Tag Archives: John Lennon

The Square Peg

“Why make it sad to be gay? Doing your thing is O.K. Our bodies are our own so leave us alone. Go play with yourself-today.” – John Lennon, The Gay Liberation Book, 1972

German film poster

The subject of homosexuality had arrived at a watershed moment by 1967. The mainstream of Hollywood could no longer repress depictions of homosexuality into the niche of lesbianism in accordance with heterosexual male fantasy. Successes like Andy Warhol’s My Hustler (1965), Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), and Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) in the underground cinemas of New York and other urban centers had paved the way for new characterizations of queerness in the American cinema at large. Until 1967, depictions of male homosexuality had been limited to Tony Randall and Rock Hudson’s relationship in a slew of films with Doris Day or to foreign film markets. Anyone familiar with the works of such critics and film essayists as Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, Richard Dyer, Andrea Weiss, and Mark Rappaport knows at this point how brutally closeted Hollywood was (and still is). That is to say that there exists a large body of film criticism dedicated solely to deciphering the coded messages of queerness in the cinema.

Homosexuality in the novel is an entirely different matter. Gay characters were not as restricted as their Hollywood counterparts by the mid twentieth century. Though still a controversial “subject” from the perspective of the American mainstream, homosexuality in the novel enjoyed a rare degree of liberty. It is important to note that depictions of homosexual love that were the least bit explicit were bound to get an author’s work branded as the worst kind of debauched pornography (such was the case with Jean Genet for instance). It was into this milieu that Carson McCullers unleashed her novel of longing and repressed desires Reflections In A Golden Eye in 1941.

When, in 1967, Warner Brothers released their film version of McCullers’ novel, the film bombed terribly. In part this was due to the general conservatism of America as a whole, and partly because Reflections In A Golden Eye wasn’t released in the same manner of distribution as the films of Warhol, Smith, and Anger. The presumed target audience for such a film was not going to be interested in a John Huston film, nor were they going to rush to some “square” theater if a hip and happening alternative theater is showing something more in line with the times (Warhol, Smith and Anger). Or even worse, they wouldn’t want to be seen attending a screening of such a film for fear of being outed.

It does make sense for a Hollywood major to select material like McCullers’ novel to adapt into a film. This is primarily because the novel is so adept at articulating its character’s sense of repression and guilt that it would be easy, while adapting the work, to imbue it with enough heterosexual paranoia as to negate any realistic depiction of queerness, thus continuing to vilify and deride homosexual characters. So where the novel’s focus is clearly the existential crises of identities distorted through social repression, the film recasts the circumstances of the novel to focus instead upon the theme of queerness as subterfuge of traditional heteronormative marriage.

The Penderton stables

Of all of John Huston’s films, Reflections In A Golden Eye is by far the most unusual. He certainly doesn’t appear at first to have been the director most suitable for the material either. Huston’s name, and indeed his legend, centers on the kind of machismo one associates with Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer. Huston’s reputation as an auteur had only recently been established by Andrew Sarris in the early sixties. When he made Reflections In A Golden Eye most audiences knew Huston better as a larger than life adventurer who directed such beloved films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre (1948). What was perhaps Huston’s greatest gift, however, were his abilities as a screenwriter. A talent that Warner Brothers neglected to enlist when adapting McCullers’ novel. The screenplay was penned by Huston’s close friend Gladys Hill (who would work again with Huston on The Man Who Would Be King) and Chapman Mortimer (an alias of Scottish author W.C. Mortimer).

The film Reflections In A Golden Eye centers upon two couples which provide the center of its narrative complex. There is on the one hand Major Weldon Penderton (Marlon Brando) and his wife Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) and on the other hand there is Lt. Colonel Morris Langdon (Brian Keith) and his wife Alison Langdon (Julie Harris). Within this primary complex the couples are intimately linked, not by friendship, but sexually; Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon are having an affair. Which leads to the next outer ring of the complex. Both Major Penderton and Alison Langdon have found new outlets for their affections that are impossible to physically, and therefore sexually, obtain. Major Penderton longs for Private Williams (Robert Forster) just as Alison longs for Anacleto (Zorro David), her servant.

Alison’s relationship with Anacleto is the most unusual in the film. Her servant is depicted as extremely feminine yet retains a gender ambiguity. However, with blocking Huston conveys another level in the relationship. The compositions of Alison and Anacleto together recall classic depictions of Sapphic love. This suggests that Anacleto, due to his inherent degree of intimacy and his constant proximity as well as his androgyny, is merely a substitute or surrogate for Alison’s lesbian impulses. This relationship goes undetected in the narrative, for Lt. Colonel Langdon is so hostile and homophobic toward Anacleto that he never truly observes his wife’s companion. These are all details concerning Anacleto that are never actually articulated by the character himself. As both Langdons project their unique concepts of Anacleto’s identity on to him, he is destined to remain relatively neglected in the film.

This can also be said with regards to the character of Private Williams. When we are first introduced to Williams in the film he is observed nude, voyeuristically watching the Penderton’s house. As he becomes more daring, eventually breaking in to watch Leonora sleep and steal a kiss, he provokes the attentions of Major Penderton. Williams, like Anacleto, remains relatively abstract and unknown to the audience. Instead we are left only with the reactionary sense of fear provided by both Pendertons and the sexual longing provided only by Major Penderton.

Brando & Keith

This complex, akin to a planet and it’s satellites in orbit, clearly places the idea that it is the queerness of Alison and Major Penderton that has undermined their marriages to the point where their spouses have no recourse other than to have an affair. The result of this chain of cause and effect is brutal and sadistic towards the films queer characters. Alison, with the aid of Anacleto, commits suicide in a sanitarium to which her husband has had her committed as they await their divorce. Likewise, Major Penderton, once exposed, is unable to reaffirm the necessary masculinity to retain either his wife’s respect nor the regard of his fellow officers. Major Penderton, at the end of the film, has been emasculated by his wife, scorned by his fellow officers, and rejected by the object that he desires. In both characters’ cases it is essential to, as with most people practicing a queer or alternative lifestyle during that time, to remain in the closet. This unjust circumstance has the effect of Stockholm Syndrome, where the emotional ties in marriages like the ones depicted in Reflections In A Golden Eye are very real, as is the sense of self-identity that is born out of such emotional intimacy. The film Reflections In A Golden Eye, unlike the novel, casts queerness as a tragedy.

Yet, there is more to Reflections In A Golden Eye than just the dramatic complex of its relationships. Like so many of Huston’s films during his late and most provocative period (commencing in 1964 with Night Of The Iguana and concluding with The Dead in 1987), there exist moments of such truthful visual poetry that entire sequences appear to transcend or entirely re-contextualize the rest of the film. From the start Huston has employed a wide variety of powerful signifiers. First, there are the Penderton’s horses which come to represent fertility, then the Privates’ uniform which represents the facelessness of the unknown, and finally, a thicket that comes to represent crucifixion. Still, the most moving sequence in the film occurs the second time Major Penderton goes riding on his wife’s favorite steed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Private Williams sunbathing in the nude atop a boulder.

The sequence unfolds in a series of long takes, panning with Major Penderton through the woods. Soon, shots of Williams are interspersed, but the framing stays wide. Then, the close up on Penderton’s face. Brando, seemingly doing nothing at all, conveys in a few briefly sustained shots a wellspring of emotions. In Brando’s eyes one can feel the carnal desire, the fear of these desires, and even more the fear of one’s self realized, confronted. What follows is the most disturbing but effective sequence in John Huston’s career: the rebuff, and the thicket in which Penderton becomes terribly scratched, then the beating Penderton administers to his wife’s horse. All these elements provide a climactic and nightmarish catharsis. All of Penderton’s repressed emotions, beautifully communicated by Brando using just his face, come pouring forth powerfully in a violent stream of frustration.

It is tempting to credit the powerful sequence addressed above and its sense of atmosphere that permeates the rest of Reflections In A Golden Eye solely to John Huston, given his adeptness for psychologically intense character investigations as evidenced by Fat City (1972), Wise Blood (1979), and Under The Volcano (1984). But the uniqueness of this moment in the careers of both Marlon Brando and John Huston indicates otherwise. Not to mention the contributions made by cinematographer Aldo Tonti, whose previous credits include films by Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini.

Keith, Taylor & Brando

All of Brando’s subsequent scenes in Reflections In A Golden Eye are replete with the same emotional intensity. This enables the film to transcend the script’s queer shaming agenda to become what is probably the most impactful portrait of closeted homosexuality in the mainstream of American cinema until the 1990s. But this makes Reflections In A Golden Eye all the more problematic. The audience has the opportunity to emote with Major Penderton in a way that is denied to Alison and Anacleto. Similarly, Leonora and Lt. Colonel Langdon come of progressively more and more elitist, sleazy, and bigoted. Such characterizations are hardly out of place in a drama set on a military base, but it does signify an obvious preference on Huston’s part for the character of Major Penderton. Essentially, it is a matter of Huston and his collaborators working against the script to do two things. First, to humanize an outsider character that typically would not be allowed to appear so sympathetic and realistic. Secondly, to showcase a major star and celebrity as a means to get away with a sympathetic portrayal of a homosexual.

Brando himself is a major part of the visual complex employed by Huston in Reflections In A Golden Eye. It is uncertain if John Huston was aware of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising or if he ever saw it. Regardless, the film Jonas Mekas described as “brilliant” upon its premiere provides an association or reference point for the visual schema of Reflections In A Golden Eye. Anger’s sordid tales of biker boy debauchery and satanic euphoria that compose Scorpio Rising employs an image of Marlon Brando, taken from László Benedek’s The Wild One (1953), of the star decked out in tight black leather. The mirror images of Anger’s own biker beauties with that of their idol/ideal metamorphoses the Brando image from The Wild One beyond its original context and into a signifier and fetish item. This fetishized image of Brando is recalled, intentionally or not, in a brief scene in Reflections In A Golden Eye where Brando, wearing an under shirt similar to that which he wore in The Wild One, ogles his biceps in a mirror. So in one instant, Huston is able to re-orient Brando/Penderton as a fellow spectator, idolizing and fetishizing his own image while also re-enforcing, beyond a doubt, the queer potential of the Penderton character.

It should be noted that not only were most homosexuals being oppressed or living closeted lives in 1967, but that even in the wake of Reflections In A Golden Eye filmic depictions of queerness within the mainstream still struggled to escape vilification (or heterosexual male fetishization in the case of lesbian depictions). One of the few depictions of homosexuality in the sixties that was not designed to shame or vilify came two years later; Stanley Donen’s Staircase (1969). Staircase could get away with a more “truthful” or sympathetic depiction of homosexuality than Reflections In A Golden Eye because the two stars (Rex Harrison and Richard Burton) were notorious womanizers that no one could take seriously in the parts of homosexuals (something that couldn’t be said for Brando), the source material had been a hit show for playwright Charles Dyer, and its ad campaign trivialized the subject matter to the point of farce (needless to say, Staircase met with the same fate as Reflections In A Golden Eye at the box office). Filmic depictions of queerness from the sixties that have become popular now like Paul Morrissey’s Flesh (1968) and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait Of Jason (1967) had a severely limited run in American art-houses, thus negating any national exposure and remaining completely inaccessible to most of the gay community. In this way the explicit depictions of homosexuality remained exactly where most of America wanted them in the sixties; in the margins of our society.

-Robert Curry

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Listen To Me Marlon

Executed in 1966, Double Marlon is a celebration of a male icon.  Warhol has placed the double image of Marlon Brando, taken from his highly influential and controversial 1953 movie The Wild One, at the right-hand edge of a vast, deliberately unprimed canvas.” – William Paton, 2008

Andy Warhol's Double Marlon

Andy Warhol’s Double Marlon

Stevan Riley’s Listen To Me Marlon (2015) presents us with another doubled rendering of Marlon Brando.  Since Warhol originated his original silkscreen, Brando has lost none of his potency as a visual signifier.  Riley clearly understands this, as Warhol did, opting out of any contextualizing prologue in his film, favoring a direct descent into the “mind” of his subject, Marlon Brando.  The doubling in Listen To Me Marlon is not a visual one, but one of sound and image.  This coupling is one of the foundations of contemporary cinema, though it has been implemented in Riley’s film somewhat unconventionally.  That is to say that the images of Brando within the film, culled from motion pictures, news reels, and television broadcasts, rarely partner with the voiceover provided by the late Brando from his own audio journals.  Thus is the nature of the voiceover.  Where Ken Burns would rely upon Peter Coyote to dramatize the events recounted in a documentary, Riley has the luxury of the subject himself providing “his own” thoughts and recollections.

Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon (1988) implements the same technical and aesthetic techniques as Listen To Me Marlon.  Both films present unique portraits of their subjects in that these films are able to pass as authentic renderings of the subject within the confines of sound and image.  However, and this was more evident in Riley’s film than in Solt’s, the audio of the voiceover is actually a patchwork of dialogue edited together.  Obviously this is motivated by a need to make the subjects more succinct in their respective recollections and thoughts.  But another decisive proponent that often leads to such tinkering is the pressure upon the estates of both Lennon and Brando to preserve the brand they represent.  In Imagine: John Lennon May Pang is clearly edited into the relative footnotes of the film whilst Brando’s bisexuality and controversial relationship with fellow actor Montgomery Clift is overlooked entirely.  Both films reveal this white-washing in the filmmakers desperate need to make a film that appears all-inclusive of its subject.  May Pang is allowed a few fond recollections of her time with Lennon in 1974 while Riley uses a home-movie clip of Brando and Clift “goofing off” together in two brief instances early in Listen To Me Marlon.

The commerciality shared by Imagine and Listen To Me Marlon de-synchronizes the doubling of sound and image in a harmony that is authentic.  This is also expressed by Riley’s self-restriction when it comes to Brando’s career, bounding from the early sixties to Coppola’s The Godfather then to death.  Brando the brand that is seen on Turner Classic Movies’ websites and promotional materials, on t-shirts, handbags, buttons, and jackets, is almost always restricted to the Brando of the fifties.  This is another signal of Listen To Me Marlon‘s inauthenticity, as well as its power as a branding device.  Consider the effect this film will have as a form of advertisement for the products of the Brando brand?

What Listen To Me Marlon represents that is truly regrettable is that the film did not live up to its potential.  The vast scope of the material Brando had recorded onto cassette is astonishing.  If that had been coupled with exclusively the 16mm and Super 8 film of Brando’s own home movies then Listen To Me Marlon would have been unforgettable, if not unlike the films of Mark Rappaport.  If that had been the case, then the linear core structure of the film could have been replaced with a meditative, meandering one of self-reflection on the part of Brando, dictated by Brando himself by way of his tapes.

Director John Huston instructs Marlon Brando on the set of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Director John Huston instructs Marlon Brando on the set of Reflections in a Golden Eye.

Listen To Me Marlon does redeem itself, and not just in its value as entertainment.  If one knew very little of Marlon Brando, one would have found Riley’s film informative and even engrossing.  Yet its true merits come from Brando’s insights into performance.  These insights, peppered throughout the film, are exactly the ideas young actors must be aware of, and these concepts are phrased in the manner that they should be.  The instructive possibilities of Riley’s film were something I had not anticipated.  The talents of the next generation would do well to have a look at Listen To Me Marlon.

-Robert Curry

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She Said Boom

fifth column:  a group of people who act traitorously and subversively out of secret sympathy with an enemy of their country.

(dictionary definition)

She Said Boom

Dick Hebdige marks the beginning of “punk” as we know it today in the year of 1976 when a young girl was almost blinded by a flying beer glass at the 100 Club in Soho.  Hebdige singles this incident out because in his mind it served as the catalyst for what he terms “the mass moral panic” that first drew critical attention to “punk”.  What does this have to do with Kevin Hegge’s documentary film She Said Boom (2013)?  Defining and understanding the political origins of “punk” will enlighten one to the motives behind the band The Fifth Column; the subject of Hegge’s film.  To explain why “punk” became such an enduring and influential cultural movement one need only apply the very definition of “fifth column”.  Consider, as the members of The Fifth Column did in their native Toronto, that the “enemy of their country” is not a terrorist nor a corrupt politician necessarily, but rather concepts and ideas that are in conflict with the traditionally accepted modes of thinking in Western civilization today.

The Fifth Column cannot be labeled “punk” however, even if their music fits within the mechanics of punk music.  The Fifth Column, like Crass before them (though to a lesser extent), utilized an array of media beyond music such as film to give a voice not only to women, but homosexuals.  Before Pansy Division or Bikini Kill there was The Fifth Column, and their influence on both demographics has been monumental.

This is what Hegge’s film She Said Boom works very hard to communicate.  By interviewing members of the band, their contemporaries, and their successors Hegge is able to contextualize The Fifth Column not just musically, but sociologically.  That The Fifth Column was so successful in their aesthetic fusion of punk music and film in giving voice to Toronto’s subculture tempts critics to draw a comparison between them and Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.  Yet Hegge’s ignores this comparison wisely.  Primarily, one must assume, because at this point not only is a comparison with The Velvet Underground a cliché, but Hegge would be indicating a duplicate social structure of oppression at work in both New York of the mid-1960s and Toronto in the 1980s.  Admittedly there are similarities, but a comparison of this nature would negate the principal instigating factors at work in propelling The Fifth Column beyond the circuit of your “run of the mill” garage band.  Thus, Hegge is very successful in his portrait of The Fifth Column, their work, and their legacy.

The Fifth Column

She Said Boom is very liberal in its appropriation of footage of The Fifth Column members from their films and the films of their associates (Caroline Azar, Beverly Breckenridge, GB Jones and Bruce la Bruce).  Though this footage is compelling in how vividly it renders a time, a place, and an aesthetic, the very employment of footage in this way has become a tactic so often used by documentary filmmakers that it is becoming tiresome.  Between Andrew Solt’s Imagine: John Lennon (1988) and Don Letts’ Westway To The World (2000) this tactic was not nearly as prevalent.  However, Westway The World‘s syndication on MTV and VH1 over the following years have helped engrain this device into the very mechanics of what is popularly referred to as the “Rock-Doc”.  And this is a shame because of all the documentaries that utilize this tactic to this end She Said Boom has had some of the best archives of footage to pull from.

-Robert Curry

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Love & Mercy

In the last decade there have been a number of quality biographical films.  Always a popular genre with audiences, the biographical genre has always been a bankable contender for Academy Award nominations, for instance Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005).  That there has been room for innovation within this formulaic genre in the American mainstream is indicative of the influence of European film.  Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There (2007) bears the obvious influence of Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch (1974) and Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s Karl May (1974).  Steven Soderbergh’s Behind The Candelabra (2013) represents the less avant-garde approach to the genre, though it’s innovations are no less incredible due to the fact that it represents its homosexual subject in a vein that is as explicit as it is humanistic.  What Soderbergh and Haynes both employ, thus marking a new clear trend in the genre, is an abandonment of graphically portrayed lapses in time, such as a title card reading something like May 8th, 1914.  Until recently this has been a hallmark of the genre, exemplified by Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (1994) and Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014), the antithesis to the aesthetic proposed by Haynes and Soderbergh.

Love & Mercy

When Love & Mercy (2015) was announced and Oren Moverman (I’m Not There, Jesus’ Son, Married Life) was credited as writer, one immediately anticipated the non-linear format of the film.  Bill Pohlad’s name likewise signified an expectation for innovation given his previous credits as producer of Steve McQueen’s controversial 12 Years A Slave (2013) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life (2011).  These expectations were fulfilled insofar as Love & Mercy works along a non-linear narrative structure.  The film jockeys back and forth from the mid-sixties to the late eighties in the life of Brian Wilson.  However, as these scenes play out it becomes painfully obvious that there is no syncopation between the sixties continuity and the eighties continuity and that each scene works as a simple, single revelation of Brian Wilson’s tortured psyche.  The film had every opportunity to nurture a naturalism in its dialogue and its performers whilst still conforming to its non-linear structure ala Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing (1981) but went in the more traditional, condescending route instead.

In this way the script of Love & Mercy is not particularly concerned with Brian Wilson the man nor Brian Wilson the public figure.  On the contrary, Love & Mercy‘s script restricts itself to the vernacular of ready-made character types familiar to this genre.  Paul Giamatti’s interpretation of Doctor Eugene Landy fits the familiar profile popularized by Faye Dunaway in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981) without any of the charm of having done it first.

Love & Mercy runs in to trouble again when it sacrafices its chance to be an instructive visual text on Brian Wilson’s recording methods while working on his masterpiece Pet Sounds.  Stephen Kijak’s documentary Scott Walker: 30th Century Man (2006) represents the possibilities for finding and exploring its subject in the studio space.  For Kijak, Walker’s employment of unusual sounds and techniques becomes a means through which we the audience can experience Walker’s perspective in which everyday objects are simply potential instruments.  Pohlad utilizes the scenes of the Brian Wilson character in the studio as just another means to show his audience what a “nut” Wilson was.  Pohlad also conforms these sequences to the aesthetic popularized by Daniel Richter’s footage of John Lennon in his Tittenhurst Park studio during the recording of his Imagine album in 1972.  Richter’s visual style and unconventional sense of framing can be seen in every biographical film about a major recording artist since the release of the Lennon film.

LOVE AND MERCY

What carries Love & Mercy through all of this is John Cusack.  Unlike Paul Dano who plays Brian Wilson circa 1966, Cusack never projects emotions into a scene, nor does he overplay moments of emotional confrontation.  Cusack may not look as much like Brian Wilson as one may hope, but he does ground the character in himself.  It’s a case of an actor being a character of the real person as opposed to playing that person.  When an actor “plays” the person they are cast as it is often easy to parody, as is the case with Meryl Streep in Iron Lady (2012).  The opposite of this is Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of Eugene O’Neil in Reds (1981).  In this respect Cusack is able to create some scenes of genuine tenderness between himself and Elizabeth Banks, who is scripted into being more of a plot device than a character.

What is the most disappointing aspect of Love & Mercy is that it failed to live up to its potential.  In raw form, all of the elements were there for it to be a film of the caliber of Behind The Candelabra.  Yet it seems that the filmmakers were unsure of what they wanted to say and as how to communicate it.

-Robert Curry

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A Hard Day’s Night Revisited

“We didn’t want to make a fuckin’ shitty pop movie. We didn’t even want to make a movie that was going to be bad.”

-John Lennon, 1970

“Aesthetic experience exists. A Hard Day’s Night has nothing to do with it. At best, it is fun. But “fun” is not an aesthetic experience: Fun remains on the surface. I have nothing against the surface. But it belongs where it is and shouldn’t be taken for anything else.”

-Jonas Mekas, 1st October 1964

promotional photograph taken on set

promotional photograph taken on set

In the wake of the Beatles break-up in 1970, John Lennon began to systematically debunk the public’s more romantic notions of the band he founded as a teenager. Despite Lennon’s somewhat abrasive interview with Rolling Stone that year, and a series of songs that attacked the Beatles myth, Lennon never really succeeded in retooling the public’s image of the Beatles. As much as Lennon, McCartney and Harrison all worked to distance themselves from their Beatle identities to promote their first solo albums, those personas would forever prove inescapable. In truth, the Beatle personas that proved so inescapable were the product of the press, a product that found a physical, widely distributed manifestation in Richard Lester’s film A Hard Day’s Night (1964).

George Harrison and Richard Lester

George Harrison and Richard Lester

Lester’s film, in terms of Beatle history, arrived in time to solidify their celebrity on an international scale. The film was released on the heels of their first U.S. tour, and in the proceeding months after John Lennon published his first book of comedic prose In His Own Write. Lennon’s literary achievement and the widely covered press conferences of the American tour would form the crux of the Beatle’s fictional counter-parts in A Hard Day’s Night. To lend a more intimate air to the film, Beatles manager Brian Epstein commissioned Allun Owen to pen the script after spending two nights on tour with the band. Owen’s script, despite capturing the tempo and mannerisms of the Beatles’ dialogue, still adheres strictly to the caricatures of the fab four that they themselves propagated, albeit inadvertently, by way of their momentous press coverage.

Lester himself was selected to direct the film because of his association with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Lester made a film with Milligan and Sellers titled The Running, Jumping, & Standing Still Film (1960) which reprised a number of comedic elements Milligan and Sellers employed while on The Goon Show; a radio program Lennon and McCartney adamantly followed while in school. Richard Lester’s style at this point was purely economical. His use of handheld portable cameras, and the cinema-verite style they represented, were simply a product of necessity. Lester’s follow-up film to A Hard Day’s Night, The Knack And How To Get It (1965), exhibits a far more formal approach to cinematic technique, marking the beginning of his move away from the kinetic energy that made A Hard Day’s Night such a novelty to critics and audiences alike.

A Hard Day’s Night’s visual virtuosity may have been widely praised, but in certain quarters the film was dismissed as a contemporarily dressed Elvis movie. The loudest spokesperson of this camp was Jonas Mekas. Mekas, an ex-patriot Lithuanian filmmaker based in New York, filled his column in The Village Voice with accusations directed more so at the film critics who heralded A Hard Day’s Night as opposed to the film itself. Mekas’ point was simple. He saw in A Hard Day’s Night nothing new. And it’s true, Richard Lester’s film, in so much as its visual style is concerned, offers the cinema nothing that hasn’t already been done by the “underground”, the likes of which include Morris Engel, Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, and Mekas himself. Indeed, A Hard Day’s Night’s greatest achievement in the vein of cinematic style is that it demonstrates that avant-garde tactics can be employed for commercial use, providing a blueprint for the music video format that would begin to evolve over the next two decades.

A Hard Day’s Night has an even more troubling relationsLennon and Anna Quayle hip to the Maysles Brothers film of their first stateside tour that has gone under several title changes before it’s contemporary DVD release as The First U.S. Visit. In fact, Mekas based one of his articles on the relationship between these two films: “The Maysles brothers made a film about the Beatles. You have to see the Maysles film to realize what really good photography is, or what cinema is, or what the Beatles are”. The First U.S. Visit demonstrates how effective the medium of the documentary is at handling musical subjects. The Maysles’ film of the Beatles pre-dates D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1966) and is equally inspired and effective. When Mekas alludes to the truth of the Beatles, he is undoubtedly referring to the manufactured characters of Owen’s script like Paul’s grandfather, who are the catalysts of all the film’s plot points and the unwilling foils of the fab four. The problem with Mekas’ argument is that while the Maysles’ film may be more illuminating and visually inspired, it is not as traditionally entertaining and therefore not as accessible as Lester’s film, or to paraphrase Jonas Mekas, it isn’t as much “fun”. That being said, the Maysles’ film was also never as widely distributed as A Hard Day’s Night, which had been bankrolled and released by United Artists. Mekas’ attacks on critics for their praise of Lester’s film seem, with hindsight, off base.

-Robert Curry

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