AN EMPIRE OF ONE

If you don't think everything's really weird, you're not paying attention.

Malcolm McDowell on O Lucky Man!

Malcolm McDowell spoke before a screening of O Lucky Man! on March 18, 2012 at the Aero Theatre

NOTE: Please link to this page rather than the Vimeo page.

Here are some quotes and paraphrases germane to O Lucky Man! from Gavin Lambert’s Mostly About Lindsay Anderson (pages 161-173). Most of this material is not covered by McDowell in the video above.

1. The first twenty pages of Coffee Man (the original title) were based on Malcolm McDowell’s own experiences…. To make these early scenes (and the rest of the film) ‘more epic,’ Anderson recommended writer David Sherwin to think Pilgrim’s Progress, Candide and Kafka’s Amerika, with the protagonist ‘journeying through a lot of adventures and encountering a lot of characters. It’s a form which hasn’t been attempted very much recently–middle-class artists lack the confidence for it.’

2. The protagonist himself, Anderson suggested, should be a naive innocent who never questions the success-worship of the world he was born into.

3. Progress on the script was slow, partly because writer David Sherwin was increasingly disoriented as he continued to shuttle between wife and girlfriend. Later that month, Sherwin’s girlfriend left him for her previous boyfriend in Australia, his wife left him for her previous boyfriend, and he became temporarily blocked. Anderson wrote in his diary: ‘The script is even more of a shambles–a disappointing nothing–than I had expected.’

4. Two weeks later, Sherwin’s girlfriend promised to return as soon as her boyfriend promised not to commit suicide if she did. This unblocked Sherwin, at least temporarily.

5. The idea to use songs by Alan Price to comment on the story at various moments was consciously Brechtian. The role Anderson conceived for Price had its origins in the Street Singer from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil’s The Threepenny Opera, a connection that Anderson only realized later, despite being familiar with the work.

6. A first-draft script was completed by October 10, 1971. Anderson commented in his diary that the script was ‘full of holes,’ but he, Anderson, needing a happy writer, cabled Sherwin’s ex-girlfriend, still in Australia, that the script was ‘BRILLIANT STOP DAVID LOVES YOU AND NEEDS YOU PLEASE RETURN.’ Ten days after receiving the cable, Sherwin’s ex-girlfriend returned to him, but on Christmas Eve she left him again and Sherwin made a failed suicide attempt with sleeping pills. Diagnosed as a manic-depressive, he was prescribed lithium and remained under psychiatric care for a week through the holidays.

7. Anderson: ‘Anglo-American cinema is essentially organized for the production of pre-planned narrative cinema, and anyone who takes on the risk of personal, poetic, changing and developing film-making, exposes himself to enormous problems. This is true of Kubrick and Schlesinger and even Peckinpah as well as myself.’

8. Anderson: “Warners [O Lucky Man‘s distributor] will not accept the idea of taking my name off the picture in the event of distributors finally making cuts of which I disapprove.’ [The three hour film was cut by distributors. Warners cut 20 minutes from it for the American release.]

9. At the end of January, Anderson began goading Sherwin, reunited (temporarily, at least) with his wife, to plug various holes in the script.

10. On his notion to have actors play more than one role, Anderson said, ‘Each of our characters might have been somebody else, if his luck had been different.’

11. During the casting process, Anderson wondered if his own life might have taken a different turn, and decided it was impossible. When an agent submitted a photograph of a handsome young actor for a small part, he asked his diary: ‘Were I honest and courageous, would I arrange to meet the boy? Would I attempt to seduce him? Such a thing is somehow just not conceivable in terms of what I am, in terms of what I (apparently inevitably) have become.’

12. Anderson, in his diary: ‘Nobody realizes what a mess of loneliness and inadequacy I am inside.’

13: Anderson: ‘The follies you read about every day when you open the paper are so absurd that the only way to comment on them is through laughing at them, because if you try to be serious about them, they dwarf you.’

ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

In recent interviews David Simon, creator of The Wire, has complained about how some people’s response to his show comes down to “Who is the coolest character?” type questions, rather than the larger questions and themes that the show was dealing with. Here’s a quote from his interview at hitfix:

But to revisit the other thing, let me say this: my apologies to anyone who was saying, or trying to say you’re not cool if you didn’t get to The Wire early, and I only want you to watch the show on my terms. What I was saying is The Wire has been off the air for 4 years now. That it would be celebrated with things like who’s cooler: Omar or Stringer, at this late date, and that the ideas of the show would be given short shrift, those were the target of my comments.

My question for Simon is this: has he heard of Bertolt Brecht? His complaints touch on issues that Brecht dealt with long ago and which were rehashed by film critics in the Sixties and Seventies in response to films such as O Lucky Man! Does Simon know anything about this history? Why don’t his interviewers ever question him about it? Or are they likewise ignorant?

UPDATE: 12/2/12

Here’s a new post about the film by Pablo Kjolseth at MovieMorlocks.

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Written by David Kilmer

March 31, 2012 at 1:23 pm