Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Midnight Movie Monographers: JEZ WINSHIP

Like John Llewellyn Probert, Jez Winship first appeared as an Electric Dreamhouse author as a contributor to WE ARE THE MARTIANS: THE LEGACY OF NIGEL KNEALE, with his essay "Quatermass: Rebirth and Resurrection." As a professional librarian, photographer, and broadcaster for Phonic FM in Exeter, he claims he hasn't yet acquired the personal confidence to think of himself as a professional writer, but - in addition to having racked up an excellent Goodreads score, on the strength of his book on George A. Romero's MARTIN - he has also annotated the work of the Folklore Tapes Collective and written the biographical notes for the first release by The Children of Alice - James Cargill's post-Broadcast work with Roj Stevens and Julian House. Jez is presently embarking on his next Midnight Movie Monograph, devoted to Jaromil Jureš' exquisite VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS... 

Jez, you wrote first Midnight Movie Monograph to be published. Therefore, you wrote your book without a specific model sitting in front of you. What sort of guidelines did series editor Neil Snowdon give you?

Neil is a good friend of mine. We first met when he was running a video rental store in Exeter in the South West of England. It was called Brazil, after the Terry Gilliam film, and was filled with offbeat delights. As soon as I walked in and we started chatting (I remember him leaning on the broom he was cleaning up with, like a thoughtful caretaker), I knew I had found a fellow spirit. The Midnight Movie Monograph series came into his head after he had left Exeter and headed back up north with his wife Lili and daughter Mina. I had written extensively on a blog called Sparks in Electric Jelly, which Neil had set up before bowing out to pursue other directions and handing it over to me. I think it was my writing for this which led Neil to choose me as the first person to write for the Monograph series. Quite an honour and a declaration of faith considering I wasn’t (and still am not, really) a professional writer. We talked about the project from the initial germ of the idea through to its approach towards practical realisation. I was entirely behind Neil’s idea that these books should be written from the standpoint of enthusiasm and love. People writing about films which meant a great deal to them. Whilst we found the BFI Modern Classics series admirable in many ways, we agreed that it would be great to have a series which dealt with films on the cult spectrum, and particularly within the genres of the fantastic, which took a less academic approach. I was particularly weary of the standardised academic language to be found in these books and in other volumes, evidently written by people who had been on film studies courses and who had absorbed the accepted style and set of references. So hopefully no high-falutin’ references to Baudrillard or Benjamin, Deleuze or Derrida. But no converse anti-intellectualism either. Just make the ideas you own. In a way then, the BFI Classics were the counter-example. I admit I may have had the odd mini-rant to Neil about academic jargon and the exclusion of emotional response from the clinical autopsies which constitute some analyses (and the competitive "I’ve seen more films than you" kind of cross-referencing, which attempts some kind of taxonomy of the cinema). There’s value in this, certainly. But film is nothing without the emotional response. And that is a very personal thing. Our favourite films invite a highly personal response; they connect with us on a level which overlays the contours of our particular emotional landscape as we sit there in the darkness. We agreed that it was this personal perspective, possibly including elements of autobiography that we wanted. Firstly, how did this film make you feel, and then an examination of why it elicited that response. Which, as I suggested from the outset in my book, would probably reveal something about the author, both to her or himself and to the reader.

Your book is about George Romero’s film MARTIN. Why do you think you were attracted to this film, in particular?

MARTIN had long been a favourite film of mine and one which meant a great deal to me as a fairly reclusive, introverted teenager. I found John Amplas’ performance particularly compelling and, whilst I wouldn’t say I identified with the character (he is, after all, a compulsive killer), I felt a great deal of sympathy for him. I also found the evocation of a decaying town and community fascinating. It was a film which set a mood, one of autumnal melancholy and I found that this mood chimed perfectly with my state of mind at the time. It still does, to be honest. Other favourites of youth haven’t stood the test of time, but MARTIN definitely has. One of the reasons for choosing it as my subject was a desire to revisit it and discover just why this might be. A process of self-discovery, in a way. Mentally travelling back to my rather lonely and isolated youth, when cinema was such a vital and spiritually nourishing place into which to retreat. Neil knew from various conversations that it was a favourite film of mine (of both of ours, in fact) and suggested I write about it - for which I am very grateful (hence the dedication of the book). He really is the most considerate and encouraging of editors – and friends.

How did you first discover the film? Was your enthusiastic response to MARTIN immediate? 

I’d read about it before seeing it, probably in STARBURST, a British magazine devoted to science fiction, fantasy and horror cinema. Oddly enough, the first Romero film I’d seen was THE CRAZIES, which had been shown a couple of times as part of the BBC’s Saturday night horror double bills. These are now semi-legendary, and introduced many people of a certain generation to classic horror (just ask Mark Gattiss and the other members of The League of Gentlemen). I had also seen DAWN OF THE DEAD, I believe, which was available at the local video rental shop. But the first opportunity I had to see MARTIN was during a George Romero all-nighter at the celebrated Scala Cinema in Kings Cross, London. As a boy growing up in the London suburbs, this was a regular haunt of mine and served as my cinema school (actual school was shit, so my proper education occurred beyond its confining walls). MARTIN was the film I was really looking forward to. It must’ve started screening at about 2:00 in the morning. I’m fairly squeamish, particularly when it comes to the slice of a razor blade or any other sharp edge for some reason, and I have a vivid memory of feeling distinctly queasy to the point of nausea at the initial drawing of blood in the train carriage. But once I had recovered, I was immediately entranced, drawn into that melancholic mood and lulled into a state of dreamy early hours enchantment by the slow, hypnotic pace at which the film unspooled (and oh, how I’d love to see that fabled 3 hour cut). It was immediately elevated into my personal canon alongside other Scala favourites such as La Belle et La Bête, WINGS OF DESIRE, IF… and SOLARIS. It must have been on the telly soon afterwards, because I remember it becoming a staple of my late-night viewing on the clunky top-loading family video recorder. As with much-loved records whose scratches become a familiar component of the music, the hiccups and elisions caused by pauses and stops on the antediluvian machinery became part of the repeated experience on this increasingly clapped-out video. This repeated viewing etched it firmly into my impressionable young brain. And I’m all the better for it, I think. 

How do you view the film in relation to Romero’s other work?

It feels like a very personal film for him. I know he regarded it as such, and that it was a favourite of his. The relatively low-key tone and the stretches of narrative, which are devoid of explicit action, allow for a reflective mood and impressionistic, observational style. It’s a film in which Romero is able to observe and examine the surroundings in a manner considered more ‘arthouse’. But the same themes re-occur. One of the reasons I love Romero is that he addresses social, economic and political issues in a non-didactical and unobtrusive way. They are incorporated within the wider narrative without dominating it, without making a capitalised "Issue" of  things. As someone who grew up in and felt wholly alienated by the '80s of Reagan and Thatcher, I was always drawn to the counterculture of the '60s and early '70s. Romero definitely feels part of that (he never lost the pony-tail). The politics feels more explicit here, if not quite on a Ken Loach level. But there is definitely a keen eye for the depredations of life in a declining town in the industrial rust belt. These political dimensions are never exactly buried in Romero’s other films, however. So whilst MARTIN stands out in some respects, in others it is part of the wider oeuvre. I also find Romero’s female characters fascinating. I’m not sure whether he was a feminist, but he certainly takes into account the radical changes taking place in the ideas of gender roles and women’s place in society during the '70s. MARTIN is Christina and Abby’s story as much as it is anybody’s. The writing of strong female roles certainly connects it to Romero’s other work.

I assume you’ve seen the film numerous times over the years. Has it changed, or continue to evolve for you, over successive viewings?

It has, yes. I can still remember the impact it had on me as a teenager, and I certainly haven’t watched it with the fervent frequency I did then. I think I’ve come to appreciate more the subtleties of the social dynamic which are unobtrusively suggested in the film. Familiarity with the story has also given the space for concentrating on different elements of the film, such as the style and the editing, particularly of the black-and-white dream/memory sequences. I also came to realise how much Donald Rubinstein’s music had added to the creation of the overall music. Much as I came to realise that Bernard Herrmann’s music had been a major factor in my enjoyment of many favourite films of my youth. It’s a funny thing about films which made a huge impact early in life and which you come back to at intervening intervals intervals in subsequent years. There’s an accretion of experience and emotional development (hopefully!) which transforms each viewing, the personal sedimentary layers which inevitably make it very different each time. But underlying it all, that initial encounter still comes through. It can be a tremendously powerful and cathartic (and sometimes unsettling) experience. 

What do you think your choice of MARTIN may tell the reader about you, its author?

I think any book in this series will tell us something about the authors, given the personal response Neil is aiming for. I certainly feel a personal connection with MARTIN. My choice of it - which, in the context of the Midnight Movie Monograph ethos indicates that it is a film I have a great and abiding love for - probably indicates that I feel a great deal of empathy for the outsider, the marginalized, the lonely. And a great deal of antipathy for the reactionary forces of self-righteous repression, unbending conservativism and self-serving authority. The howling mob with their blazing torches.

Did you find it difficult, to write about a single film at such length? 

Actually, no. I think the approach I took – a narrative breakdown with numerous diversions into tributaries of biographical, cultural and historical detail – made the process, if not easy, then at least continuous. And once I’d laid the groundwork with research via the local public and university libraries (handily, I work in the local one and so have access to the capacious underground "stacks"), I found I had no shortage of material. I think that my familiarity with the film, my love of it, helped. It was just such a pleasure digging up these new layers, shining a light onto areas about which I had previously been ignorant. As I mentioned in my Introduction, there is always a danger in a close study of something you hold dear that some of the magic aura it has always emanated will dim. But that was not the case – entirely the opposite. I love it all the more for what I discovered. Hopefully the book has the same effect on readers who love the film too.

As you were writing your book, did you notice your appreciation for the film changing, or deepening in unexpected ways? 

Yes, partly due to my discovery of the background to its creation. The communal nature of the endeavour, the closeness of cast and crew and the connection made with local actors, film-makers and characters seemed to provide an alternative to the isolation and social decay which the film depicted. That quiet idealism, an idealism put into undemonstrative practice, made me admire and respect Romero and his film all the more. 

What approach did you take to your book? Did you interview any of the film’s personnel directly, or rely on subjective analysis and documentation, or is it a purely personal appreciation and invocation of it?

It was a purely personal appreciation. I read from various sources, but part of the non-academic approach which Neil is aiming for involves a more direct reaction from the writer. Less of the "so and so says this about the film" cross-indexing. So my book is massively subjective, but hopefully not waywardly so. I was keen to bring in references from the world beyond film too. I’m not too keen on cinema when it becomes overly self-referential. I prefer a broader cultural approach which takes in art, music, literature – everything, really. I didn’t interview any of the film’s personnel. As a non-professional writer, I didn’t feel confident enough to approach anyone.   

It's interesting you say this, because I recently got to meet John Amplas, the star of the film, and asked if he was aware of your book. He was not only aware of it, but he had a copy of the book with him and spoke of it enthusiastically! Have you been in direct communication with him?

Yes, I have. I think it was probably meeting with you that prompted him to get in touch. He sent me a Facebook message expressing how much he liked the book, and in particular affirming that its depiction of the communal, collaborative nature of the film’s making was accurate. It was a huge thrill hearing this from him, the ultimate accolade really. I sent him an email in response, and it was very gratifying being able to tell him directly how much his performance had meant to me. Although I think he will have gathered that from the book. Neil had sent me a link to an Amazon review in which the reviewer had indicated that it was John Amplas who had guided her to the book! What better recommendation! 

Your next book in the series has been announced as VALERIE AND HER WEEK OF WONDERS. Is there connecting tissue between MARTIN and this film, that makes it of similar importance to you?

VALERIE is a film which I came to rather later in life. It has a similarly personal importance, which again is why it’s a good choice for the Midnight Movie Monograph series. I was pointed to it by a band who mean a lot to me, Broadcast - and by their late singer Trish Keenan, in particular. I’ve not really thought about it before, but I suppose there is a connection of sorts, given that they are both about characters crossing the threshold into maturity. But whereas Martin is an urban (or suburban) film, VALERIE is very much a rural fantasy. So I guess the similarity ends there. Although they do both have vampires of a sort. VALERIE is something more of a challenge, in that I feel I have to absorb a good deal about Czech history and culture before I can truly embark, even if that becomes largely part of the invisible bedding. I’ve amassed a certain amount of material already, so I’m ready to go. With Broadcast’s "Valerie" playing on repeat in the background.

MARTIN by Jez Winship is available for ordering here

(c) 2018 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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