonies about Saffron-Digard's character. But they were the only evidence that Williams found about the artist's existence. Says Williams in the film: 'I realised then that this documentary was not to be a recap of a minor artist life, but the single proof of his existence. Somehow, he had managed to make us forget all of his stunts, with some kind of cosmic will. Obscurity is one thing. But to make us believe he never existed.... that's quite something else.'

Williams had several phone conversations with the artist, including one in which Saffron-Digard, when asked by Williams why he wanted a film made, said 'It ain't a good trick if the audience don't clap'. As Williams pieced together footage, he heard more and more from his subject, right up until his death. 'Part of we wonders if his death was just another evasion' Williams says. He only man at Saffron-Digard's funeral. His headstone bears the Baudelaire line, oft plagiarised: 'My dear brothers, never forget, when you hear the progress of enlightenment vaunted, that the devil's best trick is to persuade you that he doesn't exist'. And so, things come to pass.

What of the artefact, the testimony? The film has since been treated with suspicion: some see it as a grand prank, an invention of a fake hero; others as a work of wondrous fiction. But there are those who suspect that there may be a certain integrity in the work- individuals have come forward claiming to remember the day Manhattan was painted red, bemused that no-one else remembers, or neighbours who knew Digard, models who claim a child was fathered by him. A small band of Digardians claim his stunt as the biggest in the history of performance, and priase his act of wiping himself from history, rendering his own biography fictional, something which was later unproved to be false, over and over.1

But ultimately, we ask ourselves: Was Saffron-Digard's best trick that he convinced the world that he existed in order to convince them that he didn't exist, in order to then convince them that he did? Or not?

Who knows.

Dozens of Jesuses: The Bigger, Truer Life of Lexington Saffron Digard Directed by Bob Williams Produced by David Lynch Music by David Boeddinghaus Sony Pictures Release Date US: March 1995, UK: March 1995 Tagline: 'The Man That Time Forgot'

1. One extreme group of Digardians, calling themselves 'Anonymiads', have even started eliminating all evidence of their own existence: Deleting Social Security numbers, social networking profiles, burning photographs, and are believed to be so widespread that entire towns are threatened with disappearing from the map.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

CUT-UP (Brian de Palma, 1988)

...leaving a nonsensical mess to be sifted through for story. The penultimate scene of the film is at the school, where the teacher is leading the children in a song while Melanie waits outside, not wanting to interrupt them. But equally, she is attacked by the whims and scissors of the director- for de Palma employs a peurile version of William Burroughs' cut-up technique to the process, which means that linear narrative is abandoned. So the movie ends, poignantly or nonsensically, with Russell getting on the boat to the island, some half an hour after we have witnessed her death; or near death? The re-structuring of scenes in this way lends her a terrible immortality. Diminishing pointless return.

The plot is lifted wholesale from Hitchcock's The Birds of course. And many scenes were shot as replicas of that original, before being ripped apart and rebuilt in a different order several years after Blow-Out, his hymn to sound and Antonioni, but before Subtext, his supression-of plot drama inspired, he said, by 'Ozu and wine'. There is an epic recreation of The Birds' school scene, which De Palma stretches and distributes throughout the narrative. In the opening minutes, Melanie (Russell), and two schoolchildren become separated from the others, and Melanie ushers the children into a nearby car, when the bird attack suddenly subsides. Hal Hinson, in his review for the Washington Post, criticized De Palma's direction: "And somehow we're put off here by the spectacular stuff he throws up onto the screen. De Palma's storytelling instincts have given way completely to his interest in film as a visual medium. His only real concern is his own style"1. In a later scene, Melanie warns Annie, and the two of them lead the children out of the school, but the birds hear their feet on the pavement and attack.

A large flock of crows gathers on the playground until the place is swarming with menacing black birds. A year after making The Untouchables, de Palma offered this gruesome thought on the directorial process; ostensibly, a remake of Hitchcock's The Birds, it stars Theresa Russell as a woman going to a strange island off the New England coast and being attacked by Birds with razor-beaks who carve a small village to pieces.

Melanie and Mitch go to fetch Cathy at Annie's house, dividing plot from scene and making narrative nonsensical, only to find Annie dead in the front yard, a victim of the bird attack. By this point, de Palma's self-regarding direction meant that, while Cathy is safe inside the house, and she tells them that Annie pushed her inside when the birds came, unable to save herself. Back at the Brenner house, for every hit with a Scarface, there was an indulgence such as this to barricade the windows and doors in anticipation of another attack. Critics never praised the director again, and Mitch, Cathy, Melanie and Lydia all spend hours inside the house until the sounds of a massive assault on the house reach them. Mitch is barely able to keep the birds from breaking through the barricades, large birds pecking through the wooden reinforcements, and the power to the house is cut, repelling audiences and pushing de Palma into that league of directors who are, in the words of critic Lou Rawls, 'Oscar Kryptonite'. Finally the attack subsides, and the four of them, Schumacher, Bay, Verhoeven and de Palma, a 'Frantic Four', drop off to sleep.

At the town diner, Melanie calls her father to report the phenomenon that meant Roger Ebert gave the film 'as many thumbs as I have, down, down, down'. Her story attracts a lot of attention, but most people are skeptical, including Mrs. Bundy (Ethel Griffie), an elderly woman who is an expert in ornithology. She dismisses de Palma's account as impossible, and contends that such editing lacks the intelligence.

de Palma suggestive 'cinematic destruction test' leftover nothing in the process baby. Mitch (Fred Ward) Odega Bay's gas station. After it subsides, the patrons of the diner are terrified, and one woman becomes hysterical, accusing Melan joins them and backs up Melanie's story, but they are ms ones. This time, all types of birds are involved, and they create havoc resulting in a large explosion of being the cause with more skepticism until another bird attack occurs, this one even greater in scale than the previous of the attacks. Birds the Director never recalls shooting anecdote came onto the set, causing massive disruption. 'We never saw it coming. The ultimate irony was that an attack of seagulls (Hitchcock's angels? Defenders of cinema history? Karma cormorants? Albatrosses begetting albatrosses? God's gulls?), vengeful Vs from the air, that disrupted shooting for days on end'2

Cut-Up Directed by Brian de Palma Produced by Art Linson Written by Brian de Palma, adapted from a script by Evan Hunter (The Birds), based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier Starring Theresa Russell, Fred Ward Paramount Pictures Release Date US: July 1988 UK: Sept 1988 Tagline: 'The Word Bird Is The (Heard' Everybody's)'

1. Washington Post, July 1988
2. Sight and Sound interview, May 1992

Saturday, 4 April 2009

THE MESMER (Louis Grenier, 1894)

In cinema prehistory, before the Lumiere Brothers and Thomas Edison set the 20th Century in motion, the future was still to be invented. Louis Grenier's Octoscope II was an early possibility: It used a flip-card technique to turn the stills which were then projected using a series of mirrors onto the screen. In purely scientific terms, it was limited, and Grenier lacked the business nous or finances to develop his invention. He may have lacked the desire too, for Grenier was an amateur magician, who performed tricks at private parties in Paris and London for years before moving to New York in 1888 and developing his turns into a professional stage act. He saw moving images as a novelty that he could work into his performances, and by 1891 had developed his prototype Octoscope.
With the invention he developed a new stage persona: Louis the Magic. This was also the name of his first show using the Octoscope, and it appears, according to the few existing reports, to have been a simple spirit illusion using a projection of a dancing girl, which wowed few. The Octoscope II was cumbersome, noisy and incredibly hot, meaning that it drew attention to itself however it was placed in the theater. Louis the Magic shows later that year employed similar effects and had similar problems: The New York Buzzard described The Queen of Sheba as 'a disappointing fizz of non-technologies', while The Manhattan Fidget attacked Resurrection as 'a blasphemous cuss at the black art of entertainment'.

But it was with his final effort that Louis the Magic would make his name. The Mesmer was at first sight a tricksy and self-referential illusion that nodded to Grenier's previous failure as both a magician and a scientist. The performance, as much as can be understood from contemporary reports, involved Grenier performing a series of illusions, including making an assistant (star of the New York stage Annabelle Newton) disappear. She would then re-appear on the screen, in what can be presumed to be pre-recorded reels, where she would dance to the music of the orchestra or pianist in the theatre (the musicians themselves would apparently time pauses in their sequences to coincide with pieces of film where the Newton appears to be frozen, and speed up to a frantic pace during a sequence when the illusionist himself appears on the screen and proceeds to repeat at exaggerated speed the illusion performed not five minutes earlier in the theatre, only in reverse; this time, both Grenier and Newton, according to a frantic report in the Queens Inquisitor, 're-apparitioned there upon the brocaded balconies of the real world Palace Theater, in fully three-dimensions, plausible and verified by those sound gentlemen in proximity')

The trick was repeated, but with masterful variations- at one point, when a vanishing appeared to go wrong, Grenier approached the Octoscope, ripped the reels of images out, turned the machine off, and appeared to puzzle over its non-conforming innards. As people began to leave, booing, an image of Grenier miraculously appeared on the screen, shouting instructions to himself below in the theatre about how to fix the machine. Grenier then argued with himself on the screen, causing 'much hilarity and witless falling about' according to The Downtown Fibber. By this point, the crowd was amazed.

The Mesmer was a great success, and Grenier and Newton toured the country with it, marrying on the road in 1893. The Grenier-Newton's were cover stars of both Sullied Victoriana and American Tat magazines, and a recording of a performance of The Mesmer was made using Edison's Kinetoscope, which itself toured the country.1 Grenier put all his savings into distributing this recording and it played nationally, but shorn of the live action element, the incredible illusions did not translate. By 1896, it was apparent that the tide had turned; cinema was amazing audiences in its own right, and magicians seemed quaint in this era of new wonder. Annabelle Grenier-Newton herself had taken up an offer of a contract to appear in some of Edison's Biograph movies, and Grenier himself, the debts mounting, announced one final farewell performance of The Mesmer at Brooklyn Hall on October 26, 1896 that would 'bury the ghost of magic'. Highly publicized, the show sold out; but despite hundreds of witnesses, there is much conjecture over what actually happened that night.

According to both the Brooklyn Brag and the Gotham Bugle, Grenier performed better than ever, and despite the rumoured strain on their relationship, the horseplay and chemistry between husband and wife was variously 'unnaturally natural' and 'gosh darn cute and a wonder'. The trouble appeared to flare in the third act, at the part when Grenier came into the audience to fix the 'broken' Octoscope. As usual, the images on the screen somehow continued even after Grenier turned his contraption off to examine it, and as ever, he argued with the image of himself onscreen. The Big Apple Vigilant says that 'this time there was a twist; Mrs Grenier herself appeared onscreen, and to much laughter, argued with both of her husbands about the best way to fix the problem, the joke, of course, being that there was no problem if they were both on the screen'. The Williamsburg Soothsayer continues: 'Then, the apparent faux problem, became an apparent real one, or did it? For suddenly the device spun into life, knocking out noise and heat, and the projected Mr and Mrs doubled, tripled, quadrupled, played at super time; the arrangement spun and spun, the poor couple danced and danced, faster yet, and the applause grew to ovations; and then, fast as the Octoscope spun, it caused sparks, which lit the first flame; before we knew it, the cursed contraption was a heap of hot yellow. This caused the images on the screen to melt, distort, spinning the dancing images into new confounding shapeless peoples, before imploding into snapping stars. The smell of burning plastics filled the lungs of the patrons, and the slides burned, burned, burned'
Firemen came to confront the blaze, and while no audince members were hurt, the Grenier-Nortons were never seen again, nor were their bodies found. Eye-witnesses report seeing Grenier 'dissolve into the wall' or 'erupt in a cloud of smoke' as his likeness burned on screen.

A cab driver who claimed to have driven the pair to Grand Central station later that night was proved to be a liar. Did he fake their deaths to escape debts? Or kill his wife and himself in an elaborate double-bluff? Periodically, uncanny likenesses of the pair turn up in the background of many movies from the early decades of the 20th Century; he as an unnamed bar patron or cowboy, she as a Ziegfeld Folly, or a masked beauty in a harem; but no-one ever saw them in three dimensions.
The Big Town Sober Judge offered a sentimental reflection several weeks later: 'It is as if, undone by the real world, failing at life, Grenier conjured a feat beyond any: He managed to vault himself and his wife into a deathless afterlife, a constant invisibility; and in this burning heaven of celluloid and wood, where she dances and he draws rabbits from hats, the words 'Louis the Magic' and 'legend' are never separated'
The Mesmer Directed by Louis Grenier/Thomas Edison Produced by Biograph/ Black Maria Studio Starring Louis Grenier, Annabelle Newton-Grenier Release Date US: 1894; Distributed nationally to limited theatres with Kinetoscopes.

1. This recording, which lasts for a huge for the time seventeen minutes, is what contemporary reviewers refer to when discussing the 'film' The Mesmer. It is of course, a film of a show involving film, and as such is an early example of Filmism, the movement championed by the Spanish New Wave in the early fifties: Filmism was a post-modern attempt to examine the art of cinema by filming showings of films. A split in 1960 between Real-Filmists (those who shot the theatre, the audience and surroundings as well as the feature) and True-Filmists (those who only permitted the feature itself onscreen) caused ripples throughout Spain. Both parties remaned fans of The Mesmer, however.