Saturday, 28 March 2009

Films of the Week

Well, last week’s movies actually. But why let the truth get in the way of a handy headline (see Medium Cool later). These are the films which have been setting the pixels a-spinning on the Winship telly in the late hours.

Quintet.
This 1979 Robert Altman film is one of his series of dream pictures; stories which did actually germinate from fragments of dream. These intimate, languid and mysterious films punctuate the sprawling ensemble-cast dissections of American myths for which he is better known. They may have sunk into relative obscurity, but they are one of the clearest reflections of the new Hollywood’s adoption of the thematic concerns and stylistic forms of the newly emergent European art cinema (this may not be unrelated to their unpopularity, of course). Other directors may have absorbed these influences, but they tended to adapt them to pre-existing Hollywood templates; the gangster film, the road movie, the melodrama. Altman showed a much greater affinity with the cinema of Bunuel and (particularly) Bergman in these films, which he seems to acknowledge in Quintet with the casting of Bibi Andersson and Fernando Rey.

Quintet is post-apocalyptic science-fiction. It’s world is effectively elucidated in the opening scene, in which the camera pans across an ice-bound wasteland until it comes across the grounded hulk of a passenger train, forever waiting beside a snow-engulfed platform. The main action takes place in an enclosed city-state in which Essex, Paul Newman’s character, becomes embroiled in a deadly board game, the Quintet of the title, whose moves are played out beyond the five-sided board. The losers pay with their lives. This places it within a tradition of science fiction films which posit a future in which games and sports have become murderous spectacles: The Tenth Victim, Death Race 2000 and Punishment Park amongst them.

Quintet is the endgame of a civilisation in terminal decline. It is played for no other reason than to remind its players that they are alive, to give meaning to an existence which, with its ice-white backdrop, has literally been drained of colour. It also serves to indicate how human relationships are contingent upon a world of sufficiency, of plentiful resources, the lack of which reduces all exchanges to an animalistic struggle for survival (like the dogs who roam the streets and feed off the dead and the weak).

The city of the future is realised in the rather schematic manner of those unused to the rigours of fictional world-building, who make do with a few pre-fabricated elements slotted into place. Everything is divided into numerically identified ‘sectors’ and people can apparently all be located by referring to the symbols on a series of rotating perspex sheets. The whole thing has the unlived-in air of a utopian plan mapped out on graph paper rather than a naturally evolved community. In fact it was filmed amongst the ready-made props of the Man and his World pavillion from the Expo 67 staged in Montreal. Some of these are very effective, but they never let the city escape its stage-bound atmosphere. The large blown-up pictures seem particularly out of place.

There is also a rather sketchily worked out religion, which invites people to revel in wretchedness and despair, using the pentagon of the Quintet board as a holy symbol of resigned fatalism. In the end, the unrelenting pessimism of the film becomes wearying. It lacks any real point and thus becomes mere easy nihilism. Essex’s ultimate rejection of the world of the game may be a refusal to give up hope, but by now we have been made fairly certain that his dogged search for some remnant of humanity and civilisation is a chimerical quest.

The atmosphere of a dying world is well created, however, with the use of a halo of unfocussed blur around the edge of the frame enhancing the somnambulant quality of the icy landscape. This is also underscored by the music, composed by Tom Pierson, which uses tinkling harp arpeggios (suggesting light glittering on ice) undermined by the odd deep bass rumbles. The plot, once the initial premise has been set up, doesn’t really have anywhere to go, and unwinds towards a rather predictable and perfunctorily executed denouement. Its a film which is worth watching, but would have to summed up with those damningly faint words of praise, an interesting failure.

Medium Cool.
This is a remarkable film from the frontline of the 1968 street agitations. It takes a critical look at the prevalance of the visual medium as a means of transmitting knowledge and information, and therefore implicitly interrogates itself along the way. The opening scene in which two news cameramen film the aftermath of a car crash, including its victim, before finally getting around to calling for help serves to present the film’s central theme of the image creating distance and disconnection rather than immediacy and engagement. The dispassionate remoteness of the camera eye reduces us all to passive spectators and vicarious voyeurs. This is a theme which has been explored repeatedly in cinema as writers and directors realise the metaphorical implications of the very act of watching films. Its lineage stretches from Rear Window to Peeping Tom to George Romero’s recent Diary of the Dead, which like Medium Cool approaches the theme from an overtly political standpoint. The opening scene of Medium Cool, with its cold concrete freeway landscape into which human beings seem to be intruders, could almost be taken from an adaptation of J.G.Ballard’s Crash, years before David Cronenberg brought his own particular sensibility to bear on it.

Robert Forster’s character John Cassellis was initially to be played by John Cassevetes, to whom the name is evidently a nod. Forster’s performance is very Cassevetes-like, and he even bears a certain physical resemblence to the actor-director. His news-cameraman is initially unlikeable insofar as he is representative of the prevailing ethos of the society around him. It is a throwaway consumer society in which commitment is discouraged. You simply move on from one instantly gratified impulse to the next, whether this be on the level of relationships, or in the absorption of packaged news items. The counter-culture is not depicted as being a valid alternative to this ethos, rather it is seen as just another part of it. Free love and drugs are just another form of consumption aimed at instant gratification. The use of Frank Zappa’s music for the Mothers of Invention is particularly suited to conveying this message, with much of it taken from We’re Only In It For The Money, the record in which he takes a blast at hippies and ‘straights’ alike. It is also prescient in its anticipation of police brutality, and thus provides a sad soundtrack to the kind of scenes which it predicted. Frank sounds uncharacteristically emotionally engaged in the song Mom and Dad, in which he sings ‘mama, mama, someone said they made some noise/the cops have shot some girls and boys’ and ‘they looked to weird – it served them right’.

Robert Forster is gradually drawn into a relationship through his encounter with Harold, a young urchin who leads him to his mother Eileen, as played by Verna Bloom. Verna was a teacher in West Virginia but her qualifications are considered invalid in Chicago. Harold is seen painstakingly reading from books at various points and complains that the teachers just switch on the TV at school and they don’ t learn anything. Eileen is a representative of an America far from the mainstream of 60s culture, counter or otherwise. But she is far from being a rural stereotype. She has a poster of Bobby Kennedy on her wall which indicate that she shares the hopes of progressive Americans for a better future. But she also represents a purer, less cynical American ideal, one which still has a code of moral rectitude rooted in the old time religions. The film takes pains to focus on the seldom seen aspects of America, turning the camera away from the obvious spectacle. Forster has an awkward encounter, an enforced debate, in the black ghettoes of Chicago. And when we hear Bobby Kennedy’s convention speech, the camera dwells on the kitchen workers as they clean up the remains of the banquet food.

The most celebrated scenes and those which give it such an incredible historical punch are those which are essentially reportage from the streets and parks outside the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968. Eileen wanders through the sea of protestors as they are confronted and marshalled by armed riot police, searching for her missing son. She is vividly identifiable in her yellow dress, which makes her stand out from the crowd. The fact that she is an outsider, seen as a representative from the non-radical heartland of working-class America, gives her increasing sense of numbed shock at the brutality meted out by the Chicago police the feel of authentic neutrality. Meanwhile, Forster’s cameraman films the official and carefully ordered spectacle of the convention in the city hall.

The ending of the film is of a piece with late 60s and early 70s independent film, but is no less dissatisfying for that. It is an all too convenient way of bringing things to a sudden halt, but evades any sense of continuity which would involve a sustained sense of commitment on either a personal or a political level. The final shot is of Haskell Wexler (I assume) behind his camera, which he turns to focus on us. It is an attempt to dissolve the barrier between viewer and image, to draw us in to the events we have just witnessed. To somehow transcend the dissociation and disconnection which the screen imposes (whether at the cinema, on tv, or now on your computer). A highly recommended film.

Wonderwall.
This is a complete piece of 60s nonsense. Its plot was clearly hastily scribbled on the back of a paper bag, possibly while the writer was drunk, and remained unrevised. It features the kind of shameless objectification which underlines the fact that the ‘liberations’ of the sixties had their limits. Jane Birkin, as the object of Jack MacGowran’s vicarious infatuation, never gets to speak one line. The far-out design of her flat is carried out by a ‘collective’ known as The Fool, who may be amongst the beaded and ponchoed hippies who play their flutes during the ‘happening’ party scene. It’s so sixties, it hurts. So dammit, why is it all so absurdly enjoyable.

Jack and Jane, the short answer would be. Oh, and George. George Harrison provides the music, a mixture of Indian classical, blues jams and concrete tape pieces. The use of Indian music unfortunately furthers the popular perception of this centuries old tradition as sounds for hippies to get off their heads to. Jack MacGowran’s performance as the absent-minded professor reprises his endearing turn in The Fearless Vampire Killers. He even gets to wear a dashingly vampiric cape at one stage. There are other links with Polanski, as the writer Gerard Brach penned both Dance of the Vampires and Cul de Sac, both of which featured MacGowran, as well as Iain Quarrier, who here plays Jane B’s feckless and vain boyfriend.
One of the charming things about the film is its clash of bohemian worlds. Jack MacGowran looks like he has inherited his flat from a member of William Morris’ arts and crafts circle. The hippies next door seem positively conformist in comparison, with their standard issue clobber and tastes. There’s a lovely scene when Iain Quarrier drops by to ask for some ice. Jack MacGowran, after some inevitable misunderstanding, opens his fridge to reveal that it is full of large, un-cut chunks of the stuff. Who’s weirder now? The scenes in which he climbs onto the roof in evening dress and cape resemble a British take on the French Fantomas/Judex tradition, too, with MacGowran once again appearing as an old-fashioned and chivalrous brand of dishevelled dandy. The scenes with MacGowran and Irene Handl are a joy, too, with Irene at her most Handl-ish.

There are some interesting London locations. Where is that beautiful Victorian paean to engineering in green and red wrought iron? Is it Crossness pumping station? I passed the flat which Jack and Jane live in on a recent trip to London to take advantage of the Open House days. It is just behind Holland Park tube station. Coincidentally, we were heading off to see the mews house where Blow Up was filmed at the time. Of course, one of the hopeful ingenues who called at David Hemmings’ photographer’s pad in that film was...Jane Birkin. There is also a dream sequence which seems to take in parts of Hampstead Heath as well as a bit of greenery besides the concrete curvature of the Westway.

So, there’s plenty to enjoy here, if you are prepared to overlook the limitations of the era. Perhaps one to place in my ever-expanding file of guilty pleasures

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