Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Voltage that Shines

Last weekend I enjoyed two Sacred Monsters. What is a Sacred Monster? Well it comes from the French phrase 'les monstres sacrés', and was originally used to describe particularly haughty matinee idols of a certain age but also applies to those trailblazing engines of genius who have given to the world through particularly powerful literature, art or music. Although it's hard to separate, I'm talking about them, rather than their work.

They are often difficult individuals, although of course they are entitled to be, and highly eccentric, but at the same time formidable, in the way that the village idiot or someone who is just a tad kooky is not. They are also, and this is an important qualification, Life Enhancers; they can light up a room (or bring it crashing down) but are often prone to drink and drugs, meaning that the voltage that shines is often at the detriment of themselves. But they have panache: a great sense of fun, and a style all their own.

As Francis Bacon said 90% of people are passive, docile, inactive: waiting to be entertained. What we are talking about is the remaining 10%, of which Francis was definitely part. (I should mention I can believe the 90/10 split applying in heady 1950's Soho; in London 2008 I would put it at more like 98/2).

Anyway, such thoughts were stirred by the Curzon Soho screening two Arena documentaries from the 80's, introduced by series editor Anthony Wall, of Jean Genet and William Burroughs. Genet was first up, coaxed out of Moroccan seclusion with a large fee and a plane ticket. I gather it was a massive coup gaining Genet's agreement, and the arena film may be the only television interview he did. The interview took place in the suburban London house of one of the production crew, and started off on reasonable terms. Genet seemed mildly amused by the camera crew, the lights and the earnest questioning; he was playfully, but cruelly, taking the piss out of Nigel Williams' french language skills, particularly when 'la Mort' got confused with 'L'amore' (mind you that's quite a Genet moment in itself). Genet wasn't giving anything away in isolation but Nigel prodded Genet's memory bank for stories and Genet spoke movingly of younger times spent in the shadow of reform school and prison. But Genet was bristling in his chair like a harpooned alley-cat and it was only a matter of time before the interview took a sinister turn and, sure enough, by the last ten minutes, Genet had turned against his interrogators with the resentments of the teen thief he once was.

Then it was time for Burroughs. Utterly conservative, highly controlled, middle class middle-American in a sober suit. It is well-known that the man who wrote Naked Lunch looked like a financial adviser but the respectable veneer hid a man possessed by demons, who could never fully escape the spectre of drugs, or his paranoia of a controlling state. There are some lovely moments in the Burroughs film. Burroughs travels back to his birthplace St. Louis and his brother Mort reveals how he found Naked Lunch unreadable and 'kind of disgusting', and Burroughs looks to the sky in a sort of 'oh well, you can't have everything' resignation, fighting back the tears. He also, in discussing the infamous 'William Tell' stunt that shot Joan Burroughs dead, spoke of the dark malevolent spirit that he felt was attached to him, a spirit that occasionally claimed him, but then Burroughs stole himself perhaps sensing he had revealed too much. There were some hilarious moments too, like the famous 'Dr Benway Operates' routine and Burroughs as high as a kite drunkenly singing Danny Boy at the dinner table. We also saw him showing off his vast array of weaponry in his Bowery 'bunker' railing against infringement from potential intruders with such spirited strength that you felt a sudden twinge of concern for the local cat-burglar.

They do a Q and A after these screenings, but unfortunately Nigel Williams, interrogator of Genet, was stuck in South London traffic and couldn't join the discussion, but I'd happily watch it again if he could be available to talk about it. We were however blessed with the company of Barry Miles, chronicler of beat culture and author of biographies on Burroughs, Ginsberg and a brilliant study of the Beat Hotel. Barry happily shared his memories of Burroughs with us and coloured and qualified a good deal of what was in the film (for example James Grauerholtz, Burroughs' long standing assistant does not come across at all well in the documentary but Barry confirmed he was misrepresented). Crazy G and I had an enjoyable chat with Barry in the bar afterwards about the film and the poet Jeremy Reed, and Barry was happy to sign the hardbacks I'd bought with me (I've been enjoying his books for years so it was a pleasure to meet him).

My late mentor Dan Farson clinched the Sacred Monster in one of many musings on the theme: "Sacred Monsters have that extra force or brightness. They are special people - to the advantage of ourselves." Above I've pasted Giacometti's portrait of Jean Genet which seems to sum up that special extra force or brightness: the picture seems to me to be of a firecracker going off in an empty room. These films showed that Burroughs and Genet had that brightness in spades.