The ’68 Comeback Special: Joanna

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There’s one moment in Mike Sarne’s monumentally self-indulgent JOANNA that reminds me of Kubrick, but only in an incidental way — Genevieve Waite is flouncing along the Embankment, screen left to right, causing me to imagine she’s going to bump into Malcolm McDowell coming the other way. Moments later she’s punching an image of Peter Sellers in the face. And it occurred to me that this movie was probably the one they showed to McDowell in CLOCKWORK ORANGE to turn him violent again.

Fiona’s reaction to the film was almost immediately to start threatening violence to the principle characters, the actors portraying them, the crewmembers involved in rendering their onscreen life, and the film itself. When writer-director Mike Sarne (an acceptable actor himself in films as disparate as EASTERN PROMISES, MOONLIGHTING, A PLACE TO GO) appeared for his inevitable cameo, swooping down in a crane like the late Peter O’Toole in THE STUNTMAN, she had to be physically restrained from climbing inside the television and laying about him with her tiny fists. On the positive side, she constructively suggested adding a subtitle: JOANNA, or, WHY SHOULD I GIVE A FUCK ABOUT THIS STUPID TART?

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We will have to revise upwards our appraisal of Marianne Faithful’s character in GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE, conceding that compared to Joanna she is smart, insightful, funny, appealing fun to be around…

Why this hostility? Mainly because this is another sixties farrago, a compendium of trendy notions stolen from arthouse cinema and commercials, sloshed together as if every influence were of equivalent value. It tells the story of a party girl with an annoying voice — Waite, who went on to marry one of the papas from the Mamas and the Papas — and her unamusing adventures in London (with side-trips to Paris and Marrakech). Unfair to hate the curly-mopped waif for her posh squawk — that voice could even be endearing in a character less shallow, grating and pointless… maybe.

Sarne, the anti-genius who would soon make MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (having pitched it as a dream sequence, and having Hollywood accept this “idea” at his own estimation as some kind of solution to filming an unfilmable book), obviously intends some kind of critique of the swinging scene, filtered through a compendium of fashionable fantasies, dreams, happenings and faux-nouvelle-vague trickery. Which I admit almost sounds good — it’s how some critics chose to regard Richard Lester’s work, which I love. But you can tell the difference when there’s an intelligence and wit working behind the scenes. Sarne can’t even cast sensibly, selecting the only actor in Britain who can’t do an English accent — a callow Donald Sutherland, who’s aiming for Upper Class Twit of the Year.

Pity for the actor fights with sheer, visceral disgust.

At the heart of this are some very weird attitudes — a sneaking suspicion of free love and a happy-go-lucky tolerance of domestic violence, regarded by all the characters as essentially a joke, even when it happens to them. Sutherland’s character, a dying lord, seems to be held up as some kind of utopian ideal, but only the rapacious merchant banker character seems to notice that Sutherland’s limitless wealth is what allows him to be so generous, so carefree. Joanna herself is entirely parasitic, living off the ill-gotten gains of first family, then a variety of lovers, but she judges everyone who has to worry about where their next meal is coming from. I found her contemptible — and the film sort of wants us to feel this, but find her adorable and worth caring about somehow too. Wally Stott’s cacophonous soundtrack is nearly drowned out bythe messy sounds of cake being had, eaten, regurgitated and had again.

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It’s a serious bit! AND he’s black and she’s white! So let’s shoot it in black & white!

Still, it’s very colourful. The dolly birds are pretty, and Calvin Lockhart is gorgeous. Walter Lassally’s photography is some of his prettiest. The movie is infuriating, and would be unwatchable if it weren’t for a certain amount of invention and a lot of skill in the aping of fashionable films of the time. “I pitched it as a female Alfie,” Sarne has said, and harboured ambitions for a “London DOLCE VITA” — though really EIGHT AND A HALF is the greater influence: Sarne likes cutting to daydreams without warning, and shies from any social critique. Sarne recently told The Guardian, “for all JOANNA’s faults, it does reflect the dizziness and silliness of 60s London. And the happiness – people really did dress up and show off. Some people like to look back and think it was all Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, but we had fast cars, Brigitte Bardot was in town, and we all had affairs in Rome and Paris. It didn’t just happen to the Beatles.” The trouble is, the film naively assumes the experiences of a sub-lebrity like Sarne, chumming around with Roman Polanski (who got the film its Cannes slot), were in some way typical — its vision of everyone living the sweet life feels dishonest as hell.

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As it is, the film never played at Cannes, Sarne’s Rolls-Royce got pelted with eggs (I have to feel some schadenfreude at this, having suffered through his wretched movie), and nobody really saw the movie, but it got him his ticket to Hollywood. If not for this movie, we might not have the image of Raquel Welch anally violating a cowboy with a strap-on, interspersed with stock-footage reaction shots from Laurel & Hardy. So maybe we should be grateful. Maybe?

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16 Responses to “The ’68 Comeback Special: Joanna”

  1. Joanna is right up there (or rather down there) with Under the Cherry Moon among my favorite bad movies. Far too often movie badness is equated with mere ineptitude. Edward D. Wood Jr. suffered from painfully low budgets — with which he struggled to make something aspiring to the level of Albert Zugsmith’s Sex Kittens Go to College. The thing is he was infinitely more imaginative than Zugsmith.

    Sarne by contrast thinks striking a pose is being “stylish.”That he has Walter Lassally as DP make his childish notions of “style” all the more bizarre. The film is quite beautiful to look at and in original release the Mag-Stereo sound was most impressive. But the film itself? YIKES!

    I know precisely how Fiona feels re. Genevieve Waite. She looks like the UK equivalent of Toby Wing. But when she opens her mouth a screech comes out. A good thing you weren’t in New York in the 70’s to see “Man in the Moon” the stage musical John Phillips confected to launch Waite on Broadway. Andy Warhol produced Paul Morrissey directed and it was all over after a preview or two and opening night. Her daughter by Phillips (Chynna) has been attempting a career. She has inherited her mother’s lack of talent though thankfully not her voice.

    As for Sarne, leave us not forget he discovered Udo Kier — the star of his first short film The Road to Saint-Tropez. But at the last no points for that as someone was bound to discover Udo sooner or later.

    And not just in bed.

    The real subject of Joanna is what used to be called “miscegenation.” Calvin Lockhart and Glenna Foster-Jones are very pretty — and better employed by John Boorman in his Maudit masterpiece Leo the Last (which I trust you’ll get around to shortly.)

  2. Yes, yes and YES!

    Leo the Last is obtainable now in decent quality so I have to revisit it. I remember it being very odd.

    Joanna muffs its one chance to be meaningful when Lockhart has his run-in with the police, but the British coppers are so POLITE. There’s a joke about everything being OK once Waite reveals that daddy is a magistrate, but both of them would have been suffering horribly long before that point in reality — a black man shoves a policeman, and he lives in an opulent flat and has a white girlfriend, in 1968? I’m not saying All Coppers Are… to use the title of a Sid Hayers flick, but under those circumstances, at that time?

    The idea of Waite starring in her own show on Broadway is hilarious. Even Sarne didn’t think she could act — naturally he wanted to cast his girlfriend.

  3. Very good point re politesse. Wonder if Steve McQueen has seen it.

  4. Someone at Telluride had the gall to ask McQueen if he’d been influenced by other movies about the antebellum south, such as Gone with the Wind. He was very clear that his inspiration in this case came from history and not from other movies.

    The other best stupid question was somebody asking Fassbender if he stayed in character. “Well, I had a black director, so that wasn’t going to work!”

  5. david wingrove Says:

    Can any film REALLY be as bad as Under the Cherry Moon? That one is truly stupefying in its ghastliness. As an unapologetic fan of Myra Breckinridge, I’m tempted to give Joanna the benefit of the doubt.

  6. Master Wingrove (I’d simply say David, but that wouldn’t quite work, would it?!) would do good not to inflict this on himself. The minute Waite – nearly wrote Waife – steps off the train the film is an utter bewilderment, and doesn’t have half the sense of fun(?) of MYRA. JOANNA’s a step above HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH, the other Lester xerox on display at the 68 Fest, but that’s all it is. It feels as though everyone in the film is dying of consumptive callousness and soon only Waite will survive, squeaking into the void for help from an unfeeling creator: Mike Sarne. Though he seems to hate her as much as we do.

  7. david wingrove Says:

    You’re just making me more intrigued…

  8. Intriguing that Joanna’s surname is ALMOST Sarne — it’s Sorrin. So she’s his self-created female side, his Myra. And he seems to despise her. he certainly makes us do.

    Knowing David W’s taste, I think he NEEDS to see Joanna…

  9. Ok, if he promises to write about it, I will condone his viewership.

  10. And I think Sarne definitely hated himself. Or part of himself anyway. He was like Albert Finney without anything to say.

  11. Wow, return of the repressed. I saw this as a kid, via a film club (so probably in 16 mm), and found it unbearable then. But some local cineaste must have liked it.

  12. The thing about Under the Cherry Moons,/I> is that all its particulars are ultra-deluxe. Michael Ballhaus was DP. Richard Sylbert was production designer, and the supporting cast includes Alexandra Stewart and Victor Spinetti. Yet it’s at heart about as chic as a burned-out 99 cent store in Detroit.

  13. Plus it was Kristin Scott-Thomas’ DEBUT!!!!! After this heroic achievement (she got through the shoot without shooting herself) she was ready for anything.

  14. Suddenly her performance in ONLY GOD FORGIVES makes sense…

  15. Not Detroit! Minneapolis! Depressing in a different, particular way.

    Prince initially hired a woman director because he liked the idea of a woman director, but then he fired her and directed it himself. The anima-spirit again!

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