Friday, February 9, 2018

CAMELOT 1967

One of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes (one which paraphrases an earlier quote by Carl Buehner) is: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” I like this quote because not only have I found it to be true in my life, but it also summarizes what I’ve always maintained to be my own experience of film: I’ll forget what a movie made at the boxoffice. I’ll forget whether critics deemed it a hit or a flop. I’ll forget if it won any Oscars. But I never forget how a movie made me feel.

A great many things go into making a motion picture: acting, direction, screenwriting, cinematography, mis-en-scène, etc....simply a host of creative and aesthetic contributions by artisans and craftspeople in collaboration. But I always contend that unless you’re discussing measurable, fact-based elements such as whether or not a scene is in focus, or if a boom mike popped into frame; the act of ascribing value to a film (to classify it as either a “good” or bad” movie) is to engage in an act of subjective evaluation rooted in opinion, interpretation, point-of-view, and personal taste.
I love movies. I’ve loved movies for as long as I can remember. I get a kick out of reading about them, discussing them, analyzing them, and especially writing about them. But one of the risks of being a devoted cinephile and immersing oneself so (too?) deeply in film theory and fandom minutiae is that I can occasionally forget what made me fall in love with movies in the first place: they’re a great deal of fun. To see a great many films over the course of one’s lifetime and yet still remain connected to the pure, sensual, escapist thrill of movies has always been a goal of mine. Something easier to tap into with some films more than others.

When it comes to most of the movies I love, I find that critical analysis which encourages me to look beyond mere sensory response doesn't diminish my enjoyment of a film so much as it contributes to significantly enriching the overall experience. But every now and then I fall in love with a film so voluptuously visual, so lyrical, so ardently impassioned in its sensibilities, that there is absolutely no diminution in simply surrendering myself completely to its sensual charms and leaving my analytical brain at the door.
For me, Camelot is such a film.
Richard Harris as King Arthur
Vanessa Redgrave as Guenevere
Franco Nero as Lancelot Du Lac
David Hemmings as Mordred
The mystical legend of King Arthur, Guenevere, Lancelot, and the knights of the round table is tunefully romanticized in Camelot, Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist & librettist) and Frederick Loewe’s (composer) follow-up to their wildly successful My Fair Lady. Camelot (starring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, Robert Goulet, and Roddy McDowall) opened on Broadway in 1960, when I was three years old. When Warner Bros. released its heavily-publicized, three-hour, 70mm, $13-17 million-dollar (depending on the source) big screen film version in 1967, I was ten. In other words, I have no real memory of a world without Camelot in it.
Lionel Jeffries as King Pellinore
When I was very small, I linked Camelot to dull, suitable-for-parents-only entertainment, associating it exclusively with Robert Goulet crooning the ballad “If Ever I Would Leave You” on TV variety shows (as I had Barbra Streisand and the song “People”). Following that, the show’s title tune became married to sad memories of President Kennedy’s assassination after my teacher (per the 1963 Jackie Kennedy Life magazine interview wherein it was referenced as the late president’s favorite song) played that paeanistic anthem to our class, resulting in a roomful of first-graders bursting into tears without any of us really knowing why. Not long after this, Camelot became familiar to me as an Original Broadway Cast album that every parent seemed to have in their home, yet never played.

By 1967 my family had settled in San Francisco, and it’s then that I recall first catching sight of Bob Peak’s colorfully alluring artwork for the movie poster. Still one of my favorite movie posters, I responded strongly to it because it resembled the then-popular psychedelic/Art Nouveau-style of San Francisco rock and roll concert posters that were all over the Haight/Ashbury district where we lived.
With Camelot’s artwork staring out at me from the poster display case in front of the Coronet Theater (where Camelot had its exclusive, reserved-seat, $3 a ticket, roadshow engagement) and from the cover of the Columbia Record Club mail-order soundtrack LP that arrived at our door because my mom forgot to send back the “not interested” card the month previous; suddenly this stodgy, must-to-avoid, middle-aged entertainment became the movie I couldn’t wait to see.
Laurence Naismith as Merlin
Of course, in the days when double and even triple features were the norm, the idea of paying $3 (75¢ to $1.50 was average) to see just one movie didn’t sound all that appealing to my young mind. As it turns out, the idea sounded even less so to my parents’ older minds, both holding to the position that it was “Out of the question to shell out that kind of money for the privilege of watching you fall asleep.” That’s what drive-ins were for.
So, until Camelot became available at “popular prices” and made its way to our neighborhood theater, I had to content myself with listening to the soundtrack album.
And listen to it I did. Constantly. Persistently. Rapturously.
I fell in love with the sound of Camelot before I ever saw a single frame. 

I saw Camelot sometime in late 1968, by which time the film’s flop* status was common knowledge, and some 30 minutes of footage from the roadshow version had been excised in an effort to speed things along, so to speak.
*[A huge bone of contention among retro film fans is the word “flop” ascribed to a beloved favorite. Hollywood has long held to the unwritten rule that a movie needs to make at least two to three times its production costs to begin to show a profit. Thus, while Camelot saw out the year as #11 on the roster of top grossing films (meaning it was reasonably popular with the public), with its $15 million production budget, a domestic boxoffice return of $31 million translates as genuine flop material. The same holds true for many other “popular successes” that simply cost too much to promote and distribute. One of the most notable is Hello, Dolly! which came in as the #4 top-grosser of 1969. But budgeted at a whopping $25 million and marketed to the skies at a cost of at least half that amount, the $33 million it took in at the boxoffice proved that it may have been popular with the public, but nothing short of ruinous for 20th Century-Fox.
Perhaps the most curious application of the word flop is attributed to 1967’s Valley of the Dolls. Budgeted at a modest $4 million, VOD ranked #6 at the boxoffice and raked in an astounding $44 million, making it a significantly profitable hit for the studio. However, the film proved such a critical disaster and so devastating to the careers of those involved, the label of “flop” has clung, largely in reference to its quality (or lack, thereof), not its profitability.]

In any event, once the theater lights started to dim that Saturday afternoon in 1968 (I can’t remember whether it was at the Amazon or the Castro theater), none of that made any difference, because no one else’s experience of Camelot mattered but my own. I grew up with very little interest in most of the age-appropriate movies of the time (I was an adult before I saw The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, or Doctor Dolittle), so at age eleven, I hadn’t much exposure to fantasy or magic in movies. Camelot, which looked to me like a fairy tale come to life, captivated my imagination from start to finish.

There in the dark, before this enormous screen, came a vision of opulent, extravagant fantasy that seemed to shimmer with an almost otherworldly luster. The scope, the color, the lush orchestrations, the pageantry…this creation of a world both magically artificial and hyperreal so overwhelmed my senses that I’ve no memory of what I actually thought of the story itself; only the sense memory of feeling totally and absolutely transported by a movie.
It was aesthetic overload. I was absolutely floored by how gorgeous everything and everyone looked. Even those enormous, incessant Panavision closeups that drove so many critics to distraction were positively swoon-inducing for me. Camelot was the most “movie” movie I’d ever seen. 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Clearly, most of what’s recounted above is a young film fan’s response to the candy-store charms of old-fashioned Hollywood movie-making. Too young to sense the dissonance so many found (and continue to find) in having a mystical, musicalized wisp of romantic lore mounted as a massive, grandiose epic; I simply fell under the spell of cinema’s unique ability to give life to fantasy.
Looking at Camelot today (I watched it over the Christmas holidays) I’d like to report that my adult self finds the film’s pacing to be sluggish when it should be lilting; the thin singing voices of the leads ill-serving of the score’s lovely melodies; the overall tone wavering unevenly between farce, romance, and drama; the film’s length interminable; the self-serious performances deadly to the story’s wit and humor; the sets artificial and stagey.
I’d like to, but I can’t.
I see these things and recognize them to be sound and justified criticisms leveled at the film by friends and loved ones (my partner, a man of unyielding good taste and intelligence, cannot abide a single frame of this movie); but they’re flaws visible to me only when I look at Camelot through the eyes of others. When I look at Camelot through my own two eyes, it’s a little like the scene where Arthur, extolling the virtues of Camelot to Guenevere, gives a brief lesson on how perspective can change perception: “When I was young, everything looked a little pink to me.”

Because I can’t separate the film from my experience of first seeing it, Camelot still shines with a kind of pinkish glow to me. I don’t kid myself that Camelot is a better movie than it is, but my adult perspective—the belief that one can derive perfect pleasure from an imperfect film—guides my youthful perception of it as a magical, majestic, utterly charming musical...in spite of its flaws.

Due to having fallen in love with the music first, Lerner & Loewes’ magnificent score will always be my favorite thing about Camelot. Preferring the movie soundtrack to the Broadway version (sorry, Julie Andrews) I adore the film’s human-sized interpretation of Arthur and Guenevere (Jenny, as he calls her) and never found fault with the smaller, more emotive voices of Redgrave and Harris, which achieve such a lovely, amatory quality in the duet “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” (my absolute favorite song in the entire show). Perversely perhaps, the one trained voice in the filmthat of singer Gene Marlino, dubbing Nero’s vocals—I find to be hollow and generic in the dubbing style of Marni Nixon and those disembodied, Doodletown Piper-style vocals they used in Hello, Dolly! and Lost Horizon.
As big-budget musical epics go, Camelot, with its glorious Oscar-winning costumes and production design, is nothing short of a dream; the film’s vast scale emblematic of Arthur’s full-to-bursting idealism. I suspect it was director Joshua Logan’s intention to use so many close-ups as a stylized means of creating emotional intimacy. While this device is sensually effective in the romantic and dramatic scenes, when the principals are required to break into song it offers too many opportunities to ponder the wonders of medieval dentistry.

PERFORMANCES
If you’ve ever seen an Arnold Schwarzenegger Conan the Barbarian movie or any of those straight-to-DVD action films featuring the likes of Dolf Lundgren, one can easily understand why mainstream superhero films have often found it more advantageous to hire and actor and pad his suit (Michael Keaton, George Clooney) than try to get an athlete to act. I’ve always guessed a similar mindset was behind the Hollywood custom of buying expensive Broadway properties and, rather than actually using individuals who can sing and dance, hiring actors who have minimal proficiency in either: it’s easier to teach an actor to sing (dubbing!) than find song and dance performers who come across effectively on film.
I could devote an entire essay on both the soundness (Ethel Merman and Carol Channing) and folly (Lee Marvin, Clint Eastwood) of this practice; but confining myself exclusively to Camelot, I have to put forth that I find Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Harris, and Franco Nero all exceptionally well-suited to their roles. 

They are certainly the most visually stunning Arthur, Guenevere, and Lancelot I’ve yet to come across (Nicholas Clay’s virile Lancelot in 1981’s Excalibur being the exception); Harris a commanding and compassionate Arthur, Redgrave (Camelot’s most valuable player) looking like a fairy princess and bringing a wistfulness to her character that’s touching; and Nero, abysmal lip-syncing aside, gives an engagingly robust, sensitive performance.


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
An unanticipated pleasure in having seen Camelot when it was new and revisiting it some 50 years later, is reveling in the degree to which it embodies the attitudes and trends of the past, while its themes comment (with depressing acuity) on our current “situation.”
Camelot takes place in a fictional kingdom in the Middle Ages, but (as was common of period films in the days of the studio system) it has late-1960s written all over it. The casting, opting for up-and-coming talent over established stars, reflects who was hot at the time: Redgrave and Hemmings, fresh from cavorting nude in Antonioni’s Blow-Up; Harris only recently having bashed in Franco Nero’s brains in John Huston’s The Bible. The sound of Camelot may be traditional Broadway, but its look (like the world’s most well-funded Renaissance Pleasure Faire) has a decidedly hippie, love-in vibe.
Guenevere (with her mod bangs, cascading falls, and teased hair bump…all color-coordinated with the castle and furnishings) is the world’s first flower-child; while Arthur—whose quixotic anti-war soliloquies sound like a Berkeley campus lunchtime messiah—sports a groovy pageboy haircut and adorns himself with furs, capes, boots, and abundant eye shadow worthy of a Fillmore rocker. Not to be outdone, bad guy Mordred struts about in a leather outfit that looks to have been borrowed from Jim Morrison.

Alas, with Camelot’s dark second half, quaint ‘60s nostalgia gives way to harsh contemporary relevance. As Arthur’s humane ideals crumble under his own hypocrisy (he decrees rumors he doesn’t like—Guenevere’s infidelity and Lancelot’s betrayal—to be fake news and banishes from the kingdom those who dare speak what he knows to be true), Mordred, Arthur's vainglorious illegitimate son tweets…I mean, boasts, “I’ve been taught to place needs ahead of conscience. Comfort ahead of principle. I find charity offensive and kindness a trap,” while making ready his plans to return England to a state of cruelty, chaos, and war.
When Arthur laments, “Those old uncivilized days come back again. Those days…those dreadful days we tried to put asleep forever,” he could be speaking of a dark day in Charlottesville, Ga. in August of 2017, or, more accurately, the United States every day since November 8, 2016.


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Time has been kind to Camelot, which is ironic, since complaints about its length have dogged the film since its release. No longer condemned for not fitting in with the times, Camelot now belongs to the broader, nebulous past of Classic Hollywood. The cast of budding actors are now revered film industry veterans; the style of filmmaking employed, lambasted as creakily old-fashioned during the youthquake '60s, is refreshingly devoid of CGI and today's ADD style of editing (so ruinous to so many contemporary stabs at musicals); and the melodic score harkens back to a when scores had a timelessness to them that didn't date the music before the film was released.
Yet Camelot remains unique in that it is one of those movies whose dividing line never seems to shift. I've never known anyone who hated the film to ever come around to a different opinion, and those who love it (as I do) can't be talked down off of our cloud no matter what detractors say.

I can't speak for everyone, but I guess back when I was eleven I just took it to heart when Arthur said at the end of the film, "What we did will be remembered."



BONUS MATERIAL
King Arthur's Camelot took on the role of a Himalayan lamasery in the 1973 musical Lost Horizon


Camelot was revived on Broadway in 1980 with Richard Burton recreating his Tony Award-winning role as Arthur. When Burton succumbed to ill health in 1981, Hollywood's King ArthurRichard Harris, then 51-years-oldstepped into the role. Harris would go on to purchase the rights to the stage production and toured with Camelot for six more years. This production, co-starring Meg Bussert as Guenevere and Richard Muenz as Lancelot, was broadcast on HBO in 1982 and is available on YouTube 

Richard Harris passed away in 2005, nearly as famous as he was at the time of Camelot thanks to his role as Dumbledore, the Headmaster at Hogwarts in the first two Harry Potter films. But a real-life fairy tale romance played out for Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero who fell in love during the making of Camelot, had a child out of wedlock, made a couple of films together, separated in 1971, reconnected some thirty years later, and wed in 2006. In 2017, when she was 80 and he 75, they waltzed together on the Italian TV dance competition program Strictly Come Dancing.

Richard Harris had quite the recording career, releasing several albums throughout the '60s and '70s. His biggest success came with 1968's Grammy-nominated A Tramp Shining, which featured the #2 Billboard hit, the talk-sing version of MacArthur Park. I never owned that particular curio, but a particular favorite I never tired of listening to was Harris' guest stint as "The Doctor" (talk-singing his way through Go To The Mirror with Steve Winwood and Roger Daltrey) on the 1972 studio recording of Tommy, The Who's double-LP collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra and a host of guest artists.

Don’t let it be forgot 
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment 
That was known as Camelot. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, January 19, 2018

ONE OF THOSE THINGS 1971

Given the number of films in existence about colorless middle-aged men who have their lives and (reasonably) happy marriages upended by the initially-encouraged/ultimately-unwelcome attentions of a comely lass with nothing better to do than wreak ‘round-the-clock havoc on said upstanding citizen's designated symbols of stability: wife, child, home, job, reputation, household pet; you’d think I’d be able to recall at least one or two of these shopworn narratives told from the perspective of the “homewrecker.” If for no other reason than to provide some insight into what these often vibrant, attractive women see in these dull, unprepossessing, ethically challenged men to begin with.

In summary, the premise of the little-seen 1971 suspense drama One of Those Things (a Danish film with an exclusively British and Japanese cast) reads like just another—albeit early—entry in the “domestic stalker” cycle of thrillers that hit their popularity stride in the early 1990s following the success of 1987’s Fatal Attraction. But lurking behind what at first glance appears to be just another post-sexual revolution cautionary tale for the Viagra set, is in fact a psychologically complex, unexpectedly dark examination of the principle of conspicuous ethics vs. unobserved morality. All trussed up in the melodramatic trappings of the erotic thriller and crime mystery.
Judy Geeson as Susanne Strauss
Roy Dotrice as Henrik Vinter
Zena Walker as Berit Vinter
Frederick Jaeger as Melchoir
Geoffrey Chater as Mr. Falck
Forty-something Henrik Vinter (Roy Dotrice) is the respectable, upright, newly-appointed director of a Danish automobile assembly plant. Harried and ambitious, Henrik is nevertheless blessed with a comfortable apartment he shares with his loving wife, adorable child, and cuddly dog. Best of all, hardworking Henrik’s role in his company’s merger with a Japanese car firm has afforded the devoted family man the long hoped-for opportunity to leave apartment-dwelling behind and build a home in Copenhagen’s tony Bellevue district. Yes, Henrik is a fine figure of a decent, upstanding citizen whose life reflects the core values of the success ethic.
That is, if appearances count for anything.

For in reality, Henrik’s wife Berit (Zena Walker) is a dipsomaniac suffering from neglect born of Henrik's wholesale absorption in his work; Melchoir (Frederick Jaeger) Henrik's co-worker and friend narrowly passed over for the very promotion Henrik bagged, rarely misses an opportunity to passive-aggressively vent his professional jealousy; and Henrik himself, though he doesn’t yet know it, balances on the brink of a crisis of character.

Henrik Vinter sees himself as a good, moral man; a self-image both supported and reinforced by those around him. That he unquestioningly sustains this higher sense of self in the face of moral and ethical contradictions (he dissociates himself from the “business as usual” legal duplicity of his profession and is casually racist when speaking of his Asian business partners), proves to be the tragic flaw that sets in motion a chain of events which ultimately leave Henrik wondering if he ever knew himself at all.
"Can you see me?"
"Are you there at all?"
One of the wonderful things about movies is that every social movement and shift in culture brings about a subliminal, unconscious “response” in the content and focus of films. The confluence of the sexual revolution and the women’s movement in the late 1960s brought about a rash of mainstream films indicative of the middle-aged male’s unease with the shifting sexual paradigm. Women’s sexual license was represented as threatening and destructive to the status quo in films like 1969s Three Into Two Won’t Go (also starring Judy Geeson), Play Misty for Me (1971), and Something to Hide (1972). Even a period film like Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled (1971) succumbed to the trap of only being able to picture strong women as threatening women.
One Of Those Things definitely qualifies as archetypal male angst melodrama, but like the characters themselves, there’s more going on here than what initially meets the eye.
Heihachiro Okawa (Bridge on the River Kwai) as Mr. Kawasaki

Henrik’s life path takes a fateful detour one night when, despondent over his wife bailing on an important business dinner, Henrik accepts an invitation from a beautiful young woman named Susanne (Geeson) to attend a “hippie” hash (hashish) party on the outskirts of town. Before long, Henrik’s judgmental instincts (“I mean, this is what it all adds up to? The hair, the pot, be neutral, be uninvolved, do nothing, want nothing, believe in nothing?”) clash with the more easygoing vibes of his impromptu hosts (Susanne dubs him “Nowhere Man”), sending Henrik out into the stormy night in a borrowed car, eager to make his way to a train station and return home.
Alas, the combination of low visibility, a malfunctioning automobile, and an unseen bicyclist result in a fatal hit and run. Instead of going back to the house and reporting the incident (an accident, ironically, for which no blame to either party could be ascribed), Henrik, relying on darkness and anonymity to conceal the truth, instead returns to his life; shaken, but indiscernibly so. In the realm of moral displacement, feelings of remorse, guilt, and the fear of detection all look very much the same.  
"Remember me?"
Henrik's past catches up with him

Just when it looks as though his actions will bear no consequences, out of nowhere—as if summoned by an innate need in Henrik to punish himself because no one else will—(re)appears Susanne. She knows of what he’s done (“I’d have done the same in your place.”), has no interest in money (“That would be blackmail.”), but is not above resorting to a bit of subtle coercion and upfront extortion to parlay the incriminating knowledge she possesses into a press secretary job at his firm.

If Henrik initially thinks that the granting of a close-proximity job to this total stranger is a small price to pay for her silence, he soon comes to learn that the cost to his peace of mind is one far dearer. Susanne immediately embarks upon an aggressive, ever-escalating campaign of seduction, stalking, and harassment that appears orchestrated to bring about nothing less than the total destruction of Henrik’s marriage, reputation, and professional standing. But does her denial of malicious intent (“I don’t want to ruin you. I just want to get to know you.”) hint that perhaps the motives behind her actions have more to do with reclamation of his soul than revenge on his actions? 
In the Middle
Perpetually guilty-looking, the object of office gossip, and suspected of not being able
 to handle his work duties, Henrik's once-stable life begins to crumble beneath him

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM 
Directed and produced by Danish filmmaker Erik Balling, One Of Those Things is based on the 1968 novel Haeneligt Uheld by Anders Bodelsen (Haeneligt Uheld roughly translates as Accidentally Accident or Incidental Accident - which is when an accident occurs for which no one is at fault). Anders Bodelsen, who co-wrote the film’s screenplay with director Erik Balling, is a popular author of contemporary crime thrillers whose themes often involve characters grappling with morality vs. materialism. Although not particularly well-known in this country, one of his novels was the source for the brilliant but underrated 1978 thriller The Silent Partner, starring Elliot Gould, Susannah York, and Christopher Plummer. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend. 
"I'm not a toy to be played with. And you're not capable of playing that game anyway."

One Of Those Things was filmed in 1971, but according to IMDB, it didn’t make its way to these shores until 1974. If it did, it did so way under my radar, for I have no memory of its release at all. Considered something of a “lost film,” I first came across it just a year ago, drawn by my fondness for actress Judy Geeson (To Sir With Love, Berserk) and suspense thrillers in which women propel the action of the plot rather than serve as victims or prey.
While more of a psychological character piece than an out-and-out thriller, One Of Those Things is a pretty gripping ride as Geeson’s character (compellingly played, but no more fleshed out than the usual Destroying Angel type in movies like this) is a genuine enigma and force to be reckoned with. But while I enjoyed the suspense and melodramatic elements of the film a great deal, I was pleasantly surprised to find them to be in service of darker, more thought-provoking themes relating to character and the imperceptible nature of moral erosion.
Sobering News
A theme particularly pertinent in today’s socio-political climate, One Of Those Things examines the concept of “visible morality” vs. “authentic morality”: self-identification as a moral person based on the external, superficial appearance of goodness vs. what one is genuinely capable of when no one is looking.
It’s like that old schoolbook ethics debate about the driver who claims “entrapment” when ticketed for speeding through a stop sign when a police car is concealed behind a billboard (twisted logic: If the police car had been visible, the driver wouldn’t have done the wrong thing).

Automobiles and their potential for accidental harm serve as a dynamic visual motif in One Of Those Things, a film shot in the flat, pedestrian tile of television movies yet enlivened by a nicely-modulated tension and mounting sense of unease. The smart script, which never tells you how you should feel about these characters, engages in unexpected ways. For example, just when the film has really drawn us into the complex dynamics of the almost kinky antagonism between Henrik and Susanne, Susanne startles Henrik (and implicates us, the viewer) by asking: “Do you ever think of the man we killed?” (it was with her borrowed car). In that moment we’re caught off guard because, in allowing ourselves to be caught up in the excitement and suspense of the erotic thriller plot, have we, like Henrik, not given much thought to the fact that someone has died?
This kind of narrative slight-of-hand is typical of One Of Those Things, as our sympathies for the two not-particularly-likable leads shifts from scene to scene. 
"Getting angry suits you. It's almost as if you were here."

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
The final image in the film turns out to be a succinct visual metaphor of all that came before: a character peers through the colored glass of a bottle and looks out at a distorted, hazy image of a world they are emotionally alienated from. For a movie this visually undistinguished, One Of Those Things is fairly spot-on in cleverly enlisting the motifs of sight, vision, and perception to underscore its themes of moral relativity.

In one of the film's many instances of black comedy, several weeks after the accident, Henrik is forced to appear on television as a representative of the automobile company. His pathetic attempt to conceal his identity turns out to be precisely how Susanne is able to track him down.
"It's strange...there you were hiding in your dark glasses. All it did was make you
 look more like yourself than ever.
"

One of Those Things's central dramatic conflict confronts how the conspicuous ethics of those society views as persons of principle can be compromised (if not outright betrayed) when unobserved. These days it has become almost a social cliche to discover that the married, anti-gay legislator to be a closet case with a male lover on the side, or the bible-thumping, "family values" politician to be a morally corrupt adulterer. But this doesn't mean we've grown any more savvy in understanding human nature, nor does it explain why we so persistently cling to the false notion that anything which makes a human being valuable is something perceptible to the eye. 
Behind Closed Doors
When Susanne breaks out the party favors, Henrik's uptight neighbors 

(Ann Firbank & Frederick Jaeger) unleash their wanton side

PERFORMANCES
In speaking of One Of Those Things, director Erik Balling observed: “It did not really appeal to an American audience. It was too slow and too nice. It wore a grey suit and never went to the kind of extremes they’re used to over there. It came across a bit too serene.”  
Which, if indeed anybody in America actually got to see it, is a pretty accurate description of what might be viewed as the film’s limitations. I, for one, am grateful for the lack of boiling bunnies or butcher knife standoffs, for One Of Those Things is at its most persuasive when the camera simply captures the subtle interplay of emotions on the actors’ faces. 
Like so many others of my generation, I developed a crush on Judy Geeson when I saw her in To Sir, With Love. Since then I’ve enjoyed her work immensely over the years (10 Rillington Place), even when the material was far beneath her talent. Often categorized as the quintessential Swinging ‘60s British London dolly bird, she was nevertheless an actress who, as Daniel Oliver astutely observed, “didn’t do ‘dumb’” and brought considerable intelligence and emotional heft to many an underwritten part.
Playing a role in One Of Those Things that is in many ways similar to the character she played in Three Into Two Won’t Go (in which we’re asked to endure the sci-fi absurdity of Geeson and the exquisite Claire Bloom squaring off over the pasty, dough-boy charms of Rod Steiger [Mr. Claire Bloom in real life]); Geeson gives a remarkably strong and nuanced performance, one of my all-time favorites of hers, in fact. She gets bonus points for making flesh-and-blood a character who, as written, needs to be enigmatic, but too often crosses over into incomprehensible. 
I'm less familiar than I should be with the work of the late Tony, BAFTA, and Grammy-winning Shakespearean actor Roy Dotrice (Amadeus), but if his performance here is any indication, I've been missing out on a lot. I'm astounded at the skill of an actor being able to mine the tortured humanity in such a complex and conflicted character, all the while conveying--very clearly-- the internal struggle of a Nowhere Man.  The scenes he shares with Geeson are such forceful emotional jousting matches that I initially thought the film was adapted from a stage play. Both are quite impressive in this film. 
Roy Dotrice is the father of actress Karen Dotrice, best known as Jane Banks in
Mary Poppins (1964)- here with Matthew Garber

THE STUFF OF FANTASY 
Someone once said that the human tendency to plan, organize and structure is but man’s way of dealing with the terrifying realization that a great many life-altering events occur by accident. These accidents are often neutral in nature, neither bad nor good, with nothing or no one at fault save for the fact that life has to be lived and life can’t be lived without error.
This theme flows like an undercurrent throughout One Of Those Things, and perhaps in the hands of a more inventive director it would have been applied in ways that enriched the storytelling and gave more depth to the characters.
One of the things the film does perfectly is establish a visual pattern of risk and potential danger.  People are forever sitting on narrow ledges, near dangerous machinery, or, as pictured here, atop perilous heights. 

As it is, One Of Those Things is a flawed but a film I found to be a very effective, very welcome ‘70s discovery. A well-executed throwback melodrama of engaging period-specific details (hippies, drug use, The Beatles, and Geeson’s mini-skirted wardrobe) and considerable suspense and emotional tension. It’s no unearthed classic, and it takes a while to get used to all those Danish locations and names, yet everyone speaking with crisp, British or Japanese accents (the latter third actually takes place in Japan); but none of this distracts from One Of Those Things being a fine, thought-provoking genre film that I wish would get a legitimate DVD release. 
(It occasionally pops up on YouTube, or fuzzy VHS-burned-to-disc copies are available through sites like Modcinema or iOffer.)

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Sunday, December 31, 2017

MORTAL THOUGHTS 1991

Warning: Possible Spoiler Alert. Care has been taken to conceal as much as possible, but as this is a critical essay and not a review, some plot points are referenced for the purpose of analysis. 

“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe, top-full of direst cruelty!”    Lady Macbeth

Just as we know, with reasonable certainty, that Shakespeare didn’t have in mind two New Jersey hairstylists when he wrote Macbeth in 1606; it’s also an odds-on bet that said beauticians Cynthia Kellog (Demi Moore) and Joyce Urbanski (Glenne Headly), the morality-challenged friends at the center of Alan Rudolph’s skittish Mortal Thoughts, wouldn’t recognize a Shakespearean quote if it was set to music and sung by Billy Joel.

Yet Lady Macbeth’s impassioned plea to the gods to divest her of her feminine compassion and intensify her ruthlessness—the better to realize her homicidal musings—has within it the self-same dueling conflicts of violence/guilt/gender aggression/betrayal/loyalty/survival and desperation fueling the tinpot stratagems that set into motion the fatal events in this nifty ‘90s neo-noir. The castles of medieval Scotland may have nothing in common with the brownstones of 1990 New Jersey, but when it comes to survival, woe betide the woebegone male who dares underestimate what a woman is capable of when her thoughts turn to matters mortal.
Demi Moore as Cynthia Kellogg
Glenne Headly as Joyce Urbanski
Bruce Willis as James "Jimmy" Urbanski
Harvey Keitel as Detective John Woods
John Pankow as Arthur Kellogg 
Billie Neal as Detective Linda Nealon
Mortal Thoughts is an atmospheric suspenser of doggerel Shakespearean plotting and betrayals played out in the baseborn haven of Bayonne, New Jersey. Robert Altman protégé Alan Rudolph, who engagingly contemporized the tropes of film noir in his films Remember My Name and Trouble in Mind, again delves into the realm of the character-quirk crime thriller; this time having dark thoughts motivate the actions of a motley assortment of essentially non-thinking characters, all late-1980s time-piece artifacts depicted in finely-observed detail and only the most garish of local colors.

Mortal Thoughts evokes classic film noir in both the use of a narrative framing device recalling Mildred Pierce (a loutish man is found dead, a woman interrogated, a mystery unfolds via flashback), and in the cunning application of a crisscross murder threat redolent of the unarticulated alliance that got Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train off on the right track (an amusement park even figures significantly in both films). But for all its shrewdly effective nods to the tropes of the genre, Mortal Thoughts, in training its lethal eye on the relationship of its two female protagonists, achieves—much like that other, significantly more popular 1991 release, Thelma & Louise—a kind of mordant unpredictability.
There’s a lot of tension and wit in the convincingly conveyed cronyism of Demi Moore and Glenne Headly (the latter, hands-down, this film’s MVP), making Mortal Thoughts feel like a welcome female-centric variation of all those macho “neighborhood buddies who go way back” crime thrillers of the sort beloved by Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes (whose Mickey & Nicky this film recalls). 
"Your wedding was great. Except your husband...is such a...I don't know.
 I mean, what groom sells tools at his own wedding?"

Cynthia and Joyce have been friends since childhood. Each now married, they work at a beauty salon where, along with several pounds of permed hair and shoulder pads, they balance friendship, husbands, work, and children. 

Amiable opposites, Cynthia (Moore), the level-headed one, is married to Arthur (Pankow), a wheel-spinning go-getter type always on the hustle. Arthur is a kind and considerate spouse, but casually dismissive of Cynthia in that way common of fast-track husbands more in need of a “supportive wife” than an equal partner in life. One senses Arthur tolerates Cynthia more than he understands her, an observation driving home the equally strong impression that Cynthia’s always-in-tow children are where her chief familial priorities lie.

The emotionally volatile Joyce (Headly), has an obvious taste for Bad Boy types; explaining, but not excusing, her explosive marriage to James (Willis); a physically abusive, drug-dealing, macho hot-head. An accident waiting to happen, Joyce and James, who couldn’t even make it through their wedding day without a fight, are one of those couples for whom passion and erupt-at-any-moment violence are but interchangeable sides of the same dysfunctional coin. It’s in their marital DNA. So frequent and public are their contentious outbursts, the patrons of Joyce’s Clip ‘n’ Dye hair salon, situated just below the cluttered apartment Joyce and James share with their infant son, barely bat an eye when granted ringside seats to the duo’s regular-as-clockwork bouts. 
About now Joyce's thoughts are turning to ways of unsexing James with a pair of thinning shears

Events reach a crisis when Arthur, impatient with Cynthia’s de facto role as peacekeeper to the dysfunctional duo (and none too fond of the battling Urbanskis to begin with), begins pressuring his wife to stop spending so much time with her erratic girlfriend. Cynthia, feeling the stress of playing moderator, conciliator, and referee both at home and in the workplace, responds by doing more of what she already does far too much of: spreading herself thin trying to appease everyone.  Meanwhile, nobody seems to have taken notice that Joyce’s once easy-to-laugh-off threats to kill her husband appear to be graduating from thought to action.


Mortal Thoughts, in depicting the feminine side of all those urban buddy movies, does a good job of subtly drawing attention to the boys’ club network of protection that makes abused wives feel they have no options. Call the cops--they have no interest in punishing a man for what they see as “letting off steam”; appeal to the husband’s relatives--they see him as a good boy with a wife who provokes him; leave or get a divorce--invite stalking and jealous retribution.

The picture painted is bleak, but as many film noirs have illustrated in the past; a woman without power is not necessarily a woman without recourse.
“An accident, Dolores, can be an unhappy woman’s best friend.”  
Dolores Claiborne - 1995


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Mortal Thoughts lets us know from the outset that someone has been killed, but only by the 30-minute mark do we discover who it is (no big surprise there, nor do I suspect it’s supposed to be). The lengthy setup is devoted to establishing the characters, relationships, and setting (late-‘80s working-class New Jersey lovingly, painstakingly captured in all its cringe-inducing glory); the remaining body of the narrative devoted to unearthing the reverse-order specifics of the crime: the motive, the means, the when, and by whose hand.
In the book Flashbacks in Film: Memory & History, author Maureen Turim cites film noir flashbacks as being of two basic types: the confessional and the investigative. The confessional (as exemplified by the films Sunset Blvd. and Detour) has the lead character looking back over the chain of events which led them to their current (often dire) circumstances. The investigative (Laura, A Woman’s Face) has a law official piecing together the puzzle of a crime through means of examination and interrogation.
Mortal Thoughts employs both methods. In present-time, narrative flashbacks are triggered by the questions posed by two investigating detectives (Harvey Keitel and Billie Neal) to the fidgety, on-the-defensive Cynthia regarding the murder in question. 

Keitel’s Detective John Woods makes a big show of being the good listener just there to take down whatever Cynthia has to tell; but his piercing eyes (taking on a mischievous glint when one of his verbal snares yields prey) tell another story. He’s conducting a full-scale murder investigation without leaving his chair.  

With a video camera trained at her anxious face, Cynthia gives what can best be described as cathartically frank answers to their questions, these somewhat guarded responses delivered with a studied directness intended (one assumes) to convey an eagerness to unburden herself.
Unfortunately, Cynthia’s recollection of events, while superficially appropriate of an individual claiming innocence and who, as she puts it, “Didn’t do anything to need an attorney,” has a nagging habit of getting away from her. In attempting to provide the detectives with “just the facts” objectivity, Cynthia's subjective impulse to protect and/or conceal tends to result in her providing considerably more detail and backstory than necessary. Always volunteering a little more than she’s asked, Cynthia’s testimony takes on an involuntarily confessional tone, her account of the past frequently being at odds with what we’re shown.
Cynthia, distracted by troubling thoughts

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
It’s precisely when Mortal Thoughts tipped its hat to the unreliability of Cynthia as its narrator (especially since hers is the sole perspective we share) that the film really clicked for me. The doubt cast on the veracity of events depicted had the effect of shifting my focus from the story to the storyteller, at which point I found myself enjoying Mortal Thoughts not only as a mystery thriller, but as a sly dramatization of the threat of female alliance.

It’s telling that Mortal Thoughts is bookended by home movie footage depicting the friendship of Cynthia and Joyce from toddler to teens. These women grew up as sisters. They are closer to each other than they are to their husbands. At first glance it appears as though the film’s central conflict is the detrimental effect Joyce's toxic relationship with James on the marriage of Cynthia and Arthur; but one is reminded that nether woman is in a marriage they deem particularly satisfactory.

No, with the most intimate relationship in the film is the sisterhood friendship of Cynthia and Joyce. With this in mind, dramatic tension arises out of the film’s many subthemes: the inequity of marriage; macho as the flip side of male inadequacy; how women’s relationships are devalued by men and how easily women internalize and adopt these same attitudes—making the film’s central conflict the threat that female solidarity represents to the male.
“I fear for my life when the two of you sit down together.”  

For example: James and Arthur both have scenes where they vent their jealousy of how close Joyce and Cynthia are, each resentfully alluding to their wives prioritizing their friendship above their marriages. These scenes are echoed in additional sequences wherein the men are shown undermining the women's loyalties or encouraging one to betray the another (Cynthia’s rebuff of James’ crude sexual advances is met with “What are friends for?”), or trying to undermine the women’s loyalties.

For years men have benefited from pitting women against one another for the same reason the rich benefit from convincing the poor that other poor people of a different color are their barriers to The American Dream: there’s power in division. Misogyny is rooted in the male anxiety of the disposable (castrated) man, and many noir films exploit this fear. I mean, what is the noir femme fatale if not the embodiment of men’s terror of women operating under their own agency? Mortal Thoughts plays on society's limited, dual image of women, Cynthia behaving in the maternal, care-giving manner that reassures, Joyce (the breadwinner in her household) acting as feminine aggression personified. The trick up its sleeve is that it dares us to assume we know what’s really going on. 
“Everyone knows a woman is fragile and helpless. Everyone’s wrong.” 


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
A number of critics took issue with the brooding, almost operatic visual style of grand tragedy Mortal Thoughts applies (dramatic events play out with lots of slow-motion and choral accompaniment) to what is arguably a shabby homicide set in a garish world among unsophisticated people. But the film’s overemphasis on kitschy ‘80s details (and truly, you’d have to look far to find a wittier application of hair, costume, and production design) and magnification of the small lives feels intentional.

There’s nothing noble, high-born, or honorable about any of these characters. They are human in the most base, fundamental sense. But in Greek mythology when the Oracle of Delphi cryptically exhorts humans to “Think mortal thoughts,” this ethical maxim to be heedful of one’s human limitations reminds us how often it is in tragedy that characters pay a dear price for thinking they are above their mortality. In other words, acting like gods and believing they have the right to take a life or decide who lives.
That these larger-than-life themes play out in the small-scale environs of Hoboken, New Jersey, makes Mortal Thoughts one of the most intriguingly entertaining and off-beat neo noirs since Alan Rudolph’s Remember My Name.


PERFORMANCES
My fondness for the work of director Alan Rudolph is what initially drew me to Mortal Thoughts. But unlike most of his other features, Rudolph was not involved in either its writing or creation, having been brought in with only five days’ notice after original director Claude Kervin (who wrote the incredible and incredibly funny screenplay with William Reilly) was fired two weeks into production.
That being said, it’s difficult to know how different Mortal Thoughts would have been had Rudolph been involved from the start, for much of it plays out like a more coherent version of any number of his always-fascinating, albeit occasionally jumbled, character pieces.

For a director so skilled with actors and the intricacies of character, Rudolph’s has an impressive understanding and respect for the suspense thriller genre. He understands the importance of taking the time to establish atmosphere and mood, he knows how to build suspense, and (like Polanski at his best) he isn’t afraid of using humor even within the most intense scenes.  I like films with strong women protagonists and I like mysteries; so it’s no surprise that I found Mortal Thoughts to be a slick,  ceaselessly entertaining film with suspense, twists, and tension to spare. All bolstered by a uniformly excellent (and exceptionally well-used) cast.
Familiar face and frequent screen mobster Frank Vincent
(who died in 2017) appears as Dominic, Joyce's father

I’ve never been much of a Demi Moore fan and guiltily admit to never having seen her biggest hit Ghost (even after all this time I’m genuinely hard-pressed to think I’m missing anything), but she's absolutely terrific in this. My favorite performance of all (the few?) films of hers I've seen. I'm crazy about her in this. With her raspy voice (I even like her Joi-zee accent), sardonic wit, and sharp-eyed common sense, she’s like a real-life Wilma Flintstone. A pillar of rational-thinking against whom her not-wound-too-tight friend Joyce can bounce off of. And bounce she does.
As embodied by the late Glenne Headly (who passed away in June of 2017), Joyce is the quintessential Dangerous Woman. An outspoken trouble magnet, Joyce is a woman who knows how to take care of herself and get things taken care of; simultaneously the toughest and most vulnerable person in the film. Headly, a remarkably resourceful actress, is a marvel to watch from start to finish (not to mention listen to…her delivery and timing is priceless), and achieves the miracle of making her paradoxical character make absolute sense.
Bruce Willis and Demi Moore were still married when Mortal Thoughts was released, and while both were a bit off my radar at the time, I recall that they were a really annoying “power” couple in Hollywood. Both were riding high on recent successes: Moore exercising her clout by serving as producer on this film, Willis, hot off of two Die Hards (the flop of Hudson Hawk was waiting in the wings) was working off a lot of public ill-will (bad buzz from his offscreen Moonlighting behavior, a couple of ear-bleeder vanity records, and those cringe-worthy wine cooler commercials) by taking on a role in his wife’s film which played on what many thought of him anyway. It’s a film industry career ploy known as “Give the audience permission to hate you and they’ll get it out of their system.” A disliked celebrity takes on a self-deprecating or self-referential role and bingo, career clemency.
I can't vouch for those wine cooler commercial out of my system, but I do enjoy hating Bruce Willis in this.
Quick shout-out to personal fave and scene-stealer Harvey Keitel who does
wonders with his small role.  Never disappoints

Mortal Thoughts didn’t perform well at the boxoffice, but to me it’s an underrated, undiscovered gem. It’s a smart, well-acted crime thriller that not only delivers in the suspense category, but invites the repeat viewing to appreciate the rich characterizations, vivid production values, and sharp execution. Pardon the pun. 
Really, one of my favorites.


The film's first line of dialogue is also its last

Copyright © Ken Anderson