Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Audrey Rose (1977)
Director: Robert Wise

When Robert Wise was given the assignment late in his career to direct this film of an apparent reincarnation "gone wrong," he was well prepared for the task. During his long career, Wise directed many tales of the eerie, such as the brilliant The Body Snatcher (1945) and The Haunting (1963). He also directed some of the finest women's films around, including I Want to Live! (1958) and So Big (1953). He also created two classic science fiction films, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and The Andromeda Strain (1971). His respect for the subject matter of each of these disparate genres, his knowing direction of the women in his films, and the skill he brought to bear to create the appropriate mood for any story come together in Audrey Rose, a disturbing film that stands with the best of his work.

From the very beginning, Audrey Rose juxtaposes a happy, privileged family in New York City with a stranger in their midst. At first, that stranger can only be noticed by the observant viewer who doesn't glaze over during the first few minutes of a movie. As Janice Templeton (Marsha Mason), her husband Bill (John Beck), and their 11-year-old daughter Ivy (Susan Swift) walk and play in Central Park, a figure in a trench coat makes passing appearances--standing beside a tree, sitting among the empty seats of the park's bandshell. Later, this figure, a man with an enormous beard, stands outside Ivy's school. Janice notices him and becomes spooked, sure that he is after Ivy. She reports the encounter to Bill, whose entreaties to the police to protect their daughter cannot be acted upon; the stranger has done nothing but appear in public places, and there's no law against that.

As concerned as Janice is about the stranger, she is even more concerned about Ivy. Her daughter has been having nightmares and screaming fits, which occur around her birthday. These fits seem to have intensified over the years, and neither Janice nor Bill have made headway against them.

One day, Janice is late meeting Ivy after school. She searches the school, then sees Ivy run down an alley. She calls out, but Ivy doesn't answer. She chases Ivy into a dead end, but Ivy has vanished. When she turns around, she sees the stranger. He approaches her and says he is sorry for all the subterfuge and the disguise, but he had to be sure before they met.

The Templetons receive a Who's Who clipping in the mail that identifies the stranger as respected scientist Elliott Hoover (Anthony Hopkins), an apparent attempt to show he is not a crackpot. Eventually, the Templetons consent to meet him at a restaurant. There he tells them a tragic story of a car accident 11 years before that claimed the lives of his beloved wife and 5-year-old daughter Audrey Rose. Wise showed us this horrific accident in the opening sequence of the film. The car plunged down a ravine, rolled, and burst into flames. Hoover tells of his long period of mourning, broken when two spiritualists said that his wife's spirit was at peace but that Audrey Rose was alive. He recounts his odyssey in India where he studied Hinduism and came to believe in reincarnation. Then Hoover drops the bomb. He believes that Ivy Templeton is the reincarnation of his daughter, a "wrong" reincarnation that happened before her soul was able to come to terms with her short life and violent death. Bill and Janice's sympathy turns to anger, and they storm out of the restaurant and warn him to stay away from them and Ivy.

Of course, Hoover does no such thing. He comes to their home and talks his way in. The home is exactly as the spiritualists had described it. He is more sure than ever that Audrey Rose's spirit is alive in Ivy. He tells Janice that medical examiners determined that Audrey Rose lived a full five minutes after the car stopped rolling, was burned, and died of smoke inhalation. He gives his daughter's time of death. Janice reveals that Ivy was born a mere two minutes later. While he is there, Ivy has another screaming fit. Hoover calls to Audrey Rose as Ivy screams for "Daddy," and is able to soothe her. Janice is starting to doubt her own beliefs. Bill warns her not to be taken in and to keep Hoover well away from their home.

Hoover attempts to come by again. Janice tells the doorman to refuse his entry. But then Ivy has another fit. She starts banging on the windows of her bedroom. The palms of her hands are burned, though a cold autumn rain is pelting the windows. Frantic, Janice tells the doorman to let Hoover in. He is able, once again, to calm her. Janice is starting to believe his story, but Bill is furious, feeling usurped as the father of Ivy and head of the household. He insists that Ivy needs psychiatric help, nothing more.

Ivy has another uncontrollable fit. Hoover appears again, but this time he removes her from the apartment. The doorman confirms that Hoover has sublet an apartment in the building. When Bill brings the police to Hoover's door, Hoover is arrested on a kidnapping charge. The rest of the film revolves around his highly publicized trial, which ends in a dramatic attempt by the prosecution to debunk Hoover's reincarnation defense--a past-life regression under hypnosis.

Reincarnation, Indian mysticism, and past-life regression were the vogue at the time this film was made, giving Audrey Rose a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. Never during the film are the acts of the apparently reincarnated Audrey Rose surrounded by excessive "spookiness" or violence, which keeps the story from devolving into the horror film it somewhat resembles in storyline and set-up--The Exorcist. Anthony Hopkins seems a bit too twitchy for my tastes, a bit too effete and intense. He was not yet completely in control of his technique, but nevertheless, we get the sense of a man shattered by grief and galvanized by a belief that events seem to justify.

John Beck, who has the thankless task of being the blustering heavy, actually comes across as a loving family man fighting for custody of his child against a man who has a claim that his wife comes to believe is legitimate. He is frustrated that Ivy runs to Hoover instead of him in her time of need, though when she is fully Ivy, she considers Bill to be her father. Indeed, she never really knows that Hoover thinks she is his daughter, because she only comes to him as Audrey Rose in her death throes. Susan Swift performs this emotional trauma over and over with utter conviction and fearlessness.

Marsha Mason is the real revelation in this film. I'm used to seeing her in lighter fare from Neil Simon, but I always recognized that she has a prodigious acting talent. Wise gets it all out of her and then some. She moves through a wide range of emotions believably and seamlessly, and comes to her belief in Audrey Rose honestly and with an enormous amount of love for her daughter. Wise's respect for the feminine point of view, developed on the women's films he directed, prevents Janice from being a mere foil for the men in the film or a flaky dupe.

This film comes down squarely on the side of reincarnation and the danger of meddling in matters of the spirit. As such, the ending is a bit too pat and optimistic, the only betrayal of the truth the film creates within its unique point of view. I was thrilled to be reminded what a wonderful director Robert Wise was. Audrey Rose is a lesser-known but no lesser effort from the master. l

Friday, August 25, 2006

Island of Lost Souls (1933)
: Erle C. Kenton

The novels of H. G. Wells have proven irresistible to film makers with a taste for the fantastical. The Island of Dr. Moreau has been filmed three times, but the 1933 version was the first and, in my opinion, the best. It's amazing how much suspense can be achieved with so little pyrotechnics. Stripped to its bare essentials and focusing on human cruelty, this masterful horror film shares much in common with the fine films of the eerie produced by Val Lewton. Island of Lost Souls sent a shiver down my spine more than once.

The story is laid out simply and economically. Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is sailing from Africa to Samoa aboard a freighter laden with cages of wild animals to meet his fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams). He befriends the wireless operator, who warns him to stay clear of the frequently drunk and disorderly Captain Davies (Stanley Fields). Nonetheless, Parker sees Davies mistreat M'ling (Tetsu Komai), the odd-looking servant of Dr. Montgomery (Arthur Hohl), and punches Davies' lights out. Parker has wired Ruth when he will be arriving, but before the ship makes port, it stops to drop its animal cargo, Dr. Montgomery, and M'ling at a small island inhabited by Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton). Davies, still smarting from Parker's attack, informs Parker that he will be disembarking there, too. When Parker resists, Davies punches him and throws him overboard onto the deck of Moreau's ship. Moreau protests, but to no avail. He is forced to bring Parker to the island, about which macabre rumors have been floated all across the South Seas.

Moreau threads the small party through a wooded area using a whip to scare off strange creatures who look human. Once they reach the big house on the hill where Moreau lives, we finally get a good look at him. Laughton's round face and obsequious smile are framed by a pencil-stubble moustache and pencil goatee--a most ridiculous face! He cautions Parker to stay in the house.

A young woman with a decidedly feline look is called by Moreau. He has decided to see if she is a real woman, with real human attractions and instincts. This is the first explicit indication that something very fishy is going on, and Moreau is responsible for it. The woman, Lota (Kathleen Burke), is brought to Parker, and he tries to make small talk with her. She can speak, but is awkward around him. Moreau retires from the room and watches them from a distance. It appears that Lota is indeed drawn to Parker, and Moreau feels triumphant.

He turns his attention to a compound a short distance from the house where several grass huts stand and a fire burns. He, along with one of the inhabitants of the compound known as the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi), leads the odd-looking men below him in a recitation of the Law, punctuating each law (no walking on four limbs, no tasting of flesh, no taking of life) with the admonishment, "Are we not men?" Following a satisfactory "prayer" session, Moreau enters the House of Pain to work with Montgomery on his research--specifically, on a hairy man strapped to a gurney who starts to scream as soon as the two men approach. It is now sickeningly obvious to us that Moreau has been turning beasts into humans.

When Parker discovers Moreau's secret, the film takes a much more sinister turn. Laughton, like the vast majority of British actors, knows exactly how to appear utterly civilized and yet ruthless. Moreau is not inclined to kill Parker--his experiments are about creating human life, not destroying it. Yet, he will not let his godlike ambitions be thwarted. When Ruth appears, along with the skipper of the ship that has taken her to Parker's last known position, Moreau sets one of his creations, Ouran (Hans Steinke), after the captain to ensure that no one leaves the island. This act proves his undoing.

In the hands of director Kenton, Moreau's creations balance their animal origins with their humanlike forms and indoctrination. It would be easy to dismiss their revolt against Moreau as just another horror film convention, but there is really something righteous and pitiable about their actions. While we know they must be destroyed as aberrations of nature, there is sadness in watching it happen. They provide a persuasive case against the meddling of humanity in the natural order of things.

Other aspects of the film are authentically felt and add to the accumulation of horror. From Davies' utter callousness and imperiousness about his ship--a parallel with Moreau's--to Montgomery, a disgraced former medical student who has made his bargain with the devil to save his own skin, we are faced with the depravity of humanity. This depravity contrasts sharply with the poor animals that are stripped of their essence and made to conform to a mad scientist's conception of perfection. The lost souls referred to in the title of this film, changed as it is from H. G. Wells' title, could very well refer to Dr. Moreau and Montgomery. If we suppose that it refers to the animals, the break with scripture that states that only humans have souls is an ironic one indeed.

Laughton is an extremely effective villian in this film. Lugosi, with a smaller part and hampered by a hairy visage, still uses his voice to command moral authority over Laughton. He is an effective leader of his kind, and Laughton's Moreau maintains his hubristic position against them even as they move to destroy him. The other actors are B-movie material, with the exception of Kathleen Burke. Her Lota is a superb prototype for other catwomen to come, from Simone Simon in the 1942 Cat People to Nastassja Kinski in the 1982 remake of that film, and even to Jennifer Blaire in the horror satire The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001).

Island of Lost Souls is both a genuinely scary horror movie and a morality tale. In an age in which cosmetic surgery and genetic engineering are well-accepted practices, it would behoove us to consider the message H. G. Wells had for humanity. Island of Lost Souls is an eerie and sensitive messenger. l

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Operazione Paura (alternate titles: Operation Fear; Kill, Baby, Kill; Curse of the Living Dead; Don’t Walk In The Park, 1966)
Director: Mario Bava

By Roderick Heath

Let us now praise infamous men. The men who had no notion of Cannes or Oscar in their hearts, with no audience other than the drooling perverts hanging around outside fleapit theatres of Paris, Rome, London, and New York. Who bravely made money so that bourgeois poseurs could have art cinema. Who battled pirate producers, the perversity of distributors, and the sheer bloody ignorance of mainstream critics. Who brought intelligence, poetry, and artistry to the most despised of genres—horror.

Mario Bava was an experienced cinematographer who worked with the likes of De Sica and Raoul Walsh before becoming a features director around the same time as Sergio Leone. Bava’s background is obvious in his films, with their creative camerawork and orchestrated lighting. Bava is still far less famous than Leone, partly because of the genre he worked in, partly because of the vagaries of distribution that made his films hard to see, and because he rarely worked with the same level of acting collaborators (one notable exception being Telly Savalas in Lisa e il Diavolo, [1972]). So the realms of artistry found in Mario Bava’s work still rank as hidden treasure to most filmgoers.

Not that he was without duds. Even Elke Sommer’s miniskirt couldn’t save Baron Blood (Gli Orrori del Castello di Norimberga, 1972). Scripts usually stank, but in the hands of stylists of the calibre of Bava, this became a plus because they could cut back on dialogue and required acting and concentrate on flights of cinema. Bava contributed to the first film of the ‘50s Horror renaissance, I Vampiri (1956), predating Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein by a year, when director Riccardo Freda walked off the production because of the absurdly tight budget, leaving Bava to get the film finished in four days.

Freda was a great stylist in his own right. Splendidly morbid images dot his L’Orribile Segreto del Dr Hitchcock (1962) -- the ghostly brilliance of a funeral procession in a sun shower; the black lace curtains around the bier-like bed that the title character (Robert Flemyng) sweeps aside; Flemyng’s desperate attempts to gain access to a corpse in a clean, white, hospital morgue to satiate his necrophiliac desires; the distant patch of light that steadily grows as the heroine nears the end of the tunnel not knowing what awaits her; the jagged flash edits that reveal a mysterious shroud-wrapped figure playing a harpsichord in a lighting-lit house; and most iconic, gothic muse Barbara Steele’s face screaming in silent anguish through the glass face-plate of a sealed coffin. These survive long after the dumb dialogue and stick-figure dramatics are forgotten.

Yet Freda never conquered those limitations as effectively as Bava. Bava made the last few great Gothic horror films, including La Maschera del Demonio (1960) and Operazione Paura, and helped invent the stalk-and-slash film with Sei Donne Per L’Assassino (1964) and Ecologio del Delitto (1971), cited by John Carpenter and Sean Cunningham as the source for the stylistics of Halloween (1978), and Friday the 13th (1980), making Bava a shibboleth for horror directors at that time.

Operazione Paura, probably Bava's best film, benefits from a tight screenplay (penned by Bava with Romano Migliorini and Roberto Natale). In 1900, investigator Dr. Paul Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) arrives in the small Mittel Europa village of Kermigen, a very un-Germanic Italian hamlet, with that look of such towns of being both partly organic and partly hewn over centuries out of solid rock. Eswai has been called to this hillbilly realm to perform an autopsy on Irena Hollander, whom we’ve seen in the pre-title scene run screaming across a field, climb some stairs, and throw herself onto a spiked iron fence. Eswai is there at the behest of Inspector Kruger (Piero Lulli), who had received a letter from Irena raving about danger and evil in the town. Kruger’s having trouble getting anyone to talk. Even the town’s Burgomaster, the bald, nervously sweaty, but seemingly sane Karl (Max Lawrence, real name Luciano Catennachi) can’t explain the situation, only give warnings about the grim nearby mansion, the Villa Graps, the name of which elicits a camp gasp of fear from everyone. Whilst Kruger goes to investigate the villa -- he’ll be right back -- Eswai gets an assistant in the comely form of Monica Shuftan (Erica Blanc), a medical student who has briefly returned to her home town to visit the graves of her parents, and the pair perform the autopsy on Irena. They discover a silver coin buried in the body’s heart. Monica, familiar with local folklore, knows it is a charm designed to save the soul of the deceased from evil spirits.

Eswai is soon attacked by villagers, who insist he die for performing the autopsy, but he is saved by the commanding appearance of a black-clad witch named Ruth (Fabienne Dali). She disappears before Eswai can thank her. Later, Eswai spies on her performing a ritual on Nadienne (Micaela Esdra), daughter of the owners of the inn he’s staying at; Nadine has seen the spectral face a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl peering through the window at her, a sure omen of death. Ruth, despite her cruel exorcism practices (whipping the girl’s back with a branch and forcing her to wear a girdle of thorns) and somber demeanour, comes across as the most pleasant person in town, with her throaty, sorrowful voice and calm, protective attitude. It’s no wonder she’s getting it on with Burgomaster Karl, who ruins the mood of their tete-a-tete by delivering the body of Kruger for Ruth to perform her solemn duty for the town’s dead -- putting that coin in the heart.

Eswai, still looking for the Inspector, ventures into the Villa Graps,and find a lone occupant, the crazed-looking old Baroness Graps (Gianna Vivaldi), who, when alone, sweats and suffers as swelling voices suggest tormenting ghostly presences, tying her to the sleeping Monica’s nightmare involving freaky dolls (one of the many horror visual clichés that Bava invented) and dark tombs. Eswai encounters the blonde girl in the halls of Villa. She says her name is Melissa, and behind Eswai on the wall, unnoticed, is her portrait, which sports the dates of her birth and death.

Yep, Melissa’s a ghost, raining sorrow and bloodshed on the village, forcing people to commit suicide by sheer will. Why? Years before, during a feast, someone knocked her down with a horse, and the villagers, who loathed the Graps family, ignored her as she bled to death. Since then, the embittered Baroness, gifted with mediumistic powers, has been the conduit by which Melissa maintains her vengeful presence. Monica is revealed to be Melissa’s sister; the Shuftans, the Graps’ former servants, had rescued her as a baby from the villa. Karl gives his life to reveal this secret, prompting Ruth to finally defy the prophecy that she will die in the villa and confront the Baroness. Ruth strangles the Baroness, though the old bat has lanced Ruth through the chest with a poker, and the two women fall dead.

Operazione Paura stumbles in points, especially in Paul’s throwaway rescue of Monica from a cardboard balcony. The film also suffers at the hands of its lead, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, whose emoting consists of narrowing his eyes and bending his limbs at angles resembling a Ken doll. Bava was at his best in keeping a stately tempo of mystery and atmosphere. Action is virtually perfunctory in his work (as are traditional heroics). In Operazione Paura his slow-build mastery is in full evidence.

The film takes across the course of one night. Eswai arrives at dusk, the sun still giving a watery glow across the flat, bare plains around the town, which is anxiously closing up for the night. The dead woman’s coffin is being hurried through the narrow, crumbling streets. Once darkness has fallen, Melissa is introduced in a POV shot; the camera, accompanied by rusty, yawing sounds, is swinging back and forth looking out upon a cemetery. Then the camera ceases swinging and drops down, and a child’s stockinged legs and trailing dress sweep into view from their place on the swing, and the amused giggle of Melissa’s that punctuates appearances and murders is heard. Melissa stalks the Kermigen night, the shadows of her hands reaching up to windows, then her gliding form forming in view (ironically, Melissa is played by a boy in a wig!). That Melissa’s appearances are clearly announced opens the way for the film’s best shock, when Karl ascends to his attic to fetch a letter for Monica; opening a locked cupboard, he screams as Melissa is revealed hiding inside, clutching the letter and smiling with sublime menace.

Probably my favorite scene involves nothing; when Eswai and Monica are locked outside by the innkeeper for causing Nadienne’s death, they are left despairingly tolling a bell for non-xistent help. Bava cuts through the deserted town, which quivers with shadow and unnameable menace, as composer Carlo Rusticheri’s eerie music composed of unusual, sonorous instrumentation tickles the backbone. Equally memorable for sheer style is Monica’s prophetic nightmare--Monica pleads and moans as the menacing doll advances on her from behind, a shot that perfectly evokes the aware-but-helpless sensations of a bad dream.

Bava’s sense of symmetry is crucial, and it drives the whole narrative of many of his films, which usually end by closing a circle. His characters often find themselves trapped in cycles of behaviour and fate (incest is the grim heart of many of his films). “The circle of death is finally broken,” Ruth gasps in her last breath. In Operazione Paura, this circularity is even visualised when, after Monica has vanished with a scream, Eswai chases a mysterious intruder through the Villa Graps, through identical rooms, catching up gradually until he grips the figure’s shoulder and spins it around to find he has been chasing himself.

Bava’s women are often avatars for condensed pathologies in the Western psyche over female sexuality. Bava invented the stalk-and-slash horror film that became epidemic in the '80s with Sei Donne Per L’Assassino (Seven Women for the Killer, 1964), a title that says it all. This film that lays down a familiar blueprint; Cameron Mitchell’s momma’s boy psycho killer struggles vainly to exterminate female sexuality, a viewpoint usually radically missed by the sadistic spectacles of its legion of imitators. Bava’s women usually inhabit multiple, contradictory roles, toying with familiar Western/Christian stereotypes; Asa/Katia in La Maschera del Demonio, who threatens to become both sexual predator and victim; Daliah Lavi’s Nevenka In La Frusta e il Corpo (1963), both submissive and murderer; Daria Nicolodi’s Dora in Shock (1977), who is both mother and lover of her possessed son; Lisa (Elke Sommer) in Lisa e il Diavolo, who finds herself bound eternally to the identity of a dead woman. Operazione Paura is cited as slightly weaker than La Maschera because it splits its pathological women into multiple parts, yet with characteristic awareness, Bava inverts the usual imagery by making the image of evil the blonde little girl and the force of good the black-haired witch. Although the structure puts Eswai front and centre, he is actually a useless representative of male arrogance; his “sensible” intervention with Nadienne, stripping her of Ruth’s barbed protection, results in Nadienne’s terrible death. When he catches himself trying to rescue the girl, it’s the logical end for Eswai, confronted by his own egotism.

In Kermigen, the patriarchy of the village has been punished by the matriarchal rage of the Baroness, which has become so crazed it blights everything in reach, even the Baroness’s remaining daughter. The only person free to do anything, though she knows it will spell her end, is Ruth, who inhabits the guise of the most threatening form of female sexuality, the "dark" woman, familiar literary twin of the pristine "fair" woman (here, Monica)--single, mysterious, engaging in S&M-like “exorcism” practises on young women. Usually she’d be burnt at the stake, but now she’s the saviour. The film’s finale, dark woman and warped mother die in each other’s arms, one choked and the other fatally penetrated, in a potent image loaded with erotic and symbolic import, leaving virginal beauty Monica safe and sound.

Despite his status as an Italian horror maestro, Bava never indulged in gore, though his early films are violent in a way that would not be permissible in British and American horror for some time. The opening of his first full feature, La Maschera del Demonio, is one of the most brutal in all of cinema, and the end of his last film, Shock, has one of the most wince-worthy, yet oddly pretty throat slashings ever filmed. His jolts of violence are always pungent, effective moments, with a certain horrible beauty.

The quagmire of financing in the '70s killed the European genre cinema traditions and institutions within whichBava worked. The technical and artistic fluency he strived for was degraded by a forced reliance on time-and-money saving devices, such as zoom lens shots. Signing on with Spanish filibuster Alfred Leone didn’t help; Lisa e il Diavolo, a dark, suffocating dream of a film, was butchered, and 20-odd minutes of unrelated footage featuring Robert Alda as a priest was inserted. The film was released as Beyond the Door II (the original film, long a virtual myth known only to Spanish critics, is, thankfully, available today on DVD and video).

Bava’s influence has been undeniable, even if his best characteristics--his intelligence, his sense of cinema as a plastic medium, and his richly artful eye--hardly remain with us, today they’re becoming better and better appreciated in themselves. Bava’s son Lamberto, an assistant director on Operazione Paura, became a successful horror director in the '80s.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Singing Detective (TV, 1986)
Writer: Dennis Potter
Director: Jon Amiel

"There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can't do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you're not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir."

--Detective Philip Marlow, The Singing Detective

In 1986, the 6-part miniseries The Singing Detective exploded onto British TV screens like a bomb during the Blitz--a bold, inventive exploration into the heart of darkness and the rise to redemption of one man, Philip E. Marlow, a writer of detective novels who suffers from a horrifying case o
f psoriatic arthropathy. Reactions were equally strong, and mixed. Some viewers decried the play (as writer Dennis Potter and his colleagues always called them) as obscene and an unpleasant way to relax at home. Others were moved by the raw emotional journey of a deeply troubled man. When the series came to U.S. television the following year, the raves were unanimous. Dennis Potter had conquered America.

Dennis Potter was the son of a m
iner who grew up in the Forest of Dean, on the English side of the border with Wales in Glochestershire. A rural, isolated place with a unique, archaic dialect, the Forest was Potter's refuge and creative source after he had left it for an education at Oxford and a successful career as a writer of television plays during the golden age of television drama at the BBC. While all of Potter's plays deal with his obsessions, particularly sex, The Singing Detective is his most autobiographical work.

Potter suffered from
chronic psoriatic arthropathy, a disfiguring illness characterized by inflamed, flaking skin and pain and stiffness in the joints. Potter had to wear pajamas under his clothes with their pantlegs tucked into his socks to prevent a trail of dead skin from following him wherever he went. He spent considerable time in hospital, and that is where his stand-in, Marlow (Michael Gambon), spends the duration of this series, lost in a sea of memories, fever-induced delirium, and battles with patients, doctors, nurses, and his wife Nicola (Janet Suzman).

When we first encounter Marlow, it is on his admittance to the mockingly named Sherpa Tensay ward of a London hospital inhabited primarily by cardiac patients. Most have been confined to their beds there for a long time, and their peculiarities are on ful
l display. Mr. Hall (David Ryall) is a fussy, lonely complainer who is irritated routinely with Reginald (Gerard Horan), whose bed is next to Hall's but who constantly has his nose in a detective novel. (Later, Reggie and Hall will be surprised that the author of the book Reggie is reading, The Singing Detective, has been sharing their ward with them.) We get an immediate sense of the boredom and rhythms of the ward as Hall squabbles to a half-listening Reggie and mumbles across the room at the loathsome Nurse White (Imelda Staunton), who has yet again started the beverage trolley rounds on the other side of the room.

Marlow arrives bellowing in pain and yelling at the orderly to draw the curtains around his bed as he changes into his pajama top. When we see the horrible flaking on his back, we understand the humiliation Marlow must be feeling. It is compounded when the pretty Nurse Mills (Joanne Whalley) rubs grease on his thighs, causing him to have an erection and climax on her. He tries to explain, but only succeeds in embarrassing her and himself more. Marlow is emotionally and sexually repressed, and it is tempting to consider his outward appearance a reflection of an inner filth.

Soon thereafter, a team of doctors comes to visit him. The senior physician asks questions of Marlow, only to be answered by the attending doctors who flank him. In a fit of pique, Marlow interjects, "Why is it when you lose your health the entire medical profession takes it as axiomatic y
ou've also lost your mind?" and then begins a tearful, impassioned plea for understanding. The doctors, bone dry of the milk of human kindness, immediately discuss a mental health consult and start naming medications to improve his attitude. At this point, Marlow hallucinates an incredible production number to the song "Dry Bones" and featuring lip-synching and dancing doctors, nurses in white showgirl costumes, and gaudy lighting.

The musical numbers are a large part of this work, all songs from the 30s, and all lip-synched as Marlow's father used to do at a local Forest pub. Potter was a man who believed in the ideals expressed in these songs, that life really was full of love and purest longing. The contrasting of such tunes as "After You've G
one," "The Teddy Bear Picnic," and "We'll Meet Again," with the harsh realities of the ward, Marlow's condition, and the crucible traumas Marlow suffered as a boy both reflect and deflect real events.

Marlow also writes a new Singing Detective novel in his head to pass the time, a tale of espionage that involves a client named Mark Binney (Patrick Malahide) who comes to the character of Detective Marlow after a Russian whore he met the night before in the Skinskapes nighclub and slept with ends up dead in the Thames. The imaginative scenes use the language of a Raymond Chandler novel, not the sort of thing Marlow had set out to write. When asked by Dr. Gibbon (Bill Paterson), the psychotherapist he finally agrees to see, what sort of writer he really would have wanted to be, Marlow gives the somewhat surprising answer that he would have wanted to write praises to a loving and merciful god. Yet he heaps contempt upon some evangelical Christians led by one of the doctors who invade the ward for a revival meeting. When the doctor loses his temper and says, "those who are not with us are against us," we realize that Marlow may not be as jaded as he seems and can smell a phony a mile away.

Or can he? He is also filled with paranoia, particularly toward his wife, whom he believes is trying to steal a screenplay from him for her lover, Finney (Malahide), to pass off as his own to a Hollywood producer. This paranoid fantasy intercuts with memories Dr. Gibbon stirs of his childhood in the Forest, his parents' unhappy marriage, and an injustice he committed against a schoolmate that has haunted him all his life. The series intercuts each thread--the present, the hallucinations, the past, and the novel--as a kind of detective story of its own. We try to piece together the "truth" along with Marlow, and are fed clues--fragments of scenes that grow longer and more revealing as the series moves along and we watch Marlow progress physically and emotionally. It boggles the mind how Potter sustained and expanded upon all these threads over the course of nearly seven hours. The writing is literate and absolutely brilliant, and the cinematography and direction give us parallel movements (a raised hand reminds Marlow of his father [Jim Carter] waving good-bye at a train station) and line readings that can be interpreted in more than one way. He even leaves us with one "truth" about Philip's mother of which we may never be sure.

The cast is first-rate. I found Lyndon Davies, the young actor who plays Philip at age 10, particularly spellbinding. His earnest, open feelings and sad face while he prays to God from the top of a tree give the poignancy needed to feel sympathy for the adult Marlow at his most venomous. Michael Gambon's tour de force performance ranks among the finest you will ever see on stage, screen, or television.

A work of this magnitude has many, many surprises and rewards I will leave for the viewer to discover, not the least of which is the exquisite evocation of the Forest of Dean and its people. What is most important about The Singing Detective is the profoundly unsparing humanity it offers its audience. No, this is not a show of escapism. This is meat and sinew, bone and blood. This is nourishment for the mind and the soul, both of which were deeply precious to Potter. Thank goodness there was a time when television writers talked up, not down, to their audience. Let's hope such a time comes again. l

Dennis Potter contributed the screenplay for the 2003 film The Singing Detective, starring Robert Downey, Jr. This is a highly truncated, but still interesting work that I enjoyed. DVD recordings of The Singing Detective miniseries are available. The BBC Video version has a nice extras disc with reactions to the show from the time, an interview with Potter, and a short documentary about Potter, among other features. Finally, a viewing of Dennis Potter: The Last Interview is a must. A dig Potter gives Rupert Murdoch in The Singing Detective reaches its full flourish as he tells interviewer Melvyn Bragg that he has named his fatal cancer "Rupert."

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Billy Elliott (2000)
: Stephen Daldry

Children have been important to adult films since their earliest days. Slapstick silent comedies often had some destructive brat in a bonnet driving some overwhelmed adult around the bend. In other films, such as Chaplin's The Kid, the child (Jackie Coogan) was on equal footing and an integral part of a sentimental story of familial love. Even in these films, however, the child was a bit idealized, a condition that would persist through the syrupy Shirley Temple movies that sold innocence to a jaded world and the safe S-E-X Andy Hardy films that would make Mickey Rooney seem eternally adolescent for the rest of his career.

It would take post-WWII social breakdown to gradually make children in adult movies into the too-clever-by-half youngsters, snarky teens, and violent thugs we fear and loathe today. To find anything approaching an "average" child, you have to see films whose primary target audience is children/teens or the increasingly rare family film. Billy Elliott has the most appealing, real kids I have seen on the screen in a very long time, which I suspect accounts for the legions of adults who have been completely charmed by it. Jamie Bell, who plays the title role, is absolutely extraordinary, the kind of kid any parent would like to claim as his or her own. Yet, this really isn't a stellar family film in the strictest sense because the adults in it are one-dimensional and motivated by plot rather than character. This film speaks best to kids.

Billy is the 11-year-old son of a widowed coal miner (Gary Lewis) in Northern England. He shares a room with his older brother Tony (Jamie Draven) and tends to his somewhat feeble-minded, live-in grandmother (Jean Heywood) whose mantra is that she could have been a professional dancer. Perhaps it's her influence that causes Billy to join the ballet class taught by Mrs. Wilkinson (Julie Walters) he has been eyeing from across the gymnasium where he is supposed to be learning to box. The teacher sees something in Billy and singles him out for special attention. Slowly, Billy gets the hang of it, feeling triumphant when he finally manages to nail a pirouette.

Billy has been lying to his father about what he has been doing when he's supposed to be boxing. His father hits the roof, but not because dancing is for "poofs." He's angry that Billy has been wasting money, for the miners are on strike and every penny counts. He forces Billy to give up the class, but Mrs. Wilkinson agrees to continue his training for free and prepares him for a regional audition for the Royal Ballet School.

The day of the audition, Tony is arrested for taking part in a violent demonstration against the mining company and scabs who have been crossing the picket line. Billy must miss the audition to go with his father to bail Tony out of jail. That is when Billy's teacher and father go head-to-head over the boy's future.

A major turning point occurs when Billy and his best friend Michael, who Billy has caught cross-dressing, go into the gymnasium so that Billy can show Michael what dancing is about. Because he knows Michael likes dresses, he fetches one of the girls' tutus and then puts Michael through some barre positions. Naturally, Billy's father walks in on them. Defiantly, Billy does the dance he had prepared for the audition, ending with him staring down his father. Mr. Elliott storms out of the gym but heads straight for Mrs. Wilkinson's house and finds out how he can help Billy get into the Royal Ballet School. We know then that we are headed for a happy ending, though the film manages to make the journey from the coal pit to the orchestra pit an interesting one.

The interactions between Billy and Michael are first-rate. Billy slowly comes to realize that Michael is a "poof" who fancies him, but he isn't bothered by it once the surprise fades. Both boys are frank in their affection for each other, however different in character, and convey a naturalness in everything, from Michael putting lipstick on Billy to Billy giving Michael a kiss on the cheek as he sets off for London. Debbie (Nicola Blackwell), Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter, fancies Billy and urges him into the class in an offhand manner that, nonetheless, shows a shrewdness about how to get him to drop his inhibitions. She is effectively seductive when she and Billy have a pillow fight in her room, tempting Billy to kiss her even though he doesn't fancy her. It's a terrific scene of budding sexuality that is played absolutely right. Another scene in which Billy imagines his dead mother is still alive is deeply moving.

The adults fare much less well. Mrs. Wilkinson doesn't even get a first name, and she's saddled with the cliched life of a frustrated housewife pouring her emotion into Billy's dancing. Mr. Elliott's support for Billy's dancing ambitions, while possibly true for his character, came out of left field because his part was so underwritten. When he runs through the hilly, cobblestoned streets to the union hall to shout that Billy has been accepted to the school, it just looks like an obligatory scene rather than a real moment. However, the film succeeds in contrasting the bleak future Billy would have in the mines with the promise of a fulfilling life in the arts and the big city. I thought it was a nice touch that when Billy asks his father what London is like as they ride the train to the audition, Mr. Elliott declares that he's never been there, or anywhere else.

Stephen Daldry's capital in Hollywood rose in a backhanded way when he was credited with directing Nicole Kidman's prosthetic nose to an Oscar in The Hours. A closer look at that flawed film would show that he brought the best out in all the members of that stellar cast, and he does the same with Billy Elliott. I lay the blame for this not-quite-right film at the feet of its writer, Lee Hall, who appears to have done mainly children's films before this one. This would explain his affinity for his young characters and clumsiness with his adults. I wonder if he also was responsible for Billy becoming a righteous tap dancer when he was, after all, learning ballet, but perhaps that was the producer playing to Jamie Bell's strength. As a former dancer, I was bothered by this inconsistency, but as a viewer, I loved every step in Mr. Bell's gifted feet. He is the heart of the movie and gives it everything he's got. You might just fall in love with him--and with Billy Elliott. l