Tuesday, 22 September 2015

No. 68 - Mike Nichols - Part III: CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971)


After CATCH 22, Mike Nichols returned to the modern day but with equally challenging material in CARNAL KNOWLEDGE from a screenplay by Jules Feiffer that was originally intended as a play. It’s a very frank, adult depiction of sex and relationships between men and women covering the college years to middle-age in the lives of two best friends and how their attitudes to their needs define their future happiness.

Art Garfunkel is Sandy, the virginal, gauche one of the two. Jack Nicholson is Jonathan - who even as an undergraduate talks a wise experienced game as though he is a master seducer of women, lecturing his friend on what to do. Nicholson’s needs are shallower: ‘big tits’ attached to a nice body are really the vital pre-requisites. Garfunkel is a shade more romantic and idealistic yet his nice-guy bourgeois blandness is no more a guarantee of his later fulfilment than Nicholson’s wolfish bad-boy promiscuity. Both men change partners during the film; their sexual history at the start maps out their characteristic flaws – Garfunkel’s technique with women is clumsy, impatient – whereas Jonathan has less morals. He seduces Sandy’s girlfriend Susan (Candice Bergen) behind Sandy’s back, taking her virginity before his friend and continuing to see her without his knowledge.

Into the second act, by now Sandy has settled into dull domesticity while Jonathan has shacked up with Bobbi, the curvy Ann Marget (whom he would later team up with again in Ken Russell’s TOMMY). She is a model possessed of the looks, lack of inhibition and big boobs that satisfy his simple cravings – however she is miserable and craves marriage to give her life meaning. As she fails to please him or nourish herself, she deteriorates into a drudgery of compensatory over-sleeping, their sex life that was their only bond becoming moribund until eventually, uncared for, she attempts suicide.

As the story deepens and time passes, each man achieves career security, Jonathan as a lawyer, Sandy as a doctor - but neither man’s maturity has extended to their constant impulse to seek new, perceived better, partners. Sandy actually switches roles with Jonathan, gradually seeing himself as the counsellor, encouraging Jonathan to make a pass at his later girlfriend Cindy (Cynthia O’Neal) who proves more than a match for Nicholson’s ‘player’ tactics.

As the ‘60s end, female emancipation adds to Jonathan’s resentment of women, exacerbated by his impotence. In the middle-aged conclusion, he presents Sandy and his latest 18 year-old partner Jennifer (Carol Kane) with a slide-show of his conquests entitled ‘Ballbusters on Parade’ coupled with a sour running commentary. Jennifer is offended so they leave. Jonathan is all-at-sea and apologises to Sandy who is now full of modish encounter group pseudo-profundity for him, yet lacks the self-awareness to see his own mid-life crisis in his choices of women. Sandy calls Jennifer his ‘love teacher’ and crows about her beguiling youthful wisdom compared to Susan, failing to realise this is just his version of always looking for greener grass. Jonathan sees through his friend’s latest transient state but at least Sandy seems to find pleasure. Jonathan is reduced to paying experienced hooker Rita Moreno to recite well-rehearsed patter that swells his ego and hopefully his penis every visit.

CARNAL KNOWLEDGE is a brave and honest look at male and female sexual politics, which earned some critical disapproval for its reflection of a new openness and casuality about sex in modern western society. As in THE GRADUATE, Mike Nichols shows great sensitivity with the cast in long exploratory takes, and artful cinematography uses shadow to conceal the protagonists’ innermost conflicts (such as Jonathan’s break-up ‘phone conversation in the hallway).  An inciteful sign of the times…

No.67. Mike Nichols - Part II: CATCH 22 (1970)

 CATCH 22 (1970)

At the beginning of the 1970s as war in Vietman raged, consuming thousands of American soldiers on its misguided bonfire, revolt against the unjustified military waste of lives wasn’t just protested on the streets. Film-makers with a conscience took up arms too, another reason why this period is so resonant for me to focus on in my blog. Robert Altman targeted the insanity of US foreign policy and the senseless slaughter of the young by disguising it under the retro banner of setting the brilliant M*A*S*H during the earlier Korean War.

With CATCH 22, the equally revered theatre and film director Mike ‘THE GRADUATE’ Nichols and celebrated writer Buck Henry took Joseph Heller’s WWII novel, published in 1961 and used its past setting to comment with even darker satire on the then current war in South-East Asia. It’s a madcap and twisted collection of insane characters that all live in their own crazy reality on a fictional Mediterranean army base. They orbit around Bombardier Capt. Yossarian (a career high for Alan Arkin), a tightly-wound ball of tense paranoia on the constant verge of cracking up. His symptoms actually mark him out as being possibly the only sane person on the base. Everyone else seems to have developed bizarre idiosyncratic ways of coping with their situation which he cannot agree with. Sadly, that’s the problem - his relatively healthy mind-set means he cannot claim to be crazy enough to get out of the ever-rising number of bombing missions set by the brusquely plebeian Colonel Cathcart (Martin Balsam). He tries to get the marvellous Jack Gilford (as Doc Daneeka) to sign him off the lusicrously dangerous runs, but Daneeka’s hands are tied. He invokes ‘Catch 22’ – which he explains as “Anyone who wants to get out of combat isn’t really crazy – so I can’t ground them”. There’s the rub; “That’s some catch, that Catch 22” exclaims Yossarian. Daneeka is similarly admiring of its infuriatingly water-tight logic: “It’s the best there is”.

Including Balsam and Gilford, CATCH 22 has one of the biggest gatherings of top American talent in one film, no doubt helped by Nichols being in charge. It is especially impressive for its character actors. Richard Benjamin’s Major Danby is a gently crackers officer who announces missions in a sing-song bedtime story narration that clearly nails him as seriously out of touch with the grave consequences of his work. Charles Grodin is Capt. Aardvark, a pipe man whose calm exterior conceals a later alarming homicidal tendency. Bob Balaban’s Captain Orr is a rare chance to see him relaxed rather than the nervy nebbish he later plays so much – in fact he’s disconcertingly so, waiting patiently in his superior’s waiting room whilst dripping wet from being fished out of the sea for the umpteenth time. Anthony Perkins is a splendidly brittle and self-conscious Chaplain Tappman. Bob Newhart makes a hilarious Major Major, a paranoid over-promoted officer who dodges any interaction by always being out of the office, as he instructs the bemused Norman Fell.

Amongst the bigger leading names we have Martin Sheen’s Lt Dobbs, who first, unwittingly, introduces us to the circular logic in an argument with Yossarian that has our man at least making it work for him:
DOBBS: “Just suppose everyone thought the way you do”
YOSSARIAN: “Then I’d be a damn fool to think any different”.
Further into the plot, Dobbs decides to kill his commanding officer and goes missing to be heard about at the end.

John Voight is a winningly loopy Lt. Milo Minderbinder, whose entrepreneurial bent has him turning the base into a giant syndicate that trades all of its raw materials including parachute silk, morphine and military hardware in return for other goods to make a profit. Share certificates are given out but prove small consolation to dead men. Art Garfunkel is a blissfully serene Nately, who is glad of the increasing missions as he intends to never go home, instead shacking up with the love of his life whom he doesn’t understand is a professional prostitute using him.

Probably the most vivid character cameo of all is the terrifying General Dreedle - who else but the towering presence of Orson Welles? He roars into the base, intimidating all and sundry and generating at least some vestige of normalcy in his men via their tortured moans over his lusciously pneumatic girlfriend. Dreedle doesn’t suffer fools gladly, even within his intimate relations. “Get back in the car, you smirking slut”, he orders her, savouring such outrageous gem lines as these. His son-in-law, the great Austin Pendleton, gets similarly short shrift as his nincompoop son-in-law who continually reminds him of the perils of nepotism: “Don’t pay any attention to Dad”. Later, when Dreedle has to give a medal to the stragetically naked on parade Yossarian, he eyes the Bombardier with ill-disguised contempt: “You’re a very weird person, Yossarian”.

For much of the film, there is a recurring dreamlike series of vignettes featuring dazzling white backgrounds suggesting Heaven. We are gradually bled in scenes of Yossarian struggling with a dying crewman on board his plane, Snowden in surreal sequences that are peculiarly calming amongst the madness, until Snowden fatally bleeds out his entrails in gruesome detail.
As the film gets into its third act, the tone becomes progressively darker. Yossarian ventures into Rome, befriending an old cunning Italian man in his home who later disappears, we see male prostitutes and a farmer shipping his dead carthorse in a back street and the chilling discovery of Aardvark having casually raped and then killed a hooker. Hungry Joe, one of the crewmen, is cut in half by a bi-plane piloted by a colleague. McWatt, who was jealous over Yossarian’s romance with an American beauty. Daneeka is at their side watching the plane crash into a cliff-face, assuring the group that he is not on board, but he was all along and is a spectral presence.

Yossarian laments the waste of his life and the war, summing up the sum total of his former friendships around him: “Nately was blown to bits. McWatt killed himself. Hungry Joe’s chopped in two. Dobbs disappeared. Aardvark’s a murderer. Doc Daneeka’s a zombie. The only friend I had is Snowden – and I didn’t know him”.

The film ends though in upbeat, abandoned fashion as Yossarian finds out that Dobbs survived and got away. On hearing this, he tears off his uniform in delirious joy and dashes into the sea, paddling a dinghy as the camera pulls back to render him a speck on the ocean. It’s a gloriously futile way to go but what other option is there for a man trapped in insanity?

CATCH 22 is a fantastic, surreal, complex, dark and deranged satire that arguably makes sense of the climate of greater madness in serving someone else’s war machine. Like M*A*S *H, it’s a film whose themes will never date as the supposedly civilised western world’s governments and military continually find new reasons and agendas to throw men and women callously to their deaths...

Sunday, 20 September 2015

No 66. Mike Nichols - Part 1: THE GRADUATE (1967)


There’s a number of reasons why I deliberately chose 1967 as the beginning year of my favourite period in film-making. Aside from being a vital time in infusing film with the political and social engagement of western youth, it was also a hugely fertile era in the drug and music inspired counter-culture; the release of SERGEANT PEPPER (the birth of the concept music album) and experimentation with form and technique in movies. Another exciting mould-breaking aspect was in the casting of Hollywood and British films.

Already by the mid-‘60s, Britain had seen the rise of a new generation of working-class actors who challenged the long-held notion that only attractive and well-groomed, middle class Rank charm School-type actors could play leading roles. Till then, If you sounded ‘common’ or looked somewhat average, you were relegated into patronisingly depicted character parts who provided colourful cockney chimney sweep support, for example, to the heroic handsome leading man. Actors like Michael Caine, Albert Finney, Terence Stamp, and Tom Courtenay not only emerged in films as viable bankable talent but in a period when working-class credibility contributed to pop music, fashion and more, their lives on screen became the focus of a film’s central interest instead of background detail. Films like SATURDAY NIGHT, SUNDAY MORNING; THE LONELINELESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER and Michael Caine’s bespectacled, low-key anti-Bond in the spy thriller THE IPCRESS FILE all injected new life and interesting stories that better reflected the real world of the movie-goer.

State-side, Hollywood was somewhat slower to respond to this egalitarian shift…until Mike Nichols went looking for the main part of Benjamin Braddock in his film of THE GRADUATE. In Calder Willingham/Buck Henry’s script, Ben is very much the tall, blond athletic Ivy League educated WASP – essentially a Robert Redford type. In the film, you hear him celebrated on his homecoming by family and frends as the ‘track star’. Nichols was daring and shrewd in choosing the antithesis of this in Dustin Hoffman, a diminutive, dark-haired Jewish actor but who gave Ben more interesting qualities than someone like Redford would naturally. Hoffman suffered from veiled anti-semitism in the reviews of the film, his large nose drawing comment aside from other physical comparisons, but in his physicality and behaviour as Ben he is instantly sympathetic. Whilst Redford would not have been a loss in the role, his movie-star looks and an assumed appeal to college girls would have made his virginity and seduction by Mrs Robinson far less believable.

Hoffman’s appeal is an ill-at-ease fumbling, a willingness to do and say the right thing with his family’s friends, to be the model graduate student – and it’s unfair to say he doesn’t embody something of the winning physicality. He clearly trained hard to develop a good physique and tan for the role, but it masks a little-boy-lost who is all potential but no idea what to do with it when he comes home to begin his adult life. Amidst the excellent actors populating the older generation of his people are William Daniels and Elisabeth Wilson as his pushy socially-focused parents and Murray Hamilton as the glib Mr Robinson.

Nichols is skillful at ensuring we are on Ben’s side right from the opening, the camera tracking him closely from the airport travelator and on to his home. He is surrounded by a bombardment of family and friends all backslapping him and asking his plans, one well-meaning elder giving him the famously gnomic tip-off of the future: “One word. Plastics!”. His closely-followed vacation humiliation continues at his 21st birthday party when forced by his somewhat insensitive father to parade in a present of full diving gear. We see the partygoers from Ben’s point-of-view as he breathes loudly through the respirator going in and under the water , a brilliant technique that isolates us from their noisy good intentions and identifies with his. He leans against the pool wall enjoying the peace in a nice pull-back that reinforced how alone he is. The mood of this shot has been echoed by countless indie film-makers since.

The two female leads are equal to the task of matching Hoffman in striking and sympathetic characterisations of their own. As Mrs Robinson, Anne Bancroft is a perfectly-realised portrait of bored, spoilt, disappointed wealth. Her humdrum life is passionless, a monotonous directionless playing-out of routine dulled by alcohol. She is nobody’s fool though. Bancroft commands her space elegantly, her privileged lifestyle assuming the compliance of waiters, and of Ben with feminine wiles. She is beautiful but covers up a youth of crushed dreams, sidelined by the unexpected birth of their daughter Elaine and now distracted when she can with affairs to retain some ego boosting and booze to forget the rest. It’s not clear whether Mrs Robinson is accustomed to regular cheating when she seduces Ben. She is certainly practised at getting her own way and betrays nervousness at the activity – unlike him. The build-up to the consummation of the adultery is cringingly funny. Hoffman’s ‘phone conversations with her, his awkward relations with the hotel reception staff, the crippling need to avoid social embarrassment, all met with serene and puzzled grace by Bancroft, right up to the cunning way she goads him into taking her by mocking his perceived ‘inadequacy’.
As Elaine, Katharine Ross is not only gorgeous but also instills a male desire to protect her like a delicate flower. I don’t care if that sounds sexist. I defy any male not to feel huge empathy for her when Ben takes her out on their date unwillingly and subjects her to a rude inappropriate front-row show of a stripper swinging her tassles at her. Her innocent confusion and tears are heart-breaking. Ben is full of remorse, breaking though the pose of trying to put her off out of a deal he made to continue seeing her mother – realising that this truly is the woman for him.

Ben is then given a purpose for the first time since the plot started, to win Elaine at all costs, against her family’s opposition (the affair has been outed by Mrs Robinson, cynically spinning herself as raped to cause extra hardship for Ben) and Elaine’s hastily arranged marriage to someone she doesn’t love. Hoffman goes into overdrive, committing hell-bent to the emotional nakedness of his need for her, uncaring of the consequences. There’s a welcome cameo by Norman Fell as his temporary landlord, a slow-burning disapproving of Ben’s volatile love-life -  and a fleeting glimpse of young Richard Dreyfus as a nosy student offering to call the cops.

Hoffman amps up the stakes by literally running after Elaine and then turning up at the church in what has since become a staple climax of rom-coms. It’s a crowd-pleasing moment when he presses himself to the upper-window glass, screaming Elaine’s name as the wedding service ends. Amidst the cleverly-silenced ferocious curses of her parents, Elaine screams his name back primally like a mating call and they fight off the attendees to escape onto a bus. The closing image of them is a subtly-played and directed two-shot as their adrenaline gradually subsides into a dawning understanding that they no idea what their future prospects will be  - in a world without parental support and a love that is uncertain…

A special mention must go to the sublime, evocative Simon and Garfunkel songs liberally woven into the film. Wistful, urgent, clean and bright or darker-toned, their work is one of the best uses of pop music in modern film.

THE GRADUATE paved the way for actors like Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Robert Duvall and Richard Dreyfus, top talent whose appearance in a former age would have consigned them to playing heavies and character parts, to inhabit central roles that would immensely enrich the film they made. This film is deservedly a classic not just for its quality but for what it represents in breaking stereotypes…