“I’ve been working with David for six weeks,”says Tim Hutton, who plays Raymond, musing over the pool table at Andy Wilson’s place in the West Hollywood hills. “And he’s still the same. You don’t get close.” He muffs the shot.
“Nice guy, though,” says Andy Tiernan, who plays Cyril, moving in with his cue.
Hutton nods then strolls over to watch the video of the dailies running on Wilson’s enormous TV. Maybe six weeks doesn’t sound so long in the everyday world but in the superheated instability of movie making time condenses and bonds are forged at an unnatural pace. This movie is certainly no exception. Aspects of it are so hair-raising you’d half expect to see everyone get married by the time it’s over.
‘X-Files’ star David Duchovny plays Eugene. Melanie Green, his manager, volunteers an assessment of the man accused of keeping his cool in the hothouse. “The thing about David,” she says, “Is he doesn’t get excited. I get really excited. I get excited for him.” Then, defensively, she picks up on the issue of Duchovny’s privateness. “He doesn’t want to bond if that means hanging out and drinking.”
Well, such is the remarkable state of affairs on the movie that hanging out and drinking has become not only what guys do anyway but the most reliable means of getting some scenes for the following day. It seems that the producers have vetoed a sizeable number of pages from the shooting script, leaving the director and the actors to make it up as they go along. They’ve had four writers in, who have supplied a story-line, it’s just that the producers don’t like the actual words.
It was David Duchovny, eager to squeeze in something completely different after shooting three series of ‘The X-Files’, with a fourth planned for the end of the year, who found the original script, ‘Playing God’. It chronicles the downfall of Dr Eugene Sands, a drug-addicted surgeon who, drummed out of the industry for malpractice, is persuaded to ply his trade for a psychotic mobster. The actor then saw some episodes of ‘Cracker”, from British TV, loved them and procured their director, Andy Wilson, to make the film.
A few hundred yards down from the corral of location vehicles, out on the Sierra Highway half an hour north of L.A., dozens of people are assembled by the roadside. Some are wearing sun-hats and reading magazines, others are gazing at a distant bend in the road. A pale grey Jaguar saloon swings into view, cruises towards the crowd then lurches off the highway onto a dirt layby. Eugene, blood all over his head, has to lean over and take the wheel from Cyril, who is completely drenched in blood. Eugene jumps out, races round to the driver’s door and heaves out Cyril, who appears to be dead. In the back you can make out Claire, deathly pale, blood soaking through her red dress. Eugene, grunting, drags Cyril to a hollow by some trees and dumps him. Back at the car, he throws a gun into the bushes and drives off again.
“And cut!” yells Andy Wilson.
Duchovny threads his way through the crew to get some cold mineral water and look at the video replay with the director. He’s panting. “That’s a helluva workout puff puff. They should have that at the gym puff. Corpse Carrying – it’s an Olympic event!” “And Gun Toss,” adds Sam, the First Assistant. Duchovny laughs. “Yeah – Corpse Carrying and Gun Toss. That’d be it.”
He puts his arm round Andy Tiernan’s shoulder and they study the replay. The master shot has to be retaken a few times then various mid shots and close-ups are put together. Andy Tiernan and Angelina Jolie, who plays Claire, are wandering about in an odd manner. It’s possible, of course, that Angelina may still be in character. She wobbles about on slim legs and high heels, her pallid face immobilised in a thousand yard stare. Tiernan, who can’t be in character because he’s dead, stands wretchedly in the baking heat, holding his sodden, sticky arm away from his body and baring his teeth in a demented grimace. “It’s funny, isn’t it?” Andy Wilson observes, “When actors get blood on them they go all grumpy.”
Duchovny is far from grumpy, though. This movie business is a breeze – up in Vancouver, where they shoot most of ‘The X-Files’, he routinely does a fourteen to sixteen hour day six days a week for months at a time. In TV they like to get eight minutes a day but down here in Hollywood they think two minutes is more than adequate! Plus you can stand around between takes and eat turkey and mustard sandwiches and chat to the good humoured crew. Right now, hanging around by the Jag, Duchovny is roaring with laughter at something that Andy Tiernan, now in a better mood, has whispered in his ear. “David!” shouts Sam from over by the camera, “We’re gonna need that kind of energy again in the next shot!” “Suck my fuckin’ dick!” retorts the actor previously renowned for his elegance and restraint in the face of all but the paranormal.
Parked across from the catering truck is a glistening aluminium Airstream trailer with smoked glass windows. A white four wheel drive stands beside it. This is the star’s home from home, towed down from Vancouver by his driver and rented to the film company. Having eased out of Eugene’s striped sweater and slacks, Duchovny, still with seeping head wound, relaxes in tee shirt and jeans in the shade of the Airstream’s awning. He is fully focused, gives steady eye contact and, X-Philes will be pleased to learn, is even more laconic than Agent Mulder.
This little matter of the script, then, how are you coping? “What helps in this is a deep, abiding belief that everything’s going to work out okay.” He grins. “The problem with drastic changes at the last minute and with improvisation on a movie set is that you can mistake the excitement of newness for the excitement of greatness. Know what I’m saying? But every scene we’ve done has been really good. The skeleton of the story is there. The arc of the character has been set from the beginning. I knew basically how I wanted to play, where I was – it’s just the words, which are, in the end, very unimportant for an actor. Words are the melody but there’s a rhythm underneath that. Film isn’t primarily a verbal medium.”
This calls to mind one of the curious mannerisms of ‘The X-Files’, namely the inordinately verbose and solemn passages of exposition and summation that Mulder and Scully are obliged to deliver at regular intervals. The pleasures of an energetic, physical plot must seem rather attractive by comparison. “Well, I’ve been doing ‘X-Files’ for three years, it’s the same character – I tend to bridle a little bit at just being perceived as this person. Certain insecurities come up after a number of years. Am I going to be this person for ever? So there was an insecure motivation for me wanting to do something else, but the strongest motivation was the fact that I really liked the story of this film, and films don’t wait around.”
So punishing is the schedule in Vancouver that one wonders why Duchovny doesn’t just use these eight weeks to have a nice rest. “It was a question of whether taking time off or having a change of venue was going to be the most rejuvenating. I don’t tend to rejuvenate very well in a sedentary way. I don’t tend to rejuvenate very well at all! A week or two just sitting on my ass, that’s enough, really.”
As if on cue, an assistant approaches the trailer. “They’re ready for you on camera, sir.” Duchovny retires behind the smoked glass to get his bloodstained clothes back on.
The remarkable appeal of ‘The X-Files’ to an American audience can probably be attributed to its muffled but consistent endorsement of an array of topical paranoias. The paranormality that regularly engulfs Mulder and Scully is not constructed simply in terms of alien agencies that would unstitch the fabric of society – there is an additional crucial inflection that has the Government and its agencies turned, conspiratorially, against the community they are supposed to protect. In this fearful state of affairs, aliens acquire an ambivalence they never had in the days when America faced the simple, external threat of extinction by deranged Communists. These days the enemy is within and the aliens, in some instances, might actually turn out to be more supportive than the Government.
The ‘X-Files’ scenarios succeed in touching a nerve of disaffection that may find ultimate expression in Waco or Oklahoma yet runs unchecked through a body politic whose ranks swell with peaceable but increasingly suspicious ordinary citizens. In Britain, where our paranoia has yet to become so florid, ‘The X-Files’ impacts upon more conventional susceptibilities.
Now that certainty is a thing of the past, the comforts of the paranormal are in demand everywhere. The Brits, however, while buying eagerly into much that lies beyond our ken, are also up for a bit of aesthetic innovation. The lack of narrative closure in ‘The X-Files’ – whereby you get a whole story per episode yet it’s somehow never fully resolved – is a refreshing alternative for a TV viewership reared on impeccably structured dramas that take you, via the beginning and middle, to an unambiguous end.
Although Agent Mulder will be with us for at least four more series after the current run, syndicated and repeated throughout the English-speaking world, the fact remains that David Duchovny is still only Small Huge. Being a household name on TV counts for so very little in film. To be galactically, as distinct from globally, stellar – Large Huge – you have to crack movies. If David wants to get more than say, two million per movie, he’ll have to make an impact like Jim Carrey, who went from less than one to a current twenty over the course of just two films.
Not that Duchovny is in it for the money – he’s already got quite a lot. Not that he’s new to movies, either. ‘Playing God’ may be his first quality lead, but it was preceded by substantial parts in ‘Kalifornia’ and ‘The Rapture’ and useful roles in ‘Chaplin’ and ‘Beethoven’. Few of us will have forgotten, moreover, his role as the transvestite detective Dennis/Denise Bryson in ‘Twin Peaks’. But that was TV.
The man who would be Mulder was born 35 years ago in Manhattan. His mother, Meg, came from Aberdeen and is an elementary school teacher in Manhattan. Amram, his father, is a retired publicist. The parents separated when Duchovny was 11. After attending the élite New York Collegiate School, he went on to major in English literature at Princeton then took a Masters Degree at Yale.
Academia continued to be attractive. Duchovny signed up for a Ph.D and started to work on his thesis, titled ‘Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Poetry and Prose’. ‘Duke’ also wrote his own poetry and was very good at basketball. These pursuits fell away when he started hanging out with the Yale drama crowd. “It’s such an ascetic frame of mind required to write a dissertation,” he explains, “that once you step one foot out it’s very hard to have any efficiency in that world. It’s like a secular priesthood, it really is. I didn’t have that devotion.”
Less ascetic was the Lowenbrau commercial for which he auditioned when cash wore thin at Yale. He got the part and determined to pursue acting full-time. Not all his early roles were small. Before landing the movies people have heard about he had the lead in the low-budget ‘Julia Has Two Lovers’, where you get to see his bare behind. In 1992 he teamed up with Melanie Green, who persuaded him to read for the TV pilot of a new series to be called ‘The X-Files’. You know the rest.
It’s lunchtime on the shoot and Duchovny, assembling a salad at the catering truck, is having a remarkable effect upon some women. Which is to be expected, really. As well as good-looking – albeit with a slightly big nose – and the laconic business that we already talked about, he’s also extremely droll. But first some background…
In American supermarkets just before you check out they don’t have Sainsbury’s ‘Family Circle’ with features on the joy of summer fruits but an array of magazines full of stories about how a man’s dog sings like Elvis and sleeps with an actress from ‘Baywatch’. In one such publication, the ‘Star’, they have a feature entitled ‘David Duchovny’s Sex Files’. I wish I’d thought of that. It seems that not only is the Duke, ‘TV’s coolest star’, back with his ex, Perrey Reeves (he isn’t), but he’s seeing as many as six other women as well. Case 4, as the ‘Star’ has it, goes like this: “He’s also dating a sexy location manager from his latest movie, ‘Playing God.’ ‘David flirts with Molly Allen all day on the set,’ a set insider tells ‘Star’.” Clearly some ruthless investigative reporting is in order.
Back on the set David is talking with Molly about his bloody head, watched by other women from make-up, costume and associated. David dabs at his brow and says to Molly “Oh! I hit my head on the car door! Did I break the skin?” Everybody giggles, including the reporter who, while not running tape, is not missing a thing. Then David breaks into a riff which has them all howling. British readers will notice the absence of political correctness from this scene:
“It’s okay, I’m standing in for Maxipads (a brand of tampon). ‘Hey fellas – when she’s on the rag do you lose your rag? Listen – if your girl won’t use Maxipads then I’m your guy.'” As the riff develops Molly doesn’t just laugh, she throws in comments and pushes Duchovny playfully in the chest. TV’s coolest star winds down on a thoughtful note, with a glance towards the British reporter. “That’s the best thing Prince Charles ever said. I think it’s really cool he said that.”
After lunch, returning to matters of the mind, Duchovny starts to elaborate on the legacy of his academic background. “Sometimes somebody’ll say ‘You threw all that schooling away’ and I think ‘Possibly’ but what it did give me was discipline – from the root of the word – doesn’t it mean ‘student’ in Latin?” This must help in countering the asceticism of life inside a long-running series. “And life outside. I’m very private and possessive of the free time that I have. So maybe I’m a little closed off, maybe I don’t like to have dinner with people I don’t know and things like that.”
It’s becoming apparent that despite the beach-house in Malibu, despite his winning ways with the ladies, Duchovny inhabits a world of unbending rigour that is not sustained merely by your standard overweening self-absorption. The man is a little driven. “Yeah. I think it’s both a blessing and a curse for me – sometimes I think if I did a little less I’d be a little more free. But that’ll come later.” He goes on to describe his anxiety about such a change of gear: it’s something that has to be earned, you can’t risk it until you’re absolutely certain the work won’t go away, you do all the work you possibly can until you get to that point, and even then “I’m not there yet.”
How can Duchovny believe this? Will he ever be able to let go? He talks about his admiration for Harold Bloom, a Professor at his old university and a widely respected writer of psychoanalytic literary criticism. “He wrote about the Freudian struggle between writers – the precursor father-figure-writer and the son. He wrote a book called ‘The Anxiety of Influence’ in which he makes literature an Olympian struggle for fame and power. The true father-writer is almost always effaced. So, for example, if Eliot said the writer he was most influenced by was, say, John Donne, that would be a dodge. The true father would be repressed and that would be the one he would be in mortal combat with. That’s where the literary critic comes in and uncovers the true father from within the poem.”
Do you apply this to actors? “Oh yeah. Definitely.” So who’s your father figure? He doesn’t hesitate, “Brando.” Are you thereby effacing somebody else? “Haha! Montgomery Clift, possibly. I don’t know.”
Duchovny moves on to a notion he has brought up before: the curious proximity to great acting of failure. “Brando always had a real self-loathing about acting. He thought it was trivial, not masculine. But his work read wonderfully. Like, today, Nicholas Cage fails in a really interesting way. I’d rather watch him fail than other people succeed. Nicholson does that too. That would be the next level to go to – I don’t have the security or confidence to go there yet. I may not have the ability.”
This latter point is moot. One school of thought has it that Duchovny lacks range – as Agent Mulder he specialises in not doing very much and furnishing low affect in scenes of high excitement. More charitable armchair analysts of acting feel that ‘not doing very much’ is an unobservant term for an actor who has great control over the minutiae of expression. Within the frame dictated by the scripts, Duchovny-as-Mulder is able to produce fine shades of interiority for the FBI man with obsessions that lead him to the most unsettling margins. This view puts Duchovny in Steve McQueen territory, where toughness and vulnerability are evinced simultaneously, thanks to strong technique and intuition. Even McQueen lacks assets that Duchovny displays off-camera yet rarely uses in his work, namely strong verbal and physical comic skills.
Andy Wilson, when asked what his leading man is truly interested in, is succinct. “Basketball, Beckett and freaks,” he asserts. Speaking warmly of Samuel Beckett’s trilogy ‘The Unnamable’, Duchovny also enthuses about Joyce, Mailer and Pynchon and explains how he makes time for regular reading. Not a man to hang out much, as we have observed, the actor is wont to return to his Malibu house of an evening, work out, swim, then read a book in bed. At the moment he’s engrossed in a biography of Diane Arbus, acclaimed for her bleak and melancholy photos of freaks, misfits and plain, uncomfortable people.
Does he see any similarity between Arbus’ subjects and actors? “Actors are made freakish by the attention that’s given them. What’s happened to me is you start to think of yourself as an object. Maybe children who are not used to feeling like a subject – used to feeling like an interior being, used to feeling the object of something, who have been objectified – maybe they more easily become actors, maybe they seek that feeling again.”
Back at the shoot nobody is mocking David Duchovny. It’s the end of a long, hot day, and half the crew are packed into the tropically humid bar of an old roadhouse to shoot Eugene coming in and asking the barman for help. Andy Wilson, jovial as ever, is blowing raucously on his arm to demonstrate the fart sounds that, he says, his young daughters find hilarious at bathtime. Duchovny is shaking with laughter, causing Melanie Green to make a mock apology for her client’s intemperateness.
The camera rolls, the actor jumps off his seat, gets straight into character and does a longish dialogue scene. As soon as it’s over he berates the camera crew for farting during the take. They indignantly protest their innocence and start blaming each other. The sound crew then calls for complete silence while they record a wild track of background ambience. The boom operator has just yelled his warning when Duchovny, leaning nonchalantly against the bar, blows a loud raspberry. “That’ll match,” he murmurs.
Apoplectic and herculean attempts by forty people to control their guffaws prove hopelessly inadequate. A great groan of hilarity rocks the bar. The Duke grins. “It’s a wrap!” hollers the second assistant. “Six o’clock tomorrow morning, please!” Actors are jumping in cars so they can race back to the city for a beer. For Duchovny, it’s a solo drive back to the beach house for a work out. Despite putting aside time for that quiet read later, he’s having a very full day, just like in Vancouver. With every minute so thoroughly used up, is he, dare one ask, ever going to settle down and find time for family life? “If it’s going to happen, it’s just going to happen – I’m not making time for it. But I think I’m ready. I think about it more often. Recently. I sat down and thought ‘God, I’m 35!’ Yeah. I’d like to have a child in the next five years.” He ruminates for a moment, then announces “I’ve got to get to work!” He’s talking about finding a partner, not pumping iron in Malibu. You could be forgiven for not being quite sure, though.
This piece was first published in Icon magazine in 1998
“I wanted to keep him away from the film,” says Terry Gilliam, film-maker, of Hunter S. Thompson, gonzo journalist. “His chaotic behaviour would not work there.” This is curious. It’s true that Thompson, a known wildman, has acquired an impressive reputation for his mastery of drugs, booze and high-powered weaponry, but one might imagine that 57 year old ‘Monty Python’ founder member Terry Gilliam could match him shot for shot. The director of such anarchic and visually dense flights of fantasy as ‘Brazil’, ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’ and ‘Twelve Monkeys’, Gilliam has come to be seen as a force of misrule both on and off the screen. Surely he would embrace Hunter Thompson’s flamboyant eccentricity with open arms.
The truth of the matter is that Gilliam is a man for whom a fine balance is all. In his films, in the making of his films and in the conduct of his life Gilliam constructs a relationship between order and disorder that often unnerves those around him. Sometimes he thrives in the chaos that he generates, sometimes his sallies into wildness have disastrous results that threaten to destroy his career.
The contradictions abound. Gilliam started his professional life in cartoon animation, a medium that demands a slow, painstaking precision quite at odds with the themes of abandonment that his work celebrates. His attitude to Hunter Thompson, whom one might imagine to be a soul mate, suggests that, for Gilliam, wildness is all very well as long as it’s kept firmly in its place.
The film that its director wished to protect is, of course, Gilliam’s version of ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’, starring Johnny Depp and currently scheduled for a Spring release. The movie is based on Thompson’s legendary account, first published in ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine in 1971, of the hallucinated journey of Thompson alter ego Raoul Duke and his attorney, Oscar Acosta, to Las Vegas in order to cover the Mint 400 off-road race. ‘Fear and Loathing’, subtitled ‘A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream’, was published as a book in 1972 and won the intense admiration of multitudes of those who Just Say Yes for its integration of Odyssean quest themes with the most scabrously lurid, no-holds-barred, no-substance-too-hair-raising chronicle of excess that did for psycho-tropic drugs what the Marquis de Sade did for animals and hand-maidens in ‘100 Days of Sodom’.
Despite Terry Gilliam’s circumspect approach to the erratic author of ‘Fear and Loathing’, the director’s latest project is, in terms of spirit, squarely aligned with the body of work he has produced over the last thirty years. The quality that links spirit to visual content is, in Gilliam’s case, effervescence. The frames of his movies are thick with detail, layered plane upon plane and receding into architectures that are both labyrinthine and cavernous. Costumes are elaborate and objects are exotic – qualities that can readily be applied to the characters that inhabit Gilliam’s narratives. The films typically foreground men distinguished by their unruly energies and vaulting imaginations. Although they are often pitted, like Sam Lowry in ‘Brazil’, against byzantine bureaucracies or, like Parry in ‘The Fisher King’, against oppressive convention, there is invariably a suggestion that those with a soaring spirit deserve to fly even though they are as likely to find degradation as redemption.
Gilliam first came to prominence with the cheerfully violent animated links that he produced for British TV’s ground-breaking comedy series ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. In the early seventies the show was phenomenally successful, its inspired daftness and absurdist anti-authoritarianism genuinely revolutionising the state of the nation’s humour. The word ‘Pythonesque’ was understood right across the Isles and Tuesday nights (or was it Wednesday?) became a stay-at-home fixture of crucial importance. Gilliam was the only American in the six-man team yet his humour was perfectly attuned to the British sense of the odd. The trademark Python peculiarity was not merely a variety of silliness, though. It had a dark and even troubling side that would surface in a less whimsical form in much of Gilliam’s later film work.
Invited to talk about his earliest years, Gilliam kicks off with gusto, holding forth so energetically that, several hours later, his voice will eventually grow hoarse and compel him to stop. “Yes, my father was a carpenter…” He pauses, grinning impishly. “And my mother was a Virgin!” He bellows with laughter, “I’m the Messiah!”
Born in 1940 in Minneapolis, Gilliam locked into his vocation at an early age. “As a kid, animation was the thing I loved,” he recalls. “I don’t know if ‘Snow White’ was the first movie I saw but it certainly feels like it. I was a huge Disney fan and I had all these books on ‘How to Draw Cartoons’, full of Betty Boop and all of those figures.”
Like the Surrealist painters, animators work in an imaginative world in which all things have the potential to turn into other things. Seen in these terms, animation has an affinity with chaos that belies its rigid technical nature. When this fascination with the fluidity of appearances is applied to a project like ‘Fear and Loathing’ it becomes clear that Hunter Thompson’s narcotised and shape-shifting vision of America will be well served. “My mother,” Gilliam continues, “has early drawings of mine where I was taking Hoovers and common household appliances and turning them into Martians.” Why does he think he did this? “Why? Because I’m a mutant. It’s called mutation. I’m a freak!”
The freak also had a strong attachment to all things medieval. Much later on this obsession would inform the narratives of some of his films and also provide him with sublime models of conduct befitting a man who had come to see his life as a quest for the integration of the unfettered imagination with the unforgiving world.
When he was thirteen Gilliam’s family moved to suburban L.A. and Terry found further novel uses for household objects. “I’d take a five gallon ice cream carton, cut a slit and make a knight’s helmet out of it, using eucalyptus branches as a sword.” The boy wasn’t just transposing the Wild West to Arthurian Albion, however. His interest, initially kindled by movies like ‘Ivanhoe’ and an avid reading of knightly epics, also ran to matters of specific period detail. “I loved heraldry – right from the start I was designing my own shields. I loved chevrons! Dragons, mythic beasts – they just appealed to me from a very early age. It works on different levels – viscerally, archetypically and as a design focus.”
By his late teens Gilliam was starting to go public with his obsessions. “My dad used to bring home these four by eight boxes that had held these panels he’d installed in office buildings. When you spread them out you had eight by eight of corrugated cardboard!” Such bounty could not be left unprocessed. With minutes to go before the doors would open for the Senior Prom, a manically active Gilliam would be putting the final touches to the towering medieval castle facades that fronted the stage. “No one had access to cardboard that size! I made castles for years – you can get inside them and be safe from all of the dangers of the world.”
Almost as an afterthought Gilliam mentions another aspect of his late teen years. “I was going to be a missionary. I went through college on a Presbyterian fellowship. I was a right little zealot.” The need to reconcile the pull between freakish self-expression and zealous self-discipline seems admirably served by medieval legend, which delivers equal doses of derring-do and adherence to the purest principles.
Years later Gilliam’s skills in Higher Cardboard would resurface in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. “The National Trust, who owned all the castles we’d booked, threw us out with two weeks to go,” he says ruefully. “They said that comedians would not respect the dignity and fabric of the buildings. So half the castles you see are just cut-outs stuck up on hills. It’s like life is just one big circle that keeps going round and round.”
The youthful preoccupation with the Middle Ages never went away. In addition to ‘Holy Grail’ (1974) it can be seen at its most visually explicit in the early movies – floridly in ‘Jabberwocky’ (1977), intermittently in ‘Time Bandits’ (1980), updated to a 15th/16th century hybrid in ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) and glimpsed in ‘The Fisher King’ (1991). But what on earth can an unrepentant medievalist bring to the deranged and wanton psychopharmacological fever dream that is ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’? Gilliam’s answer establishes that his key obsessions are very much alive in this context. “It’s about two crusading people whom the world has let down in some way. The spirit of the book is about excess. Right at the start there’s a Dr Johnson quote ‘He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.’ This is all about the loss and failure of the Sixties and here we have two characters who go to excess in order to get to the heart of the American dream.”
It is not only Hunter Thompson’s fictional characters who are disillusioned by the sting in the tail of the Sixties. Gilliam himself was so upset by the turnabout in the national mood that he left America for England and has lived there ever since. Nicola Pecarini, Director of Photography on ‘Fear and Loathing’, has a keen appreciation of the film’s meaning for its director. “I discovered how important the movie is for America and especially how important it is for Terry,” he says. “It’s all about why he decided to leave: the start of the Vietnam war and the crushing of ideals – the same ideals that Hunter has.”
Medieval legend, with its epic tales of wounding and renewal, is clearly a more reliable source of ideals. Paradoxically, when the visual references to the period are at their most sparse, Gilliam’s real use for the medieval becomes clearer. In ‘The Fisher King’, two emotionally damaged men (played by Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges) in present day New York act out elements of a medieval fertility legend and regain their lost wholeness. The Robin Williams character sees himself enwrapped in the medieval story of the Fisher King who, as a boy, had a vision of the Holy Grail bathed in fire, only to wound himself badly when he reached out to take it. The King does not recover until a Fool gives him a cup of water. His wound is healed and he sees the Grail again.
Terry Gilliam implicates himself deeply in this mystical narrative of the healing quest. Within the movie itself, he admits to a very close involvement with both his protagonists – “I’m an actor-director, I identify with the characters to the point that I’m an actor: I am that character, so I see the film through their eyes. I got confused at certain points because I was both Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges.”
‘The Fisher King’ was made after the disastrous ‘Baron Munchausen’, a project that went dramatically over budget and well over length, was almost taken over by the studio and only returned on condition it be cut to two hours. The movie is a prime example of Gilliam-driven chaos untempered by control wherein the director got so caught up in constructing elaborate set pieces that the whole operation went into orbit. Gilliam reluctantly complied with the studio’s strictures but Columbia Pictures punished him by making only 117 prints for the entire American release. For a while it looked as the director would never work again. Gilliam’s confidence was shot. “So ‘Fisher King’ was a healing thing,” the director confesses. “The male characters are broken people, they’ve got to come back. That was a movie definitely done after a battering.” The medieval, for Gilliam, has become not only a source of imagery and inspirational deeds but a place in which to lick wounds and touch base.
Over the years nearly twenty attempts have been made to adapt ‘Fear and Loathing’ for the screen. Adaptations have been circulating since the 70s and Jack Nicholson was among the many who took options and hired writers to wrestle with the novel’s intractable shape and style. In 1980 Art Linson directed a Bill Murray vehicle called ‘Where the Buffalo Roam’, employing Hunter Thompson as ‘executive consultant’ and depicting the latter’s unique approach to self-medication. It didn’t do well.
British film-maker Alex Cox had the penultimate crack at the book. Viewed as a maverick for his eschewal of mainstream Hollywood values and tending to view himself somewhat as an auteur, it seems that Cox, according to parties closely involved with the project, had a vision for the film that was very much at odds with the essence of Hunter Thompson’s original. Adamant that he could successfully impose this view, Cox dug his heels in to such an extent that he alienated some of the key players.
The script went the rounds again, at one point turning up on the desk of Terry Gilliam’s agent. Gilliam had admired the book for years and, despite the fact that he rarely works with screenplays that he hasn’t written himself, eagerly took up the baton. Patrick Cassavetti, a producer on ‘Fear and Loathing’, takes up the story. “Philosophically and spiritually it felt right to Terry and he was the one director who could make it manageable. But the option on the book was about to expire, Johnny Depp had been waiting around overlong and we had another project going that we had to launch in 1998. We had to start straight away but we thought that was okay – gonzo journalism is done on the same basis.”
Gilliam rejected Cox’s screenplay and found he had ten days to come up with another one. He teamed up with Tony Grisoni, who had recently written ‘Queen of Hearts’. Initially Grisoni had problems with gonzo journalism, Hunter Thompson’s term for that branch of reportage which does not distinguish between the crazed mental state of the reporter and the objective reality to which the reporter is struggling to attune. “Gonzo works for a novel, it doesn’t really work for a movie script,” Grisoni explains, “You’ve got to try and shape it without destroying the spirit of that.”
In May ’97 the two writers assembled daily beside Gilliam’s espresso coffee machine in his London house. “We just laid into it,” says Grisoni, ‘I’d sit at the keyboard and we’d talk and talk and I’d keep typing. Terry insisted that if we needed a line, rather than invent one we’d find one from somewhere in the book and pull it in. Hunter Thompson’s writing is so particular…I can’t do better than that. Nor can Terry.”
Halfway through the novel, Grisoni felt, the narrative becomes unworkably shapeless. The writers had to have a clear strategy. “We decided to build up to this drug, adrenochrome, the drug to end all drugs. He takes it and boom! He goes out. When he comes to, time has passed and things have happened. All he has is his tape recorder, which he plays back, gradually piecing the missing time together.”
In order to impose an evolving rhythm on the screenplay the writers decided to heighten the counterpoint of relationships in the story. “There’s an interesting seesaw business going on between Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo (the attorney, renamed for the film). One is more in control than the other then the power switches. This goes on all the way through. Gonzo exhibits more and more dangerous signs of mental disorder and gives us a character progression.”
Grisoni is hard pressed to identify the specialities of each of the members of the screenwriting partnership. Both men, he asserts, are fundamentally concerned with structure and shape yet manage to construct a genuinely flexible working atmosphere. “The great thing is that you’re encouraged to come up with a thousand lousy ideas for the sake of the one good one. We were working at speed and this had a headlong energy that was right for the tale. It helped you not be too self-conscious. I learned a lot about trusting to instinct.”
Gilliam’s skill at setting up zones of creative chaos within orderly structures is not restricted to the making of screenplays. Like Grisoni, Alex McDowell, production designer on ‘Fear and Loathing’, found the director focused but elastic in the pre-production process. “Two weeks before anyone else started, Terry and Julie Weiss, the costume designer, and I went through the script in a meandering, lateral kind of way.” In the course of this protracted brainstorming session ideas for atmospheres and images began to emerge. Gilliam had described the film as ‘Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno’ and proposed an organising vision for the character of Duke that was carried through all stages of the project. “Terry likened him to a war correspondent out there in a battlezone,” Tony Grisoni recalls. “And ‘out there’ is also inside him: the drugs are a sort of carpet bombing.” McDowell found these images crucial. “We talked and talked about where we came from politically,” he explains, “And this got us to all the layers that we were interested in: the Vietnam War, Beirut, they all came up as references.”
Those close to the director agree that he welcomes a genuine creative dialogue. Gilliam confirms this when he describes his working relationship with McDowell. “It’s a leapfrogging process,” he says. “I’ve got very strong ideas, he’s got very strong ideas. I do sketches, I get photographs, paintings, I gather research and reference material. Then I start designing the stuff. Then the designer comes on and says ‘What about this?’ and a dialogue starts. They come up with a good idea, and I come up with a better idea and they come up with a better idea than mine. And we do it.” Once the director and designers had reached agreement in depth on the look of the thing, there was an abrupt change of gear. “Terry was off with the actors and I’m left,” says McDowell. “We didn’t see him much until the shoot.”
While Gilliam was talking visuals, his lead actor was getting to grips with the legend he had been hired to portray. Thompson has, in the past, been known to have suffered fools very reluctantly indeed. Callow journalists, for example, have had shotguns fired off (but not at them) in their proximity and rubbernecking visitors have been submitted to gruelling trials by intoxication. Depp, a Hollywood godling, was really going to have to pass muster. In fact it all went terribly well.
“Johnny and Hunter spent an enormous amount of time together at the beginning, up at Hunter’s place,” says Gilliam. For the director this was a vital hands-off period, but when it had to be wound up a certain delicacy was in order. “Then I came on board and suddenly I was stealing his creation. It’s like ‘Johnny is spending more time with Terry! Whoa!’ Suddenly jealousy is rearing its ugly head and it gets very strange.” This faintly petulant tug-of-war between the dukes of disorder is, however, only the interest paid on a shrewdly packaged loan, as Gilliam points out. “The more Johnny can absorb from Hunter the better because then I don’t have to do that research – Johnny will be the one to be truthful to what the character is.”
Although he won’t say as much, Gilliam seems not to have enjoyed the three weeks of location work that opened filming on ‘Fear & Loathing’. He refers to the fact that Las Vegas, with its mythic, monolithic public image well established, doesn’t really need film-makers or their money and consequently accommodates them rather begrudgingly. “We wanted to film in a casino, obviously, and the only time they’d give us was between two and six in the morning! And they insisted that the extras did real gambling! I just hope our people made some money!”
The movie was made in a hurry on a modest budget ($18.5m) and at times resources – human ones – were overstretched. Again, Gilliam will not commit himself in any detail – “It had to be a good shoot, we didn’t have a choice but I don’t think it was a well organised film. Its birth was not easy. It was always rough and things didn’t go the way I wanted them to. Certain people didn’t… I’m not going to name names but it was a strange film, like one leg was shorter than the other. There was all sorts of chaos.”
Nicola Pecarini is convinced that Gilliam is a master of chaos. “For example, in Bazooka Circus, you’ve got 400 extras in 70s hair dos and twenty seamstresses and costumiers on a three am call to get the first 200 ready by eight thirty. Terry walks in and asks for one little change and right there: Boom! Chaos! He’d deny it but it’s unconsciously deliberate. Chaos gives you adrenalin and speed and it awakes your senses. That’s how he likes it.” Designer Alex McDowell argues that Gilliam injects disorder when the constraints of shooting get on top of him. “He’s getting the most pressure from the most people and he gets round it by creating chaos to give himself space. There’s a lot more tension in the air when he’s on the set.” “But Terry takes chaos very far,” says Nicola Pecarini. “And there is an amazing order in his chaos! He chooses the people next to him to handle the solutions to this and sometimes they can’t handle it. We had two of them just cracked up.”
Clearly there’s good chaos and bad chaos. Sometimes the most tiresome and inauspicious situations goad Gilliam into conjuring up the good stuff. “Somebody says ‘Hey, the sun is going!’ and I go ‘So why the fuck are we still on this shot? Come on! We gotta move! Go! Johnny, get in there, look there, say those words! Shoot, shoot! Do it again!’ If you’ve got good people, it works. And some of the best stuff comes out of that.”
The very best chaos, though, is born out of total control. This means sound stage. This means big crew, much hierarchy, lots of delegation. Take the Bazooka Circus setup. In the novel, Duke and his attorney experience serious madness in the venerable Circus Circus casino. Lawsuits being so terribly compromising these days, the producers change the name and the crew gets building. A three tier set is constructed on the stage and Gilliam braces himself for a big one.
“Ellen Patterson was the coordinator of that sequence. She had to just keep badgering me: ‘Answer this, Terry’, ‘What’s this?’, ‘What’s happening here?’, ‘What do you want there?’ – I told you – ‘No you didn’t!’ – Yes I did, that’s what I want. – ‘That’s all you get. Bye!’ So what I need is people who pester me, which is not the way most directors work.” The London-based American has severed his connections not just with his country of birth but the deferential ways of its most renowned industry. “In Hollywood the idea of pestering the director and treating him like this child who needs to come up with the goods, they find that hard to do.”
Ensconced in the set, the child director knows what he likes. “What I want is to have enough toys around, enough things: props, people, sets, anything. Toys! If somebody says ‘Oh, shit, that’s not working’, well ‘Fuck, that’ll do it, we’ll start out on that instead.'” This thing with things stems from the earliest days of Gilliam’s career. “It’s almost like doing animation again because it’s just me and these things – I’m in control. My mind is very good at juxtaposing, assembling things and that’s what the animation was all about. Suddenly – ooh, there’s an idea comes out of that. Those are the moments I really find exhilarating on a film.”
As soon as he has shot the movie, Gilliam can’t wait to get back to his family, back to the country steeped in the epic history that he finds so inspiring. In a suite in London’s Soho film district, ‘Fear and Loathing’s editors are cutting diligently for a screening at Cannes in May. Next door, in his office, Terry Gilliam is talking flat out. His arms are flailing, he breaks off every few minutes to cough convulsively and his voice is worn down to a croak. The interviewer starts to feel guilty, as if he were heedlessly exploiting this generous man. But the man keeps going. That question at the back of our minds, for instance…”Yeah – the strange thing is, I don’t take drugs. I’ve never had acid in my life. Never had peyote, never had mescaline. Marijuana makes me implode, I go numb. I never had acid because I thought I’d try to fly out the window. I don’t want to fly, I can fly. This is a thing I know.”
What the connoisseur of disorder knows very well is the border country. You don’t pitch camp on either side, you hover over the middle, taking the best of both worlds. Not like the young King who snatches at the Grail and is burned; not like the wounded monarch rigid with melancholy. Not even like the Fool, who does the right thing without realising it. Terry Gilliam knows he has to keep circulating, even when he’s with fellow wildmen. Especially then. “I wanted to keep Hunter at bay. That’s the only way I could treat him and the book with the disrespect they deserved.” He coughs alarmingly, loosening strands from his pony-tail, then looks across the desk. “You must have enough now.”
Anna down our road is having a garden party. It’s a warm day, but hardly sweltering; nonetheless, one of the guests is stripped to the waist, clad only in pale purple loon pants that hang slackly from his bony hips. He’s piling lettuce onto a plate but such is the frailty of his exposed physique that one is tempted to guide him discreetly to the potatoes – his ribs protrude from his pallid flesh like railway lines dusted with snow. Shoulder-length greying hair falls from a balding dome and his long, aquiline nose is balanced by a neat black goatee. The effect is imposing but serene. A chat under a tree elicits the fact that the topless stranger is a musician with 17 albums to his credit. With a slow gentle delivery made even softer by a faint drawl, he starts to talk about his life. He reveals that he lives in Austin, Texas, that he is 52 years old and his name is Arthur Brown.
A misty veil is wiped from the mind’s eye. Suddenly, it’s 1968 and young people wearing curtains are waving their arms in a pagan manner in a darkened hall. On a podium before them a man in a silver mask has just hollered “I AM THE GOD OF HELLFIRE!” with some menace. He is wearing a particularly striking curtain and his hair is in flames. The opening chords of “Fire” burst from the amps and the hippies flip.
Arthur Brown’s song is a major chart-topper, a nation is transfixed by hokey pop diabolism and adolescents conduct earnest debates on the merits of hairsprays that style, condition and fireproof in one application.
A few years and no more hits later, Arthur will be a rock legend. Serpent-sucking megastar Alice Cooper will say that he is indebted to the lanky Englishman for introducing him to rock theatrics. Proto-metal pompists Deep Purple will pay tribute to Brown’s fine bluesy voice. But where did Arthur go after all that fame? Indeed, what was he doing before it? Well, it’s a long story and here are some of the good bits.
Back in ’62, the God of Hellfire was studying sociology and philosophy at Reading University. He had already mastered the banjo and the double bass, and was making the transition from metaphysics to rhythm and blues. After gigging around in small clubs and not studying much, he was fired from a band called the South West Five, which was rather unfair considering he’d just convinced them to change their name to the Arthur Brown Union.
Arthur was moping in the Kilt Club, a hip Soho boite, when a sound engineer who worked at the Marquee asked him if he’d like to form a rock empire in Paris. Of course he would, and by 1965 their band was the toast of Montmartre, appearing nightly in the Ange Rouge, a club owned by Baron Lenur, who dressed like Louis Quatorze and kept a troupe of tame beatniks in the house for atmosphere. So unlikely was the spectacle of long-haired Britons playing the blues that Salvador Dali himself dropped by regularly to catch the act. “It was a very, very wild scene,” Arthur recalls fondly, “naked girls being passed around the club. I used to do audience diving.” Some nights he dived out of the front door and led the entire clientele round the block, spearheaded by a blaring saxophone.
The woman who owned the nearby strip clubs was impressed. She opened the Crazy Gambas, near Marbella in Spain and invited the Arthur Brown Set to be the house band. The management turned out to be white slave traders; they used to take their female employees’ passports, then fail to fix up their visas. “Two weeks later, they’d tell the girls the police were making enquiries and that they had to get out fast. Then they’d fly them to Africa and that was it.” One of the musicians objected to the imminent enslavement of his French girlfriend so the villains sealed off the club and sharpened their stilettos. Luckily, one of the Crazy Gambinos had some dirt on the slavemaster and turned him over to the police. Close one.
The band moved on to another Marbella club. As clubs do, it closed down, and when it did, the boys hadn’t been paid. “The band come to me and said ‘We’re going to set fire to it.’ I said ‘Count me out fellas!’ They didn’t burn the whole club down though, just the front of it.”
Strange, this aversion to arson, given what was to come, but a few clubs later Arthur had an experience in a Paris hotel corridor that marked his transition from lounge lizard to pyrotechnic legend. “I found a crown outside a door. It had candles on it. Somebody had thrown it out after a party. I went and lit the candles. It was the beginning of the ‘Fire’ thing.”
The “Fire” thing also saw Arthur blacking out his teeth, wearing big wigs and women’s dresses on stage. The reverse costume was a witch doctor’s outfit made of newspaper. Rock theatrics had taken a great leap forward. In 1967, at London’s highly psychedelian UFO Club, Arthur cut through the haze of paisley with an outfit that would etch itself in the memories of all those who escaped from the late-Sixties with unmelted synapses.
“I’d come on with the flaming helmet, and a huge orange Tibetan kind of robe, which would flare out like a whirling dervish when I turned fast, then at the end I’d take that off and there was a black velvet outfit under that.” Helmet work had its drawbacks. “The earliest one was the crown with candles on; then we moved onto a colander with candles on, but that used to stick to my hair. So the next thing was a pie dish with a hole in the middle with a screw in it and a leather strap under my chin with gasoline on top of the whole thing. The problem was that the heat used to come down through the screw onto my skull; so we devised a thing to hold the plate and from that we arrived at the final solution – the Viking helmet.”
Cow gum and other flammables were daubed on the helmet’s horns, between which was a shallow dish to hold the petrol. “It was quite comfortable, but the lights man used to get drunk and pour petrol over me as well as into the hat.” The accident waiting to happen took place at the 1968 Windsor Jazz Festival. Arthur was about to go on stage when he burst into flames: “Zoot Money – you remember him? – he put me out with beer.”
A few months later the band, known by now as The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, was spotted by Pete Townshend of The Who and introduced to Track Records. In no time at all, they released the show-stopping “Fire” and burned up the pop charts. Despite being voted the Most Undanceable Band on the scene, the Crazy World rapidly became a top, if controversial, draw: “Managers used to throw our equipment downstairs because we were so outrageous. People would slug me on stage – they’d never seen anything like it.” Antipathy was so advanced at one club that Arthur was compelled to smash the glass enclosing a double headed fire axe and brandish it defensively throughout the show. Those were the days.
Fuelled by fame, the band toured the States as support for the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, the Mothers of Invention and Jimi Hendrix. The latter had his reservations. “He initially refused to let us support him because he’d seen our press photos,” Arthur remembers. “He was worried – he knew about the fire and everything. Of course, after he’d played with us, he started setting fire to his guitar!”
Arthur, who has been winningly modest so far, cannot suppress a smug giggle at this point. However, life with the Sixties rock giants was not entirely a bowl of electric prunes: “It was a very traumatic tour. The keyboard player had been a manic depressive all his life and someone spiked his drink and he had to go into a mental home. The drummer was blown away by the culture and ended up right over the top.” At one big festival the drummer made a curious error of judgement, “He started to think he was Keith Moon but, whereas Moon would have roadies to catch the drums, this guy kicked all his off the stage and it took us 25 minutes to get the thing back together – by which time, of course, the impetus had gone.”
Arthur was not impressed by success. Despite being known as His Psychedelic Majesty and sharing the top of the UK charts with Tom Jones, it was, he felt, dull playing the same set over and over again and uncomfortable being regarded as a spiritual force by the more credulous fans. So he gave it all up, signed away his rights to “Fire” and went to live in a commune in Dorset. His managers were appalled.
It wasn’t long, though, before the deep need to make bands surfaced again. Equipped with the suitably bucolic name of the Puddletown Express, he and his colleagues set off in 1969 for France which, was still reeling from les evénements of May 1968, when students and workers had taken to the streets of Paris and de Gaulle’s government seemed set to be toppled by revolution. Rifle-toting police were everywhere and the Ministry of the Interior sent observers to the Paris gig. “The Communist Party had booked Pink Floyd, Soft Machine and us to tour France to show that they had control over the young people. Well, I came on naked and incited them to revolution.” Arthur had had his kit off before, at the Marquee back in London, and a reviewer from the Melody Maker had reported that his girlfriend had fainted when confronted with the bony spectacle. The Communists were less pleased; they lost a seat in parliament – as a result, they were convinced, of the scandal surrounding Arthur’s self-revelation. They begged him not to take his clothes off again: “Gomelsky (Arthur’s new manager) said ‘If it’s a moral statement you’re making, then go ahead, but if it isn’t please be kind to these people who’ve booked the tour’. Well, it wasn’t a moral statement, it was part of the act, so I stopped. We came home and the band folded.”
That might have been it, had Arthur not seen the angel. He was standing in a field when it appeared, four miles high, wearing a gold loincloth and holding a huge sword. It had been a question, at that point, of whether to go to a Buddhist monastery in Scotland or to form another band. Arthur gathered from the angel that he should take the path of rock. He returned to the world of tours and studios and over the next three years cut a couple of albums under the nom de guitare of Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come. And then, once again, came the spiritual call. This led him first to a centre in Gloucestershire, and then on to a succession of other retreats where he picked up Buddhist meditation techniques. Eventually, and bizarrely, he travelled in 1971, at the invitation of the Israeli high command, to Tel Aviv, stayed in the Hilton and played songs to raise the morale of wounded troops. Mission accomplished, he returned to Britain and spent a year and a half at a Sufi school in Scotland before cutting an improvised album called Chisum in My Bosom. Then in the mid-Seventies, Africa beckoned. Arthur went to Burundi and taught music history. One of his odder tasks involved demonstrating to the local people that the American blues they admired so much actually originated in Africa.
Back home again in 1980, Arthur’s music featured a synthesiser, and Britain, he says, just wasn’t ready for it. He moved to America with his second wife, a Texan, who guided him to Austin. After a year doing carpentry in that congenial city, he fell in with Jimmy Carl Black of the Mothers of Invention, who were negotiating the post-fame thing by means of house painting. They called themselves the Gentlemen of Colour (Brown and Black) and made a decent living from their brushwork. So many of the guys in the paint team were musicians that Arthur, never one to pass up a band opportunity, managed to put out two more albums. By 1985, he’d succeeded in assembling a lucrative deal for a blues album that would bring together Jack Bruce, Carl Palmer, Keith Emerson and others. The deal fell apart, and Arthur had visions of struggling on in this not-quite mode until he was 90. Something had to be done.
At last, at the end of the Eighties, Arthur found the perfect way to reconcile his lust for rock with the increasing tranquillity of his inner life; he qualified as a counsellor and invented a new therapy. How does it work? A colleague leads the counselling session, while Arthur sits in silence and listens to the client unburdening him or herself. Then, taking up his guitar, “I improvise a song or a poem which brings out the unspoken undercurrents of the session”. The customised calypso is recorded onto cassette and given to the client to play at leisure in his or her home. Eminent psychiatrists were impressed; so much so that the singer was able to take his therapeutic guitar into a special unit for six months and work with young women drug addicts and their families.
The spontaneous song part of the process worked so well that Arthur wondered if it would work on stage. He’d always had a yen to do the Glastonbury Festival, so he asked an agent to fix up a British tour. The agent got 38 gigs in 42 days, but couldn’t clinch Glastonbury. Arthur stormed around the UK anyway, and all kinds of people came to see him: teenagers, grizzled fans who knew all his lyrics and a stream of ex-members of his innumerable bands. One night, he developed a terrible headache halfway through the set and had to stagger off, leaving the fans wide-eyed and feckless in the auditorium. Such was the level of abandon already generated that within minutes the rumour began circulating that Arthur had been abducted by aliens and whisked up into a hovering mothership.
That was last year. Now Arthur’s back again, recuperating from a second British tour, working with Lene Lovich, and writing an opera with a Latvian composer. Which is why he’s in Anna’s back garden. So what is the name of the band this time around, Arthur? The God of Hellfire smiles sagely. “Ah! That was the agent’s idea – it’s called ‘The Even Crazier World of Arthur Brown’.”
At Mosport, a motor racing track in the South Ontario flatlands, film director David Cronenberg is about to try to put as much space as possible between himself and his fellow men. He had been up at five, loading his pale grey Formula Junior Cooper into its trailer. Now, unshaven, clad in faded blue shorts and a Daytona International Speedway cap, the director is enjoying his hobby. He checks the wheel nuts with a torque wrench, chats about the Cooper rear engine revolution and confesses that the stewards have their eye on him. “Two weeks ago I had two crashes and a spin off here. This means you’re being observed – they want to see I’m not running amok.”
Imperturbable and little given to emotional display, Cronenberg is a man who has probably never even walked amok. An unsympathetic inspector of his oeuvre might conjure up an image of a director whose acquaintanceship with the abyss is so terrifying, whose depravity is so considerable that women and children must be sequestered until the spittle-flecked, staring-eyed fellow is hunted down. Was it not in Shivers, after all, that the turd- shaped parasite, capable of infecting its hosts with uncontrollable sex mania, oozed along the bottom of the bath into the vagina of the unsuspecting bather? And did not the demonstration of laser-like extra-sensory mind-invasion in Scanners cause the head of the volunteer to swell, redden, boil, burst and splatter before our very eyes? How about that moment in The Fly when Jeff Goldblum’s half man half household pest character throws up on a doughnut in order to make it slip down so squishy? And Videodrome, wasn’t that the one where a glistening slit opens up in the guy’s stomach and he sticks a pornographic video cassette in it?
Now Cronenberg’s reputation, recently verging on the respectable after the mainstream success of the Jeremy Irons movie Dead Ringers, may head back down the tubes again – a location many feel to be the proper destination for the source material ofNaked Lunch, the Cronenberg movie to be released in this country in March.
William Burroughs’ notorious novel presents a film-maker with considerable problems. Naked Lunch was published in Britain in 1964, after it had been declared obscene in America. It detonated the most extreme reactions in its critics. One of the most eminent, George Steiner, described it as an “array of nauseating images, rhetoric, theatrical asides and soft-core filth. It leaves one numb, and perhaps afraid. It seeks to sicken…, making the imagination vomit.”
The book certainly contains an abundance of episodes that many have found emetic. The most disturbing is probably the scene in which Mary and Mark both sodomise Johnny (Mary straps on a greased dildo for this task) then lead him to a gallows for further diversion: “Johnny sees the gallows and sags with a great ‘Ohhhhhhhhhhh!’ his chin pulling down towards his cock, his legs bending at the knees. Sperm spurts, arching almost vertical in front of his face. Mark and Mary…push Johnny forward onto the gallows platform covered with moldy jockstraps and sweat shirts. Mark is adjusting the noose. After Mark breaks Johnny’s neck, Johnny’s cock springs up and Mary guides it in her cunt… She bites away Johnny’s lips and nose and sucks out his eyes with a pop… Now she lunches on his prick.” Few lunches have been more naked. Few texts declare more stridently their resistance to being filmed.
Cronenberg retires to the shade of the empty trailer and starts spraying Windex on the visor of his white crash helmet. He polishes the plastic with a clean rag. The conversation turns to scriptwriting. “Leonard Cohen said he would wake up in the morning to see whether he was in a state of grace. If he wasn’t he’d go back to bed. Certain things can’t be pushed – with me directing is more driven but scriptwriting isn’t. It keeps me off the streets, out of the depths.”
Out on the track a deafening roar signals the start of the afternoon heats. Cronenberg rubs busily at a grease spot. What does he mean by ‘the depths’? When my father died my mother said to me ‘You have to look into the abyss and know it’s there. Then you have to ignore it’, that’s the project.” Did he look? “Oh yes. I’ve been there. I know it. The abyss is empty, it’s personal. If you don’t acknowledge it you’re living an illusory life.” There aren’t unpleasant things in it? “Bosch populates the abyss – his creatures aren’t there before him. There’s not a creature that’s stalking you, it’s just waiting patiently. If it was predatory then you could joust with it, have a relationship with it. It’s death that stalks you, the finality, it makes everything else absurd. It makes reality untenable. You can bypass this or acknowledge it on Sundays. But not the rest of the week! I gotta put my suit on.” He reaches for his bright orange flame-proof one-piece.
As the cars line up in the entry lane for the big race, Cronenberg takes up pole position. Behind him is a line of vintage racers: an MG, a Lotus, a Porsche, even a Volvo saloon. The drivers, all enthusiasts rather than professionals, are lounging around in twos and threes, chatting and joking. Only Cronenberg is seated in his car, very still, white helmet enveloping his head, hands gripping the steering wheel. No fidgeting.
The Cooper quickly gets ahead and over eight laps develops this into a 200 metre lead at the finishing line. The drivers mill around off-track, doing the post-mortem. The winner smiles calmly and drives back to the trailer. Martin Scorsese was so convinced that Cronenberg would be a dangerous weirdo that he expressed profound unease at the prospect of meeting him. After the event he told Cronenberg he looked like a Beverly Hills gynaecologist. Certainly as the director strolls around in sneakers and shorts, he resembles less a past-master of perversion than a lawyer on the way to the beach. His wavy hair, light brown streaked with grey, falls from its centre parting onto the black frames of the round-lensed spectacles which dominate his clean-cut features. The appearance is earnest, cerebral, with a dash of postgraduate. No visible sign of the screenwriter who, in Dead Ringers, proposed the notion that people have an inner beauty, so why were competitions not held for Best Spleen or Most Perfect Kidney?
A camera panning round the walls of the compact two-room office suite housing David Cronenberg Productions in uptown Toronto might start off by holding for a moment on a framed drawing mounted midway between the director’s desk and the adjacent room. The drawing appears to have been cut from a medical textbook, and depicts a detailed cross-section of a womb and vaginal passage. The legend beneath the illustration reads ‘Section 33: Anomalies of the Female Urinogenital System. Fig 999 – Trifurcate Uterus.’ At the top of the vagina are three cervixes leading into three separate compartments of the uterus. This exotic deformity was to be found inside Claire Niveau, the prized patient of the gynaecological Mantle twins in Dead Ringers. The drawing was given to Cronenberg as a birthday present.
The camera would continue to pan, taking in tidy computer tables and inoffensive filing cabinets before alighting on the desk occupied by Sandra Tucker, Cronenberg’s personal assistant. If the director’s doctor/ lawyer image is slightly compromised by the length of his hair, then Tucker’s neat coiffure, spectacles and smart but staid outfit quickly restore the balance, establishing a neat visual incongruity that speaks volumes about the contradictions in Cronenberg himself.
While he may not look or act like a wild man, Cronenberg is resigned to being treated as one by ‘the money’. “Home Box Office asked to meet me and I said ‘No, my work is extreme’ and they said ‘Don’t worry, we don’t have the same censorship practices as the networks’ so I took them some stuff and said ‘This is extreme, you know’ and they said ‘Don’t worry’ again, so I showed it and then they said ‘This is extreme!’ I probably shouldn’t bother.”
David Cronenberg likes looking into bodies. Their surfaces are not enough; to really get into them you have to get into them. His own body is no exception. In the 60’s he fell off his motorcycle during a race and separated his shoulder. “The surgeon said I had to have a shoulder pin. It was a nail and a screw in chrome cobalt, very exotic and shiny. Later on this thing started to unscrew inside me and they said ‘It’s starting to migrate out!’ They asked if I wanted to have an anaesthetic and I said ‘Have you seen any of my movies?'”
It’s not hard to see what moved Scorsese to make his gynaecologist gag – Cronenberg talks soberly about his films, his critics, problems of finance and the aesthetics of lighting for video as opposed to film. He smiles, makes good jokes and frequently alludes to European ‘art-house’ directors whose work has no discernible affinity with the gruesome horror on which his own reputation is founded. His speech is calm, considered and invariably lucid. Clearly his intellect rarely misses a beat, but does David Cronenberg have an emotional life? Earlier at the CBC studios in Toronto there had been a brief glimpse of a less tranquil soul.
The director is informed by the telephonist that Jeremy Thomas, the producer ofNaked Lunch, has been trying to contact him. “I thought you were on set so I didn’t call you,” the young woman says. Cronenberg bristles, raises his voice. “Look – don’t think! Don’t assume! If there’s a call I want to know about it!” He turns and marches away. Moments later, in his office, he breaks off from recalling his enjoyment of Chaucer at university to confide regretfully “You just saw me get as annoyed as I ever get.”
Ron Sanders is the Editor on Naked Lunch. He met Cronenberg through their mutual passion for motorcycles and cars and became a permanent member of Cronenberg’s production team. He has seen the director in a variety of trying situations. “Professionally he’s extremely calm. If he’s angry on set he’ll go very quiet. One night on Dead Ringers he called me to the set. He’d been in conflict with Jeremy Irons and he wanted somebody there he knew well. He’s so controlled, he wanted somebody to complain to.”
The theme of emotional containment is taken up by Norman Snyder, co-writer of Dead Ringers. “Like other strong personalities David sometimes feels uncomfortable competing with strong personalities. He likes to control his emotions. He doesn’t go to parties and he detests bars. For someone in a collaborative profession he’s pretty reclusive.”
Cronenberg comes from an artistic, middle-class family: his mother was an accompanist for the National Ballet of Canada and his father was a writer. During the Depression Cronenberg Senior ran ‘The Professor’s Bookstore’ in Toronto. The store later went bankrupt and the stock was stacked up against the walls and corridors of the family home. The young Cronenberg read his way through piles of novels, emerging in his teens with a keen appreciation of Henry Miller and Nabokov that led him on to Joyce, Beckett and then the Beat writers.
It was at this time that he first encountered bothNaked Lunch and the burgeoning alternative culture of the 60’s. Despite the exoticism of his film imagery, psychedelic drugs did not play a significant part in shaping his vision. “I can remember us getting very excited about Aldous Huxley. We ground up Morning Glory seeds and filtered them through our socks! It made you puke your guts out. I did one LSD trip – it was great but it was also scarey enough not to do it again. It showed me reality was illusory, it’s just one possibility out of many, and that stayed with me. But I didn’t really have trouble finding the depths, I never have. I had access to those things without any trouble, the drugs were done out of interest not necessity.”
48 years old, married, with two children, Cronenberg does not welcome questions about his family life or visits to his home by photographers. Fair enough. But these mild stipulations become teasingly obstructive when their source volunteers so little regarding his attitudes to sex, intimacy and women, issues that are vitally important in the context of the extraordinary novel upon which Cronenberg’s next film is based.
In 1966 the American obscenity ruling on Naked Lunch was overturned on appeal. One of the two dissenting Justices was, nevertheless, moved to put on record that the book was “a revolting miasma of unrelieved perversion and disease…It is…literary sewage.”
One of the most remarkable novels of the 20th century,Naked Lunch, like the work of Francis Bacon, is violently ugly yet has an irresistible power. Depending on which side the reader falls, the novel is either a brutally honest reflection of the moral vacuity and subsequent bestiality of much of humankind or it is a shapeless excuse for some of the most lurid and repellent scenes of homoeroticism, drug addiction and generally deviant behaviour ever committed to prose.
The book presents tremendous problems to a film-maker. Ron Sanders read it many years ago but found it all “a bit odd. It was a drug-crazed homosexual hallucination.” He was urged to read it again. “I just thought ‘How can he possibly make it?'”
Riotously funny and dense in extraordinary incident, the novel features characters and set pieces that are beyond the pale both of filmic practicability and mainstream good taste. Willy the Disk, for example, “…has a round, disk mouth lined with sensitive, erectile black hairs. He is blind from shooting in the eyeball, his nose and palate eaten away sniffing H, his body a mass of scar tissue hard and dry as wood. He can only eat the shit now with that mouth, sometimes sways out on a long tube of ectoplasm, feeling for the silent frequency of junk.”
Another denizen of the black circus is A.J., a malevolently inventive practical joker “who put the piranha fish in Lady Sutton-Smith’s swimming pool, and dosed the punch with a mixture of Yage, Hashish and Yohimbine during a Fourth of July reception at the U.S. Embassy, precipitating an orgy. Ten prominent citizens – American, of course – died of shame.”
When Sanders was presented with Cronenberg’s adaptation he was immediately impressed. “It was brilliant! He’s transformed it into a story about writers – it’s about a writer’s life and angst, and the writing process. I look forward to the fun and scandal – I don’t have to take the heat!”
Behind Burroughs’ nightmarish imagery lies a puritanical disgust with the moral failure of America allied to the cold Venusian eye of a writer who has been a complete outsider since his mid-teens when a schoolmate’s father remarked “That boy looks like a sheep-killing dog.” There is, however, one constituency whose objections to his work cannot be readily discounted. Apart from the homophobics, narcophobics and lovers of the well structured narrative novel, Burroughs manages to give great offence to women.
Throughout his work the author develops, with complete seriousness, the notion of women as literally an alien species and speculates on how males might be cloned in some way or reproduced ex utero. He has asserted “Women are a perfect curse…I think they were a basic mistake.”
Women are not overly impressed with Burroughs’ solutions to the problems of sexual duality. Some female (and male) critics have detected in the films of David Cronenberg a comparable anxiety about their reproductive capacities. Particularly unforgiving is the Australian feminist writer Barbara Creed, who takes as her starting point a classic quotation from Freud : “Probably no male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals.”
It’s probably phallocentric but not inaccurate to say that Creed, in her essay ‘Phallic Panic: Male Hysteria and Dead Ringers‘, lets Cronenberg have it with both barrels. She asserts that his films “particularly Dead Ringers, appear to be unusually obsessed…with the connection between woman, womb and the grotesque.” Its triple-cervixed heroine is another of Cronenberg’s monstrous female freaks, examples of which are easily adduced: in Rabid the heroine grows a penis in her armpit; in The Brood her womb is attached to the outside of her body; in The Fly she dreams of giving birth to a giant maggot. Significantly, Cronenberg himself plays the gynaecologist in the latter nightmare scene.
Cronenberg himself feels the feminists are barking up the wrong tree. “The misogyny attack annoys me, but no more than any militant prepackaged approach annoys me. It’s very distorting. I don’t like people who have a rigid construct of beliefs and ideas.” Norman Snyder supports his colleague. “We haven’t, thank God, come to laws about how to live your life. Feminists have an unfortunate predisposition to censorship. David isn’t obliged to live his life like they say! If you’re looking for a twisted, tormented soul, it doesn’t exist. He’s one of the most psychologically sound human beings I know.” Cronenberg insists on his innocence. “When I look at my work I can see I’m as hard on men as I am on women. It’s obvious that what I’m making is films about the human condition.”
The human condition asserts itself poignantly during the filming of an episode of Scales of Justice, a TV true-life crime series that Cronenberg is shooting as a pre-Naked Lunch warm up. The script reconstructs an armed robbery and the complicated court case that followed it.
One evening in Toronto in 1983, eighteen year old Barbara Turnbull was working the cash register at Becker’s convenience store. Four black kids came in. One had a gun. Maybe he got angry, maybe his thumb slipped on the single action hammer. The bullet smashed her spine at the neck, like a feather dart, she would later say. At the hospital they put her head in a spiked clamp; she could move neither up nor down nor left nor right. Barbara was paralysed from the neck down, probably for the rest of her life.
The corridor of the CBC studio in Scarborough, north Toronto, is conveniently similar to the offices of the Toronto Star, the paper on which Barbara Turnbull now works. Cronenberg’s crew is packed into off-camera nooks and crannies so that a long tracking shot past a line of desks can be run through. The subject of the shot, a woman in a wheelchair, controls the chair by movements of her head. She must run the length of the corridor, finishing with a sharp inswinging turn that will bring chair and driver up against a word processor placed on a mock-up of Turnbull’s work desk. The desk has been jacked up to a better height with little piles of lath under each leg.
Cronenberg murmurs “Action!”, the dolly tracks backwards and the wheelchair hums past the ranks of extras playing secretaries and journalists. The camera clears the end of the corridor and the wheelchair arcs round, hitting the marks nicely but moving at such a clip that it ploughs into the desk and knocks it right off the lath supports. The crew freezes. A palpable discomfort fogs the air. Cronenberg strides up to the toppled desk and announces “Okay – your licence is gone!” All eyes, discreetly, shift to the occupant of the chair. Barbara Turnbull, playing herself, grins ruefully. Relieved laughter ripples round the set.
The director is so equable, so reasonable, that it is difficult to see him as the man who will ride hip-deep into the horrors ofNaked Lunch. Can it be that behind the thoughtful, measured demeanour of the family man and solicitous director of disabled actresses there seethes a Freudian repository of misogynist disgust? Is it possible that the man is harbouring at some unconscious level intentions that are radically at odds with the canons of gynaecology? Perhaps there are clues to be found in the conservative traditions of Canada, in particular the staid and orderly cultural centre of Ontario, known in the 1880’s as ‘Toronto the Good’.
Just an hour’s flight from New York City, Toronto has little of its eruptive, energising edge. The avenues are bright and clean and right in the centre of the city the east-west streets are lined with the leafy front yards of comfortable town houses. Peter Ustinov called it ‘New York run by the Swiss’, while a colleague of Einstein’s, the physicist Leopold Infeld, remarked “It must be good to die in Toronto. The transition between life and death would be continuous, painless and scarcely noticeable in this silent town.”
Norman Snyder recalls with a smile that when Cronenberg was a hitch-hiking student he chose, unlike those trudging the hippy trail to India, to spend his time in Denmark. The Scandinavian connection makes sense, he now feels. “Canada is very like those countries. It’s cold, people spend a lot of time indoors in the winter, and they have intense psychological relationships. Canadians are reserved and stand-offish, wary of one another. They think ‘You don’t want to get too close to your fellow man because God knows what monsters are going to come out.'”
If David Cronenberg’s unconscious contains the disgusted reactions identified by Barbara Creed and other critics, does this mean he is a barely reconstructed psychopath who wants to cut up women or is he an artist with unusual access to some of the most profound fears that men have? What does it mean to contain forces that women find violently offensive in their implications?
Cronenberg’s vision is primitive. It touches upon a deeply buried view of the body as a metaphor for things that happen in the mind – a place where anger becomes a vile tumescent growth and uncontrollable sexual desire is the result of a parasitic infestation. That the vehicles for these somatic disruptions are often women has disturbed those who look beyond the story-telling. Yet the psychoanalytic criticism directed towards Cronenberg’s work often omits to acknowledge that the ‘primitive’ vision is articulated in increasingly sophisticated terms that deliver highly compelling cinema. The films address issues of mortality, addiction and the ethics of science that demand a comparable level of attention.
Whether the anarchic and riotous flesh of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch has proved immune to the encoding of messages of unease and disapproval remains to be seen. Whatever the verdict it seems likely that David Cronenberg will continue to make films that speak to men about men and to women about…men.
This is only to be expected from a film-maker prone to saying things like “You take the most beautiful woman in the world, and you cut her open – is she as beautiful on the inside?”
DG: J.G. Ballard writes about the collisions between people and a world transformed by technology. In the 1970s he wrote the novel ‘Crash’, recently filmed by David Cronenberg, in which his protagonists derived erotic satisfaction from car crashes. Other works, such as ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, ‘High Rise’ and most recently ‘Cocaine Nights’, explore a territory in which the self is splintered and invaded by a myth-ridden mediascape that has eclipsed the real world.
Jim Ballard; many of the characters in your books seem to be able to thrive in circumstances that most people would find fairly destabilizing, to say the least, and these circumstances appear to be futuristic extensions of things that are already going on in our current experience. Do you think that you might have therefore laid out a blueprint for personality types that could thrive in the 21st Century? JGB: Of course some people over the years have suggested that mental illness is a kind of adaptation to the sort of circumstances that will arise in the future. As we move towards a more and more psychotic landscape, the psychotic traits are signs of a kind of Darwinian adaptation. After all, my grandparents, were they able to visit this country today, Western Europe or the United States for that matter, would find it an extraordinary place; I mean a landscape of sensation, dominated by the mass media, who’re selling everything on the strength of… eroticism, violence, and, in terms of advertising, huge claims to a sort of mythic wonderland of possibility that buying the latest refrigerator or electric toothbrush will usher you into. My grandparents would have thought this place absolutely mad, and they might well think that someone as disturbed as some of the characters in my fiction were rather sensible in the way they behaved.
So a conventional psychoanalytic view would be that we can adjust, we must be well adjusted, and the psychopath is not well adjusted. So are we leaving behind the notion of being well adjusted? Well the psychopath may not be well adjusted to a society such as existed, say, 30 or 40 years ago, but there are periods of history, and we’ve passed through quite a number of them and are still doing so where the psychopath is highly adjusted to whatever is going on around him, and look at the Second World War; look at the former Yugoslavia today. Psychopaths roved both these sort of nightmare terrains and were probably the best adapted of all. I mean the sane and cautious and quotes ‘well adjusted’ were the people who sadly were unable to cope.
I mean, another conventional view of the genesis of psychopathy would lay the originating incidence at the door of the family. But you don’t seem to write about that much, you seem to think we have a pathogenic media culture that is as powerful if not more powerful than anything your parents could do to you. I think that’s true, I mean I take the view that… the environment today is itself so filled with pressures of every conceivable kind – the pressures to conform, the pressures to amuse oneself, the pressures to find oneself – and the constant bombardment of everyday life by advertising, the media landscape, together represent a continuing kind of challenge to one’s sanity. And, of course, many of my characters are wilting under the pressure; they don’t want to buy any more refrigerators or electric toothbrushes, they want to find some truth about themselves, so they embark, generally speaking in my fiction, on some sort of voyage of discovery.
If you look at a book of mine like ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, there you have this psychiatrist who’s having a mental breakdown, who is obsessed with what he sees as the great tragedies of the mid-20th Century, above all the assassination of Kennedy, and he sets up a whole series of psychodramas in which Kennedy is, as it were, assassinated again, Marilyn Monroe commits suicide again, and so on. But as he himself says, he wants to kill Kennedy, but in a way that makes sense. He’s trying to re-mythologise these terrible tragedies in order to lay them to rest. And outwardly some of his behaviour in ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ might seem very bizarre, but in fact it’s all logically constructed. They’re constructing their own logical alternative universe to what they see as a sort of poisoned realm. Which is a fair description of the world today, still.
So, by that token, in ‘Crash’, the people who seek that great physical intimacy with automobiles and parts of automobiles are embarked on a sort of healing process. Absolutely. Absolutely. They’re faced with a conundrum that faces almost all the characters in my fiction; sensation rules our world, and a sort of perverse logic is operating which thrives on violence, and to some extent, a lesser extent I think, sex. The media landscape is saturated with images of violence and sexuality, desperately trying to extract a sort of flicker, a galvanic response from the sort of dead frog’s leg of the human spirit, and my characters are trying to sort of establish a more meaningful sort of psychological circuitry, that at present is completely overwhelmed by our sort of perverse entertainment landscape.
You’ve spoken about predictive mythologies, as distinct from mythologies that were shaped in the distant past, and that our aids to living in a rather unchanging present; I suspect you think that the present is changing so fast that the old conceptions of mythology are no longer useful. Predictive mythologies are those which you have said equip us to live in the future. If you’re not bound to be psychopathic, if you don’t tend to be hysterical, what predictive mythologies, or strategies if you like, can you conceive of that would help get people through this media informational avalanche that seems to induce such tremendous stress? Well, the 20th Century has been a huge manufacturer of what I call predictive mythologies. I mean one of the greatest is the notion of space travel; the idea that one day mankind will leave this planet and move outwards into the solar system, colonizing other planets, and then beyond the solar system into the universe as a whole. I would say that that dream of colonization of space has rather faded now because the problems of moving large populations out into space are so… well, they’re virtually insuperable. That’s I think one of the greatest predictive mythologies of the 20th Century, the notion of space travel, but there’ve been others.
The others, the sort of classic Wellsian, I suppose, dream of a society perfected by science, it’s the dream one saw laid out in Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, countless novels and films, the notion that science, sensibly applied to social problems, will solve most of them, and that we can all live in a kind of Corbusier world where tensions are defused by enlightened social legislation, and so on. That’s another great predictive mythology. Hasn’t really worked out; human beings perhaps haven’t evolved sufficiently to be able to enjoy living in high rise blocks or something like Corbusier’s radiant city seems much too regimented. We seem to need a certain element of sort of street level chaos in our lives. We aren’t as enlightened as we’d like to be; but that’s another great predictive mythology.
Another is that vision of the better life which advertising has been trying to convince us of for the last sixty, seventy years: Buy the latest model Buick, move into the right style of ranch home, make sure your wife is dressed in the latest high street fashions – and life will seem better. It’s complete mythology, as complete as anything the ancient Greeks came up with. And it’s extremely potent, only most people half believe it. In fact you can say today that we live entirely on a whole system of predictive mythologies that actually are all we have to give our lives any meaning.
There’s the predictive mythology of the obsolete body: there is a vocal cyber -community who say that technology allows us now a digitised electro-space, or something like that, where we can communicate more freely than ever before. Do you buy into that one? What about the internet? I am extremely impressed by the internet. I think it’s a whole series of private universes that are paraded across the screen in an absolutely riveting way. It’s a form of self-publishing that is obviously just in it’s infancy now.
Virtual reality is something slightly different. I mean I take for granted that eventually virtual reality systems will be available to us which create a simulated reality that is more convincing than that which our central nervous systems create. I mean one must remember the brain is itself a virtual reality machine, the illusion we have of the real world, of factories and streets and office blocks and other people talking to us is itself a virtual reality simulation generated by our brains.
I think when the first true virtual reality systems become available, and contain more visual information and are more visually convincing than ordinary reality, the temptation for the human race will be to enter this virtual reality system and close the door behind it. I mean, I think there’s a danger there because one will really be able to enter into a fantasy world which, unlike all fantasies in the past, would be more convincing than everyday reality.
In two hundred years’ time it may be possible to author your own virtual reality, but there may come a point at which the social will simply collapse in favour of highly individualized, designed virtual worlds? I think that probably will happen, and it creates all sorts of moral dilemmas. I mean when people enter their virtual reality world, where they can play games with their own psychopathologies, where if they want to they can assume the role of any character in history, or any imaginary character, if they want one day be a Nobel Prize winning physicist, and the next day play a concentration camp commandant, they’ll be able to step beyond the sort of conventional bounds of morality alogether; I mean one would be morally free to play with one’s own psychopathology as a game. That’s rather dangerous, putting it mildly.
I mean to some extent that happens today, I mean, sort of, one can watch violent films on one’s own TV set, read pretty psychotic novels, and briefly enter into the world of ‘Die Hard 3’ or novels of William Burroughs or the Marquis De Sade, but generally one switches off and turns the last page and returns to the business of making one’s supper. But I mean I can imagine a virtual reality world so rich that one scarcely bothers to leave it, except for sort of basic necessities.
I imagine it will come and will pose a vast challenge to society as we know it.
When we talk like this, highly speculatively, these things may not come about but nevertheless, they seem to be fascinating things to talk about, and here we are talking about them at the end of the 20th Century – why are they so fascinating? It may be that we don’t get virtual reality that’s as good as the real thing, but it’s certainly compelling to think about. Why is that? Of course we already do get a kind of virtual reality that is superior to the real thing – the average cinema screen contains more units of visual information than our eyes perceive in ordinary reality, that’s why the big screen is so much more gripping than the small TV screen.
Why are we fascinated by the prospect of virtual reality systems and talk about them? Well, they offer such a challenge to our perception of what a sort of sane life in a sane society is. I think people do perceive now that there is a radical, a whole series even, of radical alternatives to the present world. They look back on the 20th Century and they see it as a period of gigantic advances, and yet they see it as exhibiting deep flaws. Not just its great world wars, and its violent and often psychopathic entertainment culture, but that there’s something missing from the world that we all inhabit. I think most people realise the gods have died, we’ve lost our faith in the far future, and that we’re living in a commodified world where everything has a price tag; a world filled with dreams that money can buy, but dreams that soon pall.
I think people perceive that life is probably meaningless, that we’re an accident of fate biologically, and that societies that we inhabit, far from being social structures that reflect deep, enduring needs, are in fact gimcrack, almost extemporised sets of rules that someone in charge of a lifeboat might impose on survivors sitting around him; so many biscuits per day and half a pint of water. And that society’s just a set of opportunistic conventions that we accept in order to facilitate ordinary life, just as we accept that we drive in this country on the left side of the road; and we all that that doesn’t reflect some deep pre-existing meaning within our lives.
I think most people realise that for all its complexity contemporary society is an artificial construct that can be moved offstage at a moment’s notice, as people find at times of war, as I found during the Second World War as a child in Shanghai. You reality is just a stage set that can be pushed aside, and a very different set of rules can then apply.
I mean, given the hollowness of existence, I think people are beginning to wonder what does life really offer us in terms of its possibilities. Some people reach out to bizarre cults, others move into drugs, but these are all rather desperate remedies and I don’t think they touch the truth.
You’re talking about a difficulty of being social, but you move across and almost talk about the difficulty of being, period. As if the 20th Century saw, amongst other things, the peak of the social, and its decline, and that we’ve run out of strategies, and that some of our most alluring options seem to be recreational psychopathology in cyberspace. Well, I think that puts it very neatly, and that’s what I fear. I mean, what do we see at the end of the 20th Century? We see the churches empty, in the West that is, and people in the most advanced societies, in Western Europe and the United States, moving more and more into gated communities, where security is the dominant concern. And that’s in many ways to be deplored, I mean if you think of what society invests in the training of its leading professionals, its doctors, architects, lawyers and so on, for them then to opt out and move into a gated community where they exist behind huge arrays of electronic padlocks, and have no interaction with the rest of society in their social hours, is a deplorable state of affairs. I think the way in which the gated community is springing up all over the world now is an ominous sign. It’s a sign that something is deeply wrong with the societies that have evolved at the end of the 20th Century – people aren’t moving into gated communities simply to avoid muggers and housebreakers, they’re moving into gated communities to get away from other people. Even people like themselves, that’s the curious thing. Because inside most gated communities there’s very little social life; people are happy to enter their executive houses and stay there.
In your recent book, ‘Cocaine Nights’, the book takes place in a community off the Costa Del Sol; you introduce the figure of Bobby Crawford, tennis coach, who’s a psychopath by just about anybody’s definition. Well of course Crawford is in many ways a benevolent psychopath who is trying to revive this moribund community.
Could you read us an excerpt? Yes, I think, as the psychiatrist in the book remarks: “In a sense, Crawford may be the saviour of the entire Costa Del Sol, and even the wider world beyond that. You’ve been to Gibraltar? One of the last outposts of small-scale greed, openly dedicated to corruption; no wonder the Brussels bureauocrats are trying to close it down.
Our governments are preparing for a future without work, and that includes the petty criminals. Leisure societies lie ahead of us like those you see on this coast. People will still work – or rather, some people will still work, but only for a decade of their lives. They will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.
A billion balconies facing the sun; still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies. But how do you energize people, give them some sense of community? A world lying on its back is vulnerable to any cunning predator. Politics are a pastime for a professional cast and fail to excite the rest of us. Religious belief demands a vast effort of imaginative and emotional commitment, difficult to muster if you’re still groggy from last night’s sleeping pill.
Only one thing is left which can rouse people, threaten them directly and force them to act together: crime. Crime and transgressive behaviour. By which I mean all activities which aren’t necessarily illegal, but provoke us and tap our need for strong emotion, quicken the nervous system and jump the synapses, deadened by leisure and inaction.”
The book takes place in a gated community, also an echo of the idea of a sort of gated self, which is propagated by the entertainment culture. The entertainment culture sells increasingly virtualized, isolated experiences, rather more cheaply than the real estate involved in the gated community, much more widely available, and you end up with, you know, the gated community of me. Absolutely. I think it’s a return to the self in a way, and an awareness, a rather terrifying awareness that self is probably without meaning. That’s the fearful prospect a little further down the road, that people will accept that their lives are meaningless and that everything else is a fiction designed to assuage, you know, the sort of desperate anxiety of a meaningless world.
The main square in Bury St Edmund’s is packed with citizens. A military band is playing and American officers stand next to the mayor, saluting. Something to do with D-Day. Up the road people are shuffling into the nicely preserved stalls and circle of the Theatre Royal to see actor, writer and director Ken Campbell perform ‘Jamais Vu’, one of his legendary one-man shows. Ken ambles on, preceded by the hypertrophic eyebrows which, when he lowers his hairless head, appear as greying hamsters filing across his brow. The boiled egg eyes roll quickly round the auditorium before he kicks off with a convoluted anecdote about how he came to be doing the show he is now in the process of doing.
It seems, according to Ken, that Richard Eyre, Artistic Director of the National Theatre had had the idea that since they were doing all three of David Hare’s plays why didn’t Ken open his new one there and then do ‘Furtive Nudist’ and ‘Pigspurt’ and they could call it the ‘Year of the Trilogy’. So Ken goes along and Richard says ‘You know about the Hare trilogy?’ and Ken says ‘Yes. I understand you want a Bald Trilogy.’ And the discussion went so well that Richard suggested that since Ken was going to Sydney, Australia, why didn’t he pay a visit to Vanuatu in what used to be called the New Hebrides so he’d have something to talk about?
Before that bit, though, there was the business about the sink plungers. One minute the people of Bury St Edmunds are in the Royal National Theatre and the next Ken is sticking a sink plunger on his shaven head and they’re off down memory lane with the actor Eddie Davis who, Ken claims, once took a curtain call of My Fair Lady with no less than six sink plungers sucked onto his pate.
Ken loves Eddie Davis, describing him as a comedian who wanted HYSTERIA – an audience HELPLESS – BEGGING FOR LESS. When Ken says things like this you can hear the capital letters as if they were printed out on his large, discoloured teeth. Take away the shag-pile brow foliage and the thyroid gaze and you’ll still get value from the voice alone. Like Peter Sellers, Ken seems to have either half a dozen normal voices or none at all.
On stage the condition is even more advanced: he will mutter nasally, roar hoarsely, whine confidentially and generally produce a menagerie of vocal effects that, harnessed to his labyrinthine anecdotes, enforce a sense of chaos being channelled, only just, through one man’s gristled throat.
Anyway, the plunger, he informed an anxious Eyre, will constitute a central component of his next show, the one we’re watching now. Except now, of course, Ken has been to Vanuatu and has much, much more to talk about. Ken’s devouring fascination with the unlikely, the fortuitous and the tangential helped spawn such unforgettable shows as ‘Illuminatus’ (1976), twelve hours long with intervals (“the intervals were a big hit in Liverpool”), an uproarious trawl through the worlds of conspiracy theory, numerology, mystics and pyramids which, incidentally, saw Prue Gee, mother of Ken’s daughter Daisy and”my ex-wife and friend” play Eris, the Goddess of Discord. Then, in 1980 at London’s ICA, there was ‘The Warp’, based on the life and visions of UFO-seer Neil Oram, clocking in at a compact twentytwo hours. In between alternative times, Campbell has racked up a respectable career as an actor, including stints in ‘In Sickness and in Health’ and ‘Brookside’. This has paid the rent while Ken has been concocting his own productions.
Ken had left RADA in 1960, and the tone was set early on; while sharing a flat with two dwarves, one of his first jobs was in Bournemouth directing the shallow-end acting in a swimming-pool based version of ‘Treasure Island’. After some relatively straightforward work at Stoke-on-Trent and the Royal Court in London, his subversive inclinations found their first full employment in the Ken Campbell Roadshow, which ran from 1969 to 1973 and made him famous.
The Roadshow’s currency comprised urban myths and tall stories dramatised by Ken and performed by promising young newcomers like Bob Hoskins. After a while the shows started to generate their own myths; it was under their umbrella that the first six inch nail was hammered into a man’s nose; it was here that the first ferret was lowered into the trousers of a valiant, and presumably leathery, performer. Presiding over all this was the comic genius of Ken Campbell, deftly presenting the wild tales that fascinated him with the confident touch of one who knew how to stage mayhem on a nightly basis.
The apprenticeship has borne fruit. Now, at the age of 52, Campbell is acclaimed as the master of the one-man comic show, a genius at marrying wit to the wilder shores of synchronicity. Last year, ‘Jamais Vu’ won the Evening Standard award for Best Comedy and delivered him from the admiration of cult audiences to a much broader constituency. He has just wowed them at the Almeida with ‘Mystery Bruises’ and, next Saturday the ascension will continue when Ken presents a brand new show, ‘Knocked Sideways’, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank.
But this particular June afternoon, Ken is at home in north London, working on a new script with two trusted henchmen, Colin Watkeys and James Nye. For some time Ken has been involved with Reality on the Rocks, a prestigious series on cosmology currently being made for Channel 4. It features Ken as a loveable but sceptical Everyman who gets to quiz quantum boffins about their inscrutable theories. The producers think it would be really marvellous if Ken were to work some of the cosmic materials into a special one-man show to be staged at Brentwood Theatre the following Saturday. They’ll have cameras there and will insert passages of the show into the documentary. Ken has risen to the occasion, as expected, but it’s Wednesday afternoon already and the producers want at least an hour’s worth off him. In the second half he has decided he’ll chat with his old visionary chum Neil Oram, now an enthusiastic participant in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. “I am a supposer,” Ken says,”but Neil is a knower!”
Which is where Charles Fort, an American journalist, comes in. Ken loves Charles Fort. Understand Fort and you’ll understand Ken. In 1919 Fort published ‘The Book of the Damned’, a collection of weird and unexplainable phenomena culled from newspapers, magazines and scientific journals. Fort was content simply to record without theorising – he believed in the unity and connectedness of all things and felt that the apparent disconnection of events should be no barrier to supposing (he was also a major supposer) that a grand and unfathomable machinery organised them as well as disorganising us. Which is more or less how Ken sees anecdote. It’s not that his lurid stories lack narrative per se it’s just that they’re not links in a chain. They’re strands in a Gordian knot.
At the moment, Ken’s feeling uneasy about how to portray his recent meeting with Stephen Hawking. “I have this thing about cripples. And he’s the Brain of Britain. And it’s difficult to talk to him. Anyway, one thing I wanna…” He abruptly leaves the room. “One thing you wanna…oh. He’s going to the loo, I presume,” says Colin. He turns to James. “Did you say that thing to Ken?” “Yeah,” says James. “Let it fester away, then. Let it fester away.”
Colin Watkeys, stocky and bearded, is Ken’s manager and outside eye. James is a red-haired youth with specs. It’s not clear yet what he does for Ken but he has sheaves of photocopies on his lap and he’s in the inner sanctum. The sanctum is Ken’s place down by the River Lea in Stamford Hill. It’s an appropriately incongruous neck of the woods – a lost bit of London at the top end of the Seven Sisters Road between the Hasidic community and the big reservoirs. The estate is actually rather yuppyish, a private road enclosed by smart little terraced houses ranging up from the pleasant shock of the riverside.
“We’re only smoking in the kitchen today, chaps,” Ken announces. “Neil’s coming round with his daughter, raised in a violently anti-smoking manner. It’s a bit of thoughtfulness, so he’ll talk to me about aliens.” Having smoked, the kitchen team moves to the sitting room with a view of jungle garden. A homely dog climbs onto the sofa. His tag reads ‘Fred Campbell’. Around the sitting room are a number of lewd wooden statues staggering under the weight of giant pillar-box-red penises. They must be from Vanuatu, where they worship the Duke of Edinburgh. Or were they from St John’s, Newfoundland, where, Ken announces, they didn’t know that you didn’t actually have to finish Stephen Hawking’s book with the result that everyone there had read it?
Essentially, Ken monologues at Colin and James in a style poised between anecdote and performance while Colin listens intently and James scribbles things down. Ken is musing on Stephen Hawking’s wheelchair, which carries not only the distinguished cosmologist but also his voice synthesising apparatus. “The thing about Hawking…you can’t tell if he’s too polite to press his ‘Fuck Off’ button. If he’s got one.” Ken warms to the theme, grasping the handle of his blue plastic shopping trolley, the battered and much-used carrier of Ken’s props and surprise items. “His voice is very good, in fact. It comes out of the back of his trolley.” He puts a brown hat on top of the shopping trolley. “That’s my impression of him!” Colin and James hoot with laughter, simultaneously shocked and delighted.
“He’s got three sorts of voice he can use: they’re called Perfect Paul, Uppity Ursula and Whispering Wendy. He prefers Paul. Anyway, I said to him ‘Stephen, what you want is an ironical Yes button.’ So he says ‘Yes’.” Ken imitates the flat, abrupt voice of Hawking’s voice machine. “And then he said ‘Maybe.'” “Yes,” Ken growls. “It’s hard to know if he likes you. How would he show it? I think I wanna talk about his trolley language.” More laughter in the house. “Yeah…what would he do? Would he run it over your foot?” That goes in the notepad, definitely.
Colin, who rarely takes his eyes off Ken’s face, is getting excited.”I do think that’s a very human way into all the science, Ken.” He is interrupted by noises at the front door. “That’ll be Neil,” Ken says and then, without a pause “Who’s that mummified figure they bring out from time to time in that college?”
I see my chance to be helpful. “Bog Man?” Ken is suddenly immensely fierce. “NO!! Not Bog Man!” he shouts. For three seconds the loveable goblin bristles with irritation and contempt, then moves to the open window. “Don’t let that little girl fall in that pond!” he barks. In the back garden a young woman in a long dress is holding a baby. She smiles nervously. Must be one of Neil’s three wives. A stooping, grey-bearded figure looks up, blinking beatifically. Neil Oram, radiant advocate of the unfathomable invisible, is taking a turn round the jungle.
Ken nods and carries on chatting about David Deutsch, an Oxford quantum physicist with an extremely untidy house. This makes for very promising material, as does the business of James Tilley Matthews, a Victorian asylum inmate who drew up plans for a giant persecuting machine that emitted effluvial rays causing the brains of the unwary to lengthen and burst. James Nye and Ken have sensed that there are links between the parallel universes theory of Deutsch and Matthews’ hell world. All will be revealed on Saturday night.
The Brentwood Theatre is packed out and the camera crews from ‘Reality on the Rocks’ are cluttering the downstage area. As soon as Ken ambles on it’s clear that something is terribly wrong. His mind has either gone blank or there’s too much in it. Ken, not to put too fine a point on it, is crap. He stumbles, hesitates, mutters unintelligibly, gesticulates vaguely, flubs all his best gags. It’s down to Neil Oram, sage watcher of the skies, to revive the evening.
Neil, whose flies are undone, is otherwise splendid in papal purple shirt and waistcoat. Patient and good-humoured with a faint West Country burr to his voice, he reveals that flying saucers are, in fact, alien thoughts. Certain types of alien, acquired by abduction, are hyper-developed twelve week old foetuses. Cattle mutilations may be the means by which they absorb protein through their skins. On Ganymede, a satellite of Jupiter, live twelve thousand Earth people, developing their minds before their apocalyptic return. Assuming that Jupiter survives the comet.
“What I want to know is, Neil, why haven’t I come across any of these aliens?” Ken enquires. The sage strokes his beard. “Ah. They’re too difficult for you to encounter because you’re so high profile, Ken.” Ken Campbell is high profile indeed. He’s also pretty hard-headed and too much of a pro to be unduly bothered by the cock-up at Brentwood. “It’s a bit vast and weird,” he says, “that Tilley Matthews area. I thought it would automatically collide and fit in with my native wit but it was more native than wit, I’m afraid. It’s like these things often are at the beginning – you appal yourself and then it pulls together.”
Sitting across a table in the bar of the Almeida Theatre, smoking roll-ups, Ken Campbell presents only a modestly reduced version of his eye-rolling, voice-bending stage persona. There’s a faint edge of irritability obtruding from beneath the generally affable manner and for a man who professes a wish to share his experiences of the uncanny he’s pretty canny about deflecting personal questions – his technique being to have heard another question instead. On matters more Fortean he is, naturally, forthcoming. The significance of wild theories, for example, is perfectly clear. “They’re an area of humour. Most humour is neophobic – it expresses everyone’s fear of anything new. Mine is more the humour you find among the geezers at science fiction conventions, the neophilics who embrace projection, prediction and novelty.”
What about certainty then, does he need it or is he just certain that things are uncertain? Ken grimaces – either the roll-up or the question is faintly distasteful. “Yeah, well, some things seem pretty certain. I mean, when I was with Professor Roger Penrose he told me that actually there’s no such thing as time and then he said ‘Blimey, it’s half past six – I’ve got to run!'”
This is Ken Campbell, the old-fashioned comic with a taste for particle physics, demonstrating the collision between his down to earth love of the well punched gag and his taste for the unexplainable. Of such incongruities are careers made – in Campbell’s case his in-your-face delivery, his wacky props and his lack of cynicism align him more with music-hall than alternative comedy, yet he routinely deals with vanguard ideas that threaten to dissolve the most cherished assumptions about reality. In his rather blokish world of anecdotal pint-swilling eccentrics there are few women and little politics but the thrust, nevertheless, is resolutely modern. This makes for an uncomfortable comfiness, an attractive disturbance. Since losing the calling for the full-length play – “It wasn’t stage-fright, it was play-fright” – Ken is freer than ever to mould his professional life around his most absorbing preoccupations. “I’d much rather meet someone who saw a gnome last week than someone who’s being quite successful as Macduff, or who danced rather well yesterday!”
The Fortean comic cackles loudly. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall the audience won’t meet a gnome. What they will meet are foaming aerosols and what he calls a “real shaggy dog story” in which the life and times of the enigmatic hero Werner are extended so far that they commingle in an improbable way with a commentary on the practices of a notorious cult of self-improvement. The mixture is described as improbable because Werner, it should be noted, was Ken’s dog before Fred.