Sixty Degrees of Separation: I met Johnny Lydon/Rotten 33 years ago at Strawberries Records in Boston. Several months ago I stumbled upon a performance by Lydon in downtown Austin/Roger Ebert worked with Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious on a film called “Who Killed Bambi”/Roger Ebert wrote about the Vicious Circle at the Algonquin Hotel/John Updike dreamed of being a part of the Vicious Circle at the Algonquin Hotel. /Roger Ebert and John Updike loved the movies. /John Updike loved Doris Day./ Roger Ebert loved Doris Day and did the narration for a seven part documentary on her for PBS. And uh, I like the movies, but not the ones with Liza Minnelli. Okay I got nothin’ but here goes:
Movies lifted the men and women of drab American towns and cities from their ordinary lives onto a supernatural level. We all tried, in our small ways, to live up to the stars—to dress as smartly, to act as bravely, to love as completely. No wonder that so many of the vacant theaters are now churches. We worshipped in those spaces, and for all the frequent shoddiness and imbecility of the mass-market motion picture, there was nothing to prevent grandeur from occurring; there were, in the mad profusion, the weekly tumble, works of cinematic art that moved and transformed us absolutely as the best and noblest painting, music, and poetry. For Americans, it was our native opera, bastard and sublime.” -John Updike
“Upon completing Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, a tearful LIZA MINNELLI declared publicly that she would never, ever work with tyrannical director Otto Preminger again.” Vincent Canby New York Times Review 1970
The first time I watched a movie being made up-close was in 1969. I was eleven years old and my Dad was in the hospital recovering from prostate cancer surgery. Dad told me that they decided during the surgery to remove his testicles in an effort to slow the growth of the malignancy. My Mother was sad, as she knew my dad felt hurt and humiliated. She told me later that he had apologized to her, as it appeared to him that their physical intimacy would essentially be over. I could tell that they needed their privacy and went downstairs to the lobby of the Salem Hospital. I quickly became distracted from my parent’s ordeal however, as I found they were shooting A MOVIE!
I stood in the doorway of the hospital lobby seemingly unnoticed, as a bald man who looked to me like a Nazi or a Bond villain, was ordering a frail looking girl, dressed in shabby inpatient attire named Liza Minnelli, to do the the same elementary scene over and over and over again. The man I was told was Otto Preminger, (known only to me as Mr Freeze from the Batman TV series) a respected director of films that were “edgy” and sometimes risque. I knew who Liza Minnelli was, and I most certainly knew of her mother from the Wizard of Oz. I had always found Liza to be an anti-celebrity of sorts. As an insecure kid, I recognized in her a certain desperation. I later read that the film had begun shooting on June 10, 1969, which was Judy Garland’s birthday. Garland died a couple of weeks later on June 22. Liza was criticized in the press for a nude scene that was done in a cemetary for the film, so shortly after her mothers passing,
I was here watching the Hollywood sausage being made and it wasn’t pretty. Still, I felt compelled to watch this Germanic sounding man wielding directorial power over this seemingly brutalized waif. I read the other day that Alec Baldwin said: “Film is a directors medium- the director makes it into a movie. The actor doesn’t make it into a movie. You’re like an ingredient in a salad”. It just looked like the director was eccentrically making Liza put down a vase with a single rose in it with unending variations of force, as if to achieve a certain volume as it was slammed upon the table. It seemed like a lost scene from Sunset Boulevard. We have all witnessed the overwrought Academy Awards moments: the “You like me, you really, really like me!” gushing. Well it’s no wonder these show-dogs want their moments of recognition, if this is the nightmare of debasement, required for the constuction of celluloid dreams.
What I was watching, I only just learned, (since finding the Youtube video from the movie which was titled “Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon”) was essentially a “blocking” rehearsal. Liza with a Z was alone in the room, wearing a shabby bathrobe. Preminger ordered her repeatedly to wordlessly traverse the hospital lobby and plop a vase containing a single rose on a table across the room. I don’t know how many times he ordered her to “do it again”, but it seemed like a cruel exercise to me. I watched this bit of absurdist theater, (which I remember to be a count of 37 takes…but I could be wrong) before I finally walked away as my discomfort became unbearable. I felt a toe-curling humiliation by proxy for Miss Minnelli.
Years later I tried to watch the movie, but much like Minnelli’s other films, the Sterile Cuckoo and Cabaret, that came out around that time, I always felt embarrassed for her. I usually like films about human pain and dysfunction- I can relate. I have always loved Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a revelation to me when I first saw it at seventeen. In the Youtube video you see Minnelli approach two men sitting at a table and now, with the addition of scarring makeup, place the rose on the table in such an incidental manner that it seems even more strange that she was forced to “DO IT AGAIN”.. take after take.
I’ve since witnessed the tedium and monotony of movie sets, but nothing that seemed so utterly degrading as that. I returned to my father’s hospital room to seek refuge from the pain of what I had just witnessed. -Paul Moran
Lydon at Strawberries Records in Boston circa 1980
Regarding Johnny Rotten
Around 1980 I went to see Johnny Rotten (formerly of the Sex Pistols) aka John Lydon perform with his new band PIL (Public Image Limited) at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. It was a primitively elegant and thrilling concert. Lydon was still the master anti-showman. At one point he began to verbally attack the audience as the performance intentionally ground to a halt. Johnny, Jah Wobble, Keith Levine and the rest of the band quit the stage after only 45 minutes of play.
The audience booed themselves hoarse in the darkened theater. A spot light popped on, and a duck walking Lydon returned to the stage in an oversized suit jacket. Like the Hunchback of Bristol he perversely began picking up the objects that had been angrily thrown at the stage and placing them in his pockets. “Throw more money!” Lydon demanded. The band gradually resumed playing and the audience loved the provocation.
I was walking down a street in Austin with my wife Mary five months ago, when I heard a band playing in a downtown park. I said to Mary: “That band you hear is doing a really nice tribute to a group I saw 30 years ago called Public Image Limited”. We crossed the street and inquired as to who was playing. I was stunned that it was indeed PIL! I bribed a security guard (16 bucks) to let us both in to see the rest of the show. Lydon still had it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like a punk rock dream. One minute I was strolling along on a warm Austin evening, and the next I was having a flashback in real time. -Paul Moran
MCLAREN & MEYER & ROTTEN VICIOUS & ME By Roger Ebert
MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE By Roger Ebert
Updike began writing for the New Yorker at 22. “They accepted a light-verse poem, and then they took a story. Taking the story was very important to me because that was the New Yorker, and here I was on that Pennsylvania farm. I had once thought: how can you get from here to there? And now I had gotten there.” His first intention was to be a humorist – “I thought that was a very harmless thing to be” – and to join the suave Algonquin gang whose jokes had given him much pleasure and whose drawings he had traced in imitation. “But of course by the time I got there the gang was gone and the party was over. It’s sometimes said that cold war anxieties, atomic bomb anxieties, killed humor, though I don’t really buy it. But anyway, the time when facetious writing could attract real talents was over, and the talents were looking elsewhere.