Don’t Look Now

Julie Christie in Don't Look Now

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

25 March

 

The founding of Venice, AD421

On this day in the year AD421, Venice was founded. Sited on 118 islands in a lagoon between the mouths of the rivers Po and Piave, Venice derives its name from the Veneti people who lived in the region in the 10th century BC, though the people who actually founded the city were more likely refugees fleeing the Germanic and Hun invaders who were flooding into Italy as the Roman empire fell apart. Today is traditionally taken as the day of the city’s founding because on this day in 421 the church of San Giacomo was dedicated. It still stands, though it was substantially rebuilt by order of the doge Marino Grimani after a fire destroyed much of the area.

 

 

 

Don’t Look Now (1973, dir: Nicolas Roeg)

It’s often remembered as the film in which Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie have sex for real for the camera, though that story smacks of brilliant PR rather than Perez Hilton-style tittle-tattle. But Don’t Look Now’s most talked about scene is important for another, more structural reason. It’s the way that in the editing of the scene the action keeps cutting between the present and the future. The story of John and Laura Baxter, a young married couple whose daughter has died in a drowning accident, Don’t Look Now has already shifted location from misty England to Venice where, as some sort of sublime joke, the Baxters are meant to be recovering from their loss in the world’s most watery city. He’s restoring a cathedral as part of his work; she’s quietly going nuts.
And it’s in the cutting that Roeg and editor Graeme Clifford signal Laura’s disintegration, the way they collage together images of the here and now with suggestions of what’s to come, or of this world of solid mass with an alternative world which is just out of reach. Enter two sisters, one of whom can “see” the Baxters’ dead daughter. Enter a priest, too worldly by half. Exit Laura, to sort out some problem back home. And here, after much suggestion and foreshadowing, the film goes into its most famous sequence, as the entirely rational John starts chasing around the spookily empty Venice after a hooded figure in a red coat just like the one his daughter was wearing the day she died. There’s nothing overtly “horror” about this film; it doesn’t do “boo” scares or feature mad axe-wielding psychopaths. It works on the senses in a different way, insidiously, by suggestion, the film built shot by shot like some baroque fugue – themes are stated, restated with embellishment, echoed, reversed, until (ta daa) we reach the final reveal. Plot junkies won’t like the ending. It’s too abrupt, seems like too sudden a change of direction. Yet as Laura glides away with the two mysterious sisters on boat across the water – allusion to Greek mythology surely deliberate – surely it’s the best ending possible for a film that’s been about the boundary between the solid and the ethereal.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Nicolas Roeg’s best film
  • Probably the most subtle gothic horror ever made
  • Perfect Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie
  • A masterclass in cinematography and editing

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Don’t Look Now – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd

Terence Stamp and Julie Christie in Far from the Madding Crowd

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

11 January

 

 

Thomas Hardy dies, 1928

On this day in 1928, the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy died. He was 87 and this Victorian writer had survived into and almost through the age of the formal modernist, such as Joyce, with whom he had little in common, though he was an informing influence on writers with a more earthy, carnal and rural inclination, such as DH Lawrence.

Hardy had trained as an architect in the 1860s but didn’t enjoy life in London and as soon as he became established enough he moved back to the West Country (Somerset, then Dorset) where he remained till he died.

After four early books written while he was an architect, two of which he published anonymously because he was embarrassed at their naked commercial intent, Hardy published Far from the Madding Crowd in 1874. It was a hit and it allowed him to devote himself full time to writing. The books that followed it were, like Far from the Madding Crowd and much of Hardy’s most popular work, set in the fictional Wessex – the Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire area of south west England.

When Hardy’s much loved wife of 38 years died in 1912 he got married again, to his secretary, who was 39 years younger than him. Now often seen as a whiskery paragon of Victorian virtue, Hardy was often criticised in his lifetime for his frank treatment of sex, particularly in 1895’s Jude the Obscure, whose portrait of a man driven by “erotolepsy” (ie his dick) shocked Victorians, who bought it in huge numbers (in plain covers).

Let’s also not forget Hardy’s lubricious portraits of his female protagonists – Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Bathsheba in Far from the Madding Crowd. But it’s fate, and fatalism, that drives many of his best books, with sex merely a carnal manifestation of the disruptive power of a universe with no benign creator at the helm.

 

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd (1967, dir: John Schlesinger)

Whether you go a bundle on this adaptation of Hardy or not – and not everyone does – it is probably the film to turn to if you want to see Julie Christie, the epitome of the smart, free, upwardly mobile 1960s young woman, at her most beautiful. And Terence Stamp too, come to that. In films where naked lust is the driver of the plot, it really helps if you can get behind the notion that the people being portrayed really would make you lose your head.

And there is a lot of that going on here. At the centre of it all is Christie’s Bathsheba, a “headstrong” woman (ie borderline bitch) who employs poor shepherd/former suitor/torch-bearer Gabriel (Alan Bates) to help on her farm, makes flirtatious eyes at local man-of-means William Boldwood (Peter Finch), only to run off and marry the dashing Sergeant Troy (Stamp), who has, unbeknown to her, already got a local girl in the family way.

Bathsheba is then tossed back and forth by her own choices, her lust and uncaring fate, in a story that pits her against three archetypes of male suitor – Stamp is the sexually exciting rotter, Finch the decent would-be provider, Bates the quietly devoted servant.

It is true that Christie might be just a touch too much the 1960s girl – the posters describe the film as being about “a wilful passionate girl and… the three men who want her!”, which makes her sound like a version of Marianne Faithfull. But, its two leads apart – Sixties faces par excellence – this is in many senses a 1950s film, a big-budget studio-driven affair packed with talent: screenplay by Frederic Raphael, cinematography by Nicolas Roeg, score by Richard Rodney Bennett. And watched in that light, as almost the last of a dying breed, its three hours are well worth plumping up the sofa for.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Stamp and Christie at their best
  • Nicolas Roeg’s lyrical, beautiful Panavision cinematography
  • Frederic Raphael’s intelligent script
  • Anyone for a film with an Intermission?

 

 

 

Far from the Madding Crowd – watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

McCabe And Mrs Miller

Warren Beatty and Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs Miller

 

 

As Ang Lee now redefines every genre he touches, so did Robert Altman three and more decades ago. Here’s his remodelling of the western, an “anti-western” according to him, though these days what Altman was doing decades ago has mostly been incorporated in the mainstream – the “anti-western” is now just a western. Warren Beatty and Julie Christie take the leads – he a lousy entrepreneur with a plan to build a whorehouse, she a Cockney madam with an opium habit and a determination to make McCabe succeed in the enterprise they agree to jointly undertake. They sleep together but she charges him top dollar. It’s that sort of relationship and that sort of town. This is the American West as it is being made, a building site of half-dug holes and half-built buildings where such niceties as manners and morality have yet to arrive.

McCabe & Mrs Miller is a painfully elegiac film, and thanks to Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography, and Leonard Cohen’s songs on the soundtrack, beautiful and fragile too. It plays out in a landscape where it’s always just about to rain, or sleet, in a town called Presbyterian Church. It’s the sort of film where little is said outright. At one point McCabe is offered money for his land. He suggests a price that’s way too high. It’s only later that he, and we, realise that by doing that he’s effectively signed his own death warrant.

Like Altman’s Mash, Altman’s western gives us characters who arrive on the screen fully made and situations we feel privileged to be overhearing. It’s probably Altman’s best film, Christie’s and Beatty’s too.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 McCabe & Mrs Miller – at Amazon

 

 

Don’t Look Now

Donald Sutherland in Don't Look Now

 

 

 

 

It seems an odd thing to say, but most films aren’t really that cinematic. Most films, you could close your eyes and follow them. Not so with Nicolas Roeg’s “arthouse horror”. Close your eyes and you’re lost. In fact, even with your eyes open, all is not as it appears. Take the infamous love-making scene played out between grieving parents Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. It’s not the “were they doing it for real” question that marks it out as significant but the fact that Roeg keeps intercutting this ultimate example of living in the now with scenes from a few minutes later – when the duo are absent-mindedly getting dressed, ready to go out. This scene is emblematic of the film, which hovers between the here and the not-here, the what-they-are and the what-they’re-not. Look at what’s on offer – a loving couple whose marriage seems to be on the rocks; a recently dead daughter who appears to be popping up all over Venice, itself a city hanging between two states, the water and the sky. Then there’s the two weird sisters, one who sees (she’s clairvoyant) but doesn’t see (she’s blind); the crumbling church Sutherland is restoring, which hovers between existence and extinction; a man of the cloth who seems more worldly than any other character in the film – the examples go on and on. And they all add up to one of the most psychologically complex, visually distinctive horror movies ever made. Do look now.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

Don’t Look Now – at Amazon