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!

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