26 July 2010

Justin and Juliet - a piece for Jet Moon's Speakeasy

On 25 July 2010, I performed the monologue below at Jet Moon's Speakeasy at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, London. The piece was written in collaboration with Jet Moon, who directed all five pieces in the show, which included performances by Greg Renegado, fellow Guardian contributor Natacha Kennedy, the sublime Jason Elvis Barker, Iris Abras and myself - Jet co-wrote every piece except for Jason's, where she provided some input. The show also included a monologue by Jet (who introduced each performer) and a dance by Josephine Wilson. My script, entitled 'Justin and Juliet', is below.

*

Justin and Juliet

I was about 12 years old when my mum bought me a video: the one with Justin Fashanu’s goal of the season. Maybe you’ve seen it: Norwich versus Liverpool, the champions, in 1980, with Norwich, the underdogs, 3-2 down.

Norwich pass the ball round in midfield, pulling Liverpool’s defence all over the place. John Ryan passes to Justin, who has his back to goal, 25 yards out, and races out right, expecting it back. Justin flicks the ball over the defender, turns and hits this incredible curling shot between the goalkeeper’s hand and the post. There’s this split-second pause before the stadium erupts. As the commentator screams “That’s a magnificent goal!” Justin stands, one finger raised, as his team-mates run to kiss him. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

That was around the same time that I realised I was a cross-dresser – that’s what I called it back then. I didn’t have the word ‘trans’: I just knew that I liked dressing up in my mum’s clothes and that somehow this made me ‘different’.

Putting on a dress, I was floored by the surge of energy. Momentarily, I felt completely at ease: then total confusion. Why was I turned on? Was I a "transvestite"? Did I want a "sex change"? What if my family caught me? What if my classmates found out? Nobody must ever know, I told myself, panicking when my parents' car pulled up the drive before I'd covered my tracks.

The main reason I wanted to play football was because I loved it. The second was because it was a way to fit in. But I just wasn’t a team player. I wanted to get the ball and light up the game. But even when I scored with a 25-yard shot, I wasn’t one of the lads.

I just didn’t relate to football like my team-mates. I liked the art of it. Heaven forbid that I’d sound pretentious but when football is played well there’s real geometry to it: visionary movements in space, that sublime pass that splits a defence or the long-range shot that nobody saw coming.

The other boys didn’t care about that: they just wanted to win. They were more bothered about the camaraderie of the team, and that the girls thought they were fit. Nobody spoke about the homoeroticism. They just called anyone who didn’t tackle hard enough ‘gay’.

Isolated, I scoured the mainstream media for like-minded individuals, but it seemed the closest people to me in the public eye were objects of ridicule. I refused to admit how drawn I was whenever I saw the word "transsexual" - usually in my parents' Daily Mail. The coverage tended towards lurid stories, usually accompanied by cartoons of burly men in floral dresses with stubbly legs. But I knew I’d had it easier than Justin.

Placed in a Barnardo’s home when they were very young, Justin and his younger brother John were eventually fostered by a white family in a leafy Norfolk village, becoming keen footballers in their school – and Norwich’s youth team.

Justin broke into the first team when he was just 17. Before he was 21, he’d scored that famous goal – and dozens more, getting into the England squad and then becoming the first black million pound footballer. Meanwhile, his younger brother rose from a slow start to become the Gladiators host and notoriously tough Wimbledon centre-forward.

I knew all this about Justin when I was at school. I also knew that he was gay, as I kept seeing snide innuendos about him in football magazines. Here was someone who brought together two worlds meant so much to me. But by the time I was in my teens, Justin seemed to have vanished.

Once I was 16 I’d grown tired of trying to fit in. I declared myself gay and a cross-dresser: "gay" because although I felt attracted to males who were somehow female, I still considered them men; and "cross-dresser" because it seemed the most innocuous term. I picked an image off the post-punk peg and started cross-dressing with female friends, periodically scandalising the people of Horsham by wearing makeup and women's clothes around town. Mostly, though, I kept my femaleness private: I didn't want my gender to become sensational (at least, not all the time). But I still supported City and I still remembered Justin.

Then, Justin re-emerged. On the run from Interpol, who wanted him for sexual assault, he’d killed himself in a lock-up garage in Shoreditch.

Through the wave of media hate, I pieced together his life story. Manager Brian Clough found out about his trips to Nottingham gay clubs and confronted him:

“Justin, what do you get if you go to the butcher’s?”
“Meat, boss.”
“And what do you get if you go to the baker’s?”
“Bread, boss.”
“So why do you keep going to those bloody poofs’ clubs?”

Fearing for his future, Justin became a born-again Christian. But Clough hated religion even more than homosexuality, and banned him from training. So he joined Notts County, just over the road, and got back on track, until a knee injury forced him to retire, aged just 25. He spent thousands on surgery in America, but he was never the same. In the hope of recouping some money, he sold the story of his sexuality to The Sun.

Justin may have been a great footballer but being a tabloid celebrity is a much trickier game. Selling more of his private life to the tabloids He started playing football again and became a celebrity. But it wasn’t being a gay footballer that undid him: it was the realisation that he could make easy money from selling stories to the tabloids.

He finally came unstuck in 1994 when he claimed to have slept with Tory MPs. It wasn’t true: his club sacked him and no manager and no editor would touch him again. Wandering the globe, apparently considering Christian reprogramming to ‘cure’ his homosexuality, he finally re-emerged in 1998 after the sexual encounter with a 17-year-old American boy that led to his death.

Justin’s death was the final straw for me: football was a world that I would observe but couldn’t be involved with. But I couldn’t keep away from it: the more it conflicted with the highbrow genderqueer persona I was striving to create, the more I wanted to play.

In Brighton, aged 20, I went out as Juliet for the first time. A friend took me to Harlequins, where trans people were made especially welcome (its toilets were designated 'Gents' and 'Ladies/TV/TS'). Its music and decor resembled the campest gay clubs – there were drag acts followed by a hyper-cheese disco. Although I hated the playlist, I loved the atmosphere, and the liberation it provided: I'd never felt so myself.

After moving to Brighton, I found that Justin wasn’t the only gay footballer – even though he’s still the only openly gay professional player in history. There was a whole underground gay football scene: a national League and even a World Cup. I put my boots back on, joining the Brighton Bandits in time for the lesbian and gay World Cup in London in 2008. With me at centre-forward, we won one of the trophies. Now, I’m writing my own blog about transitioning for the Guardian. Yes, I’ve had a lot more advantages starting out than Justin: now, I’ve become the media. As The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the alternative media activists say: “Don’t dream it – be it.”

14 July 2010

Geoffrey Jones: The Rhythm of Film

A DVD review, originally published in FILMWAVES in 2005.

*

The combined total of Geoffrey Jones’ cinematic output stretches to a mere 93 minutes. Jones, who died in June 2005, managed to cram an extraordinary variety into those minutes, making films for global corporations and national institutions (and for himself), documenting British industry and machinery, simple human pleasures and the activities of Britain’s wildlife in nine deftly crafted works, across which he developed a truly unique style.

Beginning in advertising, Jones attracted the attention of Sir Arthur Elton, who offered him the role of supervisory Director of Animation in Shell’s Film Unit. His first work, Shell Panorama (1959, not included here) was his only film with a commentary: this led to advertising commissions for Shell, one of which, Shell Spirit (1962) won the Golden Award from the Designers and Art Directors Association. It also interested Edgar Anstey of British Transport Films, whom (with Elton) had helped entrench the conventions of British documentary making with Housing Problems (1935).

Snow (1963), made almost by accident as Jones was shooting 16mm notes for Rail (1966), signalled Jones’ distinctive idiom, which deliberately reacted against the documentary style popularised during the Thirties. The film had no commentary, instead cutting shots of trains ploughing through snow and people shovelling to a score by guitarist Johnny Hawksworth. Skilfully combining images of mechanical power and human endeavour, Snow won numerous awards and gained an Oscar nomination in 1965.

Rail was Jones’ main project, commissioned by Anstey to celebrate BR design, which changed dramatically while Jones was filming in Trinidad. Jones decided to make Rail a celebration of Britain’s railways as they were, with three vibrant minutes on British Rail’s ‘new era’ closing the film. It is clear that Jones much preferred the aesthetic of the steam period, and much of Rail focuses on Victorian feats of station and locomotive construction, contrasting the pre-war rolling stock with the corporate blue electric trains of the Sixties.

It is Locomotion (1975), however, that represents the peak of Jones’ rhythmic juxtaposition of the industrial beauty of the railways and music. Commissioned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Stockton-Darlington line, and set to music composed by Donald Fraser (and performed by Steeleye Span), Locomotion comprised archive drawings of mid-nineteenth century rail, fin-de-siècle photographs evoking the popularity of rail and the Tay Bridge disaster, silent film stock, shots of trains carrying soldiers to war and contemporary footage. Interspersed with images of the mechanics of locomotion, the music propels the film to an ever more frenzied pace as it progresses: combined with the dazzling array of images that detail the history of rail in fifteen minutes, the effect is mesmerising.

Trinidad and Tobago (1964) forms an alternative centre-point to the collection. Here, it is not the infrastructure of the Industrial Revolution that is celebrated, but a society distanced from Western narratives of ‘progress’. Trinidad and Tobago was a travelogue like none other of its time, playing brief shots of wildlife, people and surroundings against each other before exploding into the life of the carnival. Again without commentary, Jones minimises the intrusion of its sponsor (British Petroleum), once again structuring his film around music, this time a recording of indigenous compositions. The film is colourful without being gaudy, and the aesthetic coherence between the pictures and the music, and the impeccable rhythmic agreement between the two, retain the interest.

Also included are This is Shell (1970), an eight-minute evocation of every aspect of the oil company’s business, and the more personal Seasons Project (1980), which moved away from Jones’ aesthetic of machines to focus entirely on the British countryside, and its attendant wildlife. There are numerous shots of birds – one of a dove in mid-flight is particularly arresting – and the closing shot of a spider weaving its web is masterful.

Finally, there are A Chair-a-Plane Kwela (2004) and A Chair-a-Plane Flamenco (2004), two rhythmic shorts built from footage compiled in the Fifties. These are accompanied by a 31-minute interview with Jones, made shortly before his death, and a booklet explaining the background to Jones’ key films.

This release should allow historians to reconsider the place of Geoffrey Jones within the avant-garde film culture of the Sixties and Seventies. In so far as they were (often) commissioned and funded by major companies with the aim of extolling a corporate image, they can be situated within a tradition that stretches back to the GPO films of the Thirties. However, the distinctive style that Jones established across several pieces was a definite reaction against the ‘poetic realism’ of the period, but his works are also distanced from the London Co-op films that dominate studies of the time. Jones’ films are, of course, captivating regardless of their context, and the decision of the BFI to make them available should be as welcome to the casual viewer as it is to the film historian.

10 July 2010

Four films by Jacques Tati

Originally published in FILMWAVES in 2004.

*

Jacques Tati is not a neglected director awaiting rediscovery: he is widely regarded as the greatest French comic actor of all time (despite having an ancestry drawn from across Europe), succeeding the tragic Max Linder, and his output garnered much critical acclaim during his lifetime, with his reputation undiminished since his death in 1982. Often compared to the greats of silent comedy – especially Chaplin, whose reputation has suffered somewhat recently, necessitating the high-profile reissue of his great films by Warner in 2003 – Tati was, and remains, much admired for his deft use of sound and dialogue, his impeccable comic timing and his hilarious command of the relationship between his characters and their surroundings. This BFI reissue of four of his most-loved films, then, represents an opportunity to see how well the films have aged and reassess their critical reputation.

Tati’s début, Jour de fête (1949) is an uncomplicated film, with a simple plot about a postman, François, who is shown a mock video documenting the efficiency of the American postal service and becomes obsessed with introducing US methods into his rural French village, despite only having a bicycle at his command. The result is an endearing blend of satire and farcical slapstick, with the humour derived from the most traditional source, that of the situation. A gentle, affectionate film, introducing the theme of the contrast between a rustic individual and urban modernity that ran throughout Tati’s work, Jour de fête stands up well both as an individual film and as an indicator of how Tati would develop his comedic style. Particularly noteworthy is the music that accompanies François’ frantic, ill-advised dash across the countryside to deliver his post, especially in the scene where his bicycle escapes him and dashes down a winding country road.

Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) introduced the character with which Tati became synonymous. Less plotted than Jour de fête, Les Vacances features M. Hulot blissfully unaware of the havoc he unwittingly unleashes on a small French holiday resort. The most immediate of the four films, the humour of Les Vacances is derived from clever use of sound, particularly smooth and Dixieland jazz music (the scenes where Hulot interrupts relaxed chalet activity with a loud, incongruous gramophone record are a joy) and masterful sight gags. Tati’s characterisation of Hulot – a simple Everyman who speaks little, lost in a world that is modernising without him – drew many comparisons to Chaplin’s tramp, but Hulot is always disengaged from his surroundings, accidentally causing chaos and then continuing blind to its consequences, unlike the Tramp whose comedy is often derived from his exaggerated facial expressions and frantic interaction with his environment. This form of characterisation, in which many objects, especially Hulot’s car, are as deeply sketched as the people, works to great effect in Les Vacances, and confirmed Tati as a major directorial talent.

Tati gave Hulot a family in Mon Oncle (1958), skilfully exploiting the affection that women and children felt for Hulot with the impatience that he engendered in more dynamic businessmen and officials. Although the pace is slower than in Les Vacances (The Gold Rush serves as an interesting comparison, with its brilliant passages of high comedy constructed by long scenes building character relations and plot), there are plenty of comic set pieces involving misfiring machinery and tedious jobs that point towards Tati’s most ambitious project.

Playtime (1967) is generally considered to be Tati’s masterpiece. Conceived on a breathtaking scale, the film necessitated the construction of a massive set on the outskirts of Paris, which came to be known as ‘Tativille’. Although the set, the protracted filming and the refusal of American distributors to back Playtime bankrupted Tati, costing him his house and the rights to his films, he remained fond of the film, regarding it as his greatest work and describing it as “exactly the picture I wanted to make”. Of all four films, Playtime is the least suited to television, with several immediate and running gags unfolding simultaneously in single, often lengthy shots; it is undoubtedly meant for cinema. Watched on a large screen, Tati’s judgement cannot be questioned: Playtime is so subtle, so intelligently layered in its construction, and constructed with such architectural imagination, that it is fascinating on first view and increasingly hysterical with each subsequent viewing. The logical conclusion to his development, Playtime seems like a new form of comedy, eschewing character identification, plot, or the facial close-ups that made Chaplin such a star. Instead, the humour is derived from repetition (of comic riffs, sounds effects and repetitive scenery, particularly in the offices and streets dominated by skyscrapers), and from the subtle attempts of the people, usually playing themselves, to remain human in such an impersonal environment. Although best understood in the context of Tati’s entire career, it is Playtime that remains his most outstanding achievement.

As for extras, Jour de fête and Mon Oncle include three trailers, while Les Vacances features an interview with Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day’s Night and absurdist comedies such as The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film (1959), visibly influenced by Tati’s earlier works. Playtime has the most enlightening extras, with a short documentary on the construction and fate of ‘Tativille’, a brief interview with Sylvette Baudrot on Tati’s directorial methods, a short film about Tati and a commentary by Philip Kemp, who wrote the sleeve notes for these delightfully packaged films. More information on the process that restored the colour to Jour de fête, originally discarded in favour of a black and white version when the untested Thomsoncolor negatives could not be printed, would have been appreciated; Kemp explains the origins of the process in his notes but we hear nothing from those who worked on the 1995 restoration.

Effectively transferred to DVD, although Jour de fête’s colouration is occasionally fragile, the BFI selection represents the high points of Tati’s oeuvre, charting his development from the charming simplicity of Jour de fête to the beautiful complexity of Playtime. They are a pleasure to see again.