Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The movement you need is on your shoulder… Little Malcolm (1974)

This play originated in the mid-sixties when writer David Halliwell wrote a play about an art-school reject/drop-out much like himself… well, perhaps not entirely like himself. Beatle George liked it then and he liked it again when it became the first film he financed and produced in 1974.

It addresses contemporary concerns about authentic motivation, truth, honesty, gender and power and whilst it has the fags and unkempt hair of its period these are hardly issues that have gone away; certainly not in the era of extremism from ISIS to BNP and in which the allure of charismatic leaders with simple, powerful ideas has hardly diminished…

“It’s no good theorising about getting up, it’s the act that counts”

John Hurt
It starts out with the humorous malaise of the disappointed art student and escalates horribly out of control as single tone binary extremism leads to sickening violence. Every further educational establishment in Britain is worried about such dangerous drifts from disaffection – The Devil makes work for idling minds.

The original title of the play is Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs and the BFI resurrect this for the dual format release.  Malcom’s initial struggle is simply to get up and we encounter him lying under his standard-issue great coat wrestling with the thorny issue of the moment between thought and expression. John Hurt is Malcom Scrawdyke and he plays superbly throughout reprising a role he had originally performed on stage.

Talking 'bout a revolution
Hurt’s Malcolm is an opinionated loser who is forever excusing himself not just from the “fascistic” environs of the Technical College but also from taking action even with the girl he fancies - Ann Gedge played by the wonderful Rosalind Ayres (whose eyes properly warrant a blog post all of their own…) her naturalism and balanced reason contrasts with the quirky fearfulness of the men.

Rosalind Ayres
Malcolm pretends to forget he’s due to take Ann to the pictures preferring to discuss the setting up of a “Party” with two of his comrades from the course, the quick-witted Wick Blagdon (John McEnery) and the dopey Irwin (Raymond Platt) – easily led but slow on the uptake. They decide a political party is the only way to gain “power” and to avenge themselves on the corruption of their tutor Phillip Allard – to gain the respect they, as men of vision and talent, inherently deserve.

John McEnery
Malcolm decides that they will be the Party of Dynamic Erection a deliberately incendiary association and one that is little more than a schoolboy joke in terms of actual meaning… until you look at Malcolm’s own situation. He rails against “the Eunuchs” and yet his own ability to function on a sexual level is in question as much as his ability to “not talk, just act”.

A fourth member of the PDE is the permanently duffle-coated Dennis Charles Nipple (David Warner on fine form) who, in spite of the coat and fascination with details, has some experience in matters of the heart and regales the other three at length with exuberant fluidity. Exhausted after recounting his florid tale, Malcolm tries to burst his erotic bubble by describing his lover in less… flattering ways. He needs to knock Dennis down a peg or two and to establish his own credibility. If this woman had been anything like Nipple suggested then surely Malcolm, the Alpha, would have stepped in…

David Warner
The boys act out their planned kidnap of arch enemy Allard to the last detail with Wick playing the victim and Nipple measuring up the pictures they are going to steal to force their tutor to accede to their will. They want to break him and force him to smash up the painting and to thereby admit the worthlessness of art and by extension his teachings.

Wick follows through the emotions until he is exhausted following the violent destruction of an oil painting from their class… It’s a foretaste of the film’s ending and ends with Malcolm comforting the defeated Allard/the Party Hero. These boys have big imaginations… but perhaps they only serve to compensate for disappointing reality?

Things proceed harmlessly; Malcolm delivers ever more belligerent speeches and the others trust grows. Yet there is the matter of Ann and Malcolm is drawn to her but unsure what to do about it… he wanders to her house and, bumping into her, lies that he’s on his way to see a friend. She asks if he wants to go to a gig and he agrees.

At the club the two talk but Malcom doesn’t know how to reach out, Ann smiles to herself and moves closer towards the band as if to reinforce her ability to connect and to just be (“not thinking, just acting”).

Spoilers: Malcolm is sublimating something and his response to this latest humiliation is look for someone else to blame. He’s already described Ann as mocking him by her very look and interest and now he exacts an unpleasant revenge by association on Nipple (well he is human and he has successfully had intercourse…) who faces a tribunal rigged against him. Malcolm asks him to plead guilty or “more guilty”: he can’t win and is sentenced to death at a time and method unspecified. He’s excommunicated and Malcolm revels in the process before Nipple turns in hurt to say that he forgives him… There’s a look in the bully’s face when resistance stops and he has nothing to react against.

But this is as nothing in comparison with Malcolm’s “revenge” on Ann after she runs rings around him in a debate concerning his true feelings… the film enters its most unpleasant phase as Malcolm is revealed to be entirely without substance: only capable of reacting and unable to lead.

“Act, don’t think!” he repeats but the truth is that he can’t really do either and the revolution is permanently postponed.

Dusty verdict: Little Malcolm is superbly directed by Stuart Cooper with immaculate performance all round. It resonates still with its central messages, so don’t think, act and buy a copy now from either the BFI or Amazon.

The Scrawdyke Salute!

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Amused to death... Rollerball (1975)

I’m not sure how I managed to sneak into to see this one in the cinema as I would only have been a young teen… but we were all keen to see this film with its futuristic violence – a winning combination in the Seventies as now as Divergence, Hunger Games and The Maze Runner show.

The film was hard-hitting with the relentless aggression of the game leaving its mark but, watching this film 40 years on its not the most impressive feature of Rollerball. The future 2018 is one dominated by corporations who use sport as a distraction for the masses and also a constant reminder of the futility of individual action. The players work together but serious injury and death make retirement almost impossible.

Contestants, ready!?
Here and now with just three years to go, we have been subsumed by organised amusement with multiple screens bringing instantaneous entertainment, news and two-dimensional emoting. All of this is controlled by huge corporations who, whilst they may dedicate themselves to “doing no evil” are more deeply embedded in our daily lives than many “customers” suspect.

We’re not quite in dystopia but we’re not far off… maybe even just three years.

Game on!
But we don’t have to look into the future for validation of Rollerball’s central thesis; these sportsmen are gladiators and as ever the circus keeps the citizen’s at bay.

Directed by Norman Jewison with a script from William Harrison based on his own short story, Rollerball features the story of one player who refuses to go gentle into the good night and starts to transcend not only his team but the sport itself: Jonathan E. (James Caan). Caan plays with almost too much restraint as the serial winner who, as he keeps on repeating, just loves the game: a very believable “jock” whose will to win is the spark for his rebellion.

Star player

Jonathan plays for Houston a team run by the Energy Corporation, one of the mega-conglomerates that run what seems like a post-political world in which capitalism has won and everyone is commoditised. Executives rule the game whilst women seem to be reduced as playthings with the most attractive offered to the most successful – one of the most shocking aspects of the film as it now happens.

John Houseman
Mr. Bartholomew (John Houseman) runs the Energy Corporation and treats his team almost like slaves as well. After a brutal demolition of the Madrid team he passes through the dressing room throwing out condescending compliments to the victors in ways that most can’t see. All, that is, except Jonathan, perhaps… Bartholomew says that the corporation have run out of ways in which to reward him and, as the star player’s face begins to fall flat, says that they will be devoting a TV special to him, something that has never happened before.

But, as it transpires this gift of public celebration is only the cue for Jonathon to announce his retirement. It’s never made entirely clear why the Corporation wants him gone but his popularity is clearly dangerous and they need the source of his challenging fame to be removed – he can safely fade away as a former winner rather than continue to stir the blood of millions with his sporting success.

Pamela Hensley - every home should have one
Jonathon lives in the lap of luxury – a TV in very room of his huge house and the best concubine the Corporation can provide – currently Mackie (Pamela Hensley – later the baddie in Buck Rodgers and a big favourite of my teen years!) – but he misses his wife Ella (Maud Adams) and continually re-watches old videos of their life.

She is no longer around and this in itself is a hint of the Corporation’s ongoing attempts to contain their sporting phenomena. Soon Mackie is moved on as well to be replaced by Daphne (Barbara Trentham) – selected more for her loyalty to his employers than anything else.

Barbara Trentham, actress, painter and later married to John Cleese
Meanwhile Jonathon plays on with a team containing Moonpie (John Beck) and coached by Rusty (the great Shane Rimmer… Alan of Thunderbirds!). Their next game is against Tokyo and this time the rules are changed… there will be no substitutions and no penalties: it will be more brutal than ever before.

The coaches try to prepare the team for the martial arts of their up-coming opponents but Jonathan and Moonpie ignore all of this and focus on the strength of their team unity: this is not the way the games is supposed to roll.

John Beck and James Caan
Sure enough, Tokyo are engaged and defeated but at a cost as Moonpie is badly injured and ends up in a coma. The executives want to pull the plug but Jonathan is more and more comfortable in voicing his own opinion and dictating events. The TV tribute is broadcast and he refuses to announce his retirement.

Tokyo get taken down
There’ s striking moment at a viewing party when the guests head off and fire blasters at a row of beautiful trees in the gardens… the revelers burn them all to the ground wanton destruction in the absence of anything more meaningful to do: this is society devoid of direction and self-restraint.

Trees on fire
Jonathan tries to find out more and is frustrated in his search for knowledge as he finds the central library devoid of content. Ralph Richardson is superb in his brief cameo as the librarian without a cause.

Ella reappears, sent by the corporation, in an attempt to break Jonathan’s resistance: everything is controlled and even the love of his life was taken away and given to another man.

Maud Adams and James Caan
But this is a competition now and Jonathan loves the game… he heads into the grand final against New York knowing that the odds are stacked against him but, if he survives what can the corporation do?

Dusty verdict: Rollerball feels slightly hollow after all these years and lacks the visceral thump of my viewing in cinema. That’s probably an indictment of cinema’s trend towards ultra-violence as much as any jadedness on my part…

The gloves stay on in the murderous finale
James Caan makes for a strangely contemporary sporting hero: lost in the singular purpose of “the game” whilst John Houseman makes for a superbly nuanced chief executive: brawn against business.

The film is readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon... it's still a class act and a prescient view of our contemporary culture of submission to sensation.