Remembering Keith Hennessy Brown
Just before Christmas I was saddened to learn that my friend, Keith Hennessy Brown, had passed away at the horribly young age of 44. Many reading this will know Keith from his exceptional film writing including his many insightful and accessible film reviews (see Eye for Film, Rotten Tomatoes) and his academic film work, most notably his PhD thesis Deleuzean hybridity in the films of Leone and Argento (Brown, 2013).
I have very fond memories of working with Keith on insideout/IOfilm (now Eyeforfilm), covering the Edinburgh International Film Festival and picking through the programme’s coded summaries (and I do always think of Keith when cynically spying the phrase “hypnotically beautiful” in a film summary). Indeed, to see the quality of his writing I would invite you to compare several of the films we both reviewed – my own inexperience very much evident when compared to Keith’s deeper film knowledge and concise impatience with lackluster film making.
It had been several years since I’d last spoken to Keith, but he had been a friend for a long time, since I first moved to Edinburgh in 1999. One of my very first acts as a student was to join the Edinburgh University Film Society, where I found a wonderful group of what have proved to be lifelong friends, most of whom I knew through their love of films: lively advocacy for unlikely programme choices when it came to programming for the society; the sharing of much loved films (from mainstream to thoroughly obscure) through social movie nights; the annual scramble to write reviews for the Filmsoc Programme. And so when I think about Keith, it is inevitably the films he was passionate about, the curios and he would recommend, and those shared experiences of cinema, sharing and impassioned argument and analysis of film.
When I heard the news of Keith’s death – on a day I was due to meet friends at The Filmhouse, a space I strongly associate with planned and accidental meetings with Keith – the first thing I wanted to do was to watch something strange, and odd, and appropriate to his eccentric range of film taste. And so, it feels like the most appropriate tribute to him is to reflect on some of the strange films I had only seen at his suggestion whether through gifts of DVDs (Keith was generous in a quiet random way), or in cramped living rooms full of people open to the strange films he would appear with. I won’t pretend that all of those films were good, or to my taste – Keith spent several years immersed in Giallo, a movement where the misogyny and violence leaves me pretty cold, even when the outlandish plots and eye catching visuals have their appeal – but his selections were always so much more interesting than whatever was playing at the local multiplex.
Suspiria | Italy, 1977 | dir. Dario Argento | 98 mins
I had heard about Suspiria before I met Keith but the DVD of the film was one of his generous but random gifts – he would appear with a DVD or CD at random, and without any expectations of reciprocity. His recommendations were always tailored, although he would also champion his own favourites. Suspiria, being largely female and quite a queer movie, whilst also beautifully executed fit one of the odd overlaps of our film taste which is why it was the first film that came to mind on learning of his death (which also feels appropriately in poor taste).
Suspiria is the story of Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American student who arrives at a prestigious German ballet school where she witnesses a terrified student running away to a grim fate. It quickly becomes apparent that the ballet school is even more sinister as Suzy begins to explore the strange goings on.
As a film the plot is really secondary to the atmosphere of Suspiria: it is shot in alarming reds and greens with a spine-chilling score by Goblin, shot through with whispery voices. As Suzy is drugged with wine the audience also falls into a confused stupor, stumbling through the strange happenings in a haze of bewildering images and beautiful repetitive musical themes. It may have the plot similarities and strange out of step dubbing of other Giallo movies but it is rightly regarded as a horror classic, with visual, musical, and tonal influence felt in many other movies. The sense of fear and foreboding builds continuously and absorbingly to an appropriately terrifying ending.
Death Laid An Egg / La morte ha fatto l’uovo (aka Plucked aka A Curious Way to Love) | Italy, France, 1968 | dir. Giulio Questi | 86 mins
Keith’s outlandish DVD contribution for film nights were sometimes met with delight, sometimes with derision, and sometimes disquieted silence. Occasionally they were even met with a little snoring… Death Laid an Egg pretty much covered all of those bases…
The title is, I am sure you’ll agree, incredible and immediately raises many questions. The title sequence shows a chicken foetus gradually developing under a microscope… As is appropriate, but you almost certainly won’t have guessed, the plot focuses on extraordinary murder and perversion on a recently industrialised chicken plant. Yes, really. You know that you want to have seen this film, if only to say “I saw this amazing film about battery hens and sex and murder called Death Laid an Egg!”
I shall leave the summarising to user Count_Fistfulldollars on the IMDB (whilst you are there marvel at the classy 5/10 review that mainly focuses on the disappointment that Gina Lollobrigida (playing Anna) is not nude enough):
A love triangle develops between three people who run a high tech chicken farm. It involves Anna (who owns the farm), her husband Marco (who kills prostitutes in his spare time) and Gabriella (the very beautiful secretary).
Yes, the film is as bonkers as it sounds, although like many poorly dubbed Italian movies (which I have watched many of amongst Keith’s recommendations) Death Laid An Egg managed to be titillating and exploitative (witness the glamorous calendar shoot amongst the industrial plant and baby chicks!) whilst also yawn-inducing (dubbed discussion of animal husbandry!), horrifying (crunch, there goes a character into the machinery!) and yet deathly dull… But I am being unfair because Death Laid an Egg is an enjoyably weird example of the Giallo genre. And I suspect a deeper reading also says a great deal about Italian politics, and the importance of food and traditional farming in Italy. In any case, it will certainly convince you to go free range…
The thing about watching a genre piece like this is that part of the fun is seeing how all of the required components slot into place… Indeed, watching the clever self-reflexive, horrific Christmas special of Inside Number 9 a few weeks back, I couldn’t help but think how much Keith would have enjoyed the ridiculous attention to detail – from film stock, to props, to casting and child phobic plot – and it’s dark cynical conclusion and framing.
The Phantom of the Paradise | USA, 1974 | dir. Brian de Palma | 92 mins
The last film I remember watching with Keith was the excellent and relatively little known Phantom of the Paradise. Keith arranged a special screening to mark his 40th birthday and selected this crowd pleasing 1974 oddity from Brian de Palma. In many ways this was a quintessential “Keith Movie”: full of recognizable people, full of interesting ideas, mainstream in many ways, yet tongue in cheek, flecked with body horror and critiques of social norms and populism.
The Phantom of the Paradise sees Winslow Leach (William Finley), a gifted composer whose romantic ambitions far exceed his charisma or success, become embroiled with Swan (Paul Williams), a music industry tycoon… Leach is besotted with Pheonix (Jessica Harper) and sells his soul to Swan (who is also the devil) to ensure that she will sing his music.
This is an ambitious very funny, very dark satirical rock opera version of the Phantom of the Opera. Paul Williams is gloriously weird as Swan and de Palma has all kinds of fun with the variety of bands Swan manages, always desperate to tap into the latest fad that will sell well. Williams’ also contributes much of the score – a reminder that he had some strange awesome work under his belt long before Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Meanwhile Finley has huge fun with his tortured role as Leach, making a virtue of his unconventional physicality – using his tall gangly frame and his dramatic post-disfigurement costume to beautiful effect. Harper has much less to do but she is a perfect innocent foil for the corrupting music industry, channelling her best troubled Karen Carpenter impression for the singing scenes.
Like much of the best cult film treasure The Phantom of the Paradise seems so obviously like it should have been better known, maybe even as a much more mainstream hit (if Grease can be, this funnier cleverer film surely could?). Whilst some of the scenes have dated (mainly the romping Bedazzled-ish scenes of Williams’ hareem), The Phantom of the Paradise‘s core morality story of talent corrupted by the music industry remains just as relevant and very enjoyable. And indeed ripe for a remake… (Might I suggest Louis Walsh as a suitable modern counterpart for Swan?)
And so those are three films that capture some of what I will miss about Keith. Although I haven’t done him justice here as he had a throughly diverse taste in films – I am confident he would watch absolutely anything once. He recommended early cinema, obscure queer classics, and all manner of films to me, and a whole range of other titles to the many people who benefitted from his knowledge and generosity.
That diversity of film knowledge also meant Keith was infuriatingly good at film quizzes – usually knowing many more of the answers than the rest of us – but it wasn’t just film, he had an equally eclectic range of music taste (including some terrible nordic metal that I remembering joyfully head banging to many years ago). Sometimes his enthusiasm for sometimes very bad taste cinema and his impish critiquing and intentional ignoring of social norms could make him challenging company but Keith was always a very kind and gentle soul.
In recent years I know Keith contributed hugely to the Edinburgh Film Guild, and continued to provide friendship and wonderful weird film knowledge to a diverse and international group of friends (not to mention his much loved cat). Even those of us who had not seen him in a while will very much miss him and both his insights and provocations. I am particularly sad that Keith will not be around to write more as I was always sure he had several brilliant film books in his future.