The BFI’s Flipside imprint continues in its mission to explore the neglected and forgotten corners of cult British cinema and bring them to public attention with its series of duel format Blu-ray/DVD releases. This time the range presents us with a double bill that includes two very different but equally compelling and offbeat collaborative works by Joseph (Chuck) Despins and William Dumaresq, two Canadians who had already been living and working in London since the early sixties (Despins as an freelance editor for the BBC and Dumaresq as a poet/lyricist for “Hair” composer Galt MacDermot -- whose music also adorns both films) before they came together in 1971 for the first of their two independent film outings, the utterly off-the-wall “Duffer”.
Shooting without sound on grainy 16 mm film stock, Despin utilises an uncommon mixture of guerrilla-style hand-held location shooting, and a series of highly stylised, expressionistically lit vignettes filmed in Dumaresq’s own flat by cinematographer Jorge Guerra. (The writer also stars in the film and wrote the then-unpublished novel on which it is based). “Duffer” is the peculiar tale of a somnolent, drifting adolescent who exists on the edge of vagrancy in 1970s Notting Hill -- caught between the horns of two destructive pseudo-filial and abusive relationships. The film begins with the title character (played by non-actor and novice Kit Gleave) alone and lost with his own confused but stoic thoughts on the embankment near Hammersmith Bridge. Its action-caught-on-the-fly approach to much of its visual drama gives the film a certain documentary time capsule quality, presenting the historian of 1970s Britain with a gritty snapshot of streets that look either untouched by development since the height of the Blitz or which have been knocked down in preparation for that 1960s/1970s innovation, the Tower Block -- the surrounding concrete architecture fitfully ‘decorated’ in spray can graffiti (‘Dynamite Is Freedom’) and peeling, tatty posters.
The silent images play out to a post-dubbed soundtrack that presents the internal monologue of the ‘Duffer’ character and sometimes those of the two characters who represent the parent/lover relationships in the friendless boy’s life, their voices cutting in to argue or debate, or simply rant at the boy. Thus, no matter how ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’ the images on screen actually are, there is always some ambiguity as to the veracity of what we’re seeing. Perhaps the whole thing takes place inside Duffer’s head; or perhaps Duffer himself doesn’t really exist (something his internal voice contemplates as events spiral further into anxiety-dream territory later in the film) and he’s simply a figment of the imagination of the lonely girl periodically seen gazing at the boy from the bridge as he lolls by the waterside.
In any case, Duffer’s monologue tells us of his passive, submissive attitude to life and of the relationships he has with two very different but equally odd characters. The scariest and most threatening is with a violent, unpredictable, possibly schizophrenic sadist called Louis Jack (William Dumaresq, using the name James Roberts) who lives in a squalid, cramped flat full of discarded rubbish, and engages the pliant boy in an abusive sadomasochistic round of torture, suffocation, buggery and weirdo home-made porno films that involve Jack sucking on garden worms and spitting them onto Duffer’s naked body while he sleeps. The relationship is a complex one: Duffer submits to it willingly despite claiming not to enjoy the acts he is made to partake in; but he insists that Louis Jack is a great man nonetheless, despite his horrible compulsions, and repeatedly emphasis his own lack of importance in the grand scheme of things while repeating that the relationship only continues because of his complicit acceptance of his treatment. He sees the world as being full of unhappiness and failing relationships because of the conflicting requirements different people have in life; he therefore sees it has his duty to comply: ‘I could hardly deny someone a little pleasure at my expense now could I?’ he observes. He later claims to believe that ‘it would be cowardly to object to what he did to me,’ and affects satisfaction at the idea that, ‘he [Louis Jack] felt about me the way you feel about your dog. The least I could do was to obey his every whim.’
The contrast between Duffer’s tender monologue in praise of this monstrous abusive father figure and the catalogue of abuses the spluttering, babbling, uncontrollable psychotic inflicts upon the boy’s skinny adolescent frame, makes for a disturbingly ironic form of pitch black comedy. Even more unnervingly, Louis Jack’s own voice intrudes into the stream-of-consciousness mutterings of Duffer, growling out nonsense words and incoherent barks and ramblings on the soundtrack. Dumaresq, who plays the part of Louis Jack, has a pronounced resemblance (even down to the bouffant hair) to the late actor Jack Nance, who appeared in David Lynch’s “Eraserhead” in 1975; and the nightmarish sequences in “Duffer” that involve the Louis Jack character definitely anticipate something of the flavour of Lynch’s early work. Not only are they shot in similar pools of expressionistic light inside Jack’s cluttered shadowy flat, but the atmospheric contributions of Delia Deryshire of the BBC’’s Radiophonic Workshop (it is she who created the iconic, and still the best, electronic oscillation arrangement of Ron Grainer’s theme for “Doctor Who”) imbue the soundtrack with the sort of unsettling moog drones and electronic ambiences that are almost exactly the kind of thing found in Lynch’s own sound design for his film, several years later.
The difference is that the events of “Duffer” still appears to take place in the recognisable world of early seventies Britain, and Duffer has the fulsome ministrations of flouncy, feather-clad prostitute, Your Gracie (Erna May) to turn to whenever the abuses of Louis Jack get too much to bear. If Louis Jack is a monster of a father figure, Your Gracie is an equally suffocating maternal opposite, smothering her’ Duffer luv’ in fits of sexualised comfort based around bed and food. Duffer is equally as uneasy in the infantilising tea-&-jelly grip of Your Gracie as he is in the dark underworld or role-playing homosexual sadomasochism represented by Jack -- he flits between the two in a semi-dreamlike state. Unsettled by the mix of surrogate mother and sexual partner Your Gracie represents, he protests just a little too forcefully that he’d never wanted to have sex with his real mother, while the film’s images depict their clearly twisted mother-cum-son-cum-lover relationship.
The balance of power between these two never-meeting worlds begins to slide out of control when Louis Jack proclaims his intention of having a baby with young Duffer! This leads to disturbing forced sex between the boy and his demented partner (Duffer claiming that the ‘good’ thing about it is that at least it allows him to experience something of what Your Gracie must feel during sex) and a bizarre phantom pregnancy that makes Duffer doubt his own manhood. The film spirals off into a grotesque and horrific nightmare by this stage, Duffer’s confused, rambling monologue now claiming not to be able to tell the difference between waking and sleeping. The images we’re presented with, accordingly become a lot more equivocal, depicting several versions of events, but leaving us in little doubt that the worst scenario is likely to be the true one, and that Duffer is merely attempting to repress the horror of what is unfolding around him. The male pregnancy scenes are particularly strange, odd and uncanny – Duffer taking on a feminised sit-com housewife role, sitting knitting in an armchair in Jack’s chaotic flat while a somewhat happier Louis Jack dotes upon him, delighted with the role of expectant father. Jack’s voice appears on the soundtrack at this point, drearily reciting lengthy passages from “Dr Spock’s Baby and Childcare”!
With this odd mixture of social verisimilitude, surrealist nightmare grotesquery and whimsical music-hall pantomime, Despins and Dumaresq create something quite unique and unlike anything else you’re ever likely to see. Dumaresq’s musical collaborator Galt MacDermot creates wistful piano nocturnes and, occasionally, jaunty songs to contrast with the oppressive atmosphere and ominous foreboding encouraged by Derbyshire’s synthesiser effects elsewhere, providing a brief window of respite from the increasing derangement and violence of events on screen. The composer was to play another important role in the duo’s next project, produced by the BFI Production Board four years later. “The Moon Over the Alley” is as different to “Duffer” as both films are from anything else. After the claustrophobic nightmare vision of hazy, disordered minds depicted in their debut, this more conventionally shot film, a tribute to the diversity of life and experience in and around London’s Portobello Road and Notting Hill districts, is comparatively freewheeling and easy-going, although strains of darkness and alienation creep in during the final act, and the last wistful shot of the film signals the end of the vibrant community so delightfully delineated throughout it as we cut from a montage of the main street (in which most of the characters we’ve been following have lived) being demolished to leave an empty muddy space surrounded by barbed-wire. In the far distance, three slabs of looming Tower Block can be seen – a portent of the future.
“The Moon Over the Alley” is, once again, a perfect glimpse back into the past, depicting mid-seventies London and the forgotten lives of the multi-cultural inhabitants of a small, poverty-stricken street; showing us their struggles to survive the everyday trials and tribulations of living in London during this particular period. The film is actually shot on the very streets and in the very kinds of establishments – boarding houses, public houses, flea-pit cinemas – that the characters themselves would visit, and, in the disc’s accompanying booklet, Despins relates how the crew were pelted with eggs one night by the real residents when they were attempting to film at night, running their own electric generator during the three day week! When the two teenage characters -- the happy-go-lucky landlady’s son, Ronnie Gusset (Patrick Murray) and shopkeeper’s daughter Nellie Tudge (Lesley Roach) -- visit their local cinema, you’re seeing exactly the same establishment at which Despins and Dumaresq first exhibited “Duffer”!
The film details the inter-related lives of a large group of people, most of whom are lodged in the crumbling townhouse boarding establishment of the unfortunately-named Germen immigrant landlady, Bertha Gusset (an almost unrecognisable Erna May, who played Your Gracie in “Duffer”). If this set-up all sounds rather soap opera-ish to you, well, in effect it is just that -- the difference being that the whole thing is structured as a musical, with Galt MacDermot’s charming songs issuing from the mouths of the various characters at key moments throughout the proceedings!
The peculiar mix of slice-of-life street drama, filmed in realistic but attractive documentary style by cinematographer Peter Hannon, and the indulgence and suspension-of-disbelief required of the audience if they're to accept the musical genre, sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, but somehow the two reinforce rather than undermine each other as you’d expect them to. The contrivance actually helps to inject a numinous quality into the everyday, apparently prosaic concerns and goings-on in the lives of the various inhabitants, while never tipping into outright surrealism.
This quality is abetted by the two vagrant characters, Sybil (Doris Fishwick) and Akki (Peter Farrell) who provide a running commentary on the lives of the different characters who pass their makeshift shelter in the Alley that runs alongside Mrs Gussets boarding house, while Sybil attaches a vaguely stated astrological significance to the various phases and occlusions of the moon in relation to the lives they witness around them. But the real reason the musical format works so well, though, comes down to a combination of Dumaresq’s witty screenplay and the clever way in which MacDermot and Dumaresq’s songs help to reveal layers of character rather than serving simply as a jarring interruption to the storytelling. The whole film is essentially a character piece and a snapshot of ordinary lives, so the songs actually enhance the understanding of the varying sensibilities of the ensemble, and also help to quickly establish sympathy with a whole range of culturally different characters very organically. MacDermot’s melodies are mostly very catchy and charming, often displaying an eerie nursery rhyme simplicity; and the film establishes a likable, quirky, idiosyncratic style that becomes a perfect venue in which to soak up the flavours of London street scenes set around the Portobello Road market; or the crowded demonstration against gentrification of the neighbourhood which ends up accidently involving several main characters; plus a whole host of depictions of the vibrancy of everyday London life circa 1973.
As critic Stephen Thrower points out in his essay in the booklet accompanying this release, the songs often recall the Music Hall-influenced character studies Ray Davies made so popular and influential in his work with The Kinks. We’re introduced to a range of characters – hippies, shopkeepers, landladies, bar men, strippers – and follow a number of their stories separately. But music has a habit of bringing diverse peoples together throughout the film, and thus comes to represent the power of community. Characters often sing songs to each other or together rather than simply engaging in dialogue, and in this way, the political point Despins and Dumaresq were making -- about how these strong spontaneous communities of diverse people were being threatened by speculation and development -- comes about quite naturally and without off-putting polemic getting in the way. The mix of musical styles reflects the lifestyles and origins and the diversity of life in the area, and becomes a celebration as such. We get easy-going folk, haunting operetta, charming Jamaican calypso pop, and soulful ballads -- reflecting a host of concerns but also bringing various people together, so that when the downstairs Jamaican couple get inadvertently caught up in a street demonstration and their baby gets left behind in the melee, for instance, it is completely believable that the American would-be pop star who lives in the room next door, will look after the child for them until they get back.
If all this celebration and togetherness sounds just a little too cutesy and convenient, the screenplay takes a much darker turn in the final act, presaged by Irish alcoholic Jack MacMahon (Sean Caffrey), shown stumbling drunk through the night-time streets, looking for his fiancé who has taken to working in strip joints to earn enough money to pay for their permanently postponed wedding. He comes upon a bizarre basement club full of strange, occult-tinged atmosphere and Fellini-esque cross-dressers -- an event which becomes the precursor to several tragic and violent occurrences. Throughout the film, there’s an isolated old man glimpsed living in total squalor in an unlit upstairs room (a harking back to the disturbing atmosphere of “Duffer”) who coverts an eight-year-old girl frequently left to fend for herself outside late night pubs while her mother drinks inside. Tellingly, she’s dressed in a Little Red Riding Hood-style cloak, and although the film only suggests the old man’s un-acted-upon paedophilic desires, they certainly become very apparent to a gang of street toughs who launch a vicious assault upon him. That’s not the only damage these un-named hooligans do on this one fateful night: they also manage to ruin the lives of two of the most sympathetic characters in the film, bringing this portrait of community to a close on an unexpectedly dark note.
Both films were shot on 16 mm in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and have been converted into HD using the original materials held by the BFI archive. These ultra-low budget, almost forgotten examples of British independent filmmaking were never going to look as pin sharp as most of the other gems in the Flipside collection, but the format certainly does add an extra level of clarity to their appearance which will be most appreciated by anyone enjoying seeing these two for their historical time-capsule representations of 1970s London. The package also includes a DVD copy, of course, for those who have not yet made the upgrade to Blu-ray, and a marvellous booklet of essays by Stephen Thrower (both excellent analysis’ of the two films); Despins’ and Demaresq’s statement of intent, drafted in regard to “The Moon Over the Alley”; Joseph (Chuck) Despins’ fascinating article on the making of both films; an appreciation of the work of Galt MacDermot by Rob Young; well-researched biographies of Despins and Demaresq by Shona Barrett and Stephen Thrower; and cast and crew credits for both films.
“Duffer” and “The Moon Over the Alley” are both strange and marvellously offbeat delights, and exactly the kind of unearthed treasure the Flipside label was established in order to discover and bring to our attention; they’re two more of the unusual and little-known British films that have fallen off the beaten track. This is a release that’s well worth checking out if you’re a fan of this vast underbelly of British cinema.