Jesco White – The Dancing Outlaw of Bandytown

Sanity, it seems benefits from the mundane. A happy medium is healthy for ones mental mechanics. But sometimes the mundane isn’t always an option. Dominic Murphy’s new film “White Lightnin” examines the collapsing male mind and uses the rip-roaring, gas-sniffing life of Appalachian trailer dweller, Jesco White, the dancing folk legend and inspiration for many an alt-country song, to do so. It is a re-imagining of his sordid, tragedy ridden existence, with a  fictional ending which shows Jesco (played by Edward Hogg in his first lead role) descend into madness and murder, events that could have occurred had his demons got the better of him. A “dark fairy story that considers a mind totally out of control” is what it’s creator calls it, with hillbilly dancing, hells angels, the raucousness of trailer life and Carrie Fisher all thrown in for good measure.

Parts of the American south have always seemed to have a collective screw loose, Jesco “The Dancing Outlaw” White being a case in point. His mind was fractured early by sniffing gas and injecting heroin and worn down by tortured years in jails and asylums. He had numerous shootouts with the police and faced the kidnap of his son and murder of his father ( an event the films Jesco never recovers from). The golden thread running through his life though is Appalachian mountain dancing, a skill passed from father to son. It involves the ability to look cool while generally flailing ones limbs around to hillbilly music. He still performs today, touring sporadically, and sporting his own My Space, which showcases some of his favourite videos from years past, including one of country heroine and songstress Cousin Emmy, who plays “You Are My Sunshine” via the whistles and squeaks of a deflating balloon. Backed by Pete Seeger on guitar of course. Eccentricity at its purest.

Jesco the dancer is a wonderfully original character, who Ed says “ seems to burn brighter than those around him when you meet him in the flesh.” In his calmer moments he is a southern gentleman, God fearing and father to his numerous children. He has alter egos to, that he drifts in and out of. He is Elvis. He dresses up like him and re-records his songs in his “home studio”, a tape recorder hanging from a string in his living room. From time to time he even channels Marilyn Monroe.

When his temper does catch fire it’s not in the same way as Dominic’s film character. His temperament is more sarcastic and gloriously irreverent compared to his doppelgangers violent rage. When the County authorities refused to bury the body of one of his countless Uncles in the local cemetery, he bought a sit-on lawn mower, poured petrol over it, drove the contraption  into the morgue and set it ablaze. It caused apparently, quite a stir.

But whereas the real Jesco has held onto the light, the films Jesco walks the same thin line, but falls over the fiery side. He struggles with and fails to contain his anger at his fathers murder by two hicks who lash the old man to the back of their pick-up and then hit the gas. His anger and need for revenge wars with an intense jealousy, that destroys his marriage to comfortable Southern Belle, Cilia (Carrie Fisher.) “We just took Jeso’s temper in real life to its logical extreme” says Dominic, the extreme being the graphic murders of his father’s killers and a policeman who gets in the way of his rage.

Ed Hoggs, Jesco is a cross between Charles Manson and the demon brother of Neil Diamond, resplendent in sparkly black shirt, his manic dancing charms his audiences in red-neck watering holes. But temper and jealousy are two fatal gashes in his unstable character, at one point he jumps from the stage, charges a hillbilly Lothario who is chatting up his wife and almost does the poor fellow in. It is a wonderful performance, full of outrageous effrontery, as he switches from softly spoken southern charmer, to blood curdling psychotic screamer with perfectly timed ease. “I felt some sympathy for Dominic’s Jesco” says Ed “ he’s a guy who just can’t get away from trouble, it dogs him.”

“White Lightnin” is Ed Hogg’s first role in a feature and enters the film world after serving his apprenticeship at the National Theatre. “He’s a highly technical and well trained actor” says Dominic, who had to ease away Ed’s need to know exactly what would happen in a scene that was about to be shot. Of course such knowledge does not lend itself to the kind of spontaneity required for a part that would naturally lend itself to the very un-British “method” school of acting: “ Method acting is  training yourself to be able to put the self in an emotional state, whereas British actors tend to represent emotion. I didn’t let him rehearse a scene physically, so this gave him the anxiety which helped arouse the rage in his performance.”

It is a grim landscape that is presented here, probably very colourful to the outsider, but presented by Dominic in a grey rusty tone. A colour that suggests malaise, like when a person realises their in an irretrievable situation and the colour drains from their face. From everything. The film has that kind of feel. That hell is just over the mountains and its embers are dulling your vision.

Amid the grim colours and violence the film offers a religious puzzle, and seems torn between devout belief and dismissive nonchalance . At one point Jesco asks Cilia where she is going as she heads out of the trailer, “to church”,  she replies in a voice that suggests she would rather go and watch wood warp than do anything of the sort. But at the same time after the murders, Jesco flees to an old wooden shack in the Appalachian forest to seek, fight for and to punish himself physically in order to gain redemption. The last shot of the film sees him lying in a field in a crucifixion style pose as Amazing Grace plays in the background.

Ed describes the final scenes as “A man trying to put himself on a level playing field with his God” in many ways its self-flagellation, trying to suffer the pain he has inflicted on others. It suggests that sooner or later one has to level with oneself. A person can put themselves through total hell without seeing the inside of a jail cell, that’s punishment in the eyes of the state, not the self. The films harrowing conclusion tries to prove that a warring conscious can be Calgary itself. Jesco see’s this through in a mountain cabin alone as bloody solitude cleanses his mind.

Of course beneath Jesco, Appalachian dancing, religion and the myth of the American south, there is a story of a man on the brink of his own sanity, not angry at his existence but at the constant barrage of unlucky circumstance. The typical male depressive of literature haunted by the need for revenge, jealousy lost love and the unstoppable passage of time, pushed to fall into mania until the Earth becomes as Hamlet said “nothing but a stale promontory, a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” And if you get to that sorry point you can either pull a Jescoesque bloody vent at the world (not advisable). Or like the real one you can sit down, take a deep breath, throw on your Elvis suit and watch Cousin Emmy play “You Are My Sunshine” on a gradually deflating balloon.

Joesph Losey, Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker – Patron Saints of Britain’s New Wave

Joseph Losey was one of America’s greatest gifts to British Cinema. Forced to abandon Hollywood for London with Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt baying for his creative blood, his British residency, for the rest of his working life, ensured that such art house cinema classics as The Servant, Accident and The Go Between, were forever enshrined in the British pantheon of film classics. Now in the year in which he would have celebrated his 100th birthday, the famously prickly director’s work is being re-appraised and re-released by the British Film Institute.

Losey is often referred to as a director’s director, but he produced his fair share of B movie curios too, including 1948’s The Boy with Green Hair. For some time, B movies were seen as his area of expertise, so much so that he was considered to direct the first Hammer Horror films.

Three projects he completed in the 1960’s though, Eva (1962), The Servant (1963) and Accident (1969) are hailed as masterpieces that helped kick start a New Wave cinema movement in Britain, similar to the celluloid revolution in France which brought Goddard, Truffaut and Demy to the fore. Not only this but his casting of Dirk Bogarde and Stanley Baker in these films helped two actors, who up until that point had been stars of the British studio system, making films such as Doctor In The House and Hells Drivers, begin a new chapter of their careers.

Eva, Losey’s first real stab at sophisticated film making has early hallmarks of brilliance, but it is let down by a rather sultry self indulgence. The Billie Holiday score gels wonderfully with Jeanne Moreau’s faded chic, juxtaposed against an equally fading Venice, before it became the tourist rat run that it is today.

Moreau plays an especially deadly femme fatal ( a constant Losey character in his films), and in one scene she is seen lying in a steaming Jacuzzi, listening to Billie Holiday records. Stanley Baker plays a Tyvian, a rather too stereotypical Welshman, an author whose garb on the back of the book he is supposed to have written is that of the coal miner. Tyvian has a lover already, the honest innocent who is always cast aside by the protagonist in Losey films.

Eva is darkness personified, like Hugo Barrett in The Servant, she has no redeeming qualities, but Baker falls for her non-the less, perusing her across Europe, only to be met with a hail of abuse, flung ash trays and at one point the end of a riding crop. But his love, or rather lust persist, masochistically, and he throws his life away almost on a whim for her.

The film is an interesting attempt at cool,  a rather slapdash stab by Losey to try and raise himself above the B pictures that had been the tradition of his career up until that point. There’s some laughable moments, particularly at the beginning when a biblical style voice over akin to a Charlton Heston film announces over shots of sculptures of Adam and Eve “And the man and the woman were naked together, and they were unashamed.”

It was Losey’s 20 year working relationship with Dirk Bogarde though which helped prompt the blossoming of Losey’s career. The quartet of films the two made together in the 1960’s, The Servant, King and Country, Modesty Blaise and Accident  are in many ways the cornerstones of British film making in that decade. The Servant  and Accident  in particular, both starring Bogarde and both scripted by Harold Pinter, created for the first time British intellectual film, utterly cool, utterly sophisticated and stylistically European.

It is The Servant which most consider to be the prime Losey cut and one of the most enigmatic films ever to be produced in the UK. It is, rather predictably, slated as a kitchen sink drama of the kind Alan Bates was making at the time. The valet arriving in a fit of stutters and blushes and ultimately betraying his dominatory tendencies, plying the young aristocratic Tony (Edward Fox) with ever stronger spirits until he is a broken mess, his fiancé heading towards the door, and the house very much belonging to Barrett. Servitude reversed. This is however not before Barrett has endured the full force of the British upper classes’ sense of superiority, basically being treated as a second class citizen by Tony, before the tables slowly turn.

Losey throughout his career is unremitting towards the upper classes, both here, in Accident and in The Go Between for which he won the Plame d’or in 1971 at the Cannes Film Festival. But this is much more than a class war parable, it is, which marks it out among its 1960’s peers a very gay film, with obvious homosexual overtones. The film made in 1963, four years before homosexuality was made legal in England in Wales, sees Bogarde camping up his performance, becoming a creepily obsessive dominator who tells Tony “My only ambition is to serve you, you know that don’t you?” Before handing him a mysterious vial of liquid that he’s got from “A little man in Jermyn Street” that pushes him ever deeper into his virtually comatose state. Tony becomes ever more reliant on Barrett and can barely function without him as the movie reaches its climax, which see’s Bogarde throwing Tony’s fiancée out of what is now Barrett’s house, Tony lying fractured out of his mind in the hallway.

Many people say that The Servant is a very simple class allegory akin to Animal Farm, Barrett the manservant and Tony the upper class cad simply swap places. But look more closely and you realise that Barrett replaces Susan (Tony’s fiancée), who begs Tony to sack Barrett, but ends up being removed from the house herself. Does Barrett replace Susan in Tony’s affections? That door is left very much open. One must remember that in the same year Bogarde made Doctor in Distress, a further instalment in the Rank Organisation’s Carry On style comedies, a million miles away from the subjects broached in The Servant, which fell away unnoticed on its original release, but set the critics raving.

Accident is a film which has been written off as upper class nonsense too,  focusing on a long Sunday afternoon in a Buckinghamshire house, as two aging Oxford dons fight it out over a Spanish heiress. There is cricket, there is the Eton wall game and there is plenty of intellectual posturing and flimflamery, but thank heavens there is not one attempt by Losey to make one of these moneyed intellectuals heroic. They are all being sunk by their own desires, they are being dragged from the dreamy spires into a sexual mire that will end with a mêlée of rape and death.

It is a film of excellently sculptured images and metaphors. Bogarde and Baker play middle age academics, both in marriages teetering on the edge of collapse, when Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) comes into their lives as a pupil, setting their desires racing once more. There is a wonderful scene when at a Sunday afternoon dinner party at Stephen’s country home the camera watches Stephen (Bogarde), Charlie (Baker), Anna and her “boyfriend” William (played by a very young Michael York) compete in a game of badminton. Stephens’s wife is seen sitting in a chair watching, as the camera pans back to the game. As it heads back again towards Rosalind (played by Viviane Merchant) she has gone, nobody has noticed, the game continues, all the male eyes on Anna, and just like Tyvian and Tony’s loves, another innocent is cast aside.

On another level we have the obvious tension between Stanley Baker and Dirk Bogarde. Their relationship was just as tense off-screen for the same reasons as it was tense on. Baker was the masculine Welshman who could probably drink even Richard Burton under the table and he was strong and he was manly, and he was everything that Bogarde obviously wasn’t. They’re the same on-screen. Stephen lusts for Anna constantly, Baker actually has her, again and again, even at one point using Bogarde’s house, without his permission, for their sexual trysts. The only time Bogarde gets anywhere near her hallowed blue blooded flesh is when it is suggested that he takes advantage of her after the accident that kills her hapless boyfriend.

There is a scene in the middle of the film, when Sassard (the one bum note in the film’s acting score) is walking through a forest with Bogarde. He, ever the gentleman, is leading the way, holding back branches and testing the ground (mentally as well as testing the firmament below). He warns her of a spider’s web weaved between two saplings. You expect her to dodge it, she looks the type, but instead she drags it down with her hand destroying the life’s work of the blessed insect that created it. The perfect Losey metaphor for Anna, the wrecker, who appears and drags down the well ordered web of five lives, without much real care for those involved.

Losey films always feature webs of complicated relationships and to make his cauldron of depravity bubble he always drops a wrecker. Be it the poisonous almost Iagoesque Barrett in The Servant or the unwittingly fatal Anna in Accident or Eva in his Venetian passion play of the same name.

The classy sensuousness of a Losey film is something that doesn’t exist anymore, they are enigmatic, everything is implied but very often nothing is confirmed. Are Tony and Barrett in love in The Servant? Does the Oxford don rape his pupil? One can only guess. It would be quite right to consider if a Losey film ever portrayed a person actually in love and not a victim of lust, if he ever portrays a working relationship on screen well, or indeed if there is ever a realistic portrayal of a woman in his work. Instead of love though, one turns to Losey for a critique of the darker side of the human psyche, for studies in the callousness of lust and domination, where characters are often destroyed by their own desire. An age old subject coated in a poisons bitchy, subtext that Losey was the master of. Or as Dirk Bogarde described him in a letter to his widow, Patricia, written in the wake of Losey’s death in 1984: “He has at least four great movies to his credit. Clever sod! Shitty bugger! Goodness how I shall miss him.”