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

 

 

 

 

Insignificance

Michael Emil and Theresa Russell in Insignificance

 

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

 

 

14 March

 

Albert Einstein born, 1879

On this day in 1879, Albert Einstein was born in Ulm, Germany, to Hermann and Pauline Einstein. His father was an engineer who founded his own company selling electrical products which ran on DC current, and would eventually go bust when alternating current won the so-called “current wars”. The son, too, was interested in invisible motive forces, the first of his 300 scientific papers being titled On the Investigation of the Ether in a Magnetic Field, aged 15. At 17 he was a student of mathematics and physics in Zurich, after which he struggled to find a teaching job and so took a position in a patent office. In 1905, aged 26, he completed his PhD. It was the year he also published four papers which altered the way humans think of the universe. These were on Photo-electric Effect, Brownian motion, Special relativity and Mass-Energy equivalence. He continued working at the patent office, approving or rejecting electrical inventions, until 1909, the year he became a teacher at Zurich. In 1919 Einstein became a world star after measurements during the solar eclipse confirmed that light from a distant star was indeed bent by the sun’s gravitational pull, as Einstein had predicted. Gravity, light and all energy were in fact related in a way that could be quantified. In 1921 Einstein received the Nobel prize for his work on photo-electric effect, his more important work (on relativity) having not yet been sufficiently digested by the Nobel committee and wider scientific community for them to acclaim it for what it was – an updating of the theories of Isaac Newton, whose picture hung on the wall in Einstein’s study.

 

 

 

Insignificance (1985, dir: Nicolas Roeg)

The director Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Terry Johnson’s play Insignificance got a lot of press attention when it debuted in 1985. Largely because it allowed the magazine supplements to drag out archive photographs of famous people. Because Johnson/Roeg’s film deals with the fantasy notion of film star Marilyn Monroe, the red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy, baseball king Joe DiMaggio and physicist Albert Einstein all finding themselves one hot night in a hotel room together where the public perceptions of who they are, rather than their real characters, are set in play against each other. Johnson did similar surface tricks with his plays Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick (about the Carry On team) and Hitchcock Blonde (about Alfred Hitchcock and one of his blonde leading ladies). This is really his film rather than Roeg’s, whose dreamy fractured gothic style doesn’t get to stretch its legs much here, once the odd premise has been established, in spite of Roeg’s tricksy editing, flashbacks and attempts to make the film more cinematic. With Insignificance it’s really OK to say that the plot is kind of insignificant – Monroe and Einstein work out the theory of relativity, McCarthy bangs on about commies, DiMaggio pulls “duh” expressions and loses his temper, realising he’s the dimmest bulb in the room. Instead it’s the performance (to quote another Roeg film) that matters – Theresa Russell’s unusually believable film star, Tony Curtis’s over-ripe senator, Gary Busey’s decent ballplayer, Michael Emil’s wide-eyed scientist. None of them is ever named – nor was the blonde in Hitchcock Blonde for that matter – and this ties in closely to what Johnson, possibly, is aiming for: an understanding of how we buy things off the peg because we like their glittery surfaces (with actresses as with theories of special relativity) and whether the surface actually bears any resemblance to what’s going on below. The film is about us, as much as them, in other words. And is possibly one of the reasons why, once the picture editors had run their Marilyn and Albert double-page spreads, the magazines never talked about the film again.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Big questions
  • Theresa Russell’s performance
  • Film editor Tony Lawson’s fascinating interview in the extras
  • A rare example of playwright Terry Johnson on screen

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Insignificance – Watch it/buy it 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

 

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