Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... for a view clear enough to make Dr. Xavier go blind

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

All the Missed Mystics: Nicolas Roeg's GLASTONBURY FAYRE (1972) Farewell to Filmstruck


While Filmstruck is still with us, let's chance upon the few small good things we have before they leave forever (to become expensive DVDs or unavailable). The recently also departed Nicolas Roeg is featured in one of their mini-title collections, and for the intrepid explorer there be his 1972 concert film, Glastonbury Fayre. If you've e'er loved a Roeg (Performance, Track 29) then don't miss it. And if e'er loved thee the psychedelic music festival movies of the late 60s-early 70s, and wondered if the movement e'er survived its American Altamont apocalypse, seek this film and say to yourself, ah there it is! The mystics did not burn out or fade away, they just snuck back to England and just didn't tell their boorish American cousins. Thus, here in Glastonbury 1971, while the wreckage of the Age of Aquarius was still being picked over by Manson biographers across the pond, the cool kids quietly gathered, by a big pyramid stage, correctly situated along the Stonehenge ley line for maximum magnetic current, at the solstice, between two hills...

Shot by Roeg as one of his mystical odysseys, the focus is less on the packaging the hits (there's only one, at the end, via Traffic, at night, the climax of the movie, with a whole mass of dancers in the crowd, reveling, each with enough space to swing their arms if they choose, Roeg's camera straining to find them in the swirl of night) and more on the mystical currents of the landscape, the joining of locals and visitors, the ease and beauty with which it all comes together. There's little of the Pennebaker's Monterey Pop habit of framing the painted-faces of lovely birds in fringed sashay (there's naught but a few), or the acid-drenched face clawers and drunken bikers of Maysles' Speedway. But we feel the solstice, the moon, and mystical movements of planets past the pyramid; these things the camera of Roeg senses and captures, the way the builders of nearby Stonhenge did. Hardly surprising from the man behind Walkabout and Performance, there's a truly mystical power at work here - and the camerawork itself seems tied to the force of love and magnetic waves in electric union.

Roeg films the throngs arriving from low angle gliding shots, the legs of the comers are long, as if he's a child looking up at some kind of ethereal parents, a time when parents were cool, unworried and free, but not dippy - less hedonists wallowing in Roman orgy and more some mass impromptu tribal coven, the druidic roots of Stonehenge breathing through them, the Green Man coming out of a long sleep, shaking off the Roman occupying sloth like a flaky outer crust, and communicating--through the grass and sky and vibrations in the air. Festival goers form shapes like moving temporary crop circles in some ephemeral alphabet that transcends any one meaning. Similarly, the film offers no words onscreen or introductions to let us know who any of the musicians are; there are no signs and markers we associate with concert festival films--no indication of drugs or overdoses, no backstage chatter, no overloaded bathrooms and crowded freeway helicopter shots. If the guy with the stars in his eyes (upper left) and the world in his beard is the promoter, his talk of getting a vision of his partner, pulling the car over, calling him and hearing "We have the farm" is delightful, his giddy shrooms-and-lovelight laugh, manic yet rooted. We don't need the backstory. The Green Man was at work, sifting the clouds and conjuring images in minds as needed to get this revelry underfoot, putting glowing embers in the minds of initially reluctant farmer neighbors, and this wild eyed bearded guy is in the circuit. He could tell. We see young dudes all draped on ominous framework metal bars erecting a giant pyramid stage, wondering how roadies manage to do their dangerous intense work while high out of their minds, or how that all works. But work it does, the Green Man acts as a reverse gremlin, causing guys to look again after initially passing an un-tightened screw.

It's a perfect festival - the right number of people (7,000-ish), the right weather (for England), the right acts (including lots of insane howling and warbling and babble), the right time (solstice), alll humming with love and the power of abandonment - like druidic voodoo. The acts range from  Fairport Convention, to performance art madness of Gong (?), Hawkwind and the northern soul of Terry Reid or whatever, nothing terribly sticks out, one band or pale fiddler from another- there are no stage introductions aside from some concern about the corn fields - but the big moments come in the sense of group dynamics at sunset right before Arthur Brown's Kingdom Come (I looked 'em up).

This is where it all gels:
The place gets eerie quiet as the sun sets between two hills; the pyramid stands shadowed. A small procession of ominous robed figures are silhouetted against the sky.
They light three crosses on the side of the hill. We think of Jesus, I guess, and the Romans again - but whatever, like those crop circles that form in the area, it transcends any one meaning.
It just is, and Roeg is the right man for the job. As with his Walkabout and Don't Look Now we're so subsumed by the land and sky it's as if we disappear, our illusory ego and locus of perceptual identity within the film unraveled back to basic elements - fire, air, earth... water.



As the solstice light disappears behind the hills and the pyramid stage lights up. It's the climax of Kenneth Anger's Lucifer Rising, the cumulative gut punch of understanding initiatory mysticism via the Golden Bough or Henry James' Varieites of Religious Experience. The profound feeling you had while breaking (lambs)bread, sweeping away of the sticks and seeds, in the Houses of the Holy gatefold in high school suddenly makes sense. Shrooming in the graveyard in 1987 I/We felt the pull of the earth and moon in balance, and I/We feel it now. The band starts: Arthur Brown emerges: a tall strange figure in evil KISS make-up (1), a fusion of the dream cabaret performance rock madness of Alice Cooper, the rooted bluesy grip and star of Zappa, soul of Captain Beefheart, modulated ominousness of Nick Cave, paradoxically zany steeliness and falsetto of Foxy Shazam.

Who the hell? How'd I miss this guy? (I think I mixed him up in my mind with Arthur Lee). I looked him up: A frequent opener and collaborator with Hawkwind, The Who, Hendrix, etc., he seems to be one of Britain's best-kept secrets. I could swear he wasn't there before, I read loads about Hendrix and remember nothing of him). Is he me from the future, who went back in the past to save Jimi Hendrix, but then forgot, and wound up here? Tall, crazy, beautiful in a masculine deep sense, alive with light and lightning. His Spotify roster is sparse and inelegant, but hey- somehow stayed pure, maybe be avoiding America's obscene corrupting love (to borrow a phrase from the great Nanno Jelkes). I'd never heard of him before, but there he is, somehow seeming to conduct his band and the moon and the crowd and the fire at the same time, ranting and holding wild weird notes. He's what I strived to be in a younger man's dreams and open mics: semi-pretentious/theatrical but genuinely eccentric and fierce.
---
It's so fitting then, on a personal level (what else do any of us know, Jedediah, except love on our terms?) that I saw Roeg's Glastonbury Fayre  the night before Thanksgiving, while packing to leave on the early morning train, wondering if it would be the last film I saw on Filmstruck, wondering why the Time-Warner bigwigs in charge of so much of our cinematic heritage hate artistic film, the art house crowd, and anything small enough to only draw a small profit or debit, as if they're just dying to mow down the last museum in town, to undo the historic monument housing protection, to make room for yet another skyscraper housing development or Target - advertised as so close to museums and parks, but then the parks go away for more aprtments. Ugh! Ommm! Center myself... bring it back... to me; accept the things I cannot change, let go let God; and above all, realize my own part in the problem - For when totally free, and given nice drugs, I take too many, drink too much and become a roaring mess... eventually. But the moon and stars judge me not - why should I?. Ommmm 
--
A moment I marked down in my first viewing: Brown is sitting on the side of the stage while the band jams on, takes a pull of some can (can't see the label) and burps --he clearly doesn't know the camera is watching -but he looks calmly over at the drummer and burps suddenly, at firsts unconsciously--as burps are--but as it's about to come he transforms it to the art, he burps fiercely, full of 'walrus through the ice'-roaring joy (5), but not conspicuously, loudly, boorishly, but a man whose warrior soul is calm and in the moment, turning even the smallest, usually unconscious gestures (unseen by the audience) into fierce warrior accents. He's not worrying about if he felt enough in his singing or the is high enough or how he looks, he's not trying to get higher or to recover from a hangover or all the other things that hung up America at the time. He's just in the zone.


Another stand-out is the also-better-known-in-Britain folk singer Melanie (below), whose teary, raspy voice and urgent guitar deliver a strong, moving, dynamic tune ("Peace Will Come") that seems to encompass everything within the beauty of the oceanic moment tempered with the foreknowledge of its inevitable passing; and yet, with that anticipation of loss that infects the joy of the moment comes another certainty tempering the sadness with joy: after the perfect oceanic union passes, our sadness will be tempered by the foreknowledge that such perfect moments--having come once--will come again. I love how it all quiets to a standstill when Melanie starts to play - the way everyone seems to be in the same sleeping bag, hushed and reverent, all 7,000 like a single being. Even the sacked-out under blankets nod their heads and smile. America's folk singers come off as a bit too preachy or corny (aiming for  pop appeal), but Melanie cuts through it all, her hair flying in her pretty face, howling beautifully; as with Arthur Brown, she made me an instant fan realizing all the wild shit American AOR and mythmaking quietly kept out of reach. She made me long for a second chance, to go to Britain in 1971, or just 71 AD, for that matter, to find the people that carried the psychedelic torch far past Altamont and Manson (and personal level American demons like mine), and may have it burning somewhere still. Melanie, playing back in time, too, seemed to understand my longing, the rasp in her voice cutting through the decades, assuring me as beautifully and strangely as these peaceful moments came before, they'll come again. Trying to stop them only increases the force with which they inevitably erupt into the collective consciousness.
--
I've enough of a continental mind that I've been to one or two literally magical weekend parties, the best of which was held one autumn solstice (c. 1991) at my cool rich hippie friend's Vermont cabin for a weekend of tripping and drinking Jaeger shots after blustery hikes. My ugly Americanism yielded willingly to the older alchemical ways of a huge bearded Brit with huge hair and a pungency of patchouli, a weird girlfriend, and--most vitally--a vial of pure delicious liquid LSD around his neck, dispensing drops into the eyes of the willing (everyone, me included). It was 'the good stuff,' pure gorgeous chemical perfection sending us all into wild dances that became -- due to surrender to the movements--elaborate ceremonial snowflake Pollack morphings I could never duplicate (or probably even notice) their magic in a 'down' state. I left him, and his posse, after coffee on Sunday, the steam from the cups like Monument Valley smoke signals across the vast expanse of the wooden coffee table, as the music of Dennis Wilson's "Pacific Ocean Blue" played on his expensive perfectly modulated stereo system. I would have stayed forever, but the friends I came with had work Monday. I drove back home (to suburban NJ) without a whimper, realizing--as was my kick at the time--that sacrificing great things in the name of love was tragically beautiful. Leaving the best time of your life for another week at the Ortho mailroom was just part of the game. I kept my holy aura for weeks til it faded. I even started going to yoga, which was hard to find in suburban NJ in 1990. In short, I kept the flame... for weeks... but.... hey...

And when the same solstice party was held again in the spring we were all excited - I went with such high expectations! Naturally, it turned on me and I had the terrible bad trip. I felt the sort of cursed emptiness, the 'unable to enjoy the party no matter how high and drunk I got' alcoholic depression Jack Kerouac describes so vividly in the second half of Big Sur. (6) The same people were there, same acid, same everything, but meh. Maybe I didn't bring enough whiskey, nor did I horde what I did bring. (For I was sure I wouldn't need it, so free would I feel). My bottle was all gone in minutes, and the stores all closed and far away and me too high to drive. The weather was vile. But more noticeably, no amount of whiskey, ecstasy, shrooms, acid, and hash brownies could alleviate that terrible want - the expectations of greatness dashed the moment. Instead of bringing the party down the hill to the Ortho mailroom, I'd brought the Ortho mailroom to the party. 

Isn't that what's happening to Filmstruck? The Mailroom --seeing the party as a distraction of its workers -- has squashed it due perhaps to not exceeding high expectations. 

Here goes my stress again - the rage against the --
Focus back to me, Erich - the Ommmmmm Let the I am become the Aum....change starts there.
--
The people here at Glastonbury are beyond wanting or expecting anything, as is--in most of his films (until the arrival of his beloved Theresa Russell)--Roeg himself.  We see some couples canoodling, but Roeg films them mainly for the the wine class shaped background behind their bobbing profiles. The men don't seem sex-starved or sex obsessed like they do in Psych-Out and The Trip (though there they had to bow to the drive-in's licentious demands). The "I Need" of American hippiedom becomes the "I am" of meditation becomes "Aummm" as even that is transcended for the oceanic experience of pure selflessness. Aummmm.

With an attendance of only 7,000, it's easy to see Glastonbury as one of those rare parties where just the right amount of folks showed up, all able to move into an eerie group mind perfection and not step on each other's towels, and so--they move beyond. Roeg captures it all, or some of it. It's okay if he misses important stuff. He notices the way a simple rhythm brought in to the camp site by a travelin' group of friends on a drum gradually, casually, builds (but not ostentatiously) into a little scene happening aways in the middle ground. Roeg's camera (6) feels no need to pick up his tripod and get closer - he's no amateur - not about to chase the willow the wisp, as opposed to find the next one, rewarding the patient with a lens flare or bead rattle that comes to him. That's the beauty. That's the difference. Soon a bottomless freak is dancing on stage wailing and screaming, but to a slowly increasing beat, looking out into the crowd their not gawking or video-phoning but clapping along- the rhythm and the spirit overtaking them like a gentle liberation, naked people roll around in the mud in strange childlike joy--as if the adult hang-ups stem from mom stopping us from wallowing in the mud naked as children, and now- we're finally doing it, and there's no mom to shame us, and all hang-ups are liberated. We crosscut to the black priest visitor who notes he didn't feel awkward at all, or sense anything pornographic or wrong about it "I was amazed at myself," he says. But he could tell, the naked writhing here is beyond the second chakra and all original sin. The flutter of recorders joins in to duplicate a flock of hysterical geese sitting in with Ornette Coleman and it's no longer possible to tell who is in the band, a performer in the crowd, or just a reveler caught up in the moment. People cover a rolling naked man in mud, and you feel him surrender to the moment, in his eyes you get the sense he's barely believing he's letting this happen and that it's all okay, and it's surrender to the Green Man's caress. It's not the kind of crazed desperate, froth-at-the-mouth zonked nudity of that big lady in Gimme Shelter or the preachy agrarian bathing of Woodstock, but a genuinely altered druidic madness clashing performance, freak-out and druid voodoo trance (10) audience and then reuniting them into muddy mass. The Green Man stirs in the moss. This ground, this mud, is sanctified and rich with history - the same mud of the ancients. Some weird American gets onstage with a chicken on his shoulder to babble about freaks and animals or something, and it's  a sore thumb, America: this need to elaborate and personify and annoy when all that's needed is, by gum, the chicken. He's just doing what an American SWM does by instinct - take credit.

Upper left is "the Maharishi," but it's not the Maharishi of the Beatles, but a different one- who with his white suit and entourage seems like a kind of Jim Jones but whose borderline incomprehensible English rant fills us not with light and love but suspicion. He seems the most uptight in the bunch - needing to show he's got a limo, his way paved forward, dressed like he's about to rescue Scarface from the gallows with a heavy bribe and a last-minute reprieve. Maybe he's holy, who can tell from this distance. If he had anything to do with inspiring this festival, though, he's all right with me. 
Shorn of the loud American throng, the ugly tourists, the consumerist mindset, the big swath of the pie, here are people who don't seem to be 'consuming' but being. Chickens are not killed but sung to. This is Burning Man before it became a scene, before seagulls on the charred remains of Police Sgt. Howie (Edward Woodward). (3) This is Joni Mitchell's dream of getting back to the garden. And she's not there, and maybe that's why. It's British, it's a thing America (and maybe or maybe not Canada) would need to shucker loose from half its population to embrace. By the time we got there, it would be over, if it was lucky. When it comes to treading lightly, we're bad news. We bring liquor. We love it. We will destroy you with our boozy woozy love. The corn will be demolished.


And yet, maybe I'm just talking about me -I was part of that part that's left behind. I failed the America in the 60s class I took sophomore year. And why? Because my friends and I loved getting high and listening to the music of the 60s too much. We made a video for our final project but remember to list our sources. What we gave the teacher was just a video of our band playing "Purple Haze," "Evil Ways," and "Viola Lee Blues,: spiked with talking head inserts pondering "how the 60s will remember the 80s," (oh shit! I just noticed). And also, Dave's and my guitars were out of tune. And also... mainly we all just talked about how drugs don't make you stupid, and yet, we did not--I now realize--sound very smart... not at all.  It pains me to admit it now - to wonder about the shady character of drugs. If a drug is valuable when used correctly (as they seem to be here at Glastonbury) means any sensible American must immediately overuse them, for we seldom turn our back on the idea that if ten is great, taking twenty is twice as great.

But hey, you can't help being a middle class American white boy with enough alcoholism in your genes that you don't consider it a party unless you can't remember it. You blew it, Billy. Altamont is you (by which I mean me). That's why I found Fayre so reassuring. What's stressed here things that American filmmakers would shy away from: God, magic, pagan symbolism, the transpersonal energies that connect all things. It sees beyond this 'epic fail' Woodstock or bust bigger is better build a skull tower to the vaginal sky eye American urge. When you plummet to earth in pain, strapped to a gurney or shaking uncontrollably alone on your couch for days on end, these are the things that reassure one. Prayer aligns our thinking to higher powers, we may be little humans but with enough egoic surrender to the oceanic current, we can expand to planet-size.

That's why it makes holy sense that I'm seeing Glastonbury Fayre on now on the vanishing Filmstruck as part of the Nicolas Roeg package. How fitting. Bye Nicolas Roeg, RIP... RIP Filmstruck... bye bye. It's a hard world for little streaming services as Lillian Gish says in Night of the Hunter might say. Small profit margins are eradicated the way a giant bank-owned tractor eradicates a dustbowl Okie.

But hey, the art goes on and the past isn't going anywhere. No one is going to come take our DVDs away.... yet.  But we can't take 'em with us, after all. Why have the moon when we can have the stars?

The weirdest part: the inclusion a protestant minister holding a small service in a corner of the parking lot area, a sad-eyed gaggle of older folks (nurses, bakers) and some devoted youth, wearily but peacefully stand around him, which Roeg snarkily intercuts with ecstatic krishna dancing and chanting going on elsewhere in the festval. "The meaning of Christ is very simple isn't it?" notes the minister in his cloudiness / cut to the dancers basking in the sun./ back to the flatline priest: "If we want to live, we must die."


It's a cheap shot, which along with the cross burnings the night before seem to indicate some swirling dark current of Antichristian sediment stirring in the mind, which considering the eastern understanding of transcending duality, the rapture that lies beyond the separation of this and that, seems far too short-sighted a mind-set for anyone with any real enlightenment in their souls - and the promoters here are glowing like auric kliegs; and eventually the editor seems to relent a bit with the snarky crosscut; one can't rightly argue against the priest's prayer for "one whole community" even if it is waterlogged with  seminary tradition. Crosscut as you will, the man is there. He showed up, right into the lion's den, the fiery furnace, the dancing eastern weirdos being the flames. We--the hungover Americans (the ones, 'sigh' I came with, I apologize again for Jason's behavior)--just walked/staggered home, draped in our Glastonbury 71 bootleg shirts, declaring we did it. We "did" the festival scene. It's played. Time to curl up with a good book... on tape, and leave the --what is it called now--raves?--to other people's children. Stay hydrated, kids! Peace will come. As for us, Hendrix is dead, man. Altamont was a mess. It's done. "They" ruined any chance for real transformation. Not us, man We drink at home now with the TV on / and all the houselights left up bright, (9). We prefer our community now, perhaps rightly, through the safety of the screen. Click, and we're free again - lost in another wild dream. We only come up for air during the credits. And even now, we're forced off the Filmstruck reservation onto Hulu, Netflix, Prime, where episodes of our current binged series link up with a 'click to skip opening credits' link in the lower right corner. So... We do not come up, til the season is demolished.


But hey, that's later. Now, other things than us are going, one by one, a reverse ark, so... one more time. So glad you made it.

Just watch the end again of Glastonbury Fayre if nothing else, before midnight this Thursday... - all that hair shaking through the night, thousands of people bopping up and down to Traffic jamming "Gimme Some Lovin'", all as happy as larks, beautiful, free. Room to swing a cat, and all cats hip. Steve Winwood tall and majestic with cigarette...drummers and keyboardist rapt with the groove-beatific focused smiles; I'd forgotten about that feeling I'm so glad it lasted as long as it did, if not forever (my joints!) and not everywhere (Giuliani saw to that). Somewhere, though, somewhere too ancient to be totally silenced, I'd wager the Green Man is planning something, but I'll wager it's not so wondrous.Ask not who stands within the wicker man... Next time, we're all burning.


1. we've ascribed that black and white devil clown make-up forever to KISS, which is very American of us, but there you are, it's KISS even if you don't really like KISS) 
2. I can't judge man, for I too went this way, from that first glorious rush (they only today announced conclusive proof shrooms treat depression, man I could tell you the stories, that black and white Kansas misery finally opening up into OZ Cinerama) freshman year of college, to the shuddering bad trip misery of chasing hit after hit with whiskey after whiskey just trying to feel less like I was in self-conscious hell, never mind about good, while being pawed at by girlfriends and jonesers or, maybe,worse, left alone to be terrified by the TV showing Flatliners like a gateway pamphlet announcing to you, gently, that you died in an accident last week and still don't know
3. ref. The Wicker Man 
5. That was my power animal mantra during some intense shroom trips in 1987 -the warrior roar, the lone bull walrus breaking through the ice mantle in the Arctic sea, the only living thing for miles in all directions of snowy wasteland, but roaring - wild and proud and free - I am alive! Without fear or loneliness or panic, the warrior roar that makes life your bitch no matter what may come. 
6. The biggest nightmare a drunk can have is when the 'click' never comes (as per Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) no matter how drunk you get - you could be so sloshed you feel it coming up into your eyeballs but are still sober as a judge, and beyond miserable. It's remembering those experiences that help keep up drunks sober through the tempting times. 
9. "The Last Time I saw Richard" - Joni Mitchell (of course)
10. voodoo is actually part Celtic, part African ritual - as Celts and African slaves were mixed together on Caribbean islands in ancient maritimes. (Hence the similarity too between Irish and Caribbean accents.) 

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