Underrated Films: Gift
In 1990 Jane’s Addiction were a huge alternative rock band recently signed to a major label, a combination which invariably leads to two things: epic drug use and unfettered artistic indulgence. Both are rife in Gift, the circuitous tale of a rock-star whose girlfriend dies of an overdose, co-directed by and co-starring the band’s singer Perry Farrell and his then-girlfriend Casey Niccoli who play fictionalised versions of their ridiculously photogenic selves in bohemian downtown LA. On finding Niccoli’s body, we follow Farrell through flashbacks of their relationship. But Gift isn’t so much a feature film as a string of set pieces which slip in and out of the narrative, effectively a music video writ large. It is, to say the least, a strange mix. There are disastrously overcooked comedy scenes featuring the band’s stock S&M-loving yuppie manager alongside absorbing cinéma vérité observations a roomful of candid rehab patients; there’s the standard muso-doc fare with the band recording their second studio album Ritual de lo Habitual and performing lead single ‘Stop!’ live at the Hollywood Palladium alongside what constitute Gift's plot: close-up heroin use, full-frontal nudity and necrophilia.
Given the subject matter it’s perhaps not entirely surprising to learn that Gift had trouble reaching its audience. The film languished in the Warner Brothers’ editing suite for three years before sneaking out in a US-only direct-to-VHS release, by which time the band had dissolved and the film’s starring couple had gone through an acrimonious break-up amid disagreements over who was the more creatively responsible for the film.
Needless to say, this is the sort of enterprise which should only really work if you’re a dedicated fan of the band, but Gift’s waywardness along with cinematographer Eric Edwards’ eye for a shot (elsewhere Edwards has worked with Larry Clarke and Gus Van Sant), bestow on the film a lo-fi stylishness and a likeable indie poignancy, something which doesn’t necessarily require a knowledge or even an appreciation of Jane’s Addiction (one of my favourite scenes can be found here). As a document on the early 90’s alt-Hollywood landscape Gift is something of a one-off, providing a fictive eye on how the fun-loving, hedonistic days of party-rock excess would inevitably give way to the introspection, self-loathing and self-destruction of the grunge scene.
But whose film was it? A couple of years ago Farrell was invited to attend a 25-year anniversary screening. According to reports, when asked about the filmmaking process behind Gift, he seemed entirely indifferent to the picture, claiming not to have seen it since its original screening and instead talked at length about his incredible sex life and ongoing drug use. Indeed, he seemed uninterested in cinema as a whole, saying he only watches films on long-haul tour flights. He even went out of his way to badmouth his former co-star, claiming he’d known their Mexican wedding – which forms the heart of the film – would be void in the States, something of which Niccoli was ignorant.
Niccoli herself drifted into obscurity, taking up regular fulltime work, becoming a mother and leaving her drug-rock days behind her. But she continued to quietly champion the film. And, it should be noted, has form: she has directed music videos, including one for Jane’s Addiction’s ‘Been Caught Stealing’ which beat REM's 'Losing My Religion' at the 1991 MTV Awards.
I think I know whose film I’d prefer Gift to be.
Woody Allen began to go wrong at the turn of the century. Since then, those who love the films of Woody Allen have had their faith routinely and at times severely tested. The three releases of his which preceded the millennium – Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998) and Sweet and Lowdown (1999) – whilst relatively minor contributions to the Allen canon, are nonetheless informed by the same set of qualities – attention to character, wayward bittersweetness, cinéaste playfulness – which had hitherto made his body of work so distinctive and, on the whole, so likeable. In the modern age Woody Allen's career has become what at times appears to be a wilful campaign on the director’s part to muddy his reputation, kicking off with three outright stinkers: the misogynist Small Time Crooks (2000), the insipid The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001) and the un-distributed (at least in the UK) Hollywood Ending (2002). It’s a question which sounds a little like a plot from one of the director’s more screwball concoctions: what happened at midnight, as one century passed and another began, to cause a successful artist to be abandoned by his once formidable creative powers?
And yet… and yet few would argue that these drab annual efforts have also been punctuated by films which, while only rarely justifying the ubiquitous ‘return to form’ label, still contain enough of that old Woody magic to cause even the most thoroughly disillusioned of his fans to return to theatres year after year. When it comes to what constitutes the hits and misses amid Allen’s recent output I often seem to be at odds with the majority view. I found Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) engaging but hard to love, I simply couldn’t stand the inexplicably Oscar-winning Midnight in Paris (2011), and I maintain that those who claim to have found depth, drama or indeed anything even remotely worthwhile at all in Match Point (2005) must have watched an entirely different film from the series of clunky, painful scenes I saw. On the other hand, I enjoyed the oft-panned Scoop (2006), was bowled over by Radha Mitchell’s performance(s) in Melinda and Melinda (2004), and – here is where it appears I must part company with most of the civilised world – I bloody loved Cassandra’s Dream (2007).
One of Allen's London-based curate's eggs, the film sees Ewan McGregor and Colin Farell play a pair of feckless brothers who sink what little money have into a sailing boat, the titular Cassandra’s Dream, along with their fantasies of freedom, before a rich surgeon uncle enmeshed in financial improprieties, played by Tom Wilkinson, dangles before them the quick solution to all their woes: murder a business associate. What follows is a maelstrom of paltry dreams destructively pursued, free will disguised as fatefulness, and thorny familial co-dependency. Standard Woody Allen fare, in other words. But, for me, what’s most interesting is how the whole thing is played out as a kind of grim cockney caper à la Get Carter, but with Allen’s insistence on philosophical musings and cultural allusions – Greek tragedy in this case – giving the film a quality unique in the director's body of work, a quality which admittedly may well seem jarring to those unable to flex their expectations of what should or shouldn’t constitute a British crime movie.
Despite what the critics had to say about all of this, there is actually a lightness of touch from Allen when it comes to the classical literary references and a cautiousness around representation of the natives, both of which were profoundly absent in the frequently ridiculous Match Point: in the earlier film the characters would arrange to meet beneath Big Ben and spend their evenings watching Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals; here they simply go the pub and watch television. There are a few tinny echoes of Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989), the characters’ culpability and guilt for their murderous deeds seeming at once fixed yet at the same time guided by a slippery, frightening existential mechanics. But whereas Crimes and Misdemeanours was leavened with Allen’s trademark romcom humour, here he instead ramps up the bleakness, inviting ridicule. Which Cassandra’s Dream duly and fulsomely received.
I've often thought about this and tried to puzzle out why it is I enjoy this film when it is apparently so unforgivably terrible. There's always a personal element to the liking or disliking of any particular film. I only became aware of the critical response of Cassandra’s Dream after first seeing the film and was surprised, not just because of the critics' abject hostility but also their undeniable unanimousness in what they took issue with. I even suspected I'd somehow managed to see a wildly different cut of the movie. But no: invariably these reviews – brutal to a fault – focused on the disparity of accents between the two supposed brothers, the awkward dialogue, and the actors' occasionally faltering line-reading, all of which are indeed present but none of which I’d found I'd minded particularly. For me, the drama was all in the detail. It was in the nuanced performances by Farrell and McGregor (surely his best since Young Adam), in the gloomy cinematography from the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond brooding, and in the snaky score from Philip Glass.
On William Henry Ireland
Yesterday was the 241st birthday of William Henry Ireland, someone who I’ve always found fascinating.
Ireland was considered by most – including his father, a frosty publisher and antiquarian collector – to be something of a disappointment. Although from a fairly well-to-do family he performed poorly at school, preferring to spend his time alone dreaming of becoming a great actor and reading his favourite poets. At the age of 19 he found himself working in a mindless job as a solicitor’s apprentice in East London. It was there that an anonymous client approached him with something astonishing which he promptly showed to his father: a property deed signed by none other than William Shakespeare.
Or so he claimed. In actual fact Ireland had taken it upon himself to create a modest yet credible forgery, one produced while working unsupervised in an office surrounded by Elizabethan mortgage documents, long-forgotten deeds and court orders written on velum and sealed with wax.
His father was delighted, even more so in the following months when further documents of Shakespeare’s came to light: contracts, legal letters, love letters, a proclamation of faith, annotated books, early drafts of plays, even a lock of the great poet’s hair. The Ireland family home soon became a museum to these items, with many of the great and good of the day – including Boswell and Henry James Pye, the then Poet Laureate – stopping by to handle them. Such were the numbers and rate of these callers that Ireland senior had to instigate a system of opening times: visitors were allowed entry to the house on Norfolk Street on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, where they were then permitted to commune with the magical presence of the newly discovered artefacts between midday and three. Those who visited confirmed, either by their presence or by pronouncement, the unimpeachable authenticity of what they had been privileged enough to come into contact with.
For Ireland, although risky, these documents had succeeded in their aim: making his father proud of him. But the gathering flow with which they appeared, each item’s importance superseding the previous, also had the cumulative effect of implanting a nagging conviction in Ireland’s father’s mind that there were other, more valuable items at hand which were going undiscovered. He was keen to publish a manuscript of his trove Shakespearean discoveries, and although these items had all been brought to him by Ireland his father nonetheless berated him for ‘being an absolute idiot’ in not simply acquiring all of his anonymous benefactor’s documents in one go rather than piece by piece. Spurred by this combination of a long-sought approval and no doubt a rebuking irascibility, Ireland took the next logical step and unearthed the complete manuscript of a lost play written by Shakespeare.
Vortigern and Rowena, as it was titled, focused in part on the knotty relationship between a king and his loving yet overlooked son. Suspicions were quickly aroused: the play’s mix of clumsy simplicity and exhaustive longueurs made it seem a juvenile effort rather than Shakespeare’s crowning masterpiece as the Bard claimed in an accompanying letter miraculously discovered alongside the manuscript. Nonetheless, Richard Sheridan, the celebrated playwright and owner of the Drury Lane Theatre, saw the potential for a big hit and forked out a huge sum for the rights to Vortigern. It opened in April 1796, over a year since Ireland embarked on a career as a Shakespearian forger, to a sell-out crowd.
The ridicule was intense and immediate, with members of both cast and the audience busting into fits of infectious laughter at the appalling dialogue; fights broke out among those who felt the words of their beloved national poet was being mocked and those for whom it was an obvious and insulting hoax; the performance ended with an announcement that this would be the play’s final performance; the ensuing press was brutal in its scorn.
Within days Ireland came clean: he had fabricated the whole thing - the documents, the story behind them, the play. His father, thinking all this far too advanced a deception for his dim-witted son to pull off, went to his grave four years later still adamant that both Vortigern and all the other precious documents were genuine.
Ireland himself went on to become a poet, historian and relatively successful gothic novelist, although his works are now largely forgotten. Which is a bit of a shame because, although by turns stodgy and bombastic, there’s something pleasingly meta about his fiction. One of his novels, Gondez the Monk, a roaring tale of the sex, torture and the occult, opens with a pair of epigrams from Shakespeare – one genuine, the other not – and contains a plot which hinges on the discovery of a manuscript, The Legend of the Little Red Woman, whose disputed authorship and uncanny power over the material world have a familiar ring.
I suppose the story of William Ireland retains a fascination for me for three reasons. Firstly, the overlapping folly of fatherhood and the English language feels rather touching to me (my own father had a stroke very recently, which has left him with aphasia, a language-erasing neurological condition requiring him to effectively re-learn how to speak and read). Secondly, as a writer who spends most of his days in an office doing mundane work, it's heartening to step back a couple of centuries and find an antecedent admin-minion, dreaming up an elaborate literary escape from his day-job. Thirdly, Ireland's year spent pretending to be William Shakespeare serves as a neat example of collective delusion, albeit on a charming and relatively harmless pop-up scale, demonstrating how formidable an impact the imagination can have on the world - not simply in one man's creation of a series of silly yet believable forgeries, but also in the act of belief engaged in by others: that legion of intelligent, educated men who came into contact with and breathed life into Ireland's hoax, overlooking its glaring inconsistencies and imperfections, seeing instead vivid, life-affirming qualities which were simply not there, but which they wished dearly were.