Talking Movies

May 29, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXXIII

As the title suggests, so forth.

If not Lazenby, then who?

Almost anyone. But seriously, folks. There were any number of actors in England in 1968 who could have done a better job of picking up the keys to Sean Connery’s Aston Martin. A typically three-cornered hat discussion with Friedrich Bagel and The Engineer to the music of de Falla produced this shortlist of contenders:

Rod Taylor, Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Terence Stamp, Anthony Hopkins

Patrick McGoohan, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Lee, Nicol Williamson, David Warner, Edward Fox

Now, not all of these people would have been asked, and some of them would likely have refused had they been asked, (Alan Bates and Nicol Williamson spring to mind), and some of them would likely have refused contemptuously (*Dear EON, Patrick McGoohan has had quite enough of playing spies at this point, thank you very much). The EON producers would never have seriously asked a bona fide film leading man like Caine, in order to keep the budget down. They would have asked a TV star like Roger Moore, sadly tied up with The Saint, or Timothy Dalton, a supporting player in a major film. As indeed they did. But the actual shortlist of undistinguished Bond contenders from whom Lazenby won based on a screen test is the stuff of madness when you consider that all these alternatives were available. The roguishness of Oliver Reed’s 007, the undercurrent of menace of Malcolm McDowell’s Bond, the unpredictability of David Warner’s agent: these are the roads not taken. There seems to be some sort of retrospective attempt to insist they needed to cast an unknown actor, like they had with Sean Connery. But Sean Connery was not unknown when he was cast. Far from it, he had already appeared in Darby O’Gill and the Little People and his supporting role in The Longest Day would have been appreciated by British TV audiences who, between 1959 and 1961, had seen him as Count Vronsky, Hotspur, Macbeth and Alexander the Great. He was not an unknown, he was quite well known to British audiences as a leading man playing historic roles. Lazenby by contrast was quite well known to British audiences for advertising Fry’s chocolate bars.

The critical rehabilitation narrative

I’ve been thinking recently about what we might dub the critical rehabilitation narrative. Nothing seems to please some critics more than to discover neglected masterpieces, to rescue from the discard bin gems that were unappreciated at the time. The only problem is sometimes the critics are very pleased with themselves, their wider critical narrative powers along, and it’s only a minor detail that the film in question is still rubbish. That’s not to say that it is wrong to revisit films and see if they were misjudged; after all Fight Club suffered hugely from being released so soon after Columbine. But sometimes there is much to be said for reading the original reviews and getting a bracing perspective, like disinterring The Cabinet of Dr Caligari from the reverence of generations of film students and discovering in Peter Gay’s Weimar Culture that its own writers disowned the finished film for changes made to its finale which they regarded as dangerously reversing its political message, and doing so at a time that imperilled the nascent republic. Or realising that Matthew Modine saying recently that Full Metal Jacket has aged better than other Vietnam films because it’s finale of urban insurgency could be in Iraq only proves the point of the objections made by critics on release. Because of the WB indulging Kubrick’s power-tripping laziness he had departed from the novel’s jungle war conclusion to instead depict the (easily manufactured in England) ruined city of Hue, because he couldn’t be bothered leaving England. And it would be hard to easily manufacture in England a jungle war. Just as well Vietnam wasn’t noted for being a JUNGLE WAR. Revolution was reviled on release and exiled Pacino to Broadway. But Revolution is an unfocused film of baffling decisions, like shooting it entirely in England and not having Annie Lennox sing, rather than an outright atrocity. Watching its depiction of the start of the American Revolution, the mob bullying, the expropriation, the self-interested and abrasive self-righteousness is oddly reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago’s portrayal of the Bolsheviks. It’s hard not to think that this enraged American critics at the time, who sublimated that rage into attacks from other angles. And yet the final minutes of Revolution feature a truly astonishing tracking shot, a technical marvel and a triumph of production design, that I have never ever heard anyone praise or even mention. If you can’t do the hard work of salvaging the good from amidst the bad then what is the point of critical rehabilitation?

August 14, 2018

Heathers: colour me impressed

Heathers is running in the Lighthouse cinema all this week as part of a major 30th anniversary re-release that’s also playing at the BFI Southbank.

“Dear Diary, my teenage angst bullsh*t now has a body-count”. If Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is the teen movie that represents the boundless self-actualising optimism that Ronald Reagan wanted in an America where it was always morning in America, then Heathers was the counter-punch of Generation X cynicism and pessimism. There are three girls called Heather and an adopted member Veronica who rule the corridors of Westerberg High till a betrayal from within leads to a violent disintegration for the in-crowd. A film this biting and such a glorious one-off in the careers of writer Daniel Waters and director Michael Lehmann (who moved into script-doctoring and TV directing respectively) could only have come from deep personal bitterness. Winona Ryder stole Beetlejuice from the grown-ups and Christian Slater did the same in The Name of the Rose before they teamed up. Heathers is that rarity, a teen film with teen leads, who are an electric pairing. Winona lived off her performance as Veronica Sawyer for years and Slater did the same off his portrayal of JD, an inch-perfect impersonation of Jack Nicholson.

All the stock characters are present for this dark trip through American high-school life, which takes place in the pre-Columbine ear as is obvious from the muted reaction to the stunt played by JD in his memorable introduction. The stoners, the jocks: “Hey Ram, doesn’t this cafeteria have a no fags allowed rule? JD: Well, they seem to have an open door policy for assholes though don’t they”. The nerds, the airhead bitches: “God, aren’t they fed yet? Do they even have Thanksgiving in Africa? Veronica: Oh, sure. Pilgrims, Indians… Tator Tots. It’s a real party continent”. The hippie teacher, the deranged principal: “I’ve seen a lot of bullshit… angel dust, switchblades, sexually perverse photographs involving tennis rackets”. But these familiar elements are served up in the most vicious teen comedy ever. Instead of putting up with the ritual social humiliations JD and Veronica, after an initial accidental death, begin killing their enemies and make it look like suicide (courtesy of some underlined meaningful passages in Moby Dick, or in one memorable case simply the enigmatic word ‘Eskimo’.). Comedy doesn’t get much blacker than the interior monologues of the various characters. At the first funeral Heather Duke speaks to God: “I prayed for the death of Heather Chandler many times and I felt bad every time I did it but I kept doing it anyway. Now I know you understood everything. Praise Jesus, Hallelujah”.

Anyone who’s ever been picked on in school knows why Heathers is such a cult classic. This film is almost a proto-Fight Club. Superficially Veronica is happy with her life as one of The Heathers. However secretly she hates it, and herself, and when JD arrives at the school he offers Veronica a violent outlet for all her darkest impulses. She writes in her diary: “Suicide gave Heather depth, Kurt a soul, and Ram a brain. I don’t know what it’s given me, but I have no control over myself when I’m with J.D. Are we going to prom or to hell?” Just like Tyler’s Project Mayhem eventually JD’s plan to blow up the school after sneakily getting a petition for mass-suicide signed by everybody proves too much for Veronica to go along with. JD could be like Camus’ take on the ultimate excesses of nihilism: it is not enough to kill myself, everybody else has to die too. And that’s where Veronica rips up the ticket and gets off the ride, because Generation X were damaged romantics not nihilists. If you thought Mean Girls was the sharpest high-school film ever then you like, so need to watch Heathers. Your reaction should be something along the lines of JD’s legendary final words: “Colour me impressed”.

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