Forelock and Foreskin

Fields of Wonder, by Rod McKuen. W.H. Allen, £1.00
Twelve Years of Christmas, by Rod McKuen, W. H. Allen, 80p.

19720901-10Two slender volumes of lyrics from the man who, according to the blurbs, must be something like the eighth wonder of the world. A thousand popular songs he’s written. Academy Nominations have crossed his path and there’s a string of major classical works too. He’s the world’s best-selling poet, it sez here.

The few times I’ve seen Rod McKuen perform (on television) he turned me off like nobody since Michael Parkinson. He was, it struck me, a case where sincerity was at once too much and not enough. Too much to tolerate – that intense gaze beneath the white-blonde forelock, an arm buried elbow deep in sheepdog, the introspective muttering. Not enough – to explain and excuse an inability to sing: to carry a tune, hit a high note, project.

In one of his Christmas verses he writes:-

There was the year I first heard Brel and cried
because I thought I’d never sing that well

Does he think he sings that well now, I wonder. But this seems to be how McKuen casts himself, as a transatlantic Brel, a chanteur in an essentially European tradition. But Brel has musical guts and dynamism, he looks outwards. McKuen looks inwards, the introspective loner in faded jeans, riding the range of the recording studios and babbling, like Falstaff on his death bed, of green fields.

In these sequences McKuen throws himself on the world like an open sore and records the pain and balm that come his way. He is passive from the opening stanza :-

“. . . I travelled not to Tiburon or Tuscany
but battled back and forth
between the breasts and thighs
of those who fancied for a time
my forelock and my foreskin.”

Always he is the innocent: “Fields of wonder/ are the places God goes walking,/ I found them by mistake and I’ve trespassed.” And he makes his position clear:-

Love I wore
As open as a wound
a mad mistake I know
but love, like Lent,
only comes to those of us
who still believe.

We are not, in all honesty, so far away from the wonderful world of Patience Strong (“A smile is a light in the window of the face that shows that the heart is at home”) and even in pain the quiet, consoling voice preludes sleep. He has added a tentative awareness of sexuality to this simplistic view of life (“I have in common with all men/a lump in swimming trunks”), but it seems a faintly embarrassing itch, lost beneath sententious, didactic clumsiness when the message is rammed home.

Only a few of these collected verses are intended as lyrics for music. But they are often ridden with the kind of imagery that sounds probing when murmured through a microphone but which fails to survive reading: “There were fences that I leapt/and some that I slid under,/even when I knew I’d tear my pants.” Now and then, though, McKuen does come up with the goods as here: “The sawdust made/by two lives rubbed together/is as useless in the cover up/of changing feelings/as the kind spread thinly/on the floors of butcher shops …”

Twelve Years of Christmas is a collection of annual messages to his friends between 1958 and 1969. They are summings up of the past year, very personal and idiosyncratic. Ironically, their very intimacy makes them far more immediate and interesting than the pomposities of the bigger sequences. Here, in such verses as The Jazz Palace and El Monte Rod McKuen does indeed nearly approach the quality of Jacques Brel. The style of these Christmas messages is less effortful, the lines more fluent, the experiences more relevant than in Fields of Wonder.

The Well of Loneliness

19720901-10Recently issued in paperback by Corgi (at 50p) is The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, a considerably autobiographical novel of Lesbian life and loves. Though banned in 1928 when first published, the book in fact contains not one ‘obscene’ word, and any sexual encounters are coyly couched in the vaguest terms. The reason for the ban appears to have been not so much because of its subject matter but for the sympathetic treatment afforded it.

Though rather over romanticised and trite in parts, it still has a certain amount of nostalgic charm and compulsion. Dealing as it does with female, not male homosexuality, it is more concerned with social rather than legal prejudice. It also shows with abundant clarity how little the homosexual has been accepted by and integrated into society, in spite of the not inconsiderable changes of attitudes towards sex education and behaviour in general over the past few decades.

Futile Dreams

19720901-10FAT CITY starring Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Nick Colasanto. Screenplay by Leonard Gardner, based on his novel. Music Kris Kristofferson. Produced by Ray Stark and John Huston. DIRECTED BY JOHN HUSTON. A Columbia Pictures and Rastar Productions Presentation released by Columbia-Warner Distributors.

Life is indestructibly futile and how better to show this than through the lives of 2 boxers in a small town in rural America — the “real America”; it’s either boxing or slaving in the fields for 50c an hour; America isn’t all 5th Avenue New York and nor is life. This isn’t really a boxing picture either – boxing is used symbolically through the actual fight scenes to portray the battering of life. The older boxer Billy Tully (Stacy Keach) aged 30 is battered, broken and alcoholic; Ernie Munger the younger one, played by Jeff Bridges is eager and enthusiastic at the beginning of the film and by the end, after 6 fights, he has a cauliflower nose, a wife and a baby just because he’s given way to his sex drive one dark rainy night in the back of a car. Sods Law! Payment for orgasm: one car stuck in the mud; one pregnant girl he’s got to marry.

As with all John Huston movies the pace is slow and the atmosphere electric. Every small town is here in this movie, sad, seedy, depressing, lonely, where a man is irrevocably trapped for life. Job, wife, kids, the same friends every night he hasn’t really any choice. And if you try and raise yourself above it Bam! Bam! and this is the point of the boxing theme. The film was actually made in Stockton a typical small American town, and in its bars, boxing rings and surrounding flat fields. The real populace are used in all location scenes and their reactions unrehearsed; most of the boxers are actually played by boxers.

While Billy is hanging around one of the numerous small gyms in the town he sees young 18-year-old Ernie “fooling” with boxing gloves on. He thinks he has talent and sends him to his old trainer, small, squat, capitalist and fatherly, brilliantly caricatured by Nick Colassanto. This reminds lonely, alcoholic Billy of the comeback he’s always planning to make, and after his girlfriend, too alcoholic and ugly to still be a paid whore, runs out on him, he goes back to the trainer who arranges a pro bout with another ageing heavyweight, who an hour before the fight is peeing blood. They both swim around the ring for a few rounds, before Billy knocks him out, but only to find that after weeks of not drinking and hard training he’s left with only $100. Sometime later he’s wandering around a parking lot blind drunk when he comes across young Ernie getting into his car, rushing back to his wife and baby. He reluctantly agrees to have a cup of coffee with Billy who pleads with him not to leave him alone. They sit in an enormous billiards room with a coffee bar at one end of it. It’s been the same for 50 years and will be for the next 50. The old man who serves the coffee can barely move and one supposes that if he was lifted from behind the counter he’d disintegrate. The camera stands still over Billy’s face and pans over the groups of men methodically playing cards in the same groups as they always have and always will. END OF FILM.

Depressing, disillusioning: life brilliantly mirrored. Don’t miss it.


19720901-10ASYLUM (X) Starring Peter Cushing, Britt Ekland, Herbert Lorn, Patrick Magee, Richard Todd. Written by Robert Bloch. Directed by Roy Ward Baker. Distributed by Cinema International Corporation.

Standard horror atmosphere! Six people locked up in an isolated rural mental hospital, presided over by a wizened wheel-chaired Patrick Magee, who gives a young doctor the task of guessing which of the four inmates is the former doctor who went insane. So he goes into each of the four rooms and interviews each of the four patients who give their versions of how they got there. There is then a flashback and we are shown the predictably gory episode which has put them there.

For me the attraction of horror movies is that they are a total fantasy in a realistic setting, which makes them utterly believable, while at the same time being entertaining, and frightening in their excursions into the supernatural. Plunging me into this realistic fantasy provides me with a delightful ninety minutes of escapism, and this latest piece is as brilliantly directed, ham-acted, enjoyably frightening as usual, and is highly recommended to all addicts.

St Valentine’s Day At The Paramount

19720901-10The Godfather. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Starring Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Richard Conte, Sterling Hayden, James Caan, John Marley. Distributed by Paramount Pictures. Cert X. 175 minutes.

I always thought a “press show” was when a movie renter showed his latest product to the press. But the Godfather press show changed all that. All 900 tickets had been allocated weeks before but still the press showed up in force to tell us where they’re really at. The Paramount staff had to deal with a crowd that behaved more like a crowd of hungry bears than like a corps of serious-minded critics.

19720901-11One ageing trendy tried to slip his amoureuse past the cordon by folding his ticket in half. “I haf two tickets. Ve are ze German Press.”

But Paramount’s lady at the gate wasn’t having any of that and the German Press’s lady was sent to stand with the ether ticketless wall flowers.

So the carnage had started outside the cinema, with people trying to storm the barricades. And even if the people in the cinema clap at the end. it seemed hardly worth the effort.

It isn’t so much that The Godfather is a bad movie, it’s just that it’s two hours and 55 minutes long.

Brando’s make-up is good, his acting is as good, but it’s hidden by all that face he’s wearing.

The story is a vicious as they come, and not half as boring as Mario Puzo’s novel which it’s based on – largely because Puzo and Coppola have gutted the hopelessly wordy novel

But it still leaves a hopelessly long movie. Maybe it’s because the style it’s made in is the style gangster movies of the 1930’s and 1940’s were made in – the heavy dissolve from scene to scene.

The movie treats the decline of a powerful Mafia family without mentioning the Mafia once – the Italian-American community leaned on Paramount to get the word cut out.

Instead we get “the mob”, “the family”, “the racket” where we should have the Mafia, and it makes it all seem rather silly – euphemisms always do.

The best thing is the music, by Nino Rota, who always did run up a nice little score for the odd movie.

The most entertaining thing was the press clawing at each other, but when this gets into print they’ll be fighting at another viewing.

In fact I fell asleep in the first hour, but it didn’t make much difference to my understanding of what was going on.

Two disturbing factors: The Godfather is apallingly sexist and it enjoys its violence like any good little rich voyeur getting his kicks.