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.