Books: May Week was in June — Meet Keith Visconti |
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May Week was in June — Meet Keith Visconti


My important business in London consisted largely of misbehaviour. Charter flights had made Italy cheaper to get to but no nearer. Meanwhile my old life in London could be reached for the price of a student rail fare. Some of my cronies, including the incipient film director, Dave Dalziel, had gone home or gone away, but others had stayed on to enjoy what had become self-consciously an Era. Among these latter was my erstwhile girlfriend, Robin, whom I had helped to become a lapsed Catholic. Since then her personality had flowered, to the extent that the nuns who had brought her up would have sent her to Hell on the strength of her clothes alone. Also she danced well, in a sort of silent frenzy. She was one of those people whose whole bodies have a feeling for popular music, and that was the time when popular music had a feeling for bodies. If you believed the glossy magazines, Swinging London was a place where you could run along the King’s Road and meet Julie Christie running the other way. People you knew, or anyway people known by people you knew, were working as extras in Antonioni’s Blow Up, and sending out reports of how David Hemmings was being pressed flat between ravenous women. The barriers were down, the hunt was up, the game was afoot. Actually it wasn’t quite like that. The youth scene consisted, as it always had, of awkward parties with alcohol still the strongest stimulant, apart from desire. This last, however, was rampant, and was flogged on to a new fervour by the music. The music really was good. Every new Beatles LP moved things on to a new plane of rhythmic sensuality, as if we were all ascending from floor to floor in a transparent building that swayed more as you climbed higher. Though Robin had good cause to distrust me, in these circumstances she lacked the fanaticism which would have been necessary to fight me off. Her tiny flatlet in Pimlico had a yard consisting of precisely four paving stones. The yard, hilariously called an area, was hemmed in by a wall taller than a man. At three o’clock in the morning I would be up and over that wall like a commando and sobbing at her closed door. What could she do but let me in? Other young women were harder to persuade but the occasional one succumbed, probably because it was too dark to know quite what was going on. In the aftermath I was not always a gentleman. Even more shamefully, I thought I had an innate right to thoughtless behaviour. The Zeitgeist had given my Bacchic urge a blanket endorsement. The quantum leap in the efficiency and convenience of contraceptive methods amounted to a mandate. Rubber, however elastic, had been to some extent a restraint. Now the wraps were off. If you looked closely enough at the pill, it glowed with a green light.

On the loose in London, I could fancy myself as a rake. Fancying myself was easier in those days than it became later. Quite a lot of my hair was still on top of my head. My chest, though it showed signs of slipping, had not yet begun to accelerate. As a line-shooter I was indefatigable. I could fall in love in ten minutes and tell her about it for ten hours. I wrote poems on the spot and read them out unasked. Most of what I said, I believed. When I told some pretty dancer that she was a revelation, it was true. True at the time. I had commitments elsewhere but elsewhere was somewhere else. My trick, or condition, of being able to compartmentalise my life allows me to be active in several fields at once. This was already coming in handy as far as writing went: I could write during the day, go on stage at night, and each activity would benefit from the other. But from the moral viewpoint there was another sense in which I needed to be watched. It took me a long time to learn to watch myself, possibly because I didn’t much like what I saw when I did.

The return of Dave Dalziel helped to restore my capacity for dedication. Without him, London might merely have been where I went to do a cheap imitation of Christopher Marlowe in his cups. Dalziel had come back out of Africa, and he demanded allegiance. Being a model of seriousness, he got it. He was a man dedicated to his art. That his own art lay mostly in the future merely testified to its purity. In Nigeria, he had put in a punishing year and a half as head of the government film unit. Apart from a couple of local assistants, whom he had to train, he was the whole staff. One of the loveliest of the Australian expatriate girls, a brunette of Irish extraction unbelievably called Cathleen O’Houlihan, had flown out to marry him. Knowing his record, and stung by jealousy, I doubted if the alliance would last, yet I couldn’t deny the magnificence of the gesture. It was a leap in the dark. Nigeria was already in a recognisable preparatory stage of the civil war which was later to make the name Biafra notorious. At that time, nobody outside Africa could tell an Ibo from a Hausa. According to Dalziel’s letters, however, the lay-out was terrifyingly simple. The Ibos were smart and everybody else hated them for it, so sooner or later there would be a massacre. Meanwhile the Nigerian politicians wanted nothing from the government film unit except to be filmed individually in close-up at all times, even at night. ‘You can’t turn an empty camera on them, either,’ wrote Dalziel. ‘They show up at the lab. and demand to see the negative. These guys are very easy to see in the negative.’

As conscientious as ever, Dalziel had got on with the charade while sedulously maintaining his lines of communication to London, in the hope of snaring a job that would get him out of Lagos before people started cutting one another up. Utterly without side, he had a great gift for true friendship with the black Africans and didn’t want to be there when the inevitable happened. It was already happening when he and the now pregnant Cathleen landed in London. They took a small house in Brixton, where their parlour soon became a gathering point for refugees from Nigeria. You could meet people who had run government departments who would now count themselves lucky if they were allowed to clean trains. I met a tubby, middle-aged, smiling woman there whose whole family had been massacred before her eyes. She was smiling to hold her face together. Cathleen organised the tea and cakes-1 listened to the baby in her stomach. It sounded keen to join the party. I had known Cathleen when she had first arrived in Sydney like an inspiration out of an emerald background, an Iseult Gonne transported in space and time. Now she was a wife and soon to be a mother. Dalziel had a new air of - what was it? — sanity. Something was going on that I felt left out of.

Dalziel still had plenty of the old insanity left, however. In Nigeria, on the few days of the month when he was not required to film politicians as they queued up to appear one at a time in front of the camera, he had managed to shoot the footage for a twenty-minute short subject about the only traffic jam in the history of Lagos. It wasn’t the most thrilling topic in the world, but the film was put together with such craftsmanship that Dalziel was easily short-listed for the newly created job of running the British Film Institute’s Production Board. The successful applicant would be given the task of providing spiritual guidance and practical assistance for aspiring young film-makers. At the interview, Sir Michael Balcon correctly judged Dalziel to be the authentic article, and he was hired. Not even Balcon, a great man with the generosity to relish talent in others, realised just how authentic his new protégé would prove to be. Dalziel was so selfless in his efforts to aid young hopefuls that a mere salary seemed small reward: he should have been canonised, Certainly he had a saint’s patience. Some of the aspiring young film-makers were patently crazy. In a few fateful cases Dalziel found this fact difficult to detect. Thousands of applications had poured in from people who wanted to make a film. Many of them loftily left blank the space in the application form reserved for an outline of the film they wanted to make. It transpired that they didn’t want to be pinned down by the restrictions of the system. Dalziel was sceptical enough to realise that they wanted the status of film-makers without having to go through the taxing business of actually achieving anything. But if an applicant seemed to have an idea that was even halfway decent, Dalziel would put it up to the board, get a budget, and supply the incipient Fellini with everything he needed, which usually included talent. Like many people with abundant creative energy, Dalziel found it hard to imagine what it was like to be without it. If a young would-be film director stood there without saying anything, Dalziel thought that it was because the hot new prospect was so bursting with ideas as to be inarticulate. If a young would-be film director not only stood there without saying anything but smelled as if he hadn’t taken a bath in a long time, Dalziel thought that it was because the hot new prospect was so bursting with ideas he was not only inarticulate, he was beyond being concerned with the petty details of personal hygiene.

I have gone only half way towards describing Dalziel’s principal and most troublesome protégé, Keith Visconti. Though Keith’s anabasis from the status of comprehensive school expellee to potential cinéaste should not be derided even in retrospect, there were several reasons to think that on top of being illiterate and odoriferous he was also clinically insane, with overtones of petty larceny. He had, however, an inborn knack for thinking in sequences. He understood the essential grammar of eyelines and reverse angles without needing to have it set out for him in diagram form. Of no fixed abode, he seemed to live out of the gabardine overcoat which he wore at all times. It shone in a way that any piece of cloth does when it is dirty enough. Clutched tightly against the coat, because too big to fit into either of its bulging pockets, was a ten-minute show reel, made on short ends, which featured a friend of his, dressed unconvincingly as a waiter, serving another friend of his, dressed even more unconvincingly as a businessman, with a cup of coffee. Despite the implausibility of casting, sets and costumes, the action all happened in the right order. This was enough to convince Dalziel that Keith Visconti was a genius, an impression that Keith said nothing to contradict. Keith never said anything. He just stood there in his grotty overcoat, silent and immobile. Dalziel was thus able to read into his new pupil all his own qualities of inventiveness, lucidity and scruple.

The film Keith wanted to make was about a businessman and his wife, or perhaps mistress - the relationship was not specified — sitting in a restaurant and being served coffee. The woman is mysteriously drawn to the waiter, who has perhaps played a role in her earlier life, or perhaps might play a role in her later life, or perhaps both, if not neither. Leaving questions of motivation aside, Keith’s screenplay was a small miracle of carefully calculated specificity. Every close-up was thoroughly notated as to expression, the line of the eyes, the intensity of the light. The fact that the-whole thing was written out, with very few of the words correctly spelled, in pencilled block capitals on scraps of paper from varying sources, some of the pages being stuck together with gravy stains, did nothing to dissuade Dalziel from the view that here was a talent from Heaven, a technically endowed avatar on the scale of Pushkin, Mozart, Schubert or Seurat. Lacking Dalziel’s purity of soul, I was more easily able to spot that Keith was a potential head-case. Actually i was wrong, too. There was nothing potential about Keith’s mania. During his first visit to Dalziel’s house, he had helped himself to half the contents of the refrigerator. Cathleen had smiled on this Bohemian trait but had been startled to notice, after he left, that several of her brassières were missing. She uttered a clear warning. Dalziel was too caught up to heed it and I was too craven. I was on the set as an unpaid grip when filming began on Expresso Drongo. This was Dalziel’s working title for the project and showed that he had not lost his sense of humour. But there were some signs that he might have lost his judgment. Keith did at least twenty takes on every shot. Something always dissatisfied him. In the hired studio, it would be the angle of a light. In an exterior shot, it would be the intensity of the sun. He would squint at it as if it were the wrong size, He would complain that his leading actress had moved when she clearly hadn’t, because she never did unless told to. All of this would have mattered less if Keith had not arrived late each morning for work. His excuse was lack of funds. Since the film’s tight budget ruled out subsidised meals, Keith borrowed from Dalziel against the eventual profits. Taking this handout as his right, Keith complained that there was nothing left over to pay the cost of public transport, so he had to walk, which in turn was very hard on his shoes. His shoes certainly bore out this contention. Once they had been a rather good pair of brogues, but at that time they had probably belonged to someone else. Now they had cracks, thus exposing Keith’s socks to the air, with penetrating results. He had feet like dead dogs. The film was four days behind schedule after three day’s shooting, a ratio which it was to maintain and eventually exceed. Dalziel was slow to admit the possibility that it was in Keith’s interests to spin things out. Expresso Drongo was Penelope’s tapestry. To put it more plainly, it was Keith’s meal ticket. Even after Dalziel caught on, he allowed this state of affairs to continue, hoping that he would be able to work his influence. That, as he saw it, was his job. A less generous man would have hit the silk sooner.

Keith’s leading lady was called Nelia. Close interrogation had revealed that Keith’s knowledge of the cinema was virtually zero, but apparently he had once seen a French film and been impressed that one of the actresses had been billed under her first name only. Nelia was Keith’s discovery. Dalziel objected that the name would only serve to confuse the enormous public which the completed film would undoubtedly attract. Keith dug in his worn-down heels. As out of anything else, there was no talking Keith out of casting Nelia in the twin roles of wife and/or mistress. One of these personages - the one who waited outside the restaurant before coming in, as opposed to the one who waited inside the restaurant and did nothing at all — she played in a blonde wig, which cost a large proportion of the film’s budget. The film lacking a wardrobe mistress, Nelia took the wig home with her every night and brushed it herself, presumably for hours, because it shone with a rare lustre. When quizzed closely by Dalziel, Keith avowed, in a few words widely spaced and reluctantly enunciated, that his relationship with Nelia was purely professional. It was hard to see how things could have been otherwise. Keith was so dirty that he had small plants growing on him. Any kind of physical contact with him was clearly out of the question. And Nelia was a zombie. You could simply park her in a chair, go away, come back hours later and she would still be sitting there. She was quite pretty but in a way so lacking in animation that even I had trouble idealising her.

Characteristically I managed it. To those of us who are artists at daydreaming, resistance from the medium is an invitation to invention. Nelia had neat features, a sweet figure, and an uncanny gift of stillness. To my mind it was more than enough. Soon she was my Anna Karina, my Jeanne Moreau, my Monica Vitti. I had ample scope to nourish these fantasies, Each day on the set I tried to make myself indispensable by shifting silver boxes about and helping to place the lights, but when Keith got started on his usual twenty takes there was plenty of time to become acquainted with Nelia if she wasn’t in the shot, or even if she was. I could get nothing out of her except a hint that she liked tennis players. ‘Tony,’ she would murmur, looking at the sports page of some subhuman newspaper it took her all day to read. ‘John.’ Convincing myself that she had mystery, I perched near her as often as possible, rather hoping that I would be asked to massage her neck, which must have ached from the combined effort of sitting and reading. I thought I was getting somewhere when she asked me to scratch her back: not the whole of her back, just a particular spot in the middle, about three inches below the shoulder blades. I did that several times a day for about a week. Finally I dared to be romantic. ‘Is that the spot?’ I murmured. ‘The special place?’ In a hitherto unheard-of burst of vivacity she turned her face towards me, instead of just speaking straight ahead as usual. ‘No, it’s them bras Keith give me,’ she said. ‘They fit funny.’ Years later I learned that she was a notorious tennis groupie who was as much a part of Wimbledon as the strawberries and cream, or the rain. Exhausted players who had fought their way through to the last sixteen would find her waiting for them in their hotel rooms. She would be wearing nothing but a blonde wig. They called her New Balls Nellie.

Not everyone who wants to make a film is crazy, but almost everyone who is crazy wants to make a film. It is just one of the things that crazy people want to do, like starting a law suit or sending long, unsolicited letters to people in the public eye. A letter from a nutter has a recognisable format and orthography, as if all letter-writing nutters have to go through some kind of Top Gun nutter-letter-writing academy. Usually -I think I’ve said this before, so maybe I’m going nuts too — the letter is written in green ink and its many pages are tied together with a bootlace in the top left-hand corner. Even if typed, however, the letter will continue after the signature in a PS which will run around the edge of the filled page in a dense spiral until the whole of the margin is packed tight. This will occur no matter how many leaves the letter consists of — rarely fewer than twelve — and even if the verso of each leaf is left blank. Usually it isn’t. Every space is filled up. Though the combination of energy and futility can be depressing to contemplate, at least the nutter letter can be written on a low budget. The nutter movie costs thousands of pounds at the very least, and if the nutter hasn’t got the money himself then he will have to get it from someone else. As the officer designated to provide tyro film makers with operating capital, Dalziel was in the position of a man giving away free meat in Moscow. He was on his guard, but he was handicapped by his correct perception that the partition between talent and obsession is often thin.

The ambiguous case of Keith Visconti would have sapped Dalziel’s confidence if it had not been for the continuous, reassuring presence of our old friend and compatriot Alain le Sands. Born Alan Syms in Brighton le Sands, only a mile away from my own home suburb of Kogarah, this conspicuous figure in the history of modern Australian cinema had gone to school and grown up without either my or Dalziel’s ever having met him. At the University of Sydney I still didn’t meet him, but Dalziel acquired him like a shadow. As I related in the first volume of these memoirs, Dalziel knew the names of the director, cameraman and editor of all the films he had ever seen. Alan Syms knew all those things too. Dalziel made the initial, fateful mistake of assuming that there must be some kind of affinity between himself and this intense young man who followed him everywhere. It turned out that Alan Syms also knew the names of the assistant director the make-up artist and the second unit focus-puller. By the time it emerged that Alan Syms not only possessed this information but was incapable of restraining himself from conveying it unasked, it was too late. That light of excitement in Alan Syms’s eyes was the effulgent stare of the true film buff. The eyes were large, with contracted black pupils blazing in the dead centre of the very white whites. They never blinked. His mouth was similarly always wide open. It was equipped with large square teeth, like freshly cut tombstones. Alan Syms talked in a high, piercing shriek.. Everything he said was otiose information about movies. He carried a card index,

Alan Syms was one of the main reasons Dalziel left Australia. When Alan Syms showed up in London, changed his name to Alain le Sands and started passing himself off as the leading light of the Australian New Wave, he was one of the main reasons why Dalziel left for Nigeria. At BFI guest lectures given by distinguished visiting American film directors such as John Frankenheimer or Delmer Daves, Alain le Sands would turn up and dominate question time. In a voice like a descending German dive bomber, he asked Frankenheimer for details about his assistant editor on Seven Days in May. When Frankenheimer visibly failed to recall exactly who his assistant editor had been, Alain le Sands provided the man’s name, address and marital history. It was at this point, I am certain, that Dalziel began to find Lagos attractive. While Dalziel was away, Alain le Sands perfected his act by equipping himself with a screenplay for a short subject, By the time Dalziel got back, Alain le Sands had his film half-made. His own funds - which, judging from his varied supply of leather jackets, must have been not inconsiderable — were all used up. His few friends had been fleeced. He needed completion money. He made Dalziel’s. life a misery, demanding that the incomplete film be seen and assessed. He would telephone Dalziel in Brixton at three o’clock in the morning, waking up a whole houseful of Nigerian refugees. Finally, for a quiet life, Dalziel agreed to see the incomplete film at a small screening room in Soho. I happened to be in town and was present for the event. Dalziel had stipulated that Alain le Sands himself not be in attendance, so there were no witnesses except Dalziel, myself, and the projectionist, who was the first one to say ‘Shit’. The film was entitled He Alone. It was subtitled ‘un film de Alain le Sands’. Dalziel was to relate this fact so often afterwards that Alan Parker picked the joke up and made it famous, but I was there at the birth and it was no joke. He Alone starred Alain le Sands himself, in a role closely modelled on that played by Charles Aznavour in Tirez sur le pianiste. Dalziel, who had wanted to tirez sur Alain le Sands for many years, groaned deeply in the dark. Yet Alain le Sands was no slavish plagiarist of Truffaut. Plot, characters and entire scenes had been faithfully copied, but he had an incompetence that was all his own. The deliberate jump-cuts of the nouvelle vague were translated by Alain le Sands into simple errors. Playing a young hero of threatening charisma, Alain le Sands would leap instantaneously from one side of the room to the other, his cigarette growing longer on the way. His sleeves would unroll and roll up again from shot to shot. As he advanced threateningly down a hotel corridor, he appeared to be walking between a set of railway lines. They were the dolly tracks of the camera. The cameraman must have been blind not to see them and adjust the framing accordingly. Perhaps he was too busy compensating for an evidently advanced case of Parkinson’s disease. The camera shook as if mounted on a billy cart. Unfortunately this imposed awkwardness of filmic style gave the central character none of the vulnerability of its model. Alain le Sands was playing the Aznavour character as if he were Robert Mitchum. He was being hunted, but he was not afraid. The point was thus neatly removed, leaving a vacuum. Close-ups were held for a long time. He smiled in every one of them, looking like two cement footpaths which had been freshly laid side by side. Dalziel watched in fascinated horror, audibly calculating the thousands of pounds the thing must have cost. Though it lasted only about fifteen minutes you could practically smell the burning money. Dalziel vowed that whoever else’s cash was thrown on fire, it wouldn’t belong to the BFI Production Board.

When Dalziel and I emerged shaking into the cold light of Soho, Alain le Sands was waiting for us on the pavement. ‘What did you think of it?’ he screamed. ‘Hopeless,’ said Dalziel. ‘What are your criticisms?’ shrieked Alain le Sands. ‘There aren’t any,’ Dalziel replied wearily. ‘It’s just hopeless. Nothing works. It’s a waste of time. A turkey. Forget it.’ Alain le Sands made a strange move sideways. ‘Yes, but how about some constructive criticisms?’ The word ‘constructive’ was still echoing off the Georgian façades when we noticed the camera crew across the street. Alain le Sands had captured the whole scene. Luckily he could not afford to wear a radio microphone. We couldn’t see a sound man. But unless his cameraman was even more incompetent than usual, he had got the picture. Dalziel commendably did not throw his coat over his head as we got into his car. It was a Jaguar 2.4 that was rather like his clothes: bought second-hand off a barrow but it looked terrific. It wouldn’t start. The screaming face of Alain le Sands filled my window until the engine fired, ‘God knows what he’ll do with the footage,’ said Dalziel as we pulled away. ‘Keith’s going to be a relief after that.’ We spent the afternoon and early evening watching Keith Visconti shoot the big scene where the woman seated at the café table reveals that she takes sugar as well as milk. Six hours and a carton of sugar cubes dissolved like memories.

My key role in London’s upsurgent film milieu made me even more determined, when back in Cambridge, to see every movie that came to town. I could not physically watch more movies than I had been watching already, but my newly acquired identity of quasi-film-maker gave new legitimacy to my pretty well constant attendance at the Cambridge cinemas, of which there were at that time half a dozen, most of them showing double bills. Across the river and up the hill, the Rex cinema showed — back to back and without let-up except for a few Pearl & Dean commercials - old and at the time almost. entirely forgotten Hollywood programmers and films noirs with titles like Dateline Homicide and Make My Tombstone Thick. If you counted in the Arts cinema and the film societies, which together took care of the recherché present and historic past, Cambridge offered a chance to see just about every film ever made. I saw them all. In the late mornings I would write and deliver poems. From early afternoon on I was rarely out of a cinema except when I was in Footlights, and most of my time there was spent watching television. Armed with my practical knowledge I analysed every cut and change of angle, communicating my conclusions gratuitously to those sitting near by, even if they were strangers. I was forever drawing the attention of innocent civilians to what I took to be fine points of technique. Most of the time, I have since realised, I was simply wrong. Competent technique is what mediocrity has in common with genius, so there is small point in getting enthusiastic about it. Unless he is an outright hack, a journeyman will be just as careful as Fellini to make his shots match — often more careful Buñuel, the most inventive of all film directors, resolutely declined to interest himself in any matter he thought merely aesthetic. But a little knowledge, though not always injurious to a practitioner, is invariably fatal to a critic. In recent years I have worked on documentary films at every stage of production and post-production. For any television documentary with my name in the title I have spent at least as much time in the cutting room as on the actual shoot, and often twice as much. I have turned a sentence around to fit pictures and I have asked for a shot to be run backwards to fit words. That kind of finicky labour is an experience for which there is no substitute. Youth, energy and appreciative passion, no matter how blessed they are with insight, aren’t enough. There is no comparison between what I know now and what I used to know. Nowadays, after seeing a film or television programme, I wouldn’t dream of praising its director until I had seen what he had done with other writers, and especially with other producers. I have seen a producer direct the whole movie. I have seen a cameraman save a director’s career. But in my early innocence I fell for the cinéaste line full length. A fan of Al Capone and Invitation to a Gunftghter, I would point out that the director of both these masterpieces, Richard Wilson, had been the assistant editor on Citizen Kane, and that this fact should not be ignored when trying to account for their peculiar excellence. Though this wasn’t a bad point, I was only a step away from sounding like Alain le Sands, Raise my voice three octaves, build my teeth with white plaster, and I could have been him.