Edouard de Laurot, Film Genius and Lunatic


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Edouard de Laurot with his inamorata Zoë (Tamerlis) Lund

I first became acquainted with Eduoard de Laurot through his writings in Film Culture Magazine. He had founded the magazine with Jonas Mekas in the early fifties. His articles were astonishing, often abstruse, impossible to fully-comprehend, but stunning in their brilliance, power, and insightfulness. Reading de Laurot for the first time, I thought, this is the most astounding writing on film I have ever encountered. This is genius. De Laurot would come to a seemingly ordinary work, a commonplace film with a straight-forward narrative, and cut and slice his way into the heart of the thing, the profound mystery of a work, laying bare the complex, true soul of the piece.

At some point after reading de Laurot for perhaps a year or so, I met him in person. There had been a screening of my short film, “Gog, Magog, and Little Babylon”. After the screening, a dark, powerfully built man in a wide lapel, pin-stripe gangster suit, and black mafiosa fedora approached me. “Edouard de Laurot,” he said in a gravelly, vaguely accented voice. He extended his hand, but when I attempted to shake it, he turned instead and flexed his bicep and signaled for me to feel it. It was large and rock solid under his suit. He tensed and re-tensed his arm. I later realized that this was a regimen he performed constantly, isometric flexing, tensing and re-tensing his muscles, striving to turn himself I imagine into a human steel coil. He was very powerful.

“Your film is brilliant,” he proclaimed. “An important film!” I was stunned, and not a little bewildered. Since making the film, I had lost all faith in it. And now a critic of extraordinary accomplishment, a genius, had proclaimed that my film was not just good, but brilliant!

And something else: this critic of genius, pin-stripes and fedora, dark piercing eyes snapping from side to side, twitching biceps, looked not at all like one who would know beans about film. He seemed anything but an intellectual; he seemed, well, a faux gangster, a caricature; I put it down to eccentricity, an eccentric genius. Damn, he saw greatness in me, which is what I had always wanted to see in myself, so why not accept his evaluation? He was a critical genius, a cinema savant of international repute.

Like many young artists, I aspired to greatness, a naïve grandiosity, which grew out of immense self-doubt, I’m sure. I had written the film, produced it, directed it, edited it, and starred in it. Twenty-six years old. My first film, made for five thousand dollars, money I had raised from a bookie in Pittsburgh, Pa, my hometown. “Benny the Bookie” Padolsky, father of a high school friend, had given me the money, five thousand-dollar bills, with an admonition that I couldn’t tell the bank how I had come by them: in those days, there was a bank policy that dictated when depositing large denomination bills, a thousand or higher, you had to report how they had been received. Somehow I had juggled around and broke the thousand dollar bills into hundreds and made my film with Benny the Bookie’s largesse.

Of course, in my youthful self-centeredness, I didn’t realize that de Laurot’s passion for the film was in the same league as his passion for pinstripes and fedoras. I was dealing with a madman. “Gog, Magog, and Little Babylon” was a mess, but I had created it and didn’t see how raggedy it was. Anything that supported my bloated estimation of my abilities was like water to a man crossing the Sahara. (I didn’t realize the problems with the film until some time later. I should add, the film wasn’t wholly without merit: it had its strengths, few and far between, but they were there, though an overall lack of filmmaking experience and sense undermined what might have been interesting) De Laurot was taken with it and I was bowled over by that, and a relationship grew up between us.

As we became closer, he projected on me his political radicalism and passions. He saw me as a young revolutionary, an estimate completely without foundation. You could hardly get less political than I was. Yet de Laurot had somehow transmogrified me into a raging revolutionary. He even insisted at some point in taking a photograph for history: the two of us glowering at the camera, posing with a rifle and a pistol. His girl friend at that time, a dancer at the Copa nightclub, Harriet Faye, took the picture: somewhere in a forgotten archive or government espionage data base a print of this must exist. There we are, two wild revolutionaries, poised to storm the citadels of capitalistic power. A few years later I saw a picture of Lee Harvey Oswald posing with the rifle that he killed Kennedy with and I was reminded of me and de Laurot posing with our weapons. It was all narishkeit, foolishness. Nevertheless, de Laurot became a champion of “Gog, Magog” and since aside from me, and later Peter Bogdanovich, there were no champions, he was a welcome stalwart.

He would call me at all hours of the day and night. He always called from a pay phone and would refer to himself as “Gigi Pistola”. “These phones are tapped,” he would tell me. “We must use a nom de guerre!” Mine was “Fidel.” as in Fidel Castro. “I have to see you,” he would growl and we would meet at an upper east side all night coffee shop or hole in the wall bar. He would usually appear with Harriet Faye, his girl friend, but occasionally there would be an obscure, ragged, Eastern European filmmaker or writer or two tagging along. They rarely spoke. Only Edouard would talk. He was a intense talker, in that gravelly gangster mumble of his. He generally had some wild scheme involving film and revolution. I could never quite follow him. I had no idea what he wanted from me. He kept comparing me to Fidel Castro who had just come to power in Cuba.

He would go on and on about his life and his ideas on art, film, and politics, and fantasy and reality seemed one and the same. I learned that de Laurot was not his true name. He was Polish; his real name was Edward Laudanski. To hear him tell it, during the Second World War, he fought with the Polish resistance and later worked for British Intelligence. He became a legend in resistance circles, he claimed, by escaping the Warsaw Ghetto and swimming the Vistula River, dodging Nazi fire to bring a message from the resistance leaders to the Soviets. This was a favorite tale in his repertoire: he told it, and other seemingly tall tales, wherever there were ears to hear and people at first were impressed, but over time grew weary of his constant braggadocio; he began to be looked at as outlandish, a compulsive liar and myth maker; people in Jonas Mekas’ circle put it down to his outsized and preposterous personality. Much later, a friend of Mekas was in Poland and met with some former resistance leaders and discovered that the tale was absolutely true. De Laurot was a genuine hero.

Everyone in that world, the New York avant-garde cinema world, had become wary of de Laurot by the time I met him. He had a reputation for being on the edge, unbalanced, threatening to become wildly unhinged. Over the years he became more and more alienated from the Mekas crowd.

Mekas had written and directed a film, “Gun of the Trees”, and de Laurot worked with him on it. His bizarre and domineering personality finally became so oppressive to Mekas that he broke with de Laurot. He later claimed that de Laurot had practically ruined “Guns of the Trees.”

They spoke in those circles of the mysteries of de Laurot; no one could quite fathom him. He was even too bizarre in a world that celebrated and thrived on bizarre. He was too much. Was he some sort of agent provocateur sent into avant-garde film circles to disrupt the whole thing? Was he working for the Soviet KGB, the United States CIA, the British MI 6?

Nicole Brenez, prominent French film critic, theoretician, and curator for the experimental cinema programs at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris, was sympathetic to de Laurot and felt that he was unduly stigmatized and ignored. In an essay entitled, “Edouard de Laurot, Engagement as Prolepsis”, (she refers to him as “the still-mysterious figure Edouard de Laurot.”) Brenez notes an article de Laurot had written, Composing as the Praxis of Revolution: The Third World and the U.S.A, which had been published in Cineaste Quarterly, a magazine on the art and politics of the cinema. “In the final summary of the contributors, de Laurot (who signs his name ‘Yves’) is presented thus: ‘Yves de Laurot is an award-winning filmmaker and writer and the most significant contemporary theoretician and proponent for engaged cinema.’ How can such an apparently eminent person be so forgotten in our time? Among the numerous reasons that contribute to this amnesia, two can be singled out: Edouard de Laurot is out of sync, despite or perhaps due to the pioneering character of his engagement; and marginalised in the history of ideas, due to the heretical character of his revolutionary theory—a combination of persistent existentialism and sacrificial visionariness—an unacceptable mixture in the epoch of Third World Marxism-Leninism. Today we must pardon him: Edouard de Laurot was a true fighter who participated in armed resistance in three countries and propagated revolutionary ideas across two continents.”

At one of our mid-night meetings he had an idea for me and my film. Jonas Mekas was sponsoring a young filmmakers’ festival at The Bleeker Street Cinema in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. De Laurot had some influence with members of the selection committee, he said, and he proposed to enter “Gog, Magog, and Little Babylon” in the festival. He warned me that if Mekas found out he was behind my film there could be problems.

The film went into the festival and was scheduled for showing. All of the leading members of the New York avant-garde film scene would be there. It would be a great introduction for me. “Your brilliance must no longer be hidden under a basket!” de Laurot proclaimed.

There was some tension before my film was scheduled to screen. “Someone has betrayed us,” Edouard rasped in my ear. I could see next to the stage Jonas Mekas glowering at de Laurot. The film began to play. They had neglected to turn on the sound and Edouard yelled out, “This is not a silent film! Sound! Sound!” The sound blared. My face in close up played on the screen and I was stunned to see myself so large. This was a full movie house screen, not the smaller screening room screens I was used to. For the part of “Gog”, a vaudeville interlocutor, I had grown a moustache and had my hair slicked down with Vaseline. “Just like Fidel,” Eduoard crowed.

A star director in Mekas’ group, Ron Rice, shouted out at my appearance, “It’s Errol Flynn!” There was a roar of laughter and Edouard yelled out, “Fuck you, decadent, bourgeoise no talent!”
A near-riot broke out. Jonas Mekas ordered the projector shut down. The house lights came on. De Laurot ran up on the stage, grabbed the microphone, and screamed out, “My name is Edouard de Laurot. In 1954, with Jonas Mekas, I founded ‘Film Culture Magazine’ and began the American film avant-garde movement and you, Jonas Mekas, have betrayed the movement!”

There was more shouting and scuffling, but finally the film was allowed to play and it was received not altogether badly. For a few weeks a minor battle raged in avant-circles. De Laurot was a passionate defender of “Gog, Magog”– as was Peter Bogdanovich, who was only a teen-ager then, but an influential avant-garde critic.

I was hoping that through de Laurot the film would get further exposure. He was helpful at first. Through him “Gog, Magog and Little Babylon” played the Edinburgh Festival and the Boston Film Festival but he was much more interested in revolution and was constantly hectoring me to go with him to Cuba. “We will join Che. We will become true revolutionaries!”

I began to grow weary of “Gigi Pistolla” and his antics, his deep night phone calls, our rambling meetings about bizarre projects. Our last meeting took place on the Upper East Side in an all night restaurant. He had called me about something very, very important. “We’re going to Cuba,” he said to me. “We will meet with Fidel!”

“No, Edouard, I don’t think so.”

His blinked three or four times, tensed his jaw, flexed his biceps. “Why not?”

“I have other plans.” Harriet Faye was with him. She looked with hostility at me.

“We must attack,” Edouard said. “We must make a grand gesture. Fidel needs us. Che. We’ll need a few thousand dollars.”

“I don’t have it.”

He turned his arm to me, flexed his bicep, flex, flex, flex and then he and Harriet Faye were up and moving toward the door. “We must attack!” he called back to me.

I nodded. He nodded back and he and Harriet Faye were gone. That was the last time I saw Mr. Edouard de Laurot, “Gigi Pistola.”

He did finally direct two documentaries. “Black Liberation” which won the Silver Lion for Documentary at the Venice International Festival. It was narrated by Ossie Davis and included footage of Malcolm X and members of the Black Power movement. His second film, “Listen, America!” made for Canadian television, chronicled the political demonstrations and riots of 1968, the Chicago Democratic Convention, the occupation of Columbia University.

Years later, after I had lost touch with him, he became involved with a young actress and writer, Zoe Tamerlis Lund. They developed a screenplay for Abel Ferrara, “Bad Lieutenant”, which starred Harvey Keitel and was a quite powerful film.

Edouard died in 1993. I have no idea if he ever got to Cuba and had a meeting with Fidel. In the world of avant-garde film, he is all but forgotten.

For more information, see this video interview of Jonas Mekas on de Laurot.

 

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