Film: Johnny Rotten, Coleridge and me

From punk high to Absolute Beginners low, director Julien Temple has `felt' the critics. Now he's back - and wiser.
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The Independent Culture
Some faces are oddly expressive of their time. Looking at Julien Temple, you realise his features are a perfect morphing of Sid Vicious and Tony Parsons, two icons of the punk era in to which Temple sailed as its ideal chronicler. In 1978, when he made The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle - part celebration of musical anarchy, part ego-trip by Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols' curly-haired Svengali - Temple looked and sounded like the embodiment of the safety-pin circus. Spiky, cold-eyed, hyper-articulate and alarmingly confident, he seemed to be the only punk with a degree. He dealt in startling images, from the gobbing, pullulating fans at the Marquee and Edward Tenpole-Tudor's frenzied contortions during "Who Killed Bambi?", to the climactic footage of a tuxedoed, gun-toting Sid Vicious murdering "My Way".

Eight years (and a score of high-profile pop videos, for the Kinks, the Stones, David Bowie and Neil Young) later, he made Absolute Beginners. Based on Colin MacInnes's novel of Fifties teenage and black London culture, it was flagged as the calling-card of the British style revolution, the hippest movie ever made, an Eighties musical elegy to the teen dream. Instead, trashed by the critics, rubbished by the new myrmidons of the style pages, it went down with all hands.

Temple fled to America where he surfaced, three years later, with a satirical romp called Earth Girls Are Easy, about three aliens visiting California. On BBC1's Film 89, Temple was seen sharing a joke by the pool with his scriptwriter, Julie Brown, apparently lost to any shred of hip decorum. That's it, we sneered. Mr Sparkling Intellect, Mr Street-Cred Film Director, has found his level at last.

Now he's back with a raft of new projects, unbowed by this dismaying history of crash-landed vainglory. Sitting in the cavern of London's Mezzo restaurant, at 43 he radiates confidence once more. Spiky of hair, sharky of lip, and clad in an unstructured green suit ("where's it from? The late-Eighties I think"), he reflects calmly on the media maelstrom that once overwhelmed his precocious talent.

"Making Absolute Beginners was a nightmare. It was like having a bee in your ear that wouldn't go away. We were gate-crashing a club that we weren't meant to be part of. It just wasn't possible to take British youth culture as the subject for a big British film that would appeal to a wide audience. We had to get the publicity going, shove it on the front of magazines and say, look, this is worth spending money on. We got caught up in an avalanche about how important teen culture had been - but we unleashed too much. The film, from being the great white hope of the Brit film industry, became the albatross that destroyed it. I was very badly burned. I decided, having spoken too much about that film before it came out, never to speak about anything again until the time is right..."

The time is right because Temple is about to release his first feature in 10 years. It's Vigo: passion for Life, an art-house movie about the French film director, Jean Vigo, who died of TB at 29 after making just three films: A Propos de Nice, a scathing documentary about the rich lotus- eaters on the Thirties Riviera; Zero de Conduite, about a school rebellion, the forerunner of Lindsay Anderson's If...; and L'Atalante, a dreamy, impressionistic love story set on a Seine barge.

"What was great about him," says Temple, "was his untrained amateur eye, his freshness. He hadn't learned the rules. But his way of looking at the world combined two streams of French cinema, the Lumieres' documentary realism - we can't imagine now the shock effect on audiences of hearing a flushing toilet off-screen - and the fantastical work of Melies. He came close to capturing real life in the cinema, because both the realism and the surrealism came naturally to him. What I really admire is his belief in the importance of the individual."

So - how much is it a homage, and how much an act of identification?

"I think it's about the nature of love, and the importance of the people around you in a creative endeavour, when you have terrible obstacles to face, including illness." Well, yeah, I dare say, but it's clear that Temple feels an empathy with the tragic Jean Vigo - a brilliant young director, misunderstood, anti-establishment, determinedly independent. Even Vigo's long struggle to find a sympathetic producer echoes Temple's 10-year wrestle to get the film made. "Vigo was the first director to say, I want to become a film director, but I'll make films about things I really believe in. That's the power of independent cinema. It's about individual truth, not about merchandising hamburgers."

Temple first encountered Vigo at Cambridge. He was, surprisingly, not a keen film-goer when young, preferring painting and music: in his teens he blew a saxophone in a band called The Bombers, who perversely played jazz on rock bills in the early- Seventies ("That was the point, you see; to be avant garde"). Uninvigorated by his architecture degree, he joined the cinema club where he sat through Godard screenings, bored to tears, unable to understand the fuss his friends made about the French auteur. "I cracked it by seeing Godard's Meprise (Contempt) six times until I understood it. That released a lot of energy in me. Suddenly I had a feeling of being washed away on a cataract of film."

He bought the classic beginners' movie camera ("a Bolex", he says ruefully, "as in Never Mind the Bolex") and with some friends made a short called The Tunning of Eleanor Rumming, from a John Skelton poem "about a strange brew this character on a hill concocts, that sends the village into a frenzy of Bosch-like behaviour". Thus inspired, they moved on to a Vigo- like documentary about drunkenness, filming students and local people moving from bright-eyed sobriety to intoxicated wildness.

He was studying at the national Film School in Beaconsfield, when he met the Sex Pistols by chance in Rotherhithe. "I was doing a student film and looking for some new London music. One afternoon in 1975, walking around the East End, I heard a Small Faces song coming from a warehouse. I went inside and heard someone singing. "I want you to know I hate you, baby" - they'd changed the words from "I love you, baby" - and found this band. It was like being on another planet, I had no reference for this stuff. It was a magical glimpse of something I totally understood was powerful and extraordinary. They just radiated this air of I-won't-play- by-your-hippie-rules. They were about to start doing gigs, so I followed them and saw that the audience was just like them. I felt an outsider - to me it was like theatre rather than rock'n'roll."

The undeniably posh Hampstead-and-Cambridge-educated Temple was grudgingly accepted as their celluloid amanuensis. "I was an irritant, but I think they understood they were doing something worth filming, so I was a necessary irritant." He filmed them in concert, backstage on tour. He even got on with Johnny Rotten. "There's an honesty in him, but he's very stubborn and intractable, and that makes life difficult for some people. But in those days he was incandescent. He was speaking in these strange voices - ancestral voices, prophesying war."

Twenty-odd years after his brush with rock history, Temple is back among the ancestral voices. His next project is a film about Wordsworth and Coleridge and the year (1798) of Lyrical Ballads, the prototypical text of English romanticism. The film, Pandemonium, will star Ian Hart as the Daffodils fan and (with luck) Robert Carlyle as the Albatross Man. Before the Oxbridge literary-critical industry throws up its hands in dismay, let me report that Temple is a serious and committed Coleridge fan. He may offer dubious soundbites about the opium-addicted Samuel T being "the first rock'n'roll casualty" and "the first psychonaut", but his approach is sympathetically ad hominem: "Coleridge was the first person to analyse the mind, to make a journey around the imagination, a hundred years before Freud."

Temple's father grew up near Coleridge's cottage in Nether Stowey. Julien (and why is it Julien with an "e", not an "a'? "My mother smoked a pipe. Her favourite tobacco was St Julien") himself now lives in Somerset, where his nearest neighbour is Joe Strummer of The Clash. One of the many pleasing things about meeting this clever, thoughtful and ambitious man is discovering how he preserves a triangulated relationship between literature, rock music and image-making. "We have this biennial conference of global Coleridge scholars in Cannington, down by the Quantock hills," he says, sounding like a bookish antiquarian. "Lots of the things in Richard Holmes's biography were dug out by the industry of these mad Coleridgeans. But only he makes it all come alive...". What a long way Mr Temple has come from his callow punk apprenticeship, his days as a filmic absolute beginner.

`Vigo: passion for Life' is released 4 June