Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Three Un-recent Movies Seen Recently

Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices
I don't remember exactly when or where I first heard about this one, but I did some have curiosity about the (to me) mysterious world of polyphonic vocal music - motets, madrigals, etc - and, at this point, I would watch a Werner Herzog documentary on just about any subject. Herzog's rather free (to put it mildly) approach to documentary filmmaking surely reaches one of its highest points of invention in Death for Five Voices, as he packs numerous staged scenes and outright fabrications into a 60-minute running time (it was originally made for German TV). Though anyone with an ounce of natural skepticism or previous acquaintance with Herzog's documentaries will be doubting at least half of what they see on-screen, it's all somehow appropriate in telling the story of a man, Prince Carlo Gesualdo, who inspired plenty of wild legends and rumors in his own time and for centuries after. Why shouldn't Herzog get to invent some of his own?

Though some of the stories Herzog tells about the mad, murderous composer are fictional or exaggerated, the music, performed for the film by a couple of different ensembles, is very much for real and quite striking. Though I didn't know enough about the style or have a good enough ear to immediately distinguish the elements that made Gesualdo's music so strange in its own time but attractive to much later composers like Stravinsky, Herzog includes enough explanation from musicians/musicologists to give the viewer things to listen for without getting into levels of detail that might have bogged down a 60-minute film. Herzog rarely gets bogged down, especially in his documentaries, which with their abundance of fascinating people, places, and events have represented his stronger work in recent years. The Herzog filmography contains many lesser-known gems like Death in Five VoicesThe White Diamond being only the first that comes to mind.

The Loved One
Check out the list of names associated with this movie, from 1965: Tony Richardson (fresh off his Oscars for Tom Jones) as director; Jonathan Winters, John Gielgud, Liberace, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Tab Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Rod Steiger, and Paul Williams among the cast; Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood as screenwriters, adapting Evelyn Waugh; Haskell Wexler as DP and producer and Hal Ashby as editor. It's not uncommon for movies that are overstuffed with big names to be big flops, but I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It's dark, a bit strange, and has strong performances from all the leads, including Mad Men's Robert Morse as the at-first befuddled but ultimately resourceful protagonist, an English poet living by his wits in LA. There are so many off-the-wall characters (none more so than Steiger's Mr. Joyboy, though he has stiff competition) and bizarre/surreal set pieces that it almost doesn't matter whether it all adds up, but for the most part I think it does.

The Loved One is one of the many, many films in which Hollywood turns the camera on itself, though here the the funeral industry (along with the pet cemetery business, anticipating Errol Morris' Gates of Heaven) plays an even bigger role than the film industry in making up the strange sea in which Morse's fish-out-of-water finds himself. The idea of a lone sane man and/or outsider trying to survive in the insanity of Southern California is something of a film subgenre, of which Sunset Boulevard and The Long Goodbye are two of the finest examples (though here, as in Sunset Boulevard, the hero is not exactly a white knight, but a man with ambitions whose eye for opportunities is sharper than his moral code).

I don't know how faithful the adaptation is to Waugh's novel, but Terry Southern's influence seems evident in the tone of the movie - anti-authoritarian, satirical, horny, and a bit perverse. The Loved One looks forward to the similarly-themed but more anarchic (and to me, less effective) movies that Southern was involved in later in the '60, Easy Rider and The Magic Christian. While not a restrained piece of work by any means, The Loved One shows more craft and discipline than those later films, which for me typify the period after the decline of "studio system" craft but before the "new Hollywood" had really found its footing. Simultaneously experimental (or perhaps just aping experiments done years before in Europe) and nakedly/desperately appealing to the "youth market", some of these movies (like the Monkees' Head) are still great fun to watch, but they tend to give the impression that most of the cast and crew were high and/or assuming the audience would be.

One last, rather trivial note: I took the shots of rotating statues in the Whispering Glades "memorial gardens" to be an obvious nod to Godard's Contempt (try 1:25 in this excerpt), but in the making-of doc on the DVD, Wexler makes no mention of Godard, even though he singles out those shots and discusses how he set them up. As Contempt opened in the US less than a year before The Loved One was released, I suppose it's possible that Wexler and Richardson wouldn't have seen it in time, but if not, it's a pretty striking coincidence.

Derek Jarman's Jubilee has an all-star cast of a different sort, featuring generally lesser known actors but some big names from the music world, including a very young Adam Ant, punk/glam pioneer Wayne/Jayne County, Siouxie and the Banshees, and soundtrack contributions by Brian Eno. Jarman seemed to have a great ability to find a style for each of his films suitable to the subject (the compositions, lighting, and use of color in Caravaggio, for instance), and the anarchic, violently eclectic look and flow of Jubilee (apparently inspired in part by early punk 'zines) is no exception, though it's not entirely clear how much of this was planned and how much resulted from necessity, disorganization, or lack of funds. As with The Loved One, the succession of wild characters and strange happenings keeps things interesting, with Jarman stuffing a surplus of ideas (mostly good ones) into the cinematic blender.

Among the strange case of characters, Toyah Willcox's performance as Mad, the genuinely frightening butch pyromaniac, is of particular note. Though she was a serious, trained actor in a cast made up largely of non-actors, friends of Jarman, and genuine punks, her performance came across to me as more "real" and believable than some of those who may have been playing characters much closer to their off-camera selves. Apparently Willcox later became something of a pop star, but I hadn't heard of her, and until I saw the making-of documentary, I assumed she was someone Jarman found trawling around London punk shows.

Though very much inspired by and steeped in the punk aesthetic, Jubilee is by no means a celebration of punk. Jarman was an outsider, fascinated by the aesthetics but able to retain a critical distance from the scene he was immersing himself in. His skepticism about punk as a cultural revolutionary movement is part of the reason Jubilee is still watchable as something more than a period piece and helps explain why many scenesters were apparently upset and disappointed with the film when it opened (most notoriously, Vivienne Westwood, who responded with her "Open Letter to Derek Jarman" t-shirt, a reading of which reveals that Jarman's film certainly hit a nerve). This reaction from the true believers is understandable in light of the film's (cynical but, in retrospect, rather uncontroversial) suggestion that punk was just another style ripe for co-option and exploitation by the star-making machinery. Even some of Jarman's friends and associates took the film as a politcally conservative piece of nostalgia for the Golden Age of Elizabeth I, and there is certainly enough material in the film to make that a defensible interpretation, though not the only one.

Jubilee fits well with some of the work that Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg, among British directors, were doing in the '70s, as well as having some apparent nods to Kenneth Anger and, perhaps inevitably, to some of Godard's late-'60s films. Jarman was clearly well-read, but the book that Jubilee put me in mind of was written many years later. The idyllic seaside ending (with Elizabeth and her astrologer/advisor/magus John Dee walking off along some very scenic cliffs) reminded me a bit of Iain Sinclair's novel Downriver, which, like Jubilee, shows contemporary Britain (Downriver came out just after the Thatcher era; Jubilee just before) through a dark, twisted mirror (Sinclair also shares Jarman's fascination with Dee, though I don't recall that he figures in Downriver). In both works, the ending feels like a relief, resigned if not necessarily hopeful, after the violence and grotesquerie that went before. In an unexpected but effective touch, Jarman lets the seagull sounds from the last scene continue for a minute or so over a black screen, like the blank pages at the back of a book, inviting the audience to sit for a bit longer and reflect.

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