Monday, 28 February 2011

Running Wild

Film buffs sometimes like to discuss the original casting suggested for classic films - George Raft as Sam Spade, Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones, half of Hollywood as Scarlett O'Hara. As with married couples who talk about how they nearly never met, the effect, paradoxically, is to make the actual outcome feel even more inevitable, as if the earlier suggestions were destiny's first drafts. The most famous example - Ronald Reagan as Rick Blaine in Casablanca - is actually an urban legend, invented by a Warner Brothers press agent, but it illustrates the principle well; an Edenic piece of casting, threatened by the serpent of a notoriously humdrum actor (and given an additional irony by his later career - Casablanca translates literally as 'white house').

Like Casblanca, Some Like It Hot is a film that's literally unimaginable with different casting, without Jack Lemmon's mad-aunt drag performance, Tony Curtis' Cary Grant impression (perfected during the war, when Curtis was stuck on a submarine where the only film was Gunga Din, shown over and over again) or, of course, Marilyn Monroe. It's actually thanks to Monroe's star power that we have the perfect casting of the male leads. Before she got involved, the studio wanted bigger names - Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye or Frank Sinatra. (One has to feel sorry for any agent given the job of asking Sinatra to wear a dress.)

One oddity about Monroe's performance is that it must be the only film in which she plays a Pole - Sugar Kane is actually Kowalcyzk, as she tells us in her first dialogue scene. In fact, one of the surprising things about the film is quite how multi-ethnic it is; the gangsters are clearly Italian, the cop Mulligan is Irish (and played by the gangster film veteran Pat O'Brien), Osgood the millionaire is an east coast WASP, Poliakoff the agent is Jewish. So, possibly, is Joe, the Tony Curtis character - he certainly speaks a bit of Yiddish, referring to himself, quite accurately, as a 'no-goodnik'. (Of course, the actor who played him was Jewish, but that doesn't prove anything - the same is true of Butch Cassidy, Sonny Corleone and Harry Potter.).

This understated multi-culturalism (and yes alright, it's a very white multi-culti; there is one black character - a railway porter - but it's very easy to miss him) is one reason why it's such a verbally lively film - everyone speaks sharp, witty dialogue, but all in slightly different idioms. It's been argued that part of the film's appeal lies in its sexual inclusiveness - the belief that even two skirt-chasing no-goodniks can become better people by wearing dresses. In a similar way, it seems to suggest that vitality (that heat that some of us like) comes from a mix of national energies.

In this, we have one of the great strengths of the American film, especially in its peak talking period - roughly, the half century between The Jazz Singer and Star Wars. Hollywood was built by emigres, mostly from Eastern Europe, and gained its cultural ascendancy partly because, more than anywhere else, it epitomised the values of the melting pot. Everyone brings something different to the party, and no one ethnicity, or gender, is sufficient by itself. Like the man said, nobody's perfect.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

See You Later, Alligator?

When I was growing up, histories of rock 'n' roll always started with (We're Gonna) 'Rock Around the Clock', by Bill Haley and his Comets, in the same way that accounts of the postwar British theatre always began with 'Look Back in Anger'. In both cases, the master narrative has been revised backwards, so that theatre historians now acknowledge the importance of Rattigan, Ackland and (lately) Emlyn Williams, and the default option for first rock 'n' roll record is now either Presley's 'That's Alright, Mama' or, if you want to be a real smartarse, 'Rocket 88', by Jackie Brenston and the Rhythm Cats (known to his friends, if he had any, as Ike Turner).

The analogy isn't exact - while 'Look Back in Anger' is still acknowledged, sometimes reluctantly, as a milestone, Bill Haley has disappeared from history, as surely as Paul Whiteman from histories of jazz. The teenagers I work with haven't heard of him, even his greatest hits cd refers to him, awkwardly, as 'the man who helped to bring rock 'n' roll into the mainstream', as qualified a compliment as I've heard since the time my father referred to Goering as the most likeable of the major Nazis.

'Rock Around the Clock' was recorded in two hurried takes on April 12 1954, as a b-side to 'Thirteen Women', a very strange song about the upside of a nuclear war (the song's narrator finds himself the last man alive, together with... well, you get the idea). It was a cover version, recorded by a 29 year-old hillbilly singer, already a little bit paunchy, with a spitcurl that failed to disguise a receding hairline. Like the samplers of a generation later, the band borrowed bits and pieces of other recordings - Haley sung the verse to the tune of Hank Williams' 'Move It On Over' while guitarist Danny Cedrone recycled his solo from 'Rock the Joint', recorded two years earlier.

The song became iconic when it was used over the opening credits of the juvenile delinquent film 'The Blackboard Jungle', and became the first smash hit of the rock 'n' roll era. It's often the case that the first major success of a new form comes with an example that's diluted or otherwise weakened - the same thing happened a quarter century later, when the first major hip-hop hit, Rapper's Delight', came not from the stars of the genre - Kool Herc or Afrika Bambaataa - but from a studio concoction called the Sugarhill Gang.

Like the Sugarhills, Haley saw his star fade quickly - in his case, eclipsed by the younger, more charismatic Elvis Presley. He carried on touring the old hits, becoming, in effect, his own tribute act, especially in Britain, where the aging teds welcomed him as the king of their personal Brigadoon. I remember him occasionally turning up on television in the 'seventies, still looking much the same - one fortunate side-effect of not being much of a sex symbol in the first place is that he never had a Presley-like decline - and being treated as one would an elderly, distant ancestor.

Haley died in 1981, four years after Presley, and too early to witness his Trotsky-like disappearance from history. It's probably just as well - after being hailed as the Messiah, it would be hard to be told that you're not even John the Baptist.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Keeping the cafe open.

Malcolm Muggeridge once described national culture as resembling a big, busy cafe. Most of the time, there are a number of different conversations going on at different tables, people travel between them, sometimes groups join together, every now and then we all focus on the same thing, a fight or singer in the corner. The important things are to keep the conversations going, and to maintain the connections between them.

It's a useful image, and especially relevant when you're discussing things like subsidy, and the extent to which one part of the cafe depends on another. I've been reminded of it sometimes by social media - the way that Facebook users will suddenly agree as one to replace their photos with doppelgangers or cartoon characters - but the first time I've ever seen the metaphor made flesh was last weekend, at Devoted and Disgruntled 6.

D and D, as the cool kids call it, is an annual event, and one that it's quite hard to put a name to - 'forum', 'talking shop'. 'Agenda-free conference' comes closest, but that doesn't really catch it. Basically, it's a two-day gathering for theatre folk (the title refers to how most of us feel about our chosen medium) , organised by Improbable Theatre, and run according to the principles of Open Space Technology.

This was the brainchild of an American named Harrison Owen, who kept noticing that every time he went to a conference, all the best discussions took place in the coffee breaks. So, turning background into foreground, he tried to find a way of making the coffee breaks into the main event.

The principles of OST are very simple - at the start of first day, anyone can get up and propose a session on anything at all. At D&D, these range from the general (loads of sessions about funding) to the particular ('I'm writing a play about archives. Can anybody help?'), from the theoretical ('Training Directors. Is it possible?') to the practical ('I'm a producer. Does anyone have any shows for me?'), from the serious ('How can we use theatre to make the world a better place?') to the trivial ('My friend Sally is hot and brilliant and really wants a boyfriend.'). One effect of this is that no one can complain that they didn't get what they came for - if no one's talking about your pet subject, call a session yourself.

Sessions are timetabled, about twenty at a time, and assigned spaces; people choose which ones they want to attend and go for it. There are four principles:

Whenever it starts is the right time.
Whoever arrives are the right people.
Whatever happens is the only thing that could happen.
When it's over, it's over.

Added to this is the 'Law of Two Feet', or more inclusively, 'Law of Mobility'. If you're in a session, and feel that you're neither contributing nor learning, you just get up and go elsewhere. it's not ill-mannered to those you leave, it's a gift, taking away a millstone. Some people go from session to session, like bumblebees, some remain as beautiful still centres, like butterflies. If you call a session, it's your responsibility to get it written up - at the end of the weekend, everyone's given a phonebook-sized volume of the 120-odd conversations that have taken place.

There are also two other OST principles; free coffee (or tea, or juice) all day and - this is maybe the most important - no name badges. In other words, no one schmoozes.

So... over two and a half days, I convened a session on failure (it was, ironically enough, very successful), heard a lengthy and fascinating account of the Burning Man Festival, helped two people with their ideas for shows, had profound discussions about theatre's relationship with both science and religion (these sessions were at the same time, so I bumblebeed between them), saw a Philip K. Dick short story performed as a solo show with matches, made some new friends, rediscovered some old ones and (in a session called 'Tell me something I don't know'), found out about the subculture of people who walk around London with wineglasses on a Saturday night, trying to find parties that they can pretend to be locked out of.

By the Sunday evening, my head was so full that I found myself introducing two people, having completely forgotten that one had introduced me to the other the previous day. I'm wary of the word 'mind-blowing' but, if I'm honest, my mind was thoroughly blown.

Oh, and in case you've been wondering, Sally didn't find a boyfriend, but, according to her write-up, had some interesting conversations and 'a most excellent way to spend an hour and a half'. Hey, I didn't say we could solve everything.