My magical movie mystery tour

On her U.K. "Camille Does the Movies" road trip, La Paglia enlightens the Brits about "Auntie Mame," fails to see a Roman lucky phallus and throws a diva fit over the lighting.

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Tues.-Wed., June 1-2 British Airways overnight flight from Philadelphia to London for the “Camille Does the Movies” festival at the National Film Theatre. Landing is delayed by unusually heavy downpours that have flooded highways and car parks in southern England since before dawn. Choral laments about the weather will mark my stay for the next week — though by apocalyptic American standards of hurricane and tornado, things seem positively balmy.

My schedule has been organized by Brian Robinson, the very forceful and hilariously amusing press officer of the NFT. Interviews start almost immediately in my hotel off Oxford Street, after which I am driven to a radio studio for the gay-themed program “Lavender Lounge,” a regular stop on my London visits.

Host Matthew Linfoot asked in advance for a list of my six favorite pop songs, and they are cued up for my commentary. It was a hard crunch to whittle my canon down to six, particularly since I taught my “Art of Song Lyrics” class this spring (a course I devised in 1985 for student musicians at the University of the Arts). My final cut: the Drifters, “On Broadway”; Jimi Hendrix, “Foxy Lady”; the Rolling Stones, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”; Cream, “Tales of Brave Ulysses”; the Animals, “House of the Rising Sun”; and Donovan, “Season of the Witch.”

Now on to the National Film Theatre in the South Bank complex, where I must introduce the first film of my series, John Schlesinger’s “Darling” (1965). I am shocked to hear from NFT staff that this great British classic (it won three Oscars) has fallen into obscurity in its native land. My program notes laud its extraordinary star, “coltish, mercurial Julie Christie,” who represents “the exhilarating burst of cultural vitality” in the “restlessly kinetic new women” of the 1960s — completely outside the frame of feminism.

Seeing “Darling” on the big screen again (after so many years of videos) is a revelation. I never stop talking for days about the film’s fineness of detail as well as its swift economy of editing. Too many of today’s movies are turgid and trite, with sloppy production values and buffoonish acting.

Thurs., June 3 The day begins in mad panic as the telephone rings and I hear, “This is Sally Soames.” I had no idea that the photographer for my scheduled interview downstairs with the Times was to be Soames — whom I revere as one of the few true artists I have ever had the privilege to meet. (Her moody 1992 picture of me for the Times was later reprinted in her volume of portraits of writers.) Unlike the pretentious pachyderms of big-ticket media photography who arrive with a ton of equipment and a pack of scampering lackeys, Soames works quietly and alone, using available light and homing in on her subject by creating a near-mystical mood of charged silence. With only five minutes’ notice, however, I feel like Norma Desmond dragged into the light of day.

After a lively interview with the Times’ Eleanor Mills (vis-`-vis the Yugoslavian fiasco, I snap, “Blair is Clinton’s whore!”), I’m whisked off to the BBC for a long TV interview where I denounce the declining quality of current films and espouse my usual “pro-penis feminism.” There are very stringent security measures because of the recent unsolved murder of BBC star presenter Jill Dando, a day after NATO bombs destroyed television studios in Belgrade and killed working staff.

I introduce my evening films at the NFT: “Butterfield 8″ (1960) and “The Philadelphia Story” (1940). Liz Taylor makes a sensation as the swank Manhattan call girl in “Butterfield 8″ — a film that is unknown to the London audience and that probably has rarely if ever been shown in a theater anywhere in the world since its release. Its emotional power is enormously intensified by the big screen. A cardinal film of my adolescence, “Butterfield 8″ imprinted me forever with its Babylonian vision of carnal woman.

Fri., June 4 More media interviews about the film series. War news escalates with talk of a Kosovo peace deal. Political commentary on British TV seems more detailed and substantive than in America, but there’s less of it, and the war itself seems oddly distant, the violence almost censored out by the limited TV programming. I’m also struck by how credulously uncritical newspaper coverage is of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose perky photos make her look like Joan Crawford in June Allyson drag.

In my first free hours, I rush over to the British Museum to revisit the Parthenon’s pilfered Elgin Marbles, thronged in their majestic shrine by pilgrims from all over the world. The austere Rosetta Stone, newly restored, is even more mobbed, with blinding flashes going off on all sides.

I introduce the evening screening of “All About Eve” (1950), which I
celebrate as the dazzling zenith of old-style Hollywood craftsmanship in
moviemaking. Its theme of the star as bitch goddess, I say, helped form my
general theory of the artist’s amoral will-to-power. But I cannot stay for
Jean Cocteau’s “Orphie” (1949), since I must dash off with an NFT contingent to St. Pancras Station for our trip to the north of England. Until our departure, I pace up and down the platform admiring the central vault’s soaring Victorian ironwork.

On the train, the NFT party unpack a delicious picnic supper with bottles of choice red wine, which we quaff as the landscape flies by. We discuss the summer’s upcoming total eclipse (the first in England since 1928) and then the lethal cruelties of high school proms — an exclusively American social phenomenon, I’m surprised to learn, that the rest of the world knows about only through films (such as “Carrie”).

We pass a mammoth nuclear plant with nine cheek-by-jowl cooling towers (“What if they all melt down at once?” I ask), and we launch into a discussion of Jane Fonda in “The China Syndrome.” A huge rainbow, as in a Turner painting, appears in the heavy, gray-black sky near Leicester. I’m fascinated by a line of parked trucks with big attached signs, “Gritting in Progress” — which I long to snatch for the wall of my office in Philadelphia. These are “grit lorries,” I’m told — sanding trucks for winter roads.

As we wind our way by taxi to our charming bed and breakfast in Sheffield, I scrutinize the old buildings from the city’s manufacturing past and am startled to see “HINDU TEMPLE” in big orange block letters on a decrepit brick factory. Oddly, a lady’s black, strappy high-heeled shoe sits abandoned in the middle of the highway in front. Here as elsewhere in the north, I am struck by the ubiquity of McDonald’s advertising posters (offering “Spicy McLamb” and “McChicken Korma Naan”) and by the number of road signs pointing traffic toward the local “Crematorium” — apparently a focus of civic thought.

Sat., June 5 As we consume our lavish English breakfast, our vivacious chatelaine advises us to visit nearby Hardwick Hall, a Tudor stately mansion in the rolling Derbyshire hills. When we reach it by rental car, we are flabbergasted by the gaping ruin of the unrestored old hall, with its steep stone staircases and three stories of ornate fireplaces exposed to the open air. It’s like an eerie Caspar David Friedrich painting under a sunny Constable sky.

This was the birthplace of the formidable Bess of Hardwick, a friend of Elizabeth I and a Hatshepsut-like political instigator who married four times and got richer and richer until she built the massive pile of new Hardwick Hall across the grounds. We dash over to Chatsworth, her family’s more famous estate with its Baroque cascade and Victorian primeval “rockery,” but return for tea in the cavernous Hardwick kitchen, with its gleaming array of period copper cookware. Touring the galleries, I am agog at the quality of historical portraiture, particularly relating to Mary, Queen of Scots (Bess of Hardwick’s marital rival, genteelly imprisoned for 18 years at Chatsworth), whose parents’ chic images hover like delicate blond ghosts.

Now we adjourn to the Sheffield theater for the NFT-sponsored screening of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (1966), a film that devastated me when I saw it at its American release in 1967 and that I paid homage to in the title of my doctoral dissertation and later book, “Sexual Personae.” Although I have repeatedly studied it in video and in the classroom (via a worn print owned by my university), I have not seen it on a big screen since 1973, when I had it brought to Bennington College for a women’s film festival that I organized.

The mood in the theater is hushed and thoughtful. When I begin my lecture, after the short interval, I acutely feel how close art is to religion. What greater function can a critic hope for than to introduce so oblique a masterpiece to a general audience? Afterward, the NFT team adjourns to a nearby Indian restaurant, where I feast on Lamb Madras with the two silver cans containing the five reels of “Persona” next to my feet. Overnight, the cans stay with me in my room. I feel awed and abashed, like a serf bunking with royalty on the Crusades.

Sun., June 6 We set out for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, near the border of Scotland. The weather is fierce and rainy, and we feel the presence of the Yorkshire moors that nurtured the Brontks’ Gothic imagination. The landscape is reminiscent of upstate New York, where I grew up. I too am a brusque Northerner, impatient with the sycophancy and solipsism of urban mores.

We drop “Persona” off at the famous Tyneside Cinema (where in the lobby we spot my picture, arms akimbo, on the front of Pink Paper, the national gay weekly, with the headline “Paglia’s pick of the flicks”) and then set off for the nearby Castle Keep, a formidable tower whose first stones were laid in 1080. Buffeted by a cold wind on the high turret, we admire Newcastle’s great iron bridge and curving Regency arcades.

We’re eager to see Hadrian’s Wall — but little of it remains in town, so we end up desperately driving mile after mile into the countryside. The straightness of the road, chimes everyone, signifies that it was laid by my Roman ancestors, who observed no impediments of nature but just plowed right on through the landscape with their fanatical, mathematical vision. With nice timing, the rain stops and the sun beams down as we arrive at the half-excavated Roman encampment at Chester, where tourists wander the green pastures amid curious herds of cattle and sheep. Artifacts at the on-site museum include a votive statue of Mars and a perfectly preserved ancient leather shoe, found nearby.

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After an acrobatically Clark Kent-like metamorphosis in a narrow toilet stall back at the theater, I emerge in formal dress for my lecture on “Persona” in the cinema’s vintage Oriental-palace auditorium. Afterward, I am invited to sign the upstairs book reserved for special visitors and am floored to find on the last line (dated 1997) the dashing script of the divine Susannah York, one of the finest flowers of British cinema. “I am not worthy!” I exclaim, but sign anyhow after I catch my breath.

On the three-hour express train back to London, I dine on Chicken Tikka Masala, drink bottles of Hadrian (“Still Spring Water of Northumbria”) and avidly study a guidebook about the Wall, which reveals, to my vexation, that the entire NFT party missed the symbolic lucky phallus carved on a Roman threshold at Chester.

Mon., June 7 An early call, as I must get to “Start the Week,” a serious ideas show on BBC Radio. To my delight, the renowned biographer Antonia Fraser is also on the panel, and it’s a great relief to be outranked for once in the diva department. Lady Antonia is very gracious indeed to a foreigner with, let’s face it, a checkered reputation.

I’m infuriated that today’s Independent, in an otherwise fairly favorable article on my visit, opines that I need “a better theme”: “Sex was a world-class subject. Going to the pictures isn’t.” So dismissive a statement about film as a genre would be inconceivable in the U.S. except among the most hardcore religious conservatives. That a progressive British newspaper could make such a claim stuns and inflames me with a sense of mission.

In late morning, I get a rare treat — a private screening in the empty NFT theater of Joseph Losey’s lost 1962 classic, “Eva,” in a dual-subtitled Scandinavian print that Losey said was the closest to his original cut, butchered by his French producers, the Hakim brothers. I am in ecstasy as I watch Jeanne Moreau at her height vamp around and trash the men of Rome and Venice. This was another film I brought to Bennington in 1973, but it isn’t available on video, and the British Film Institute owns the one archival copy of the version I’m seeing. It’s appalling that a whole generation of cinema-lovers has grown up without seeing “Eva,” a film that had a profound impact on my thinking about sex.

At a midafternoon interview with London’s Gay TV, I throw a diva fit over the lights (both Raquel Welch and Cindy Crawford told me that a gal must take control of her lighting), but things even out as I prepare for the evening’s films. Yesterday, while we were in Newcastle, “The Ten Commandments” (1956) and “La Dolce Vita” (1960) were shown in my series at the NFT. Tonight is “Auntie Mame” (1958) and “Suddenly, Last Summer” (1959), both of which I introduce to a very receptive audience. (“Agnes Gooch, c’est moi!” I declare.) Although frequently shown on American television, “Auntie Mame” is virtually unknown in England (where the sentimentalized Lucille Ball musical “Mame” has supplanted it). In Panavision on the big screen, “Auntie Mame” is a knockout, and the crowd breaks into warm applause at the end.

Afterward we decamp for the official series dinner at the glass-walled Oxo restaurant with its spectacular view of St. Paul’s dome illuminated across the Thames. We are joined by my friend and ex-student Kristen Lippincott, who first saw many of these films at Bennington over a quarter-century ago and who now, as the director of the Old Royal Observatory at Greenwich, is literally overseeing the Western world’s entrance into the new millennium. American women get it done!

Tues., June 8 On the early morning news, British officials are at last musing that Europe “must take more responsibility for itself” and not always rely on the U.S. to sort out its problems. “Yeah,” I mutter, “how about repaying American taxpayers for all those bombs and warplanes?” NATO has fatally gored its own reputation in this ill-planned Yugoslavian incursion.

I am interviewed at length by the Sunday Telegraph about religion and make my central ideological point that modern Hollywood is in the main line of ancient paganism. Then I dash to a nearby mews to videotape an introduction for the NFT screening of Losey’s “Accident” (1967). Invoking the campy preludes to “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (a beloved TV show of my youth), I dodge speeding black taxicabs and red Royal Mail trucks to sing the praises of this superb but neglected film, which begins and ends with the sound of a car crash.

Lunch at a gourmet pizzeria with the core group of the British Film Institute with whom I worked for my book on Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I am overjoyed to hear that the bloom is off the Paltrow rose in England after Miss Gwyneth “blubbed” her way through her Oscar acceptance speech. At lunch last year at this very restaurant, it was heavy going as I argued that Paltrow has the depth of a spoon. Once again, I am met with total bafflement by the wait staff when I request red pepper flakes for my pizza — a standard Neapolitan condiment that apparently has never wafted across the English Channel.

Feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey, now teaching at the University of London, also comes to lunch and mentions that she has never seen “Auntie Mame” and in fact had never even heard of it. Since “Auntie Mame” has dominated my life and consciousness with biblical power for over 40 years, I am struck yet again by the divergence of my basic premises from those of most feminists. As an Amazon with the brain of a pre-Stonewall gay man, I can scarcely be surprised at always being odd man out of every group.

After lunch, I address a large seminar of BFI staff about my principles of film criticism and my view of the current stagnation in filmmaking. Feathers visibly ruffle when I scorn the pre-World War II Frankfurt School of criticism as totally useless when dealing with American popular culture and laud instead my major North American influences — Marshall McLuhan, Parker Tyler and Andy Warhol. I proclaim that Pauline Kael and early Andrew Sarris are much more to be valued than the ponderous, outdated Theodor Adorno.

Back at the NFT, I am given a tour of the spacious projection booth, but my glee is nipped in the bud by the terrorizing news that two reels of “Persona” didn’t leave Newcastle yesterday and had to be rescued today by emergency lorry. All is well, however, with the evening screening of the film, which looks fabulous. Brian Robinson explains how the NFT’s projection system — in equipment, range and screen quality — brings out every detail of Sven Nyquist’s stunning high-contrast black-and-white cinematography.

My lecture (including choreographic scene reenactment) and the questions from the very sophisticated audience go on and on until Brian must bring the evening to a halt so the theater can close. My call for broadening the cultural education of young artists seems to have been well-received. Andy Martin (my co-host for last year’s NFT screening of “The Birds”) has come down from Cambridge for “Persona,” and we all traipse off for a midnight meal in Soho, where I am bemused by the many men affectionately kissing — a far cry indeed from the tense, buff parade of U.S. gay life.

Wed., June 9 I fly home amid a heightened security alert at Heathrow, with purse searches and prison-style pat-downs. “Camille Does the Movies” is continuing, partly in reruns, for another week without me. After “Accident” tonight, “Valley of the Dolls” (1967) will be
shown next Wednesday with Glenn Belverio’s short “Glennda and Camille Do
Downtown” (1993). My 13-part series concludes on June 17 with
“Niagara” (1953), starring bad girl Marilyn Monroe: This full-color film noir, I say in the program notes, “unveils the power of nature, which is far greater than that of any political regime. Sex itself is torrential here, destroying all in its path.”

On the plane, I watch a series of recent movies with open disgust — “Shakespeare in Love,” “You’ve Got Mail” and “Analyze This.” After the masterpieces at the National Film Theatre, the dialogue, acting, photography and editing are unbearably ugly. Then Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971) begins, and my eye is ravished anew. What style and panache!

I burn with indignation: How can we get interesting, enduring films out of talented young people these days if they never see great films in fresh, sharp prints on real movie screens? What the hell has the National Endowment for the Arts been doing with its money? We need a nationally funded film consortium that will deal aggressively with this cultural crisis. America, which invented Hollywood, is squandering its artistic heritage.

Fri., June 11 Two days after my return from London, Alison and I go see “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.” It’s so stupid, inept and visually dull that I fall fast asleep halfway through. I dream, of course, of Julie Christie, Jeanne Moreau and a paradise of film reborn.

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is "Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World's Best Poems." You can write her at this address.

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