Archive for November 10, 2008

When the Levee Broke

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2008 by dcairns


BLOOD KIN (AKA LAST OF THE MOBILE HOTSHOTS, a horrible title! Sounds like some kind Burt Reynolds movie) is Sidney Lumet’s film of Tennessee Williams’ play The Seven Descents of Myrtle, scripted by Gore Vidal. It was the rarest thing screening in Edinburgh Filmhouse’s recent Williams season, so I felt I couldn’t pass it up. Vidal, of course, is a past master of distorting Williams to suit his own intentions. Here at least he’s less restrained by the censor than he was with SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER.

Lynn Redgrave is loud showgirl  Myrtle, James Coburn is sickly landowner Jeb, Robert Hooks is his half-brother, whose dark skin the script is hilariously mealy-mouthed about. Nobody’s quite sure how to refer to his obvious blackness. “Dark-complected” is as explicit as they can get. Performancewise, Coburn is himself, only dying and impotent instead of lusty and strutting. Hooks is zestful and impudent, and Redgrave gloriously loud and theatrical. David Wingrove, also present, described the effect as being like a Little Britain parody of a Tennessee Williams play. He meant it as a compliment, mind you.

A prologue sets up Coburn’s meeting with Redgrave, with them getting married on a cheesy game show and winning a carload of white goods. A great moment at a rancid fast food restaurant, the long-lens frame heaped with trashy Americana, a giant effigy of a cow trundling past on the road. Then the main event:

Maybe the wettest film I ever saw. It may rain more or less constantly in SE7EN and BLADE RUNNER, but it doesn’t soak into you half as much as in this movie. Once the rain begins, we learn that the levee is apt to break, and the whole movie could end up sub-aqueous. The tactile discomfort of all that downpour, and Coburn’s damp, stained white linen suit, has a powerful, exhausting effect.

Hooks, we discover, has a history of surviving floods by taking to the rooftop of the crumbling southern property where the film transpires. Ironically, the whole plot hinges around LAND, land which may shortly become water. Coburn wants to prevent his half-brother from inheriting, by either producing an heir via Redgrave, or getting her to steal the agreement which promises him the property upon Coburn’s (imminent) demise.

I’m skeptical about Quincey Jones’ score: I don’t think he’s a natural film composer, and his music sometimes seems to go off on its own, abandoning the movie. I feel this about most Jones scores, but then he’ll do something brilliant like THE ITALIAN JOB, and I think the problem must be with me. 

The bits where the set fades to red and Coburn has a strange interlude, with slo-mo flashbacks of laborious running around with sexy chicks, seem to stop the film dead (nearly all attempts to add “cinematic” values to filmed plays seem to do more harm than good). But I like the chamber piece part of the film, dependant solely on performance, photographed by James Wong Howe in a beautifully crisp fashion. It looks nothing like this still:


And then the ending! Hooks wins the land — just as the flood comes and — united with Redgrave — he flees to the rooftop — as the little three-hander suddenly turns into THE MOST EXPENSIVE FILM EVER. After a miniature shot of floodwater that has a distinct, and humorous, ’70s disaster movie vibe, we see the water crashing through the windows of the house — first floor, second, THIRD! — as the game thespians clamber upwards. It’s preposterously huge and epic and dynamic. Jones’ music suddenly becomes so-wrong-it’s-right, with a blaxploitation exuberance one does not expect to find in Tennessee Williams. After the claustrophobic interiority and long dialogue scenes, this is an eruption of energy that’s truly cathartic.

The black man inherits the land, just as it vanishes beneath the waves. I felt a smidgin of political subtext there, which seemed all the stronger after the election. I don’t see how anybody could have planned it that way, but it was a nice film to see at this moment.

What does Gore think?