Toby Amies’s perceptive and imaginative In the Court Of The Crimson King: King Crimson At 50, captures the essence of the individual current (Jakko Jakszyk, Bill Rieflin, Tony Levin, Mel Collins, Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey, Pat Mastelotto) and former members (Ian Mcdonald, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, Trey Gunn, Jamie Muir, Michael Giles, Peter Sinfield) of King Crimson through candid and forthcoming on-camera interviews, sound checks, and the cost of being on the road. The director pulls the curtain back with precision to give us a distinctive look into Robert Fripp the master himself, the groups leader and disciplinarian.
Toby Amies with Anne-Katrin Titze on In The Court Of The Crimson King: King Crimson At 50: “I was in a very interesting position making this film because on the one hand I actively sought to immerse myself in that space as much as possible.”
In the first instalment with Toby Amies on In The Court Of The Crimson King: King Crimson At 50 we discuss his working relationship with Robert Fripp while filming, defining the boundaries of discipline and chaos, a scene with Christina Ricci in Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66, Sister Dana Benedicta’s message, Fripp’s touching remembrance of John Bennett (founder of The International Academy for Continuous Education Sherborne, Gloucestershire, England), and creating building blocks or handrails that allow people to know where they are,
How to live and how to die and what there is to understand are some of Amies’s concerns in this wondrously far-reaching documentary that also celebrates the fact that King Crimson is half a century old. “The direct experience of engaging, with music, with silence, with the Real, the authentic, the true is readily available” says Robert Fripp at one point and audiences are invited to believe him. We are told by former member Trey Gunn that people had “the peak experience of their life” during their concerts, and the film follows up on this mysterious devotion and the spiritual dimension, while also speaking of Fripp’s incessant practicing, which gave him the grip of a farmhand, and some of the members’ frustrations.
Amies does not hide that there is a human being making the film. Wisdom, silence, memory, consciousness as a continuum - how do others unravel them?
From London, Toby Amies joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on In The Court Of The Crimson King: King Crimson At 50.
Robert Fripp’s King Crimson circle before going on stage for the concert Photo: Toby Amies
Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello!
Toby Amies: Hi, what a nice apartment you’ve got.
AKT: Thank you. Your film is very much about questions. Good questions, “wrong questions”, “terrible questions” [according to Robert Fripp in the documentary], questions about life and death. Would you say that is accurate?
TA: Yes. I think all of my creative process is - I wouldn’t say it’s considered, but it’s considering, if you see what I mean. It’s an interrogation into what I find around me and the circumstances in which I find myself and especially the relationships that I observe and I’m involved in. Broadly speaking, I don’t know how effective a metaphor this is, but I know that the human brain fills in the gaps between frame one and frame two and so on and so on and so on.
From the very start, even if you’re watching the most objective, dry, factual piece of documentary, you’re still taking a leap of faith. You’re still imagining as an audience member. With that in mind, I think the process is much better if you let the audience make up their own mind. I don’t want the audience to be confused.
You have to, I think, create building blocks or handrails that allow people to know where they are. Once they’re secure in that space, you can afford them asking questions, like: Is this a bad person I see in front of me? Is this person a bully or a genius? Mentioning no names. I really hope when they leave the cinema, they got something to talk about, because I haven’t told them the answer.
Adrian Belew, King Crimson guitar/vocals 1981-2009 Photo: Toby Amies
AKT: Because you give us space, maybe the equivalent of the silence in the music. There are moments you have to fill with your own experiences. I am talking about for example, a little over halfway into the film, you have a remarkable sequence of couples dancing in the rain. We don’t know where we are and feel lost in this beautiful moment you capture and we hear Robert Fripp giving insight into his philosophy, really. And he asks the question, another question: “What do we do to enter that open, innocent, and silent space where all becomes possible, once again?” Can you tell me more about the editing of that moment?
TA: Yeah, the sequence itself, I was walking home from one of the early shows that I saw the band play in Poznań. It was raining and I walked into this incredible sort of communist imperial square in the centre of town. It was raining and I just saw those people tango dancing. They weren’t performing, you know. They weren’t doing it for the cameras but because they were lost in the moment. I just filmed it because it was extraordinarily beautiful. I didn’t think there was a point in contextualising it, because that would have been artificial.
However it did come to very subtly communicate this theme of finding yourself in a moment and finding your way to be absolutely present. So it worked very well in the context of Robert’s philosophising. It’s also a gentle reference to Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66, where Christina Ricci dances to Moonchild as well, in a bowling alley.
AKT: Oh really? I did not catch that Gallo reference.
TA: It’s there for people who want it. The first rule of cinema is show, don’t tell. What Robert says is extraordinary, it’s also quite dry. And having been on the receiving end of quite a lot of those dry pronouncements, significant and meaningful though they are, sometimes, to quote Mary Poppins, you need a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.
Mel Collins, King Crimson saxophone/flutes/mellotron 1970-1972, 2013-present Photo: Toby Amies
AKT: I mean, I perfectly understand that there is so much chaos out there. Many people just do whatever comes to their mind, so somebody has to take control. There has to be some kind of discipline, no?
TA: Yes! I was in a very interesting position making this film because on the one hand I actively sought to immerse myself in that space as much as possible. You could say embed myself in the space, like a war correspondent. But I’m not a member of King Crimson simultaneously, so there were times when I had a pretty good idea what it was like to be a member of King Crimson, and consequently times when I’m not a member of King Crimson and can you please stop treating me as one. I’m also quite a chaotic individual.
I use a version of discipline in my own life, but my own life is so chaotic that my version of discipline is more about pulling myself back from the brink than it is sitting in an ice bath or having a cold shower. I am also a kind of chaotic element and that created sometimes some conflict between me and Robert in the way of doing things. Some of that was recorded and there isn’t drama without conflict. And some of it I think created quite a good balance. To Robert’s credit, he knew me well enough to know before asking me to do this film, that I’m not a disciplined individual.
AKT: Have you tried cold showers? They are really good and invigorating!
TA: I’ve got to do something. Cold showers may work, but also I’m naturally contrary as well. So if somebody tells me to do something …
AKT: … you don’t want to do it. Another moment I loved in your film, also because it’s a female presence, is the nun with the Birkenstocks and the terrific answers, Sister Dana Benedicta from Oslo.
Toby Amies on Robert Fripp: “To Robert’s credit, he knew me well enough to know before asking me to do this film, that I’m not a disciplined individual.” Photo: Toby Amies
TA: What a delight she is!
AKT: Oh yes, I think you ask her about a shortcut to heaven and she says, yeah, there is one, sure: love.
TA: Yes, there are two moments of true cinema in the film and I think that Robert’s beatific pause is one of them and the other is when Sister Dana says that. As a filmmaker you are looking for those things that as quickly, and ideally as intuitively as possible, tell you everything you need to know about the person you see on screen.
When Dana says that it’s not the fact that she’s wearing a habit, that she’s taken vows, it’s the fact that that is her perspective on life, you know, God is love. She delivers it with such an incredible combination of innocence and joy and there’s almost something mischievous how she delivers it. She gives herself all of the authority needed and more, just by saying that one thing, I think.
AKT: And she says more than just one thing. Aging is beautiful is another thing she says that’s very true. Who tells us that it isn’t? The second moment that you just mentioned is this remarkable silence and the tears falling from Robert Fripp’s eyes when he talks about Mr. Bennett [founder of The International Academy for Continuous Education]. That is the moment you were talking about?
TA: Yes, the mega pause we call it.
AKT: Where you ask yourself if the film stopped.
Toby Amies on Sister Dana Benedicta, King Crimson concert-goer from Oslo: “What a delight she is!” Photo: Toby Amies
TA: Yeah, I mean I still think that sometimes. And I still don’t know how long it is. Sometimes it feels about six hours long. It was an extraordinary moment to witness and to be part of and I was at one point concerned for Robert’s health. At another my natural inclination to just chat away, interrupt or whatever was pushing me to say something. And luckily the coldhearted cinema maker in me was thinking, this will be amazing once people see it in the cinema.
To some extent we built the film around it. It not only allows the audience to, I think and I hope, to go through several different iterations to try to work out what’s happening, but it also gives the audience an opportunity to take a bit of a rest. And I hope that what Robert refers to as “cosmic horseshit” percolates through that moment and everything begins to settle and you see Robert in a way that’s very pure and very vulnerable.
And I think similarly to Sister Dana you get to understand something about him without being told that thing about him. And again it is uncomfortable but it does allow the audience to answer a series of questions, again hopefully in a way that people don’t feel lost.
AKT: There is also the suspense. What is he going to say. And the sentence “I will remember you” triggered the fireworks going off in my head because of remembrance. I was thinking of Mnemosine, the Greek goddess of memory, who is also the mother of the nine Muses. Memory as the mother of the Muses was what came to my mind when he said that.
Robert Fripp walking down the hotel corridor of life Photo: Toby Amies
TA: I’ve not heard that take on it before. I think that’s really interesting. To be honest with you, shallow fool that I am, I’ve not considered the role of memory in this film. Partly because I just wanted to stay out of the past as much as I could.
Coming up - Toby Amies with music producer and 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman on the April 28, 1973 King Crimson concert, the world premiere of Frippertronics, and the New York music scene, Toby dedicating In The Court Of The Crimson King: King Crimson At 50 to his mother and Bill Rieflin, the ability of music to restore grace for a brief moment, what to take from Silence Of The Lambs, Toby’s TV experiences and 9/11, thanks to Jim Sclavunos, Jane Pollard and Iain Forsyth, and the challenges of remaining independent.
In The Court Of The Crimson King: King Crimson At 50 will livestream globally on Saturday, October 22.