Last month, the BFI released a Blu-Ray/DVD double bill to die for: Duffer (1971) and The Moon Over the Alley (1975), by Joseph Despins & William Dumaresq. Both films are oustanding, imaginative, immaculately nuanced personal visions, so it's a joy to see them available at last for viewing in the home. Sadly, William Dumaresq died in 1998, a time when both films had fallen into complete obscurity. Having seen Duffer via a battered 16mm print transferred to videotape by my friend Peter Christopherson, I eventually reviewed it in my book The Eyeball Compendium in 2003 (although the review depended upon memories nearly fifteen years old, the tape having been lost for that stretch of time!) I was therefore thrilled when the tape showed up again. I was able to interest the BFI in releasing Duffer, and immensely happy to write the sleeve notes for their lavish DVD/Blu-Ray release. However, I ended up with a lot more material than I could use in the booklet. Here then is that excised material, providing a more detailed backstory to the making of Duffer, and the two men behind it, drawing on extensive interviews I conducted with Joseph "Chuck" Despins, and Dumaresq's close friend (and publisher of his novels) Howard Gerwing.
A meeting of minds and the making of Duffer
Duffer was created by William Dumaresq and Joseph Despins, two Canadians who relocated to London in 1962 and 1963 respectively. Despins was, broadly speaking, the technical brains of the team; the extreme subject matter was Dumaresq’s (a division of labour that has some similarities to Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell's co-directing of Performance).
Dumaresq brought to his storytelling a combination of psychological honesty, graphic physical loathing, and a whimsical, irreverent quality that revels in the absurd, the weird and the bizarre. He was raised a Roman Catholic by his staunchly religious mother, as Howard Gerwing, Dumaresq's friend and the publisher of his novels, recalls: “Bill was a Roman Catholic and his mother was very influential in that, she was always after him. He used to pretend to go to church but we'd be down the coffee shop instead, and after it was over he'd go tell his mother he'd been to Mass.” Gerwing met Dumaresq when the two were employed at the same Vancouver cinema. He recalls, “Bill was working at the Varsity Cinema up on Tenth Avenue, on the door, but actually he ran the whole place because the manager was a hopeless drunk. Bill did everything for him. That's how I met him. I was the poster boy at the cinema, I would put up posters and change the marquee.” Dumaresq was in Vancouver studying English at the University, and formed a lifelong love of poetry through the influence of an English professor there who turned him on to John Milton. His other great loves were the theatre, and cinema. Gerwing remembers that Dumaresq had a particular affection for the Hollywood Musical: “We'd be sweeping out the Varsity and he'd be up on stage singing and dancing while I was doing the sweeping! I'd be clapping and he'd bow and then go off into another Fred Astaire routine. He knew all the song and dance routines from the Musicals. He would sing all the parts to you for Kiss Me Kate! His memory was superb.”
In the late 1950s Dumaresq married, and with his wife Mary moved to Saskatoon, to study at the University of Saskatchewan. From there he obtained a University scholarship enabling him to move with Mary to England, furthering his studies at University College London.
However, the marriage was not built to last, as Gerwing recounts: “When he got married to Mary, I knew it was impossible. I tried to talk both of them out of it. I said, just because you've slept together doesn't mean you have to get married, that's old fashioned. But she insisted on it, and Bill was fond of her, but I knew he didn't want to get married. I was his best man in the Roman Catholic Church on Tenth Avenue, and it was sad, because she was so happy, and he was so doleful.”
Arriving in London in 1962, Dumaresq completed a Ph.D. on Milton, and although by now making a living as a teacher, decided to turn away from academe in search of the creative life. “He wanted to write,” Gerwing explains, “The academic world was just a way for him to get into the creative world. But he was a very good scholar, he could easily have been an academic.” As one would expect for a young man who has written his doctorate thesis on John Milton's ‘Paradise Lost’, religious concepts remained powerfully influential, but University life broadened his vision. Gerwing explains, “He was a Roman Catholic, but because of his learning and his reading he was a ‘bad Catholic’, you know! He had constant doubts. The priest used to get mad at him, saying 'You're just a smart-ass!' He didn't like many priests, and he hated all that Catholic League of Decency stuff. He regarded sex as original sin, but you wouldn't say he was against sex, since both women and men liked him.”
It would not be unusual for a young man of artistic sensitivity, a lover of Hollywood Musicals and an aficionado of poetry, to identify as gay. Certainly, as Gerwing says regarding Dumaresq's intellectual/artistic influence, “My family and my friends said he completely altered me and turned me into a homo! To which I said fuck you!” Although the question of his true sexual orientation remains off the record, what's clear is that Dumaresq's marriage did not survive relocation to London for very long: the couple split soon after arriving. The situation was exacerbated by the presence of a poet friend, whom Gerwing believes was romantically obsessed with Dumaresq: “This guy called Louis really loved Bill. Maybe it was Louis that drove Mary out of the house. He was obsessed with Bill. They met at UVC, Louis kept following him - he followed him to Saskatchewan and he followed him to London. They would talk about poetry together, all the greats, Milton, T.S. Eliot - Louis was a T.S. Eliot scholar.”
Later in the 1960s, Dumaresq met Galt MacDermot and embarked on a writing collaboration that would dominate his output for years to come. Gerwing recalls, “At a Canadian party after the success of Hair, Galt complained that he didn't have a decent lyricist. Bill, as a joke, started reciting his nonsense verse, and Galt was delighted. Galt said ‘we should do a musical together.” Dumaresq teamed up with MacDermot, writing the libretto for MacDermot's music in the stage musical Isabel's a Jezebel, which opened at the Duchess Theatre, London in 1970, and The Human Comedy (based on an unused William Saroyan screenplay), which opened off-Broadway in 1983. But from the point of view of cinema history the most significant development in Dumaresq's career had taken place earlier, in 1963, through a chance meeting with another fellow Canadian...
Joseph ‘Chuck’ Despins was born in 1933 and his career choices brought him and his wife Diane to Great Britain in January 1963. It was a bitterly cold winter, with freezing fog and water pipes frozen all over London. Despins remembers his first impression: “We arrived in the cold and the fog, and we were in this little hotel in Russell Square huddled around a tiny electric fire that you had to keep putting two shilling pieces in, and I thought, what have we done!” Two or three days after arriving in London Despins took a flat off the Bayswater Road and hooked up with Dumaresq, who was living in South Kensington at the time. The two men began scouring London's cinemas, sometimes going to see as many as three films in a day.
Despins describes the period with fondness: “We started going to the cinema. I loved the French New Wave, I loved the way they were shot so spontaneously, or at least gave the impression of spontaneity.” This being the 1960s, the European Art Movie was at its height, with new films from Fellini, Bergman, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, Resnais and many others regularly filling theatres. Despins recalls that there were two opposing camps at the time: “There were two schools – Antonioni and Fellini – and I was always very much on the Fellini side! I felt, rightly or wrongly, that Antonioni was more cerebral, more measured, whereas I just liked Fellini's joie-de-vivre. That wonderful scene in 8½, the woman Saraghina, when she comes out and dances, you know - Life!” British cinema was going through its ‘kitchen sink drama’ phase, towards which Despins felt ambivalent: “I enjoyed Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson. I would go the cinema a lot but I wasn't so enamoured or obsessive about the films that were more political. We were kind of living in our little cocoon, and it didn't involve class, so the whole class obsession that we felt there was in Britain didn't touch us. But we were sympathetic to them - we understood. I come from quite a poor background in Canada, so I feel that my position politically is always going to be for the have-nots rather than the haves. Neither Bill nor I felt we were really part of the 'swinging' London scene, we just missed out at our age, but I thought it was fantastic. When we first arrived I used to see the suits that were being sold in the shops and they were just so fuddy-duddy. There was a sense of something static, and suddenly there was an eruption. There was without doubt going to be progress, and things were never going to be the same again.”
While soaking up the golden age of art cinema, Despins and Dumaresq started talking about their own artistic ambitions. Despins credits his friend with giving him the necessary encouragement: “I was teaching mathematics at the time. I quit that job, the school was a terrible place, and started working in the evenings. Bill was the one who suggested I should go take a film course. I went for an interview with the London Film School, and got on that course. I don't know if I would have done that had Bill not said, why don't you do a film course? So I was working nights, teaching somewhere, and did this film course that took about eight months to a year. I was still at there in 1964 when Bill and I started work on something he had written called ‘The Slain Girl’. By that time I was living in a flat in Paddington, and had a child. We took over my sitting room for a long time preparing this film. I lit the scenes, the whole thing was going to be done in that room. We didn't finish it, but that was the first thing we did together. I remember putting it on at the London Film School and the person teaching camera said the lighting looked alright. It was based on a poem of Bill's. I would do the lighting, set up the shot, then show it to Bill and see if it was alright with him.”
Despins completed his course at London Film School in 1965, but not before becoming fleetingly involved in an intriguing project that was ultimately never completed. Had it been made, it would have brought together a fascinating group of individuals, including the fantasy author Terry Pratchett and UK science fiction's leading maverick Michael Moorcock. A group of SF enthusiasts headed by Ivor Mayne, they called themselves Group ’65, and planned to make a movie called ‘Nightworld’. However after six months the project fell apart, apparently due to Mayne suffering an accidental injury and another member of the team leaving London.
Despins was asked to stay on and teach at London Film School after completing his course, which he did for a year, after which he took a job working as an editor for the BBC. He would remain at the BBC for many years, and was there when work on Duffer commenced in 1971.
The seeds of the film took root in conversations between Despins and Dumaresq, in which the latter would extol the virtues of a macabre but comical imaginary narrative he was working on. Despins remembers, “Bill told me that he'd written a story called ‘Duffer’. He'd jokingly say, ‘Oh I've got Duffer tied up to a chair and I play him four hours of Wagner!’ That's the sort of thing, and when he'd talk about it, it would be a hoot.”
Despins was itching to follow the example of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, who seemed unimpeded by the usual cast and crew conventions: “My feeling was, why can't we just go and make it, you know, just turn over and start shooting and never mind all the other stuff, the unions. No theory, just get a good story and do it.” Drawing on the additional talents of cameraman Jorge Guerra, a friend from the London Film School, Despins and Dumaresq found themselves making a movie in a most idiosyncratic and untraditional way, for British production at least - namely, without a script. Despins laughs: “Oh no, there was no script. Literally! I never saw anything in writing. We had a crew of three people - me, Bill and Jorge, and then the performers, and they were never more than one or two. Unbelievably spontaneous. Let me give you an example. There was a laundromat right on Notting Hill Gate High Street, and we could only find the time to shoot on weekends. The laudromat scene was done on a Saturday or a Sunday morning. Bill said, there's a scene with Duffer and he's gonna come past and then come into the laundromat and see Your Gracie. We went into the laundromat, and people around us were wondering what the hell was going on. Jorge was probably handholding the camera. We rehearsed the scene a couple of times and then just shot it. Irna was married to a hifalutin' London University academic, but she had been an actress. She's flouncing around, and a lot of that was totally spontaneous. We would talk about it the weekend before perhaps, but only because we needed to know who was going to be needed.” Spontaneity was further fostered by the structure of the narrative: “There aren't any sustained scenes in Duffer, they're all short scenes, a cluster of shots or single shots even, so if we wanted to move to another location to pick up another shot that was fine. The shots could go anywhere into the film. Even when I was cutting it I was adding new shots in if they were needed. A lot of us lived around the same area, Notting Hill, which made it easy to get people together and knock off shots.”
|Kit Gleave, seen here in 1973, two years after playing Duffer|
During shooting, Despins concentrated on the camera and lighting, very much in collaboration with the third member of the team, cameraman Jorge Guerra, while Dumaresq, playing Louis-Jack, took greater responsibility for nurturing the performances of the other actors, in particular Kit Gleave, who played Duffer. Despins describes the approach: “Bill often was the one who would talk to Kit. It was a good thing, simply because Kit had to be assured about Bill, given what was going on. I was looking at a scene where Bill's doing something awful to Kit, and I was admiring Kit for just being there, right? Bill would have been reassuring Kit, and as the scene was, in a sense, in Bill's head, that relationship was very important.”
With its frank perversity, poetic monologues, black-comedy undertow and exploration of forbidden quasi-incestuous fantasy, Duffer was defiantly out on a limb. With the Wolfenden Report and the decriminalisation of homosexual activity in 1969, social attitudes were changing, and Duffer was one of the first films made in Britain to feature overt, if obliquely filmed, scenes of male-on-male sex. The sadomasochistic nature of many scenes between Dumaresq and Gleave required sensitive handling, although Despins remembers the teenage actor was extremely relaxed about the whole thing: “Kit was a very silent kid, and I can't remember where we found him. He was on the set, he said very very little, he was very amenable, so he was never ever a problem. We must have behaved in such a way - Bill, Jorge and myself - that minimised the danger of that situation for him in some way. In the sodomy scene, I quickly got out of the wider shot and just went in to a close up of Duffer's face. And that could have been shot with Bill hardly even being there if we'd wanted.”
As a cost-cutting measure, Duffer was filmed silent, with dialogue added later during post-production. Despins, who was familiar with this approach having read about the Italian cinema's customary practise of dubbing all sound later, embraced the challenge. The dubbed dialogue was improvised from the cast's memory of the scene being shot, without even a guide recording or written notes: “There was nothing written down. If Bill and Kit were together in a shot, then you knew basically the philosophy of what they were saying; they'd be talking about what they were doing: ‘Duffer, I'm going to give you some apricots to eat,’ or whatever. So when it came to me laying down the sound they would say something just a bit like that.”
Perhaps the most surprising element in the Duffer story is the involvement of Grammy and Tony award-winning composer Galt MacDermot (Hair), whose piano-based score played up the film's melancholia and black comedy, giving it a rueful, quirky air. Dumaresq and MacDermot were by now close friends and collaborators. Despins remembers their association: “Galt came over to London a number of times. I think he came over for Duffer. Some of the songs were sung by Bill and Galt. They would sometimes make demos at a little demo studio, Galt on piano and both of them singing together. Bill would bring me the demos and I would just transfer them to 16mm.”
It was only while constructing the titles that Despins decided upon the co-directing and co-producing credit. As he explains, “Initially, the idea was that Bill was responsible for writing the story and I was supposed to be making the film, but it just naturally fell that we were both jointly making the film. We would both be talking to the actors and the cameraman. So when we finished shooting and I'd put the film together it just seemed natural that there should be a co-directing and co-producing credit. Bill wasn't expecting it, he was very surprised.” While the film was being edited, Despins happened to meet representatives from noted London repertory outlet The Other Cinema, and showed them Duffer in its rough state on the Steenbeck. They snapped it up then and there.
Sadly, this was to be the film's only exposure in the UK, although it did play at film festivals in Europe. For Despins, the act of finishing the film, and getting such a deeply idiosyncratic labour lof love onto an actual cinema screen, was a surreal and exciting experience: “I remember driving down to the Electric Cinema with Bill, and we sat outside in the car and said to each other, 'Can you imagine there are people inside there sitting in there watching Duffer?' And we thought it was a bit of a hoot! They're actually sitting there, and not only that, they paid to get in! That was quite a moment!”
What was once remarkable as much for its unexpected frankness as for its style and subject is now perhaps more easily assimilated by modern audiences. While Duffer is not straightforwardly a ‘gay film’, the existence of a prominently homosexual orientation to some of the key scenes means that it will inevitably be perceived as such by some. Yet, the dark and troubled aspects of the sexuality expressed in Duffer seem equally at odds with the prevailing preference in gay cinema for affirmative images. Dumaresq's unaligned, psychologically complex and often bleak portrait of male-on-male dependency and sexual subservience is far from a sunny affirmation. It's a matter that Despins has brooded on before: “I've often wondered given the change in the politics of the homosexual scene, how are people going to feel about this film. I've been thinking about that in terms of Bill, and the film is almost an autobiography of Bill's situation in his life. It's metaphorical – Bill would never ever speak about his sexuality. I was talking to my ex-wife about this. She knew Bill earlier than I'd done and she was closer to Bill than I was, she'd met him back in Vancouver before he met me. I said, did Bill ever talk to you about his homosexuality? And she said no, he never talked to me about it. She said, if you asked him if he was a homosexual he'd say no. But when thinking about the film, the religious imagery, what you have on one side with Bill is a person whom was raised Roman Catholic, and wasn't churchgoing, but he was a very religious person. I think Duffer is about this battle in Bill. When you think of the language Louis-Jack uses, and his portrayal of females, it's like the medieval world where they described the female body as just a pit of obscenity, of filth, whatever. There is something of that in Bill, in the language he uses, the way he has Louis-Jack saying "Womanimal, womanimal". I think Bill was battling that image of woman.”
(I'm indebted to Joseph Despins and Howard Gerwing for their kindness and generosity in the preparation of this piece.)