Saturday, 25 July 2015


BLAXPLOITATION: An introduction:

‘Blaxploitation’ was essentially exploitation cinema but specifically ‘commercially-minded films of the ‘70s for a black audience’ . In the era of Nixon and Watergate, the civil rights struggle of the 1960s had still left black people disempowered in the real world - yet on screen between 1971-1976 there was a ground-breaking new sub-genre of films featuring black representatives who won battles, effected change and were bursting with charismatic confidence. They kicked ass, looked good and were underscored by super-cool soundtracks. They portrayed aspects of the black experience  but with the politics almost wholly removed for maximum box-office  - hence the exploitation label rather than 'Black Cinema'.This would always be a controversial move, laying it open to accusations of degradation.

As much as it arguably exploited their heritage for white studio bosses, it also made money and created opportunities for black actors, film-makers and spread its fan-base to a wider audience, even more so in the decades since. Blaxploitation was no different to regular exploitation cinema; it took advantage of big box-office crazes from other genres. Urban crime flicks were supplemented by the new fashion for Bruce Lee’s imported kung-fu and Hammer horror with varying success. If it was popular, it was incorporated and no idea was too outlandish if the public queued for it. ‘Black Hollywood’ as it could be labelled briefly was driven by trends not agit-prop politics, just like the mainstream.

The acceptance of African-American actors in Hollywood lead roles had taken an appallingly long time for a progressive society. After decades of relegation as utility ‘negro’ servants and other offensive, slow ‘Yassir’ drawling comic sterotypes, change was a long time coming. In the late ‘60s Sidney Poitier emerged as a black leading man without a trace of tokenism in the Virgil Tibbs films beginning with the terrific IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. It wasn’t until 1969 though that Jim Brown became the first black actor on-screen to play a love-scene with a Caucasian woman (Racquel Welch) in 100 RIFLES.  The success of the film at last convinced studios that there was an audience for empowered black characters in movies. Read on, brothers and sisters...


(Be careful of typos, marketing bods!).

 ‘This film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who had enough of the man’

With this opening text on screen, film-maker Melvin Van Peebles signalled his uncompromising attitude up-front for SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG. After his bad experience making WATERMELON MAN (1970), Van Peebles vowed he would have total control over his next project.  This would not be an impassioned Martin Luther King appeal to one nation sentiments. Nor would it be a film bathed in well-intentioned Spielbergian warmth, hoping for a brotherhood that can work together. This was an angry manifesto of non-compliance by blacks toward whites, borne of long-suffering inequality and demonization. Little wonder that the Black Panthers endorsed the movie on release.

It is also widely-regarded as the first film of the Blaxploitation movement. It all begins here…

There are many unusual and refreshing qualities to the film. The lead credit is boldly given to ’The Black Community’ as a whole, presenting them as a united front of contribution. This will be hammered home even more blatantly later.

SWEET SWEETBACK’s title character' played by Van Peebles' does not inhabit a typically soft conventional job for a movie lead. Rather than pander to a lame stereotype, Van Peebles pointedly made him a ‘sexual animal’ (as he called him in a later interview I saw). Leaving aside the possibility that this plays more on black sexual stereotypes than rejection, Sweetback makes his living by pleasuring the ladies as a stud performer, a technique he acquires at a very young age from a lady within his brothel home. This is an awkward scene to watch as the child actor (Van Peebles' son Mario) is clearly well under the age of legal consent – but arguably is all part of the director’s challenge to accepted censorship of home truths on-screen. (Richard Pryor for example was raised in such a home). Regardless, Sweetback grows up a taciturn dude who speaks more with his love-spanner than his vocal instrument.

When his employer frames him for a murder to help two white cops, Sweetback kills them and then must flee the city right out into the Mexican desert. The last half of the movie then becomes a virtual travelogue matched with the funky tunes of Earth Wind & Fire, making one stop-off point where he wins a shagging contest with a chapter of Hell’s Angels. The extended chase is handled in a rough, hand-held cinéma vérité style very much at odds with standard polished film narrative – and very effective for it. While our anti-hero is pursued by the fuzz, what look like real members of ‘the Black Community’ are quizzed in vox-pops to camera. They close ranks, unanimously reporting variations of “I ain’t seen him” as if straight to the white movie audience.  The message from the public to the cops and ‘the man’ is clear: ‘Since you won’t support us, we won’t support you either’. 

This brazen defiance of authority that seems to break the fourth wall is exhilarating – and all too understandable especially as the mainly Caucasian police are portrayed very definitely as deserving it.  The white cops are sadistic and ineffective. Whether it’s intentional portrayal or simply bad acting, they can’t seem to land a decent punch never mind effectively threaten a suspect or catch their man . At one point, the officer in charge of the manhunt drops the ‘n-bomb’ in his briefing to his men, too late to register two black cops in the team. To compound his ill-judgment, as the rest file out Van Peebles has him taking them both to one side and apologising with ‘You know you two could be a credit to your people’. With such face-palm moments of race relations on the force, how can the public trust the Five-Oh to relate respectfully to them?

The documentary vibe of SWEET SWEETBACK is consistent through-out, and Van Peebles makes other experimental style choices: dissolves, freeze-frames, brief split-screen sequences, unfocused shots and even editing choices that repeat dialogue lines. One critic compared his work to Godard in this respect.

Sweetback ends the film still at-large and to a harsh trumpet music cue we are warned ‘Watch out. A baad assss n***er is coming back to collect some dues’ (My asterisks).  We are left in no doubt that not only has a mission statement of wrath been declared to white society, but with the closing credit of ‘Written, composed, produced, directed and edited by Melvin Van Peebles’ that it is a singular vision by a proud, real auteur. .

SWEET SWEETBACK'S BAADASSSSS SONG, originally funded by private money on a shoestring bugdet, including $50,000 borrowed from Bill Cosby, made back $10m - which today still makes it one of the most successful independent movies of all time.

Blaxploitation was in business…



In 1972 David Bowie created one of the most influential cultural icons of the twentieth century in his on-stage alter ago Ziggy Stardust – and acclaimed documentarian D. A Pennbaker was there to capture him on film.

To put it in context, Bowie’s ever-changing restlessness caused him to try on various pop music identities over ten years without making his mark. The closest he’d come was with the wonderful and topical ‘Space Oddity’ to coincide with the moon landing in 1969 but that was ham-strung by the folk music image of the rest of the album ‘The Man Who Sold The World’. Fans were confused by being unable to latch onto a clearly-defined style or persona.
It was while producing his ‘Hunky Dory’ follow-up that songs like ‘Life On Mars’ and particularly ‘Queen Bitch’ hinted at what was to come. Helped by his daring wife Angie and the marketing mastery of manager Tony DeFries, Bowie assembled a new band, a new sound and a radical new look. Guitarist and arranger Mick Ronson was a great co-creator in a new array of rock songs, a concept album that finally gave fans a cohesive Bowie showcase and a shockingly vivid setting. 

THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS tells the story of a doomed alien who is stranded on earth, becomes a rock star and is finally consumed alive by his fans’ energy. To top it off, Bowie and his group presented an outlandishly costumed other-wordly look on-stage, comprised of Liberty curtain material boiler suits based on Alex’s droogs in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. To complete the physical transformation, each band member had an aggressive punk hairstyle, in Bowie’s case dyed flame-red which prefigured the spiky even shorter hair later adopted by 70s British punk fans and copycat acts. He was now establishing himself as being one step ahead of the cultural curve.

It wasn’t just the intergalactic appearance though that challenged the fans. Bowie went even further in his personal mystique. The front cover of the previous album had shocked and attracted fans with his soft-focus feminine langorous pose in a dress. What was he saying about his own sexuality? In Ziggy Stardust’s androgyny and suggestive on-stage larks with Mick Ronson, Bowie was playing with gender stereotyping to hugely influential effect. In Melody Maker, he stated ‘I am gay’ which was a ground-breaking statement from an emerging high-profile artist on the scene. Even his normally more outrageous wife thought he should at least have hazed it a little by saying he was bisexual. By now, he was paving the way in music and image for the effeminate exoticism of Glam Rock and the later morphing into the grimy hard edge of punk.

D.A. Pennebaker, a famous documentary maker especially of concert films (DON’T LOOK BACK, MONTEREY POP) could not have known that his partnership with Bowie to film the last night of his Aladdin Sane tour in 1973 would be doubly historic…  

Firstly, the show at the Hammersmith Odeon is a terrific archive of Bowie and his band playing with immense verve and stage-craft, intercut with brief backstage moments of costume changes and Ringo Starr in Bowie’s dressing room during the interval. (A clear indication that by now the young musician had ‘arrived’).

For me, the highlights in the performance are ‘Starman’, ‘Space Oddity’ and a haunting version of ‘My Death’ capturing his soaring vocals in fine voice, coupled with lighting that aptly emphasises the chillingly cadaverous pallour of his skin and cheekbones. The main set climaxes in a transcendent ten-minute rendition of ‘Width Of A Circle’ featuring a blistering prog-rock guitar solo from Ronson, the masculine force of his playing contrasting with the androgyny of his stage ‘character. Bowie meanwhile busts some Lindsay Kemp-inspired mime moves as Ziggy frees himself from the old ‘invisible wall’ gag and flies like a gull mimetically above his former prison.

 At times the cameras struggle with the limited set lighting. Ziggy and the Spiders are often framed too minutely in hot red against the blackness, and the hand-held filming draws attention to itself intermittently. Even so, it’s a tremendous attempt at the near impossibility of translating a live event to celluloid and none in music terms would be more historic than this.
Just before the final encore, Bowie comes to the mic and announces to the audience: ‘Not only is this the last show of the tour, but it's the last show that we'll ever do’. The fans audibly gasp in disbelief. He was killing off his cash-cow creation at Ziggy’s height, a necessary step for an artist unwilling to keep repeating himself. In hindsight though, it may have been fair to have notified the band as they only found out at that moment!

‘Making love with his ego’ it may be, yet ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS is a vital and massively influential moment in concert movies and an inspiration to a whole generation of fans, fashion and future bands.

Friday, 24 July 2015



What does a film-maker do when he achieves the kind of stellar success that Dennis Hopper did with EASY RIDER? Unlike Coppola, who opted for a smaller scale project with THE CONVERSATION, Hopper pushed the envelope of challenging audiences even further. He went to South America, wrote and directed a western called THE LAST MOVIE and almost rode his career off a cliff. It’s an extremely hard film to find (and at times understand) but well worth the effort.

In the film, he plays a country-boy stunt co-ordinator, Kansas, on a movie location in Peru who quits the business after a stuntman’s fall from a building goes fatally wrong. He becomes absorbed into the culture’s charming naivete. They imitate the movie world with wicker-work equipment but don’t grasp that it’s not played for real. He is thrown off the set for trying to show the locals how to stage a faked fist-fight when they’re using real punches during a take. Gradually the pace grows more frantic and we are left unsure of exactly what happens to Kansas with ‘The End’ suddenly appearing scratchily on-screen and a cut to the studio logo.

The style of THE LAST MOVIE is deliberately raw and post-modern at times, with jarring editing and other radical techniques such as only introducing an opening credit twelve minutes in and then waiting till the twenty-fifth minute to put up the title card. There are subliminal image flashes and at two points there are cue cards displaying ‘Scene Missing’ as though we are watching a rough cut. A couple of times we deliberately see glimpses of the film reality broken with clear shots of a camera crane. One can’t always be sure that every effect achieved is on purpose.

Apparently fellow director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s mockery of Hopper’s original cut caused him to scrap a more conventional narrative and re-edit the film into the released cut.  On reflection, although the film is curiously even wilfully alienating, it’s also arguably ahead of its time with stylistic elements (such as that abrupt ending) that foreshadow ‘found-footage’ horror films like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT.  Hopper took £1m of Universal’s money and dared us to accept a non-linear western mind-trip almost as an artistic crusade. Somehow that almost suicidal bravery validates itself in this case whether it succeeds or fails. I’m not sure which is the case here but I’m very glad that the courage not to play safe could be found here; this was a time in Hollywood where men like Dennis Hopper were briefly entrusted to let that be a film-making credo.

Despite winning the Venice Film Festival, THE LAST MOVIE was shelved by Universal after only two days of release. The studio even accused Hopper of having bought the award. The fall-out set him back from being the golden boy co-creator of EASY RIDER to being offered only an acting role in KID BLUE (1973). Subsequently, his frustration descended into alcoholism…

Anyone who didn’t know what Dennis Hopper looked like would be forgiven for thinking that Carson and Schiller’s THE AMERICAN DREAMER (1971) was a fly-on-the-wall documentary about Charles Manson and his ‘family’ instead of following Hopper in the aftermath of filming THE LAST MOVIE . With his stringy hair, scraggly beard and lascivious grins he’s almost a dead ringer. Not only this but much like the crazed cult leader, filmed in his compound in Taos, New Mexico the director is similarly surrounded by a houseful of attractive young women, hanging on his every word. This turned out to have been partly due to an open-house policy that allowed in celebrities and all sorts. He’s clearly having the time of his life as ruler of his kingdom, even when he doesn’t seem to know what time it actually is.  It’s a miracle the film was finished at all, especially with his divorce from Michelle Phillips and a blizzard of coke and booze around. When not expounding in rambling fashion on any subject that comes to mind, he’s romping in the tub with two of his acolytes in soft-porn montages. It’s like a grungy Playboy Mansion.

The documentary is a portrait of the artist, rather than a making-of about THE LAST MOVIE so our glimpses are restricted to a few interesting but fleeting moments in post-production. Amidst some interminable but occasionally lively monologues to camera, we see him supervising the film’s editing. ‘It’s so boring’ he mutters good-naturedly. He laboured for eighteen months with a team of three editors to distil the film down from forty eight hours of footage. As an archive piece, THE AMERICAN DREAMER is also a reminder of how loud the old analogue edit bays were before digital came in. Hopper can barely be heard at times. This is not always a disservice as the content of his mini-lectures under the influence of the mind-altering substances are rendered cloudy to say the least. He comes across as alternately very entertaining and also tiresome, like the party guest you avoid who makes progressively less sense the more they talk. Like Bill Murray’s spaced-out playwright in TOOTSIE, Hopper is given to outlandish manifestos: ‘I’d like to make movies on the moon’ and yet is somewhat intolerant of anyone else’s opinion. The film-makers share their subject's inability to hear much of anyone else’s; revealingly, when a young woman attempts to get a work in, Hopper berates her 'You're full of emotion but you don't listen. I listen!'

Clearly, he was genuinely striving to challenge the status quo with his work, but his substance abuse in this era was disastrously derailing his expression. A continual eye (and more) for the ladies also keeps comically side-tracking the serious points he wants to make. He compares his artistic struggle with Orson Welles in their studio-sabotaged mutual need to appeal to an intelligent audience – but when he dismisses the typical crowd as ‘cheerleaders’ he then rhapsodises about those girls: ‘I wish I had more coverage of them’. At one point, he is filmed walking through a housing estate in Los Alamos. His voice-over recounts a need to rattle the suburban mind-set, so as the camera follows him he sheds his clothes and proceeds down the middle of the road butt-naked.

THE AMERICAN DREAMER is a meandering film but a revealing document nonetheless. We get to see his marvellous photographic work which shows us another of his talents, capturing real people in mesmerising poses. This was what led him to become interested in becoming a film director more so than an actor. Unfortunately, the clearest theme depicted is Hopper’s fractured state of mind back then, which his success allowed him to indulge further. This was a long and tortured road-trip that crashes  all too visibly on the set of APOCALYPSE NOW in his very real addled character of the photographer (who was simply Hopper going virtually feral in the jungle in preparation). Thankfully, he managed to rescue himself and enjoyed a tremendously healthy and critically-acclaimed second act in his life and career.

Thursday, 23 July 2015



A richly-rewarded follow-on and justly so, THE GODFATHER PART II is often deservedly sited as one of a very rare breed of sequels that surpasses the original. This second part of the trilogy spectacularly gives audiences more of what they love in the continuing story of the Corleone’s - whilst adding a parallel plotline detailing the rise to power of the immigrant Vito, the family founder. There was no sitting on laurels here. Coppola and Puzo worked to give us essentially two consummately staged films in one.

In the ongoing saga of Michael’s rule, Part Two is about the maintenance of power now that he is established in the 1950s. Once business dominance is achieved, paranoia sets in;  there will always be competition ready to take his place, and expansion (into gambling in this case) must be considered as part of survival.  Michael finds pressure from all sides. He receives ethnic slurs and resistance from Nevada senator Pat Geary regarding his gaming license; his wife Kay (the always terrific Diane Keaton) gradually understands that she must free herself from his corrupt tyranny, his sister Connie (Talia Shire) defies him with a continual stream of unsuitable parasitic beaus and an assassination attempt is made on him while at home.

Meanwhile, expertly intercut with these scenes we see the growth of Michael’s father, the young Vito Andolini (Robert De Niro). From his mafia-fleeing childhood in Sicily through his arrival as a penniless non-English speaking boy processed at Ellis Island immigration office like a parcel, this second narrative is a compelling portrait in how talent finds its own level in the American Dream. Vito leaves behind a mother and brother killed by a mafia chieftain and his surname is dismissively changed at immigration to the town he came from. This young man though is a natural businessman and student of human nature, who develops the dual approaches both of expert diplomacy and ruthlessness in service of his aims that will serve him successfully as a life-long code. As he grows to maturity, he negotiates on behalf of an almost-evicted tenant and manages to equally bring the greedy landlord on side as well by appealing to future benefits for both, establishing himself as a man of integrity and friend to the underdog. At the same time, he erases the rapacious Don Fanucci, an evil local mafia hood, without any moral qualms after a brilliantly-staged single-take pursuit of his prey across the rooftops. It is just business - but business with a heart as it protects his interests and the powerless people of the neighbourhood.

As Vito, De Niro rightly won an Academy Award for his chameleon-like absorption into the role. He spent time in Sicily learning the dialect, very different to mainstream Italian as I know from experience, and also studied videotapes of Brando’s performance as the older man to capture his more noticeable physical traits (Watch his facial expressions as he dotes over his ill baby Santino/Sonny’s cot).

Eventually, the man must restore the blood debt owed as a child. Vito Corleone returns to Sicily where once more he comes face-to-face with the now decrepit mafia chieftain who killed his mother. He cunningly inveigles his way into the chief’s compound with a gift of his name-brand olive oil and murders his life-long enemy in cold blood but with mitigation. His mother’s honour is at least restored in Sicilian eye-for-an-eye fashion.

Back in the 50s, Michael’s mendacity toward his wife is matched by his perjury in court on organised-crime charges. Unlike his father, there is nothing he will not do to protect his own interests. He arranges the subtle threatening of a key witness, his old friend Frank Pentangeli by the meaningful appearance of his brother, shipped in to warn Pentangeli of familial consequences for betrayal. Michael also crosses another line his father would never have allowed when he has his weak liability brother Fredo killed, but only after their mother has passed away. This is chillingly foreshadowed at a New Year’s Eve party where he almost literally plants the kiss of death on his treacherous sibling: ‘I knew it was you, Fredo’.

As in the first film, the field is ultimately wiped clean as the modern-day Don has all his enemies assassinated, including a quietly powerful Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth, the Miami mafia boss who ‘Always makes money for his partners’. Pacino persuaded his old acting mentor Strasberg out of retirement to play the part which gained him an Oscar nomination for a memorable cameo.
In the end Michael is alone on a park bench, as all men must be whose ruthlessness and paranoia allows them to trust no-one and alienate all whose love could humanise them. One of the tragedies in the course of events of the GODFATHER films is the more innocent life path never taken by this Ivy-League graduate if only he had not been forced to take over the family business and turn to the dark side (arguably his own doing) to hold on to it. In an epilogue flashback, we see him displaying even as a young man that he walks his own path. At his father’s birthday party, while the family await the elder Don, he reveals to their disappointment that he has joined the army. (Incidentally, that scene was hastily improvised due to a no-show from Brando causing Coppola to rethink what to do instead)

Coppola shared Michael’s pinnacle of influence as the film opened. He would never again reach the dizzying height of combined box-office and critical acclaim that defined the years 1972-1974 for him. despite the undeniable though long-gestated brilliance of APOCALYPSE NOW. Listening to the audio commentaries on the trilogy box set recorded many years after, he clearly recognised this rise and fall in his career. He went from a climb to power in the first film’s creation, through a confident creative use of it in the sequel once success was established, to poignantly having to prove himself all over again sixteen years later when returning for the unfairly-maligned GODFATHER PART III. This epic sweep mirrors the Shakespearian history play feel that the trilogy has, and their longevity is a timeless triumph nonetheless.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015



So much analysis has been done on Coppola's GODFATHER films that it's easy to forget how much risk-taking was involved in bringing Mario Puzo's best-selling novel to the screen. An enormous responsibility weighed on its young director Francis Ford Coppola who had the artistic sensibility of his films seeming always to reflect the circumstances of their actual making. APOCALYPSE NOW became a film about itself: the surviving of harsh and strange conditions, personal foibles and an existential ever-changing script meditating on war and the inner self. THE GODFATHER and it's first sequel reflected the skilfull and cunning acquisition of power and then the use and maintenance of that influence both in the fictional business world of the Corleones and the 'real' commercial world of Hollywood.

Initially, Paramount frequently challenged Coppola's authority even as he prepared THE GODFATHER. Although he was an Academy Award-winning screen-writer, his directing career had yet to yield any blockbuster hits. Amidst the other pressures they leaned on him to ditch the unknown Al Pacino as Michael, but Coppola had great instincts for casting and the courage to defend his choices (helped in this case by his wife pointing out the sex appeal Pacino would have for female viewers). The studio was also extremely dubious about having Brando as Don Vito as by now his reputation for eccentric trouble-making was fully established. The director craftily circumvented his actor's nerves and fragile ego by disguising a screen test as one intended just for make-up. This allowed Brando the creative fun of transforming his age, hair and mouth shape literally before his eyes on camera which then sealed the deal for the executives. Also noteworthy is the star-making inclusion of James Caan as the volatile Sonny, every inch the macho Italian stallion yet Jewish in real-life.

As an accomplished writer sensitive to the talents of other writers as much as actors, Coppola also had the wisdom to use as much of Puzo's brilliant novel as he could when constructing the screenplay with him. He pasted the actual book pages into a binder he took everywhere and stuck very faithfully to most of the book's plot and rich dialogue, only removing what there simply wasn't time to translate from a six hundred page original source (i.e. Johnny Fontaine's later career as a Tinseltown mogul).

Coppola surrounded himself with more wonderful collaborators behind the camera as well. The look of THE GODFATHER is largely due to the gorgeous shadowy browns and blacks of Gordon Willis's cinematography, partially obscuring the faces of men whose innermost thoughts 'Never let people know what you're thinking'. The opening computer-tracked shot as the undertaker prefaces his request for revenge murder with a speech about his adopted homeland is a masterpiece of controlled visuals that introduce us to the calm measured judgments meted out by Don Vito.

Another aspect of the display of authority that's so appealing in the film is the subtle use of verbal coercion. The Corleone tactic is firstly to appeal elegantly to the mutual benefit that granting the 'favour' will bring to the proposed giver: 'My father made him an offer he couldn't refuse'. If this fails, a more heavily-nuanced suggestion is then applied. Only if this doesn't work would violence be the last resort. It's highly-intelligent and attractive pyschology that appears to flatter the customer with respect yet always comes from a position of utter confidence in victory. It has influenced every gangster movie's villain portrayals ever after by seeming to conceal the utmost power within an air of relaxed negotiation. When producer Jack Woltz refuses to grant the Sinatra-inspired Johnny Fontaine the dream film role he needs. consigliere Tom Hagen (the excellent Robert Duvall) admirably conceals any frustration even under a torrent of racial abuse. He politely makes to go, remarking 'Mr Corleone is a man who likes to hear bad new immediately'. This chillingly plain parting shot leads inexorably to the infamous horse's head in the bed final offer.

One of the most famous scenes in the film is a classic example of mature control of emotion and technique. When Michael inserts himself into the family business to assassinate Sollozzo and Capt. McCluskey at the restaurant, it is composed of an incredibly tense build-up to his first criminal act, Pacino superbly conveys the sense that though this is alien to him, he will commit murder through supreme self-control. Coppola wisely focuses on his face registering almost imperceptible shifts of moment-to-moment mindfulness till he stands and shoots both men in cold blood before fleeing.

By the end of the film, when Michael ascends to the ultimate authority of Don and closes the door on his wife and us, it is not just this young man who has come to power. It is also Francis Ford Coppola. His next film THE CONVERSATION would build quietly on that new confidence before the masterful second act of his GODFATHER trilogy brought him to the peak of his career. Both were made in this same era and will be covered in future blogs...

Monday, 20 July 2015

THE TRIP (1967)

THE TRIP (1967)

This psychedelic account of LSD and its effects is neither a high nor a 'bummer' - it's entertainingly, hilariously bad - yet strangely watchable and valid as a period piece.

Beginning with a sober disclaimer warning of the societal dangers of taking the drug, the film delivers us a cinematic trip that would probably put anyone off experimenting with mind-altering chemicals, including film studios. This Jack Nicholson scripted, Roger Corman directed exploitation vehicle introduces us to Paul Groves (Peter Fonda) a TV commercials director undergoing divorce and possibly a lobotomy judging by his performance. He decides to try taking LSD to expand his consciousness and acting ability, facilitated by Bruce Dern as his bearded groovy guide (always a warning sign) and a clean-cut beaded Dennis Hopper as his friend/nemesis - and for the next hour he takes us on a journey through his altered state of mind and the real L.A streets in his pursuit of the truth. Or something.

There's a number of enjoyable things about this movie. The dialogue is highly amusing and quotable, composed of quaintly dated periodisms: 'You're beautiful, man',  'Groovy'. At one point, as the fear grips him Fonda becomes paranoid about Dern's motives: 'Don’t make any demands on my head, man. I know your scene!'. There are even unintentional double entendres; 'I just flashed a girl' says Fonda in wonderment, getting his first vision (possibly of impending arrest).

Our hero is soon interrogated by an LSD dream version of Hopper, who cross-examines him about the spiritual bankruptcy of his work and bombards him with such topical slide images as LBJ and Sophia Loren. He decodes them for Fonda with meaningful meaninglessness:  'The messengers were infants...and the very very old'. The defendant counters: 'It's a living', (incidentally the same defence Dom Deluise uses for dressing up as Captain Chaos in THE CANNONBALL RUN). The script is full of impenetrable, heavy-handed symbolic references like this. They may be connected to the Reichian sexual energy Nicholson was exploring back then. Your guess is as good as mine. Earlier, Dern is enchanted by the way Fonda  talks about ‘The LIVING room…’ stressing the word to hammer home an inexplicable point. The young drug voyager is forced to plead guilty and the flashes back, forwards and sideways continue thick and fast.

Fonda's naive central character is also entertaining in the absurd fast-cut hallucinogenic sequences that ensue. He imagines himself running across desert dunes in a puffy-sleeved shirt like a Spanish waiter in a Turkish Delight advert (a deliberate satire of his work?), intercut with imagining himself ritually burnt at a funeral by medieval monks and midgets. These crazily-edited location images foreshadow Nicholson and Rafelson's HEAD which they made the following year. Regardless, mostly strolling around in his real-world v-neck sweater and slacks, Fonda somehow handles these bizarre assaults on his psyche like a pro, a slightly perplexed golf pro actually. At other times he has a peculiarly endearing way of trying to earnestly explain what he is experiencing, but comes across as a gauche Blue Peter presenter reporting from Woodstock. When not extolling the infinite depths inherent in an orange, he is spellbound by the workings of a launderette washing machine. He notices a young woman awaiting her wash and asks with frightening intensity 'Can I talk to YOU?' She returns his serve with the schoolboy snigger-inducer 'I've got a big load in there'. There's a big load out here too and in the last few minutes we're subjected to a curiously exhilarating long barrage of rapid-fire subliminal images summarising the trip so far until finally Fonda 'comes down', feeling that his innr journey has been worthwhile. The final image is an optical effect of his face shattering like a portrait: a striking image yet we’re unsure what it signifies. The breaking down of his old self-image? His disappointed agent dumping his promotional photos?

I should mention that the version I saw was only seventy-nine minutes, which suggests it was cut. I'd be intrigued to see more despite a suspicion that a longer trip is not necessarily a more enlightening one..

Amidst the pretensious psychobabble, the film is fun, stylistically challenging and has some infectious late 60s psychedelic music underscoring the travels. The modish use of in-camera slide projection effects onto faces and bodies is also very effective.  It’s a truly trippy, bonkers curio of themes and attitudes that manages to capture a counter-culture moment in time.

Turn on, tune in, and if you like eccentric celluloid archive pieces don't drop out....


DAD'S ARMY (1971)

One of the better British sitcom translations from the early 70s inexplicable boom, this transfer of the much-loved show is essentially an origin story. It shows how the the titular Walmington-On-Sea's Home Guard is initially formed under its long-suffering Capt Mainwaring (Arthur Lowe)

At the start we see their leader in his civilian life as manager of Martin's Bank supported by the splendidly languid Wilson (John Le Mesurier) in a cinematic tracking shot along civvy street that takes in Jones the Butcher, Frazer the undertaker and the suitcase spiv dealings of Walker. All the welcome cast of the TV series are intact.

When the threat of coastal invasion looms courtesy of some unevenly-accented 'Chermans' (one pronounces 'General' with the English 'j' sound), the elder men of the town rush to do their bit. Pike, the mother's boy is the lone youth - and here his over-cosseted background is notably hinted as being more paternally-helped by Wilson than simply being the lanky boy's 'Uncle Arthur'.

Anyway, cometh the hour cometh the man as Mainwaring cuts through the red-tape to launch the Home Guard with himself installed as commanding officer. The composition of ranks is meant to reflect their status in the town, though conveniently he does not defer to the actual General in the squad and gifts Jones a corporal rank in return for a bribe of sausages. The full flowering of his self-serving class pretensions so vital to his character emerge here, strengthened when he falls foul of Bernard Archard's haughty customer refused a cheque-cashing and presuming him to be a mere 'bank clerk'. Unfortunately Mainwaring is later to discover he is a higher-ranked real military officer (and sinister Marcus Scarman in the classic Doctor Who story THE PYRAMIDS OF FEAR).

The film captures all the characters' foibles and catchphrases from the original series with a nice sense of mocking not their admirable intentions but their charming naivete. ( e.g the anti-tank gun whose missiles home plummet back destructively to their source and the impractical molotov cocktails). These absurd shenanigans are balanced with a sincere appreciation of the patriotism and uncommon bravery from common men in those times. Director Norman Cohen again adds cinematic style to a lovely silhouetted shot of Mainwaring and Wilson on a hillside as the leader celebrates his beloved land with a touching oh-so British understatement. In the tense Mexican stand-off climax the Guard reveal real courage, Mainwaring threatening the Germans officer that "If you shoot me, there are seven men to take my place".

DAD'S ARMY works in the way that all sitcom spin-off movies should. It gives the fans what they love about the series with added depth that doesn't dilute or pad out the comedy.  Eagle-eyed viewers may spot that Lowe is not present in the drill scenes of the unit marching through the countryside in their underwear . This was due to a contract clause protecting his dignity from being exposed sans trousers. However, the dignity of these home-made soldiers keen to defend their homeland is never forgotten amongst the laughs.