Friday, 29 January 2016

No truce for Mr Bruce… Lenny (1974)

Whether it’s the stand-up sessions or the striptease, Bob Fosse directs performance exceptionally well. Gritty, sweaty, over-lit and exposed as nervy, vulnerable humanity. Life is a cabaret old chum… and neither Lenny nor Honey could ever be accused of not giving it the old Elsie of Chelsea “go”.

It feels visceral and honest and yet at the end, having witnessed the aftermath of Lenny’s inevitable death from over dose, you wonder whether  writer Julian Barry and Fosse have almost overlooked this crucial aspect of Bruce’s make up.

Dustin on stage
He’s seen here as someone who willfully took on the authorities in order to assert his human rights and to retain his individual voice and its challenge to lazy decency. The battle becomes his obsession as he swots up on law and tries every angle to persuade judges and jurors in minor state courts that it is not his intention to shock through using “inappropriate” sexual and religious but to engender a deeper discourse on their meaning and importance.

Dustin Hoffman
Did he self-medicate because of the struggle or did morphine and other highs actually reduce his focus down to narrow band repetitions of outrage and courtroom process. We’ll never know but whilst the family man, husband and comic are all here the junky is less prominent. But hey, one “we’ll never know” and two, his ending in no way defines the brilliance of his ongoing: this was a masterful talent and one who changed stand up for good and for ever.

Dustin Hoffman makes for a suburb Lenny Bruce prowling the stage eyes alive with the possibilities of his next words – he is so relaxed you feel he is making it up: I don’t know how much was improvised but that’s proper acting?

Valerie performs
Valerie Perrine as showgirl turned wife Honey is his match especially in the flashback sequences that Fosse intermingles with the main narrative. In unforgiving close-up, with no make-up, Perrine plays the role of recovered junky to perfection. Could she have done more to save her on-off man – maybe but she also did very well to survive herself after several stints in prison and a life so much in the way of favours.

Theses framing devices work well as Lenny’s mother (Jan Miner) and agent (Stanley Beck) are also interviewed the former, sharp, intelligent, thought-through and the latter, increasingly revealed as distracted and with other commercial fish to fry.

Honey looks back
Bruce’s relationship with his mother is seen as close and, in fairness, his agent simply tries to keep pace; his post-mortem windfall of LP royalties affecting his attitude more.

But Lenny, on this showing, was in-corruptible blowing his dough and his chances in a search for the truth that is still ongoing. The truth hurts but only because it makes you laugh so much: the truth about words, sex, politics and even Jackie Kennedy who was not trying to save her husband but trying to get out of the car. This does not diminish her but makes her tragically all the more real – doing what anyone of us would have done with our partner apparently dead in front of us. But in 1964 the president’s wife had acted to throw herself as a shield over her man: Lenny wanted to prick the bubble to remove the spin and make us face up to life.

Honey at the check-in
Naturally, he’s a lot braver on stage than off and it takes him a while to summon the courage to ask Honey out on a date. Valerie Perrine had been a showgirl in the past and here she throws some expert shapes that reveal her training in full.

Lenny actually sees her at an airport but pretty much accepts her career at least whilst it’s the only one they can afford… They were made for each other but necessarily all the time and whilst family life progresses, other issue start to come between them – chiefly drugs and Lenny’s desire to push the envelope. He forces Honey into a threesome with a young woman at one of their parties (Kathryn Witt) and then complains that she enjoyed it too much.

Meeting the family
 Lenny’s fuelled by an aggressive need for experience and expression and Honey can’t deal with his pace of life. She succumbs and lapses into use and abuse… the couple divorce with Lenny taking custody of their child. Honey continually runs out of money and then time and is eventually imprisoned.

Honey behind bars
Meanwhile Lenny goes from strength to strength with an act that challenges middle-class mores in ways that were to become common-place. He may well be the inventor of modern stand-up for all I know and Hoffman plays the performances superbly well. In his early days he plays strip clubs – with and without Honey – and it’s no con-incidence that the exposure on stage of one kind, mirrors the other: what you see is what you get from the girls and what you hear is what you get from Lenny.

Strippers and stand-up (ahem) – alike or not: discuss?

But in making friends Lenny also makes many enemies, on purpose and for ever – the judiciary, the police, the feds, everyone who could possibly defend themselves he picks on. The crowds love it but he starts to get into deep water as the authorities fight back, dragging him into their process and robbing him of his comedy initiative: once he took them by surprise and forced many a retreat but now they have him surrounded.

Stand up... in court
Through legal process, weight of numbers and a thousand pointless laws protecting freedom, they gradually rob him of his. He is forced into a legal battle he can never win… he spirals downwards, weighed down by legal text and case law, propped up by drugs as he spends his way into oblivion.

Dusty Verdict: Lenny is a superbly affecting film that raises questions that remain vital to this day – the Tea Party and Mr Trump, the right-wing drift in the UK… these battles for free speech and thought are still being fought. Lenny left his mark and we’re all a bit freer because of it.

Hoffman and Perrine give performances that resonate on deeply human levels and are worth the price of admission alone.

Lenny and Honey drive off in the MG
Lenny is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray – all the better to appreciate Bruce Surtees’ cinematography – from Amazon and others.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

So it goes… Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

"All this happened, more or less…”

So goes the first sentence of Kurt Vonnegut Jnr’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, widely regarded as amongst his best work and one which contains elements of stunning autobiographical detail.

Vonnegut was a US Army Prisoner of War in Dresden at the time of the Allied bombing between 13 and 15 February 1945. He had survived along with other prisoners held deep in the cold store of the abattoir Schlachthof-fünf – as the city above was raised with fatalities currently estimated ranging from 25,000 to 40,000. The figure is 130,000 in the film, based upon the now vastly-discredited historian David Irving’s estimates, but Kurt wasn’t to know what a charlatan that man is. Either way, so much death…

Prague doubles for the destroyed Dresdon
The film was directed by George Roy Hill and was sandwiched between two of his box office smashes, Butch and Sundance and The Sting: it’s more experimental than either and, in spite of success at Cannes, Slaughterhouse-Five didn’t capture the public’s imagination in the same way. But Hill’s successes no doubt allowed him the freedom to try and match the book’s vertical narrative in which everything, seemingly, is happening at the same time.

Billy sees the future, past and present
Michael Sacks plays Billy Pilgrim the film’s nominal hero who zips from point to point in his life in order to tell the painful tale of the devastation Vonnegut experienced on that night: an event so horrifically extra-ordinary that it has fragmented Billy’s life and his ability to encapsulate the experience in a linear way. There is no escaping the horror: it becomes your life.

Home from home
I’m never sure if the story is science fiction, even though it contains elements as Billy is seemingly whisked into space by an alien race called the Tralfamadorians who experience existence in four dimensions and, as with Billy, all at the same time. This is either an extension of Billy’s splintered self – looking back from near his own death – or the natural progression of the narrative momentum. It doesn’t matter, either way the aliens help to make sense of the brutality and even offer Billy a future when porn star Montana Wildhack (the divine Valerie Perrine) is taken from Earth to provide him with a mate.

Valerie radiates
The war sequences are the backbone of the film and have an almost comic unreality, even in the face of ever-present danger. Billy stumbles into a warzone, an assistant chaplain without a soldierly-clue, and encounters two war-weary troopers, Roland Weary (Kevin Conway) and the psychotically defensive Paul Lazzaro (Ron Liebman).

The men get captured almost immediately and Weary’s shoes get taken leaving him wearing wooden clogs as they trudge through miles of snow. He walks himself to death and as he dies on the train transporting them like so many cattle, he blames Billy, asking Lazzaro to avenge him on the hapless youngster. For Lazzaro vengeance is all that matters in life – he is the embodiment of the call to violence.

Comrades in arms: Billy meets Weary and Lazzaro
In the camp Billy meets the bizarrely theatrical British who put on the bravest of faces and an older American, Derby (Eugene Roche) who defends him from Lazzaro… So begins their life in captivity whilst many years later Billy’s life progresses – a middle-aged optometrist who has successfully married his bosses daughter and acquired the house and family to go with it.

Billy loves Valencia (Sharon Gans) and his children, conformist daughter Barbara (Holly Near) and rebel, later Vietnam volunteer Robert (Perry King) but he takes inordinate comfort from his pet dog.

One man alone with his dog
Billy is “unstuck in time” but he’s also disconnected from the life around him… he’s involved but in a perfunctory way. He confiscates one of his son’s Playboy magazines and is transfixed by the centrefold, Montana Wildhack. He takes the family to a drive-in movie featuring Montana and whilst wife and daughter complain at the explicit content he is captivated by Montana’s natural energies and her way of just being in the moment.

Family viewing?
Everyone else is back and forth between tragi-comic post-war events and the war itself... sometimes events are juxtaposed such as Billy’s speech to a meeting of his local Lions Club with a company meeting to deice a leader for the prisoner’s transfer to Dresden.

When Billy encounters the four dimensional Tralfamadorians his request is that they provide him with Miss Wildhack’s company: wish fulfillment or someone who is genuinely in the same moment as himself.

Spoilers: In the desolation of Dresden, Billy experiences the pointless death of Derby for picking up a porcelin doll for his wife, the soldiers drag him away far off camera and almost before he can realise the impact of his innocent action the consequences take him away. So it goes.

A Dresden Doll
Billy and Montana have a baby on Tralfamador just after he experiences his own death - assassinated by Lazzaro still bitter after all these years - as he talks to a huge audience about his life. He has seen it before and he will see it again: one moment for always.

Death is revealed as pointless and all those thousands who were blasted and burned above the prisoners of war in Dresden have their own places in eternal time: that's the best that Vonnegut can offer and that's the most we can hope.

Dusty verdict: Slaughterhouse-Five received the Prix du Jury at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival and Vonnegut was supportive but it was not commercially successful. Having read the book the film makes more sense and it is indeed one of those narratives that is difficult to capture but Hill does a good job and his work should be considered in this context.

Billy starts to end again
Michael Sacks makes for a suitably centered Pilgrim with emotional extremes provided by all those around him from the panicked Valerie to Lazzaro all hollowed out with hate.

Valerie Perrin is superbly warm as Montana who just is, sympathetically radiating on Billy’s wavelength… his dream and his reward for an eternity of suffering.

Interestingly, Michael Sacks is now confused on Wiki and elsewhere with Michael J Sacks a highly-successful business man who is a decade younger - a life of success far greater than Billy’s – how does the time pass for him?

Glenn Gould provides a deceptive score playing selections of Bach piano works that fit the timeless drift of the narrative…

Slaughterhouse 5 is readily available in book and as film – I’d recommend both but perhaps the latter after the former or maybe even all at the same time.