Thursday 28 June 2012

An Andy Milligan Double-bill from the BFI,
Part # 1:

Nightbirds (1968)

If you’re searching for sure-fire omens that we really are living in the end-times in 2012, look no further than the fact that the British Film Institute – austere, state-sponsored guardians of Ozu, Cocteau and Cassavetes on these shores – just released a double bill of Andy Milligan films on blu-ray.

This astoundingly unlikely occurrence has of course taken place via the auspices of the BFI’s invaluable Flipside imprint, here working in collaboration with ‘Drive’ director Nicholas Winding Refn, who (rather unexpectedly, it must be said) turns out to be a huge Milligan fan, and also the present owner of the only surviving prints of the films presented in this set.

For any uninitiated readers out there, I’m afraid it’s a pretty difficult task to encapsulate the life and work of Andy Milligan in a few easy paragraphs. Suffice to say, until recently his name was probably best known as a kind of inside joke and/or flashing warning sign within cult film fandom – the man who made trash-horror films so inept and grotesque that not even trash-horror fanatics could stand to sit through them. As Michael Weldon memorably wrote in his ‘Psychotronic Encyclopaedia of Film’, “if you’re an Andy Milligan fan, there’s no hope for you”.

This dismissive view of Milligan’s work has gradually softened over the years, largely thanks to the publication of Jimmy McDonough’s highly acclaimed biography The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Andy Milligan. It is a genuinely extraordinary book which fully justifies the plaudits and superlatives thrown in its direction, with McDonough’s achievement is rendered all the more remarkable due the fact that, at the time of publication at least, his subject (who died of AIDs in 1991) was pretty much the most terminally obscure, universally derided figure one could hope to find anywhere in popular culture.

As well as outlining the shape of Milligan’s troubled life, McDonough’s book almost coincidentally ends up shedding new light on his equally troubled films, building a compelling case for them not simply as the work of “morons with a movie camera” (as Stephen King of all people once dismissed 1968’s ‘The Ghastly Ones’), but as the flawed statements of a kind of cracked auteur, their strange logic and mangled storylines reflecting at every turn the personal obsessions of their unusual creator.

Viewed through this lens, Milligan’s work suddenly begins to make a lot more sense, taking on what McDonough characterises as a ‘crippled, incontinent puppy appeal’, allowing the same grainy, misbegotten atrocities that have bored and infuriated horror fans for decades to be reinterpreted as the outpourings of a kind of impoverished, 42nd Street Fassbinder, whose background connects him more closely to the world of confrontational off-off-off-broadway theatre and the birth of New York’s underground gay cinema scene than to the drive-in hucksterism of Al Adamson or Herschel Gordon Lewis. And that, I suppose, is where the BFI pulls on its rubber gloves and steps in.

One of the oddest diversions in Milligan’s already thoroughly odd filmmaking career came at the end of the 1960s, when he upped sticks from New York and spent about eighteen months living in London. During his time in England, he managed to crank out no less than five feature films on his trusty 16mm sound-on-film camera, three of them apparently produced with no financial backing whatsoever, after the production deal that brought him to the UK collapsed following a vicious disagreement with the father of producer & adult cinema entrepreneur Leslie Elliot.

Such was business-as-usual in Milligan’s world, but nonetheless, the time he spent in London seemed – whether by accident or design - to coincide with his most creative and prolific filmmaking period, and the film BFI/Flipside have chosen to lead with on their release – 1968’s ‘Nightbirds’ - certainly marks an interesting change of pace for the man better known to the world (or small parts of it at least) as the director of ‘Torture Dungeon’ and ‘Guru, The Mad Monk’.

(‘For Your Info’ note: In keeping with BFI/Flipside’s catalogue of single feature non-genre films, their BD/DVD package is being marketed solely as a release of ‘Nightbirds’, but in fact it’s effectively a double-bill, with the same year’s ‘The Body Beneath’ included in its entirety as an ‘extra’.)

Almost entirely unseen at the time of its completion and until recently assumed to have been lost completely, ‘Nightbirds’ was the first of the films Milligan made in the UK, and the only non-horror effort. As such, there is a spirit of freshness and naivety about it that is glimpsed only rarely in the director’s grim and claustrophobic American films. It’s easy to speculate that with the opportunities of a whole new city spread out before him, and working for once with a producer/financier whom he actually seemed to get on with pretty well (until he met his dad at least), Milligan perhaps saw this project as a fresh start – a chance to break away from the genre films he’d been grinding out for 42nd Street, and to return to something a bit closer to his theatrical roots. (After all, hadn’t Polanski kick-started his international career in London a few years earlier with ‘Repulsion’, financed by Soho sleaze merchants Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger?)

Well, ‘Nightbirds’ is certainly no ‘Repulsion’, but watching its opening half hour, you’d never guess it was an Andy Milligan film either. The perpetual camera whir and some tell-tale eccentricities in the dialogue may be giveaways for fans, but beyond that, the film’s rough-yet-imaginative compositions and awkward-yet-compelling performances very much have the vibe of a promising student film – the kind of thing that might win the top prize in a college Filmmaking class, or at an amateur short film night. That a guy who’d been working as an embattled commercial filmmaker for about a decade at this point could come up with something so earnest and unabashed perhaps cuts to the heart of what continues to fascinate people about Milligan, in spite of the fact that most of his surviving films are, to put it mildly, not that great.

Much of the ‘freshness’ (for want of a better word) in ‘Nightbirds’ can be traced back to the film’s two leads, Julie Shaw and Berwick Kaler, both young and inexperienced actors whose youthful energy, though stifled by a lack of ‘conventional’ dramatic training, is captured well by Milligan’s roving camera.

Although there is some interesting location shooting here (offering fascinating glimpses of East London’s Commercial Street and Spitalfields market area circa 1968), ‘Nightbirds’ relative artistic success is really down to Shaw and Kaler, with the bulk of the action taking place in a single cramped attic room where the pair bounce off each other both physically and emotionally, developing their own strange needy/predatory relationship which, inevitably, takes a darker turn as the film progresses.

Kaler in particular is a really charming screen presence. An aspiring actor who was apparently working as a doorman in Elliot’s Soho cinema when he was shanghaied into staring in ‘Nightbirds’ with one day’s notice, he has a sort of bashful, indefinably goofy quality about him that Milligan seems to emphasise throughout the film, and – under the circumstances – he gives a fine, mannered performance that reminded me quite a lot of John Moulder-Brown in Jerzy Skolimowski’s ‘Deep End’. Shaw is less of a stand out, with her possible reluctance about starring in such a weird, marginal project creeping through from time to time, but this guardedness is well-suited to the closed and duplicitous nature of the character she’s playing, and, presumably with Milligan’s encouragement, she pulls off a couple of great moments, including an absolutely wonderful shot in which her expression transforms from dazed innocence to witchy malignance in a matter of seconds as Kaler pleasures her off-screen.

As usual, Milligan’s scripted dialogue is somewhat digressive, ‘shocking’ in an audience-baiting, theatrical fashion and sometimes just plain odd, whilst his storytelling – especially in the second half of the film – often collapses into moments of heavy-handed melodrama and beserk cruelty. It’s a testament to Shaw and Kaler (along with the assorted misfits Milligan rounded up for the supporting cast) that they manage to keep a lid on all this excess, keeping things at least vaguely within the realms of believability, whilst the director’s more naturalistic, low-key approach to filming helps to largely avoid the garish absurdity that characterises his horror films.

Rather than a one-off shot at an ‘art’ film however, perhaps ‘Nightbirds’ can be best viewed as a transatlantic continuation of the kind of black & white sexploitation flicks that Milligan spent much of the ‘60s knocking out. I say ‘perhaps’, simply because it’s difficult to tell at this juncture, with most of those films currently filed as ‘missing, presumed dead’. But certainly, many elements found in ‘Nightbirds’ – from the “frank” discussion of masturbation and sexual positions to the hilarious, bitchy trash talk (“there’s a name for girls like you, it begins with a C and ends with a T”, a character sneers at one point) – would seem to chime with the kind of content found in ‘60s East Coast ‘roughies’, particularly those magic few that seem to be balanced on a razor-sharp demarcation between art and sleaze – a trait evidenced by the decidedly peculiar, almost avant garde, approach Milligan takes to the film’s nude scenes.

Zooming in as close as he can to his actors’ furry bellies and pimpled limbs, Milligan films the couple’s assorted gropings in a way that’s not so much voyeuristic as it is entirely abstract, revealing vistas of odd, disconnected body parts, entirely removed from any narrative or erotic charge. Whether adopted as a deliberate aesthetic decision or merely a kind of teasing self-censorship, I thought this technique was actually quite effective, allowing the film to become somewhat explicit whilst simultaneously undercutting the generic expectations of a ‘sex film’, veering more toward the kinda furtive footage you might see in some underground short, or one of Warhol’s films or something.

Proceedings gradually become more recognisably ‘Milligan-esque’ as the film progresses however, and when ‘Nightbirds’ eventually concludes with an uneasy bit of off-screen animal violence*, a laugh-out-loud low budget gore moment and a truly herculean example of the director’s trademark ‘camera swirl’, fans of the man’s work will no doubt find themselves wiping a tear from their eye, raising a glass of whatever the hell it is Andy Milligan fans drink to the heavens, and giving thanks to the BFI for letting this thing happen.

And as for the rest of us, well, in keeping with many of the films released on the Flipside label, it would probably be unwise to try to hype ‘Nightbirds’ as some kind of ‘lost classic’ – with the best will in the world, it’s still a minor film by a director of, shall we say, limited means. But nonetheless there is still something compelling about it, an eerie itch-you-can’t-scratch fascination that just won’t let up.

*One of the best Milligan anecdotes in Berwick Kaler’s commentary on the BFI disc concerns the director flying into a rage when Shaw refused to snap the neck of the film’s pet pigeon, apparently stalking out of sight to do it himself before handing her the dead bird to film the scene, in an almost exact replay of the infamous rabbit story from the making of ‘The Ghastly Ones’ recounted in McDonough’s book.


Thomas Duke said...

This release blows my mind (both in theory and execution). I think my comment to Glenn Kenney was that "I sooner thought we'd see a Blu-ray of The Day the Clown Cried with a drunken Jerry Lewis commentary". I guess I will hold out hope for that in light of the Milligan release.

Elliot James said...

Kaler has had a busy career while Shaw is credited with this, another film, and one episode on The Champions.