During this year’s Manchester Jazz Festival, we were treated to the Jazz on Film series at HOME, and what treats they were. Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight, a Tubby Hayes documentary called Man in a Hurry, Bird and Mo’ Better Blues. All these films have been covered thoroughly elsewhere, so I will focus on the fecund period of 1958-1962 and on some more obscure offerings.
Lift to the Scaffold by Louis Malle, better translated as the more noir-ish ‘Elevator to the Gallows’, came out in 1958. Godard’s Breathless only followed in 1960. The film is structured around a romance, but it’s much more than that. The blonde femme fatale, cool jazz and the city itself are stars here, but the film manages to underwire this slick, entertaining surface with the geopolitics of the era. No mean feat.
We begin with the intensity of a personal phone call, which pulls back to the impersonal facade of modernity – the Pollock spatter marble and deco features, the frozen blues of Miles Davis, the mirror windows critiqued by Benjamin and artists such as Dan Graham. But the heat swells under the facade – the exploitation of the colonies, geology, oil pipelines, documents, indexes, revolvers and spy cameras.
The spy camera is a crucial plot device. I won’t give spoilers, but the Cold War and the hot wars of Indochina are key to it. This film is loaded with things that will only fully explode a decade later. “Don’t sneer at war, it’s your bread and butter,” a key character says to an industrialist, before shooting him stone dead. This is a jazz movie, but it is also a great post-World War Two conspiracy film.
There’s the hipster hero, who’s a Loki character, but hapless. He’s not quite modelled on Genet – he’s heterosexual for a start – but he couldn’t exist without Genet. “My generation has other things on its mind,” he says. 1968, ten years away, is right here. Turtle necks with cool pendants, wool polo shirts and Miles, an envelope of clothes and detached musical ice, with searing lava bubbling up from below.
The ‘lift’ of the title provides the horror of smooth modernity breaking down. A strange thunderclap motif imposes itself on the narrative sometimes, seemingly arbitrarily, but it puts cracks in the straight urban surface. The smoothness; the coupe with an automatic roof; the American culture of motels in Europe; and the ‘trouble in paradise’ of the murder of German tourists there by the delinquent hipster-hero, the narcissus in a leather jacket with a duck’s arse quiff.
The film already looks like a Fassbinder, but we have to wait for the homosexuality to arrive. Here we have pinball machines and the American ‘liberators’, but also the American oppressors in Vietnam.
There’s class: the flower shop girl and the industrial capitalist’s trophy wife; night haunts and the city; drunk tanks and prostitutes. The hidden underside here is punk in its original form, as in ‘beat’, as in toilet trader. Then there’s the ecology and ethics, the concerned geologist doomed to prison.
If Lift to the Scaffold is about the cool surfaces of modernity and what lies under them, reflected in Miles Davis’s melancholic but aloof score, the Thelonius Monk film, Straight No Chaser, talks to the purely irrational ‘hot’ core of jazz as a music.
People talk about Syd Barrett and Skip Spence, but Monk really was mentally ill and his music has still not been fully assimilated by the western mainstream. If writing about music is like dancing to architecture, writing about the Monk film is like trying to describe the Bilbao Guggenheim using the medium of foxtrot. Just go and see it.
Similarly, Lily Kreber’s Bayou Maharajah, on New Orleans pianist James Booker, whom Dr. John described as “the best black, gay, one-eyed, junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”, must simply be watched. If Monk remains unassimilated, figures such as Booker have been buried for decades, under a hideous culture of systematic rip-off, under sheer prejudice. This dark, sad side of jazz is still only barely lit, even now.
Drugs ghost jazz, including two recent mainstream films on Miles Davis and Chet Baker. You can read what others say about those movies, but The Connection, put out by RCA in 1961, by experimental filmmaker Shirley Clarke, is a real curate’s egg. It fully faces the drugs behind the music. The film was based on a play by Jack Gelber and the theatrical origins protrude right through the celluloid in places.
A title card explains that the film was assembled from footage shot by the cameraman, ‘J.J.’, who was working for the documentary filmmaker Jim Dunn, who has since disappeared. This is a chaotic, claustrophobic drama shot on 16mm, with all the jumps and edits kept within the reel, on top of a real changeover of reels in the cinema, three in total.
The junkie crash pad owner is called Leach. He looks like a young Steve Buscemi, lizard-eyed and perfect for the role. He pulls a pineapple out of the stove, setting the ‘world upside down’ tone of the film. A sign reading, ‘Hell, which route do you take?’ hangs over the toilet, which as it turns out is where everyone shoots up, including the filmmaker, who is eventually drawn in there in the name of authenticity.
‘Cowboy isn’t back yet.’ For the first half of the film, this Godot-like metaphor hangs over everything, except that Cowboy actually does show up. “He’s never early, he’s always late.” The “first thing you learn is that you always got to wait.” And this film is definitely about waiting. They are waiting for the connection of the title, “the man behind the man, behind the man.” “There is no such man,” one junkie says, perhaps pre-empting Foucault. The Salvation Army woman comes and goes, ‘the chicks’ that are due to arrive never do.
We have to endure some existential nonsense in places – lines like, “If man is transparent, how do you account for his shadow?” and, “I read you cats” – but the period slang is well outweighed by some great lines. At one point, Cowboy – when he shows up – says, “I’m tired, I’ve been moving my whole life,” from behind cool shades, and it could be about any of us.
This film leads you to believe it’s a scratchy amateur mess, before giving you a very professional film about filmmaking. The documentary maker appears to make the movie and appeals to us, or rather the cameraman. He talks about Eisenstein and is clearly ‘square’. This is a staging of a staging of a staging, a Brechtian Russian dolls’ nest of views, a Piranesi opium dream, falling into vertigo, then waking sharply.
One junkie accuses the director of capturing “the freaks, but not you”. The same character then gleefully “turns him on” and some of the old junkies want to watch. This is the hardcore of the film, and it speaks to all the narratives in anthropology about being ‘inside’ or ‘outside’. The camera casts a big self-conscious shadow on the wall at one point, by a weird diagram, part occult, part junk map, and the film becomes both theatre and a critique of itself in one move.
The detached observer ‘goes native.’ He’s trying to ‘make an honest human document’, but is eaten by it. I was more than happy to be eaten by this film for two and a quarter hours, and by everything HOME showed in the series. A great piece of curating.Steve Hanson