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Understanding Elvis: Interview with Nigel Patterson

One of the most amazing things about Elvis Presley are his fans. The amount of creative, well-educated and dedicated people among them who manage to do continuous in-depth research and writing about the man besides having successful professional careers and active family lives is simply astounding. One of their key figures who for decades has helped to better understand Elvis Presley’s life, career and cultural impact on many different levels is Nigel Patterson from Australia. The Memphis Flash has talked to the Elvis expert about his passion for the King and what interests him most: Elvis‘ films and books.

The Memphis Flash: Nigel, most English-speaking Elvis aficionados are familiar with you as Honorary President of the Elvis Information Network (EIN), an Australian fan club that runs one of the, if not the most prolific and informative websites on Elvis Presley: www.elvisinfonet.com. Apart from that, not too much is known about you (at least not in Germany). Please do tell us more about yourself, your background and what made you such an expert on everything Elvis.

Nigel Patterson: I am originally from Northern Ireland and my family moved to Canberra, capital city of the “lucky country”, Australia, in the early 1960s.  While I knew of Elvis and seen some of his movies I did not become a fan until early 1969 when on a school excursion to Griffith, a small town in the winery region of country New South Wales. As I would learn later Griffith was also a hot spot for dope production in Australia (but I digress)!  While on the bus we were listening to 2CA, the only commercial radio station in Canberra at the time, and Edge of Reality came on.  I was hooked the moment I heard it and my interest in things Elvis quickly grew from there.

The Memphis Flash: Sounds like a fun way of being introduced to Elvis ;-). The psychedelic Edge Of Reality from the movie Live A Little, Love A Little (German: Liebling, laß‘ das Lügen, 1968) was a hit in Australia, right? It’s relatively unknown in Germany though. Let’s give it a listen.

Audio Edge of Reality – Complete Masters

 

The Memphis Flash: How was being an Elvis fan like in Australia in the late 1960s?

elvis-monthly-1960Nigel Patterson: Living “downunder” in a snail mail and pre-Internet time we relied on primarily newspapers and magazines for our news of overseas stars.  I started buying the newsstand magazine Elvis Monthly (which, due to its small size, fitted nicely into the inside pocket of my school jacket and served me well when I became bored with scholarly instruction), subscribed to Rocky Barra’s Strictly Elvis and submerged myself in various popular Aussie magazines including Movie News, Everybody’s and the Australasian Post, as they regularly featured Elvis on their cover and had feature articles inside.

In the early 70s I joined my first Elvis fan club, run by Bob Stephens in Sydney and I started contributing to Rex Martin’s fantastic Worldwide Weekly Elvis News Service and later Elvis Monthly.

The Memphis Flash: Some great magazines that have iconic status among fans today. I’ve seen that there is an → interesting interview with Rocky Barra, the guy behind Strictly Elvis, on EIN. Besides magazines films soon became another great interest of yours?

Nigel Patterson: From my childhood years growing up during the silver age of television I always had a fascination with TV shows and films.  In the late 1970s-early 1980s I became a reviewer for the Brisbane Film Group (BFG) enjoying working “flexi-time” (before it was introduced to the bureaucracy) as I was given free tickets to watch and review films screening usually at 11 am in the morning. I remember the first time I asked my boss if I could take an early, long lunch and he looked at me as if I was from another planet! In those days we had a regimented 12:30-1:30 lunch period.  A few years later flexitime was the norm.  Most of my reviews for the BFG were of horror movies as classic titles like Halloween, Friday the 13th, Prom Night and the underrated Happy Birthday To Me were enjoying peak popularity.  My involvement with the Brisbane Film Group was the genesis of my interest in a more analytical approach to the Elvis film canon.

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Viva Las Vegas: Starvehikel mit Kultcharakter

Böse Zungen behaupten ja gerne, dass die meisten Filme mit Elvis Presley in der Hauptrolle keine richtige Handlung haben… Das mag überspitzt ausgedrückt sein, grundsätzlich falsch ist es aber nicht. Denn in in einem klassischen Elvis-Musical, wie etwa dem Pop Art-Klassiker Viva Las Vegas (Tolle Nächte in Las Vegas, 1964), sind Handlung und fiktive Hauptfigur des Films dem Star Elvis Presley klar untergeordnet. Und das ist auch so gewollt – vor allem vom Publikum.

Auch als Rennfahrer Lucky Jackson in 'Viva Las Vegas' bleibt Elvis Presley immer Elvis

Auch als Rennfahrer Lucky Jackson in ‚Viva Las Vegas‘ bleibt Elvis unverkennbar Elvis

Man kann daher auch sagen: Elvis ist die Handlung: Ohne ihn gäbe es die meisten seiner Filme nicht. Remakes von klassischen Elvis-Musicals sind deshalb nicht zu erwarten, obwohl die Filme lange sehr erfolgreich waren (→  Elvis in Hollywood: Interview mit Paul Simpson), bis heute regelmäßig im TV laufen, Hollywood Erfolgsrezepte bekanntermaßen gerne unendlich reproduziert und Elvis Presley nach wie vor als Superstar gilt. Aber ein Starvehikel ohne den originären Star? Das funktioniert nicht.

Überhaupt das „Starvehikel“. Von Filmkritikern wird es in der Regel abgetan als nicht weiter erwähnenswertes Massenprodukt für das „einfache Volk“, das keinen höheren künstlerischen Ansprüchen genügen kann, weil es ja nur um einen Star geht, der einfach sich selbst spielt – immer wieder, quasi in Serie.

Diese bestens etablierte Sichtweise wird heute zunehmend kritisch hinterfragt (→  Viva Las Vegas – ein Pop Art-Klassiker wird 50, James L. Neibaur: The Elvis Movies, → Björn Eckerl: Elvis im Kino), etwa von der Filmdozentin Susan M. Doll, die u.a. für Turner Classic Movies schreibt und sich auch mit den Filmen Elvis Presleys intensiv auseinandergesetzt hat. Hier ein längeres Zitat aus dem Filmkapitel ihrer sehr empfehlenswerten, aber leider wenig bekannten Veröffentlichung Understanding Elvis: Southern roots vs. star image (1998):

„Because most of Presley’s films were vehicles, his star image overshadows any fictional character he might play, which is precisely the point. Audiences went to see Elvis Presley, not to see him submerged into the personality of a fictional character. Presley’s star image defined his movie roles and vice versa. […]

A star’s appearance in a vehicle works in a specific fashion. The consistent use of a star and his/her image in a series of films tailored to the star’s talents establishes expectations in regard to subsequent films. Audiences expect each new film with that star to contain certain aspects associated with him/her. The star’s image provides direct entry into the vehicle. The narrative needs little in the way of exposition. Also by continually associating a star with a series of vehicles, the star’s image merges or fuses into the character type associated with those vehicles. Thus, the star’s image slides connotatively into character, and by extension, into narrative function. Star image, then, can act as the synopsis of the plot of any vehicle in which that star appears. […]

Film reviewers and other culture critics have inferred from this tendency that the star of a vehicle never really engages in acting, but merely plays himself. The star is generally criticized for this. Also the repetition of similar characteristics from vehicle to vehicle invites severe criticism from reviewers. The more the audience responds to a vehicular formula by making these films hits at the box office, the less likely the conventions for a star’s vehicles will change.

The narrow scope of a set of vehicles in terms of conventions, the blurring of star’s image into character, and the frequent repetition of conventions are inherent in the nature of the film vehicle. High-brow reviewers – or, in the case of Presley, rock music historians and certain biographers – who consider film vehicles inferior because of these characteristics are naive. Criticizing the star of a vehicle for playing himself, or attacking a film vehicle for being repetititve, is like criticizing a tiger for having stripes. It is the nature of the beast.“

– zitiert nach Susan M. Doll: Understanding Elvis: Southern roots vs. star image, 1998

Was heißt das nun aber genau für das klassische Elvis-Musical, für einen Film wie Viva Las Vegas? Es bedeutet, dass man den Film innerhalb seines Genres bewerten muss, also danach wie gut oder schlecht er sein Ziel erreicht, nämlich das bestimmende Handlungselement, den Star bzw. dessen Starimage, überzeugend zu präsentieren. Alles andere macht, wie Susan Doll nachvollziehbar ausführt, schlicht keinen Sinn.

Viva Las Vegas: Elvis hoch 2 in Action

Noch viel besser als 1 Elvis sind 2: Ann-Margret und Elvis als doppelter Elvis in Viva Las Vegas

Und bei Viva Las Vegas haben sich der musicalerfahrene Co-Produzent/Regisseur George Sidney und sein Team ganz schön was einfallen lassen, um dem Anfang der 1960er etablierten Elvis-Musical noch mal ordentlich auf die Sprünge zu helfen und dabei dennoch das Elvis-Image dieser Zeit gekonnt einzubinden. Schon in den ersten Minuten des Films wird das Starimage Elvis Presleys und damit die Handlung auf den Punkt genau gesetzt.

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