Tuesday 16 July 2019

John Baxter's Adventures in the Movie Trade (1) - An Aussie on the Venice Lido, August 1971

The Lido di Venezia, that former sandbank which for centuries has sheltered Venice from the worst surges of the Adriatic, is now so built up with hotels and villas, tennis courts and promenades that its lush plantings and stone walls constitute, like so much else in Venice, a kind of fashion statement. It’s a doormat on the city’s front step, tinted, appropriately, in the ochre and green of Gucci. Where better, then, to hold the annual Mostra del Cinema, aka the Venice Film Festival?  

Epicenter of the event is the Palazzo del Cinema (left), a slab of Mussolini Modern in grey/white marble which can’t help reminding visitors of something the organizers would prefer to forget - that the world’s oldest film festival was launched by Il Duce for the greater glory of Fascism. 

Not that politics was on the mind of the journalists assembled in the bar of the Hotel Excelsior, a little further up the island, in August 1971. Over inky espressos, each slurp delivering a caffeine hit as potent as CPR, we were debating how most fittingly to put John Ford, an elite guest of that year’s festival, in the ground. 

John Ford
In point of fact, he wasn’t dead. But from the glimpses we’d caught of him, hunched in a wheelchair, one eye obscured by a patch, he looked unlikely to last the week. To arrange a funeral in the style so often celebrated in his films was no more than courteous. 

A lanky Nebraskan had already been selected as the only suitable person to stand by the grave, sweep off his Stetson a la Duke Wayne, place it over his heart, look skywards and say, “Sir, we commend to your keeping the soul of John Martin Feeney, known to all present as John Ford.” After that, we debated who could play the harmonica well enough to provide a mournful musical accompaniment, and which tune would be more appropriate, Red River Valley or Taps.

Even as we plotted his funeral, however, Ford was showing unexpected signs of life. Electing to conduct his first interview from bed, he’d mortified the journalist by throwing off the covers to reveal he wore nothing below the waist. Ambling bare-assed across the room, he then pissed in the sink.  

Then news arrived of an incident while he was being transferred to a vaporetto  water taxi for the trip across the lagoon to the Lido. A festival functionary, fearing rough water, placed something in his lap. Ford glared at the object, rose shakily to his feet and roared in Cyclopean fury, “An officer whose last rank in the US Navy was Rear Admiral – and you offer him a barf bag?!”  

None of what was taking place around me felt entirely real. Six months ago, I’d been holding down a dull job at the Commonwealth Film Unit in Sydney. Deciding I could do better than composing press releases about films on the diseases of sheep, I wrote on CFU stationery to every European film festival, informing them of my imminent arrival on a fact-finding tour, and asking what they could offer in the way of hospitality.      Some never responded.  Others in Ireland and Finland, keen to justify their label “international,” invited me to serve on their juries.  None offered to pay my fare, but a few guaranteed room and board, providing I got there under my own steam.  The most prestigious of these was Venice.  

Through the spring and early summer, my companion Monica and I scraped together enough money to buy a battered VW and a tent. In July, we took the ferry to Calais, and started to experience Europe from the underside; camp-sites, not hotels; coffee, beer, bread and cheese rather than haute cuisine. We learned to recognize those cafés which, for the price of a cappuccino, would let us sponge off the worst of the sweat and grime in their washrooms.  

Occasionally we caught a movie. In Australia, a night at “the pictures” was a rite, celebrated in purpose-built Palaces, Plazas and Boomerangs. The cities of France, Germany and Italy still had such places, but once you left the bright lights behind, film-going had as much sense of occasion as a trip to the supermarket.  

Invariably dubbed into the local language, a movie might be projected in the town square or on a white wall in the cement-floored yard behind a bar. You sat on stackable chairs, and naturally  you took your beer with you. Frequent breaks, usually in mid-scene, permitted toilet visits, and the purchase of more beer. 

Cinema here was just another thread in the fabric of daily life; not  Cinema as Event but Cinema as Staple. Which did I prefer? Swept along by a Belgian horror movie already incomprehensible before being dubbed into Italian, I no longer cared. Lush dark female vampires threw off their clothes and sank their fangs into chill Nordic virgins.  In Australia, the mere glimpse of a nipple had the censor reaching for his scissors. Here, the locals just nudged one another and took another gulp of Stella Artois.  

Arriving outside Venice, we shook the wrinkles from our best clothes and took the car ferry to the Lido. The suave functionaries in the festival office weren’t fooled, but they were tolerant, barely smirking as they handed over the vouchers that gave us two weeks’ board and lodging. 

The elite stayed in hotels. We were allocated a pensione. It turned out to be the run-down mansion of a languid ex-actress, forced to rent the bedrooms where, she hinted broadly, stars had once vied for her body. 

About twenty metres from the bottom of her overgrown garden was one of the open-air cinemas to which we’d become accustomed. It shouldn’t trouble us, she said, casually closing the shutters; screenings seldom went later than 1am.  Fortunately, its sound system was too feeble to register as more than a mumble, but this just made the looming screen images that much more omnipresent. Posses of riders, ominously silent, stampeded through our dreams, and giant lovers - the phantoms of our landlady’s suitors? - murmured inaudible endearments. 

Johnnie Ray
Getting in with the other journalists proved easier than expected. Screenwriter John Gregory Dunne once summarized film industry chat as “all context, shared references, and coded knowledge of the private idiosyncrasies of very public people.” Newbies were welcome so long as they could contribute to the conversation.  Fortunately, I’d used my time in England to catch up on the latest scandals.  Better still, I could sweeten the pot with stories of bad behaviour by Hollywood personalities visiting Australia, news of which, they were convinced, would never get back to the real world.  After I’d described Johnnie Ray, now-forgotten singer of the lachrymose hit Cry, roaming the corridors of his hotel in the small hours, high on cocaine and dressed like Mrs. Bates in Psycho, my membership was assured.  

Monica found most of this group too movie-obsessed, but discovered a kindred soul in John Coleman, long-time film critic of the New Statesman.
       “I think I reviewed one of your books,” John said when we first met. 
        “You did,” I replied. ‘You said ‘Baxter’s book surfs on a wave of clichés.’ ” 
        “Did I really?” he said, unfazed. “Let me top up your glass.”  

John Coleman 
John was far too urbane and charming to dislike for long.  We sat in the gardens around the casino, watching his cigar smoke rising into the soft evening air, and listening to his stories of how, as a young man, he’d lived in Paris, supporting himself by writing pornographic novels for Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press.   I could only think of James Thurber’s description of working on the Riviera edition of the Chicago Tribune during 1925/6. “Nice, in that indolent winter, was full of knaves and rascals, adventurers and imposters,pochards and indiscrets, whose ingenious exploits, sometimes in full masquerade costume, sometimes in the nude, were easy and pleasant to report.”  

John never met a malt he didn’t like. Scotch was his downfall – literally. One night, we arrived at the casino to see him poised unsteadily at the top of its wide stone steps. Slowly, majestically, he toppled, tumbling down the first flight to come to rest on the landing, dusty, but, with the luck of the very drunk, unhurt.  

During our sessions at the Excelsior and in the Venice cafés, the Anglophones had time to size me up. On the last day, the tall guy from Nebraska who so effectively impersonated John Wayne, asked “Are you thinking of settling in London?”
        “Depends on whether I can find work,” I said.

He handed me a card.  “Maybe I could help you there.” 

I read it in disbelief. He was Ken Wlaschin, director of the London Film Festival and the National Film Theatre. 

Ken Wlaschin (l) with Roger Corman and Derek Malcolm
A BBC radio producer added his card. It turned out he ran Kaleidoscope, the prestigious nightly arts review programme.

Another American, better dressed than the rest, and with some vague connection to the US Embassy, also proposed a lunch once we returned to London.  A year later, when I found myself lecturing on American cinema in Bucharest, the Embassy’s Second Secretary,  over a bottle of the potent local slivovitz,  explained that my new friend’s title of Student Affairs Officer disguised his role as a CIA spook whose job it was to filter sympathetic academics into unsympathetic regimes such as that of Ceausescu. 

John Baxter is an Australian-born all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry  details the many books he has written which include the first  ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure." 

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