was the arresting title for a showing in February at Kelvin Hall of some of the films of the late Enrico Cocozza (1921-97). Its aim was to celebrate the man and establish for Cocozza a gay identity. It is not necessarily a service to any member of Scotland's underpopulated ranks of film-makers to force them into too narrow a strait-jacket, but the event itself was a sign of the increasing attention paid to a forgotten Scottish film-maker.
In the programme, the organiser, Conor Baird, worried about the title he himself had chosen, self-interrogating about the 'boundaries of reinterpreting a deceased figure's oeuvre and identity. Does it honour them? Respectful? Is it homophobic to even ask these questions?' I doubt it. Cocozza was certainly gay, or possibly asexual, but had no partner of either gender. He was a somewhat lonely man and never came unequivocally 'out' but then life was not easy for a gay man living in Lanarkshire at a time when homosexuality was an infringement of criminal law.
Edwin Morgan wrote a poem in his honour in Cathures
(2002), a work that was an invitation to pair the two of them, with Morgan pointing to Cocozza as a fellow creative figure and using him to protest at the oppression of gay people in Scotland in their lifetime. He has Cocozza say that he is 'always looking for fresh talent / My passion is the whirr of cameras'. Morgan goes on to describe Cocozza as one of the 'many hidden souls / Searching for what in this life could not be found', something he defines as 'some flesh and heat / Flushed out of Fifties forbiddenness'.
The roll call of Scottish film-makers is not so lengthy as to justify excluding anyone, especially when they have genuine achievements to their credit. The force of the term 'cult figure' has always been obscure, but it is probably the most apt description of Cocozza's new status. As memory of him returns to a half-light, he is now the subject of assiduous post-graduate research, aided by the new prominence of gay studies. He has an entry in Wikipedia, was the subject some years ago of a documentary on STV and his films are respectfully collected in the Scottish Film Archive. He was featured on the Fringe of the Edinburgh Film Festival before the recent event in Glasgow.
The son of immigrants from the southern Italian town of Filignano, he was brought up in a flat over the Belhaven Café at the 'fit o the toon' in Wishaw which his parents owned. The couple were declared 'enemy aliens' at the declaration of war, meaning that a menacing, patriotic crowd surrounded the shop, although the police quickly intervened to disperse them, unlike in other Scottish burghs. Cocozza's father died in 1943, leaving his mother to keep the business going. Having been born in this country, Cocozza was not interned but was called up. He spent the war years as a 'pioneer' acting as interpreter to Italian POWS.
Wishaw is a long way from Hollywood or Cinecittà, and there was no Arts Council to subsidise creativity. It is probably pointless to wonder where his creative gifts came from, but while nothing in his background pointed him in that direction, the same could be said of many artists of talent or even genius, like the Aberdeen etcher-artist, James MacBey. Cocozza made his own way, and who knows what he might have achieved had the dice at his birth spun differently and he had been born in an environment more favourable to creativity.
He was determined to forge his own way as a film-maker, even if he had to work with unpromising materials, far removed from those available to professional directors or producers. He studied the trade by himself, acquired a camera and made his first films in and around Wishaw, using local lads and lassies as his actors. In addition, he adapted some rooms at the back of the café to serve as a cinema, and local people paid a modest admission fee to see the Hollywood or European films of the time. They also had the opportunity to see Cocozza's own films, featuring their town, their friends and acquaintances. His output included both feature films and documentaries, some of the latter commissioned by Italian authorities.
He was a great admirer of Jean Cocteau, and said that in his youth he would spend his summers in Paris in the company of the disciples or hangers-on who clustered around the great man. He had one single-sentence letter from Cocteau pinned above his desk, but claimed that there had been a more copious correspondence between the two of them. He explained that he had kept the letters under his bed, only to have an over-zealous cleaner throw every page into a bin from where they were removed to the local cowp. He did a PhD on Cocteau. His own tombstone, engraved with enigmatic quotations from Cocteau, was prepared years in advance and kept in his bedroom, where guests were invited to admire it.
Cocozza has some 60 films to his credit. Perhaps the only one with an undeniably gay theme is the short, black and white film Bongo Erotico
, a work which is also a satire of a contemporary salacious Cliff Richard movie, Expresso Bongo
. It opens with a topless, masked woman writhing about alone on a bed, but basically she is a diversion, for the focus is on two young men, also topless but who never indulge in hugs or physical contact. There is another bed in a corner, but the two men never make it together that far. The camera lingers lovingly on them before switching to a growling, demonic chorus figure, played by Cocozza himself. Only his face is shown, and his expression is enraged, perhaps outraged and certainly not at all pleased, with every reaction conveyed to the accompanying beat of a bongo drum.
He seems to have been free of ambition, although it is impossible to know what level of frustration he experienced. He did find some success in Scotland. In the 1950s, the Cosmo, the predecessor of the GFT, ran an annual competition for documentaries whose presiding judge was John Grierson, normally credited as the inventor of the genre, and Cocozza won several times. Grierson promised some assistance to aid Cocozza's career but nothing came of it.
Perhaps it was sheer frustration which led him to withdraw from film-making for some decades. He had a touch of fantasy which was not restricted to his fictional creativity, and he gave differing accounts of why he abandoned the trade. He told me he was filming the port of Glasgow from a helicopter when his camera slipped from his grasp and plunged into the Clyde. In his programme notes, Baird writes that Cocozza had a filming accident which made his eyesight sensitive to strong light. Who knows? The fact is he took up a post as teacher of Italian in the Scottish College in Glasgow, later incorporated into the newly founded University of Strathclyde.
On his retiral from academic life, he returned to film-making, making use of the development of modern cine-camera techniques. He continued to work with amateur actors, some of whom were students from his university days. Wishaw was his home and his flat his studio, but he was able to venture abroad in imagination, on one occasion converting his living room into a salon of a French chateau.
In addition to their artistic merit, some of Cocozza's films from the 1950s have acquired an additional historical value in their unembellished portrayal of the grimness and greyness in urban life in the west of Scotland. The lines of clothes blowing in the winds in the gardens of council houses, the drab streets with smoke emerging from lums, the plain dress of men and women record the era of ration books and austerity. It might be too much to say that Cocozza sprinkled fairy dust over them but some works display his uncanny knack in imbuing woodland or country scenery in Lanarkshire with an eerie tone and haunting atmospherics, a skill all the more remarkable given the basic equipment and the untrained amateur actors he was constrained to use.
Possibly his most successful film was Chick's Day
, a brutal, noir narrative which seems influenced by contemporary Italian neo-realism. As in all his films of that period, instead of direct speech, there is only voice-over which offers both commentary and inner dialogue. The characters are local lads, living aimless lives, prone to a petty criminality which spins out of control, leading to violence, possibly murder.
His final film, Route 6
, demonstrates a not altogether successful willingness to experiment. It is likely that he had seen Andy Warhol's celebrated piece where he left a camera trained for 24 hours on the Empire State Building. Cocozza set up his camera in the bedroom where his mother had died, as he explained to those who saw the work on a screen in his living room, and set his camera to record all that occurred on Wishaw Main Street over several hours. He also went down to do some banal interviews with people on their way to work, or returning with shopping.
It was not a worthy last word, but while his might be a minor talent, it was the real thing and deserves to be remembered and celebrated. By Scotland, as well as by Wishaw.
Joseph Farrell is Professor Emeritus of Italian at Strathclyde University