Saturday, 2 October 2010


'And so dreams tell stories, many stories. I am writing a story, if it could so be called, about the Mary Celeste. I am painting scenes from the story I'm writing. And I am dreaming about the Mary Celeste, the dreams feeding back into my writing and painting. A burst of fresh narrative: the Celestial Babies and the Azore Islands... digression and parentheses, other data seemingly unrelated to the saga of the Mary Celeste, now another flash of story... a long parenthesis. Stop. Change. Start. Should I tidy up, put things in rational sequential order? Mary Celeste data together? Flying dreams together? Land of the Dead dreams together? Packing dreams together? To do so would involve a return to the untenable position of an omniscient observer in a timeless vacuum. But the observer is observing other data, associations flashing backward and forward.' William Burroughs

'Lancaster's writing is shorn of all allusion; it lacks the melange of tastes present in even the most mediocre of fiction; when speaking of faraway places he conjures them as if by magic, with a complete lack of vision; and somehow (much like a politician whose inarticulacy speaks to some people of an honesty (as if only the literate can lie or steal)) this only seems to say to a large strand of the public that this mean speaks the truth. This paradox has contributed to him being one of the richest floggers of text in the tongue.' William Deresiewicz

'Give me credit for my dreams.' John Lancaster

'He was a man who wrote about how he had done what he had not done as if he had done. Then we found out that what he had done was not what he had said he had done and that what he had said he had done he had not done. Embarrassed, he set out to do exactly what he had said he had done exactly as he had said he had done it.' Tagline from 'Friggin' In The Riggin'' poster.

.... except now he was old, and ashamed, and the world had turned against him. John Lancaster had had it all except literary kudos. But so what? He was a successful author, a diarist of his own real-life seafaring adventures, who despite completely lacking critical adoration had something else, a kind of macho integrity; a streetwise candour carrying with it the weight of a stout-bellied but strong-armed silhouette of, if you squinted, a low-rent Hemingway. Even his lack of style was seen as evidence of his honesty; a fancier hand and a more delicate turn of phrase might suggest a piano-fingered intellectual, rather than the stubbier and tougher digits of this oaken presence (Oaken Presence incidentally being the name of his fifteenth book of autobiographical adventure, and also the name of one of the yachts at his home in Barbados, earned from shilling best-selling potboilers).

And then it emerged: the round-the-world trips, the Pole-to-Pole journeys, everything Lancaster had claimed to have done was false. He had been on some minor cruises, but he could barely steer a speedboat. His exposure caused a fracture, for even when his mass popularity waned, certain serious critics suddenly took an interest. 'Imagine finding out that James Patterson was a supercomputer, or that Martha Stewart's food was not real but made from hybrid plastics: it would be weird not to be a little curious about the hows and whys,' said Harold Bloom. Lancaster's response was a vow to learn how to navigate, and then perform every single feat he had laid claim to. He tried, failed, went mad.

Walker Percy's script shows a life dashed on the rocks, and with Ford's unsteady hand on the tiller, the film is everything and nothing. We see events as Lancaster told them; we see events as they were; we see events as he then set out to make them, after his exposure. This is not shown in a linear fashion, however, and the mixture of fact and fantasy, performed by four actors, muddies the metaphors enough for us to lose our way. In a film about (dis)honesty, we are never sure about which parts we can trust. As such, it serves as a corrosive antidote to the limpid idolatry of a regular biopic, most of which rest in a deep gutter of cause-and-effect (x was an addict/wifebeater because he was a genius/x was a genius because he was an addict/wifebeater; montages detailing the exact moment of incredible genius because all genius has to have an exact moment (which presents the paradox of biopics: this 'showing' drags the art and artist to mundane cliche, and yet we are expected to believe that what we see is unique).

As played in vastly differing styles in this one film by Rod Steiger, Alain Delon, John Cassavetes and Charles Aznavour, Lancaster is presented as a cubist portrait; a muscular bald neck here (Steiger), a cowardly twitch there (Cassavetes); a brave smooth nose in one place (Delon) obscuring a more honest and self-regarding schnoz elsewhere (Aznavour); all are possible facades, all are as hopelessly true as they are hopelessly false. His teary wife (Gena Rowlands) buys all of them, as long as it suits her.

At one point, Cassavetes as Lancaster asks 'Is lying so wrong? Why? Who says?' At another, Steiger as Lancaster asks: 'Is a man without a dream any kind of man?' We see Aznavour as Lancaster ask 'surely it is more cowardly to tell the truth, with no risk of exposure? Doesn't a braver man build a bigger house of cards?' It is left to Delon, on the faux-deathbed, to say 'fiction is truth. Only liars think otherwise, and they're not worth my time.'

Friggin' In The Riggin': The John Lancaster Stories Directed by Vic Ford Produced by Bert Schneider Written by Vic Ford, Walker Percy Starring Rod Steiger, John Cassavetes, Charles Aznavour, Alain Delon, Gena Rowlands Warner Brothers 123 mins Release Date US: September 1974/ UK: March 1975 Tagline:'He was lying on seabeds; now he's lying on deathbeds.'


  1. I think Delon, especially, was fantastic in this. (Mais, bien sur, je l'adore!) If it had been made any earlier, It's certain he would have been dubbed. Which would have been a crime. The exquisite poignancy of the TH's in the line-reading of that text you quote, would have been lost: "Fiction is truce. Only liars tink udderwise, and dare not wert my time." Just devastating.

    I understand the great improvement in his English came about while working on The Scent of Time with Visconti, filmed between Rocco and Gattopardo. Simone Signoret coached him, as it were, since her English was always fantastic. It might have ended up dubbed anyway - you know those Italians! - but financing dried up, and it never got past the first few weeks of shooting. Sad.

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