Saturday, 26 July 2014

Vidal Loca… Myra Breckinridge (1970)

This film has all the hallmarks of a classic cult movie – rated as the worst film ever made by some and yet so chock full of transgression and in-jokes that it can’t fail to arouse the support of those who admire its counter-cultural tone… It’s certainly confused a fair few since its release and frightened some others. Is there any point in watching Myra Breckinridge in 2014?

Based on the spitefully witty novel by Gore Vidal, who also wrote the initial treatments, the film ended up being directed by Michael Sarne from a script he co-wrote: it was the last feature he would ever get to make but I don’t know if Myra was completely to blame.

John Huston, Mae West and Raquel
Sarne’s methods appear to have been wasteful and unfocused in the studio but I think the film hangs together reasonably well in terms of its narrative but there doesn’t seem to be a defined motivation for many of the characters and the satire’s a little too obvious at times.

Raquel Welch
Raquel Welch stars as Myra, the result of a sex change to Myron (Rex Reed), who wanted to realign not just his own gender but the pre-set programming of all Americans. To do this he/she aims to infiltrate the film star training school run by he/her Uncle Buck Loner (John Huston) and to, presumably, create a master race of newly sexualised super stars to go forth and screw with the mother country’s mind…. It’s a crazy plan and it just won’t work.

Still, tiny steps… you probably have to read the book to make sense of the reasoning. Taken on its own merits, the plot – as in Myra’s plot – makes sense as a revenge on her Uncle’s money-grabbing exploitation of the gullible, but on a larger scale?

Toni Basil, John Carradine and Rex Reed...discuss the deed.
Myra arrives after a sex change operation delivered by John Carradine, cigar in mouth and rather casual of demeanour… The results look spectacular though and more than good enough to convince Uncle Buck that she is Myron’s widow or at least that she is a she. She’s aiming for half his million dollar business and maybe more if he fights back too hard.

Buck’s school is a phoney, aimed at perpetuating the myths of the worst aspects of Hollywood and extending the stay of students as long as possible along with their fees of course.

There are many clips from older Hollywood films including a nice sample form the Welch “classic” 1,000,000 Years BC… which arrives just as Myra does: you think maybe this film is better than they say? But whilst the clips are obviously used more out or respect for a golden era of cinematic fantasy, they don’t always work and sometimes distract. It’s also interesting that a sequence of clips from one of Laurel and Hardy’s last features – Atoll K - not one of their best but still funnier than all of the original material in Myra..

Laurel and Hardy protest...
 In between trying to extract maximum value out of Uncle Buck, Myra sets about perverting his students to her way of thinking. Her main targets are the none-too-smart jock Rusty Godowski (Roger Herren) and his too good to be true girlfriend Mary Ann Pringle (Farrah Fawcett). Her motivations seem just spiteful but she obviously sees them as emblematic of all American narrow-band thinking on boys, girls and relationships.

Mae West and Tom Selleck
Meanwhile there’s a major sub-plot boiling over with a 76-year-old Mae West playing the queen of the casting couch Leticia Van Allen. Miss Van Allen is constantly “interviewing” a long line of male acting talent – including a fresh-faced Tom Selleck (who does pass his audition you’ll be relieved to know!). It’s the Mae West legend writ large and she’s pretty spot on with her delivery even though her character’s role in the film is merely to underline the point about the endlessly exploitative dream factory.

And so the film goes as Uncle Buck has yet another massage at the hands of a variety of young masseurs, he brings in his own sleazy lawyers to disprove Myra’s claims and she outwits him at every turn.

Finally the film gets to the – sexual – point and Myra gives Rusty a “lesson” he’ll never forget. Revenge for a woman-kind taken for granted by “guys like him” or Myron/Myra getting their kicks? We’re not clear.

A broken Rusty is handed over for Miss Van Allen to use a she wilt and Myra turns her attention to realigning Mary Ann’s sexuality, using Rusty’s disappearance as a tool to push her into the arms of an alternative sex. But Mary Ann isn’t buying what Myra’s selling and now Myra wants the one she can’t have…

Confused Myra loses the plot...
Dusty verdict: Myra Breckinridge hits most of its targets but it doesn’t deliver knockout blows… Yes we know that the Dream Factory can chew people up and spit ‘em out but why should we sympathise with Myra’s “revenge”? We don’t even like Myron to be honest – credit to non-actor Rex Reed for that – although we do admire Myra’s style - Miss Welch really is a revelation with her timing and sardonic charm!

Rex Reed
It ends up falling a little flat with a “so what” denouement that doesn’t ring true at all… not for Myron or Myra.

Toni Basil - "Oh Myron,you're not so fine..."
There are moments of style and it’s more coherent than people give it credit for whilst there are also some great guest appearances from the likes of Andy Devine as Coyote Bill. It also features a young Toni Basil who pops up throughout with a knowing wink, chewing gum… maybe she knows a lot more than she’s letting on?

Worth watching but too mean of spirit to qualify as genuine satire and too sexually violent to be a guilty pleasure, you can buy Myra on DVD from Amazon and others.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Nicolas Roeg’s songlines… Walkabout (1971)

The last time I watched this film was on a small black and white portable and there was a little less Jenny Agutter.

Walkabout was cinematographer turned director Nicolas Roeg’s second film and it is as minimalistically expressive as any of his later psychological dramas. A genuinely stunning visual accomplishment, it juxtaposes the Outback with both the external and internal civilised world to raise bold questions about the nature of man as well as communication.

In full colour on a flat screen it is a luscious, immersive experience and there are at least five more minutes of Jenny Agutter, of which more anon…

The viewer is almost overwhelmed by images of vast natural panoramas, endless deserts of crumbling red rock and sun-bleached sand all under an open-ended sky of wispy clouds shot through with blinding solar rays. It’s as if we’re all as lost as the main characters, trying to endure and to retain our civilised connections.

Jenny swims free
Surely the famous five minutes of nudity (now restored after the initial censorship) in which Ms Agutter swims totally free of inhibition, is as much the representation of liberation from the constraints of normally as anything else. Does it have to be five minutes? Well no…  but so many of Roeg’s shots are just that bit too long or that bit over-repeated… this is no easy-watching travel brochure but a challenging exposure – life in the raw (sorry…) with plenty of tooth and claw…

Walls give way to wilderness...
The story begins in Sydney with walls, huge glass buildings and a well-ordered society running on rails, wheels and conformity. In the well-to-do apartment of a business man (John Meillon), we see his wife preparing the evening meal in preparation for the family’s return. Their eldest daughter (Agutter) learns elocution at her school – they are English and must maintain their social tones.

Father looks out at his young son (Luc Roeg) and teenage daughter as they swim in the apartment’s pool: a glimpse of their well-cushioned lifestyle but is there just a hint of something more in his gaze?

A little while later, the three drive out far into the outback for a picnic. The children play and listen to the radio with its distant, false promises of civilisation. Suddenly there’s a shot and father starts shooting at the children, they hide behind rocks and begin a desperate crawl to safety… By the time the girl has gone back, her father has torched the car and shot himself: modern man driven mad by animalistic conflict…

She calmly takes her younger brother and begins a confident walk to get help and to return to society but it’s not to be that simple… they’re further out than they know.

The girl stays calm and for a while you think she’ll be resourceful enough to take them free but, lucking across a small waterhole they run out of options… sacred and tired they lie in wait hoping for something to happen.

They are seen by a 16-year old Aboriginal youth (David Gulpilil) who has been sent into the desert as part of his rite of passage from youth to manhood.

He all but ignores them but, seeming not to speak English, responds to the boy’s miming and shows them how to dig deeper into the mud to find more water.

From this point on the three become attached and follow the young man’s journey through the unforgiving terrain…

It’s a strange journey with their childlike interactions, the girl’s burgeoning sexuality and reserve, offset against the young man’s desire to prove himself the hunter he has to be. It’s funny and deceptive.

Roeg throws in a seemingly random episode in which a group of Italian scientists set up weather balloon experiments some way off in the sandy flats. Amidst all of the calculations the men stare lustily at the lone woman whilst her boyfriend concentrates on the science. Possibly Roeg’s tip of the hat to Fellini and another indication of the fragile demarcation between rational humanity and instinct.

A weather balloon is let go in petulant frustration and sometime later finds its way to the young group briefly joining the ever-present buzz of the girl’s radio as a reminder of the ordered, frenetic world out-front… The boy remembers that his father said the battery life should be 400 hours, maybe it will be…

The trek continues past wilting lizards, a strange procession of the young hunter, a boy with a seemingly endless collection of Dinky toys in his satchel and the young woman carrying an improvised parasol.  It’s now a grand adventure and when they find a big rock pool they all dive in with Roeg’s camera spending those long minutes focused on Jenny Agutter’s fluid swimming style. This is not the end but a high point of their freedom.

Civilisation gets closer and closer and at one point a white woman from an Aboriginal settlement recognises and says hello to the boy in English: he pretends not to hear or understand and looking back heads off to his two new friends who are totally unaware of how close they are to the world.

David Gulpilil
It’s clear he is enjoying this new found relationship and doesn’t want it to end at least not too soon. There are sexual undercurrents between him and the girl and neither is aware enough to act on them or even able to communicate their friendship.  When the boy finally does make a show, the girl cannot understand and can only think of escape from the wilderness… an absence of rules and clear etiquette.

I won’t reveal the ending save to say that whilst you can probably work out a number of routes forward based on traditional cinematic code but it won’t be any of them not strictly.

Dusty verdict: A genuine classic and looking better than ever in the new Blu-ray transfer. It has stood the test of time so well largely thanks to Roeg’s cinematography but also the way he keeps his narrative alive through jumps across space and time: the film is all things at once just like the tribal backgrounds of the boy’s songlines.

Events may not even be in “real time” they could all be the memories of Jenny Agutter’s character many years’ later? An aboriginal “songline” is also called a dreaming track after all. These were the paths followed by the mystical creator-beings who sang the world into existence. For more information I urge you to read Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines...

There are great performances from the three leads – not just the classically-trained Agutter but also David Gulpilil and young Roeg (who is now a film producer of some note).

Miles away from nowhere
There’s also a commendable score from John Barry which subtly underpins the story throughout – the icing on the desert as it were…

Walkabout is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Movie Mail  and those Amazon people: don’t make do with an old VHS… it deserves the highest quality on the biggest screen!