Thursday, 5 November 2015

No.93 Unusual Romances - Part 2 - LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1972)


“I want you to put your fingers up my ass”.

No, it’s not BRIEF ENCOUNTER. This infamous line comes from a very different type of romance: Bernardo Bertolucci’s LAST TANGO IN PARIS, notorious in it’s time for a physically and verbally graphic sexuality that caused a furore for American censors and our own BBFC when it came to classifying it for UK release in 1973.

The opening credits depict two of Francis Bacon’s famously troubling and facially distorted paintings, foreshadowing that despite the title, we are heading for anything but dreamy chocolate-box glamour.  We are shown separate male and female portraits of damaged, isolated lives which are then placed side by side. Set in Paris, the story unfolds as a recently-widowed American, Paul (Marlon Brando), distraught over the sudden suicide of his wife, meets a young French woman, Jeanne (Romy Scheider) when they both view the same apartment. They spontaneously couple in rough, urgent sex and begin an affair with strictly controlled rules at Paul’s insistence. They are to remain anonymous to each other: “We don’t need names here”. They must reveal nothing of their real lives either, and no reference to the world beyond the apartment. “Everything outside this room is bullshit” Paul declares. Theirs will be a convenient and controlled false reality - on his terms.

Whilst seeing Paul, Jeanne has an ongoing relationship with a pretentious film-maker boyfriend Thomas, (Jean-Pierre Leaud, famous for his work with Truffaut beginning with LES QUATRE CENT COUPS), who relentlessly films everything she does for some vaguely-mentioned movie. In that respect, she is simply trading one fake and exploitative relationship for another.

Inevitably, the retreating couple (if you can call such an emotionally isolated pairing this) begin to share details of themselves; what passes for post-coital intimacy causing them to recount their family backgrounds. This is the most interesting aspect of the film as allegedly Brando willingly improvised at length in one such scene, choosing to bare details of his difficult real-life upbringing. In his autobiography, Brando said that Bertolucci “..wanted me to play myself, to improvise completely and portray Paul as if he were an autobiographical mirror of me.” He did this willingly, the product of many sessions unburdening himself cathartically with the director in preparation for the role. Bertolucci arranged for full magazines of film to be loaded, which in the pre-digital era allowed a maximum of ten minutes’ recording, and simply let Brando loose. He recounts his alcoholic parents in pitiless, uncomfortable detail, bitterly describing a father who was “a whore-fucker… tough…super-masculine” and a mother “Poetic…also a drunk” whom he remembers once being arrested in the nude. He is more sympathetic to her, but these moments hint at why Paul may be so constipated in the soul in the present day. They also helped to earn Brando the actor an Oscar nomination (likewise Bertolucci).

Scheider did not likewise go beyond the part into revealing her real self on camera, yet in later life by association she was mistakenly viewed as giving an equally autobiographical performance. This was the least of her concerns. In a Daily Mail interview in July 2007, she recalled the physical sufferance she was exposed to on set much more against her will. In the filming of the infamous ‘butter sodomy’ scene where Paul lubricates himself with a little dairy help and then takes Jeanne forcibly via the road less travelled, she felt “…humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci.”. Despite this sequence, an idea of Brando’s not in the original script, Scheider forged a close relationship with her co-star. Contrary to rumours, all of their sex scenes were faked, not done for real, though of course that kind of speculation never harms the box-office for a cynical studio.

To be fair to Brando, his request line quoted at the start of this review puts his character on the receiving end of a compromising moment of his own, but it’s hard to ignore a recurring theme of this period in cinema of female characters being violated and the actress being expected to acquiesce in performing this in what must have been a male-dominated atmosphere of questionable sensitivity or support.  1971-1972 saw the releases of two other films, CLOCKWORK ORANGE and STRAW DOGS, whose depictions of female rape on-screen not only received a critical backlash but whose timing along with LAST TANGO IN PARIS created a storm of controversy leading Stephen Murphy to leave his job heading Britain’s BBFC board.

Whilst Brando was keen to expose something of himself Method-style in this role, he was reluctant to give consideration to line-learning. By now, he’d developed a technique as an actor of having his dialogue written on cue-cards, believing it enabled his performance to retain spontaneity. This is debatable; not only could it also be interpreted as laziness, Brando was known for making eccentric demands sometimes deliberately to test his employers. It certainly created problems for Bertolucci in keeping the cards out of shot, not to mention the difficulty I would foresee as a fellow actor for a scene partner to maintain any connection whilst Brando’s attention would continually be distracted by reading.  Mostly this foible of his is unnoticeable, although in the very moving private eulogy he pays his wife’s corpse, at one point he looks up for no other reason than searching for the next line. To give credit where it’s due though, he demonstrates an impressive linguistic grasp of the copious amounts of French dialogue he’s required to say, much more than the cursory amount an American would usually speak as a foreigner in a European film.

Gradually, Paul’s quest for meaning in his grief leads him nowhere except within, to confront the inner pain he’s been avoiding through a forced construct of artificial sexual conquest. His meetings with his wife’s lover and her mother give no solace. His claustrophobic and perverse passion smothers Jeanne; via a brief sequence of conventional romance in a ballroom dancing event where he attempts to role-play chatting her up as a stranger, she realises the ultimate toxicity of staying with him.  Her shooting of Paul as he confesses finally wanting to know her name at the end can be interpreted in different ways: Is she putting a wounded, self-destructive animal out of his misery? Does she fear that he is creating an awakening co-dependency in her? She has already decided to return to Thomas, who offers her a married life that has its own unreality but is arguably less corrosive.

Like much of the film - and relationships in real life - the characters’ motivations in LAST TANGO IN PARIS are complex. Behaviour and its pay-offs are sometimes a strange self-medication, like that of addicts or those in the grip of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. How we as humans deal with pain is not always easy to fathom to outsiders or even ourselves. For this reason I feel LAST TANGO IN PARIS justifies itself as flawed but valid. Whilst not having seen or read the more recent FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, I have to plead a Mary Whitehouse-style deference to what I gather is a tameness in comparison to this film’s brave rawness in documenting a doomed ‘negotiated’ relationship. At times the physical acting-out by Paul upon Jeanne is uncomfortably non-consensual (and for the viewer), the graphic sexual language is sometimes difficult to empathise with, but I feel that overall Bertolucci dares to explore a very private aspect of humanity with sincerity.

No.92. Unusual Romances - Part 1 - HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971)


Among the odd, risk-taking pleasures of the 1967-75 era is this eccentric developing romance between a death-obsessed 20 year old (Bud Cort) and a life affirming old lady turning 80 (Oscar winning Ruth Gordon). Based on a screenplay by Colin Higgins and directed by Hal Ashby, it has a peculiar charm all of its own and a central premise that it’s hard to believe passed a pitch meeting at Paramount – but fortunately for this film’s later cult following it did.

Harold is the scion of a wealthy family whose morbid fascination with mortality manifests in regular fake suicide attempts to antagonise his mother (Vivian Pickles), and when asked by his therapist what he does for fun replies: “I go to funerals”. At one such service, he is approached by the elderly live-wire Maude, who shares his love of them but in a more positive frame, and rejuvenates him with her spontaneity coupled with an anarchic disregard for the agreed rules of society. She is an inveterate car-thief and drives like a dangerous nutter, yet has such joie de vivre that Harold is drawn to her, begins to smile for once and gradually falls in love with her. Their romance is consummated, off-screen, and their relationship is so perfect a rounding-off of life for Maude that she happily decides to end hers whilst at this high-point. Though distraught, Harold goes on, his life enriched for having known her…

Bud Cort is a quirky, entrancing presence as Harold, possessed of a cadaverous pallor and a stare that alternates between vague and piercingly intimidating, thus rendering him totally believable as this strange man-boy. He had already proved himself as an actor in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and the lead in BREWSTER MCCLOUD and auditioned for Hal Ashby with a high confidence that came from relating profoundly to Harold. In real life, Cort had a distant relationship with his own father, a veteran of Dachau, and when introduced by Ashby to the creative team at the meeting stated simply: “I’m playing this part”. He threw himself method-style into the staged suicide bids, freaking out Vivian Pickles with his need for veracity. My favourite is during his mother’s inane interview of a dating agency candidate, where through the window we spy Harold appearing to calmly settle himself enshrouded on a bench, pouring on gasoline and then immolating himself  - before somehow popping up in their room to ‘comfort’ the two ladies.

Ruth Gordon deservedly won the Academy Award as Maude for her eccentric life-force that brooks no opposition. There is a marvellous protracted scene illustrating this beginning when she and Harold are pulled over by a traffic cop (an almost obscured Tom Skerritt) during one of her car-theft jaunts. He asks for her license, which she rebuffs with: “I don’t have one. I don’t believe in them”. To compound the non-compliance, she drives off leading the officer in a merry dance along the high-way, and even after he catches up with them a second time, steals his motor-bike, giving Harold a backie.
On paper, HAROLD AND MAUDE’s tracing of a friendship becoming a sexual union across such a wide generation gap sounds like a perversely queasy premise; however, the oddball nature of this unlikely twosome still seems somehow chaste even when we see them post-coital in bed together. Ashby wisely opts not to show anything physical between them. There is no need. Their closeness is a meeting of polar-opposite views on life that connects somehow in a shared middle-ground of unconventionality.  It’s hard to be offended by people who find a soulmate in any context and showing eccentricities we can’t relate to – yet whose flouting of repression we might love to emulate in other ways?

Harold and Maude aren’t the only two weird elements in the film. Charles Tyner, the creepy sadist Boss Higgins in COOL HAND LUKE, plays his uncle General Ball, a Nixon-loving war-mongerer – and Eric Christmas slavers lasciviously over his “firm young body” as his priest.
To offset the stranger ideas on display, there is a score of multiple songs by Cat Stevens, including ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ strikingly used later by Ricky Gervais later on TV for THE OFFICE.

Post-filming, HAROLD AND MAUDE was not without problems. In a July 2014 interview for the Guardian newspaper, Cort recalled that Paramount wrestled control of the edit away from Hal Ashby. Cort vowed that he would not publicise the film unless Ashby was reinstated, which the studio duly did although a filmed kissing scene was cut by paramount head Robert Evans.

Critical reaction upon release was a widespread panning, due principally to condemning word-of-mouth about the subject matter. HAROLD AND MAUDE was pulled from cinemas and disappeared from cinemas inside a week. Happily though, it has since acquired true cult status, being highly praised by Hollywood directors of a respected ‘indie’ sensibility like Wes Anderson, Alexander Payne and Cameron Crowe…

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

No.91 Peter Sellers - RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER (1975)


After something of a wilderness period making box-office flops and worthy experimental films that stretched his versatility if not his career, Peter Sellers came back to the winning partnership he enjoyed with director Blake Edwards with a long-overdue third PINK PANTHER film. Though they antagonised each other off-screen, the two headstrong talents knew they wove movie gold together on-screen in the previous Clouseau films as well as the brilliant sight-gag classic THE PARTY. Their careers had mutually declined in the intervening years and Sellers’ opting not to do the INSPECTOR CLOUSEAU sequel for Edwards in 1968 meant they both needed a hit more than ever.
Edwards had struggled to get the funding for a proposed sequel in the meantime and managed to wangle the green light for this as the second of a two film deal with Lew Grade.

Happily, RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER showed that neither Sellers nor Edwards had lost their collaborative magic. Such is the director’s confidence that post-credits (designed by Richard WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, no less), he spends the first ten minutes of what is a laugh-out-loud comedy presenting a daring and engrossing theft of the infamous Pink Panther diamond as if it were a dramatic heist genre movie. Edwards then can’t resist capping it with a more characteristic neat repeated sight-gag where a guard is slammed into unconsciousness twice by the same closing door.
Clouseau himself belatedly appears, busted down to beat-cop status on the streets of Paris, where he confronts one of Sellers’ real-life pals again (the familiar John Bluthal) as a supposedly blind street entertainer, lacking “A ly-sonce” for his “mernkey”. Once again, Sellers shows off the comic genius idea of a Frenchman whose accent is so impenetrable even other French people can’t understand him. Clouseau’s superior stating of the rules gets the better of his self-celebrated powers of observation, failing to notice a bank robbery that the performer was serving as a look-out.  This gets him carpeted by the welcome return of Herbert Lom’s sublimely apoplectic Dreyfus for yet another incompetency on the job.  

As with THE PARTY, Edwards shares the visual comedy stylings amongst his cast, giving Dreyfus a recurring gag confusing a gun-shaped cigarette-lighter with the real thing. There’s also some amusingly surreal touches like the gentleman in the hotel foyer who offers to take Clouseau’s hat, coat and gloves and brazenly drives away wearing them to our hero’s bemused resignation. We also get two bursts of Kato (Burt Kwouk)’s amazing stunt set-piece sudden attacks to marvel at. These are all immaculately timed and edited, combined with the sensibility of a cartoon reality (the cannonball-shaped bomb, the frazzled smoky clothing post-explosion etc)

The lion’s share of the business of course goes to Sellers, who assumes a variety of disguises in pursuit of the beautiful people who are his prey: Sir Charles “Phantom, the notorious Lytton” and Lady Claudine, (the effortlessly elegant Christopher Plummer and Catherine Schell). Never mind the plot concerning the criminally charming couple and their covert thieving ways, when it comes to stealing the cat burglar Sellers takes everything that isn’t nailed down. Schell in particular has difficulty stopping herself ‘corpsing’ at least twice as she’s hit by wave after wave of gloriously absurd Clouseau creations washing over her. First, there is Emil Flornoy, his walking disaster-area telephone engineer who succeeds in submerging his van in the swimming pool just as his first vehicle is being fished out. He then becomes a moustached housekeeping attendant who sneaks into her room and struggles manfully with a popping light-bulb, a vacuum cleaner of frightening intensity and an intransigent parrot. I’ve always had a soft spot for his latter guise of Guy Gadbois, the preposterous lounge lizard sporting triangular sideburns, calling Lady Claudine “a beautiful chicken”, exuding a faux-casual swagger whilst causing mayhem with the soda syphon and trolley.

The devious manipulations of Lugash Secret Police agent Colonel Sharki (Peter Arne) are conveniently nullified by a bungled assassination attempt on Clouseau by his now homicidal boss, sending Dreyfus gibbering into the nut-hatch, acquitted “by reason of insanity” and Clouseau into his job, setting the scene for the wonderfully over-the-top THE PINK PANTHER STRIKES AGAIN, my favourite of all the sequels.

RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER is a fine way to close this 1967-75 retrospective on Peter Sellers, restoring he and Blake Edwards to their deserved place at the top of the screen comedy hierarchy…

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

NO. 90 - Peter Sellers - SOFT BEDS, HARD BATTLES (1974)


Released in 1974, this WWII comedy is notable only as a vehicle for the highest number of Peter Sellers roles in one film.  He plays six altogether, spanning most of the Allied and Axis powers: the English, French, German and Japanese and does so extremely well. It’s the canvas sadly that is not worth such priceless painting.

Set in occupied Paris, SOFT BEDS, HARD BATTLES is about the efforts by the British along with the French Resistance to reclaim Paris and sabotage the Nazi occupiers, recruiting the prostitutes and Madame of a Parisian brothel to help them bamboozle and despatch the officers - using for example a tip-up bed that dumps the Nazi ‘customer’ down a shaft to their death.

There is precious little amusement to be had, so other than playing ‘Spot the TV face’, you’re relying on Sellers’ gallery of detailed characters for entertainment. Among the hookers we have Jenny Hanley, Rula Lenska and Francoise Pascal. Also inadvertently notable in the harem is black actress Hylette Adolphe since her anachronistic afro makes her seem as though she’s mistaken this for a Blaxploitation flick. There’s also a brief appearance by Windsor Davies, intriguingly channelling a Frenchman rather than his richly distinctive Welsh tones. Fans of classic DOCTOR WHO will recognise a micro-cameo by UNIT’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtenay) as a top drawer French officer, as well as a decent role for Vernon Dobtcheff, the Chief Scientist from ‘The War Games’ adventure and veteran of many distinguished films.

This then leaves us with the curiosity value of the sextet of Sellers performances, almost as many as Alec Guiness plays in KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS. On the Allies side, we have his Major Robinson, a genial British officer with a relaxed manner of assassinating his targets; the dotty General Latour, and a randy De Gaulle-like President of France who ultimately becomes very personally involved in thanking the line-up of ladies at the end of the film. Representing most of the Axis nations, Sellers gives a brief sketch of Herr Hitler, a sizeable part as clinical Eichmann-esque Herr Schroeder of the Gestapo and a startlingly well made-up Prince Kyoto. So subtle is the Japanese make-up that it took three shots for me to be sure it was Sellers playing him. He also creditably rattles off Japanese phrases and with cadences different enough not to be too reminiscent of his Chinese detective Sidney Wang in 1976’s MURDER BY DEATH.

Fans of BBC’s ‘ALLO ‘ALLO may enjoy SOFT BEDS, HARD BATTLES but I found it uninvolving and it mistakes bawdiness for actual humour. The one gag I did appreciate is when Schroeder’s henchman comments on the difference between his boss’s civilian role in taxation and the Gestapo. “Not the way I do it” Schroeder replies. Too often, the innuendo is heavy-handed and layered over by an unnecessary and irritating ‘American’ narrator (the usually welcome John Bluthal I’m guessing?), who begins by referencing Richard Nixon (drawing parallels between the reporting of WWII historical truth and Watergate) and then regularly interjects forced pointless links.

The poster described the film as featuring ‘Six Best Sellers’. Whilst I wouldn’t argue with that, the rest of the movie is a remainder item to be discounted…

Sunday, 1 November 2015

No.89 - Peter Sellers - THE BLOCKHOUSE (1973)


(2008 Hollywood Classics Ltd DVD release)

1973 was a remarkably varied year for film work by Peter Sellers. Before his chaotic, indulgent turn in GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN and the sublime delicate melancholy of THE OPTIMISTS OF NINE ELMS, he agreed to this most unlikely of cinema projects – a gruesome story of premature burial in a film that suffered the same fate by never seeing the official light of day itself until many years later...

THE BLOCKHOUSE, based allegedly on a true story, concerns a group of seven multi-national WWII soldiers in a forced labour camp who flee from an aerial attack into a concrete bunker thirty metres below ground. Sealed off, they are fortunate to discover it is stocked with a cellar full of wine meant for the officers, balls of cheese, tinned fruit and boxes of candles. Despite these provisions, the blockhouse becomes their tomb and gradually all but two of the men perish in varying ways over a staggering six years underground. We are told that when the remaining two are dug out by chance in 1951, they have survived together for four years in total darkness.

This is a frustrating and perplexing film to watch, composed of all kinds of contradictions and mixed emotions when reflecting on it afterwards. On the one hand, it’s extremely brave of director Clive Rees and the superb actors to undertake something so resolutely uncommercial. Sellers defies the growing accusations of egotism in his approach by melting into an ensemble in a refreshingly comradely way as Frenchman Rouquet, his accent more muted than his famously facetious Clouseau. Amongst the other prisoners are Peter Vaughn, projecting the same intimidating presence he uses in STRAW DOGS and soon as the memorable ‘Grouty’ in TV’s PORRIDGE. Jeremy Kemp, a veteran of war films, gives class and dignity to Grabinski who develops a tender homoerotic relationship with Nicholas Jones’ emerging psychotic Kromer. Charles Aznavour, a noted film actor as well as a lionised pop mega-star in France, was about to become similarly recognised in England, and here challenges himself away from the obvious as Italian Visconti. Film buffs will also know the familiar face of Leon Lissek. In fact, the entire group are admirably embedded in their characters’ truth.

However, the material is wilfully, painstakingly dull and a relentless grind of attrition. There is no action other than the terrific opening action sequence of the plane bombardment strafing the men, and brief enlivening diversions when Rouquet teaches his ‘cellmates’ dominos and they compete on a found bicycle. Maddeningly, in order for the film to work artistically as it does, it has to fully create the very atmosphere of tedium and hopelessness that would repel its audience. It succeeds, which deserves respect, yet to what end? We know that war is hell and to incarcerate men together on film till they kill each other or themselves is immensely dispiriting to no benefit other than the curiosity of seeing a rare character study of unreleased cinema. This quality conversely makes it at least worth seeing – see what I mean about contradictions? It also suffers from dialogue that is so sparse and woolly that it has the air of a ragged improvised theatre piece...

There is so little detail known about the making of the film, even in Roger Lewis’ wonderfully exhaustive biography of Sellers, that watching it as a finally-released DVD decades after making, I felt almost like Max Renn seeing an illicit transmission in VIDEODROME. We know it was shot entirely on Guernsey, was entered into the Berlin Film Festival and that according to Wikipedia its source story was that: ‘on June 25, 1951, Time magazine reported that two German soldiers claimed to have been trapped for six years in an underground storehouse in Babie Doły, Poland’. Even this tenous link to reality though somehow gives THE BLOCKHOUSE an urban myth edge, especially as the film was shelved unseen for so long.

It occurred to me once the film finished that a more interesting and potentially life-affirming story might have followed the rescue of the two surviving soldiers, tracing their hopeful subsequent rehabilitation from what is an almost unimaginably awful endurance test for the human soul, and using the gruelling events as a flashback.

Even so, THE BLOCKHOUSE demands that you be impressed by it as a total commitment exercise in film to a project that was determinedly non-commercial. In that respect it earns a place within the ethos of what made 1967-75 such an interesting period in cinema - the very point about why I write this blog.