Fathers, sons, and requiems

In 1984, my dad took me and my sister to see Amadeus at the cinema. We would go to see a movie, usually something from the Disney catalogue of animated features, as a family once a year, but this wasn’t part of the annual ritual. My dad was an avid hobby musician and he loved Mozart’s music, so he wanted to see the film with his children. I was nine at the time, and I’m sure my dad didn’t expect the mature themes or the scatology. I don’t really remember seeing any other films just with my dad when I was a kid, rather than with my mum or both my parents, but Amadeus stayed with me. As a pretentious little nine-year-old, I loved it – less so for Mozart’s impish, infantile irreverence than for the drama and the dark humour. Or perhaps that’s me projecting into my younger self, 38 years after the fact.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #77: Kasabian’s Club Foot (2004)

On the surface, Kasabian’s Club Foot is a macho song: “One, take control of me? – you’re messing with the enemy.” And there is, after the ominous intro, that one-two rattled beat making sure you are paying attention despite yourself. It’s the best use of a bass guitar outside of the Beastie Boys’ Sabotage. Yes, it’s possible to love or hate a pop song just because of the pace of its rhythm. The song steps straight on, not paying any attention to the left or the right. It’s wearing silver-studded boots, leaving messy prints behind. There is sweaty leather and unwashed hair in that little tune. The title is a red herring if there ever was one: someone is stepping large, seemingly able-bodied, sartorial and not giving a frigging fuck. In your face, Tony Manero. Club Foot is as subtle as a viking attack.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #74: San Francesco was a hippie!

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

The spiritual motorcycle journey to San Francisco described in last week‘s post reminded me of another spiritual journey by the man who had lent his name to the City by the Bay: Saint Francis of Assisi. And I was especially struck again by the one film that made an indelible connection between the medieval saint‘s life and the hippie lifestyle that originated in San Francisco: Brother Sun and Sister Moon (1972).

Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who had not made a film by this point since his stunning success of the gorgeous Romeo and Juliet in 1968, the film stars Graham Faulkner as Francesco. Traumatised by war, he first spends days suffering nightmares in his native Assisi. After several inspirations of faith and nature, Francesco famously gives all possessions including his name to his rich parents and walks away from Assisi naked to find his spiritual destiny, rebuilding a church, founding a community of believers and being received and surprisingly honoured by Pope Innocent III (Alec Guinness’ early practice for the Obi Wan Kenobi role a few years later).

Photographed in Zeffirelli’s signature style (Director of Photography Ennio Guarnieri also lensed several Fellini movies), every image looks taken out of a glossy magazine, with an array of memorable faces in combination with Umbria’s natural beauty. Beside Faulkner and Guinness, the film stars Judi Bowker (Clash of the Titans), Leigh Lawson (Tess), Valentina Cortese (Day for Night) and Kenneth Cranham (Layer Cake).

Despite its medieval background, this makes it look much less like a faithful biopic or historical drama than a thinly veiled allegory on the supposed first hippie. Refusing worldly possessions, peacefully demonstrating against the authorities, starting a new life in a countryside commune and building a new spiritual basis had more than a handful of echos within the world the film was produced and released. In Zeffirelli’s view, Saint Francis was shown as the spiritual father of the flower power movement, so to speak, with hippie singer/songwriter Donovan providing the tunes underneath the magical transformation.

Reviews were not particularly kind at the time of the film’s release (Roger Ebert called it “an excess of sweetness and light”), but as often happens, the film has garnered appreciation and a cult status over the years, and many see it as a perfect companion piece to Romeo and Juliet (possibly even a trilogy with Taming of the Shrew) before the director’s journeys into more historical fiction (TV’s Jesus of Nazareth, Tea with Mussolini), Shakespeare (Hamlet starring Mel Gibson, Otello at the opera) and odd ventures into Hollywood mediocrity (The Champ, Endless Love). Later in his life, Zeffirelli became famous for his countless opera productions before infamously ending his illustrious career for a senate seat in Berlusconi’s right-wing populist party and never publicly coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Long gone by then were the pure if at times simplistic convictions he portrayed about San Francesco’s early modern hippie life that makes the innocent beauty of Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna.

* On a strange side note, the highly popular Donovan songs were never released at the time and the Italian soundtrack album only featured composer Riz Ortolani’s instrumental score and the Italian title song. It was in 2004, finally, that Donovan re-recorded all his original songs for an iTunes release, much to the delight of the film’s fan following.

Six Damn Fine Degrees #73: Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Philosophy? Honestly? Old dudes with beards? Nope, not for me. That was, until I picked up a German soft-cover edition of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). The cover looked good, promising some sort of roadside adventure, the blurb sounded intriguing. Pretty far away from dull old philosophical babbling, I thought.

The book is about Pirsig’s travels by motorcycle with his son Chris. It took me long to realise that the other alter ego in the book, undergoing electroconvulsive therapy because of his schizophrenia, was of course also Pirsig himself. There are some philosophical moments in the book, but by and large, we are witness to the road trip and to Pirsig’s mental illness.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #68: The trouble with Sci-Fi

To quote Harrison Ford: it took me a long, long, long, long, LONG time to warm up to sci-fi.

You travel through space and time and end up with what is supposed to be an exciting new planet with an unknown species – played by clearly human actors standing around in what looks like – oh, I dunno, the Moroccan desert? Yes, I know, there is a limit to every budget, but sci-fi has such promise to dazzle me with something I have never ever seen before, only to disappoint me with the constraints of movie-making and its financial limits. If you want me to follow you to a place where no man has gone before, make sure the make-up department isn’t already there before us, setting up their trailer. Needless to say, I was never a Trekkie and never understood the exuberance of the operatic derring-do of something like Star Wars. To me, A New Hope looked like fun, but it was essentially a western set in space. It was all too familiar because most things and places and beings looked… too close to home. Not strange enough.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #67: Galaxy Quest 

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

In a galaxy far, far, far away, a peaceful and slightly naïve alien cephalopod community is under attack by a cruel imperialist army of crustaceous insect people. Their response is to utilise what they take to be documentary footage of a spaceship, peopled by a human crew, which can evidently protect its inhabitants and travel throughout the universe. From these “historical documents” they replicate this spaceship including all of its technology, regardless of whether they completely understand its exact use, and use it to flee their aggressors. When the threat becomes ever more extreme and their numbers dwindle, they decide on a radical plan. They will find the original crew of the human-populated spaceship from the actual historical documentation, and plead for their help.

Unfortunately, the “historical documents” turn out to be a cheesy TV show from planet earth called Galaxy Quest, its plywood spaceship peopled by actors rather than a bold crew of explorers.

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Rubberband… love? Licorice Pizza (2021)

Acolytes of PTA beware: there be spoilers.

There is a barely hidden secret at the heart of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, and it’s just behind the fig-leaf of that tender coming-of-age love story, as whacky as it may be, that we are supposed to take as the main story. It’s that both Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffmann) know pretty well what they want to do with their lives. That might come to us as a surprise, and to them as well, and their next few months are not without pitfalls and mayor changes, but for all their uncertainty, they have their plans and ideas. And if that includes their gravitating towards each other, then yay, all the better.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #62: The Cat’s Meow

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Peter Bogdanovich is probably best known for his early films such as The Last Picture Show or Paper Moon, although to a modern audience his face might be most recognizable as Dr. Elliot Kupferberg, the psychiatrist’s psychiatrist in The Sopranos. For all his many accomplishments I am perhaps most fond of his interviews. Books such as Who the Devil Made It or Who the Hell’s in It. His epic three-hour interview with Orson Welles, or the wistful Directed by John Ford. Bogdanovich was not just a filmmaker, he was a lover of movie culture and – notably – of movie lore.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #60: My daughter, the Marvel fan

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

I would have liked to dazzle you with a cool origin story, but I can’t remember how and when my favourite daughter found her love for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I am pretty sure she saw the first few movies in chronological sequence at home on BluRay, too young to have seen then in the theatres, so Tony Stark, Cap and the Hulk came to her at home, and it was probably the first Avengers movie that she saw in an upholstered seat, ticket in hand, with a bag of popcorn, on the big silver screen. But she was hooked long before that.

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Six Damn Fine Degrees #57: Naked (1993)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

“It is important to set up for the audience the worst possible picture of this guy.”

This is how Mike Leigh describes the pre-credit scene, the very first moments in his film, and the very first glimpse we get of Johnny, its protagonist. We see him from behind, committing what is, or certainly turns into, a rape. Then he runs off, steals a car, and while he is underway over the almost empty highway to London, the credits roll.

Charming bloke, this Johnny…

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