Just don’t mention the shower scene.
Clive James hates scary movies so he may not cope when the Sydney Symphony goes Psycho, writes Jacqueline Maley in London
The first movie Clive James remembers seeing was The Beast With Five Fingers. Released in 1946, it was not a cautionary tale about shoplifting, nor was it a gross-out movie aimed at pubescent boys. It was a horror flick featuring a disembodied hand, and it so scared the young Clive that ever since he has been terrified of being terrified.
“I was so afraid that I spent the whole time under the seat,” James says over coffee and croissants in his south London apartment.
“To this day I’ve never seen the shower scene in Psycho. I’ve seen the movie half a dozen times and I just have to close my eyes. How could he do that to Janet Leigh?”
In Sydney this week, the self-styled kid from Kogarah will again focus his attentions on scary movies when he presents Crime Time, a series of concerts by the Sydney Symphony.
The concerts will showcase scores from films including Chinatown, Rear Window, Rebecca and the spooky Sixth Sense, for which James may disappear under a stall chair.
The gig is “a chance to crack wise, a chance to say a few pertinent things about the film, about the world, make a few jokes, do a few stunts”, he says, before reneging on the stunt promise. He is 68 now.
Movies were James’s first love. Before the cultural critic and polymath ever read Albert Camus, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ludwig Wittgenstein, his mother would take him every week to the Ramsgate Odeon to see a film. As a teen, he took himself to the slightly bigger smoke of Rockdale on Saturdays to watch movies, cartoons and episodes of serials. His favourites were the musicals, which made a “colossal impact” on him.
“MGM musicals set my standards for the exuberance, joy and sheer skill of popular art.”
A stand-out memory is the last scene of The Band Wagon – Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire dancing The Girl Hunt. The young James went back to see the movie several times, just to see Charisse dazzling in red sequins, her spectacular dancing the perfect combination of wit and pure sex.
“It’s on my website now,” he says with glee. “I plucked it from YouTube. It’s mounted there like a plum.”
After our talk, he takes me to his computer to see the plum, tapping his feet and drumming his fingers on the desk in appreciation of both the jazz score and Charisse’s legs
I probably would have gotten the boot from television anyway,” he says. “The other anchormen were getting younger and the climate had changed. The mainstream channels were being occupied more and more by reality TV and there’s no place in that for me.”
Unlike his friend and contemporary Germaine Greer, he was never tempted to appear on Celebrity Big Brother, although the omnipresence of reality TV doesn’t bother him the way it does other critics. “It’s a natural product of democracy. God help us.”
James was one of the first critics to muse on the nature of fame and celebrity, and has achieved a measure of it himself. Does his love of pop culture and his interest in celebrity jar with his intellectualism?
“They are conflicting forces, so I write about the conflict. I’ve watched young people with not really much to offer get a chance to be stars, which I suppose reflects a widespread desire within the culture to do that.”
Despite loving the popular – movies, television and the music of Gershwin – James says he is a stalwart cultural conservative.
He believes spelling should be taught in schools and that university students should study literature plain, not through the lens of “pernicious” cultural theory. If James set the curriculum, it would include certain key texts, including The Naked And The Dead by Norman Mailer, Wild Swans by Jung Chang, and pretty much everything by Camus.
It was the web generation that James had in mind when he wrote Cultural Amnesia. With one eye on his mortality (which he mentions often in conversation), James clearly considers the book his life’s work, the culmination of thoughts and arguments he’s been having since he first became a cultural consumer at the Rockdale Odeon.
He has already begun notes for a second edition of the book, and his current interests are as scattergun as ever. He is watching eagerly the US presidential race (Barack Obama is “gorgeous” and he fancies Michelle), and is mulling over an essay about where the left went wrong.
“The left was very reluctant to let go of the idea that there might be some kind of totalitarian solution for social justice. What staggered me was its persistence in regarding Western liberal democracy as the real source of oppression.”
Notwithstanding these criticisms, James still considers himself an “old leftie”, his politics forged by his working-class mum who struggled to live on her small war widow’s pension.“A gentleman should always be on the left and so should the women he knows.”
And with that, James escorts me out of his apartment and along the Thames to the nearest Tube station. He walks on my right, but kisses my hand in farewell. On balance, a gentleman.
James quit television in 2001 to focus on the website, his “digital pyramid”, and the writing of Cultural Amnesia, published last year.
The September 11th edition of The Australian
James to keep score on movie theCaroline Overington| September 11, 2008HERE is a little exercise for the movie buffs among you. Recall to mind, if you can, the Spielberg classic, Jaws.
You can see the shark approaching, surely, but what is it that you hear? Is it music? Isn’t that what got your heart racing, both when you first saw the film, and now?
Do the same, if you dare, with Hitchcock’s Psycho: the shower scene will come to mind … and so, too, the terrifying score.
Expat bon vivant Clive James will this week host a celebration of the suspense and horror conjured by the quality film score in a series of performances called Crime Time. The music will be performed by the Sydney Symphony and conducted by Frank Strobel.
James will provide narration. For many, if not most of the audience, it will be the first opportunity to hear the familiar music live.
James said the best composers always worked in Hollywood.
Indeed, he went so far as to say that the score was “quite often, perhaps very often” better than the movie.
“Whoever wrote the score for Basic Instinct (it was Jerry Goldsmith, who also wrote The Twilight Zone) … that was a lot better than the movie,” James said.
As an aside, James noted that he once interviewed the star of that film, Sharon Stone. “A very, very attractive woman.”
Was she wearing panties?
“From where I sat, yes, I think she was,” he said and, without missing a beat, added: “I wasn’t.”
James is irrepressible, and can perhaps be counted upon to banter on a range of subjects during Crime Time, not least the US election