Thursday, 31 May 2018

You’ve got to pick up every stitch… Season of the Witch (1973)

I must be honest and say that this is the first George A. Romero film I’ve watched – shocking I know – but it’s probably interesting just to be able to view one of his supposedly lesser films purely on its own merits. Whilst a little slow in parts Season of the Witch is an atmospheric and moody film that shows one house-wife’s American Dream to be one-long nightmare as she loses herself in the dreary stay-at-home sub-identity of being “Jack’s wife” and the increasingly-irrelevant “Nikki’s mother”.

This is a psycho-drama with very little “psycho” – the violence is – mostly - in the mind as Joan Mitchell (Jan White) struggles to find herself again from the depths of her suburban submersion.

I can understand why Romero described the film as “feminist” and it is all told from the perspective of Joan who is largely present for the whole film whilst the other characters move in and out focus. The quality of acting varies for the supporting cast but this – either directly or indirectly – only reinforces Joan’s isolation; Jan White is the only one who is acting naturalistically with fluid nuanced emotions as compared with the sullen, stunted masculinity of her husband, her hysterical, trivial friends and her daughter’s lecturer/lover who belts out his counter-cultural homilies with scant concern for context – loudhailer for Mr Laine please!

All of witch – ha! - makes this an interesting if uneven film and one that does engage: a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The film begins as a Jan enjoys a dreamy walk through the woods with husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst), there’s a sense of unease, they’re just not dressed for the woods but they’re travelling together… is this how Jan dreams her everyday existence? She wakes, he barks disinterested salesman babble – they’re barely connected other than through habit, he has a big life outside and she has barely any in…

She meets with friends who chatter inanities; surface connections reinforced by social norms and the fear of exclusion. Joan seems apart even as she is clearly one of the alphas, high-seventies crimping and crimplene all set off against electric blue eyeshadow.

Jan White is very watchable, she has a casual intensity and oozes under-the-surface tensions, witchcraft represents her Joan with the chance to take control of a life submerged and whether or not it’s all self-hypnosis, her detachment leaves only the subtlest of hints as to whether any of this is “real”.

Her daughter Nikki (Joedda McClain) is now at the age when she wants to break free and is conducting a relationship with her teacher Gregg (Raymond Laine) - rebellion on her behalf and free love on his. Nikki won’t listen to her Mom and Gregg just likes the sound of his own voice; he talks over the women and makes fun of Joan’s friend Shirley (Ann Muffly) by giving her a cigarette and pretending it’s dope…  He’s just another male abuser and yet, Joan finds him interesting enough; a younger version of her husband?

Joan starts reading up on witchcraft and concocts a ritual to make Gregg come to her, although he’s already shown he’s really up for anything. All the while Joan has increasingly intense dreams of a masked intruder invading the house. Romero, who also shoots as well as scripts and directs, focuses on odd angles that make household objects look sinister: part of Joan’s psychological crisis of something else. The family cat also stalks around with intent… possibly a pussy possessed.

Joan and Gregg have a short affair… this shows her want she doesn’t really need but also what her “power” can deliver, mystical or not… Her daughter goes missing and her husband goes on a lengthy business trip. The pressure is building and the feeling that something malevolent is about to happen grows…

Dusty verdict: Season of the Witch is strange, so strange… as Donovan intones when his psych-folk classic is played, it predates the film’s release by seven years and covers some of the same ground: “… so many different people to be”. The film does feel more of that time despite the fantastic early 70s décor and fashions.

It’s a slow-moving treat though and now available on Blu-ray from Arrow – on-sale at Amazon and in all the old familiar places. Watch it to haunt yourself and to feel the demonic pressures of your possessions, your interior design and your life. Tis the season to be scary. 

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Can’t Buy You Love… The Magic Christian (1969)

Released just at the last gasp of the Sixties, this adaptation of Terry Southern’s 1959 novel fares a little better than the earlier adaptation of Candy (written in 1958 and filmed in 1968). If Candy was broadly about sex (and respect) then The Magic Christian is all about money and the idea that every man has his price.

Produced by Denis O’Dell (who gets name-checked as Denis O’Bell in eccentric Beatles B-side “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)”) and directed by Joseph McGrath, the film stars Ringo Starr and features Come and Get It as a theme tune written by old mucker Paul McCartney, performed by protégés Badfinger. As that tune plays over the opening credits you feel that perhaps the film will be better than you remember but, in truth, whilst it is, a little, overall, it’s not quite the sum of it’s talented parts. As with Candy and others of the period, it’s almost as if making the political/philosophical point, is all that really matters and so it is repeated without ever being progressed with no solution offered.

Ringo and Peter
What’s the thing that money can’t buy, Beatles fans…? The answer was given in 1964. But with this film, in 1969, it was Money (That’s What I Want) this time without the irony.

But I’m being too hard because this film has dozens of period faces, a couple of Pythons, Harry Carpenter commentating. Laurence Harvey stripping along to Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, Yul Brynner as a surprisingly convincing cross-dressed cabaret singer, Christopher Lee, Richard Attenborough and Raquel Welch in leather bikini and a whip. The narrative may lack purpose, but you can’t say it’s without incident!

Peter Sellers, getting down with the kids, plays Sir Guy Grand KG, KC, CBE a man with money and sense who decides to adopt a down and out, Youngman (Ringo Starr) after finding him sleeping rough. To the consternation of his advisors, he had Youngman declared as his son and inheritor and proceeds to show him how the World works. Youngman keeps on calling him “Dad” and it’s all very arch.

Isabel Jeans, Peter Sellars and Caroline Blakiston
Youngman joins his new Dad at the theatre along with other members of his new family, Dame Agnes Grand (played by Isabel Jeans who had begun acting in the silent era) and the Hon. Esther Grand (Caroline Blakiston). They’re astonished watching Laurence Harvey as mid-soliloquy he starts to strip… the first of many jokes enabled by Grand’s wallet. Fair to play to Lauro though it is funny!

Next a grocer’s shop full of classic sixties brand names all of which are sold off at ridiculous prices… “Ha-ha Mr Wilson, Ha-ha, Mr Heath…” Then we’re in a boardroom on a train where Guy introduces his new son and a new concept car, The Zeus which is a gigantic wealth-expressing car that will crush all others. The promotional film is very like a Terry Gilliam spoof mixed with Yellow Submarine.

The pace is relentless as others on the train – Hattie Jacques and a businessman – are pranked and a hot dog vendor (Victor Maddern) is left holding far too much change as the train pulls away – one of Grand’s favourite tricks in the book. At least the vendor was trying to give the billionaire his money back!

Onto a hunting party using tanks and big guns rather than shotguns and why not? There’s a parade of soldiers and a banner declaring it’s Grand to be Grand as the inedible hunted by the distasteful is presented by the finest chefs.

Back to Westminster and meeting the servants at Grand’s pied a Terre then, as the family reads and plays the cello, there’s actual news footage showing marches and distress across the world none of it impinging on the Grand living room; or does it?

John Le Mesurier , Ringo Starr and Peter Sellars at the Boat Race
They watch as a wrestling bout turns into a love match – all courtesy of Grand’s grands – and then go out for expensive Kellogg’s’ Corn Flakes as Guy makes like Mr Creosote in Monty Python’s later Meaning of Life (or indeed, the earlier mountain of beans feast in Magical Mystery Tour) and has an entire restaurant humiliate itself.

The film climaxes with the sailing of the Magic Christian cruise ship which features a wealthy clientele terrorised by Christopher Lee as the ship’s vampire, Raquel Welch in sadistic charge of the engine room – dozens of naked women rowing – homo-erotic cabaret disturbing some of the straight-laced audience (chiefly Terrance Alexander), Yul chatting up Roman Polanski in his blonde wig and Wilfred Hyde White as the sloshed skipper. All descends into anarchy… before the secret is revealed.

Raquel Welch
Then, a last coda with hundreds of city workers diving into a vat of steaming sewage on the Southbank in order to fish out the money thrown in by Sir Guy… Thunderclap Newman’s "Something in the Air" plays as his point is proven despite the smell. It feels like a pop video and it feels heavy-handed but nowadays we have found new depths to plumb and maybe we take it too much for granted.

The film falters partly because of this dissonance but also because it is perpetually cynical, as Candy was, although the central character there was innocent. Here it feels more like Sir Guy and Youngman are just being cruel and we could have done with at least one person to stand up and say no thanks or one scenario that doesn’t rely on the assumption that all of us are in it for the money.

Dusty verdict: Worth watching for the style and the music as well as spotting a host of character actors and the pre-Pythons. Don’t expect to be uplifted or even converted… now, more than ever, we’re greedy bastards.

There are some genuinely funny parts – strip Hamlet and Spike’s parking ticket munching – and it does work when there are targets in genuine need of being taken down. Another imperfect psychedelic production; perhaps too over-ground to hang onto it’s arguments… undermined by the money men, man.

Peter Sellars and Spike Milligan
The Magic Christian is available on DVD and even Blu-ray – perfect for the Raquel fans who want to see the all-female slave scene in clearer detail. Slavery as sexual exploitation is surely not cool.