Monday, March 14, 2011


Insomnia Theater

I'm going to talk about three movies from the mid-70s which I watched this past week. They have never been widely distributed but have built strong, deserved cult followings. They are: Peter Weir's first success, Picnic and Hanging Rock; Ridley Scott's first feature, The Duellists; and, LQ Jones' only studio film, A Boy and His Dog. The first and last are as unalike as possible, as if they were films made on different planets in the same year (1975). The middle one, released two years later, is set during Napoleon's reign in France. Two beautiful histories and a science fiction minor gem--these are good films on tiny budgets whose pleasant features have not diminished with the passage of time.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is set in Victoria, Australia, at the Appleyard College for Young Women, starting on Feb. 14, 1900. It is not a true story. It is, however, a satisfying but intractable mystery. There is no resolution, but like a mist lit from within, the whole of the picture is both in plain sight and completely shrouded. The mysticism is palpable. Even the side plots are mysteries--how does the sister appear in her brother's non- dream? Why is there a swan in the young gentleman's bedroom? Other mysteries are central: What causes the hikers to falter and swoon together? Why do the two "survivors" have identical head wounds? What was the red cloud? How could these women disappear so completely? As I've said, there are no answers given, or really even hinted at. The film is stately and beautiful and full of penetrating detail of an age long gone.

Weir, an Aussie, went on to make another, less satisfying mystical film, The Last Wave, before coming to Hollywood where his batting average was a pretty good .400, with The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, The Dead Poet's Society and Master and Commander... None of the actors in this film had great careers, with the possible exception of headmistress, Rachel Roberts, french teacher, Helen Morse, and the young gentleman, Dominic Guard. For the rest, this was pretty much all of their film career, particularly Irma and, to a lesser degree, the Botticelli angle, Amanda. I can't imagine a movie which captures better with visuals the essence of the time it portrays. Georges Zamfir, he of the late night infomercials, is magical on the pan pipes, if you're into that sort of thing.

A Boy and His Dog,
based on a Harlan Ellison novella (and similar to it) is set in 2024, after WWIV, a five day full nuclear exchange, in the mud inundated remnants of Phoenix, AZ. Vic, the boy, played with verve by a very young Don Johnson, is a solo human with a telepathic hound, Blood (played by Tiger--the Brady Bunch dog) who is by far Vic's intellectual superior. Vic steals from the excavated houses to feed himself and Blood, who, in turn, finds females for Vic to, well, rape and murder. Ah, war is Hell, observes Blood when Vic complains that the raped and murdered women he finds in a house could have been used three more times. At one point, Blood, who constantly calls Vic Albert to piss him off, urges Vic to name the modern presidents--Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy... The fact that history after the filming ended has provided a different set of names post Ford does not diminish the joke. On the other hand, Blood's future history of the end of the cold war (WWIII) was not far off. I used to think that the 'Albert' Blood referred to was Einstein, for an ironic nickname to his rather dim master, but the novella tells us it is after Albert Payson Terhune, the author of insipid dog books. Makes sense.

The movie takes a dive after it goes underground, as the sub-plot of survivors of the war creating a repressive distopia with a smiling robot on guard is not that interesting nor as bleakly stylish as post-Armageddon life in Phoenix. The ending however, back on the mud flats, is unforgettable. The little details in between are exquisite--the movies, the screamers, the marriage pump, sentencing to the farm-- are all good, but it is Blood's cynical, erudite banter which makes this such an iconoclastic and even funny film--the smiley face on the mushroom cloud. He recites: A cautious young fellow named Lodge / Had seatbelts installed in his Dodge. / When his date was strapped in / He committed a sin / Without even leaving the garage. That indeed was clever as was most of the plot of this film, the best science fiction in the brief hiatus between 2001 and Star Wars.

Probably the greatest of the three is The Duellists, based on a Joseph Conrad story based on the "true" story of two Frenchmen (played by Americans Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel) who can't get along. When Ridley Scott made this film, he had been making beautiful commercials, shot through incense, for over a decade and many of the scenes seem like master work still life paintings. Despite the unlikely, non European lead actors, Keitel has hardly ever been more intense or believable, and even near Okie Carradine pulls off his role as a gentleman office of Napoleon's conquering army with nary a twitch or stumble. Not that the ladies in this are less than wonders. Carradine's main squeeze, his co-star in Nashville (the pinnacle of his career),Cristina Raines, is both radiant and believable as the young bride. Diana Quick, who went on to be so good in the good version of Brideshead Revisited, is so sexy and tragic, a difficult combination. Even the minor roles, the sister played by Meg Wynn Owen, and the ostensible start of the duel, Jenny Runacre, are not hard on the eyes, in their Empire fashion dresses, and delightful in their brief seconds upon the stage.

The mysticism in this movie is very subtle. Tom Conti as Carradine's doctor/officer friend suggests that Keith and Harvey had been bitter enemies before the transmigration of their souls to explain why they have become such lasting enemies instantly. Quick, seeing that she might be backing a loser, goes to the Tarot card reader who tells her that she must leave Carradine and tread the path of loneliness. And how! Yet Quick's ability to tell the future is no better than any of us. She tells Carradine he will die in the next duel and he believes her. His happiness at surviving is visually the most stunning part of the film. It is as well written as it is beautifully filmed. Quick visits Keitel to get him to relent and not kill her lover. Keitel pulls a sword defensively, saying, "I knew a fellow knifed in his bath by a woman [does he mean Marat?]. Gave him the surprise of his life." Quick instantly replies, "I knew a woman beaten to death by her lover. I don't think she was surprised at all."

I also have a thing for believable sword fights, which are really rare in movies today. All of these are pretty darn good. Quite good, indeed.

So what do these films have in common except their excellence, small budgets and temporal coordinates? They all seek a definition of our essential nature, a dualist nature it seems, in times other than the mid 1970s. All three have a bit of mystery and a strange sort of comradeship. There is in all three an irreverent treatment of our conventions, not quite mocking, but certainly not an acceptance of things as they were. And strangest of all, all have a sort of happy ending, where life goes on for some in an enduring and uplifting way.

These movies are well worth your time, if you can't sleep one evening and one of them is on. I hope my small efforts at criticism whet your appetite for them, even for another viewing.


The Duellists, one of my favorite all time movies!
Obviously, one of mine too.
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