Florence Welch calls herself a “child of Vali”. To Patti Smith, a generation earlier, Vali was “the supreme beatnik chick – thick red hair and big black eyes, black boatneck sweaters, and trench coats”. She covered her teenage bedroom walls with pictures of her, as did the young Donovan, for whom Vali was “my ideal Bohemian image” – later, when he was becoming a star, he invited her to perform with him at the Albert Hall.
The images of Vali that inspired them all come from a classic book of photographs, Love on the Left Bank by Ed van der Elsken, originally published in 1956, and reprinted most recently in 2020. They had both arrived in Paris in 1950 – she from Australia, he from Holland – and the book grew out of his documentation of Vali and her friends’ life in the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
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But the cult of Vali owes as much to George Plimpton, founding editor of the Paris Review, a well-born American who must be somewhere in the mix of Bill Murray’s character in The French Dispatch (2021). In the magazine’s 18th issue, dated spring 1958, Plimpton printed an early short story by Philip Roth, a long interview with Ernest Hemingway, eight drawings by Alberto Giacometti – and seven by Vali, accompanied by a remarkable tribute by Plimpton himself.
Plimpton celebrated Vali not so much for her art, but for her capital-R Romantic attitude to life, and as “the symbol and plaything of the restless, confused, vice-enthralled, demi-monde”. He also praised her as a dancer, describing “a sinuous shuffling, bent-kneed, her shoulders and hands moving at trembling speed to the drumbeats. She wears blue jeans, a man’s shirt pulled in at the waist by a wide black belt, and worn red ballet slippers that she often kicks off to dance in flat-splayed barefeet.”
An unnamed friend of Plimpton’s – Terry Southern, one might speculate – drew out her significance for the postwar generation: “You saw in her the personalization of something torn and loose and deep-down primitive in all of us, and, Man, you could see it moving right around in front of you.” Until now, though, only those who were there at the time could say this – Van der Elsken’s book shows Vali dancing, but could not capture motion itself.
Except, in fact, it turns out that Vali was there all along, dancing barefoot on screen in Lorenza Mazzetti’s Together, the centrepiece of the British Free Cinema movement, first shown in February 1956, the same year Love on the Left Bank was published, but mostly filmed in mid-1954, in the East End of London. It is not an obscure film, but I have special reason to rue not having recognised Vali in it, since I spent four days interviewing Mazzetti without managing to elicit this particular story from her, and the discovery is not mine. Late in the editing of Together with Lorenza Mazzetti, in which the interview appears, Brighid Lowe, my director, showed a cut of the film to her friend Nick Curtis, proud owner of an original 1956 edition of Love on the Left Bank, and it is to him that credit is due.
None of the characters in Together have names, and only five of the performers are credited, and Vali Myers is not among them. Instead it is just ‘Valy’, and that is how she has been recorded in the filmographies, including the BFI’s. On IMDb this Valy is also mysteriously credited with an uncredited role, ‘Edith’, in Jacques Tati’s Jour de fête (1949), made before Vali arrived in Europe. Vali Myers has a separate entry listing five films in which she appeared as ‘self’ – though not Patti and Vali (1973), the film by Sandy Daley that shows her tattooing Patti Smith’s knee.
Mazzetti once wrote that Together “was difficult to write, as I did not want anything happening in the story”, but she had to compromise, and in a sense Vali is the thing that happens. The film’s main characters are two deaf-mute dock workers, played by the artists Eduardo Paolozzi and Michael Andrews. Harassed by the children who play in the bomb sites left over from the Blitz, and unable to communicate with the people around them, they are a co-dependent duo, living a repetitive routine – until one fateful day, when Michael Andrews’ character ventures out alone for the first time, and sees a mysterious dancer at a local funfair…
Because Mazzetti was one of the four signatories of the Free Cinema manifesto, along with Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson, her own work has tended to be aligned with theirs; but Vali’s presence in Together helps change that. Mazzetti’s improbable vision of a barefoot dancer from the Left Bank in the East End connects what has been treated as an instance of kitchen sink realism – or even documentary – to the European avant-garde.
Together, newly remastered by the BFI National Archive, and Together with Lorenza Mazzetti premiered at Cinema Rediscovered, in Bristol.
The Lorenza Mazzetti Collection is out on BFI Blu-ray on 2 October.
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