Monday, December 22, 2008

Men in Boxes (1962, 1980, 2004)

When a British scientist with pacifist leanings commits suicide under mysterious circumstances, after taking part in a sensory deprivation experiment, he stands accused of having been a traitor to his country. In order to prove that it was the sensory deprivation tank that caused his suspicious behavior, an Oxford colleague (Dirk Bogarde) agrees to repeat the experiment. But without his knowledge, another colleague and a government security official supervising the experiment use sensory deprivation to brainwash a susceptible Bogarde into believing that he despises his pregnant wife (Mary Ure, wife of Robert Shaw). If the experiment works, they think, Bogarde will be proven right and the dead scientist will be exonerated. Unfortunately, the experiment turns out to work all too well, and the second colleague and the security official have a difficult time deprogramming an increasingly unhinged Bogarde.

This is the plot of The Mind Benders (1962), an authentic artifact of Cold War paranoia, directed by Basil Dearden (Dead of Night and the father of James, author of the screenplay for Fatal Attraction), and written by James Kennaway, author of Tunes of Glory, one of the best novels and movies about the peacetime military. The Mind Benders cogently dramatizes the dangers inherent in the use of the experimental box. Bogarde enters it one way and comes out of it with a completely different personality.

In an interesting aside, in 1968, the newly formed film division of the Beatles’ Apple Corps Ltd. purchased the rights to Kennaway’s novel, Some Gorgeous Accident, about a love triangle and a wife’s infidelity. It was supposedly inspired by Kennaway’s wife’s affair with spy novelist John Le Carre. In an ironic twist, Le Carre’s fictional alter ego, George Smiley, has a wife, Lady Anne, whose nymphomania is probably the worst kept secret in the history of the Circus—the Secret Intelligence Service. With its cool, probing intelligence and espionage overtones, The Mind Benders plays like a science fiction novel written by John Le Carre.

This movie about brainwashing and sensory deprivation is a contemporary of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and a forerunner of Ken Russell‘s Altered States (1980). Both movies are adaptations written by Broadway veterans—the former by George Axelrod, the latter by Paddy Chayefsky. In the case of Altered States, a scientist (William Hurt) uses a sensory deprivation tank, in conjunction with a decoction made up of magic mushrooms he picked up in Mexico, in order to locate the seat of human consciousness. What he discovers, when the experiment goes wildly out of control, is his enhanced mind’s ability to transform, first his own anatomy, regressing into a proto-human figure that wanders the nighttime streets of Boston in search of prey, then the nature of reality itself. The scientist enters the box that is the sensory deprivation tank in one state and exits it in a completely altered state, hence the movie’s title.

In both The Mind Benders and Altered States, the sensory deprivation tanks have jury-rigged looks to them, all exposed electrical cables, pipes and insulation. They are the stuff of real science, not sleek and futuristic science fiction. They have an authentic bootleg, bootstrap look to them that really sells the reality of their science fiction premises. In fact, The Mind Benders is in the tradition of British science fiction movies such as The Day of the Triffids, Village of the Damned (both based on novels by John Wyndham) and Children of the Damned, which tend to take their stories very seriously indeed, something that American science fiction movies from the same period, the early 1960s, could never be accused of.

Which brings us to the third box—the packing crate tied together with duct tape time travel device that is the centerpiece of Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004), a science fiction movie shot on a $7,000 budget that had many viewers and critics scratching their heads when the movie enjoyed its brief theatrical release. This is literary science fiction, not movie science fiction. It is an intensely cerebral movie about the causality and potential paradoxes of time travel. But instead of George Pal’s Victorian chronocraft in his movie adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine or the time-traveling DeLorean in Back to the Future, the time machine box here has a completely handmade look to it, just as Primer itself looks handmade (in a good way).

In Primer, two techno geeks, Abe and Aaron, are also best friends. Abe lives with a couple of roommates. Aaron is married and has a young daughter. Abe is like another member of their family. Both work for high tech companies, but perform scientific experiments in Aaron’s garage in their spare time. Abe and Aaron begin work on a superconductor that they accidentally discover has time travel applications. How this time travel device, kept in a storage locker, works, is part of the script’s rigorous approach toward its science fictional premise.

The two friends use the machine to go back in time six hours and make money by buying stocks they already know will go up in the course of the day. But then, something happens. Aaron wants to use the time machine to achieve more godlike powers of prescience. Abe wants to go back in time to sabotage the machine and prevent his previous self from discovering its use. Aaron goes back in time even further to frustrate Abe’s intentions. In the end, both the partnership and the friendships are dissolved as their two disparate philosophies force Abe and Aaron to quarrel violently with one another. They enter the box as friends, but depart it as bitter enemies.

These three movies are separated by roughly twenty years each. And yet the device, the box, used in the movies are virtually interchangeable. Dirk Bogarde could crawl into Abe and Aaron’s time machine and feel right at home. Abe and Aaron could use William Hurt’s sensory deprivation tank and believe that it came out of their garage band approach to scientific experimentation. At heart, all three movies are about the effects of science on human relationships: between husband and wife in The Mind Benders, between William Hurt and his estranged anthropologist wife (a radiant Blair Brown) in Altered States, and between two best friends in Primer.

The Mind Benders takes way too long to set up its premise and its climax is less than suspenseful. In between, though, the movie provides a resolutely keen anatomy of a contemporary marriage. But it seems like Basil Dearden was the wrong director for the job and one can only imagine the fun that Michael Powell (The Red Shoes, The Small Back Room), a far more flamboyant filmmaker, would have had visualizing the inside of Bogarde’s sensory deprived mind. No stranger to the psychedelic potential of cinema, Ken Russell turns Altered States into a real sixties-style headtrip. Paddy Chayefsky hated Russell’s direction of his dialogue and famously ordered his name taken off the film (the screenplay is credited to “Sidney Aaron”). Shane Carruth is far more restrained in his direction, constrained as he was by his miniscule budget. But he nevertheless manages to create one of the most lived-in depictions of the world of the techno geek.

In the end, despite their cautionary themes (distilled to its essence, Altered States’ is right out of The Wizard of Oz: “There’s no place like home.”), there is something hopeful about watching smart, dedicated men working on a shoestring budget to produce something new and exciting. That is exactly a metaphor for what Shane Carruth accomplished in Primer. One can’t wait to see what happens when he unveils his next box.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Man's Favorite Sport? (1964)

With the possible exception of Blake Edwards’ The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark (both featuring Peter Sellers as Inspector Jacques Clouseau of the Surete), 1964 was not a banner year for American movie comedy. Comedies released for the year include David Swift’s Good Neighbor Sam, J. Lee Thompson’s star-stuffed (as opposed to star-studded) What a Way to Go! and Ralph Levy’s Bedtime Story (remade in 1990 as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). Most of these movies had sex on the brain, yet lacked the refinement of an Ernst Lubitsch to make the sex seem anything but witlessly vulgar.

Even Billy Wilder, a disciple of the “Lubitsch Touch,” co-wrote, produced and directed the misguided Kiss Me, Stupid, a movie about a would-be song writer (Ray Walston) who, in order to sell one of his songs, pimps out a stripper (Kim Novak) to a Vegas crooner passing through town (Dean Martin playing a character referred to in the script as “Dino”). It was considered so depraved that the movie was condemned in the strongest language possible by the Catholic League of Decency. Wilder blamed the failure of the movie on the fact that Ray Walston was a last minute substitute for a heart attack-stricken Peter Sellers, for whom the part of the song writer had originally been written. One year later, J. Lee Thompson’s strenuously unfunny John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (written by a pre-Exorcist William Peter Blatty), generated an equal amount of Catholic ire by showing the Notre Dame football team seduced by a band of harem girls.

Three of the biggest American comic stars of the decade were Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon and Rock Hudson. Grant was winding down his career with the romantic thriller, Charade (1963), and the family comedy, Father Goose, in which, cast against type, the usually suave Grant spent the entire movie barefoot, rumpled and unshaven. In 1964, Jack Lemmon was represented by Good Neighbor Sam, a comedy that timorously exploited that shocking new phenomenon of wife swapping, based on a minor novel by Jack Finney (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Time and Again). As for the well-named Rock Hudson, he appeared in two romantic comedies that year, as Doris Day’s foil in Norman Jewison’s Send Me No Flowers and as Paula Prentiss’ in Howard Hawks’ Man’s Favorite Sport?

At the time, Hawks was coming to the end of a distinguished career as one of the greatest American film directors, with a protean command of any genre. He could direct comedy (His Girl Friday) and drama (Only Angels Have Wings), contemporary films (To Have and Have Not) and historical epics (Land of the Pharaohs), crime melodramas (Scarface) and westerns (Red River), war movies (Air Force) and detective stories (The Big Sleep). It is even believed that, in addition to producing, he secretly directed The Thing from Another World (1951), which featured his trademark overlapping dialogue as well as another Hawksian staple—the lone female character who can hold her own in a world of male camaraderie.

In Man’s Favorite Sport?, Hawks generously steals from himself and recycles many of the most famous gags from what is probably his best screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938). Although well regarded today, the movie was a disaster when it was released because the humor in the movie is so lacking in motivation that the entire picture has an absurdist air to it. Katharine Hepburn plays a mad heiress who becomes obsessed with winning the love of a man she barely knows, a distracted paleontologist played by Cary Grant. He seems more concerned with finding his Brontosaurus skeleton’s missing bone than in Hepburn’s flirtatious assaults. The bone in question, the intercostal clavicle, has been stolen by the heiress’ dog (played by Asta on loan from The Thin Man series). But that is not the Baby of the title. Baby is a leopard the mad heiress keeps in her Park Avenue apartment (and who goes after the dog who goes after the bone).

What is man’s favorite sport? According to Johnny Mercer’s lyrics to Henry Mancini’s title song, “the favorite sport of man is girls.” But in the movie, the sport in question is ostensibly fly-fishing, of which Rock Hudson, playing a San Francisco Abercrombie and Fitch salesman, is supposedly an expert. (In those days, A&F sold sporting goods and camping equipment instead of retailing teen erotica fantasies.) In reality, Hudson has never been fishing in his life and has faked his expertise. The plot kicks in when Hudson’s bosses ask him to take part in a fishing tournament held at a lodge north of San Francisco. Paula Prentiss is a P.R. woman who represents the lodge. Fearful of being exposed as a fraud, Hudson resents Prentiss for roping him into this potentially scandalous situation. The two of them spend most of the movie fighting tooth and nail, which, this being a screwball comedy, only makes them fall in love with one another. And along the way, we are treated to a series of scenes in which Hudson, the non-fisherman is forced to pretend to be an expert on fly-fishing (just as Hudson, the closeted gay man, is forced in all his movies to pretend to be a heterosexual ladies’ man).

Rock Hudson and Paula Prentiss are Hawks’ contemporary stand-ins for Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, although they are pale copies when compared with the sparkling originals. Prentiss affects the same madcap air as Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, but here, her attraction to Hudson really seems to come out of nowhere. And Rock Hudson’s indifference to Prentiss’ come-ons appears to come from a deeper place than just his opposition to her scheme of having him continue to fake his expertise during the fly-fishing tournament. The script even honors genre conventions by giving Hudson a requisite straight-laced fiancée to complete the love triangle according to the rules of screwball comedy (although, this being 1964, Hudson's fiancee is a slightly sexier version of Cary Grant's prim, ascetic fiancee in Bringing Up Baby).

The movie has a plodding pace compared to the headlong momentum of Hawks’ best movies of the thirties and forties. And there is a general air of mustiness that hangs over most of the jokes. And yet, Hawks still manages to supply some inspired moments. One occurs when Rock Hudson tries to wriggle his way head first into a locked car through its open sunroof. The sight of six-foot-five Hudson stuck upside down inside a tiny foreign car is a visual gem. As a leading man Hudson was never in Cary Grant’s league, but, in Man’s Favorite Sport?, he proved himself to be a very good sport when it came to making fun of his own manly image.

There is another fresh gag (in both senses of the word). It happens when Hudson, Prentiss and Maria Perschy, playing the lodge owner’s daughter, Isolde “Easy” Mueller (Easy: a Hawksian nickname if ever there was one), go into the woods for a private confab after Hudson has revealed to them that he is a phony. The two women have their backs to the camera. Hudson is facing them. It begins to rain. The rain makes Prentiss’ and Perschy’s blouses turn transparent, something they are unaware of as they gab on and on. And the humor in the situation is derived from Hudson’s growing frustration over his inability to inform the oblivious, chatting women that they “look like they haven’t any clothes on.” This racy gag must have come across as quite shocking to movie audiences in 1964.

But these examples aside, compare the otherwise creaky antics in Man’s Favorite Sport?, shot entirely on the hermetically sealed environs of the Universal backlot, to what was going on in British and Italian cinema at the same time. Pietro Germi’s Seduced and Abandoned, also released in 1964, is a maturely considered, savagely funny attack on Italian sexual hypocrisy with a plot that boldly demonstrates the courage of Germi’s satiric convictions. And in England, Clive Donner and Richard Lester were shaking up British cinema with, respectively, Nothing but the Best, the story of a charming sociopath played by Alan Bates, and A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles’s critic-defying movie debut.

One year later, in The Knack…and How to Get It, Lester would pull off an audacious comedy stunt by having three characters (played by a very young and very thin Michael Crawford, Rita Tushingham and Donal Donnelly) push, ride, tow and row an iron bed on wheels across London. The scene is a triumph of cinematic ingenuity as Lester playfully collapses time and space in order to work in every possible gag he can dream up for this rolling iron bed, one of the most iconographic images of British cinema of the sixties. Contrast this to the lack of cinematic spark found in these American comedies, directed for the most part by old men, dirty old men or studio hacks with no comedic flair whatsoever, to be consumed by a complacent, middle class, middlebrow audience. It would take Mike Nichols with The Graduate to break a few windows and let some fresh air into the room. But this advent was still three years in the future. And it couldn’t come soon enough to help shake the American cinema out of its doldrums.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

(Welcome To) Hard Times (1975)

He arrives in darkness and he departs in darkness. And in between he leads a stoic existence as a bare-knuckle brawler. That description can only fit one man—Charles Bronson, who became one of the biggest stars of the seventies in movies such as Michael Winner’s egregious Death Wish (1974). Bronson was never the world’s greatest actor. But he could be devastatingly effective in certain roles. And in Chaney, a Depression-era drifter, in Walter Hill’s directorial debut, Hard Times, he had the role of his career. His physical acting style fit in perfectly with Hill’s ethos that character can be defined by how many times the hero blinks when a gun is stuck in his face. This philosophy was to go on to serve Hill well in movies featuring such strong physical presences as Powers Boothe (Southern Comfort), David Carradine (The Long Riders) Nick Nolte (48 Hours) and Mickey Rourke (Johnny Handsome).

Hard Times was part of a trend of the 1970s in which American directors seemed obsessed with exploring the past. There were movies that took place during World War I (Roger Corman’s Von Richtofen and Brown) the Roaring Twenties (Jack Clayton’s The Great Gatsby) the home front during World War II (Robert Mulligan’s Summer of ’42, John Hancock’s Baby Blue Marine), the McCarthy Era (Martin Ritt’s The Front) the fifties (Terrence Malick’s Badlands) and the early sixties (George Lucas’ American Graffiti). One movie, Sydney Pollock’s The Way We Were, probably the best romantic drama of the decade, straddles three different time periods and locations (a small college campus in the thirties, New York in the forties, Hollywood in the fifties). It was almost as if the present, what was to become dubiously known as the “Me Decade,” held no great fascination for these directors.

Many directors chose to set their movies during the Great Depression. This trend was most probably ignited by the success of Bonnie and Clyde, which, from the smug remove of 1967, made the Depression look tragically fashionable. Other films taking place during this period include Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha (1972), George Roy Hill’s The Sting (1973), Hal Ashby’s movie biography of Woody Guthrie, Bound for Glory (1976), Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon (1973), Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), Andrew V. McLaglen’s Fool’s Parade (1971), John Milius’ Dillinger (1973), Howard Zieff’s love letter to the Gower Gulch cowboys, Hearts of the West (1975), Robert Aldrich's Emperor of the North (1973) and Martin Ritt’s Sounder (1972). The Great Depression isn’t the theme of these movies, but works as an effective backdrop for stories about people driven to desperate acts because of the “hard times” in which they are living.

In Hard Times, Charles Bronson drifts into the city of New Orleans, where he comes to the attention of James Coburn, playing a fast-talking gambler who manages fighters involved in illegal bare-knuckle brawls. He goes on to manage Bronson, and it is a joy to watch the voluble Coburn and the monosyllabic Bronson trade verbal jabs with one another. Coburn is assisted by Strother Martin, playing a hopheaded ex-doctor who acts as Bronson’s cut man. Hill makes the most of his location shoot by having Bronson meet Martin for the first time in one of the above ground cemeteries that can be found throughout the city. New Orleans has been used many times as a movie location, beginning with Elia Kazin’s Panic in the Streets (1950), among the first American movies to be shot outside the confines of the studio back lot, and moving on most notably to Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Jim McBride’s The Big Easy (1987) and the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990), in which, oddly enough, New Orleans doubles for an unnamed Midwestern city. But seldom has the Crescent City seemed as intensely gritty looking and feeling as the Hopperesque way it is presented in Hard Times.

For a time, Bronson and Coburn make a good team as fighter and manager. Eventually, though, they part company after Bronson decides that he has made enough money to quit being banged around. But Bronson, in true heroic fashion, reluctantly returns for one last fight to save Coburn, who has gotten himself in over his head with a couple of enforcers working for a loan shark. In the most eloquent moment of his career, Strother Martin shows his contempt for the bout by picking up a wrench, testing its weight in his hand, then announcing Bronson’s arrival by throwing the wrench through a warehouse office window where Coburn and the other fighter’s manager are waiting. This is also the most persuasive proof of Hill’s belief that a single telling gesture can have far more impact than ten lines of movie dialogue.

The movie ends where it begins, with Bronson disappearing into the darkness. In many ways, he is a throwback to a previous American type—the western hero who appears when he is needed only to silently disappear once the moment of danger or jeopardy has passed. Alan Ladd in Shane (1953) is probably the best example of this kind of hero, who is echoed by the character Clint Eastwood played in Pale Rider (1985). (The ending even echoes the earlier movie, with a teenaged Sydney Penny imploring Eastwood’s gunfighter character to stay, enacting a more sexualized version of Brandon de Wilde’s famous entreaties in the last scene of Shane).

Eastwood himself directed his own Depression drama, Honkytonk Man (1982), starring with his own son, Kyle, as an itinerant blues musician dying of tuberculosis. He then starred opposite Burt Reynolds in Richard Benjamin’s damp fizzle of a Depression era action comedy, City Heat (1984). Both Eastwood and Bronson were actors who worked best when their dialogue was pared to the bare minimum, allowing their imposing physicality to speak for them. And at no time during his career, whether caring for an orphaned cat or being chivalrous to a hard luck prostitute (played by his own wife, Jill Ireland) did Charles Bronson speak as gracefully as in Hard Times.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Clive Donner - Hello, Young Lovers

The English cinema of the 1960s was dedicated to the youth of the country. And this is not a reference to the pandering movies made to show off popular musical groups of the period, such as the Dave Clark Five (Having A Wild Weekend) or Herman’s Hermits (Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter), in vehicles that tried to capitalize on the success that Richard Lester, a Yank expatriate, had putting the Beatles on film (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!). No, I am actually talking about the American Lester’s English counterpart, Clive Donner, whose sixties movies really tapped into the country’s emerging youth movement and reflected it back in ways both complimentary and strange.

After an established career as a film editor, Donner went on to direct such early sixties fare as Nothing but the Best (1964), and what an amazing pedigree this movie has. It is based on a short story by American thriller writer Stanley Ellin (House of Cards). The story is adapted by young British novelist Frderic Raphael, two years before he won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for John Schlesinger’s Darling (the origins of which comprise episode three of Raphael’s groundbreaking 1976 mini-series, The Glittering Prizes). And the movie stars the young Alan Bates as a working class climber who befriends a remittance man (Denholm Elliot) in order to achieve some class and rise through the ranks at his job. (A remittance man is, of course, a black sheep who receives money to stay far away from his family.) When Elliot turns his back on him, Bates’ character commits murder, and the complications that ensue are both comedic and chilling as we watch the lengths this amoral character will go to in order to achieve his life’s ambition of having the best of everything. (In an interesting aside, that’s the name of Ellin’s short story, which had to be changed to Nothing but the Best because The Best of Everything was also the title of a famous best-selling American novel and movie, by Rona Jaffe, about the New York publishing business.) (Musical group featured on soundtrack: the Eagles—no, not the Eagles.)

One year later, Donner directed What’s New Pussycat (1965), based on a screenplay by a young New York stand-up comedian named Woody Allen. Allen appears in the movie, but is not the star. That role is reserved for an ultra-relaxed Peter O’Toole, flexing his comic muscle after the heavy dramatic lifting of Lawrence of Arabia and Becket. The movie also stars Peter Sellers (in velvet suits and an hysterical page boy wig), Romy Schneider, Ursula Andress and Capucine. Allen aside, this is hardly a cast of ingénues, but the comic story, set in Paris, is filled with youthful energy (provided perhaps by its director’s deliberately sophomoric take on the material and a zingy score by budding popmeister Burt Bacharach). O’Toole plays a ladies man who tries to settle down with the help of his girl friend (Ms. Schneider), best friend (Allen) and shrink (Sellers), but finds that doing so is not as easy as it sounds when surrounded by pussycats such as the sexy (and suicidal) one played by Paula Prentiss. With an American producer (Charles K. Feldman), a British director, a polyglot cast and a Paris setting, this movie is an example of mid-sixties international filmmaking at its most riotously felicitous. (Musical group featured on soundtrack: Manfred Mann.)

Two years later, Donner took on the English youth culture full on in Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967), based on a novel by Hunter Davies, who would go on to become the first official biographer of the Beatles. (His book, The Beatles, was published in 1968, well before the saga of the Fab Four really hit its stride.) In this movie filled with psychedelic imagery (all of it now rendered laughably quaint), Barry Evans plays a young man who wants to lose his virginity. He has several “birds” to choose from, played by, among others, intimidating Angela Scoular and approachable Sheila White, but he only has eyes for the cool blonde beauty embodied so perfectly by Judy Geeson (equally memorable as the apple of her teacher, Sidney Poitier’s, eye in that same year’s To Sir, With Love). Evans’ character wants to take advantage of the decade’s loosening morality and sexual confusion in order to get laid. But when he finally lands the girl of his dreams, she turns out to want the same thing he does. This sends him scrambling right back to monogamy. Judy Geeson’s character calls him a “romantic,” and it’s not meant as a compliment. The movie ends with Evans’ character about to matriculate at the University of Manchester, where he sets his sights on Ms. Geeson’s slightly more attainable best friend. Evans’ character is charming enough that we wish him well in his subsequent search for love. (Musical group featured on soundtrack: The Spencer Davis Group.)

After a disastrous attempt at making a movie in America, the critically lambasted Luv, Donner returned to English soil to direct Alfred the Great (1969). It stars David Hemmings, the shaggy-haired protagonist of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (probably the definitive English movie of the sixties, even though it was directed by an Italian) as the equally shaggy-haired ninth century king of England. When we first see young Alfred, he is about to be ordained as a priest. Then comes word that Danish invaders have attacked the coast of Wessex, killing men, raping women and stealing cattle. With his brother, the king, rendered temporarily hors de combat, Prince Alfred successfully leads the army into battle against the Danes. After his brother dies, Alfred reluctantly allows himself to be made king. He takes a bride, Aelhswith (Prunella Ransome), but, in order to parlay a peace treaty, is forced to give her up as hostage to the Viking leader, Guthrum (Michael York). Physically unprepossessing, Hemmings is an unusual choice to play Alfred, but his undisguised sixties sensibility underscores the warrior king’s ambivalence in becoming the leader of the ninth century “Establishment.” One would have to reach forward in time to Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972), St. Francis of Assisi portrayed as the first hippie, to find a more youth-oriented, revisionist treatment of an historical figure. (Musical group featured on soundtrack: Unsourced Gregorian Chants.)

In Alfred the Great, one is delighted to find a young Sir Ian McKellen, the once and future Gandalf, his mellifluous voice instantly recognizable, in the small but pivotal role of a swamp bandit chief. And an actor named Julian Chagrin contributes some nice acrobatic business as Ivar, a fearsome, red-haired Viking berserker. Unfortunately, Donner was completely out of his depth with this epic period drama. The failure of Alfred the Great more or less put paid to his movie career and forced him into television, where he found success directing TV movies and mini-series. He was brought back to the movies as the second unit director of Superman II, directed by his sixties contemporary, Richard Lester, after Richard Donner (no relation) was fired off the film. Lester himself had a great triumph in 1968 with his movie adaptation of Petulia, starring Julie Christie as a young woman who develops a mad crush on the San Francisco doctor (George C. Scott) who saved the life of a Mexican boy in her care. The movie is alive to what was going on in the culture of the moment and accurately captures in the background the heyday of the flower power movement in San Francisco. Judy Geeson can now be found on reruns of the sit-com Mad about You as the snobbish English neighbor across the hall. David Hemmings got more rumpled as he got older, an image that perfectly suited him in a TV series about the rumpled English spy, Charlie Muffin. Unfortunately, Nothing but the Best is not available on DVD. Like a phantom, it crops up every now and then on late night TV. Catch it if you can.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Michelle Meyrink, Meet Diana Lynn

The decade of the 1980s was not a golden age in American cinema, but it was a golden period for movies about high school and about teenagers getting laid. These movies ran the gamut from the good (Sixteen Candles and everything else written and directed by John Hughes, except for Weird Science) to the great (Say Anything and anything else written and directed by Cameron Crowe, except for The Wild Life) to the just plain awful (Porky’s and anything with the word “virgin” in the title). And in between stood such oddities as Losin’ It (1983), about three friends driving across the border to lose their virginity in Tijuana. The mind-boggling cast included Tom Cruise, Jackie Earle Haley and Shelley Long (in other words, Top Gun’s Maverick meets Little Children’s sex pervert and Diane from Cheers).

Another anomalous movie from this same period is Real Genius. The anomaly comes from the fact that the teenagers in this story are smart and have more on their minds than just getting laid. Like normal teenagers, they enjoy playing pranks. But here, the pranks involve turning their dorm into an ice skating rink, installing a micro-receiver in an obnoxious student’s mouth so he thinks he is hearing the voice of God when they broadcast instructions to him, and, in the movie’s climax, turning a professor’s house into an enormous popcorn popper (with the aid of a weaponized space-based laser projector).

The difference is these teenagers are students at Pacific Tech, a West Coast university obviously modeled after Cal Tech (although the movie was actually shot at Pomona College and Occidental College). One of the characters is a reclusive genius who lives in the steam tunnels under the campus. He is played by Jon Gries, the son of the late movie director Tom Gries (Will Penny), who later achieved movie immortality as the repulsive Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite. The main character is a super-smart senior played in ever so insouciant fashion by Val Kilmer in one of his earliest screen performances (after Z-A-Z’s Top Secret). The wisecracking character he plays, Chris Knight, is studly and smart in equal measure. And yet, he is not the romantic center of the story.

That role is reserved for Gabriel Jarret as Mitch Taylor, a naïve fifteen-year-old freshman at Pacific Tech recruited by a scheming professor (William Atherton in a scene-stealing role) for his experimental laser program. Thanks to Chris Knight’s cracked idea of what it means to be a mentor, Mitch doesn’t stay naïve for long. Although an older woman (Patti D’Arbanville) with a thing for geniuses, tries to seduce him (and fails), the true object of his affection is a nineteen-year-old student named Jordan Cochran, played in indelible fashion by Michelle Meyrink in what has to be one of the most original and appealing character turns to appear in any teen film in the eighties.

Previous to this role, Michelle Meyrink had a pretty undistinguished career. She is the co-star, opposite Cameron Dye, of National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex (directed by Martha Coolidge, who also directed Valley Girl as well as Real Genius), had a brief run as one of Michael J. Fox’s girl friends (don’t ask me which one) on Family Ties, and chummed around as Diane Lane’s best friend in The Outsiders. (On The Outsiders’ DVD commentary track, it is embarrassing to hear director Francis Food Coppola gush over Diane Lane’s beauty while barely giving mention to Michelle Meyrink).

But with Jordan, Ms. Meyrink found a role she could really sink her teeth into. When we first meet her, Jordan is wearing overalls and a crash helmet while she sleds down an ice-covered dorm hallway. She removes the crash helmet to reveal an endearing Louise Brooks bob and begins speaking at a rapid clip that sounds like a speeded-up version of shorthand. She is hyperkinetic, hyper-voluble and, owing to the fact that she can’t sleep, tries to impress Mitch by staying up all night knitting him a sweater, and even offers to build him a new bed for his dorm room.

In one throw away scene, it is hilarious to watch Jordan trying to act nonchalant as she stands watch, but she can’t keep herself from squirming in place and darting her eyes around suspiciously, thus creating exactly the opposite effect. Her relationship with Mitch Taylor is charmingly chaste. Jordan herself is both brainy and sexy and adorably idiosyncratic. In many ways, she is the distaff eighties’ complement to Eddie Deezen’s uber-nerdish character in I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

And in other ways, the character Michelle Meyrink plays here is reminiscent of the kid sister teen characters played by Diana Lynn in two of the most well-remembered movies of World War II—Billy Wilder’s directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, and Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (which, along with his Hail the Conquering Hero, also marks the apex of Eddie Bracken‘s movie career). In the former, Diana Lynn plays the younger sister of Ray Milland's fiancee who becomes buddy-buddy with Ginger Rogers, here improbably disguised as a twelve-year-old (for reasons that are too complicated to go into here). Level-headed Diana Lynn is the only one able to penetrate Ginger Rogers' disguise

In the latter, she is the younger sister of Betty Hutton, a single girl who finds herself scandalizingly pregnant after attending a USO dance. When everything is going to hell around her and all the adult characters are acting like children, Diana Lynn can be depended on to keep her head and exert a well-needed dollop of common sense. Tart rather than sweet, she is a bracing tonic to the types of goody-goody teen characters reliably played by Shirley Temple, Margaret O’Brien (except in The Secret Garden) and Bonita Granville in other movies of the forties.

Unlike those three young actresses, Diana Lynn went on to have a career as an adult actress, although to see her ludicrously miscast as a femme fatale seducing Glenn Ford in John Farrow’s Plunder of the Sun (1953) is to make one selfishly wish that she had stopped making movies when Tojo surrendered to MacArthur on the deck of the USS Missouri. In the fifties and sixties, Diana Lynn went back and forth between Hollywood and Broadway before choosing semi-retirement. Tragically, she died at age 45 just as she was about to return to the screen to play Anthony Perkins’ wife in Frank Perry’s film adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays (wonderful novel, pretentious movie).

As for Michelle Meyrink, she never again had a role as meaty and memorable as Jordan Cochran. Her last screen performance was with Keanu Reeves in Marisa Silver’s earnest but inert Permanent Record (1988). In Real Genius, her performance is the authentic work of genius. She gave teenagers a good name at a time when teenagers, at least in movies, were more apt to think with their genitals instead of their brains. Diana Lynn was a breath of fresh air compared to the saccharine teens who surrounded her. In many ways, Diana Lynn is the spiritual forbear of Michelle Meyrink. Who knows which young actress will, hopefully in the near future, pick up their torch and run with it, run all the way past teenhood to a long and fruitful adult acting career.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Privilege (1967)

In 1967, Peter Watkins made his first fiction film, Privilege, which was basically a long form version of the type of faux documentaries he had become famous for. First came Culloden (1964), a stunning recreation of the 1746 battle in which the British resoundingly defeated the Scottish forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Here, though, Watkins employs a shockingly effective device: the battle’s 18th century participants speak directly to the camera, as though they are contemporary soldiers being interviewed in-country in Vietnam. From their points of view, we feel that we are watching raw footage of the defeat of the Scottish clans at the hands of the better-organized British and the utter brutality of the victorious British in dealing with the captured Highland Army, whose soldiers were callously abandoned by the cowardly Bonnie Prince Charlie. Next came the highly controversial The War Game (1965), a depiction of what would happen if the British Isles were struck by a Russian nuclear attack. But the mock-doc was so ghastly and unflinching in its details of the effects of thermonuclear war on the populace that the BBC, afraid of offending the delicate sensibilities of its viewers, chose not to broadcast it.

Later in his career, Watkins continued to mine the mock-doc formula. The Gladiators (1969) is a near-future look at a world in which disagreements between nations are worked out by small bands of soldiers representing the countries involved in the dispute. In this way, small-scale combat takes the place of and obviates the need for full-scale war. Punishment Park (1971) also takes place in the near future, one in which American political dissidents are rounded up and sent to Punishment Park, a fenced-off slice of desert, where they are hunted down by National Guard units. The dissidents are told that if they can safely reach an American flag perched atop a hill inside the park, they will be absolved of their crimes and sent home. But Watkins has a sadistic surprise in store for the survivors, proving that when it comes to games of chance, the odds are always with the state. Both movies are extrapolations of late sixties social phenomena taken to their logical extremes.

Sandwiched between these movies is Privilege, which also takes place in the near future, in this case a Great Britain beset with violence generated by its unhappy and restless youth. After years of newspaper accounts of violent Teddy Boy gangs (dramatized by Colin MacInnes in his classic novel about the birth of teen empowerment, Absolute Beginners), and the wars between the Mods and the Rockers, English literature was filled with science fictional cautionary tales about teenagers run amuck. Examples of this sub-genre include Dave Wallis’ Only Lovers Left Alive, John Christopher’s Pendulum and, especially, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. (Interestingly, there is no similar trend to be found in American literature of the same period.) In fact, Privilege is thematically similar to A Clockwork Orange in the way in which the state develops a controversial manner to subjugate its violence-prone youth.

In A Clockwork Orange, it is the Ludovico Technique, an experimental process in which teenagers are conditioned to become sick at the thought of committing even the slightest act of violence. But Privilege takes a different tack altogether. It is the story of the rise and fall of Steven Shorter, a rock star who is secretly controlled by the government to act as a safe outlet for teenage rebellion and to influence their youthful consumerist habits. When we first meet Steven Shorter, he is at the height of his fame. He is onstage, reenacting his own personal passion play of imprisonment and release, “Set Me Free,” in front of an audience made up of shouting, weeping young women who, when he is beaten by his prison guards (or actors impersonating prison guards; it is never made clear which is the case), storm the stage and begin attacking them. But because this is still the prim, relatively repressed part of the 1960s, the girls who rush the stage in a fury all wear sweater sets and penny loafers. Watkins perfectly captures in a series of close-ups the near religious hysteria of Shorter’s teenybopper acolytes.

Steven Shorter is not just a rock star; he is also a corporation. In scene after scene, we see how Shorter is used by the corporation board of directors and government ministers, with the tacit complicity of the Church, to manipulate the youth of Great Britain, allowing them to blow off steam by listening to his songs, partying the night away at his clubs, watching his TV specials and commercials, and generally obeying his message of peace, happiness and conformity. Things begin to fall apart when Steven Shorter grows tired of his success and having his every whim catered to by his entourage of sycophants. He enacts a personal form of rebellion against the corporation and state handlers who control him. In this he is aided by the beautiful artist who has been commissioned to paint his portrait. She is played by Jean Shrimpton, who was probably the top model of her time. She is beautiful to behold, but, like so many other models (apologizes to the late, sublime Suzy Parker), incapable of projecting even the tiniest hint of human emotion. (But she does look nifty in those mod outfits!)

The same criticism also applies to Paul Jones, the wooden actor who plays Steven Shorter as a combination of Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon of the Animals and Jesus Christ (before he became a superstar and before his popularity was eclipsed by a certain band from Liverpool, as one of those band members once claimed). He is pale and long-faced and long-suffering. And the closer the camera gets to him, the less youthful he looks. Despite his wealth and fame, he never seems happy. And even though he is surrounded at all times by a crush of humanity, the only person he can truly unburden himself to is the painter, who goes on to become his lover as well as his confidante.

In the movie’s climactic scene, Shorter gives a speech in which he admits to hating everyone. The corporation is dissolved and Shorter, the most photographed man in the world, ceases to exist, either in reality or in media. In the end, all that is left to show his passage through this world is a scratched piece of black and white film, minus its soundtrack. It is a haunting ending as the movie soundtrack plays Steven Shorter’s rock rendition of the hymn “Jerusalem” (the same music that is used to underscore Borstal Boy Tom Courtney’s act of youthful rebellion in Karel Reisz’ film adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s short novel, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner) with some "Eve of Destruction" guitar licks added for ominous effect.

Peter Watkins makes thesis movies. They are driven not by plot or character, but by didactic point-making. And after a while, once you understand the message, Watkins’ movies have nowhere dramatically to go. That’s why his short films, such as Culloden and The War Game, are his best. Privilege is far more interesting as an idea than it is a fully fleshed-out motion picture. Watkins makes the same points over and over again about the schizophrenic and hypocritical differences between Shorter’s outer and inner lives. The scenes become attenuated long past the point of our “getting” them. The result is a movie that invokes the violence of youth, the hysteria of teen fans and the rise of the rock star culture without ever forming them into a dramatically and emotionally cohesive whole.

One year later, in 1968, American International would release Wild in the Streets, the studio’s first serious attempt at movie-making while still catering to its teen audience, raised on beach blanket movies, biker movies and more experimental fare such as The Trip. Wild in the Streets tells the story of Max Frost (Christopher Jones, then inamorata of Richard Burton's disco-owning ex, Sybil), a rock star who is elected president after the voting age is lowered to fourteen. When he becomes president, he passes a law that consigns all adults, including his mother (played by a blowsy Shelley Winters as a guilt-inducing monster), to concentration camps. His campaign theme song, “Nothing Can Change the Shape of Things to Come,” became a top forty radio hit the summer the movie was released. The songs from Privilege were not hits in their time. But “Set Me Free” was recorded in 1978 by Patti Smith on her Easter album, though you could never picture the poet of punkdom performing the song in a sweater set and penny loafers.

Friday, October 17, 2008

And Speaking of Susannah York

Writing briefly about Susannah York in Duffy reminds me that perhaps the time has come for an artistic reassessment of her career, at least that part of her career during which she had the greatest impact--the 1960s. Although Julie Christie will forever be remembed as the English It girl of that decade, beginning with her debut performance in John Schlessinger's Billy Liar and ending with her co-starring role opposite Warren Beatty in Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, in which she played a bawdy house madame with a thick Cockney accent, it is Susannah York whose gentle presence lingers in the mind.

But although she may have been overshadowed by Julie Christie, Susannah York left her own indelible mark on the sixties, beginning in 1960 with her role as Alec Guinness' daughter in Ronald Neame's exemplary Tunes of Glory, based on James Kennaway's novel about post-war life in a Scottish military regiment. Her next notable role was appearing opposite Albert Finney in Tom Jones (1963) as the eponymous hero's love interest, Sophie Western. In both movies (and in her subsequent ones as well), Susannah York's beauty is matched only by her grace and intelligence, qualities that would take the more earthy and ambitious Julie Christie a lifetime to acquire (see her role as an Alzheimer's patient in Away from Her). In 1966, Susannah York appeared opposite a pre-Bonnie and Clyde Warren Beatty in the caper film, Kaleidoscope. Two years later, in 1968, Susannah York starrred alongside Dirk Bogarde in one of the most entertaining--and little seen--romantic films of the decade--Sebastian.

Bogarde is Sebastian, an Oxford don who presides over a government cipher-breaking unit. The gimmick here is that the unit is made up entirely of women. Susannah York becomes his latest recruit. She also goes on to become his lover. Except for some unnecessary slapping late in the story, this is a movie in which romance and intelligence stroll hand in hand. The movie is filled with the sights and sounds of London at its swinging sixties best. And only the opening scene of Richard Lester's The Knack and How to Get It (1964), in which we follow a line of identically dressed "birds" to the apartment of the building's resident rake, can match the visual panache of the scene in Sebastian in which we watch as Susannah York follows Bogarde's "birds" on their way to work (to the accompaniment of Jerry Goldsmith's sprightly score). Seldom has mathematics appeared as sexy as it does in Sebastian, thanks to its two well-matched leads.

Susannah York ended the decade, appropriately enough, with an Academy Award nomination for her turn as Gloria, the desperate actress turned dance marathon contestant, in Sydney Pollock's They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969). Jane Fonda was the lead actress, of course, and was also nominated for an Academy Aweard. Neither actress won, but Susannah York was surely recognized for the kind of scene Academy members love--her fully-clothed mental breakdown in the shower room. Gig Young, as the corrupt marathon Emcee, talks her down, and won a Best Supporting Oscar for the role of a lifetime. But it is not Susannah York's mad scene for which I will always remember her. It is the final shot of Susannah York and Dirk Bogarde--listening to some celestial music made up of satellite bleeps as they work together to try and crack the Soviet's newest Cold War code. Now that is mad hot!

Monday, October 13, 2008

James Coburn - The Accidental Auteur

According to the auteur theory, the director of a movie functions in much the same way as the author of a novel. He is the guiding intelligence behind a motion picture. But in regard to four hip movies that came out in the mid to late 1960s--Dead Heat on a Merry-go-Round, The President's Analyst, Duffy and Hard Contract--I wonder if the case can be made that their auteur is really the star of these movies--James Coburn. The young James Coburn trafficked in a certain kind of cool. It was not the same kind of cool as Steve McQueen possessed. McQueen's cool was an armor that protected the sensitive, broken, hurting man hidden deep inside the outwardly steely characters he usually portrayed. Coburn, McQueen's co-star in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape (both directed by John Sturges), had a cool that was much more abstract and zen-like. Coburn didn't need to be armored from the world, because his cool insured that he was never a part of this world to begin with. Coburn floats through these movies as though he didn't have a care in the world. A gifted character actor (Stanley Donen's Charade, Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee), Coburn graduated to the big time when he became a star through his appearance in the James Bond spoof, Our Man Flint, and its sequel, In like Flint. With his new found star power, Coburn was able to pick his next projects, which made him the accidental avatar of the sixties zetgeist.

Dead Hear on a Merry-Go-Round (1966) is a caper film. If it is known today at all, it's known as the movie in which a very young Harrison Ford makes a brief appearance as a messenger walking through a hotel lobby. The caper involves a plot to rob a bank at LAX timed to coincide with a visit by the Soviet Premier. The movie is timely, which makes it feel completely dated today. But watching it from this contemporary vantage point, one can admire the fact that the writer-director Bernard Girard had more on his mind than just making a thriller. It is also a commentary on a square society that was about to be swept away by the winds of change blowing across America (and the world). There is something definitely in the air and the movie picks up on the fact. Coburn functions as an unwitting agent of change, ushering us into a new world of sexual and other kinds of liberation.

The same holds true for Coburn's next film, The President's Analyst (1968), which is a spy film, of a sort. The premise is pure genius. Coburn is a Manhattan therapist whose latest patient is none other than the President of the United States. Because of the burden of his office, The President is considered the loneliest man in the world. But now that he is forced to carry the burden of his presidential patient's mental problems, Coburn finds himself the loneliest man in the world. And the most wanted, as spies from every alphabetic organization parachute in to capture him and find out what's on the President's mind. The movie is a satire of suburban comformity and urban paranoia and finds its true villain in the form of the Phone Company (whose evil presence is embodied by Pat Harrington, Jr., formerly Danny Thomas' buttoned-down, prospective son-in-law on Make Room for Daddy and years before his annoying turn as Schneider the grating super on One Day at a Time). Coburn is so zen that he relaxes by bangng his gong (an actual spare time activity that he demonstrated during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, who, in later years, actually came to resemble Coburn). The President's Analyst is entertaining and thought-provoking.

1968 also saw the release of Duffy an amoral English caper film that is also a satire of amorality. Two English brothers team up with Coburn to rob the yacht owned by their wealthy father. The anomic brothers are played by James Fox and John Alderton. Fox's girl friend is played by Susannah York. Tawny and tanned, Susannah York has never looked more radiantly beautiful. Coburn plays the eponymous hero, an outsider who is brought in by the brothers to help them with their piratical activities. Coburn ends up falling in love with York, and the movie ends with a disappointing series of double- and triple-crosses. Where Dead Heat on a Merry-go-Round and The President's Analyst ride the crest of a wave without once describing the wave, Duffy is awash in the detritus of the hippie era of love-ins, love beads and Carnaby Street fashions. And once again, fashionable Coburn glides through the proceedings without breaking a sweat.

Coburn ended the decade with Hard Contract (1969) a crime movie in which he plays a cold-as-ice professional assassin. The movie is so discreet when it comes to violence that it never actually shows the assassin at work. We only see the aftermath of his hits. The movie is set entirely in Europe and its international cast features Lee Remick, Claude Dauphin, Patrick Magee, Sterling Hayden and Burgess Meredith. The movie strains for effect and is pretentiously written and directed by S. Lee Pogostin. At one point, Meredith waxes philosophic about the nature of murder while standing, for ironic effect, in fromt of Goya's The Third of May. The movie also takes advantage of Coburn's well-honed cool as an assassin with no moral qualms about how he makes his living. In fact, the movie is so cool and elliptical that it borders on the existential.

James Coburn is not an obvious symbol of the counter-culture. But taken together, these four movies show that Coburn was a persuasive cinematic agent of change during the second half of that tumultuous decade. (On a personal note, early on a Saturday morning in the mid-seventies, I saw James Coburn standing on the sidewalk in front of an exclusive men's clothing store in Westwood Vilalge and he was every bit the epitome of cool in person as he appeared on the screen.)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Horse Soldiers

I originally saw The Horse Soldiers (1959) when I was a boy, and several powerful images from the movie have always stayed with me. Shot after shot of a seemingly endless parade of soldiers on horseback are a glorious reminder of how movies were made in the days before CGI. This movie is not quite in the same league as John Ford's epic Cavalry Trilogy (Fort Apache, Rio Bravo and the majestic She Wore a Yellow Ribbon), but it is nevertheless a stirring look at the role the "horse soldiers" played in the Civil War. John Wayne plays a Yankee colonel who, in civilian life, was a railroad engineer, a "section hand," as William Holden derisively refers to him. Holden plays a doctor with the rank of major. Wayne refers to him equally derisively as "Croaker" and seems to have it in for Holden's character from the very first scene in which they are introduced. The reason for this, we later find out, is because Wayne's young bride was killed by a doctor who operated on her after misdiagnosing a tumor. The major conflict in the story is between these two men, and not between the Blue and the Gray. In this version of the Civil War, Yankee and Confederate officers treat one another with utmost civility and courtesy. The same, unfortunately, does not hold true for the plantation-owning character played by Constance Towers. She is perfectly willing to act as a spy and inform on Wayne's escape route to the Confederates. Wayne and Towers end up falling in love with one another, a real surprise given the fact that they basically bicker and argue with one another for most of the movie. All this, of course, is a disguise for what is really going on between them. The two don't show any physical affection until the very end of the movie. This is obviously reminiscent of the courtly romance between Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Cathy Downs in John Ford's My Darling Clementine. It also prefigures another courtly romance between John Wayne and Marion McCargo in Andrew V. McLaglen's The Undefeated (1969). This turns out to be an underrated gem of a movie that deals with some of the same thematic material as Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee. The movie seems hopelessly old-fashioned when compared with Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, which was released in the same year (along with George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). But taken on its own merits, The Undefeated is still a rousing piece of entertainment. It features cinematography that perfectly captures the story's beautifully composed Mexican landscapes, and there is definite chemistry between Wayne and co-star Rock Hudson, as former Civil War rivals now forced to work together in order to negotiate a tricky business deal with the Mexican rebels and their French overlords. In The Horse Soldiers and The Undefeated, Wayne subtlely defines what it means to be a man. And at a time where there seems to be a dearth of role models, Wayne's courtly attitude towards women seems, in retrospect, tender and touching.