Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Reflections on ... Blonde Venus (1932)

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Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies is the FREE monthly film club with an emphasis on the cult, the kitsch and the queer. This month’s presentation is … Blonde Venus! Wednesday 28 September in the Polynesian-style basement Bamboo Lounge of Fontaine’s bar in Dalston!

Of the seven sublime films director Josef von Sternberg and leading lady / muse Marlene Dietrich made together, surely the wildest and weirdest is Blonde Venus (1932). It stars sultry German glamour puss Dietrich as a hausfrau and mother forced to resume her career as a nightclub chanteuse due to circumstances too complicated to go into here – and then finders herself entangled in a romantic triangle between her sick scientist husband and a suave millionaire (played by a very young Cary Grant). But none of that is important! It’s mainly an excuse to luxuriate in Dietrich’s shimmering close-ups, multiple extravagant costume changes and sensational musical numbers. Most notorious of the latter is the riotously kitsch and freaky “Hot Voodoo” sequence. If you’ve never seen it before I won’t spoil it for you, but 1) “Hot Voodoo” is the campiest thing you’ve ever seen, 2) watching it might turn you gay and 3) over eight decades later, the likes of Grace Jones, Madonna and Kate Moss are still referencing it in videos, concerts and photo shoots.

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/ Kate Moss does Marlene Dietrich in "Hot Voodoo" in for W Magazine in October 2007 /

Not to divulge any plot spoilers, but midway through Blonde Venus Dietrich has to take her child and go on the run and she gradually sinks to ever more squalid and impoverished circumstances (at one point she seems to be living in a chicken coop!). The way Sternberg films it, the more sullied Dietrich becomes, the more radiantly beautiful she looks (and her outfits become more artfully dishevelled). Degradation never looked so good!

Anyway, Blonde Venus is the absolute summit of sinful 1930s Art Deco glamour and therefore the perfect film to watch in the decadent environs of Fontaine’s. Now – sing along with me: “Hot voodoo / dance of sin / Hot voodoo / worse than gin / I’d follow a caveman right into his cave …"

As usual: arrive circa 8 pm to order your drinks and grab the best seats. The film starts at 8:30 pm prompt. The film is FREE and seating is limited. If you’re feeling proactive, contact Fontaine’s to reserve a seat in advance: email ruby@fontaines.bar or call 07718 000546.

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Blonde Venus - the fifth of the seven intoxicating films visionary director Josef von Sternberg (1894 – 1969) and actress Marlene Dietrich (1901 – 1992) made together between 1929 and 1935 - is considered a minor work in their canon, chiefly remembered for the spectacular “Hot Voodoo” musical sequence. It bombed at the box office in 1932 and received mostly withering reviews. Blonde Venus has a reputation as a lurid, sentimental potboiler (in his definitive 1992 biography Marlene Dietrich: Live and Legend, Steven Bach positions it as belonging in the “mother-love sobber-weepers” genre).  In fact, it’s one of my favourite of the Dietrich-Sternberg collaborations and - as I said in my introduction to the sold-out Lobotomy Room audience - it’s their wildest and weirdest film. Blonde Venus, I’d argue, is a strange and complex film roiling with tensions and conflicts and ripe for queer and feminist appraisals.

Blonde Venus is a pre-Code film (made during the brief, heady period roughly between 1929 – 1934 when actresses like Jean Harlow went bra-less and it was still like the Wild West in terms of what films could show onscreen), so it’s ripe with an ambiance of sleaze and some deliciously kinky moments. It opens, in fact, with a skinny-dipping scene in the Black Forest when visiting American scientist Ned Farady (Herbert Marshall) encounters German cabaret performer Helen (Dietrich) swimming nude in a lake with her fellow showgirls. (He calls her “my little water nymph”). The action then cuts abruptly several years forward to Helen – now married to Ned - as a dutiful aproned hausfrau and mother (of a 5-year old son) in a tenement apartment in New York. Their modest but idyllic family life is shattered when Ned is struck down with “radium disease.” To pay for the experimental medical treatment in Europe that might save Ned’s life, Helen is forced to resume her career as a nightclub chanteuse.

Sternberg packs even these early wholesome domestic scenes with macabre and perverse touches. As Ethan Mordden points out in his 1983 book Movie Star, “Sternberg was the champ of weird. Stop the projector during a medium shot in any of his films and you’ll see a crammed picture, every piece in it doing something. Graffiti, toys, masks, light fixtures, bowls of things: the sets are alive.” When we see housewife Helen demurely embroidering, she actually seems to be cross-stitching black crows in a pattern worthy of Morticia Addams. The doctor that Ned consults keeps a human skull displayed on his desk (he even absent-mindedly picks it up and plays with it while speaking). Helen and Ned’s cherubic little boy Johnny plays with eerie German Expressionist toys (watch for the demonic grinning papier-mache mask Johnny wears at one point – a jarring moment).

Of all the films Dietrich and Sternberg made together, only Blonde Venus is set in contemporary Depression-era US. It has some genuinely hard-boiled and gritty moments, with Helen motivated by the very real threat of destitution. The cut-throat world of show business Helen returns to is shown to be competitive, exploitative and sexist. “Let’s see your legs!” a cigar-chomping manager commands. Helen obliges, lifting her skirt (“Is that enough?”). “You certainly got me hopped-up, baby,” he growls in response.

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/ The Blonde Venus backstage in her dressing room pre-show /

Re-christened with show biz name “Blonde Venus”, we finally see Helen in action as a nightclub diva with the film’s show-stopping first musical number – the truly freaky and berserk “Hot Voodoo”. It plays like a pagan, taboo and primitive beauty and the beast-style ritual, with Dietrich as an albino goddess or priestess shedding her gorilla fur disguise.  All these decades later “Hot Voodoo” is still deliriously weird, and perhaps the first incidence of deliberate, knowing camp in popular culture. (It’s easy to imagine Sternberg and Dietrich looking at each other across the camera and thinking, “Can you believe we’re getting away with this?”). As Bach describes:

“The notorious Hot Voodoo is simply unforgettable, despite or because of its absurdity. Marlene emerges from a gorilla suit to don her silver-blonde Afro (suggesting Harpo Marx) against a Cotton Club background of African “native” girls. There are tom-toms, palms, the black bartender with a stutter… Helen’s – Dietrich’s – astonishing confidence in her allure is near-dictatorial with star presence. She shifts her weight from one hip to another as she sings. She need not do more; her voice insinuates the rest. The absurd lyric – “Hot Voodoo gets me wild / Oh, fireman save this child!” – goes on for five minutes in two long takes intercut with shots of Cary Grant paying stunned attention. This is a witch casting her spell; that hip-to-hip sway is the mesmerising come-on of a blonde cobra.”

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I’ve always been curious about the above photo when it appears online or in books: it’s clearly an entirely different outfit to the black sequinned one Dietrich wears onscreen in “Hot Voodoo.” Is this shot a “wardrobe test” of a potential costume that got rejected? In his book, Bach provides a clue: production of Blonde Venus was a long rancorous ordeal with Sternberg (and Dietrich) feuding with studio heads. (At one point Paramount threatened to sack Sternberg and replace him with another director). There were so many script re-shuffles that “major sequences (including the “Hot Voodoo” number) were completely recostumed and reshot.” So, the famous version of “Hot Voodoo” we’re all familiar with is actually the second reshot version. This pic above was presumably what Dietrich wore in the original scrapped number that was resigned to the cutting room floor. Imagine – an alternate unseen version of “Hot Voodoo”! In an ideal world, that would resurface and be included as a DVD extra. Or even better – a “director’s cut” of Blonde Venus true to Sternberg and Dietrich’s original vision! /

Afterwards, suave young millionaire politician Nick Townsend (Cary Grant) takes a keen interest in Helen and visits her backstage.

As soon as Ned departs to Europe for his cure, Helen embarks on an affair with playboy Nick. Helen’s almost instant romance with Nick reportedly caused executives at Paramount to panic. Considering Helen is meant to be a sympathetic romantic heroine, she is weirdly unknowable and amoral. She’s never shown, for example, having any serious qualms or pangs of guilt about her infidelity. The script can’t contain or resolve this contradiction. This is often described as one of the film’s flaws. I’d maintain it’s what makes it fascinating. “Give me a little kiss,” Nick implores, after ushering Helen into a luxe life as a kept woman. Helen hesitates then submits. The camera cuts away tactfully as they embrace. He asks Helen directly: does she love Ned? She replies, “He needs me.”

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/ Best use of rear projection (and a wind machine) ever /

“I wish I was someone else,” Helen admits to Nick. “Then I could stay with you here forever.” Helen’s unfixed, constantly shifting identities are one of the most interesting aspects of Blonde Venus. Nude water nymph. Cabaret star. Housewife. Mother. Later, fallen woman. Prostitute. Androgynous pansexual in male drag. She even goes under multiple names: Helen Faraday. (Faraday is her married name; presumably before that Helen had a German maiden name). Helen Jones. Blonde Venus. Later, on the run, she checks into hotels with the pseudonym Helen Blake.

The jig is up when the cured Ned arrives back in New York unexpectedly early. Discovering Helen has been unfaithful, he turns vindictive. “You took up with the first man who could give you the things I couldn’t”. Calling her “a rotten mother”, he threatens to take Johnny away.  Helen responds by kidnapping Johnny and fleeing. (Cut to screaming newspaper headline “Police Hunt Cabaret Girl” with huge photo of Helen wearing her “Hot Voodoo” Afro wig).

On the lam from her husband (and - symbolically – patriarchy, heterosexuality and the male establishment as a whole), Helen now takes a journey into the underbelly of thirties America with Johnny in tow. At this point Blonde Venus turns very noir, very desperate against a sordid backdrop of seedy hotel rooms, dive bars and flophouses depicted in deep atmospheric chiaroscuro. When it’s no longer safe to perform in cabarets, Helen takes odd jobs where she can (I love the thought of Continental exquisite Dietrich labouring as a farmhand in Galveston! If only Sternberg had given us a glimpse of Helen milking a cow or plucking poultry). At their lowest point, Helen and Johnny appear to be living in a chicken coop!

On the run Helen finds support and sisterhood with other disenfranchised “outsider” women on society’s margins, including African Americans (one of them, Cora, is played by Hattie McDaniel years before her Academy Award-winning role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind) and a lesbian.  (The gruff-voiced, short-haired nightclub proprietoress in masculine clothing warns Helen police have been enquiring about her. “Don’t worry, I’ve got a kid of my own. Good luck.” I studied Blonde Venus many years ago at university. My professor maintained thirties audiences would have instantly recognised her as a lesbian character). For Helen at this point men are predators to be wary of and out-smarted. “Are you going to wash my dishes?” a restaurant manager leers suggestively when penniless Helen admits she can’t pay the cheque at his diner. Men keep recognising Helen’s face from the “Wanted” signs and newspaper headlines (“that dame looked like the Venus woman …”), eager to hand her in for the reward.

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Perversely, the lower Helen sinks, the more radiant Sternberg makes Dietrich look. As Bach jokes, “no one ever made squalor more decorative than Sternberg”. Wreathed in cigarette smoke with artfully dishevelled hair and torn garments, the low-down and dirty Helen drinking a schooner of beer (“I’ll have some beer. Cold beer”), coquette-ishly fanning herself truly represents Dietrich at her most beauteous.

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Finally tracked down by one of Ned’s detectives, Helen surrenders and hands over Johnny, convinced it’s for his own good. Fed-up with male disapproval, she snarls, “What does a man know about motherly love?” (This same racist detective – a real piece of work - repeatedly addresses Cora as “Annie” – as if “they’re all the same” to him. Cue the Nina Simone song "Four Women").

At this point it could be argued Helen is shown belatedly “paying” for her unfaithfulness. Her heartbreak when she gives Johnny back to Ned, watching their train depart with glistening eyes, is palpable. At this point the film seemingly breaks down. It cuts from drunken, broken bag lady Helen departing a flophouse for homeless women vowing to get herself back on her feet (“just watch me!”), to the Atlantic Ocean viewed from a ship by night, to a montage of neon Art Deco nightclub signs in Paris heralding the Blonde Venues Revue. No explanation is offered; it feels like a few essential scenes are missing. How much time has elapsed? How did Helen manage to afford this trans-Atlantic journey? Prostitution? Rich sugar daddies? It’s left tantalisingly unclear.

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/ The Blonde Venus re-surfaces in Paris /

In any case, as “the toast of Paris” the Blonde Venus persona is revived, but the updated version is dramatically different. The new Helen is tough, independent and androgynous, a butch drag king in ice-white top hat and tuxedo imperiously smoking a cigarette in a long holder. (The “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed” musical sequence deliberately references Dietrich’s famous earlier “lesbian number” in one of Sternberg and Dietrich’s earlier triumphs, Morocco (1930). Sternberg loved dropping hints of Dietrich’s real-life bisexuality in their films together). Nick and Helen are re-united in her dressing room. (“I seem to recall you came backstage before,” she purrs). “Nothing means much to me now. It’s better that way. I haven’t a care in the world,” Helen insists. Nick sees through her steely, world-weary facade, knows she’s yearning for Johnny. Once again Helen crosses the Atlantic Ocean, from Old World to New World.

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Back in New York, Blonde Venus now hurtles toward its conclusion. For some reason Helen opts to dress like a glamorous angel of death for the family reconciliation scene in fur and black satin. The ending was a compromise forced by the studio. (According to Bach, Dietrich herself wanted the film to finish with Helen not having to pick between Ned and Nick, but having simultaneous ongoing relationships with both men – very much how she conducted her own non-monogamous open marriage with multiple lovers off-screen. Obviously that couldn’t fly in 1932). It’s a “happy” ending with nothing truly resolved. Helen is never shown breaking up with Nick - it’s merely implied. Why would she choose killjoy prig Ned over chivalrous, gallant and undemanding Nick? (Who’s not only a millionaire, but looks like Cary Grant!). Will Helen be absorbed back into family and domesticity and abandon show business for good? She’s most fully herself (or most fully Dietrich), liberated and vital when onstage performing. How can a woman capable of “Hot Voodoo” not be allowed back onstage?!

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/ Above: Helen and Johnny reunited /

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Blonde Venus is wildly entertaining. Sternberg’s storytelling is vivid, fluid and concise. Visually, he is an untouchable stylist.  Watch Blonde Venus more than once and you begin to notice how Sternberg’s own personal preoccupations or fixations abound. There are two noteworthy recurring motifs.  One is the Atlantic Ocean: characters cross it multiple times in the film. For the characters in Blonde Venus, criss-crossing the ocean from Europe to North America seems to represent opportunities for transformation and reinvention. (Continental types Sternberg and Dietrich had made that life-changing journey themselves many times). And the German lullaby that Helen croons to Johnny at pivotal points in the film seemingly signifies a yearning for pure unconditional love, innocence and nostalgia. But mainly Blonde Venus works as a sleek showcase for the heavy-lidded magnetism of Marlene Dietrich. Her coolly inscrutable, feline self-possession as Helen is simply magnificent. Like a female version of Robert Mitchum, she underplays everything. You never catch Dietrich “acting”: she’s far too cool to emote. In particular, check out Dietrich’s superb nonchalance in the musical segments, basking in adoration. She is mesmerising to watch throughout.

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This was the second recent sold-out instalment of the Lobotomy Room film club. (The previous one was Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! in July). Maybe it was their cocktail-induced stupor, but the hip, full-capacity Bamboo Lounge crowd at Blonde Venus sure was enthusiastic for a night of old-school diva worship. In fact, after the film with minimal persuasion I got loads of ‘em to pay tribute to Marlene Dietrich by donning a replica of the exploding platinum blonde Afro wig she wears in the "Hot Voodoo" number (complete with glittery arrows!) for a red-hot camera session. Here are the resulting glamour shots! What a diverse variety of Marlenes of all genders! And funny how the wig can also evoke The Simpson’s Sideshow Bob!

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Lobotomy Room presents Blonde Venus / 28 September 2016

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Baby Lame's Shit Show at The Glory on 9 September 2016

Baby Lame's Shit Show at The Glory

I was recently honoured to guest DJ at Baby Lame's first anniversary Shit Show at The Glory in Haggerston. As I posted on Facebook:

Punky alt-cabaret doesn’t get more twisted than Baby Lame's Shit Show! On 9 September sewer-mouthed hog princess extraordinaire Baby Lame celebrates the first anniversary of her residency at The Glory with this birthday extravaganza! Won’t you come and join us? It promises to be a rancid cavalcade of perversion! There won’t be another Lobotomy Room club night at Fontaine’s now until Friday 30 September, so in the meantime come and catch me DJ’ing in The Glory’s basement “pit” / sex dungeon afterwards! I’ll be playing all your sentimental classicks! Autumn 2016 just suddenly got a lot more putrid!

In case you’re unfamiliar with the oeuvre of drag terrorist Baby Lame (darling, where have you been?), when I profiled her for Beige website in 2015 I described Baby’s act as “twisted black comedic punk-drag-horror performance art a-go go, marinated in the bad taste midnight movie sensibility of John Waters.” If anything, since then with her raunchy monthly Shit Show club night at The Glory (the reigning epicentre of gay Bohemia in London’s East End), Baby Lame has gotten even filthier.  And for this special first anniversary celebration, Baby assembled a glittering selection of perverted and exhibitionistic special guests. Pal and I arrived in time to see the big finale featuring the notorious Mouse. If you’ve never seen Mouse in action before (I’ve only ever seen her perform once before at The Amy Grimehouse’s John Waters Filth Fest in March 2014 but it’s scorched on my retinas), let’s just say her act involves total stark nudity, dog food, a birthday cake, an enema kit and that the front row needs to protect themselves by holding up a clear plastic tarpaulin. The spirit of Leigh Bowery and The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black lived in the basement of The Glory!

Baby Lame's Shit Show at The Glory

/ Tara and I at The Shit Show /

This is only the second time I’ve DJ’d at The Glory. The first time was at their Easter Sunday 2016 bank holiday Barn Dance. That time went down a storm, but I have to admit I was apprehensive wondering if a packed Friday night crowd at The Glory would respond favourably to what I was laying down. I am quite niche after all. People do dance to my music but it certainly doesn’t qualify as most peoples’ idea of “dance music.” What if I had a steady stream of people requesting Britney or Beyonce? Or worse – complaining to the management! I needn’t have worried: at various times I had a virtual mosh pit slamming by the DJ booth! People at gay venues are definitely hungry for more aggressive, punkier and confrontational music when they hear it – they maybe just don’t know it ‘til they encounter it. I pretty much played my standard abrasive Lobotomy Room set encompassing punk, rockabilly, surf, rhythm and blues and tittyshakers with maybe a campier emphasis on diva worship for The Glory. It’s just that my pantheon of queer icon divas includes the likes of Nina Hagen, Jayne Mansfield, Ann-Margret, Lydia Lunch, Edith Massey and Mrs Miller! (This may have been the only time anyone ever sequenced hi-NRG disco-era Eartha Kitt next to Fat White Family, or followed Tina Turner with The Germs).  Anyway, the night was a triumph for Baby Lame and I was glad to be a part of it. Long may her Shit Show reign!

Baby Lame's Shit Show at The Glory

/ The Shit Show in action at The Glory on 9 September 2016. Pic swiped from Facebook! /

Here's what I played:

Do You Remember Rock'n'Roll Radio? The Ramonetures
Universal Radio - Nina Hagen
Wipe-Out - The Surfaris
Blitzkreig Bop - The Ramonetures
I Wanna Be Sedated - The Ramones
Hangin' On the Telephone - Blondie
Road Runner - The Fabulous Wailers
I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield - The 5,6,7,8s
That Makes It - Jayne Mansfield
Year One - X
Peter Gunn Locomotion - The Delmonas
Peter Gunn Twist - The Jesters
Gunnin' for Peter - The Fabulous Wailers
Be Bop A Lula - Alan Vega
Viens danser le twist - Johnny Hallyday
Twistin' the Night Away - Divine
Cha Cha Heels - Eartha Kitt
Touch the Leather - Fat White Family
Harley Davidson - Brigitte Bardot
Batman theme - Link Wray and His Wraymen
Shortnin' Bread - The Readymen
Muleskinner Blues - The Fendermen
Human Fly - The Cramps
Little Girl - John and Jackie
Viva Las Vegas - Nina Hagen
C'mon Everybody - Sid Vicious
Breathless - X
Funnel of Love - Wanda Jackson
Rock Around the Clock - The Sex Pistols
Surfin' Bird - The Trashmen
Juke Box Babe - Alan Vega
Atomic Bongos - Lydia Lunch
Margaya - The Fender Four
Dance with Me Henry - Ann-Margret
Your Good Girl's Gonna Go Bad - Tammy Wynette
Lucille - Masaaki Hirao
Gostaria de saber (River Deep, Mountain High) - Wanderlea
Under My Thumb - Tina Turner
Forming - The Germs
Surf Rat - The Rumblers
Hanky Panky - Rita Chao and The Quests
Three Cool Chicks - The 5,6,7,8s
Jailhouse Rock - Masaaki Hirao
You Sure Know How to Hurt Someone - Ann-Margret
Johnny Are You Queer? Josie Cotton
Fuck Off - Wayne County and The Electric Chairs
Big Girls Don't Cry - Edith Massey
I'm a Woman - Peggy Lee
Suey - Jayne Mansfield
Pass the Hatchet - Roger and The Gypsies
Vampira - The Misfits
Nausea - X
Intoxica - The Centurions
Aphrodisiac - Bow Wow Wow
Bossa Nova Baby - Elvis Presley
Shout - Johnny Hallyday
Contact - Brigitte Bardot
These Boots Are Made for Walkin' - Mrs Miller
Meu Bem Lollipop - Wanderlea
Fever - Nancy Sit
Somethin' Else - Sid Vicious
The Girl Can't Help It - Little Richard
Sweetie Pie - Eddie Cochran
The Swag - Link Wray
Jim Dandy - Sara Lee and The Spades
Whistle Bait - Larry Collins
Boss - The Rumblers
I Wish I Was a Princess - Little Peggy March
My Way - Sid Vicious

In related outsider art drag news: I touched visiting American skank goddess Christeene’s dick at The Soho Theatre on Saturday 17 September! It was a profound and religious moment! I was up-front with my friend Tara and her mother Paula. During one song early in her set Christeene made scary direct eye contact with me with those glowing ice-blue Children of the Damned contact lenses, reached out to me, I grabbed her hand – and she guided my hand straight to her crotch and squeezed. The whole night (the culmination of Christeene’s glorious two-week residency at The Soho Theatre) was pretty damn spectacular – grubby, sleazy, freaky and punky. It opened with him jumping up and dangling from a ceiling pipe above the stage doing flawless pole dancer moves and ended with the sentimental favourite “African Mayonnaise”, punctuated with deep stripper squats, crotch-thrusting dance routines, glimpses of genitalia, multiple costume changes, copious spitting and onstage rimming. And as an added bonus, doyenne of punk fashion Dame Vivienne Westwood was in attendance! (Westwood looked great: very chic with platinum blonde hair, approachable and friendly; Tara and Paula had their photo taken with her). Afterwards we were all standing around outside and Christeene was circulating through the crowd talking to people. I managed to tell him: I’m old enough to have seen artists like Lux Interior of The Cramps, Iggy Pop, Grace Jones and Jayne County perform multiple times and you are carrying on in their tradition. He replied, “Everyone you just mentioned is like family to me” - and kissed me on the lips. In fact Tara, her mother and I all got kisses on the lips from Christeene. Swoon!

Christeene_and_David_Hoyle_at Vogue Fabrics

/ Sadly, none of the photos taken Saturday night turned out terribly well. This shot of the radiant Christeene and I was snapped in summer 2014 the legendary night he and David Hoyle performed together at Vogue Fabrics in Dalston.  Please don’t judge me for the unsightly sweat patches on my t-shirt: it was packed in that basement and hotter than hell! Condensation was dripping from the ceiling! /

And finally: my next Lobotomy Room club night is coming up soon!


Wilder than you can imagine! Explicit beyond belief! Revel in sleaze, voodoo and rock’n’roll - when incredibly strange dance party Lobotomy Room returns to the Polynesian-style basement Bamboo Lounge of Dalston’s premiere Art Deco vice den Fontaine’s! Friday 30 September! With sensational special offer cocktails on the night!

Lobotomy Room! Where sin lives! A punkabilly booze party! Sensual and depraved! A spectacle of decadence! Bad Music for Bad People! A Mondo Trasho evening of Beat, Beat Beatsville Beatnik Rock’n’Roll! Rockabilly Psychosis! Wailing Rhythm and Blues! Twisted Tittyshakers! Punk! White Trash Rockers! Kitsch! Exotica! Curiosities and other Weird Shit! Think John Waters soundtracks, or Songs the Cramps Taught Us, hosted by Graham Russell (of Dr Sketchy and Cockabilly notoriety). Expect desperate stabs from the jukebox jungle! Savage rhythms to make you writhe and rock! Now with vintage erotica projected on the wall for your adult viewing pleasure! Come for the £6 cocktails - stay for the putrid music and dirty movies!

Admission: gratuit - that’s French for FREE!

Lobotomy Room: Faster. Further. Filthier.

It’s sleazy. It’s grubby. It’s trashy - you’ll love it!

A tawdry good time guaranteed!

Event page

Friday, 9 September 2016

Buy Ike and Tina Turner's Old House!

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Yes! You can now buy Ike and Tina’s Turner’s former residence! 4263 Olympiad Drive in Los Angeles neighbourhood View Park (once nicknamed “the Black Beverley Hills”) is on the market for $999,000. The current owners bought it from the tempestuous rhythm and blues royal couple in 1977 (Tina left Ike in 1976, so after their stormy marriage imploded).  Miraculously – they kept it almost entirely intact as the Turners left it! Koi fish no longer swim in the living room’s water feature and the erotic murals on the wall appear to be painted-over but otherwise the living room’s curved sofas and the circular bed in the master bedroom (worthy of a brothel) are still in place.  In fact the house is such a perfect time capsule it was used as a location for the 1993 Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got To Do With It? (Judging by the photos in this link, even the avocado-green rotary phone from the seventies is still in use!).  As an Ike and Tina obsessive (I can't imagine DJ'ing at a Lobotomy Room night without dropping a few tracks by the Ike and Tina Revue) I need to make a religious pilgrimage to this place before the next owners completely renovate it!

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\ The living room sofas were originally upholstered in red velvet \

From what I can gather, Ike and Tina moved into the Olympiad Drive address in the late sixties. The despotic Ike – then at the height of his cocaine psychosis - took charge of the decor. His lurid, wildly kitsch nouveau riche decorating flourishes are worthy of comparison to Elvis’ Graceland or Jayne Mansfield’s Pink Palace.  As Tina’s biographer / ghost writer Kurt Loder vividly describes it in her 1986 volume of memoirs I, Tina“The place looked like a bordello in hell, a Las Vegas nightmare of deep-pile red carpeting, flocked walls, and some of the most bizarre decorative appointments (Tina) had ever seen: a custom-made blue velvet couch with arms that turned into tentacles, a coffee table in the shape of a bass guitar, a waterfall in the family room. Televisions were now housed in cabinets carved to resemble giant snail shells and there was a mirror on the ceiling of the master bedroom. In fact there mirrors everywhere and lots of stained glass, red and gold velvet, eggshell-white wood, plastic plants, burbling aquariums – all of it screaming splendour.”  

As an aghast Tina herself recalled, “The colours surrounded you. One room was all blue. The kitchen was green. (Ike) thought I’d be happy because, yeah, I did like green. But not necessarily in my kitchen. In that way, everything had been done first class, custom-made at the house – I mean, it cost a fortune. But it was poor taste.”  Or should that be gloriously bad taste! 

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/ At home with Ike and Tina (with flocked wallpaper as described above in evidence). Where is that exquisite naive outsider art folk portrait of Ike and Tina now? I'd kill to get my hands on that! /

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/ Ike and Tina's dining room - preserved in amber. Note the vintage avocado green phone /

To save you the hassle, I've scoured the internet looking for photo documentation of Ike and Tina at home in the Olympiad address in the seventies. I didn't come up with much, and none of it is in colour, sadly. But at least we can do some "then and now" comparison:

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/ Phone call for Miss Turner ... the deluxe well-appointed bar. The tropical fish aquarium is now empty /

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/ In the kitchen with Tina. This room is comparatively drab and functional. The kitchen was obviously not a priority for Ike /

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/ Below: Rhythm and blues royalty Ike and Tina in the seventies, their baroque / high rococo phase/

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Read all about the house and see more eye-popping photos here.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Reflections on ... La Dolce Vita (1960)

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/ The glorious Anita Ekberg (1931 - 2015) as Sylvia in La Dolce Vita (1960) /

From the Facebook events page for the Lobotomy Room Goes to the Movies film club on 28 August 2016 at Fontaine's:

Attention, jaded Continental sophisticates! Embrace the spirit of Eurotrash hedonism (and pretend we’re still in the EU) when Lobotomy Room presents a FREE special decadent Bank Holiday Sunday [28 August] screening of Federico Fellini’s carnival-esque and hallucinatory epic masterpiece La Dolce Vita (1960)! You know that iconic image of voluptuous Swedish sex bomb Anita Ekberg frolicking in Rome’s Trevi Fountain? That’s from La Dolce Vita – one of the most stylish movies ever made! It captures the acme of Italian glamour: the cars, the clothes, the nightlife (no one films debauched nightclub, party and orgy scenes like Fellini in his 1960s pomp) and most of all – the sunglasses! While you watch the film, take the edge off your hangover with negronis or glasses of Prosecco! Needless to say it’s illegal to smoke in the Bamboo Lounge, but feel free to keep your shades on!

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Because of the film’s running time (three hours!), the film starts earlier than usual at 6 pm. Arrive circa 5:30 to order your drinks and grab the best seats downstairs in the Bamboo Lounge. (I’ll be down there playing music and screening vintage “nudie cutie” blue movies before the main feature). The film is FREE and seating is limited. If you’re feeling proactive, contact Fontaine’s to reserve a seat in advance: email ruby@fontaines.bar or call 07718 000546.


The love-hungry, pleasure-chasing international sin set is coming – to Lobotomy Room’s FREE screening of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita THIS Sunday! In the basement Bamboo Lounge of Fontaine’s! It promises to be an orgiastic Bacchanal! See the film condemned by the Catholic Church as blasphemous and banned in Spain until 1975! (By the way: in 2016 Photobucket.com keeps deleting this photo saying it violates their standards! La Dolce Vita is still freaking out the squares all these decades later!) /

This represented the first time Lobotomy Room ever presented a serious art film with subtitles! In fact, I warned the attendees: "Do you realise you’ve signed-up for a three-hour black-and-white foreign-language film with subtitles? The doors are now locked – you aren’t going anywhere!" When I first proposed La Dolce Vita to Ruby (Fontaine’s glamorous boss lady), she expressed doubts whether anyone would actually want to sit through it. In fact we pulled-in a more than decent house and everyone sat rapt and intoxicated by Fellini’s vision. His filmmaking is so fluid, swirling and seductive, the three hours flew by.

As usual, before the film I stood up and blurted-out a garbled, half-assed introduction. (My public speaking style can definitely best be described as “blurted”). I definitely mentioned that in the spirit of La Dolce Vita, I had a thunderous hangover that Sunday. Anyway, here is a summary of the points and fun facts I spewed (obviously I've expanded considerably here):

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/ See the world's most handsome man (Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita) suffer a profound existential crisis! /

Federico Fellini (1920 – 1993) had already made a few great films by this point (I particularly love 1957’s Nights of Cabiria), but the international success of La Dolce Vita really catapulted him to worldwide fame.

The film was sizzling and scandalous for its time. Perhaps inevitably the Catholic Church hated La Dolce Vita, considering it blasphemous (it was banned in Franco's Spain until 1975!). The film lets Fellini have his cake and eat it too: it’s a critique or exposé of the moral bankruptcy and hollowness of “the sweet life” (fame, wealth, celebrity and hedonism) – but we still get to enjoy watching the lengthy lurid scenes of orgies, nightlife and the beautiful people cavorting at length. (Dolce Vita is an “art film” but that’s the template for pretty much all “cautionary” sexploitation films since too!).

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La Dolce Vita takes a state-of-the nation overview of Rome’s post-war upheaval. The themes of alienation and the collapse of conventional morality are personified by the existential angst of its anti-hero Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni), torn between art (writing the Great Novel; the world of poetry, philosophy and spirituality espoused by his intellectual friends) and commerce (his job as a sensational tabloid journalist writing about the superficial realms of cafe society and show business).

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To contrast against the tawdry Roman nightlife centred around Via Veneto, mid-way through the film we see Marcello and his fiancée Emma attend his friend Steiner’s intellectual high-toned salon full of poets, artists and the literary set (complete with a sari-clad Asian woman seated on the floor strumming the guitar and singing folk songs and guests reciting poetry aloud).  No doubt I’m missing the point entirely, but the final climactic orgiastic party (where the divorcee does a striptease writhing on the floor) looks far more fun! (Bear in mind this film was made in 1959, so these are orgy scenes where everyone remains fully clothed! See also: Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Red Desert).

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/ One of my favourite party scenes in La Dolce Vita, set in the crumbling ruins of a castle (the gorgeous blonde in the centre of the dissolute aristocrats is Nico!) /

An interesting side note is the presence of clearly-identified gay and cross-dressing characters in several of these nightclub and party scenes.  Fascinating as it is to see frank and overt LGBT representation in a film made in 1959, what’s problematic today is that Fellini seemingly employs them to depict how low Marcello has sunk! (If you’re at a party surrounded by pretty chorus boys frolicking in drag, you’ve basically reached Dante's inner circle of hell).

Seen today, La Dolce Vita is incredibly prescient in its anticipation of the relentless celebrity and gossip culture we are now saturated in and - for better or for worse - take for granted as a constant backdrop to our daily lives.  (This is, famously, the film where the expression “paparazzi” for celebrity photographers came from: Marcello’s sidekick and photographer friend is called Paparazzo).

The film also works as a time capsule of the late fifties period when international film productions started flooding Rome's Cinecittà Studios (leading to it being nicknamed "Hollywood on the Tiber").  A lot of terrible gladiator, sword-and-sandal and Biblical epics were made at Cinecittà during these years, but so too were parts of the mega-budget 1962 Liz Taylor version of Cleopatra. Weirdly, almost all of La Dolce Vita itself was shot within the confines of Cinecittà as opposed to “on location.” (For example, Fellini painstakingly recreated Via Veneto  in the studio). Sadly, the particular studio of Cinecittà  where most of La Dolce Vita was made was destroyed in a fire in 2012

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La Dolce Vita is loosely structured around Marcello’s fleeting encounters with a series of beautiful women. The most fondly-remembered and iconic of these is probably the truly statuesque Anita Ekberg as visiting Hollywood starlet Sylvia, in town to make a film at Cinecittà. (I love it when - during Sylvia’s sensational publicity stunt arrival at the airport - one of the reporters turns to Marcello and admiringly declares her a “magnificent chunk of woman!”). Ekberg is probably essentially playing a cartoonish version of herself, but it’s nice to think Sylvia’s characterisation (especially the campy, cooing little girl delivery) is a bit influenced by Jayne Mansfield.  Like Sylvia and her insecure boozy actor husband (played by Lex Barker), certainly sex kitten-gone-berserk Mansfield and her muscle-bound former Mr Universe husband Mickey Hargitay spent a lot of time stirring up trouble and making terrible movies in Rome in the early sixties. One bit does feel like an explicit tribute to Mansfield: the party scene where Frankie (one of the visiting Hollywood actors working in Rome) hoists Ekberg over his head and twirls her around  – that was one of Mansfield and Hargitay’s favourite attention-seeking party tricks.

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/ Mickey and Jayne in action /

(By the way: the famous Trevi fountain scene was shot in the middle of winter.  Mastroianni wore a wet-suit under his clothes and slugged vodka to keep warm. Fellini recalled that Ekberg didn’t complain about the cold at all).

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Who’s that girl? The mystery blonde with Marcello Mastroianni is – Nico! Yes, that Nico – long before the eternally enigmatic singer was discovered by Andy Warhol and joined the Velvet Underground as husky-voiced chanteuse, German fashion model Nico memorably appeared in La Dolce Vita as one of the series of beautiful women Marcello encounters on his nocturnal jaunts through Roman nightlife. And the role was a real stretch for her – she’s playing a fashion model called Nico!/

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/ Fellini and Nico during the filming of La Dolce Vita /

Still in her early twenties, Nico was then what we now would call an in-demand, international “supermodel." I’m probably not very objective (the gloomy German diva is my all-time favourite singer), but I think her performance in La Dolce Vita is adorable, natural and – perhaps surprisingly considering Nico’s later icily-serious, gravely-composed, heroin-ravaged tortured artist image – very funny.  If you’ve read Richard Witt’s 1993 biography Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon or seen the 1996 documentary Nico: Icon, you’ll know La Dolce Vita really captures what Nico was like at that period in her life: still un-corrupted, insouciant and childlike, jet-setting around the world on modelling assignments. 

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/ See Anouk Aimee as the most elegant wealthy nymphomaniac in film history! /

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/ The fabulous Anouk Aimee in La Dolce Vita /

The most complex and inscrutable of Marcello’s women is Anouk Aimee as the bored, haughty heiress Maddalena. I’ve already written at length about Modigliani-faced French actress Anouk Aimee’s performance as Maddalena, but seeing La Dolce Vita again I was struck by two things:  1) her voice is dubbed throughout by an Italian actress (having another actor dub someone’s voice was routine in Italian cinema at the time but feels weird today. Aimee’s own distinctive whisper-soft voice is notably different), for most of her screen-time she keeps black sunglasses clamped-on and I suspect the bouffant hairstyle she sports is a wig. So Anouk Aimee is essentially in disguise! But Maddalena’s alluring sense of remote, Garbo-like inscrutability and melancholy is entirely Aimee’s own.  2) Aimee is so thin in La Dolce Vita, she’s almost wraith-like (her waist is worthy of comparison to Vampira’s). Also: virtually all of La Dolce Vita’s main players are dead now.  Aimee is still alive (she’s a very stylish 84-year old).  So is Yvonne Furneaux (now 88), the French actress who plays Marcello’s neurotic and suicidal fiancée Emma.  Furneaux appeared in some pretty distinguished European art films in addition to La Dolce Vita, like the early Antonioni film Le Amiche (1955) and as Catherine Deneuve’s sister in Repulsion (1965). Furneaux really excelled at playing mentally unstable women! 

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If you’ve never watched La Dolce Vita before, anticipate being taken aback by just how troubling the film is. (Afterwards I spoke to one of the attendees who’d never seen the film before. She was surprised by how dark La Dolce Vita was: she was expecting something sweeter and more Audrey Hepburn-esque. ) The film is fondly-remembered as a sentimental classic of mid-century European cinema, but Fellini’s vision is deeply un-consoling, unexpectedly incorporating suicide and infanticide.  (Even religion is depicted as just another cynical form of show business. No wonder the Catholic Church hated it!). La Dolce Vita begins as Marcello’s existential crisis and concludes with his permanent journey into darkness. Bravely, Fellini makes Marcello become progressively more unsympathetic and misogynistic as the film proceeds. (Women get casually slapped around and roughed-up a lot in La Dolce Vita). An enduring masterpiece of style and substance, La Dolce Vita deserves its status as one of the most chic films ever made (the nightclub scenes! The cha cha music!), but it’s the uncompromisingly bleak ending that lingers in your memory.

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/ I love this candid shot. Lunch break on the set of La Dolce Vita! The people assembled here are like European art cinema royalty of the fifties and sixties: Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimee, Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini (the controversial queer filmmaker and poet collaborated on La Dolce Vita’s script). Note that they are being serenaded by an accordion player while they dine – the sweet life indeed! /