Tuesday 3 December 2019

John Baxter's Adventures in the Movie Trade (8) - Fowl Play in Academia and a passing mention of Barbara Steele

In the nineteen-seventies, I found myself Visiting Professor of Film and Theatre Arts at a small college in Virginia. Essentially Hollins was a finishing school for the daughters of the rich. The stepdaughter of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller took my classes, as did the daughter of the president of Standard Oil. It was considered ostentatious to run more than one car but permitted, though not obligatory, to also keep a horse. (Stables were available.)        

Chairman of the English department was an amiable Virginian named Richard Dillard. A widely published poet, he was also a cinephile, and admitted without shame to having worked on the script of the 1964 Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, selected in 2004 for The 50 Worst Movies Ever Made.

He called one of his poetry collections The Night I Stopped Dreaming About Barbara Steele. I mentioned this to the slinky star of Mask of the Demon and The Long Hair of Death, not to mention 
8 1/2,  when we met at Curtis Harrington’s Los Angeles home some time later. 

“Yes. He sent me a copy,” she pouted. “There’s hardly anything in it about me.”

At the same party, the actor Paul Sand told her “I was in Rome a while back. A friend said you lived in the apartment block next to him, and sometimes sunbathed on the roof. We went up with some binoculars, and there you were – wrapped up, I seem to remember, in something large and brown.”

Barbara Steele, Fellini's 8 1/2
Lowering her eyelashes, Steele said, with impeccable timing, “A man, I hope, dahling.” 

Every year, Hollins admitted a small group of male post-grads in a one-year MFA program. Among them during my tenure was Jon-Stephen Fink, a Los Angeles native with more street smarts than were good for him. His novels such as Storm in the Blood, Further Adventures, Long Pig etc. were still to come. While waiting, he lavished his creativity on becoming the campus cut-up. When Richard Adams, author of that epic of rabbitkind Watership Down, visited the college, Jon-Stephen and a companion greeted him at the airport in rabbit suits, he carrying a copy of Playboy, she a handbag full of carrots. 

Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins The Third Man
He also published a straight-faced parody of the college literary magazine devoted to the work of Holly Martins, the fictional pulp writer played by Joseph Cotten in The Third Man. Among the preoccupations Fink claimed to perceive in Martins’ The Lone Rider of Santa Fe, The Oklahoma Kid and Death at Double-X Ranch  were “lost innocence, conflict with the Self, the closing of the range, and the dangers of smoking loco-weed.”
In addition to his literature classes, Richard Dillard taught a cinema course, Film as Narrative Art, made up of his favourite Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini films. 

To each incoming class, he told the same story. A Peace Corps group in Africa, instructing some tribal people in the importance of mosquito eradication, screened a film on the subject, then asked for comments.

None were forthcoming. In fact, nobody could remember a single thing of interest.

Until a woman diffidently remarked, “There was a chicken.”

Lionel Stander, Cul de Sac
At this, there was instant agreement. Yes, of course! The chicken!.

Re-running the film, the visitors noticed that there was indeed, barely glimpsed in the background of a single shot, a chicken.

Extrapolating from this anecdote, Richard suggested that every film, be it ever so obscure, contained some sort of chicken, somewhere. He had located them in Lawrence of Arabia, even Citizen Kane.  Now it was up to his students to spot them in The Seventh Seal and 8 1/2.

It was, of course, a stratagem. Young women who might otherwise have drowsed through Vargtimmen leaned forward eagerly during even its most lethargic sequences, alert for an avian inclusion. When it appeared, they erupted in jubilation, to the astonishment of anyone unaware of the screening’s subtext. (Richard sometimes set as a final exam subject Roman Polanski’s Cul de Sac, which takes place entirely on a chicken farm.)

After graduation, Jon-Stephen re-located to Great Britain, where he launched his literary career in 1981 with Cluck! The True Story of Chickens in the Cinema. Various directors were invited to propose their favourite  appearances, which Jon-Stephen augmented with citations of everything from Tyrone Power biting the heads off live chickens in Nightmare Alley to Charlie Chaplin manifesting to Mack Swain as a giant rooster in The Gold Rush. He also introduced the concept of “subtle chicken”, exemplified by the chicken car race in Rebel Without a Cause or John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn in True Grit.  So impressed was John Landis with these scholarly efforts that he gave Fink a cameo in his admittedly cameo-riddled film Into the Night. Completists will spot him as Don, companion to Bruce McGill’s Elvis impersonator.* As for that film’s cockadoodle-do component, the game begins now, and any number can play.                              

*For true completists, this clip contains the relevant scene. 

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