Cult film 'Brand X' has been granted a surprising and timely second life

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The film from the heyday of hippiedom mysteriously disappeared.

One day in February 1969, a New York Pop Artist called Wynn Chamberlain, his wife Sally and their twin babies were caught by a snowstorm while staying in their upstate holiday home with friends. "It came up to the windows," Sally recalls now. It trapped them indoors where there was nothing to do but watch TV. So that's what they did: solidly, the whole weekend.

It was not the way they usually passed their time. They watched fascinated, appalled, mesmerised, as an endless succession of adverts, keep-fit programmes, What's My Line-type quiz shows, soaps, news bulletins, business and baseball reports, more adverts and yet more adverts unspooled before their eyes.

By the time the snow had begun to melt, Wynn Chamberlain had an idea.

As young New York artists went, he was doing pretty well. A big show of his large, painstakingly realistic works, mostly of friends including the poets Allen Ginsberg and Frank O'Hara in the nude, had been acclaimed in 1965 and he had works in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the Whitney Museum in New York. But now this handsome, gregarious and incredibly well- connected fortysomething bohemian was itching for a change. "After a lifetime of painting," Sally says, "Wynn was bored with the solitary studio life."

He had already produced an off-Broadway play, Conquest of the Universe by Charles Ludlam, high-camp founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, described as "a direct descendant of Dada… a very entertaining casserole of zaniness" in The Wall Street Journal and "barbarous and nihilistic" in The New York Times. The star was Taylor Mead, an elfin character, fay, weedy, with great comic timing and a gift for bravura improvisation. Mead was a leading light in Andy Warhol's Factory – one of Warhol's home movies was called "Taylor Mead's Ass". He was so striking in Chamberlain's production that the 80-year-old Marcel Duchamp was smitten and attended every performance.

Chamberlain came back from the country with this new idea rattling around his head: a film that took the pathetic, mediocre, clichéd culture of television and turned it on its head. The idea received a jolt of electricity when Mead telephoned and indicated that he wanted to get involved.

"Taylor's timing was just unbelievable," Chamberlain remembers. "He said, 'I've done all this stuff for Andy, he hasn't paid me, I have no money, can't you do something?' Taylor was a remittance man for one of the richest families in America but I'd already rescued him a number of times." So Chamberlain decided he would make a film about television starring Mead. There would be no need to impose a narrative shape on it. "Here was a scenario that everybody knew already," Chamberlain says. "It was ready-made." Instead of having a storyline, it would be a random string of segments, like real TV, comprising fake programmes and adverts. Chamberlain interpreted its randomness as a version of "cut-up", the technique of cutting and pasting different bits to make a novel pioneered by his friend William Burroughs.

But who would finance Brand X, as the film ended up being called? The budget didn't need to be huge, but they could not go down the Warhol route, borrowing camera and film and paying no one anything. Sally Chamberlain takes up the tale. "We went to the Fillmore East auditorium to see Janis Joplin and a group we had never heard of called the Grateful Dead, and we went with a friend called Emily, the daughter of Alice Astor" – the famous deceased socialite, neighbour to Sally's family in Rhinebeck, upstate New York. "It was one of those evenings that starts at eight and goes on until four or five in the morning. And Wynn started telling Emily about his idea for a film – a day in television, starring Taylor."

"And Emily said right away," recalls Wynn, "'There's no one I'd rather lose money on than Taylor Mead…'"

Today, Wynn and Sally Chamberlain, 85 and 79 respectively, live in a comfortable apartment on the top floor of a block in Marrakesh, Morocco, where they have been based for the past 15 years. The after-life of the super-cool: walls of books including the latest Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith, wi-fi, a shady terrace with plants in enormous pots, a small Hindu altar in the bedroom.

For a family that came together amid the mayhem of New York in the 1960s, the Chamberlains present a remarkably old-fashioned picture of stability and content. Sally had twins in 1968 and when they were only two years old they took them to live in India, and home-schooled them till they were in their teens; today, Sam, a painter like his father, lives in London and his sister Sarah, who works for the BBC World Trust, lives in Delhi. Both of them visit frequently. And a marriage that survived years of chaos and self-indulgence in New York then more years of extreme simplicity in India still seems robust and loving. Wynn swings around the kitchen on the crutches he uses to mitigate the effects of osteoporosis, expertly cooking chicken-liver pilau which we eat at midnight; Sally sits in the background, offering a hand when required.

It was five years ago now that New Line Cinema broke nearly 40 years of silence and returned Wynn's cans of film. Ever since he has been asking himself and anyone else who will listen, what do I do with this? What does it mean?

efore Brand X was a British comedy show starring Russell Brand or a jazz- fusion band featuring Phil Collins, it was Wynn Chamberlain's movie – a funny, bawdy, peppery film that shot up like a rocket through the skies of 1970, shortly after Richard Nixon came to power, then fell to earth just as abruptly only months later, as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, who has a tiny cameo role in the film, were orchestrating their own premature exits; fell to earth and, unlike Joplin and Hendrix, who lived on in the record racks and popular memory, vanished without trace.

It's not entirely clear why it vanished. It opened in New York to ecstatic reviews and full houses, transferred to Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, and also showed in Washington DC, at a cinema near the White House. But then, on the verge of opening in Boston, Massachussetts, something went wrong.

MGM began calling Chamberlain, "offering the world", he says, but in return asked for the Boston opening to be postponed. Chamberlain agreed to the postponement, but a week later when he was due to have a meeting about distribution, no one at MGM had heard of him. Instead, Chamberlain ended up handing the film over to New Line Cinema for distribution to colleges and universities. "Slowly," Chamberlain says, "Brand X died the death that was planned for it." Over the following decades, all his efforts to contact New Line were rebuffed.

"Louis B Mayer, the head of MGM, was a well-known point man for Nixon in Hollywood," says Chamberlain. "I am convinced the film disappeared on orders from Nixon, who attacked many other artists and performers." And this scorching success, potentially the most lucrative venture of Chamberlain's career and a bold and profitable new direction – was stillborn. The film vanished into New Line's vaults.

Thirty-seven years later, in 2007, when the firm was being wound down by its parent company, Warner Bros, New Line's archivist returned the film to its rightful owner. Since then it has been shown to select audiences at Tate Modern, the Berlin Film Festival, the New Museum in New York, Harvard University, the Berlin Film Festival and a few other venues. But if it has returned from the dead, its health is frail, its prospects obscure.

What's it like? Taylor Mead dominates the film from first to last, and one has no hesitation in acclaiming him a neglected genius. In the first skit he is a ridiculously puny and exhausted-looking demonstrator of keep-fit techniques; later he puts on dark glasses to impersonate the US president, fielding questions at a surreal press conference – Jimi Hendrix, standing at the back, tosses in, "Were you ever stoned?" – while his ditzy wife, in a highly imprudent jab at Pat Nixon and her alcohol problems, blows bubbles at his side; then at the end he delivers the evening sermon. Wearing a dog collar and with no script, he improvises a brilliant 15-minute riff on ecclesiastical hypocrisy and greed.

Mead is supported by a handful of Warhol regulars including Ultra Violet and the transsexual Candy Darling, by members of Julian Beck's Living Theatre troupe, by Abbie Hoffman, the Yippie activist and author of Steal This Book, and by others who simply walked off the street into the old YMCA building on New York's The Bowery where they were shooting and got caught up in the proceedings. Several of the skits anticipate Saturday Night Live, if you want to be complimentary; if you prefer, they are the sort of idiotic schoolboy humour that has never gone out of style: a satire on detergent ads in which a wild man called Serge Bouterline rubs dirt all over his face, a similar riff on "sweat" as the hottest thing in deodorants, an early feminist take on exploitative brassiere ads in which the chick goes all gooey over her guy's jockstrap (Living Theatre's John Long is wearing nothing else).

It is the treatment of sex more than anything else that reminds us that we are at the end of the 1960s, when all the Victorian taboos had been kicked into touch but before the new freedoms were turned into a heavy industry by the professional pornographers – four years, for example, before the release of the first Emmanuelle film. As a result, there is a tender innocence about the sex scenes that went missing a few years later. A nude couple snack on the fruit covering the girl's voluptuous body (as in the 1970s band Juicy Lucy's notorious album cover), mouthing the phrase – a fitting caption to the past 40 years of American history, one might say – "Eat more, think less". Another couple in the buff copulate very realistically on the back of a Triumph sports car wending its k way slowly through countryside, taking the imaginary sponsor's airhead invitation – "Let yourself go, anywhere, any time" – to its logical hippy conclusion.

There are flashes of bizarre prescience, as in the spoof advert "for Computor [sic] Swingers" in which Taylor Mead and Serge Bouterline (who had worked for IBM before taking LSD and dropping out) invade an IBM lab at night, take off their clothes and wrap themselves in digital tape. This was 15 years before the first home computer, and more than 30 before the invention of online dating.

In some of the more elaborate skits, Brand X flirts very closely with the mainstream television originals it is parodying. The oversize Tally Brown, with eyelashes like broom heads, hosts a talk show for housewives, Boys Talk, on to which she invites four champion bodybuilders, persuades them to strip to their Y-fronts and tell the studio audience all about themselves while palping their biceps. The bodybuilders were real champions, including Mr New York and Mr Chicago, whom Chamberlain had tracked down in his local Manhattan gym; persuading them to take part – they were not aware the film was a spoof – was a pushover. "That was the key to Andy [Warhol's] great success," says Chamberlain today. "He realised that everybody wanted to be in the movies."

Equally close to its network inspiration was the quiz show What's My Sex?, in which the panellists toyed with battery-powered vibrators before trying to decide whether the androgynous creatures appearing before them were men or women. In the case of Warhol's steamy star Candy Darling, it was a genuine puzzle.

For Stuart Comer, curator of film at London's Tate Modern, where Brand X got its first ever British screening earlier this year, the appearance in the film of underground stars such as Mead and Candy Darling was part of the film's remarkable originality. "It's a really incredible document," he says, "a testimony to the way in which at the end of the 1960s the notion of the American underground was beginning to interface with mainstream culture, as we see the stars of Warhol's films appearing in what look like regular TV shows."

Comer found the film to be way ahead of its time. "In the past decade, cinema, television and the internet have come together to create new hybrid entities, and 40 years ago Wynn Chamberlain got that right off the bat – but his film also has a strong political edge."

Chamberlain believes it was the film's refusal to pull any political punches that doomed it. Brand X is relentlessly hostile to mainstream American culture, its consumer addictions, its fatuous good cheer, its keep-fit obsessions, the corruption symbolised by Abbie Hoffman's naked policeman climbing into a bath filled with the bribes he has taken. And, at the centre of it, a lost, hallucinating president hiding behind sunglasses, making gnomic remarks such as, "I'm very optimistic, I don't think the inevitable will ever happen."

rand X' was created as the 1960s ended and a very different and much nastier decade got under way, and it was both the product and the victim of those profound changes. Chamberlain brought actors such as Mead and Darling up from the underground and placed them in roles and situations analogous to those found in the mainstream, if only as satire. It was a way of signalling that the underground itself, with its overblown claims to originality and social significance, had hit the buffers somewhere between Woodstock and Altamont: its pretensions had run their course. The claims to be ushering in "the age of Aquarius", as Hair (the musical born as an off-Broadway show in 1967) claimed to do, had curdled.

Wynn and Sally, close to the Ground Zero of everything countercultural in those years, saw the dream go bad from close up. They were there for the Woodstock "revolution" in 1969 (they had free passes). "[Wynn] found a secluded knoll overlooking the stage, made a nest of blankets and coats and we snuggled down to make love as The Who played 'See Me, Heal Me, Touch Me,'" Sally wrote in her diary. "When Jimi Hendrix serenaded a tentative dawn with 'The Star-Spangled Banner' I was convinced a wonderful new era was beginning… Goodbye to endless wars, oppression of minorities and the survival of the fittest… We came back to the city bursting with extravagant utopian visions."

But the visions were not slow to fade. "By mid-1970… friends staggered in from peace rallies with blood streaming down their faces, gasping about being kicked or beaten with police billy clubs… Then came the news that Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin had died of drug overdoses. Rumour had it they'd been given adulterated heroin by Nixon's henchmen. Although they'd only been casual friends their deaths infected all of us with dark gloom…"

In October, the month Joplin died, Wynn was attacked by a mugger. "Can you believe it?" he said to Sally as he staggered through the front door, attempting to staunch the knife wound in his neck, "mugged in Fifth Avenue, in broad daylight." As he recovered, he said to her, "You do realise the mugging was a sign… Remember that Dylan song – 'Take what you have gathered from coincidence.' Coincidence is a sign and the sign is that New York is not safe any more… Think, darling, why are we hanging on here?"

The end-of-an-era mood hung heavy. "By October of 1970," Sally Chamberlain wrote, "I felt like a passenger stuck in some grim departure lounge, longing to get out but unsure of what train to get on… my pearls were in the pawn shop to pay the phone bill and I wasn't wearing designer knock-offs any more; nobody was congratulating us and Wynn was no longer full of exhilaration and hope. His eyes were sad as he told Allen Ginsberg about being mugged."

"India's the place for you," Ginsberg responded. "India is the Mother of the World, the fountainhead of all culture. The people are gentle and kind and love children."

The next day a different kind of coincidence reinforced the legendary Beat poet's message. A letter came out of the blue from the Chamberlains' close friend Robert Fraser, Swinging London's legendary art dealer, the man who had brought John Lennon and Yoko Ono together and who had later headed East after being busted for drugs with Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Marianne Faithfull.

"Time to get out of America," Fraser wrote from his new home in Madras. "Escape while you can. Nothing interesting is going to happen in America while Nixon is president. I've travelled all over India and am learning so much. Why don't you come – India's an amazing country and a wonderful place for children. Come!"

How many more signs did they need? They obtained visas for India and flew out of New York with the twins on 1 January 1971. "Wanting to start with a clean slate, we invited friends and acquaintances to help themselves to our possessions," Sally wrote. "For three days there was a non-stop party at the loft, with crowds rummaging through piles of clothes, records and books. Hangovers from my long-gone Upper East Side life – designer suits and spectator pumps, cashmere sweaters and glittering rhinestone earrings – were snapped up. Adios to the old me, I thought happily as I watched young poet René Ricard, wrapped in my floor-length fur coat, and transsexual Candy Darling, an eerie clone of Marilyn Monroe, in my most elaborate chiffon evening gown, waltz out together."

There were worse ways to kiss the 1960s goodbye. Following another of Dylan's injunctions, the Chamberlains never looked back. They disappeared from the scene of which they had been a happy and generous pivot as completely as the film that might have made them rich.

For news of forthcoming screenings of 'Brand X':

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