Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
"I need you out here," Russ Meyer told me on the phone in 1977. It was 6 a.m. He could not conceive that I might still be asleep. "Have you ever heard of the Sex Pistols?"
"No," I said.
"They're a rock band from England. They got a lot of publicity for saying 'fuck' on TV. Now they have some money and want me to direct their movie."
This was, as nearly as I know, the only scene ever filmed for "Who Killed Bambi." There is more than one account of what went wrong. McLaren claimed 20th Century-Fox read the screenplay and pulled the plug. This seems unlikely because the studio would not have green-lighted the film without reading the script. Meyer called me to say McLaren had made false promises of financing and was broke. Electricians and others had walked off after not being paid. Meyer himself demanded each week's salary be deposited every Monday morning.
On Wikipedia, I find: "This is however challenged as being incorrect according to Julian Bray, who supplied location services to Malcolm McLaren's Matrixbest company ...Bray recalls that respected Production Manager Joyce Heirley asked if Julian's location catering crew and film location services unit would provide a range of location services on a special train consisting of vintage carriages hired from Lord McAlpine's Carnforth railway collection including a LMS 1930's dining car and a Southern Railway..."
It may be true that Heirley asked Bray about this, but to my knowledge no train scenes were ever shot. Russ's own footage can be briefly glimpsed in "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" (1980), directed by Julien Temple. This film essentially starred McLaren. Vicious, Cook and Jones appeared, but Rotten had bailed out of the band after a tumultuous American tour. "Swindle" has been described as a "continuation" of the Meyer project, but the two are completely different, except for the few seconds of Russ's footage.
The best account of the debacle appears in Jimmy McDonough's unauthorized biography, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Films. He writes nothing about any train scenes, and believes the film's fate was sealed when Princess Grace, a member of the Fox board, said, "We don't want to make another Meyer X film." This was harsh because, as Fox has never acknowledged, "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" returned enormous profits at a crucial low point in Fox's fortunes, and is to this day one of the two or three most-often revived films of 1970.
Temple was so unwise as to tell the British press that Meyer had personally shot a deer with a pistol on that first day. Meyer sued for libel in England, the last country where you ever want to be sued for libel. "I don't give a shit about damages," he told me. "I want to clear my name. I don't go around shooting deers with pistols." Temple purchased a full-page ad in Screen International to apologize.
All parties seem to agree that the Sex Pistols grew to despise McLaren, even more so after he depicted them in "The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" as no-talent frauds elevated to stardom by his own promotional genius. That was cruel, because Rotten and Vicious were authentic originals who struck a enormously influential note that continues to reverberate today. They may not have been gifted guitar soloists, but as performers they were phenomena. In less than two years, they fought constantly, insulted the press, spit on their fans, were banned from TV, were fired by one record company 24 hours after being signed, released only one album, pushed safety pins through their noses and ear lobes to more or less invent the modern style of body piercing, broke up during a tour of the United States, and saw Sid Vicious accused of murdering his girlfriend and dying of a drug overdose.
In 2000, Julien Temple returned with another film, "The Filth and the Fury," this time telling the Sex Pistols story from their own point of view and trashing McLaren. The surviving members appear backlit, perhaps to spare us the sight of their middle-aged faces. Incredibly, McLaren agreed to appear in his own defense, speaking from within a rubber bondage mask.
I wrote from the film's Sundance premiere: "The Sex Pistols never had a period that could be described as actual success. Even touring England at the height of their fame, they had to be booked into clubs under false names. They were hated by the establishment, shut down by the police and pilloried by the press ("The Filth and the Fury" takes its title from a banner headline that once occupied a full front page of the Daily Mirror). That was bad enough. Worse was that their own fans sometimes attacked them, lashed into a frenzy by the front line of Rotten and Vicious, who were sometimes performers, sometimes bear-baiters.
"Rotten was the victim of a razor attack while walking the streets of London; McLaren not only failed to provide security, he wouldn't pay taxi fares. Vicious was his own worst enemy, and if there was one thing that united the other three band members and McLaren, it was hatred for Sid's girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, who they felt was instrumental in his drug addiction. 'Poor sod,' John Lydon says of his dead bandmate.
"To see this film's footage from the '70s is to see the beginning of much of pop and fashion iconography for the next two decades. After the premiere of 'The Filth and the Fury' at Sundance, I ran into Temple, who observed, 'In the scenes where they're being interviewed on television, they look normal. It's the interviewers who look like freaks.' Normal, no. But in torn black T-shirts and punk haircuts, they look contemporary, unlike the dated, polyestered, wide-lapeled and blow-dried creatures interviewing them.
"England survived the Sex Pistols, and they mostly survived England, although Lydon still feels it is unsafe for him to return there. [He and the other survivors, did concerts and tours as recently as 2008.] Cook and Jones lead settled lives. McLaren still has bright ideas. Vivienne Westwood has emerged as one of Britain's most successful designers, and poses for photographs in which she bears a perfect resemblance to Mrs. Thatcher. [She is now Dame Vivien Westwood.] And as for Sid, my notes from the movie say that while the Pistols were signing a record deal in front of Buckingham Palace and insulting the queen, Sid's father was a Grenadier Guard on duty in front of the palace. Surely I heard that wrong?"
Malcolm McLaren died of cancer on April 8, 2010, in a Swiss clinic. He will be buried in London's fabled Highgate Cemetery, resting with Karl Marx, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Radcliffe Hall, Douglas Adams, Sir Ralph Richardson, and other congenial companions. He is survived by the son he had with Westwood, Joseph Corré. The apple fell close to the tree. Corré is co-founder of Agent Provocateur, which began as a small Soho shop selling provocative lingerie and now has 30 stores in 14 countries. The German artist Marie-Amourfou was so inspired by the Agent Provocateur catalogue that she created the painting below. I wish Russ had lived to see it.
"The Sex Pistols?" I said.
"Their manager is a guy named Malcolm McLaren. He called me from London. He said their singers were big fans of 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.' They go to see it every weekend they're in London. It's playing at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road."
No director except possibly for Stanley Kubrick was better informed than Russ about where his movies were playing. Kubrick used to call specific theaters to complain about light intensity. Russ used to call to complain about theft.
"Their lead singers are named Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious. They demanded the same team that made 'Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.' We can go wild on this. I've got a couple of big-titted London girls already in mind."
"They liked it that much?"
"Rotten says it's true to life."
Malcolm McLaren announced his imminent arrival from London, and I flew out to Los Angeles for a briefing. I stayed as always at the Sunset Marquis, half a block down from Sunset on Alta Loma, a semi-residential hotel which had provided homes over the years for such as Tiny Tim, Van Heflin, Elaine May, Roy Scheider and Jim Belushi. It is now an A-list hotel. In those days, you dialed room service and a voice answered, "Greenblatt's Deli."
Malcolm McLaren appeared with Russ in my room at the Marquis. He was a ginger-haired, wiry man in his 30s, who wore a "Destroy" T-shirt and leather pants equipped with buckles and straps. These were, I learned, the infamous Bondage Pants he introduced at SEX, the celebrated Kings Road boutique he ran with his romantic partner Vivienne Westwood. The T-shirt was also hers. The pants offered the ultimate on bondage convenience. When the mood struck, you didn't have to rummage about for belts and braces; all your needs were built in. On his feet he wore what Russ approvingly noted were Brothel Creepers.
After pleasantries ("We're going to make a fucking great movie," McLaren told us), we got into Russ's bright red Cadillac to visit a house a few blocks uphill from Sunset. This was, as I recall, the office of a record producer somehow associated with McLaren, and typical of the area, where many houses look like homes but few are. This one contained a large videotape machine, uncommon in the days before home video, and McLaren showed us video tapes of the notorious BBC appearance during which, the Daily Mirror reported, they used "the filthiest language ever heard on British television." Then he played us Sex Pistols albums at full blast.
Meyer, dressed as frequently in military khaki slacks, an open-neck dress shirt, a blazer and sturdy penny loafers, sat next to McLaren on a black leather sofa and listened studiously to "No Future," "God Save the Queen (She Ain't No Human Being)," "Anarchy in the U.K.," "Pretty Vacant" and other songs. Occasionally he would nod his head attentively. When the album had played, he said, "So these records are big in England?"
"Fucking huge," said McLaren. He told us what sort of a film he had in mind. His ideas didn't involve a plot or a story line. As I recall, his only concern was that it star the Sex Pistols. Russ proposed "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" meets "A Hard Day's Night."
Meyer said we would headquarter in my room at the Sunset Marquis. I don't remember why we didn't use his house up on Arrowhead over the hill behind the Hollywood Sign. It was another apparent residence which contained office furniture, editing equipment, prints and souvenirs, plus one king-sized bed and what he referred to as "an industrial-strength kitchen." The only other time I heard him use this term was in "industrial strength bra." Perhaps, I learn from a Meyer bio by Jimmy McDonough, we met at the Marquis because McLaren and Meyer could not be left alone in the same room for long without fierce arguments. McLaren thought of Meyer as a fascist. Meyer thought of McLaren as a source for money to make an RM film. In any event, we drove up to the house on Arrowhead and brought down an office chair and a card table, which Meyer planted with satisfaction in front of the TV, explaining, "You won't be watching TV."
I've mentioned before that, for Russ, typing was synonymous with writing. If he didn't hear the typewriter, no writing was being done.When I was writing "Beneath the Valley of the Ultra Vixens" for him, he located me in his living room (all office furniture) and listened from his upstairs office. When my typewriter fell silent, he'd call down, "What's the matter?"
A meeting was set the next day involving McLaren, Meyer, and a Dutch director named Rene Daalder, who had enjoyed a hit with "Massacre at Central High" (1976). Daalder has since had great success in the areas of virtual reality and special effects and directed several films. In those days he considered Meyer a mentor, and had flown at his behest to England to work on screenplay ideas with McLaren. Apparently he had been pulled out of Meyers orbit into McLaren's, and had returned with a screenplay which Meyer tossed into his big kitchen wastebasket. That's when Russ called me.
We began with the title "Anarchy in the U.K." Daalder contributed to some earlier scenes in the story. In England, long unemployment lines represent an economic collapse, and there is resentment against the upper classes. The Sex Pistols represent the voice of rebellion, and conceive of a scheme to bring down Britain with anarchy. The details of their scheme I will leave to future scholars of the screenplay. I wrote one scene which I particularly liked, involving Johnny Rotten encountering a storefront Church of Scientography, and being persuaded to be "clocked" on something called an H-Meter. This was a device hooked to a steering wheel and an accelerator, which somehow...
EXT. SOHO STORE FRONT
This is the London headquarters of the Church of Scientography. Johnny Rotten looks in. A sign on the window reads: HAVE YOU BEEN CLOCKED?
A young, fresh-faced GIRL, with the light of true zeal burning in her eyes, comes out onto the sidewalk as Johnny Rotten looks in a lackluster way at the window.
GIRL Are you coming in, then?
JOHNNY ROTTEN No I'm not.
GIRL Why not then? Are you afraid?
JOHNNY ROTIJEN Afraid? Not bloody likely.
GIRL The H-Meter doesn't lie.
JOHNNY ROTTEN The what ?
He scowls at her, unable to make out her game.
GIRL The H-Meter. Haven't you ever been c1ocked ?
JOHNNY ROTTEN I had a bloody hard time of it last night.
GIRL I can just look at you and see you're living over the limit.
JOHNNY ROTTEN That's the fucking truth.
GIRL Come in, then.
Baffled, he follows her. In the gloom, he makes out a gigantic poster, upon which a man wearing a racing helmet, goggles, a white gown and long, wavy hair, is surrounded by beams of light projected from the top of a pyramid.
JOHNNY ROTTEN What's all this, then?
GIRL Just sit down here.
He sees an automobile seat, facing a steering wheel, a gas pedal, and a speedometer.
JOHNNY ROTTEN I've got my provisional license -- and I haven't got a car anyway.
GIRL The H-Meter has nothing to do with driving.
JOHNNY ROTTEN What the fuck is it then?
GIRL This is the Church of Scientometry. And this is the H-Meter, named after our leader, the Holy Man from Italy, Guru Vaser-Rati.
JOHNNY ROTTEN I've heard of him somewhere.
GIRL Just grasp the steering wheel, which picks up the electrical vibrations from your hands, and when I ask you questions, push down hard on the accelerator for "yes," and on the brake for "no.:
JOHNNY ROTTEN What if I don't know the answer?
GIRL That's about 36 miles per hour.
McLaren fed us with ideas. He particularly specified a scene showing Sid Vicious in bed with his mother as they shot heroin. Russ was dubious.
"Do you think Sid will go for that?"
"Why wouldn't he? It's all based on fact."
"It should be obvious why it would piss him off."
"Nah. The more shocking, the better. That's what the boys stand for. Just put it in, and we'll run it past Sid in London, see what he says."
Day after day, I pounded at the typewriter as Meyer and McLaren went out on business meetings at 20th Century-Fox and then returned, Meyer expecting many more pages, McLaren unconcerned, as if screenplay wrote themselves. In the evenings, Russ and I dined in restaurants serving large forms of meat, while we outlined the next day's material on yellow legal pads. This had also been our method on BVD. We rarely knew more than a day ahead what would happen next.
Finally I arrived at the end:
AN OVERHEAD SHOT
shows his prone body on the floor in the spotlight. The first and only person to move is Johnny Rotten. He walks slowly forward to the dead body. Looks down at it. Turns it over with the toe of his boot, so that the dead face gazes sightlessly skyward. Speaks so softly not everyone can hear.
JOHNNY ROTTEN (down at the body) Will success spoil Johnny Rotten? (pause) No. He will waste, spoil, smash, blow up and destroy success!
Another pause. The room is hushed. Johnny Rotten looks slowly up and directly into the camera.
JOHNNY ROTTEN Did yer ever have the feeling yer being watched?
FADE TO BLACK
This was in July of 1977. Shortly after, Meyer and McLaren flew to London. Meyer insisted on the aisle seat: "If we go down, McLaren will get his bondage straps tangled up with the chair and I'll be trapped,."
I flew to London for screenplay meetings. Russ had rented lodgings on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, close by the scenes of McLaren's triumphs on King's Road. I stayed not far away on Sloane Street, at the Cadogan Hotel, scene of Oscar Wilde's downfall.
Casting was already underway. Marianne Faithful had been signed for the tricky role of Sid Vicious's mother. For the role of P.J. Proby, a British rock star, we had P.J. Proby himself, who was from Texas but was better known in England, and who had played Elvis on stage. For another key role, one afternoon Russ held an audition for Jon Finch, a respected actor who had played the title role in Polanski's "Macbeth" (1971). I reflected that day on the actor's life, auditioning for roles clearly unsuited for him simply because to be out of a job is the actor's nightmare.
We had meetings with both Vicious and Rotten. I don't remember ever meeting the other two Sex Pistols, Paul Cook and Steve Jones. McLaren implied that their roles in the band were limited to actually performing the music, since Sid and Johnny had their hands full insulting the audience and inspiring eruptions of manic hostility. I later actually met Jones years later at a party at our house in Michigan, of all places, and liked him.
The meeting with Vicious was fraught. McLaren had come round for it in person. Sid seemed a nice enough bloke, decorated with safety pins and so on, but calm and interested. No acting out. McLaren handed him the script.
"Here's the scene we want you to read, Sid."
INT. NIGHT. BEDROOM
The shades are drawn. Propped up against the pillows of the bed, Sid's MOTHER is just in the act of shooting up. As Sid Vicious appears in the doorway, she pulls the needle from her arm. He leans against the door, regarding her. She releases the rubber tube from around her arm.
SID VICIOUS (not unkindly) Still on the shit, mum?
She looks up and sees him. We sense this is not the first time he's seen her shooting up.
MOTHER (a surprised greeting) Sid! (pause) How are you, then?
SID VICIOUS All right... I came for my things, mum.
MOTHER Your things? (brightens) You got a job, then?
SID VICIOUS Not a chance! His Mother nods to confirm that of course there was not a chance. She sits upright on the side of the bed.
MOTHER I thought Tony told you not to come 'round here any more.
VICIOUS Bugger Tony. It's your house too - isn't it?
MOTHER He pays the rent... come on then, sit down.
She pats the bed next to her. He sits.
VICIOUS I didn't come 'round because I wanted to. I need money, mum. I'm starving.
His mother isn't giving him her total attention.
VICIOUS (continuing) I'm starving, mum...
He puts an arm around her. She looks at the hand on her arm, lets it stay. Her dialogue implies more than it says.
MOTHER What if Tony walks in?
SID VICIOUS He won't come walking in here. He's down at the pub with his mates.
MOTHER I don't want you to get hurt, Sid. You'd better get out in case Tony comes.
He pulls her closer to him, and kisses her on the cheek.
VICIOUS What's the matter, mum?
She is deep into the rush of the heroin.
MOTHER He could come walking in here any time now...
Effortlessly, Sid Vicious pushes his mother back on the bed and moves to cover her with half his body. He kisses her on the neck and lips.
SID VICIOUS I told you -- he's at the pub with his mates, getting sloshed.
MOTHER But he doesn't have the money to get sloshed, Sid. He'll be back
SID VICIOUS Come on, mum. Give us a kiss.
She does. And then she puts her free arm around him, and they begin the preliminaries of love making.
The scene continues in some detail before Tony does indeed burst in. It was a scene owning something to the scene in "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" when Randy Black, the heavyweight champion, bursts in on sweet Petronella Danforth in the arms of clean-cut Emerson Thorne.
Sid Vicious studied it. Russ, Malcolm and I studied him. He read carefully, smoking. Finally he closed the screenplay.
"I don't think me Mum will like the part about the heroin."
On another night, Russ and I took Johnny Rotten out to dinner. Russ by now had privately confided that McLaren was full of shit and the Pistols would never have made it in the Army. He was undaunted. "Ebert," he said, because he often began sentences with the name of the person he was addressing, "we're going to the mountaintop again." This was always understood between us as referring to the triumph of "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls."
He said the Sex Pistols would be the occasion of "a real R.M. film," and he had agents scouting the land for beautiful actresses with improbable bosoms. He had never been concerned before about plausibility in a screenplay, and he wasn't going to start now. If the Sex Pistols never encountered a woman requiring less than a DD cup, even in their audiences, that was fine with him. He appreciated the fact that the Sex Pistols songs would provide the occasion of another sex, drugs and rock and roll picture like BVD.
For dinner, I suggested Beauchamp Place, then not as trendy as now, a street not far from Harrods's that was chockablock with restaurants. In the black cab Meyer informed Rotten: "You look like you haven't eaten in a week."
"That fucker McLaren doesn't pay us anything. He gives us an allowance of five quid a week. I'm living in a dosshouse."
We alighted in front of a selection of Thai, Italian, Persian, Chinese, Moroccan and French restaurants.
"Ebert, what have you gotten us into?" Meyer asked with alarm. "John needs a big piece of meat."
We found a grill house in a basement supplied with dark, cavelike booths. To my surprise, no one recognized Johnny Rotten except our waitress, who confided "I'll keep it quiet." She offered to recite the daily chef's selections. Russ firmly cut her off: "We'll have three of the Trencherman's Specials." Russ entertained a fancy that the Trencherman's Special was as standard in every decent restaurant as a glass of water and a basket of bread.
"I don't think we have that on the menu," the waitress said, looking to Johnny for support. He looked as if he stayed above such details. We compromised with the three largest steaks the chef could find in his kitchen.
"Will you be having jacket potatoes with those?"
"Baked will be fine, my dear."
Meyer opened up by informing Johnny Rotten that with his stovepipe arms he wouldn't have survived one day in the army.
"What do I want with the fucking army?" Rotten said.
"You listen to me, you little shit. We won the Battle of Britain for you!"
I reflected that America had not been involved in the Battle of Britain, and that John Lydon (his real name) was Irish, and therefore from a non-participant nation. I kept these details to myself.
After dinner, we drove Johnny in a cab to where he lived, in an anonymous street in Notting Hill. "Fucking McLaren," he said. "That was the first decent meal I've had in a month." Meyer gave him five pounds and we waited outside a convenience store for him to buy lager and canned pork and beans. "Fucking great," Johnny said.
In all the years I knew him, I never heard Russ Meyer say the word "fucking." Perhaps he had too devout a respect for the concept. He preferred such synonyms as "wail," "pound," "pummel," "belabor" and "conjoin," always pronounced with enthusiasm.
I flew home. Russ called to say they had a budget from Fox. I had suggested the title be improved to "Who Killed Bambi," and this was embraced. The first day of filming involved the shooting of a deer by a singer P.J. Proby managed--"the greatest rock star in the world," referred got only as "M.J."
EXT. THE QUEEN'S GAME PRESERVE - DAY A Rolls Royce careens through the narrow lanes, narrowly missing trees on either side before it skids to a halt near a clearing. On its doors, gilt initials are carefully lettered: M.J.
CAMERA ESTABLISHES M.J., surrounded by his luxurious automobile.
A CHAUFFEUR, seven feet tall, leaps out and opens the door for M.J., the world's greatest rock star, who emerges expensively dressed in youthful-looking but very expensive hunting clothing, cut as a cross between hunting gear and contemporary fashion. Over his shoulder there's a quiver filled with steel-tipped hunting arrows. He carries a hunting bow as he moves stealthily into the woods. CUT TO: EXT. FOREST PRESERVE - M.J.'S POV
A deer flashes through a clearing.
SMASH CUT TO:
M.J. One of M.J.'s arrows stops it cold in its tracks. He nods with quiet satisfaction. It's important here that we see him as youthful, strong and virile -- and not yet aware that he is a member of the previous generation.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A tribute to Doris Day.