Saturday, May 18, 2013

Coming of Age: ‘Hollywood' in Singapore: Pt. 1

Pretty Polly AKA A Matter of Innocence, Guy Green, 1967/1968

In the years following independence in 1965, Singapore’s local film industry may have been the verge of extinction, but the city-state briefly became the place to make movies. Or at least to talk about making them…

Between 1966 and ’69, the local papers frequently reported the arrival of producers from Europe or America intending to film in Singapore, breathlessly listing reasons why it would be a wonderful place to shoot. The combo of tropical, visual other-ness with widely spoken English, great hotels, food and relative freedom from crime, corruption and political instability (while Indochina is burning), made it a perfect location for Asia-set stories. In that brief period a dozen Singapore-bound “big budget” projects were announced as imminent, but by 1970, only two had been made, Pretty Polly (1967/68) and The Virgin Soldiers (1969). All the rest fell apart and were swiftly forgotten.

The bubble of interest in Singapore as a shooting location for large-scale English-language ‘Hollywood’ films, had more or less evaporated by 1970. Instead the Lion City became the occasional setting for B-movie programme fillers, Eurotrash James Bond rip-offs, Italian pirate flicks, and slushy TV movies.

To this day, Pretty Polly and The Virgin Soldiers are the only Hollywood studio-backed films to be shot in Singapore (Saint Jack doesn’t count; although it was certainly a ‘Hollywood’ movie, its producer Roger Corman was (and is) a true independent). Neither of them are particularly well remembered today, Pretty Polly has never even been released on VHS or DVD.

There are strange synchronicities between them. Both ostensibly British pictures part-financed (and later distributed) by Hollywood studios (Universal for Polly and Columbia for Soldiers); both featured well-known young actresses and character actors of the era; both had famous screenwriters but journeymen directors; both adapted from literary sources based on the author’s experiences of visiting Singapore; and finally both are ‘rites-of-passage’ stories, portraying youthful protagonists losing their virginity to Singaporean lovers of questionable morality. As the colonial era ended, and the old men stayed or went home to die, the next generation came to Singapore to get (literally) fucked, an experience that would change them forever.

I’m going to take a long overdue look at these films, return to their literary sources and authors, explore the movies themselves, the ways they were adapted and how they adapted to their ‘real’ locations, and through the newspaper archives learn something about how the films were received. As usual I’m interested in the ways Singapore has been captured, fictionalised and transformed by cinema. But I’m also curious about this particular period, a crucial transitional moment when the Malay film studios were ceasing production; the ‘new’ Singapore was looking abroad (i.e. to visitors from Europe and Hollywood) for recognition, endorsement and excitement; and how the dream of Singapore as a cinematic gateway to Asia quietly died.

By the mid 1960s, when Coward’s only Singapore-set short story Pretty Polly Barlow was published in a collection of the same name, he was well past his prime. In plays and songs the louche, satirical and provocative polymath had tapped into an idiosyncratic sense of Englishness with immense popularity from the 1920s into the dark days of World War Two. During the ‘60s however, Coward’s new plays failed to catch the public imagination, but he remained an iconic presence on screen and stage, and his pre-war theatre successes were in constant revival, especially among expatriate theatre troupes in the crumbling and former colonies.

Pretty Polly Barlow is reputed to be one of his favourite stories. Though published in 1965 it’s likely that it was originally written (or at least sketched out) years before. It harks back, without nostalgia, to an earlier era of Singapore, the overheated British colony that Coward first visited in March 1930, during a round-the-world trip, exactly the kind taken by Aunt Eva and Polly in the story, except Coward was accompanied on his travels by his deceitful American lover, Jack Wilson.

In Singapore, and more specifically the Raffles Hotel, where Coward stayed, he encountered a young company of English actors,‘The Quaints’, doing the rounds of expat enclaves. They were playing at Raffles' Jubilee Theatre at the time, and famously, when an actor fell ill, Coward gamely stepped in and took the role of Stanhope in R.C. Sherriff’s First War drama Journey’s End with five days rehearsal. “However one may disagree with Noel Coward’s conception of Stanhope”, sniffed (Singapore's main newspaper) The Straits Times in its review, “Noel Coward’s acting is worth going a long way to see.” The young leading man of the company was John Mills, who’d become a close friend, and whose daughter Hayley would so many years later play Polly.

Coward returned to Singapore at least twice in the 1930s, but there’s no account of any visits after the war. Reading Pretty Polly Barlow, he seems scarcely aware of the rapid rate of transformation that the country was undergoing, but there are a few indications that he’d refreshed his knowledge. Polly’s first sight of the island, as she approaches it on the cruise ship is “muddled and gray and rather sinister”, and she discerns skyscrapers through the murk. Much later, in one of the story’s key scenes, she visits "a strip of beach where there was a ruined gun emplacement half hidden by oleander trees", and this is all we get of history, the war and the failure of empire. The crucial role played by contact lenses in the plot signifies post-1950s, and there is a single topical reference to indicate the story is actually taking place in the 1960s; a cattish remark about boring plays at the Royal Court in London (a favourite Coward bugbear).

Revealingly, Coward’s description of Bugis Street is frozen in the 1930s, “Every nationality in the world seemed to be represented in the endless procession of tightly packed humanity shuffling slowly along.” Then he refers disparagingly to the  “ubiquitous whores, none of whom were young or even remotely attractive”. Although the definitive history of Bugis Street has yet to be written (someone please do this!), it’s known anecdotally that the culture of transvestite and transexual prostitutes (which Coward would surely have remarked upon) began only in the 1950s. Before the war it had been a more conventional red-light district lined with Chinese and Japanese brothels. The ‘new’ post-war Bugis Street, with its glamorous ‘ladies’, is captured in the film version of Pretty Polly, but we’ll get to that later.

Coward was fascinated with the shifting morality of the modern era, particularly in regard to youth, sexuality and romance. Ugly Ducking/Cinderella figure Polly, an apparently boring shop-girl in her early 20s rendered fatally unattractive by “aggressive spectacles” is plucked out of a drab suburban existence by well-to-do and repellently snobbish Aunt Eva, to be her gopher on a round-the-world cruise. We meet them as they arrive in Singapore, supposedly to be met Eva’s “black sheep” brother Robert Hook, a rubber planter and old Asian hand who lives “fifty miles of jungle road” up country. But Uncle Bob sends his excuses, claiming to have a terrible fever, and Amazahudin, an elegant Eurasian (half Indian and half Chinese we're told, with a Muslim-sounding name), a ‘tour guide’ who speaks in that absurdly over-articulated way of ‘Indian’ characters (written by English men) of the time. Almost immediately, Polly is filled with desire. Loathsome Aunt Eva checks into Raffles, consuming "three large gin slings" and a lot of prawn curry, and checking out from a stroke. Singapore kills her in a matter of hours.

This is Polly’s chance to wake up and start living, and she seizes it without hesitation. Amaz seduces her that very night (her virginity lost on the beach), and he organises what we’d now call a ‘makeover’ in the form of contact lenses (finally getting rid of those glasses) and a new bouffant hairdo courtesy of the “screaming” Ambrose Wah Hai (Singaporeans with improbable Western/Chinese names are a running – and unfunny - joke). Then Uncle Bob shows up, assuming his niece to be a quivering wreck, but discovers the newly transformed Polly, a creature he beholds in equal parts admiration and horror. Bob’s accompanied by Lorelei Chang, "one of the most highly paid models in Singapore", and also "a pampered little sexpot". He also reveals to Polly that Amaz is "an oversexed little rabbit", whose mixed race, in Bob’s eyes (and quite possibly Coward’s), is a sign of corrupt morality. None of this much impresses Polly, whose trajectory to becoming an independent woman of the world is unstoppable. Although Polly’s in charge, it’s hardly a proto-feminist tale. She knows she can’t settle for foreign, exotic Amaz (although she adores him) rather she pragmatically sets her sights on Rick Barlow (They already share a last name!), a too-good-to-be-true handsome American millionaire with whom she leaves Singapore. Marriage, money, babies and the good life await!

Coward presents Singapore as a zone of erotic possibilities. Amaz (Bob tells Polly) is a gigolo and Lorelei (Amaz tells everyone) started off her career at the Yum Yum bar “sleeping with every Tom, Dick and Harry for a drink of beer and a cheese sandwich.” The purser of the ship that brings Polly to town demonstrates a typical night for a single male visitor to Singapore: picking up a Eurasian girl in the “New World pleasure gardens”, after which he visited “several bars, eaten, hazily, a confused Chinese dinner, and finished up, sexually incompetent but defiantly cheerful."

But things are more interesting than that. Uncle Bob is portrayed as something of an ageing stud, somewhat different from the whoring expats of Paul Theroux’s Saint Jack. He works out on a rowing machine to keep in shape and lured Lorelei away from her rich Chinese businessman lover because of mututal lust. In one curious passage, Bob stops off after the dusty ride into Singapore at the Adelphi Hotel bathrooms to freshen up, flirtatiously encountering a male toilet attendant who gives him a massage. Much later when Bob reminds Lorelei that Amaz is an “old friend”, her reply “Everyone in Singapore knows that” and the angry, threatening response it elicits is certainly suggestive. The only explicitly gay character is Ambrose, who shows up at Bugis Street with his German sailor friend, Gunther, who inevitably speaks no English (“but we manage”). Arguably Coward isn’t here to judge anyone’s desires, but Polly will leave Singapore for a great (conventional) life, and the rest will remain in the Lion City, leading their exciting, but somewhat tawdry “secret, sinful” lives.

In July 1966, only a year after it was published, the story was dramatised as a television play on Britain’s commercial channel, ITV, to some acclaim. A studio-filmed production, it was part of the ‘Armchair Theatre’ series of one-off TV dramas. It was (unusually for the slot) 90 minutes long and starred Lynn Redgrave as Polly (Redgrave would ‘return’ to Singapore for The Virgin Soldiers) and adapted by American playwright William Marchant, a personal friend of Coward’s. It’s possible that its modest triumph on TV encouraged a bigger budget, starrier version to quickly go into production. At the time the budget for the movie Pretty Polly was reported as being six and a half million dollars (which in today’s money would be around 45 million bucks), a very serious budget in 1967.

Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, a power-house writing team of that era, were tasked with the adaptation. They’d first collaborated on a stage adaptation of Waterhouse’s novel Billy Liar, then later the movie (and still later, the TV series). By ’66, when they got the job on Pretty Polly, they were also doing an uncredited rewrite on Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain.

At the end of February 1967, former child-star sensation, Hayley Mills arrived in Singapore to begin filming Pretty Polly on location. At age 12, after one British film, Mills had been embraced by Walt Disney’s emerging live action studio, becoming their ‘starlet’ for six years (in such ‘classics’ as Pollyanna and The Parent Trap), and became one of the most popular child actors in the world. By the time she arrived in Singapore she was 20 and attempting, with mixed fortunes, to make the transition to more ‘grown-up’ material. Famously her ‘boyfriend’ was film producer Roy Boulting, thirty years her senior (and whom she would later marry), and this combination of fame, youth and worldliness made Mills a source of constant fascination for the The Straits Times, who followed the production doggedly, mostly to report on Mills’ appearance (see-through dress, Cheongsam, glasses, smoking). What she felt about this attention is not recorded, but it’s worth noting the timing of the date the actress left Singapore - 17 April, the day before her 21st birthday.

One of her main co-stars in Polly was Trevor Howard as Bob Hook. Upon arrival, the lengendary British actor gruffly lied to The Straits Times, “I haven’t starred in a British film for 17 years.” Despite languishing in a lot of mediocre Hollywood fare he’d been Oscar nominated seven years earlier for Jack Cardiff’s film of Sons And Lovers. A notorious alcoholic, Howard was in his mid-50s by ’67 but looked older; overweight and slightly frail (especially when required to wear a sarong), hardly the rugged, sexual adventurer that Coward describes.

Shashi Kapoor, cast alongside Mills as her lover Amaz, had also been a child star, but his career had only flourished and by the 1960s he was the romantic leading man of Bollywood, more famous than ever before. Before Pretty Polly he’d taken the bold step of acting in early James Ivory-Ruth Prawer Jhabvala collaborations, The Householder (1963), and Shakespeare-Wallah (1965), both uncommercial, low-budget films, the latter of which also involved a romance between him and a young English woman (Felicity Kendal). Pretty Polly was another move in that direction, but it took him away from India, and was on paper at least, a more mainstream prospect.

Director Guy Green had been David Lean’s cinematographer for his early black and white films (Green had an Oscar for Great Expectations, one of the most beautiful films ever shot). He’d switched to directing in the mid-1950s, but the results were mixed, a number of largely forgotten war films had led him to The Angry Silence (1960), The Mark (1961), and A Patch of Blue (1965), with Sidney Poitier, also exploring interracial romance, but in the highly charged atmosphere of the American South at the time. These were largely somber, gritty films (with big stars), Pretty Polly, a light, colourful comedy (albeit touching on race and sexuality) was a complete departure in terms of pace and style.

The first images in Pretty Polly are proudly ‘on location’: flashes of painted, smiling Buddhas (from Haw Par Villa), pans and zooms across Chinatown (the neon-lit outline of the Majestic Cinema), the Supreme Court, sea-side fruit stalls, a skyscraper, some HDB flats, the Singapore river. We’re far from an ersatz tropicana. In the midst of this an aged hawker pushes his cart by and grins disconcertingly at the camera, a statement, if ever there was one, that what we’re seeing is real. Michel Legrand’s addictively jaunty, repetitive theme plays over all of this, giving way to the voice of Aunt Eva (“Singapore… that’s another place you’ll see”), and we’re suddenly in London, and it’s raining. Bespectacled Polly is going to meet her Aunt who will make her fateful offer. The message is clear, Singapore is tropical, fascinating and strange, and London is wet and very dull. And then it’s goodbye to Mum at the bakery stall (warning about the dangers of foreigners), and we’re back to where we want to be. Singapore. And Polly gets the full James Bond treatment: Matt Monroe crooning ‘Pretty Polly’ with lyrics by Don Black (“Soon you will awake/and you’ll want to take/the world”), while a Maurice Binder title sequence juxtaposes a silhouetted, shadow-puppet ‘Polly’ blue screened against the approaching Lion City. Polly gazes at the exact sights (a breast-feeding mother and a sailor bathing himself) that Coward describes in the first paragraphs of the story.

Indeed, much of the film plays out remarkably faithfully, Waterhouse/Halll take long stretches of dialogue and scenes verbatim, clearly in admiration of Coward’s witty, acid banter. The opening is accurate, right down to the “ancient Cadillac” that Amaz brings to pick them up at the Quayside. Although the trip to Raffles Hotel becomes an opportunity to deviate, not only to squeeze Bob and Lorelei into the story much earlier (Bob’s attempts to evade Aunt Eva on a trishaw leads to some crude slapstick mayhem with cars and fruit stalls), but for Polly to ‘see’ more of Singapore, including rows of HDB washing bamboos, a street barber and temples. Throughout, the film can’t resist ocassionally lapsing into a pure tourist-documentarian gaze, catching images, gestures and reactions of the real locations on the fly, before cutting back to the characters, or even placing them right into the spectacle.

The death of Aunt Eva (played by Brenda de Banzie, a veteran stage actress best known for playing Laurence Olivier’s wife in The Entertainer) is a deliberate non-event in the Coward; she falls ill in her room after lunch, calls Polly, and then Polly calls for a doctor, and Amaz waits with her, initiating their courtship as Eva fades away. Coward then cuts (quite cinematically) to Bob’s reaction to the news of Eva’s death on the phone, “Goddamn bloody hell!” Instead, the film sets Eva’s demise at the hotel swimming pool, where lithe European and American guys flirtatiously frolic with bikini-clad Chinese girls (shot at the Goodwood Park Hotel pool; a decade later a very similar scenario would be staged there by Peter Bogdanovich for Saint Jack). Eva, clad in a ridiculously prudish bathing suit, finishes her lunch poolside and after belittling Polly for a final time slowly submerges into the deep end and doesn't surface. Cut to a Mount Alvernia ambulance speeding past the famous BP de Silva jewelry shop, and then a further shift to the tranquil hospital, where Amaz consoles Polly, then finally we cut to Bob hanging up the phone in Johor. Bob and Lorelei then play out a scene from the story where Bob proposes driving down to Singapore right away, and Lorelei literally seduces him into postponing the trip. Unfortunately, it’s depressingly enacted. Trevor Howard unenthusiastically caresses the bare midriff of Kalen Liu (a Hong Kong model who’d been in Burt Kennedy’s Welcome to Hard Times) and then lunges into a clumsy mix of a hug and a kiss.

After Eva’s death, Amaz and Polly’s mutual courtship sticks closely to the story, with minor changes. Waterhouse/Hall play up Amaz’s discomfort at financial transactions (paying bills), to show us that he’s out of his league, he also seems to be known by everyone they come across, implying he’s quite the player on the Singapore (The Jack Flowers of his day). Crucially, the handsome American Rick is no longer (and improbably) called Rick Barlow, rather he’s Rick Preston, visiting hotelier and man-about-town. As incarnated with bug-eyed, grinning intensity by lightweight song and dance man Dick Patterson, Rick is no longer a Prince Charming, rather he’s charming sleazebag, not without attraction for Polly.

Inevitably Polly’s adventures take her around the island. The crew shot in Singapore for seven weeks and certainly made the best of it. A short walk and talk between Raffles Hotel and a Japanese restaurant is an excuse to see the grotesque Chinese sculptures of Haw Par Villa (the Tiger Balm family-owned ‘attraction’, which depicts various hells, used in several spy moves of the period). Polly’s virginity is lost on a rustic looking East Coast beach, complete with Malay fisherman wandering around, and when she and Amaz return there the next morning for a sentimental goodbye, there’s a kampong in the background. Along Jalan Sultan, Polly gets contact lenses and hairdo, but not before we witness a lavish Chinese funeral procession - the first thing that Polly sees with her ‘new’ eyes. The spectacle was certainly staged: we glimpse the whole street scene through a second-storey shophouse window, and many extras stare straight back at us. The hapless ships’ purser Critch (drunkenly escaping from a money-grabbing tart) manages to get mixed up in the ritual, another episode of awful slapstick (the film has several). Nevertheless, the funeral is captured in a series of curious, documentary-style close-ups, of musicians, masks, decorations and faces.

British Forces school English teacher, David Prosser plays hair stylist Ambrose as a camp Australian. He must have been a last minute replacement, because the shop signboard still says ‘Ambrose Wah Lai’. Pretty Polly would be Prosser’s only film.

In the second half we take the trip to Bugis Street (both a “jolly” and an “evil” place, according to Amaz), a perennial source of fascination for tourists and film-makers arriving in Singapore during this era. Polly and Amaz wander through a somewhat staged bustle, but cut away to ‘real’ glimpses of transvestites (Two decrepit colonels comment on the “chappies”, just so we’re clear), good time ang mohs, and hawkers frying noodles. Drunk, and surrounded by attentive males, Polly declares, “I’ve never been so happy in all my life.” Then, the merry-makers, led by Rick, Ambrose, his boyfriend Gunther and the sailors decide to go to a party (“there’s always a party”) on “127 Racetrack Road). They wake some sleeping Trishaw guys to get there, iniating a ‘madcap’ trishaw race through the streets similar to the one in Five Ashore in Singapore; slapstick silliness that's a desperate attempt to produce laughs and energy. Amaz gets stuck with the slowest driver, allowing him to speak the film’s only Singlish – “Chop chop lah!”

In an effort to generate dramatic heft that's not present in Coward’s story, Waterhouse/Hall create an antagonism between Amaz and Rick and bring it to the boil at the party on "Racetrack Road" - the film’s heart of darkness. If Polly’s in Singapore to look for excitement and sexual abandonment, this is where she’ll find it, but there’s a price to be paid. Downstairs in this semi-abandoned hotel, which according to my fellow blogger Toh Hun Ping is probably not the Mitre Hotel (a notorious hang-out for spies and divers to which it bears a passing similarity), a throng of young revellers (a mix of foreigners and locals) groove out, and one young lady performs an (off-screen) striptease. Polly explores the hotel, observed and pursued by Rick, as she finds couples kissing, men gambling with girls in their underwear, and further up, a gang of men salaciously chase a girl into a room. At the top of the house she discovers an entire Chinese family, complete with crying babies, cooking a meal. Rick appears and she wonders if they should “return to civilisation”, but he has one last thing to show her, a sad little bedroom, sparsely decorated with a few pin-ups and a metal (single) bed. Polly quickly surmises that this is where Rick intends to fuck her and although she states plainly, “I’m not going to make love to you.” Rick kisses her. Amaz interupts the seduction and throws an embittered Rick out.

In departing from the Coward, one can see that Pretty Polly might be viewed as Amaz’s story after all. It's the tale of (as Rick summarises) “the King of the Fixers… meets the woman next door” and discovers his moral compass. Amaz is played pretty brilliantly by Kapoor. He can do the silly sentence constructions effortlessly, and yet shows the profound unease of this charming man. It’s a complex, somewhat unfathomable character, mainly because he’s seen largely from Polly's point-of-view, and it’s a powerful moment when he reveals that the cheap bedroom they are standing in, the one where Rick was about to bed her, is in fact his home. That's when he's finally exposed. Amaz is an empty man, a fake Singaporean, fake tour-guide and a fake lover, and the ultimate gesture of love is to show that to Polly. It’s the film’s best scene, when all the jollity, slapstick, risque innuendo and tourism gives way to some real pain.

Unlike the story, where Polly has snaffled Aunt Eva’s jewellry and is happy to leave Singapore for her happy-ever-after with Rick in Hong Kong, it’s Amaz in the film who tells her go back home, and she who doesn’t want to go. Back at the beach as the sun comes up they get existential – Polly says he’s a “good person”, and Amaz says that’s only because of her, “I am what I am, and you are what you have become.” He’s just a part of her journey, not the place she wants to go. As they walk away, back towards the kampong, the shots of fishing boats moored in the sand and the sound of a tropical dawn (and a plane coming into Changi) are pretty staggering, and it’s the one time when the film brings together fiction and reality into something seamless.

There follows another invented scene of Polly visiting Bob at his “Chichak Buloh” rubber plantation with some Malay workers. It appears tacked on to give Trevor Howard another substantial scene, and for him to say the (nonsensical) line “The sun sets on the empire and it gets bloody freezing cold at night.” There’s some nice Johor scenery as they drive to his house and the revelation that Bob is just a manager; he represents all that can go wrong if you stay in Asia past your welcome. He tells her to take Eva’s money and keep travelling, which gets her back on the boat, thinking about Amaz while a handsome young (white) man eyes her up on deck and the parrot is waiting for her in the cabin - ending the film exactly the way Coward’s story closes.

After seven weeks the Pretty Polly cast and crew left Singapore for London, where they’d spend two weeks shooting interiors (Raffles’ hotel rooms, the ships cabins, the London prologue). The producer Sydney Streeter (who’d worked with Powell and Pressburger) was effusive in his thanks to everyone in Singapore. They'd had full co-operation.

A few months later, The Straits Times ran ‘How Pretty Polly Benefited The Republic’, which broke down the statistics: 85 trishaws, 35 boats and 132 hawker stalls had been “hired for the screening (sic)”, and quoted Cathay-Keris’ English boss Tom Hodge, “many films with Eastern backgrounds can be expected to be made in the near future”. As their studio’s home-grown products declined, Cathay were keen to partner up with all the foreign crews, and Hodge was always quoted in the press on these matters.

Pretty Polly was finished quickly, premiering in London in October 1967. In January ’68 it was retitled (rather dully) A Matter of Innocence and released in the US to little fanfare. Renata Adler in the New York Times gave it a pasting, pointing out that it was similar but not as good as Shakespeare-Wallah. She had a real problem with Amaz’s dialogue, hearing it as “imperialistic” but acknowledging that it “is always interesting to find any film that tries to depict in any way at all the lives of Westerners… who are trying to live in and come to grips with the problems of the East.”

By Christmas ‘67, The Straits Times were hyping it up as “one of the most entertaining films ever to hit the screen here” and promising its release in the New Year. But that didn’t happen. Mysteriously, after all the excitement and hubbub over the shoot, the film was never released in Singapore, it wasn’t even submitted to the censors. There was no follow-up, certainly no Saint Jack-like denunciation of its negative depiction of Singapore, it just simply disappeared. I'll speculate that as it was something of a flop internationally, no one wanted much more to do with it.

Watching Pretty Polly today, one can see why it's been forgotten: it’s tonally uneven (not in a good way), crudely lurching between sentimentality and cynicism, broad, painful slapstick and sensitive drama. It has the faintly embarassing air of people from an older generation telling a story that they’re convinced is shocking, and trying and failing to plug into the late 1960s zeitgeistThere is something to be said for how it develops Coward’s premise, finding the connection between a young woman ‘becoming’ the person she’s capable of being and a confused young man who trades on the false glamour of tourism, but craves something real. It’s not a good film, but it works effectively as metaphor: Amaz is Singapore.

For an amazing visual journey into the locations and the colonial mindset of Pretty Polly, please visit Toh Hun Ping's series of posts on the film, which trace exactly where the film was shot and how those places have evolved or been demolished over the years. I can't recommend this highly enough.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Wit's End: Updated

From L-R: Marvin Farkas, Harvey from Make-Do, Joel Reed on Skype and Martin Merz at the Arts House for the Wit's End Book Launch, The Arts House, Singapore, January 2013.

Towards the end of 2012, which is when I wrote about Wit's End for the blog, I began to hear rumours that Marvin Farkas, the producer/ cameraman behind the film, who'd ignored my earlier attempts to interview him was publishing his own book on the experience of making Wit's End in Singapore. Frankly, I didn't believe it. The idea that a first-hand account of the making of a film that nobody had every heard of would ever make it into print seemed very unlikely. But I was, not for the first time, completely wrong. Some folk I know at The Arts House, an 'arts' venue in Singapore based in the old and surprisingly dainty parliament building, confirmed that they were hosting a week or two of screenings of Wit's End that was pinned to a book launch. Then, I got an email from Harvey from Make-Do, a Hong Kong based publisher who had put out Marvin's original memoir, An Eastern Saga (which has nary a mention of the Wit's End adventure). Indeed, Marvin had written about Wit's End, and it was going out as a book, and Harvey wanted to republish some version of my blog as an afterword. Chancing my hand, I asked to read the manuscript so I could better understand what the book might require, and without any hesitation Harvey sent it over to me. 

Marvin's account is, as you'd expect, highly subjective, and certainly differs from the stories I heard from Keith Lorenz and Joel Reed. There's a lot of detail about the nightmarish process of finding funding for the film, and the consequence that Marvin found himself essentially trapped into making a low-budget film in a hurry under far less than ideal circumstances. Keith Lorenz, who by all accounts was pretty instrumental in coming up with the idea of the film along with Ian Ward, is largely ignored, and a great deal of space is spent dealing with the highs and lows of Marvin's love life during the production, including a torrid affair with the (English) teenage daughter of the then managing editor of The Straits Times. Much of tone of the book is along the lines of "Hey it was the 60s", and Marvin was certainly under no illusions that Wit's End made a lick of sense or would even be a half-decent film, but as he notes the final version was worse than anticipated, it was "slow and drab". 

I reworked my blog into a short piece called 'No Regrets for Singapore: The Extraordinary Story of Wit's End', which I'll post at some point, although much of the material can be read in my earlier Wit's End post. Then, I was invited to speak at the launch of the book at the Arts House, which was a fun, chaotic event, pleasantly derailed by the presence of Joel Reed on a screen above us, who was happy to talk at length about both Wit's End and Joel Reed. Having been indelibly marked as a youth by reading a lurid description of Bloodsucking Freaks in the Joe Bob Briggs collection that Faber put out in the late 80s, it was surreal to be virtually sharing a stage with him, in Singapore of all places. The enigmatic Robin Steinberg recorded the whole thing and you can watch it on YouTube (see above). The Arts House, it should be noted, made a big effort to enhance the screenings, not only with our event, but a great display of photos and stills and even a guided tour of the locations. Proving that the heritage machinery of Singapore can embrace even the most dubious and bizarre cultural products. And I also discovered an earlier article about the locations that had been published in 2009, and realised that some of the scenes shot on Upper East Coast road are a couple of bus stops away from the building where I write these words.

If you want to buy Marvin's book, with my afterword and a foreword from Joel, click here.