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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

As I have suggested before, most western viewers’ exposure to Russian SF cinema is limited to the considerable but imposing films of Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically Solaris and Stalker. This is obviously far from ideal, not least because Tarkovsky himself was no fan of genre as a concept, and the fact that Solaris contained so many conventions of the SF genre meant that it was his least favourite of his own films. Stalker, certainly, shuffles backwards into the SF genre, ending up there because it resembles anything else even less. Russian SF movies did not begin and end with Andrei Tarkovsky – so what do some of the others look like?

Marek Piestrak’s The Inquest of Pilot Pirx was released in 1979, the same year as Stalker, and features one of the actors from that film; it also shares a sort of connection with Solaris, as both films are based on stories by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem (I should mention that while this is a Soviet film, it is technically a Polish-Russian co-production). One should always be wary of speculating based on too little evidence, but one wonders if the late 70s SF boom extended behind the iron curtain?

Certainly much of Inquest suggests that its makers were aware of what was going on in western SF films. It opens in what looks like some kind of laboratory, with technicians in ‘clean’ suits working on what look very much like parts of human-like robots – androids, in other words. We are clearly in the same kind of narrative territory as Westworld, although the film (like many others) seems a bit unclear about the nature of its synthetic humans – on the one hand, we are told that the androids are so similar to people that only detailed medical tests can identify them; on the other, it is suggested that if you cut one of them open bits of wire and plastic fall out.

Perhaps the first big surprise of the film comes when it is revealed that the android construction facility is in the United States (or so it is heavily suggested), although everybody still speaks Russian there (in the same way that Russian characters in Bond films speak English to each other). Given SF often functions as a critical or satiric commentary on the society that produced it, one wonders if the authorities insisted that the USSR not be featured in the film? (Another possible parallel with Stalker, which had dialogue added to it to make it clear the film was not set in Russia.) We see a meeting between the android construction company and people from the UN, discussing a new space mission – the title character, Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitsky) is chosen, mainly for his good moral character, although the android makers are not very happy about this.

Soon enough Pirx meets up with someone from UNESCO who explains the job they want him to do: androids (‘non-linears’ in the film’s parlance) are on the verge of going into mass production, and could potentially have a major impact on society. However, before this can happen, the authorities are going to have a little test – there will be a mission to Jupiter, with the ship crewed by a mixture of humans and androids, to see which perform better under the stresses of the flight. The twist is that Pirx will not be told which of his men is organic and which is not, and they are under orders not to tell him. Which could prove awkward, if one of the androids should turn out to be mad and decide to try and kill all the human crew…

This is not an especially long film and one of the problems with it is that the first half of it is resolutely earthbound, taking place in a variety of offices, factories, streets – there’s even a glimpse of a branch of McDonalds. This is fairly drab stuff, it must be said, only marginally recognisable as SF, and the pace of it is leisurely, to say the least. Much of it concerns a cack-handed attempt by the android builders to assassinate Pirx so he can be replaced by someone more sympathetic to their agenda: this is pure filler, not informing the second half of the film at all.

The second half of Inquest is at least easily obviously a science fiction film, as Pirx and his crew set off into deep space to carry out their mission. Again, parallels with western SF are almost inescapable – we are in the same kind of territory as Alien and Blade Runner (although, given the rather primitive special effects and model-work, some people may be more reminded of Blake’s 7). It soon becomes apparent that someone on the ship is up to no good and planning the failure of the mission, although who it is remains a mystery (the film achieves this through the somewhat awkward expedient of having the traitor shuffle around with his back to the camera so his face cannot be seen). Pirx, rather in defiance of his orders, sets out to figure out who is who, or more accurately what, amongst his crew – some of whom, such as ship’s doctor Nowak (Alexander Kaidanovsky, the stalker himself), and pilot Calder (Zbigniew Lesien), happily inform him without needing much pressing – but can they be trusted to tell the truth?

Much potential here for tension and paranoia, of course, along with all the jeopardy of a deep-space mission, but unfortunately it mostly goes unrealised. There are many dour discussions about what’s going on, along with some abstract talk about the nature of what it means to be human (or an android) – at one point it seems like Pirx has reached the conclusion that all androids will necessarily be atheists, and starts asking members of the crew what their religious beliefs are. The conclusion, one of the few things recognisably derived from the original Lem story, is that the main difference between man and machine is that man is fallible, but that fallibility itself can be a virtue under some circumstances. It’s an interesting idea, but the problem with Inquest is that it fails to dramatise it in a consistently engaging way. Too much of this film is slow and talky, with a meandering and underpowered story.

Much of The Inquest of Pilot Pirx is heavy-going, unengaging stuff. It makes an interesting contrast to the more lightweight SF action-adventure films being made in Europe and America at around the same time, and it curious to see the parallels in how it handles the same kind of material and ideas. But as a film in its own right, it’s hard to get particularly excited about: it has a certain novelty value, obviously, but not much more.

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My good friend and occasional presence on the blog, Olinka, is keen to hang onto her Russian identity as far as possible, trying to speak the language and enjoy her culture whenever she can. Although Russian is one of my languages (just about), I haven’t seen that many films made in it, which she seemed vaguely disappointed by when I mentioned that Mirror was one of the few Soviet-era movies I’d watched.

Perhaps as a result, a few weeks later she dropped me a line telling me about a new website she’d found hosting a large number of Russian-language films for streaming. ‘You should watch сталкер,’ she said.

‘You what?’

‘They have сталкер on the site. We were talking about it the other week.’

‘I don’t even know how you’re pronouncing that. Stop talking in Cyrillic, please.’

‘Oh, all right. They have Stalker. You know, the Tarkovsky film.’

This was of some interest to me, because I have been aware for some time of the fact that the USSR produced a number of noteworthy science fiction films. SF is, as you will be aware if you come here regularly, one of my few genuine passions, and this did feel like a real gap in my experience. I’ve seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, of course, but then that’s not a particular achievement as it’s one of the very few Soviet SF films to have any kind of profile in the west. One of the others, as you may have gathered, is Stalker, likewise made by Tarkovsky a few years later (1979, to be exact). I remember the first time it was shown on British TV, nearly ten years later – in the middle of the night, pretty much, with a somewhat ambivalent write-up in the TV listings – ‘Either a cryptic SF parable or three men mucking about on some waste ground for two and a half hours, you decide,’ was about the gist of it.

Certainly, Stalker does not resemble the kind of SF film routinely being made in the west at the tail end of the 1970s. Freely adapted by the Strugatsky brothers from their own novel Roadside Picnic, the film is set at some point in the future, in an unspecified nation – probably not Russia, given one of the characters refers to it as a ‘small nation’. This kind of detail is not really important anyway. Soon we meet the protagonist, the stalker of the title (Alexander Kaidanovsky), who lives in fairly primitive circumstances, and not especially happily, with his wife (Alisa Friendlich) and child. He is about to embark on a dangerous and illegal undertaking, not for the first time, and she is not exactly happy. But he is insistent, for reasons which are not immediately apparent.

His clients are likewise left nameless: they are a writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and a scientist (Nikolai Grinko). The stalker is to lead them into the Zone, a quarantined area kept under military guard. Years earlier, a meteorite (or something else from deep space…) fell in this region, ever since which it has been sealed off and uninhabited. The story goes that somewhere in the Zone is a room containing some agency which grants the deepest desires of anyone entering it, and the stalker has been paid to take the writer and the scientist to this place…

The early sequences of Stalker are (perhaps intentionally) misleading – long, slow scenes of the stalker getting out of bed and quarrelling with his wife, before talking to the others. Tarkovsky reportedly said he wanted the opening of the film to be even slower and duller so that ‘people who walked into the wrong theatre’ had plenty of time to leave before the film properly got going (inasmuch as Stalker ever gets going, as it is traditionally understood). That said, these scenes are followed by the trio penetrating the security around the Zone, dodging armed guards and other security measures, and for a moment it almost seems like the film is going to be conventional.

But of course it isn’t. Entry into the Zone provides one moment of profound cinematic shock, as the toxic sepia of the opening scenes is replaced by beautiful, natural colour, and also marks the film adopting the mode it will maintain for most of the rest of its duration: the three men travelling through the Zone towards the room, looking at the landscape around them while discussing where they are and their reasons for being there.

As you can probably tell, this is another of those SF films which doesn’t really resemble SF for the vast majority of its length: particularly to a viewer who has come to primarily associate SF with films in the action-adventure idiom. There is not much action-adventure here, no laser guns, no spaceships, no robots or aliens – the alien influences of the Zone are left unseen, perceived only by the stalker. Until the closing moments of the film, I was half-expecting this to function wholly as a kind of psychological study of the stalker’s fractured mind, with the curious properties of the Zone a figment of his imagination. But it seems not: there is something strange at the heart of the Zone, the question being what this anomaly is.

As has been said so often that it has practically become a truism, SF films do not exist to predict the future, but more to comment on the present. Nevertheless, films do occasionally come along which feel almost eerie in their prescience: for instance, there’s Starship Troopers, which is one of the best commentaries of the aftermath of September 11th 2001 ever made, even though it was produced in 1996. And there’s a sense in which Stalker feels inextricably connected to the Chernobyl disaster, even though it preceded those events by six or seven years. The Zone of the film has the feeling of a post-industrial, post-apocalyptic waste, for all that its colours are more natural than those of the wider world. Detritus of modern society is everywhere – syringes are particularly prominent – although there are signs of nature reclaiming the area. It is perhaps worth mentioning that many people have suggested that Stalker was in fact filmed on a dumping ground for chemical waste, and that this was a contributing factor in Tarkovsky’s own premature death; worth mentioning, too, that guides who lead visitors into the real-life exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor refer to themselves as stalkers.

There is something profoundly bleak and dismal about the Zone in the film, although quite what it represents is left as ambiguous as much of the rest of Stalker. That the film is intended to be symbolic is established early on, with the switch from sepia to full colour and the fact that none of the characters are named. The writer is hoping the room will give him inspiration, while the scientist is hoping that understanding the room and the Zone will bring him acclaim and respect from his peers (or so he initially claims, anyway). Or, as some have suggested, the two characters represent the artistic and the scientific perspectives on life, neither of which proves fully compatible with the reality of the Zone. What, then of the stalker himself?

It seems to me that this is ultimately a film about spirituality and faith, which is a very audacious choice of theme for a Soviet film and may explain why Stalker is quite as oblique as it is. The others have to place their faith in the stalker, who himself seems to have an almost religious devotion to the room and what it represents: hope, perhaps, an escape from the material squalor of the world. Only those who have suffered can truly appreciate the room, he suggests, while those approaching it with impure motives will be punished. It’s not even as if this interpretation of the film is buried particularly deeply: one poster for the film features a moment where one of the characters affects to wear a crown of thorns.

In the end, though, for all that not very much happens compared to more conventional films, Stalker is so dense in terms of its dialogue, themes and philosophy that it’s entirely possible there are other interpretations with greater validity. It is not the kind of film you can watch once and then move on from – ‘remember, when you watch Stalker, Stalker also watches you,’ was Olinka’s final word on the film, indicating a Tarkovsky-ish talent for suggestive obliqueness. Possibly the clues are all there in the closing scenes of the film, which are strikingly different in style – one character makes a lengthy, casual speech to the camera, there is a sudden display of superhuman faculties from a relatively minor character described as a  ‘Zone mutant’. This is a film to be absorbed and reflected upon rather than watched in the conventional sense. Like the Zone, it resolutely keeps its secrets and demands a leap of faith from those who would approach it. Whether Stalker sufficiently rewards the experience of attempting to decipher it is probably up to the individual viewer, but it is a striking, unforgettable experience nevertheless.

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I love a really famously bad movie, me, but the problem is that a lot of the actual famously bad films don’t turn up on TV a lot. There’s a class of bad movie which has become celebrated for its badness – the much-discussed ‘so bad it’s good’ type of film, usually made on a low budget and often belonging to a disreputable genre – but the real stinkers of years gone by tend to vanish into obscurity. Luckily, the rise of the high-number movie channel means that obscurity isn’t as obscure as it used to be. Which was how I came to happen across a screening of Charles Jarrott’s 1973 movie Lost Horizon. I think I must have heard hushed, shocked whispers about this film, but the reality of it still came as rather a shock.

I think I must have read James Hilton’s hugely popular original novel, many years ago, but it’s the 1937 version of this story (directed by Frank Capra) that I’m most familiar with. The 1973 version opens in a broadly similar manner: there is unrest on the cards in the remote Asian city of Baskula, with everyone trying to get the hell out of Dodge before some guerrillas arrive. This includes a bunch of foreigners, most prominent amongst them being Richard Conway (Peter Finch), who is some sort of diplomat or trouble-shooter for the UN. Conway manages to get on the last plane out of Baskula, along with the kind of mixed-bag of fellow travellers that puts one in mind of a disaster movie of sorts – there’s gruff engineer Sam (George Kennedy), jaded journalist Sally (Sally Kellerman), out-of-place vaudeville comedian Harry (Bobby Van), and Conway’s own brother (Michael York). Little do any of them suspect that their pilot has been replaced by a mysterious stranger…

(I suppose the 26 year age difference between the two Conway brothers is just about explicable – maybe they’re not full brothers, or one of them is adopted. But you do wonder that nobody took one glance at Finch and York together and said ‘Father and son, I could maybe believe, but brothers? You have to be kidding me.’ Then again, as we shall perhaps see, whoever was in charge of preventing bizarre missteps and misjudgements on Lost Horizon seems to have been asleep on the job, or possibly even to have died there.)

Soon enough the refugees notice that their plane, rather than heading east to Hong Kong, is going the other way, and eventually crash-lands somewhere in the Himalayas. But Conway is clearly the kind of chap who gets kidnapped in planes that then crash all the time, and stays remarkably cool. This is justified when a group of locals in thick furs turn up, led by the enigmatic Mr Chang (John Gielgud, whose preparation for playing someone Asian basically extended to sticky-tape on the eyelids).

Chang leads them all back to his home in an idyllic valley, protected from the snow and ice by circling mountains, and the location of Shangri-La, a lamasery devoted to the creed of kindness and politeness. Shangri-La is almost totally isolated from the outside world and so the party will have to stay there for a while at least. So far, as noted, the film has vacillated between seeming like a low-rent disaster movie and a somewhat tepid adventure film, but the middle section of the film gets underway with the first of many songs. In amongst all the singing and dancing, various subplots play out for most of the refugees, while Conway Major discovers that they were kidnapped and brought here: the current boss of Shangri-La, who is two hundred years old and has one leg, is trying to recruit him as a successor. Meanwhile, Conway Minor has fallen in love with a local (Olivia Hussey) – well, given she looks and sounds European and is called Maria, you have to wonder exactly how local she is, but I digress – and is keen for them all to leave. Will Conway Major choose the outside world or Shangri-La?

Now, normally, Lost Horizon would have ended up as just a fairly bad movie, because this is one of those stories that’s very much of the era in which it was written. The film is shot through with problematic attitudes and assumptions that, even worse, it doesn’t even seem to be aware of. Viewed as a film of its era, the Capra version is still charming and engaging entertainment, but for a Hollywood movie from the early 1970s to treat the whole of Asia basically not as a place but as something that happens to westerners – well, as I say, problematic doesn’t really begin to cover it. We have already touched upon the issue of Gielgud playing someone called Chang; we should probably also mention that all the genuinely Asian characters in the movie are basically obliged to stay in the background – when the westerners require love interest they either find it with each other, or conveniently European residents of Shangri-La turn up. Perhaps one should not be surprised, for the fabled lamasery of Shangri-La resembles a second-rate resort hotel more than anything else; I can’t imagine the place getting an especially good score on TripAdvisor though.

What raises, or more accurately lowers, Lost Horizon to a whole different level of badness is the decision to do it as a musical. Now, I’m not saying that grafting songs onto an existing story is a necessarily bad idea – that’s basically the principle of opera, after all – but the way in which it is done here is compellingly horrible. For one thing, the pacing is just plain weird: there are no songs at all for the first forty minutes of the film, then about eight in the space of an hour. It’s a disconcerting shift in emphasis. The closing section of the film is likewise resolutely non-musical, leaving all the numbers sandwiched together in the middle. But there is more, much more than this. It is rather noticeable that most of the cast can’t sing: there is extensive use of dubbing for the actual songs. They can’t dance worth a damn, either: the film’s big numbers are mesmerisingly cack-handed in their staging.

As I mentioned, all the songs are crammed together in the middle section of the film, and the fact that most of them are genuinely grim (working on this movie split up Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and nearly put Bacharach into retirement) makes this a peculiarly gruelling film to watch. The succession of blandly upbeat songs essentially espousing hippy virtues – peace, love, family – could almost drive a person to violence, even without watching some of the accompanying routines – often, these do not resemble choreography as much as people undergoing rehabilitation after joint replacement surgery, while at one point ‘Living Together, Growing Together’ is paused while a large group of men in tangerine nappies perform massed rhythmic gymnastics. The overall effect is extraordinary: just a few seconds of ‘The World is a Circle’ or ‘Question Me an Answer’ and I find the will to live starting to leave my body. It may be best not to watch Lost Horizon without a defibrillator on standby.

Perhaps the most positive thing I can say about Lost Horizon is that I don’t really see how it managed to lose the $51 million ascribed to it by one website (it only cost $6 million to make in the first place), but this is more about basic mathematics than any intrinsic quality of the film. It is dim-witted, patronising, weirdly paced, very variably acted, consistently badly sung and danced, poorly directed, and has nothing to say for itself that doesn’t feel trite and obvious. Apart from that, though, I suppose it is not all that bad.

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Every now and then one comes across something which is a coincidence, or a sign that there are things going on in the world which one would not have expected: to wit, someone in the scheduling department at a high-numbers TV channel having either a fairly black sense of humour or fringe political views. These are the only two possible explanations for the decision to show Franklin J Schaffner’s 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil on April 20th; for this is a movie about Nazism and the date is the most significant one on any observant Nazi’s calendar. I enjoy a dubious gag as much as anyone, and probably more than most, but I find I am still crossing my fingers and hoping this was a coincidence.

Based on one of Ira Levin’s pulpy shockers, The Boys from Brazil is Lew Grade and ITC Entertainment’s answer to The Omen, which came out a couple of years earlier. One should add the important proviso that in this case the answer is close but not quite right, but at least the film-makers’ working-out is fairly obvious: take a somewhat ludicrous conspiracy thriller, prominently featuring ominous children, add Gregory Peck, various other distinguished actors, and a lavish budget, season with a little spectacular gore here and there, and away you go.

Did I say distinguished actors? One of the first well-known faces to make an appearance is that of Steve Guttenberg, who was still a semi-serious actor at this point in time (he was only 20). Guttenberg plays Barry Kohler, a young Jewish Nazi-hunter who as the story starts is monitoring the activities of various war criminals in Paraguay (James Mason and various character actors play the roles of the Nazis; Portugal plays the role of Paraguay). Who should turn up to preside over the get-together but Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), Auschwitz’s own Angel of Death? (Yeah, yeah, I know; we’re going to talk about this, I promise.) Mengele is here to launch the next stage of a project which has been long in the works, and dispatches a squad of ruthless Nazi killers to assassinate 94 men across Europe and America; all of them are 65-year-old civil servants of different kinds (and, based on the ones we see, most of them are other well-known character actors: there’s Michael Gough, not to mention Richard Marner from Allo Allo! and Alternative 3).

Well, it turns out that Steve Guttenberg is not yet old or famous enough to make it out of the opening section of the film in one piece, and so he passes on his notes to a more distinguished Nazi hunter who provides the necessary investigating and moral outrage for the rest of the film. Yes, it’s Lord Olivier, not exactly underplaying it as relentless sleuth Ezra Lieberman (Larry seems to be practising for his Razzie Award-winning turn in The Jazz Singer), who persuades an old friend in the media (Denholm Elliott, another of those cameos that these ITC movies tend to be stuffed with) to send him details of any 65-year-old men who meet an untimely death in Europe or America. Verily, the mind doth boggle, but I suppose things were like that in the days before search engines. Credulity is stretched to its absolute limit as this actually leads Olivier to the families of three of Peck’s victims, who seem to have little in common beyond their ages, jobs, much younger wives, and freakishly identical adopted teenage sons – hang on just a cotton-picking minute here…!

There’s probably a productive discussion to be had about which is in more dubious taste, The Omen or The Boys from Brazil – I suppose it depends on whether you’re more prone to be offended by theological horror or real-world extremism. Beyond-hope materialist that I am, I’m always inclined to dismiss the various Omen films as knockabout camp of varying quality, whereas this one, for all that I do find it rather enjoyable, is arguably well over the border and into the realms of the deeply questionable. I’ve written in the past about the mini-boom in the mid-to-late 1970s for films and TV episodes concerning some kind of Nazi revival, usually centred on a resuscitated Hitler, and on that level there’s nothing particularly unusual about Boys from Brazil‘s scheme to bring back the Fuhrer. What really topples the film over into the realms of the arguably suspect is the decision to make the antagonist Mengele himself. Mengele, it is worth considering, was a real historical figure, responsible for appalling atrocities carried out in the name of science, and – and here it is only right to switch into italics – he was still alive when this movie was made. He could potentially have seen this film; God knows what he would have made of it. Regardless, turning him into a supervillain for a slightly cartoony thriller is arguably a horrible misstep, regardless of what kind of performance Gregory Peck gives (suffice to say that Peck, like Olivier, appears to have carved himself off a thick slice of ham).

The odd thing is that for an arguably nasty schlock horror-thriller, The Boys from Brazil has got some interesting ideas going on under the surface. Whatever else you want to say about it, this was one of the first mainstream movies to be based on the premise of human cloning, which may be why the sequence explaining what cloning – or ‘mononuclear reproduction’ – is goes into such detail. (It is perhaps slightly ironic that the role of the scientist who has to explain the origin of the film’s legion of cloned Hitlers is given to Bruno Ganz, who later played the dictator in Downfall.) The film even has some interesting notions about the whole nature versus nurture debate: the plot is predicated on the idea that the second-generation Hitlers won’t automatically grow up with the same sparkling personality and interesting political views as their progenitor, and so Mengele is attempting to recreate the circumstances of Hitler’s own life and family background. It makes marginally more sense than your typical SF film about clones, I suppose, as duplicates normally grow up indistinguishable from the original without any intervention whatsoever (that, or they’re irredeemably evil) – but how exactly is this going to work? How is Mengele going to give the Hitler clones the experience of fighting in and losing the First World War when they hit their late twenties? What’s the objective here? Wouldn’t it be easier just to have a dozen or so young Hitlers and have them specially educated – indoctrinated, if you like – in secret, for whatever role Mengele and his associates have in mind? Unless the idea is for a crop of new young extremist demagogues from ordinary backgrounds to appear and revolutionise the politics of the west in the early 21st century? Won’t people notice they all look the same? Especially if any of them decides that a moustache would be a good look…

Of course, this is not the only Levin tale with a plot that doesn’t really stand up to serious scrutiny, and as usual the film keeps it together, mainly thanks to the febrile outrageousness of its ideas, put across with a mostly straight face. This is a preposterous story, not just because of the cloning idea but also the contrivances required to make it function, but Peck and Olivier really go for it. One could regret the fact that the film doesn’t explore some of the more intriguing ideas arising from its premise as much as it could – are the clones really destined to become as monstrously evil as their forebear? To what extent can they be held morally culpable for the original Hitler’s actions? – and there is no genuine doubt that this is a Bad Movie, and a bad movie in really suspect taste, too. But nevertheless, I kind of enjoy it for its sheer demented conviction, the fact it makes so many barely-credible errors of judgement, and – more seriously – the way it does manage to smuggle high-concept SF ideas into an apparently mainstream thriller. This film is surely a guilty pleasure at best, but the pleasure is as genuine as the guilt.

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I enjoyed a dinner the other day with a few friends, where the wine flowed freely, the vegetable lasagne was for the ages, and our conversation ranged most agreeably over a wide range of topics: the directorial career of Neil Marshall, whether or not The Crawling Chaos would be a good name for an H.P. Lovecraft-inspired cookbook, and everything that’s wrong with the movie Passengers and its advertising material. I was fairly unstinting in my criticism of this film, which may explain the looks of mild surprise I drew when I casually mentioned I was going straight from the meal to a showing of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger, enjoying a one-off revival as part of the local indie cinema’s one-take-wonder season of films.

There is, to be absolutely clear, little to connect The Passenger with Passengers, beyond their closeness in any A-Z list of noteworthy films (and Passengers would really be on that list for negative reasons). This is one of those international co-productions (in this case, between companies from Spain, France and Italy) which has been made in English simply to make it more commercial, relatively speaking. I say ‘relatively speaking’ because, despite the canny choice of language and the presence of a leading Hollywood star in the central role, this is still hardly what you’d call mainstream cinema. The question becomes one of – what exactly is this film?

Jack Nicholson plays Locke, a (supposedly) Anglo-American journalist on assignment in a remote part of Saharan Africa. It soon becomes clear that Locke is pretty hacked off with life in general, and the fact that his mission to find rebels to interview is obviously going nowhere just adds to his frustration. This culminates in him having a spectacular meltdown when his land rover breaks down, producing the image of Nicholson on his knees in the desert which is the still photo most often used to represent this movie.

However, an unexpected opportunity comes Locke’s way – he has made the acquaintance of another man at the same dingy hotel, a businessman named Robertson, who happens to be a reasonably close lookalike for him. When Locke finds Robertson dead of a heart attack in his room, he decides to switch places with the dead man, swapping their passport photos and informing the hotel staff that it is he (Locke) who has died, not Robertson. Adopting Robertson’s identity, he flies back to Europe, only noting in passing the obituaries he has himself received.

Those close to Locke – mainly his wife (Jenny Runacre) and a colleague (Ian Hendry) – are understandably upset to learn of his apparent death, but naturally they want to to talk to ‘Robertson’ about exactly what went on out in Africa. Not wishing to speak to them for obvious reasons, ‘Robertson’ ends up going to quite extreme lengths to avoid the people looking for him. He also learns that there was a bit more to the real Robertson than he first anticipated – rather than simply being a businessman, Robertson was an arms dealer and gunrunner working with the same rebel faction Locke was attempting to contact. ‘Robertson’ takes a large cash down-payment from the rebels and then continues with his journey, doing his best to meet the appointments listed in the dead man’s diary and hooking up with a young architecture student (Maria Schneider) along the way. But he seems to be inextricably caught between the complications of the life he left behind and the one he has just entered…

This is another one of those movies which looks like a thriller when you write the plot out in synopsis, but feels like quite a different experience when you actually sit down and watch it. There is, I suppose, the faintest resemblance to The Bourne Identity or something of that ilk about The Passenger, in that it is about a man struggling to resolve who he is while making a not entirely stress-free journey across photogenic parts of Europe, but if so it is The Bourne Identity as written by Jean-Paul Sartre. There are no thrills, no action sequences, the main time that something violent occurs the camera is studiously looking away, and so on. I have seen a few different notifications on BBFC certificates in my time – strong sex, bloody scenes, injury detail, bleeped bad language amongst them – but The Passenger presumably scores its UK 15-rating mainly for including footage of an actual execution, as duly noted by the BBFC. Apart from a very coy nude scene for the two leads, the rest of it is fairly innocuous, at least to look at.

On the other hand, there is something unsettling and strange about Antonioni’s film, not least in the way it makes a point of not explaining exactly why the main characters make the choices that they do – particularly Nicholson. We’re never completely allowed into his head, which you would think would be required given some of the extreme and apparently inexplicable choices his character makes throughout the movie. On one level this film is about the temporary escape from oneself which travel makes possible, a chance to leave your normal life behind – but just what has made Locke so alienated as to want to exist in a state of permanent vacation, abandoning his old existence entirely, is never really made completely clear. His wife has been having an affair, but that can’t be it: we are left to ponder the question. There seems to be some deep sense of existential dislocation at work. Or, of course, it could just be that Locke is having a particularly spectacular and possibly somewhat premature mid-life crisis (Nicholson was 37 when he made this movie), abandoning all responsibility and acquiring a much younger girlfriend.

Whatever is actually going on here, and it certainly seems to me that there may in fact be less than meets the eye, the film stays watchable mainly due to a magnetic performance from Jack Nicholson and an engaging one from Maria Schneider. 1975 was something of an annus mirabilis for Nicholson – in the same year he also made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – and this is one of his more striking turns: for my generation and anyone younger, we know Nicholson from movies like Batman, A Few Good Men, Anger Management and so on, where he does not exactly underplay his scenes. Here, he is unexpectedly restrained, almost a man vanishing into himself – perhaps even he is not sure of why he is doing what he’s doing – but at the same time his performance is strangely compelling. His odd non-romance with Schneider’s nameless student is also oddly fascinating to watch.

This is probably just as well, for The Passenger is in one sense a film a considerable proportion of which is solely made up of people driving around and going in and out of hotels. The photography is accomplished, however, and the film does contain a couple of brilliant moments of technical innovation – an early scene, establishing back-story, in which the setting shifts from the present day to the recent past within the same extended shot, and the extraordinary climactic scene, which lasts about seven minutes: the camera moves through Locke’s latest hotel room, glides out through the window (seemingly passing through a solid metal grille to do so), roams around the square outside, and then returns to settle on Locke’s room as seen from outside, revealing his ultimate fate. As to what his destiny is – well, once again it may be less significant than Antonioni and his writers would perhaps like to think. But the journey to get there is an attractive and fascinating one.

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Every time I think the internet has lost its capacity to startle me, something comes along to – well, startle me. The nature of the world’s most popular video sharing website being what it is, I’m never especially surprised to find obscure old movies posted there in its quiet corners – were this not the case, I might never have seen The Deadly Mantis or Night of the Lepus. Even the least distinguished films have a habit of turning up on budget DVD, such is the nature of the medium, but when it comes to old TV shows… well, even today I would imagine there are hundreds of thousands of hours of material which has never been licensed for commercial release; there are whole series which have slipped out of the collective memory. For example, I’d never heard of an ITV play strand entitled Against the Crowd, which apparently ran for one series in 1975 – until I came across a complete episode available for viewing. How did this even happen?!

Of course, it turns out that my initial surprise may have been a bit premature, for the episode in question has the unique distinction: unlike the rest of the run, it has enjoyed a DVD release, having been included as a special feature on the box set of Beasts when that came out. This, I suspect, is the source of the copy which is available to watch. The reason Murrain got added to Beasts is that it was written by Nigel Kneale, effectively acting as an unofficial pilot for the later series, and I suppose part of my surprise at discovering this play is that I thought I was familiar with virtually everything Kneale wrote for TV, certainly in the 1960s and 1970s.

Certainly Murrain resembles an episode of Beasts, clearly being made on a low budget – shot on videotape and on location. The play is set somewhere in the north of England. David Simeon (one of those actors who isn’t famous by any stretch of the imagination, but is still one of those faces you kind of recognise if you’re anything like me) plays Alan Crich, an idealistic young veterinary officer with the local council, who as the story begins arrives at the pig farm of a man named Beeley (Bernard Lee, best known for appearing in the first dozen or so Bond films). Beeley’s pigs are suffering from an unidentified sickness which Crich’s ministrations have so far been unable to cure; Beeley is not impressed, to put it mildly, and the atmosphere between the two men is soon tense.

Then Beeley announces he’s going to show Crich a few other points of interest, and marches him off to where the pipeline drawing from the local spring has completely dried up, for no apparent reason. Finally, Crich is taken to the local shop, where the owner’s child is also ill, again with an unidentified sickness. Crich can’t make out what Beeley and his men are driving at until they make it absolutely clear to him: it is their sincere belief that the old woman who lives up the hill is a witch, and has placed what they refer to as a murrain (in other words, a curse) on the pigs and other things.

So far in the play, Kneale has been working diligently to draw the contrasts between Crich and Beeley (who do most of the talking between them) – Crich is young, well-spoken, college-educated, polite, while Beeley is older, rough around the edges, practical. What follows at this point is a decent enough articulation of differing views when it comes to witchcraft and the supernatural, with Beeley rehearsing the argument that what may seem weird and miraculous now could easily be explained by science at some point in the future, and that Crich has no right to dismiss their concerns out of hand. But Crich just dismisses their concerns out of hand, thus – you would think – setting him up for a touch of nemesis before the end of the play.

The locals want Crich to visit the supposed witch (played by Una Brandon-Hill – the woman is supposedly ‘very old’ but Brandon-Hill was under sixty at the time) and perform a ritual that will break her power over them. He makes the visit, but refuses to play exorcist, and instead finds what he expects to find – an old, lonely, slightly pathetic woman, who is apparently being bullied by her neighbours. He resolves to make amends…

There’s very little wrong with the narrative carpentry in Murrain, except for the fact that it becomes very obvious early on just how the thing is going to play out: Crich is so openly contemptuous of the superstitions of Beeley and the others that the only way this can possibly end is for there to be just a suggestion that the villagers have been right all along, and he has been unwittingly assisting the forces of darkness. And so it proves, but if anything Kneale plays it too safe, as the ending is just a bit flat. The only point of ambiguity is that of whether the old woman genuinely does have access to some kind of Power with a capital P, or whether she and the other locals share the same delusion (the special effects budget of Murrain is approximately no-money-whatsoever, so everything is left very ambiguous).

Of course, this being a Nigel Kneale script, Murrain is also notable for its thorough-going, indiscriminate misanthropy. As I may well have said in the past, Nigel Kneale doesn’t have prejudices – he treats everyone with equal disdain and contempt, whether that’s for being idealistic and naïve, or ignorant and crude. This is a fairly bleak play in every respect, but it’s also a very solidly written one, let down slightly by its predictability and also by the low production values involved. There’s obviously a sort of family resemblance to Beasts, but one suspects that series came about more due to Kneale’s reputation than because of the quality of this particular play.

Watching Murrain now, it isn’t an outstanding piece of work in any respect, but it still represents something that we have lost in modern TV – who does low-budget single dramas any more? No-one at all in the UK, not on free to air TV at least. There is no place for this kind of drama any more, and I can’t help thinking that’s a shame.

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The Phoenix (one of our local non-multiplexes) ran a short season of Stanley Kubrick films last summer, comprising (if memory serves) 2001, Dr Strangelove, Spartacus, Barry Lyndon and The Shining – a quintet which, for the most part, should remind any sensible viewer of just why Kubrick is revered as one of the greatest directors ever to fake the moon landings – sorry, I meant to say ‘draw breath’. That said, missing from the run (which otherwise included nearly every film Kubrick made between 1960 and 1980) was A Clockwork Orange, originally released in 1971.

I suppose this is not really surprising when one considers that this is a film with a history of not appearing, having been withdrawn from UK cinemas in 1973 and not issued for home entertainment purposes at Kubrick’s own request, after he received threats because of it. When I was at university in the mid 1990s it still had that cachet of being an illegal, transgressive piece of art: bootleg copies were on sale next to those of Reservoir Dogs (likewise unavailable on legitimate VHS at the time). I distinctly recall that even a TV documentary about A Clockwork Orange was subject to a legal challenge and withdrawn by the makers.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this very remarkable film is that it still retains most of its power to shock and disturb. It is back in UK cinemas at the moment and the screening I attended did not feature the usual card from the BBFC, presaging the start of the film. Instead, the crimson field of the opening titles smashed into view unheralded, accompanied by the disquieting radiophonic howl of the opening music. What follows the opening credits is one of the most vivid sequences in all of modern cinema, as we accompany teenager Alex (Malcolm McDowell) on a typical night out. That sounds fairly mundane, but in fact we are plunged into what is essentially a kind of bacchanal of violence: verbal, physical, sexual, motorised and musical. The near-future stylings of the film and the Russian-influenced argot of Alex and his droog gang-members are just alienating enough to make the film compellingly strange rather than repulsive, but it is a close thing, and there is something deeply unsettling about the way that Kubrick’s direction and McDowell’s charisma conspire to make Alex a borderline-attractive antihero rather than the vicious monster we should probably perceive him as.

Of course, there is also his love of classical music, especially Beethoven, which is about as close as Alex gets to having a redeeming feature. Ironically, it is this, coupled to his own arrogance, which leads to Alex’s comeuppance – such as it is. Turned on by his droogs and finally nabbed by the police, Alex is sent to prison. It is here, a few years into a long prison term, that he first hears of the Ludovico technique – a method of rehabilitating prisoners and turning them into model citizens. Eagerly he volunteers, not quite realising what he is letting himself in for…

Sitting by my desk at work is a small but chunky volume listing the 101 greatest science fiction films (or something like that), and, sure enough, A Clockwork Orange features in it. It always seems to me this is one of those films which only just scrapes over the line – it is arguably set in one of those ten-minutes-into-the-future dystopias, the awful fashions and calculatedly tasteless art instantly evoking an exaggerated version of the 1970s. But the Ludovico technique is certainly the stuff of science fiction, allowing the film to address big questions of what it means to truly be a human being. The film’s thesis has been much articulated, almost to the point of overfamiliarity: by removing a person’s ability to make genuine moral choices and compelling them to exist in a state of petrified timidity, have you honestly made them ‘good’? The film’s energy and technique keeps the question interesting, although it departs significantly from Anthony Burgess’ novel by omitting the epilogue, in which an older Alex reflects on the excesses of his youth. The book’s conclusion appears to be that young men are naturally and inherently prone to violent misbehaviour, but they eventually grow out of it. (One should point out that Kubrick claimed only to have read the American edition of the novel, from which the final chapter was cut on the grounds it was unconvincing and unrealistic.)

Kubrick, naturally, is also interested in the Ludovico technique as a comment on the nature of cinema itself: the treatment room looks very like a cinema itself, with Alex strapped into his seat, literally a captive audience, unable to look away as scenes of violence play out before him. Some of these bear a striking resemblance to scenes from the film itself, which has to be a consciously self-reflexive touch. Thanks to the treatment, Alex is ultimately repelled and literally nauseated by what he sees – perhaps Kubrick is challenging the audience to compare their own responses to the violence that permeates his film.

Apart from this one plot device and a few scenes at the beginning, A Clockwork Orange feels strikingly non-futuristic when one watches it now. This is not to say it is a realistic or naturalistic film, of course: it most closely resembles a kind of parable or twisted allegory. There is something undeniably grotesque and over-the-top about every major character and the way they are performed – apart from Alex himself, there is the probation officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), the chaplain (Godfrey Quigley), the chief guard (Michael Bates), the minister (Anthony Sharp) and the writer whom Alex brutalises (Patrick Magee). These latter two serve another aspect of the film, which is its commentary, and indeed satire, of social and political attitudes. This is not light or even particularly funny satire: it is as savage and scathing as anything else in the film. On the other hand, Kubrick is scrupulously even-handed, treating both the authoritarian government and the supposedly progressive liberals with equal contempt, one side being happy to dehumanise their own citizens in the pursuit of good publicity, the other showing no concern for human life, as long as they can gain political advantage. (No wonder senior politicians have always seemed to be a bit wary of A Clockwork Orange: when the shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe was asked to contribute to a documentary about it, around the time of the film’s re-release in 2000, she agreed on the proviso that she didn’t actually have to watch it.)

Its depiction of useless, self-interested politicians and violent, knife-wielding youth gangs are only two of the ways in which A Clockwork Orange feels as relevant today as it doubtless did nearly fifty years ago. But then this is a film about the biggest and most important of ideas: how we want to live as a society, and treat one another; just what is involved in being a good citizen; what is the essential nature of a human being? And it manages to do so with unforgettable visual style and a memorable musical score. At this point in his career, Kubrick made making masterpieces look very easy indeed.

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