Friday, 30 January 2015

Brutal eternity... Zardoz (1974)

Looking at the reviews on the IMDB many people still haven’t got this film: it’s most certainly not in the “so bad it’s good” category nor any kind of guilty pleasure that is laughably flawed. Indeed some commentators now rate it one of John Boorman’s best – just this month it made number 5 in Rolling Stones top science fiction films of the seventies.

Good science fiction is never about the gadgets on show, the flimsy clothes or the society of the future – these are just ways of looking at contemporary culture. So it is that Zardoz is about the world of 1973-4, the way it was and the way it could have been heading by 2293. How far away were the intellectual classes from a detached existence happy to arm a select group of “Brutals” in order for them to control the rest outside of their safe enclave? How far will we go to deny the external suffering that wars, famine and disease keeps away from our delusional comfort?

So, ignore the psychedelic sense of humour, the giant flying heads and the strange orange nappies of the Exterminators and focus on the Boorman’s messages about freedom, responsibility and the need to act… now. As the film’s writer, director and producer he surely meant every aspect as they are presented and this film addresses some of the same truths as his previous work, Deliverance.

The film is introduced by the disembodied head of Arthur Frayn  (Niall Buggy) who outlines the story in the manner of a medieval mummer… we are all the constructs he tells us looking straight into the camera: all made by our own Gods.

Brutal by name and nature
320 years after it was made, the World has descended into anarchy with the majority living a life of subsistence, their numbers strictly limited by teams of “exterminators” who rampage across the country slaying all they see in the name of their God, Zardoz. The killers all wear the same outlandish orange garb which might be laughable were it not for the guns and their delight in slaughtering others (imagine that dear 21st century reader?).

Zed in the head...
Zardoz appears to them in the guise of a giant floating stone head, issuing instructions and vast amounts of guns in exchange for receipt of the goods extracted from the murdered farmers. But one of these “Brutals” Zed (Sean Connery) wants to find out more and stows away hidden in some grain, he discovers the interior filled with shrink-wrapped humans being harvested for their natural energies. He spots the strange figure of Frayn who recognises Zed and tries to explain something… But Zed shoots, sending him falling to his doom and sits tight as the floating head continues on its way.

Zed and Zardoz come to ground in the well-kept gardens of what appears to be a paradise, brightly garbed young people mass around, well fed and full of almost childish wonder at the new arrival in their community: the Vortex. Two women lead the investigation Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), who’s instinct is to have Zed exterminated and the more considered May (Sara Kestelman) who wants him examined. Even in paradise there is disagreement…

Sean Connery and Sara Kestelman
Zed is confused and tries to lash out but soon learns that the Eternals have psionic powers that can easily over-power him. He is gifted to an outspoken man called Friend (John Alderton) who begins to tell his new servant of the society he has fallen into.

The people are nearly immortal with some living so long that they simply become Apathetics with no will to do anything other than just wander around whilst others break the rules and get aged as a punishment and there is a colony of such creatures who, dressed in dinner suits, wait in the hope of annihilation.

Trouble in paradise
Friend is on the diffident side of apathetic himself and longs for a change of pace even at the risk of punitive aging. The community vote on the transgressions of one George Saden (Bosco Hogan) who is docked some time for the crime of negativity.

Zed helps Friend with the artefacts
Friend was a, er, friend of Arthur Frayn  who had been charged with managing the Outlands and whom had been conducting his own unknown experiments including, it is later revealed a selective breeding programme involving Zed’s genealogical line. Whilst outside reproduction is forbidden saving these select few, in the land of the Eternals reproduction is no longer needed and sexuality has dwindled, what dangers does the potent Zed bring to the sterile society?

May continues to test Zed’s memory and capabilities and full marks to all concerned for keeping a straight face when all manner of visual stimuli fail to arouse Zed until he focuses his gaze on Consuella…  But then Zed is increasingly looking to be as smart as his captors…
Charlotte Rampling
Zed becomes a political issue and is used by Friend in an attempt to overthrow the existing order. Friend is caught and aged whilst Zed tries to escape only to find that a force field keeps him trapped in the Eternals’ land.

Returning to the community he finds May willing to show him their shared history of how an attempt to protect the last of humanity ended up dooming them to lifeless sterility under the control of an artificial intelligence, the Tabernacle. It gradually becomes clear that Zed is no chance invader but part of a deeper plan by Arthur Frayn to make or break what is left of society…

Dusty verdict: Detailing the plot of Zardoz is pretty pointless (sorry) as the story is so complex and, open ended with multiple interpretations. The actors carry so much of the meaning with Sara Kestelman being especially impressive. I saw her recently at London’s Donmar Warehouse theatre and she has lost none of her ability to express powerfully-deep thought.

Sara and Charlotte
It’s a brave choice for Sean Connery too in only his second post-Bond film and not just for the obvious reasons given Zed’s costume… he has to play a savage who gradually thinks himself into the awareness that he’s a physical and intellectual time-bomb (so only half-Bond then…). He plays well as do John Alderton – also outside of his own light-comic comfort zone and the stunning Miss Rampling (also still at work this time on TV’s Broadchurch) who’s able to convey fear masked with anger and perhaps more, her emotional subtlety the perfect match for Connery’s heroic certainty.

Zed learns the truth...
It’s a film that bears up to repeated viewing with a clever script that explains itself with satisfying twists and turns until the very end when the simple meaning becomes completely and devastatingly clear.

Buy it on DVD from Amazon or MovieMail. I believe a Blu-ray is also in the works...

Sunday, 4 January 2015

On your bike… The Leather Boys (1964)

It doesn’t come much more “period” than this: a film that gently pushed the boundaries at the time and which might be damned by our benign condescension 50 years later. Looked at in context though, The Leather Boys deserves the respect its good intentions demand: there’s fine acting from three wildly differing leads and a slice of a life that has almost disappeared. This was a Britain in which new opportunities were opening up – a time of Butlins, self-determination and Triumph Bonnevilles – and yet old attitudes still held sway.

Young motorcyclists – “Ton-up Boys” - may have gathered around the Ace Café on London’s North Circular Road but they were still too eagerly rushing into adult life and commitment: and you shall know them by their velocity…

Reggie (Colin Campbell) is one such young man. He’s not long left school for an engineering apprenticeship and is romancing a girl from his old school, Dot (Rita Tushingham) who dreams of classroom liberation: married with freedom.

Rita Tushingham and Colin Campbell
Sure enough the two precede straight to wedlock and do not pass “Go”… but almost immediately their relationship turns sour as their modest honeymoon in Butlins at Bognor Regis reveals their differing temperaments. Reggie wants a quiet time with Dot whilst she wants to socialise with other campers, see more movies and sample the extensive delights of the holiday camp. Reggie’s the considered romantic one and Dot is the extravert sensation seeker… you forget which one rides the Bonneville.

This could be a Smiths LP cover...
Back home things rapidly deteriorate as Reggie finds Dot disinclined to perform her household duties: shirts are un-ironed, the bed is un-made and, worst of all, his dinner is un-cooked.  Enraged at his new wife’s preference for cinema over chores the spark even begins to go out on their sex life – the one thing once guaranteed to silence any rows.

At the same time Reggie begins to spend more time with an odd-bod biker buddy Pete (Dudley Sutton) – an unconventional presence at the Ace who lives for the moment and dreams of escape to New York. Pete is the most loyal of pals, preferring to spend time alone with Reggie shooting fireworks from the wasteland near where he works or maintaining their bikes together.

Colin Campbell and Dudley Sutton
There’s an instant distance between Pete and Dot and yet Reggie barely notices: he feels the same way about Dot himself from time to time. But Dot is getting worse and as she plays up following his grandfather’s death, she pushes Reggie further away into Pete’s boys-own world of bikes.

Reggie arranges for Pete to stay with his gran (Gladys Henson) and is almost a lone voice in keeping her out of a nursing home and in her own home – Dot joining in with his brother-in-law in arguing for her to sell up. Pete charms the old dear and as Reggie walks out on Dot, the two share her spare room.

Pete's nights with Reg...
Dot begins hanging around with another biker, Brian (Johnny Briggs) whilst Reggie and Pete head off to the seaside where the latter proves distinctly uninterested in chasing two girls Reggie chats up… the modern viewer may easily guess where this is headed but imagine a world where such intimacies was not only underground but illegal?

Dot hatches a plan to bring Reggie back by telling him she’s expecting a baby and he immediately suspects her new friend Brian and decks him at the Ace but it’s all a fiction…

Rita and him off Corrie...
The bikers organise a race to Edinburgh and Dot rides pillion with Brian whilst Pete and Reggie gear up to win… but Pete’s competitive instincts are compromised by his lingering affection and he stops off for the chance to re-connect with Dot. Pete rides on alone…

Will Dot and Pete’s revival survive their return to the everyday and will Pete ever get the point about his mate? Things aren’t straightforward… a bit like life.

Dusty verdict: Whilst not on the same level of say A Taste of Honey, The Leather Boys is never the less and impressive period piece that captures the moment for motorcycle culture.

The boys are confused...
The performances are superb although sometimes the improvised riffing gets a bit shouty – but maybe I’m getting old! Rita Tushingham is a bundle of conflicted energy as Dot whilst Dudley Sutton excels as the biker with a sentimental core - his comic bluster concealing a love that, literally, dare not speak its name.

But the girl understands...
The Leather Boys is available on DVD and streaming from Amazon. 

Elsewhere, the Ace Café is still open for business and you can find details on their site of the last fifty years of ton-up boys and girls!

The Ace Cafe