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Pompeii and Circumstance: Adrian Maben and Pink Floyd Print E-mail
Written by Alfredo Marziano/Mark Worden   
Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Adrian Maben52 minutes of black and white edited footage shot at the Europa-Sonor studio in Paris in December 1971. The four members of Pink Floyd eat oysters and drink beer that a roadie has just bought at a local brasserie. They laugh, joke, smoke and offer elusive answers to the questions asked by director Adrian Maben, alternating work (David Gilmour and Rick Wright are busy overdubbing their voices on the master of "Echoes" that had been recorded at Pompeii two months earlier) with play (Roger Waters' eyes almost pop out as he blows smoke rings). This is the essence of "Chit Chat with the Oysters", which received its Italian premiere at Borgaro Torinese (near Turin, in northern Italy) on Sunday March 30th, along with a partially restored version of Maben's classic film, "Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii". This was part of a two-day event organised by a group of fanatical Italian Floydiana collectors, "The Lunatics", who are also the authors of the book, "Pink Floyd – Stories and Secrets."

Maben, who was the event's guest of honour, says: "For me, those two films travel together as a couple and they complement each other. In some respects 'Chit Chat' is the opposite of Pompeii, but I'd love it if they could be shown together, one after the other. Chit-Chat has something that is completely missing from Pompeii. The group’s four members talk freely, they argue, they tease each other and make fun of everyone else including myself. I don't know of any other film in which they are so relaxed, spontaneous and amusing. Live at Pompeii was of course the exact opposite.”

Made with the help of Cinémathèque Française and presented at Borgaro with French subtitles, the film itself has an original story: "The 16 mm reels sat in the bathroom of my Paris apartment for over 40 years. And then one day my wife gave me an ultimatum: 'Get rid of those rusty old cans of film or else I'm leaving the flat tomorrow!’ She meant that I had to do something about them. I opened the cans with difficulty and found inside some dusty, mouldy reels of 16mm film that were beginning to fall apart. The fact that they weren't completely destroyed was a miracle. The second miracle came in the form of David Zimmerman, a Canadian film restoration specialist who worked in a film laboratory in London. He patiently restored and repaired every single image during a period of one year. After that I collected the material, brought it back to Paris and spent about six months on the final edit and mix with the help of the French Cinémathèque. The original rushes lasted for about three hours but I think that I have shown the most relevant – and amusing - parts. However, I have kept the out takes just in case and this time they are not stored in the bathroom! Last year I went back to the site of the old Europa Sonar studio, rather in the spirit of a pilgrim going to Mecca. It was no longer there. It had been transformed into a shop that sells hearing aids for the deaf. C'est la vie!"

"Chit Chat with the Oysters" isn't a particularly ambitious film, but it is a most revealing one. "Each member of the group emerges with a clear personality," Maben claims. "And Waters is undoubtedly the most elusive of the four. I deliberately asked them the most stupid and obvious questions that I could think of – about the importance of money, about the essential role of technology in their musical production – in order to provoke them. And Roger was the most determined when it came to avoiding an answer: in this way he ended up saying some rather interesting things. I knew that if I insisted he would get angry. And I liked seeing him get angry because it was always good fun. For me 'Chit Chat' portrays the early Floyd as a group of persons concentrating one hundred per cent on their work and never taking themselves seriously. Everyone has a role to play and, at the end of the day, it’s a great joke."

"When the film premiered in Canada, a delightful old lady came to see me afterwards. She told me that the thing that impressed her most was the affection that you could feel among the members of the band. She added that this was probably the reason why the subsequent divorce was so painful: it always happens to people who have been close and fond of each other. During the time that I hung out with Pink Floyd, from 1971 to 1973, there was not the slightest hint of tension. As Roger put it, they always solved problems with a sense of humour. And yet at a certain point clearly that wasn't enough."

Will this documentary be shown in cinemas? Will it be released on a DVD or Blu-ray? Maben doesn’t have an answer: "I made sure that it was first shown to Roger, Nick, David and Rick’s children. 'Live at Pompeii' is much more complicated: any form of commercial exploitation requires the consent of Universal, who own the rights to the images and the soundtrack. We are at a crucial point because we'd like to mix the sound in 5.1, complete the restoration and correct some of the mistakes in the original. This will have to be the definitive version (the fourth, after those presented in cinemas in 1973 and 1974, and the director's cut, which was released on DVD much later). I sincerely hope that this will be possible by the end of the year, or in 2015 at the latest. For the new audio mix Nick Mason suggested that we should work with the Floyd's sound engineer, Andy Jackson."

Adrian Maben was born in Scotland, educated in England (he read biochemistry at Oxford), but has spent most of his adult life in Paris and today French is his first language. He wasn't new to the relationship between music and images when he first made contact with Pink Floyd: in 1969 he had made two TV specials about British groups for Belgian television. One was East of Eden and the other was Family. Nor was he a stranger to Italy: after graduating from Oxford he went to Rome for a couple of years where he studied at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. At Borgaro he told us: "Every day when we arrived in the morning we would stand opposite the entrance to Cinecittà in the hope of catching a glimpse of the Maestro, Federico Fellini. It never happened, of course, but when we rented the equipment to film the Floyd at Pompeii I noticed that the names of two previous films (that the cameras had been used for) were inscribed on the side. On one camera was written, 'Sergio Leone, Per un Pugno di Dollari' and on the second camera we managed to read, 'Federico Fellini, La Dolce Vita'. And so, in a curious way, we did manage to meet Fellini in the end!"

The story of the choice of Pompeii as the project's location is well known, but Maben adds some background: "I went to see Pink Floyd play in London, largely out of curiosity. I wanted to understand how on earth they managed to produce those sounds that were so different from the usual rock music that people used to listen to. I was also blown away by the fact that there seemed to be very little publicity: no posters, no press coverage, even less TV. And yet on that evening in London the concert hall was packed, it was a sold out performance. The Floyd were unique in this respect: they became popular by word of mouth, they hated journalists and they promoted themselves by actively avoiding them."

Adrian's first encounter with the band was far from encouraging: "I managed to get hold of the telephone number of their manager, Steve O'Rourke, and he (surprisingly) arranged a meeting for me in London. He had a reputation for being tough and I'd been told that he'd turned down dozens of proposals from directors like myself. And yet he came over as a very decent person. I explained to him, and to David Gilmour who also happened to be there, my original idea: It was to combine their music with the work of contemporary artists like Jean Tinguely, Magritte, Delvaux or Nam June Paik. David looked at me and said that they'd think about it and eventually get back. I returned to Paris and waited for six months! At this point I had pretty much given up hope and wanted to forget the embarrassingly bad idea of mixing Floydian music and Magritte. I decided to go on a holiday to Italy and travelled to Pompeii."

It was there that Maben was struck by the amazing atmosphere of the amphitheatre – this was after he went back there at dusk in order to look for his passport which he had lost. He also noticed that the acoustics were magically enhanced by the buzz of insects and the shrill cries of hundreds of bats flying overhead. "I rushed back to the hotel and tried to get through to London. Italian hotel phones were not very easy to work in those days but I somehow managed to get hold of Steve O'Rourke who was still in his office. I suggested that we could film a concert of the Floyd in the amphitheatre but without any audience. It would be a sort of anti-Woodstock film: only music, no fans, no ecstatic crowds and, above all, no applause. There was a pause on the telephone and I knew that Steve was trying to understand what I was raving about. This time, however, the idea was not rejected."

So they were ready to roll? "Alas no, because that was only the beginning of our troubles. I had to explain to the local authorities that there would only be the musicians, sound and film crews in the amphitheatre. Above all, they were terrified by the idea of the film being some sort of rock festival with hordes of fans climbing over the monuments. Actually, I received a lot of help from a university professor in Naples who had all the right contacts. It was also a stroke of luck because he knew and liked Pink Floyd's music. And as Pasteur once remarked, fortune favours those who are well prepared."

Then there was the question of the Floyd's equipment, their technique and movements during a concert. "I knew that they were pretty static on stage, they didn't leap about like the Rolling Stones and they did not improvise too much for the tracks that we selected. Furthermore, each member had his own place on the set and, except for 'A Saucerful of Secrets', nobody ever walked from one place to another. And that was important for calculating the right camera angles. Since Live at Pompeii was really about the music (and not about the interaction with the public) I used a stopwatch to time every segment and plan ahead where the heavy Mitchell cameras should be placed. It was a mathematical approach that had to take into consideration both the music and the weight of the cameras. The camera angles had to be worked out ahead in detail because it took an hour for the three sturdy "macchinista" to move their equipment into the right position.

"On the eve of the first day of filming, O'Rourke knocked on the door of my hotel room, pulled a vinyl copy of 'Meddle' out of his briefcase (the group’s latest album) and said, 'This is what we really want to play.' And so I had to stay up all night redoing the storyboard using the script girl’s stopwatch and a plastic gramophone that was lent to me by the Hotel".

The rest is history: mishaps of every kind, from the lack of sufficient power for the sound system and the lighting ("we even had to connect a long electric cable between the cathedral of Pompeii and the amphitheatre") to the religious procession which almost blocked the filming of the fulmaroles at Pozzuoli on the pre-arranged day. Thousands of pilgrims blocked the roads from Pompeii to Naples and delayed everything. The crew and the Floyd just sat in their cars and waited for the procession to end.

"In the end we had to finish the shoot in December of the same year at the Studios de Boulogne in the suburbs of Paris. But in my imagination the spirit of the film was definitely rooted in the sands of the amphitheatre in Pompeii. And everything was done to make it look as though it had all been shot in Italy. You could say that there is a definite marriage between the Floyd’s music and what Lawrence Durrell referred to as 'the spirit of place.' A young woman once wrote on the net, "Live at Pompeii is my favourite concert film because you get the feeling that the Floyd are playing a requiem for the dead." There is something rather haunting and sinister about the antique city. There's always the feeling of impending doom and danger and the Floyd's music seems to add to that."

But at the time Maben wasn't entirely happy with result and so, after the first version of the film was released, he asked the group whether he could add more footage from a recording studio.

"Roger Waters and I both shared a passion for fly fishing and he was rather better at it than I was. After a couple of days fishing on the banks of the river Teme near the Welsh border I plucked up enough courage to ask him if we could film the band during the making of their next album.

"I asked very cautiously something like this, 'Pompeii is ok but we don't really understand how you work together and create your sounds. Could we possibly do some shooting in a recording studio?' After a rather awkward silence Roger replied that it might be possible but he would have to ask the others about the idea. I returned to Paris, a month passed by and just as I was about to give up hope for the second time the phone rang. It was Roger Waters: 'OK, we will do it. Come to Abbey Road studios next week in London. But only for three days, with one camera and on the condition that you don't get in our way.' I had no idea what album they were working on. I was only interested in seeing them interact and understanding how they behaved and produced their music. A sort of peek at what you are never allowed to see. It just so happened that they were recording "Dark Side of the Moon." It was an amazing stroke of luck."

At Borgaro, Maben read out a letter that he had recently received from the son of a hotel owner in Pompeii. At the time of the shoot the man in question was just a boy who, during those four days in October 1971, managed to gate crash the filming. The memory of the heavy equipment and the four crazy guys who played in the amphitheatre impressed him emotionally to the extent that he would never forget.

But how can one explain the fascination for Live at Pompeii even today? Maben is unable to offer an explanation: "You need to ask the people who watch it, particularly the young fans who weren't even born in the seventies. Why am I still working on it? Because for me a film is never quite finished. It's a bit like the French painter Pierre Bonnard who, when he was an old man, could be found adding touches of yellow to his paintings which were hanging in the Louvre. When the furious guards rushed up and tried to stop him he turned to them and politely explained, 'These are my paintings and I can do whatever I want.'

"Perhaps it's the same for me: I never stop dithering about and recoloring or restoring my old films!"

This review also appears on the Rockol.com website and appears here with permission. Our thanks to Stefano Tarquini for his help in bringing this to you, and for the picture. You can see more pictures over at our Facebook page.

 
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