Wandering through the streets of this town recently, the thought struck me that Oxbridge institutions don't translate well into film. Not only that, how many decent records can you name that have come out of those varsity towns? A friend reminded me that Oxford's music scene hasn't thrown up anything of real significance since Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd. As the TV Personalities affectionately put it in 'I Know Where Syd Barrett Lives', he's also to be found in this town: "he lives in a hut in Cambridge". A sleepy town alright - when the narrator of Patrick Keiller's documentary-style Robinson in Space passes through Cambridge, it's at lightning speed and summed up in a single shot of the entry sign outside Robinson College.
One film I can think of, though, which breaks this rule of thumb is the 1972 adaptation of Nicholas Mosley's novel Accident by Joseph Losey, director of mod favourite The Servant. Now Oxford, and I imagine Cambridge too, were pretty staid, stale places at the time. A don's life wasn't much fun either - strict rules against marriage, very few women or people from minorities in positions of responsibility. The film neatly encapsulates the twists and turns of the sober facades of Oxford's architecture. With a coiling claustrophobia which matches that of those famed dreaming spires, the film scrapes away the thin veneer of social manners in an unnamed Oxford college. This is certainly not an Inspector Morse package - instead, we're faced with plentiful close-ups of leering gargoyles all along watchtower-like crenellations. There's an implicit sadism present in the film's framing device, the unsettlingly intense off-camera sounds of cars colliding, cutting to the wreckage of maimed bodies. This in turn mirrors the distorted world of accidental betrayals and entangled emotions being passed around the film's characters like a species of virus. Bells also feature heavily on the film's soundtrack - a peculiarly English, village green fascination, conjuring up whodunit scenarios of mad vicars in disused belfries, but then you remember the importance of bells for late-period Coltrane and realize their importance for jazz-besotted American émigré Losey. Listen to one of his last albums, Interstellar Space, for a glorious example of the Trane doubling up on tenor sax and bells, or a Coltrane alumnus Pharaoh Sanders doing the same on Alice Coltrane's Ptah, the El Daoud LP. Not only this, there is more terrific musical accompaniment by regular Losey soundtrack composer Dankworth, providing a score by turns pastoral and shimmering with harp strings and melodic intent, but bearing the scars of brooding pent-up viciousness which carries through the film. I'm certain there's a lot of Mosley exorcising the strange Oedipal inheritance of his father too, old black-shirt himself, Oswald. The underlying attitude here is very definitely the same one illustrated in Kevin Pearce's Something Beginning with 'O' - he's on the ground, so let's give the fascist a good kicking. Keep an open mind, or else.
Filmed in dark-hued sombre colours, it's a very black film which accidentally happened to be made in colour. Even the scenes punting on the river are possessed of a crepuscular haze, set in a woozy alcoholic atmosphere in which the pauses between Pinter's carefully wrought lines of dialogue strike with maximum effect. Bogarde was a charismatic figure in those days - it seems that any self-respecting arthouse director was keen to avail themselves of his services at this point. Take Visconti - he had done miraculous work in adapting James M. Cain's vigorous noir workout The Postman Always Rings Twice into the first (and best?) Italian translation of the noir atmosphere, a heady brew of steamy carnality and dusty Southern Italian landscapes called Ossessione. This is very definitely the same Southern Italy which spawned Nicola Sacco, anarchist extraordinaire who along with Vanzetti would be framed and executed in roaring twenties Boston, inspiring a host of books, songs and films. Condemned by the Catholic Church in Italy in the mid-1940's, Ossessione is a film which carries the same fascination with jarring scraping and buffeting of bodies, roguish appetites indulging in illicit stimulation, as the heady brew conjured up in 'Olive Oil' by Squirrel and G Man-happy Happy Mondays. Visconti and Bogarde were already past their prime when he employed the latter's services in The Damned and became intent on turning Thomas Mann's Death in Venice into a treacly mush.
The Germanic theme leads me on to an essential purchase of the year so far: the Rev-Ola reissue of Josef K's The Only Fun In Town, coupled with the unreleased version of the same LP, Sorry For Laughing. This is the stuff that a million dreams or nightmares are born of. From its gold and black sleeve work, luring you into a strange hinterland of bustling activity and eerie stillness, you can sense that all is not what it seems. The Kafka this reminds me of is less the Josef K of The Trial than the faceless K. of The Castle; all distorted angles and familiar faces in an alienating landscape. Their world is alarmingly reminiscent of Losey's too. Listen to the way footsteps echo through marble halls, shock corridors of a disoriented psyche, at the beginning of 'Variation of Scene'. On a track not featured here, 'Chance Meeting', the title is shared with one of Losey's early British films, which, like The Criminal, Eve and Accident, starred maverick Welshman Stanley Baker and spoke of concerns way beyond the comprehension, or the intelligence, of films touted by the indigenous British film industry of the time. Though I'm not the person to speak at length about Josef K's relations to the Postcard label, suffice it to say that they had style and an eye for crossovers between different forms which is inspirational to this pair of ears at least. The way they could flick from stomach-churning frenzy to fanciful impersonations of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis during live performances shows how toxic and invigorating a unit they were. Or there's the gorgeous guitar coda, added almost as an afterthought, on the first, rejected take on 'Sorry for Laughing'. A song like 'It's Kinda Funny' shows the same obsessive streak you find in a Kafka story like 'Blumfeld' too- there the aging bachelor Jives alone, with only his collection of ping pong balls (with a life of their own) for company. Enough to turn a bachelor pad into a creaking celluloid closet. Wandering through town again today, I saw a sign in a shop window advertising a business for sale, with the words "no timewasters" in boldly written capitals. There should be a sticker with the same words on the cover of this- music doesn't come much more compressed and condensed than this. Carving these songs out in the studio, Josef K wouldn't know what slumming it was if it hit them between the eyes.
And for the record, the 'True Blue' in the title of this should awaken memories of the song by Paul Haig on the underrated post-Josef K LP Chain - put together with input from ex-Associates Billy Mackenzie, there are some heart-stirring things with a melancholic lilt on this record. Certainly numbs the pain of thinking of films like True Blue, all swollen egos and jolly boat races. Time to disappear through the crack in the wall...