Hillbilly Elegy (2020)

Hillbilly Elegy is a film based on the novel of the same name by J.D. Vance.

Hillbillies in popular culture have usually been represented as figures of fun, even ridicule. Older readers will remember “The Beverly Hillbillies”, a TV comedy series based on a family from the Appalachian Mountains when oil was struck on their land, producing untold riches. They moved to California and continued to live like hillbillies in, of course, Beverly Hills. More affectionately, Don Macleans “Good ol boys drinkin` whiskey and rye” were clearly hillbilly types, albeit from further south. The hillbillies represented in this film could scarcely be more different.

So who were the hillbillies? Descended mainly from Scotch and Irish Protestant settlers who had ventured westward into the Appalachian Mountains from the 1750s onwards they had lived primitive lives in small, isolated mountain settlements with a good deal of in-breeding. The Appalachian Mountain chain stretches north to south from the Canadian border to the northern counties of Alabama and Georgia, but the hillbilly heartland is centred on West Virginia and the eastern areas of Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio. The discovery of coal in the 19th century led to major industrial developments in this still mainly rural and scenic region, but they were concentrated in small towns and villages. To this day the region has no large cities. Marked by violent industrial strife, impoverished by the Great Depression and, after a brief period of prosperity, suffering from the effects of post-industrialisation from the 1980s it has the lowest living standards of any region in the U.S.A. In racial terms it has remained overwhelmingly white. This is the Hillbilly country depicted in the film – poor, white, backward and devastated by an opioid epidemic. The film is set around Jackson, eastern Kentucky, and the small industrial town of Middletown, Ohio. A review in AP News described the book on which the film was based as “an election year explainer (2016) to liberal America about the white underclass that fuelled Donald Trump`s rise”

The film is autobiographical, based on the experiences of 3 generations of one family. Mamaw (Glen Close), the grandmother who holds the family together, Beverley (Amy Adams), her daughter and J.D. (Gabriel Vasso) Beverley`s son and the author of the novel. J.D. has progressed from a troubled childhood, enlisted as a Marine and used the money earned to work his way through Ohio State University. His scheduled interview for a post in a prestigious firm on Wall Street is jeopardised by an emergency call from his sister back home – their mother has succumbed yet again to an overdose of drugs. The family story is told through a series of flashbacks to his childhood and adolescence. It is moving and, at times, frightening. The film had a mixed reception, with nominations for both the Golden Globe and the Golden Raspberry (Close became the third performer in history to be nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Raspberry for the same performance). The film was criticised for perpetuating stereotypes about the poor and praised for its realism.

J.D. Vance himself is an aspiring Republican politician considering a run for the United States Senate in 2022 representing his home state of Ohio. A successful venture capitalist, he is being tipped as a future Presidential candidate (he will be 44 in 2028). Indeed some regard “Hillbilly Elegy” as a promotional film with this in mind. Watch it (it`s on Netflix) and see for yourself!

Reviewed by Henry Falconer
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: J.D. Vance (based on the book by), Vanessa Taylor
Stars: Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Gabriel Basso

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It Happened Here (1964)

It Happened Here Film Review by Anthony C Green

What if?

Kevin Brownlow was only eighteen years old when he began work on what would become the low-budget, cult-classic, Alternative History movie It Happened Here. Already a keen amateur student of the history of cinema, he had only a single 16mm camera to his name as his project commenced.

It was 1956 and Brownlow’s native London still showed much evidence of the effects of the brutal world war that had ended a mere eleven years earlier. For him growing up, as for so many of his age group in every major town and city in the country, bomb sites had seemed to be a permanent feature of his physical environment. Now, although the speed of post-war reconstruction was gathering place, it was these physical reminders of the horrors of war that gave Brownlow the subject for his film. The question he pondered as he began work was a question that had already been explored by many, and would be explored by many, many more, through the mediums of both film and literature: That is, what if Hitler had won the war and Britain had, like so many European countries, been invaded and occupied by the Nazis?

We should perhaps state that initially, Brownlow was under no illusion that, given the extreme limitation of his resources, he could produce a whole, professional-looking movie alone. The best he hoped for at this stage was that he would be able to produce a few reels of sufficiently interesting quality to be able to hawk them around various film studios, impressing enough of the right people to make his dream of seeing his project reach the big screen into a reality.

His early efforts, by his own admission, were not great. For actors, he used friends, friends of friends, relatives, and any passers-by he came across who looked right and were willing to give their services for free. For costumes and props, it was very much a DIY, make-do-and-mend aesthetic. For example, Nazi uniforms were made by the simple expedient of sewing swastikas onto a job lot of American army uniforms that Brownlow had acquired cheaply from a local theatrical costumier.

Everything changed, and work on the film properly begun when, whilst buying German war-time helmets on Portobello market, Brownlow was introduced to somebody whom it was felt might be able to assist him with his project. That person was Andrew Mollo who, at mere sixteen years of age, was even younger and more precocious than Brownlow. As luck would have it, it was to the subject of military history and to the collection of military artifacts that young Andrew had decided to dedicate his time and single-focused dedication. Intrigued by what Brownlow told him about his nascent movie, he agreed to take a look at what progress had so far been made.

Crammed into Brownlow’s small flat, surrounded by rolls of film, empty film canisters, and Fascist magazines that had been bought purely for the purposes of research, Mollo was not at all impressed with what he saw projected onto a white sheet affixed to a wall. Calmly but firmly, he told Brownlow that almost every single detail as regards the military aspects of the film was wrong. He then went on to amaze Brownlow with his detailed knowledge of the work of Eric Von Stroheim.

Stroheim had been an Austrian-American filmmaker of the silent era who had acquired legendary status through his obsessive attention to detail. For instance, in period pieces, he would even insist that his actors wear underwear appropriate to the time in which the movie was set, even if there was never any intention that any of this underwear would ever be seen on screen. The original version of his classic 1924 movie Greed originally ran to more than nine hours, a length which was unsurprisingly cut to a little over two before Metro-Goldwyn Mayer deigned to release it. Stroheim was considered to be so difficult to work with that his career as a filmmaker effectively ended in the early 1930s, and he spent the remaining thirty or so years of his life as a well-regarded but little-known Hollywood character actor.

That Mollo had even heard of Stroheim hugely impressed Brownlow, and Andrew was soon on board as the joint Producer/Director of the film, on the mutually agreed understanding that as close to a Stroheim-like degree of accuracy would be applied to their joint creation as possible.

The film would take eight years to complete, and it would be a further two before it would gain a full cinematic release.

Though both have since admitted to there being some degree of ongoing creative tensions between the two of them, Brownlow and Mollo clearly complemented each other as far as their skills and areas of special interest were concerned. Whilst Mollo brought to the movie a degree of authenticity that lifted the film well beyond that of being a mere home-made curio, Brownlow brought to it a political dimension that made it different from anything else in the ‘What if Hitler had won’ cinematic, or literary canon, either before or since.

By 1956, just over a decade after its conclusion, many film adaptations of major events of the Second World War had already been made, including many which are rightly still regarded as classics to this day. But one thing, in particular, struck Brownlow about these films, and that was that ideology had essentially been removed from all known portrayals of the conflict. The German army, and even elite Nazi forces such as the SS, tended to be depicted as little different to any other generic movie bad guys. But, considered Brownlow, wasn’t the Second World War essentially a battle of competing ideologies, in a way that no other war had ever been? On the one side, we had the Allies, comprised as they were of an uneasy, and as it turned out unstable, between Western Democracy and Soviet Communism. On the other were the similar, though not identical ideologies of Japanese militarism, Italian Fascism, and most importantly of all, in the vanguard of the Axis powers, the philosophy of Hitlerite National Socialism. For Brownlow, as both a filmmaker and as a committed leftist, a clear understanding of what National Socialism was and what it was that National Socialists believed was essential.

This determination to show Nazism as a real live ideology, for which people were prepared to fight and, if necessary, to die, led Brownlow to make a decision that was to prove to be highly contentious: This was the decision to allow real-life, modern-day Nazis the opportunity to describe their own belief system, without the mediation of actors, or even of properly scripted dialogue. We will return to this subject shortly. Through sheer necessity, despite their determination to apply the greatest possible degree of historical accuracy, the low budget/homemade ethos of the film remained. Only three professional actors would be included in the finished product, each of them agreeing to work for the minimum scale of Equity pay, on the understanding that their parts would be relatively small, so that they could fit in other work around the filming schedule, and that they would be paid properly in the unlikely event that the movie would receive a cinematic release. The remainder of the roles continued to be played by amateurs, some of whom were enthusiastic battle reconstructionists, and some of whom were former members of Mosely’s British Union of Fascists, temporary actors who no doubt relished the opportunity to dig their old Blackshirt uniforms out from their guilty hiding place at the back of their wardrobes. The rest of the uniforms came from Mollo’s ever-expanding list of contacts in the sub-culture of collectors of militaria. These were supplemented by the cast-offs from mainstream movies, as Mollo started to get paid work in the props and art departments of various movies.

Brownlow and Mollo found their lead actor in Pauline Murray, a middle-aged, Dublin-born woman who at this time was living in Wales. Murray was introduced to Brownlow by his friend, the film critic, and journalist Derek Hill. She was a working nurse who had a passion for amateur dramatics, though she had also had a small amount of paid acting experience as a background artist in a handful of little-known British films. Extra layers of realism were added to the movie by the fact that the character she portrayed on-screen would also be called Pauline, and that the character would also be a nurse by profession.

Although a strictly part-time actor, Pauline Murray apparently put the professionals to shame when it came to the seriousness with which she applied herself to her role, turning up on set early each time she was required, despite the long journeys from Wales to London, and always word-perfect.

Despite the resolutely DIY nature of It Happened Here, the film would not have been completed without the assistance of two major cinematic figures. The first was the film director Tony Richardson who had just enjoyed success with one of the earliest, and best, examples of what came to be known as ‘Kitchen Sink’ British movie dramas. This film was called Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Intrigued by what he had heard of Brownlow and Mollo’s project, Richardson asked to see what progress had been made so far. After reviewing the raw footage, he asked that it be expanded from 16mm to 35mm so that he could get a clearer idea of what a finished product might look like in the cinema. Liking what he saw, he agreed to bankroll the movie on three conditions: Firstly, that it could be completed for £3000 or less; secondly; that the rest of the film be shot using 35mm film; and thirdly, that the filmmakers provide a workable script. Up until this point, they had been working without one, improvising scenes when and where they could, using what would later be called ‘Guerrilla filmmaking’ techniques around general themes and ideas.

This last point was no real problem. Brownlow and Mollo had enough of an idea of the general shape of the story to be able to formalise it into a decent enough script. The problem lay with the first and second points. 35mm film was expensive, and paying for that alone would undoubtedly take Brownlow and Mollo way over Richardson’s kindly given but limited budget.

It was here that another established filmmaker came to their rescue, the already well-respected and later legendary director Stanley Kubrick. Brownlow met Kubrick, rather ironically, at a showing of Von Stroheim’s Greed, and took the opportunity to tell him how much he’d enjoyed his recent film Paths of Glory, which was set during the First World War. At this time, Kubrick was in London working with Peter Sellers on the classic Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove. Hearing about It Happened Here, and like Richardson intrigued by what he heard, and also remembering the struggles of his own early attempts at film making, Kubrick agreed to provide Brownlow and Mollo with the 35mm ‘short ends’ (film left unused at the end of a roll) from his new work-in-progress free of charge.

Through the help of Richardson and Kubrick, the goodwill of all of those who gave their services freely or cheaply, the contacts of Mollo, and the ‘beg, borrow and steal’ dedication of both he and Brownlow, the movie was finally completed by the autumn of 1964, and a mere £3000 over the sum allocated to them by Richardson. It received showings at a couple of film festivals, and the reviews and word of mouth grapevine from these was positive enough to alert the interest of United Artists. Thus began two years of tortuous negotiation before the film would finally get its proper cinematic release.

The main sticking point in these negotiations was the filmmaker’s determination to proceed with the inclusion of the real-life British Nazis. United Artists insisted that this footage be cut.

The scene in question was a six-minute segment during which Pauline is undergoing ideological training through the Immediate Action Organisation. The IA, as it is generally known, is a kind of British equivalent of the Nazi-controlled German Labour Front, membership of which is required before workers are allowed to begin, or to continue with, their chosen profession, in the case of Pauline, that of nursing. As part of this training, she and a small group of others are shown discussing with three British SS officers. These officers are played by former members of Mosely’s BUF, and who at that time of filming, in the early 1960s, were current members of the National Socialist Movement, a small party that included amongst its leadership would-be British Fuhrer Colin Jordan (a few years before he was convicted of stealing women’s underwear), and future National Front and British National Party leader John Tyndall. The scene is largely improvised and, prompted by the questions of Pauline and her fellow trainees, the Nazis had the opportunity to put forward their views on such topics as the superiority of the ‘Aryan’ over the Jewish race, and the need for methods of ‘humane’ euthanasia to be used against the disabled, or ‘useless eaters’ as they are described. The scene was accused by United Artists of allowing Nazi propaganda to be put forward virtually unchallenged. The British Jewish Board of Deputies would go further and accuse the filmmakers themselves of being anti-Semitic, despite Brownlow’s (Mollo was and is, by his own testimony much less of a political animal) impeccable Leftist, anti-racist credentials.

This part of the film has also, perhaps more plausibly, been criticised on purely aesthetic grounds, including by Brownlow’s film critic friend Derek Hill. Hill believed that, though fascinating it its own right, the scene unnecessarily interrupted the narrative flow of the movie. It is indeed true that the scene does seem to be rather shoe-horned into place, and perhaps a bit more scripting may have proved useful in integrating it into the film as a whole. But, like Brownlow, I would argue that the segment simply has to be there. Its inclusion, particularly given the added knowledge that these filmic Nazis really are Nazis who are articulating their own true beliefs, rather than actors simply speaking words that have written for them by others, is a big part of what makes It Happened Here special; and what better indictment of National Socialist ideology could there be than to hear one of its advocates declare that not only is he in general approval of a law allowing for the ‘putting down’ of disabled children but that he would happily take matters into his own hands as regards to a disabled child of his own, should such a law not exist?

In the end, through a sheer desire to see their long and difficult creative journey come to a successful conclusion, Brownlow and Mollo let United Artists have their way, and the controversial scene was cut. This was a decision that Brownlow, in particular, seems to have always regretted; and it should almost go without saying that the scene has been restored to its rightful place in all subsequent media releases.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its origins and the struggle to get it made, It Happened Here was something of a success. Extras in the Blue Ray release show queues outside a cinema in the West End, and examples of giant billboards advertising it that had been erected at strategic points around the capital. The idea that the film was a ‘lost’ low budget masterpiece that disappeared without trace after its release, only to be discovered later by dedicated British film buffs, is simply wrong. In the six weeks of its initial run in the West End, it made a gross profit of £26000, not quite Hollywood blockbuster material by modern standards, but a still not insubstantial amount in 1966.

Unfortunately for Brownlow and Mollo, this money was swallowed up entirely by United Artists’ advertising campaign, a campaign which included expensive cinematic trailers in addition to the billboards, plus the belated payment of the professional actors, and other assorted ‘expenses.’ Despite being shown at many venues across the UK, and also in several countries outside the UK, the two people who had dedicated ten years of their lives to the realisation of the project made not a single penny from its relative success. So, what of the movie itself? I won’t give away too many spoilers as regards the plot. Suffice to say, that the action takes place in the period of 1944-5, in a universe where Britain has been occupied by the Germans following the surrender of the British armed forces after their military defeat at Dunkirk in 1940. It is never explicitly stated, but a background photograph of Oswald Mosely next to a portrait of Adolf Hitler suggests that the government is now in the hands of the British Union of Fascists under Mosley’s leadership, with guidance from the German occupying forces.

A full-scale armed resistance movement is under way, and one of the most powerful moments in the movie, in another scene that some have criticised on the grounds of being anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda, is the fiery oration delivered by a British SS officer at the torch-lit funeral for one of his comrades, a comrade murdered in an ambush by ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ members of the resistance.

For me, two themes stand out most strongly in the film: Firstly, the explosion of the myth of British exceptionalism, the idea that, unlike our less than courageous allies on the other side of the Channel, ‘we’ would never have accepted defeat and collaborated with our conquerors, had the war been lost. In the world of It Happened Here, the British people behave exactly like the French, the Dutch, the Danish, and indeed the residents of the Guernsey Islands, the only British territory that actually did fall to German occupation. That is, some collaborate enthusiastically with the Nazis, some fight actively for their nation’s liberation, and the vast majority in the middle simply accept the reality of their predicament and make of it the best that they can, perhaps resisting in small ways, as shown by the dirty looks that Pauline receives on the bus the first time that she ventures out in her IA uniform. The second theme concerns the moral compromises that ordinary people are forced to make when faced with extra-ordinary situations, simply to get by, to earn a living, to survive and to support their families, compromises that, as is the case with Pauline, can lead them into the kind of actions that they would never have contemplated should the world they had known not been brought to a shocking halt.

These extra-ordinary actions of course apply equally to those who resist as to those who reluctantly collaborate, a point that is well illustrated close to the end of the film, when a resistance leader, following the brutal and summary execution of a group of British SS members, comments: ‘Sometimes in order to fight fascism, you must use fascist methods.’

Another high point of the film, and another moment of uber-realism, is the faux-German newsreel extolling the brotherhood of the German and British people, and the glories of the new National Socialist Britain. In the creation of this segment, Brownlow in particular was heavily influenced by Orson Wells use of a similar device in Citizen Kane.

The It Happened Here ‘Mirror on the World’ newsreel was in fact so real that an Italian documentary film in the 1970s took it to be an actual German propaganda film explaining what a glorious opportunity for Britain an alliance with Germany would be. Within it, we see faked footage (and all of the footage in the movie was created by Brownlow and Mollo, as they took a conscious decision not to use any stock footage) of the Christmas Truce of 1914, and of occupying German soldiers behaving not as cartoon-villains or as brutal conquerors, but as living, breathing young lads on an adventure, posing for photographs at famous London landmarks, drinking in cafes and bars and flirting with local girls.

One particularly believable touch in this section is provided by a brief shot of young British boys laughing as they jokingly imitate the Nazi goosestep. If the film has a weakness, it is one caused simply by the budgetary limitations placed upon its creators. Chief amongst these is that Pauline is the only constant character in the movie. Other characters are either extras, or else they appear briefly in order to fulfil a narrative function, to illustrate a ‘type’, be it an enthusiastic Nazi, a reluctant collaborator, or a determined, politicised resistance fighter. These were the roles that were played by the three professional actors, the structure of the film and the brevity of their role designed specifically to allow them to do their bit and move on to more immediately remunerative work.

But if this is a quibble at all, then it is a very minor one. It Happened Here is a one-off, perhaps the best Alternative History movie ever made, and one of the best British films ever made. Given its humble beginnings, the extreme youth of its creators, and the shoe-string nature of its budget, it is a truly remarkable artistic achievement. Actually, to say that It Happened Here is a one-off, is not quite accurate. Brownlow and Mollo were to work together once more, on the film Winstanley, released in 1976, about the 17th Century writer and social reformer Gerrard Winstanley, one of the leading figures in the proto-communist Diggers movement during the English Civil War. This film also took a decade to make; was also made for next to nothing using a mostly amateur cast, and also made virtually nothing for its makers. It is a worthy companion movie to It Happened Here. Since this film, Brownlow has devoted himself to the silent movie era that is his abiding passion. He has written books and made documentary films on this subject, and most notably he played the primary role in restoring Abel Gance’s classic 1927 film Napoleon, the five-hour epic about the early life of the future French Emperor. Andrew Mollo has continued to be much in demand as a cinematic Art Director and advisor on matters military, in recent years working on such high-profile movies as The Pianist and Downfall.

The 2018 Blue Ray release of It Happened Here includes, as well as a the beautifully restored main feature, an excerpt from a documentary on the making of Winstanley, early unused footage from It Happened Here, a longer version of the ‘Mirror on the World’ newsreel sequence, and a brilliant hour-long interview with Brownlow, during which he goes into much greater detail about the making of the film than has been possible here. It is fabulous value for money.

Directors: Kevin Brownlow, Andrew Mollo Writers: Kevin Brownlow (story and screenplay), Andrew Mollo (screenplay) Stars: Pauline Murray, Sebastian Shaw, Bart Allison

Anthony C Green’s latest novel Better than the Beatles! is available as both a paperback and an eBook

Purchase It Happened Here

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Review: THE BALKANS IN FLAMES; YUGOSLAVIA FROM BIRTH TO DEATH 1919-99

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This three-part PBS documentary explains how and why the ill-conceived state of Yugoslavia descended into chaos and barbarity not once but twice, first in the 1940s and again in the 1990s.

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, re-named Yugoslavia in 1929, was established in 1918 at the end of the First World War. It brought together Serbia and Montenegro, which had been independent before the War, with Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The King of Serbia became Head of State and both the army and administration were dominated by Serbs. There were problems from the beginning. Serbia and Montenegro had fought on the Allied side in the War, the other nationalities on the other. Serbs and Montenegrins were Orthodox in religion and used the Cyrillic script, Croats and Slovenes were Roman Catholic and used the Latin. Although Bosnia-Herzegovina contained large numbers of both Serbs and Croats they were outnumbered by Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks). In addition the Kingdom had large Hungarian and Albanian minorities. Not exactly a recipe for stability, as was demonstrated when on a state visit to France in 1934 the King was assassinated in Marseilles by Croat separatists.

The German and Italian invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 led to its disintegration. An independent state of Croatia was established controlled by the Ustase, an extreme Croat nationalist movement led by Ante Pavelic, whose aim was to produce an ethnically pure Croat state targeting Serbs, Roma and Jews. Concentration camps were set up, the most notorious being Jasenovac. The Serb minority in Croatia, concentrated in the Krajina and Eastern Slavonia, was terrorised and massacres took place, with as many as 200,000 Serbs killed. The northern Serb province of Vojvodina was occupied by Hungary. Civil war erupted in Serbia and Bosnia between a collaborationist Royalist regime, Serb nationalists (known as Chetniks) and Communist partisans led by Tito. Communist support grew as the War progressed and when German and Italian forces withdrew in 1945 Tito`s forces took control of the whole country and carried out violent reprisals against collaborators, Ustase and anti-Communists.

Tito ruled Yugoslavia until his death in May 1980. Under the slogan “Brotherhood and Unity” he hoped to overcome national divisions by establishing Communist administrations in Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, under the authority of a central government in the Serb capital Belgrade. Serb influence was further diluted within Serbia itself by the creation of separate administrations in Vojvodina and Kosovo. Under Tito`s iron hand this appeared to work well. Having broken with Stalin in 1948 Tito assumed leadership of Non-Aligned countries affiliated with neither the U.S.A. nor the Soviet Union, thereby giving Yugoslavia a prominent role on the world stage. Industrialisation, worker participation in state-run companies and the rapid growth of a tourist industry on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia produced apparent stability and relative prosperity in the 1960s. The re-emergence of nationalism in the Croatian Communist Party in the early 1970s was countered by the imprisonment of its leaders. However the economy faltered in the 1970s. Prosperity was unevenly spread, with Slovenia and Croatia resenting subsidising the other republics. Albanian unrest simmered in Kosovo. There were growing fears that Yugoslavia might not survive after Tito`s death.

Tito

Was its collapse inevitable? I do not think so, but the circumstances certainly existed for ambitious nationalist politicians to exploit. The atrocities committed in the 1940s were well within the living memories of millions and passed on to their children and grandchildren. As economic problems grew worse in the 1980s it was Yugoslavia`s tragedy that such politicians emerged, notably Slobodan Milosevic, who became Head of the Serb Communist Party in 1986, and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia. The first crisis erupted in Kosovo, where demonstrations by the Albanian majority against discrimination by the Serb-dominated administration led to counter-demonstrations by Serbs. Milosevic visited Kosovo and championed the cause of the Serbs, making him a nationalist hero not only in Serbia itself but amongst the large Serb minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Predictably, this in turn produced a counter-reaction. By mid-1990 both Slovenia and Croatia were threatening to secede from Yugoslavia, followed shortly afterwards by Bosnia-Herzegovina. Albanians in Kosovo demonstrated for the right to secede from Serbia. Old hatreds were being re-kindled. The result was a decade of warfare and ethnic cleansing involving the deaths of hundreds of thousands and atrocities not seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War, ended only by the intervention of NATO forces in 1995 to end the war in Bosnia and again in 1999 to bring hostilities in Kosovo to an end.

Why was this? Slovenia`s secession in 1991 was almost bloodless because it was homogenously Slovene, but this was not the case in either Croatia or Bosnia. Almost 40% of Serbs lived outside Serbia as minorities in either Croatia or Bosnia. This didn`t matter as long as they remained all together in Yugoslavia However, when in 1990 Croatia elected a government led by Franjo Tudjman`s HDZ party committed to independence, Serbs who formed a majority in the Krajina region of Croatia, backed by Milosevic`s government in Belgrade and the predominantly Serb Yugoslav Army, declared their own secession from Croatia. For them, Croat nationalism meant the Ustase, and the hatred and fanaticism can only be understood in the context of memories of the 1940s. Sporadic fighting in that region continued until August 1995, when the Croatian Army, trained and equipped by the U.S., recaptured the region in Operation Storm. The Serb population fled in their cars and tractors and were eventually re-settled as refugees in Serbia proper. There was also extensive fighting between Serbs and Croats in the Eastern Slavonia region of Croatia, eventually settled by the Dayton Peace Agreement (see later) in December 1995.

Milosevic`s aim was to bring together all Serbs in former Yugoslavia in the same state. Inevitably this involved conflict with non-Serbs in both Croatia and Bosnia, which declared its own independence in April 1992. Fearing minority status under Bosniak (Muslim) rule, Bosnian Serbs set up their own state, Republika Srpska. elected their own President, Radovan Karadzic, who in turn appointed Ratko Mladic as commander of a Bosnian Serb Army which commenced a 3 year bombardment and siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo (where a memorable Winter Olympics had been held as recently as 1984). Some 20% of Bosnia was predominantly Croat. For a year Croats and Bosniaks fought side by side against the Serbs, but in the spring of 1993 the Croats changed sides, Tudjman and Milosevic plotting together to divide Bosnia into Serb and Croat regions at Bosniak expense. In 1994, under U.S. pressure, the Croats changed sides again in return for U.S. backing for an independent state of Croatia. Finally in August 1995, after the massacre of some 8000 Bosniak men and boys by Mladic`s Serb forces in Srebrenica, NATO decided that enough was enough and intervened militarily to bring the siege of Sarajevo to an end and force the warring factions to the conference table at an airbase in Dayton Ohio.

Milosevic

Dayton brought the wars in Croatia and Bosnia to an end. Yugoslavia was no more, replaced by Independent Republics in Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Macedonia (recently re-named Northern Macedonia). Bosnia was divided into two regions, Republika Srpska and a Bosniak-Croat Federation. It did not, however, deal with the problem of Kosovo. For Serbs it was their historic heartland which for them had an almost mystical significance. The Albanian majority, however, had had enough of Serb repression. A guerrilla force the K.L.A. carried out attacks on Serb targets, to which Milosevic`s forces responded with increasing ferocity. Historically Serbia had always looked to Russia for support, but Boris Yeltsin`s Russia was at a low ebb in the 1990s and humanitarian demands for western intervention against Serbia grew. NATO bombardment of Belgrade and other Serb targets in the spring of 1999 again brought Milosevic to the conference table and an independent state of Kosovo was set up. Thus by 1999 what had been a united Yugoslavia in 1990 had been replaced by seven separate states.

The three-part PBS documentary covers all of this in graphic detail and provides a valuable and objective guide to this complex unravelling of a country. German re-unification and the collapse of Communist regimes in the Soviet satellite states had been almost bloodless. The reason why this was not the case in former Yugoslavia is a combination of historic conflicts, populist nationalist politicians and the indifference of the rest of Europe until it was almost too late.

Slovenia and Croatia are now members of the European Union. Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo are all candidates for accession. Bosnia has not yet met the conditions for membership and its future is uncertain.

Henry Falconer

Tito photo credit: Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Milosevic photo credit: Stevan Kragujević, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Map of the former Yugoslavia attribution: Yusuf Ziya Safi, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Counter Culture Debate : Dolores O’Riordan

Dolores O’Riordan: was she right?

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Nine Below Zero – Live At The Marquee 

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Nine Below Zero in action.  From left to right: Peter ‘Pete’ Clark (Bass), Kenny Bradley (Drums), Dennis Greaves (lead vocals & guitar) and Mark Feltham (vocals & harmonica).

IN THE PAST I’ve provided a few random reviews for Counter Culture.  However, it’s always been my intention (and ambition) to review as many of my own books, CDs & DVDs as is possible.  Now that I’ve got a bit of time on my hands – and I’m still looking down at the daisies as opposed to looking up at them! – I thought that now’s a good as time as any to start.  So, in the words of the Ramones, Hey Ho, Let’s Go!

With the above in mind, I thought that I’d kick off with Nine Below Zero’s brilliant CD Live At The Marquee.   

I first heard about Nine Below Zero from a friend from East London many, many years ago, probably in the early to mid 80s.  He highly recommended both the band and their live CD.  I’ve listened to it lots of times over the years and have always thought that it was probably one of the best live albums I’ve ever heard; not only does it convey the music but also seems to capture the shear energy of a live gig.  

I must admit that (at the time) I’d never heard of the band.  However, my friend had been over to South London a couple of times to see them.  He’d described how frenetic they were – effectively a Blues band that performed with the speed & energy of a Punk band.  Therefore, I’d a rough idea of what to expect on the live album.  But having an idea of what to expect & listening to the real deal are two different things.  Suffice to say that I was blown away by the CD itself.

I’ll leave the actual review of Live At The Marquee until another time.  However, I thought that it might be helpful to provide a little background information about the band themselves.   

Nine Below Zero started off life as Stan’s Blues Band in 1977 and consisted of four South London lads who found inspiration in the Rhythm and Blues.  Led by Dennis Greaves (lead vocals & guitar) the band included his schoolmates Mark Feltham (vocals & harmonica), Peter ‘Pete’ Clark (Bass) and Kenny Bradley (Drums).

Graves was obsessed by the Blues.  But to form a R&B band in the late 70s was a bold, almost reckless, move.  This was the time when Punk was exploding, and had literally blown other music genres – like R&B and Progessive Rock – out of the water.  (I think I’m right in saying that Dr. Feelgood were probably the only well-known British R&B band at the time. They’d formed in 1971 and hailed from Canvey Island in Essex and were known for their driving R&B which had made them one of the most popular bands on the growing London pub rock circuit.)

Despite the seemingly unstoppable rise of Punk, the sharply dressed Stan’s Blues Band played in local South London pubs like the Apples and Pears, the Clockhouse, the Green Man and the Thomas ‘A’ Becket.  Playing six to seven nights a week they built up a loyal following.  Like Dr. Feelgood they went hell for leather and played at a frenetic pace.  Mixing original songs with covers at their gigs, they were soon playing all over London.

Stan’s Blues Band changed their name to Nine Below Zero (they were named after a song by Sonny Boy Williamson II) on the advice of former musician Mickey Modern.  He’d seen them play at the Thomas ‘A’ Becket (in the Old Kent Road, Southwark, South London) in 1979 and was so impressed that he offered to manage them.

In a bold – but completely justifiable – move, Modern decided that Nine Below Zero’s first album would be a live one.  And so with just one change of personal (Micky Burkey for Kenny Bradley on Drums) Live At The Marquee was released in 1980.  

The album was recorded at the well-known music venue, the Marquee Club (in Wardour Street, West London) on Wednesday 16th & Thursday 17th July and was billed as a live recording.  The admission fee was £2 with a reduced rate available for students & Marquee Club members.

Apparently, it’d been an ambition of Dennis Greaves and the rest of the band to play at the Marquee – even in the capacity of a support band  Therefore, to appear as the headline act & record your first (live) album must have been out of this world.  Prior to this gig, Nine Below Zero were well known as an brilliant high energy act.  However, I’m wondering if their desire to play at the Marquee spurred them on to go the extra mile and produce such an electric album?

I feel that the CDs sleeve notes excellently conveys something of gig itself:

‘Fourteen high octane R&B monsters – including three Greaves originals Straighten Her Out, Stop Your Nagging and Watch Yourself – merged Chicago chops and cockney charm in a ferocious homebrew of adrenalin which never once seemed out of step alongside the ten regular live favourites: the aforementioned Freddie King’s Tore Down, Otis Rush’s Home Work and J Geil’s version of Pack Fair and Square line up with the John Mayall and Paul Butterfield collaboration, Ridin’ On The L&N, Lloyd Price’s Hootchie Cootchie Coo, Sam the Sham’s Wooly Bully, Muddy Waters’ Mojo Working, and Rush’s I Can’t Quit You Baby, plus Motown stalwart’s The Four Tops’, Can’t Help Myself and Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get A Witness, are all nailed down before the band signs off with their instrumental wig-out, Swing Job.’

(With the sleeve notes in mind, they were printed on thick glossy card which served as part CD sleeve cover, part poster & part information sheet about the band.)

To celebrate their 40th anniversary, Nine Below Zero released a new album in October 2019.  Unlike a lot of anniversary releases which tend to be ‘The Best Of’ albums, Avalanche refreshingly featured 12 brand new original songs.

In addition to their anniversary CD, they’d kicked off a new tour in Belfast, with many further dates set.  However, as we all now know, the world effectively stopped spinning when Covid-19 reared its ugly head.  Therefore, they had to cancel all of their gigs from mid-March onwards.  According to the band’s web-site – https://www.ninebelowzero.com – their next scheduled gig is early September in Fleet, Hampshire. Here’s hoping!

Hopefully this brief potted history of Nine Below Zero has provided readers with some insight into the band.  Now the only thing to do is to review the album itself. However, as mentioned earlier (and to absolutely cement my Counter Culture reputation as the slowest reviewer in the world!) this’ll appear in the next thrilling instalment.

Reviewed by John Field 

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Director: Milos Forman

Writers: Lawrence Hauben (screenplay), Bo Goldman (screenplay)

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Michael Berryman

Runtime: 2h 13min

The book from which the film was made was begun by Ken Kesey in 1959 or 1960 (sources differ) and published in 1962. It places Kesey as a kind of link between the Beat Generation of the ’50s and the Hippies to come. The film, released in 1975, was set in 1963 (with some reference to contemporary racial tension in Alabama). I have watched the film a number of times but have come to it now in 2021 set against a backdrop of increasing social tension.

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t watched the film then do so before reading – it won five Oscars (Academy Awards) at the time and is ranked 33rd on the American Film Institute’s ‘100 years…100 movies’ list. According to Wikipedia: “the film was deemed ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant’ by the United States Library of Congress, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registr”‘. If you don’t intend watching, but are curious or you HAVE watched then please carry on. I rank this film so highly that I wouldn’t want anyone’s possible enjoyment ‘spoiled’!

Watching as I did in February 2021 I couldn’t help but see this film in relation to the current ‘pandemic’ and worldwide governmental responses. In ‘One Flew Over’ (I shall abbreviate thus) the action is mostly set and filmed in a psychiatric hospital – the same one described in the book, thus giving it more poignancy. A note too here that as well as working at Menlo Park Veteran’s Hospital for a while, Kesey also took part in the secretive program known as the ‘Project MKUltra’ prior to writing the book and took various drugs including hallucinogenics (LSD and Psilocybin for instance). This CIA program had only one aim, which was to see if forced confessions could be obtained through mind control after intake of drugs. Again, this adds poignancy to various scenes and themes in the film.

The basic plot is that an offender: Randle Patrick McMurphy (Mac) – played by Jack Nicholson – is sent to a psychiatric hospital to be evaluated for mental illness – he has feigned ‘madness’ to get out of work details/hard labour. On admission – when he sees the doctor in charge – Mac is identified as being belligerent, lazy and resentful – as Mac says, [he] ‘fights and fucks too much’ and has had five arrests for assault plus a statuary rape of a 15-year-old girl. As Mac says to the doctor in a friendly way, full of male bravado: ‘No man alive would resist that’. He also states categorically that there is ‘not a thing’ . The conversations Mac has with the doctor appear very casual and what we might term typically male (joky and with a sense of shared values). Thus we follow what happens to him as he enters institutional life. We must note here that the doctor is perfectly at ease with these casual conversations (and they seem to speak as equals) and that Mac has stated he is NOT mad (but that he has a certain time period to be evaluated). The impression we get is that for Mac this will be a ‘fun adventure’ and respite from prison. He is like a naive but also – as we shall see – an anarchic presence.

In order to get a sense of where the film is going, and what it talks about, here are some of its main themes: Freedom (and captivity); Conformity (to the system); Institutionalisation (and as I see it, a critique of society in general); Psychiatric treatment; Feminism; Sex; Race and to a degree, Politics. It’s FULL of thematic texture. The main conflict centres on the relationship between Mac and Nurse Ratched (the ‘Big Nurse’ of the novel) played by Louise Fletcher. She is (what has been described as) ‘passive-aggressive’, authoritarian – seemingly cold and sterile with a prurient interest in the patients’ lives. She is the ‘all seeing’ eye: “She could have seen you” says a worried patient to Mac at one point. She is a manipulator, using language to control – drawing on ‘feelings’ when necessary. To Mac: ‘These men are members of the ward just as you are” to which he replies, “Don’t pull that hen house shit”. Mac also says of her to the doctor: ‘That nurse, she ain’t honest”.

During one scene, after entering the nursing station and turning down the music (a constant, draining and wearying form of MUSAK), she says: “Music is for everyone. Old men couldn’t [or wouldn’t] hear it if it were turned down.'”

The hierarchy of the hospital seems to be the male doctors and psychiatrists seemingly at the top (who cannot reach a decision regarding Mac’s mental state), Nurse Ratched – who the doctor describes as being ‘the person he [Mac] is closest to [and] the one he most dislikes’ and who is left to decide his fate after the doctors cannot agree. She is the matriarch, the proto-feminist, the channel through which all authority seems to flow. (Alongside Nurse Ratched we have the petite and silent Nurse Pilbow – sexually attractive for the patients I would imagine, seemingly passive but strangely powerful.) We do see a female supervisor at one point too – who is archetypally matronly – her manner and physique being ‘old school’. Underneath Nurse Ratched come the black orderlies/attendants. This was the first time I had noticed their combined role in the film and the flipping of power from what might be expected. They are like a pack of wolves to Ratched’s orders – and also, like wolves, have a sense of independence and non-belonging, despite their pivotal roles (especially so of Washington). It is they that clasp patients to gurneys, who restrain, who control the locking and opening of doors and windows – and it is they who overpower and assault prisoners – knocking out Mac in one VERY important scene. It is also Washington who delivers the bombshell information to Mac that: ‘You’re going to stay with us until we let you go.’ The patients also have hierarchies – one of which is their state of mental health but also whether they are volunteer patients or have been sectioned. Mac is dumbfounded when he realises that most of them can walk out and be free! It is Mac who becomes the focal point of the other patients (the book is actually written from the Chief’s point of view) and they take vicarious pleasures from his actions or imagined actions. And they are also – at least momentarily – freed from their mental restrictions (such as on the fabulous fishing boat expedition).

Nurse Ratched and Mac clash during – what appears to me to be – Cognitive Behavioural sessions – where she seems to both want to elicit sexual details from the patients but also control them via their sexual fears. Mr Harding, for instance, is a closet homosexual that is fearful of his wife’s possible infidelity – he talks in psychobabble and there’s much tension between him and the others – though he has been the ostensible leader of the group before Mac arrives. The young patient Billy with a debilitating stutter is utterly repressed by his mother and Nurse Ratched seems happy enough to use the idea of his mother’s disapproval to control him (and that she is in fact friends with his mother).

I really did get a sense of sexual tension between Nurse Ratched and Mac. We see at least one meaningful glance between the two and it would be understandable that with her being in authority but seemingly highly repressed, she might well be attracted to Mac’s ‘free spirit’ – and vice versa. Mac, as I have stated, brings along anarchy and hedonism into her ordered and very clean, disciplined world. There’s a hilarious exchange between them following Mac’s ECT treatment (more of that later) where he describes to her his supposedly new-found virility following the treatment with an allusion to sex – as I recall he will effectively play the next woman (sexual partner) as a pinball machine, light her up and she’ll give out silver dollars! I have paraphrased – but when you watch again you’ll no doubt pick up on that!

The Hedonist in this case turns the verbal duel against the Puritan. And a note here that Mac brings his girlfriend (possibly a prostitute) to the Fishing Trip and again, with a friend at the major denouement of the film.

Nurse Ratched and the younger Nurse Pilbow administer ‘Medication Time’. We have the conformity of clothing (which changes over the period of the film) – somewhat like mask-wearing in 2021 and drug dispensation for the good of all – rather like ‘vaccine’ programs currently being rolled out. Senses are dulled and moods controlled – which might be thought of as a good thing – but there are always consequences and side-effects. You can see how Kesey must have thought about medication through drugs and their ritualistic administering. Some folk have seen religious aspects to the film/book – if so perhaps these pills would be like receiving the consecrated wafer during Holy Communion. This world is SAFE until Mac comes along and offers FREEDOM!

Thus we have various characters who certainly are damaged but – as we see – are capable of much more. After his first betrayal (finding out that most of the other patients are not sectioned) Mac says: ‘You haven’t got the guts to walk out?! You’re no more crazy than the average asshole in the street!’ They have chosen enforced security and safety over their own liberty.

The hospital regime seems stultifyingly routine and boring and only interspersed with ‘group therapy’ and cigarette smoking (though Mac introduces gambling and mimes the Word Series when the patients’ ‘vote’ is effectively rigged against them watching it). The patients are ‘treated’ by drugs (as discussed) and at times by ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy) – it is while waiting for this treatment that Mac passes the Chief a gum and hears his reply, ‘Thank you’. On first watching this – that ‘thank you’ is explosive! I really didn’t expect it. The Chief, a good character actor in the film (and a good actor) spends his time sweeping the floor – seemingly deaf and dumb. A watcher, an outsider – like the Native Americans as a whole, perhaps, in the United States. Reserved (on reservations) – outsiders on their own land – keeping watch and maybe countenance. As stated, the book is written from his perspective and it is he alone who escapes at the end, finally finding the courage to match his stature. The Chief says to Mac at one point regarding his father: ‘They worked on him the way they’re working on you’. It is also the Chief who comes to Mac’s aid when Washington attacks him, which leads to them having the ECT. Just in case – I won’t give away the final dramatic events of the film – though you’ll discover below that the Chief escapes.

One thing I realise I haven’t stressed is the HUMOUR to be found in ‘One Flew Over’ – and there’s plenty of it! The dialogue is wonderfully written – Mac is a joker and a clever man – but not clever enough. The film is also given a sense of other-worldliness by the Muzak that is played to the patients and the original compositions utilising the ‘novel’ instrument – the Theramin. After the Chief escapes into the wilds of Oregon – another poignant moment magnified by the Native returning to the land with its anti-sterility – we can imagine the patients returning to their ‘normal’ lives. I will say this though: three of them will not return!

Was Mac a failed revolutionary? Or was he the catalyst to the Chief’s freedom? Did he instill a sense of freedom and possibility/potential to the other patients that – who knows- might have come out in the future. Did he simply just shake up the system and cause heartbreak and death? How should we view him? I simply can’t risk telling you of his final fate or that of Billy’s. But you can imagine. What I will say is that the institution – the government/the status-quo/the establishment was rocked but it remained. The Chief’s newly found inner-strength gives him freedom – but in another place – Canada. A word too about the director,the Czech-American, Milos Forman who rose to fame in communist Czechoslovakia and through his parents also knew of the terrors of National Socialism.

In the United States, ECT is still legal (as in other countries) but said to be safer – but the last lobotomy was carried out in 1967. Drugs are still prescribed of course and it is hoped – at least – that they are always dispensed with the patient’s best interests at heart. David Susman (PhD), a blogger and advocate for better mental health states in response to the idea that patients may also be “chemically restrained” by being forcibly loaded up on strong sedative medications that nowadays ‘using medications in this fashion is explicitly prohibited. Patients may be provided medications against their will during a psychiatric emergency involving the risk of harm to self or others, but only on an as-needed basis to help them calm down. They should never be given large doses of sedatives on a regular basis just to control or subdue them.’Times have changed but nothing is perfect!

The eras of ‘One Flew Over’ in both its setting and when the film was made seem like distant times. If we were to critique the notion of Freedom v Captivity – then we must acknowledge that we have all since (NOW!) become patients in a global institute! Are we sane? Are governments insane or simply power-hungry? The power of language, twisted to suit political positions, holds us, hostage, with the threat of persecution and even imprisonment should it be used in a non-authorised way. We are a society obsessed with sex but in some ways dominated by Feminism and other political speech-codes. Democracy (as in ‘One Flew Over’) only seems to suit those in charge. Will we need to find inner and outer courage (as with the Chief) to free ourselves in coming years? Who of us will have the strength to fly over the nest?

The title of the film comes from a nursery rhyme read to the Chief as a child by his grandmother (mentioned in the book):

“Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,

Apple seed and apple thorn,

Wire, briar, limber lock

Three geese in a flock

One flew East

One flew West

And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest”

Reviewed by Tim Bragg

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Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)

Likely to offend?

Director: Terry Jones

Writers: Graham Chapman, John Cleese

Stars: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin

Runtime: 1h 34min

“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy”.Forty-two years ago, the Monty Python team released their most controversial film, Life of Brian. The opposition to it from conservative religious groups was so strong, the film was banned in the Irish Republic and Norway and in many British cities. TV personality Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the then Bishop of Southwark, appeared on television opposite John Cleese to denounce the film as ‘tenth-rate’ and blasphemous. They predicted that it would soon be forgotten.

In retrospect, a lot of this opposition was misplaced. This was not an attack on the person of Christ or on Christianity; the team decided early on that they would not target Jesus but set their film in the tumultuous time of his birth, first century Judea under brutal Roman occupation. My own church in Belfast has even shown it in our regular monthly film club.

The film stands up well more than four decades after its release. It’s quite possible that it could be the subject of bans or cancellation if it were to be released today; attacked not by the conservative religious right for blasphemy but by the regressive faux-left for the modern secular equivalents of blasphemy; ableism, transphobia, and mocking people with speech defects. The scene where Stan (Eric Idle) wants to become a woman called Loretta and have babies causing the PFJ members to debate supporting his/her right to have babies is a classic. Today, I can imagine trigger warnings on the BBC if it were to be screened again on a mainstream channel.

That said, the film is still screamingly funny. It tells the story of Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman); a hen-pecked mummy’s boy who tries to join an anti-Roman political group. After escaping from captivity when an attack on the Roman occupiers is botched, he is mistaken for the Messiah and followed by adoring crowds who hang on his every word.Much of the satire deals with how religious and political factions can emerge and religious and political sectarianism can grow. Brian drops his gourd and loses a sandal; his disciples divide into gourdists and sandalists. Then there’s the bitter rivalry between the Judean People’s Front and Reg’s (John Cleese) People’s Front of Judea. “the only people we hate more than the Romans are the fucking Judean People’s Front.” The ‘splitters’. When Brian is arrested, the PFJ goes into immediate debates and discussions. When he’s crucified, they march determinedly towards his cross… and then read out a statement to him in solidarity with his sacrifice.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian may not really say much about first-century Judea but it still has a lot to be said about twenty-first century Britain. Brian is not the Messiah; he’s a naughty, naughty boy. Watch it while you still can. And remember, always look on the bright side of life.

Reviewed by David Kerr

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Apostasy (2017)

1h 35min

Director: Daniel Kokotajlo

Writer: Daniel Kokotajlo (as Dan Kokotajlo)

Stars: Siobhan Finneran, Robert Emms, Bronwyn James

This is the story of a family being torn apart as the strictures of their religion conflict with the realities of both illness and the modern world. The story focuses on three women – a mother and two young adult daughters – whose ties to the group create conflict in their relationships with each other.The younger daughter Alex (Molly Wright) is anemic. She has been conditioned to feel guilt and shame because she received a blood transfusion as a baby. This is at odds with the teaching of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) to which she and her family belong. Her older daughter, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson), is beginning to question their belief system and rebel. When she becomes pregnant after a relationship with a non-Witness and he fails to convert and marry, she is excluded from the group. one of The requirements of disfellowshipping means that family members who remain Witnesses cannot have any significant contact so her mother Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran) forces Luisa to leave home. Ivanna is faced with a choice between her faith and her family. The Church expects her to “shun” her own daughter and effectively isolate her from her family and former community. The mother, Ivanna ((Siobhan Finneran), is conflicted but generally sides with her faith and obedience to the authority of the ‘Elders’. She is, perhaps, the character you feel saddest for. My mind called out for her to see sense and put her daughters before her unreasoned faith.

It’s a bleak story, matched by a grim northern setting, which is often difficult to watch. There are lighter moments and there are also moments that show the attractive side of the fellowship of the JW. I enjoyed the JW speaking Urdu and trying to recruit Pakistanis on the doorstep (and wow you have to admire their commitment to learning Urdu!) and the party scene of JWs showed a different, more attractive side to them.I found it difficult to feel much sympathy for the teachings of the JW as opposed to the adherents/victims. The film depicts them as hostile to independent thought. Speaking to Screen International, the Director explained, “I was harbouring doubts since I went to college. I realised that people at college were interested in your opinion. That was a new concept to me because being a Witness it was always about reaffirming the text, group-think, it wasn’t about encouraging independent thought.” I also found their practices similar to other cults. Disfellowship is very similar to the Scientolgist view of how to behave toward “suppressive persons”, for example.This, low-budget film is well-written and has terrific performances, particularly from the female leads. Yes, it deals with a traumatic and difficult subject but it does so in a sensitive and thought-provoking way.

If there is an underlying message to the film I think it is to take great care in adopting a worldview, value-system or ideology.

Reviewed by Patrick Harrington

Authours note: A much longer discussion took place in our Counter Culture Film Club so if I’ve stolen anyone’s ideas from there just remember that the Magpie likes shiny objects and I like good ideas!

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Better than the Beatles!

I began writing my latest novel Better than the Beatles! in early 2016, but its real beginnings were around the turn of the millennium when I purchased a book called Raw Vision, a large coffee table style tome that was essentially a compendium of articles and photographs from the magazine of the same name, a magazine that was, and is, dedicated to the subject of Outsider Art Welcome to Raw Vision Magazine | Raw Vision Magazine.

There is no fully accepted definition of Outsider Art, but the attempt by the man who first identified it as a distinct entity, the French artist and collector Jean Dubuffet, is perhaps as good as any:  

We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part... These artists derive everything from their own depths, and not from the conventions of classical or fashionable art.”

 Originally, Dubuffet used the term Art Brut to denote his newly patented genre. It was the English art critic and writer Roger Cardinal who renamed it as Outsider Art in his book of the same name: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Outsider-Art-RogerCardinal/dp/0289701686/

Through my reading of Raw Vision, of Cardinal and other sources, I discovered the collection of loners and misfits who made up the Outsider Art cannon, if there can ever really be such a thing, including such marginal luminaries as Adolf Wolfli, Henry Drager, Madge Gill, and Sabato Rodeo

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outsider_art.

Although Outsider Art would become an enduring interest, it was my discovery that this primarily visual art had spawned the sonic off-shoot of Outsider Music that led me to immerse myself in a whole new world of creative exploration.

It was the American Disc Jockey and writer Irwin Chusid who adopted the phrase ‘Outsider Music’ and publicised it as a distinct genre in his book ‘Songs in the Key of Z’, which was followed by an accompanying two volumes of illustrative C. D’s.

I am not without my criticisms of Chusid. For me, it was a mistake to incorporate into his book and C.D. collection such artists as Syd Barrett, Scott Walker, and Captain Beefhart, artists whom, whilst occupying a space well beyond the musical mainstream, were too well known to be classed as true outsiders. He also included material that I regard as revealing a knowing ‘so bad it’s good’ attitude that I found rather patronising. For instance, a recording of an old man suffering from dementia singing fragments of songs hazily remembered from his youth may be either sad or sweet, but it is not particularly musically interesting, and is therefore not, in my opinion, Outsider Music.

Nevertheless, it is primarily Chusid whom I must thank for my discovery of the work of the likes of Jandek, the Shaggs, and Daniel Johnston, artists who have continued to fascinate and inspire me to the present day. The first and last named of this trio have had great, niche films made about them, both of which are well worth checking out https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jandek-Corwood-DVD-Byron-Coley/dp/B0006FGHDS/

Although a work of fiction, the movie ‘Frank’, written by Jon Ronson and based (loosely) on a combination of the stories of papier-mâché headed Mancunion outsider Frank Sidebottom and the bizarre story of the making of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band’s weird classic Trout Mask Replica, also gives a great feel of the nature of Outsider Music  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Frank-DVD-Michael-Fassbender/dp/B00NIPIIQM/

It was however the story of The Shaggs which had the most impact upon me, and which was the catalyst for the writing of Better than the Beatles!

The Shaggs was the family name of the three sisters who initially made up the band, Dot and Betty on guitars and Helen on drums, with a fourth sister, Rachel later joining them on bass for live performances. The band were founded in 1968 in their hometown of Freemont, New Hampshire, and were set on their musical path by their father Austin Shaggs. He claimed to have done this in response to a premonition by his late mother, who had apparently correctly predicted the hair colour of the woman he would marry, and more interestingly, that the couple would have three daughters who would go on to attain musical stardom.

In response to this prediction, he took the then teenage girls out of school, bought them instruments, paid for singing lessons and encouraged them to write songs. In 1969, he paid privately for recording studio time, and for the pressing of 1000 copies of the resultant album, an album which was named Philosophy of the World after one of its best loved tracks on the album. Allegedly, the man responsible for pressing the album absconded with 900 of the 1000 copies of the album, and it’s been suggested that he, whether as a form of artistic criticism, through shame at his involvement in such a project, or for more prosaic reasons, simply dumped them. This left around 100 copies to be distributed, mostly locally and for free, by Pappa Austin.

The music of The Shaggs is perhaps best described as the sonic equivalent of a naïve-primitive painting. The ten songs on the album are conventional in structure, but are written and performed in a manner that suggests that they have been produced by ‘musicians’ who have only recently been introduced, and in a very quick and basic fashion at that, to the rudiments of melody, harmony and rhythm. In addition, the lyrics, about such topics as fidelity to one’s parents, self-acceptance, the joys of pet ownership and much else besides, have a charming, child-like quality that is a perfect accompaniment to the music.

Whilst recording their album, the producer of Philosophy of the World is said to have suggested that Austin allow his daughters more time to hone their musical and vocal skills before letting them loose in a recording studio. Austin’s response, which has gone on to become a part of Shaggs folk-lore, was to say that he wanted to catch them ‘whilst they are hot.’

Philosophy of the World would have disappeared without trace had a copy not somehow found its way into the hands of legendary muso Frank Zappa who played a couple of tracks, and professed his love for the album, whilst appearing as a guest on a radio show presented by a DJ by the name of Dr Demento in the early ‘70’s. From there, its reputation grew by word of mouth amongst lovers of left-field music, until it was eventually re-released by Rounder Records in 1980.

It should be noted here that it is Zappa who is often erroneously credited with ironically describing The Shaggs as ‘Better than the Beatles,’ the phrase that I used as the title of my novel. In fact, the phrase originally came from the headline for a Rolling Stone magazine review of the re-released album by iconic music journalist Lester Bangs.

The album was given a further boost in the 1990’s when Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain placed it no. 5 in his list of his all-time favourite albums. This helped it to gain a CD release by RCA Victor in 1999. Its popularity/notoriety was also greatly aided by the growth of the Internet.

Initially, and until quite late on in the writing process, my novel was called triplets, which is also the name of the Shaggs-like band in the book, as well as of their sole recorded album. In addition, when I began writing the novel, I took the decision to transfer the action from small town America to the North West of England, and the time of the band’s slim recorded output from the late ‘60’s to the late ‘70’s. ‘Write what you know’ they say, and this approach also had the advantage of allowing me to work a potted history of British rock music into the narrative, from fifties rock ‘n’ roll, through Merseybeat, psychedelia, and onwards to punk/Mew Wave and the mostly localised Lo Fi ‘cassette culture’ which emerged from it MESSTHETICS: U.K. DIY/postpunk 1977-84, Hyped to Death (hyped2death.com).

Much of this was done through the character of the father Sam Curtis who, in the manner of many 1950’s British rock ‘n’ roll hopefuls, was gifted a new, larger than life name by representatives of noted show business impresario Larry Parnes, in this case Sam Singer (see real-life examples such as Billy Fury, Marty Wilde, Vince Eager, Duffy Power et al) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Parnes

 In the true story of the Shaggs, the father Austin Shagg was a key player. By all accounts, in particular by the accounts of his children, he appears to have been a driven, pushy and authoritarian figure in the manner of music biz dad’s such as Joe Jackson of the Jackson family and Murray Wilson of the Beach Boys’ Wilson clan. It’s probably no accident that the Shaggs disbanded as a band (despite some latter-day reunions once Philosophy of the World belatedly found its fan-base) in 1975, immediately following the death of their father. In my novel, Sam Curtis/Singer plays an equally key role in the story, although I did try to make him a touch more likeable and sympathetic than his real-world counterpart.

In my previous novel, Special, I drew on my twenty five years of experience as a social care worker in order to tell the story of a fictional woman with a learning disability. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Special-Anthony-C-Green/dp/1788033442/  In writing Better than the Beatles! I again decided to make use of this experience, by incorporating into the narrative the suggestion that the triplets have a form of high functioning autism. Although I have never seen it explicitly stated that this was also the case with the real-life Shagg sisters, my reading and observation of their public comments, their music and lyrics, and the testimony of those who worked with them suggest that this is not entirely out of the question.

Speaking of lyrics, as something of an ‘outsider’ singer/songwriter myself, although I’m not sure that one can be knowingly such, one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing the novel was my writing of excerpts of triplets songs in the naïve style of the Shaggs themselves. At one point I even considered writing these songs in full, and then seeking to find three suitable females to record them with, or perhaps one suitable female to sing each vocal in, to use a phrase that re-occurs throughout the novel, ‘near-unison’. In the end however, I decided that some things are best left to the imagination….

 I won’t give away any more of the plot. In my opinion Better than the Beatles! In my opinion, it is by far my best novel to date, a novel that I enjoyed writing very much, such that I felt a distinct sense of loss when I finally decided that it was finished. It’s a novel that I’m proud to have written, and I only hope it will find a readership. Hopefully, I won’t have to wait as long as the Shaggs for it to do so.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shaggs

Anthony C Green, January 2021  

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Review: Leeds – United!

Henry Falconer reviews Leeds – United! a BBC Play FOR To-DAY (1974) available on YouTube

Nothing to do with the Football team of that name, this is a film based on an unofficial strike of Leeds female garment workers in January-February 1970. Directed by Colin Welland, already well-known for his acting role in Z Czars and soon to win an Academy Award for his screenplay for Chariots of Fire, and with a leading role for Lynne Perrie (Ivy Tilsley in Coronation Street), it is a brilliant portrayal of working- class life, living conditions and industrial relations in what now seems a bygone era. Being filmed in black and white gives it an added air of authenticity.

The plot involves a three-way struggle between the employers, the official Trade Union leadership and the employees in the Leeds garment industry. The industry itself was fragmented. A few firms, most prominently John Black`s, employed 100 or more workers. Others employed only a handful, with the owner and employees working side-by-side. The exclusively male Union bosses had in the previous year negotiated a deal with the employers which gave an increase of 5d per hour to male workers but only 4d for females. The case for equal pay had been made forcefully two years earlier in a 3 week strike of Ford Dagenham workers; this clearly served as a stimulus for what was about to happen in Leeds. A meeting of John Black`s workers elected an Unofficial Strike Committee demanding an immediate increase of a shilling an hour across the board under the slogan “gi` us a bob”. Its elected leader was one Harry Gridley, a member of the Communist Party (C.P.). The women marched around Leeds calling on workers in other workplaces to join them in the interests of solidarity. Nearly all did so, and a mass meeting was called in Leeds Town Hall with an atmosphere similar to that of the recent Civil Rights protests in the U.S.A., singing “We Shall Not Be Moved”. The Union leadership, fearing that it was losing control, refused to support the strike. Harry Gridley, true to the C.P.`s tradition of insisting that it should be in control, attempted manipulate the strikers into negotiating with the employers through official Union channels (“trying to ride two horses with only one arse”, as one of the unofficial strike leaders colourfully put it). By the fourth week the strikers, without Union backing and therefore receiving no strike pay and running out of funds, began to drift back to work. However the Equal Pay Act, passed later in 1970 and due to come into effect in 1975, perhaps gave them some satisfaction.

Viewed from the perspective of 2021, Leeds United is a piece of social history. By 1970 the textile mills in the surrounding towns in West Yorkshire and across the Pennines in East Lancashire were employing large numbers of immigrants, mainly from Pakistan. Towns such as Bradford, Huddersfield, Halifax, Dewsbury in West Yorkshire and Rochdale, Oldham, Burnley and Bolton in East Lancashire were already feeling the political effects (in the 1972 Rochdale by-election one Jim Merrick, a Bradford-based candidate for the British Campaign to Stop Immigration received 8.9% of the vote). Yet the workforce in the Leeds strike was exclusively white. Few if any of the strikers could have foreseen what lay ahead. A moving moment in the film was the pride of a young worker telling her mother that she had acquired “a skill for life”. Little did she realise that only a few years down the line her work would have been outsourced to cheaper labour overseas and the “bob an hour” would be on “the dustheap of history”. Leeds-United stands as one of the last hurrahs of the organised manual white working class. The road to zero hours contracts lay ahead.

Director: Roy Battersby
Writer: Colin Welland
Stars: Lynne Perrie, Elizabeth Spriggs, Lori Wells, Bert Gaunt

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