Archive for November 7, 2013

The ’68 Comeback Special: Girl on a Motorcycle

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 7, 2013 by dcairns

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I’m old enough to remember a day when the British newspapers annually bemoaned the lack of UK product selected for Cannes. Nowadays, the post-CHARIOTS OF FIRE jingoism is dead and there’s less broadsheet interest in Cannes, cinema, and art in general. In 1968, however, something different was going on. British cinema had exploded brilliantly, artistically and commercially. Accordingly, the Cannes jury, had the festival gone ahead, would have been asked to consider no fewer than five British entries, as well as PETULIA, an American production from a substantially British creative team.

Unfortunately for my inner jingoist, the selection was, shall we say, patchy. I admired Peter Collinson and Charles Wood’s THE LONG DAY’S DYING a good deal, I’m moderately looking forward to seeing CHARLIE BUBBLES, the one film directed by actor Albert Finney. But I can’t rouse much enthusiasm for actor Mike Sarne’s JOANNA, and both Scout Tafoya and I consider HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH so abhorrent we may be forced to fight a duel to see who has the task of writing about it.

THE GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE isn’t directed by an actor and doesn’t star Barry Evans, so there ought to be something to be said for it. Indeed, the director is Jack Cardiff, adored by all right-thinking people — as a cinematographer. And in fact no less a person than Martin Scorsese has praise for some of Cardiff’s directorial work, particularly DARK OF THE SUN. But I think this movie is… not so great. It’s guilty of something probably all the British entries could be accused of — it’s fashionable.

The word sounds like a condemnation, and of course it needn’t be. Richard Lester was often accused of trendiness (cf the excellently titled Manny Farber essay Day of the Lesteroid) and in PETULIA he certainly situated himself at the heart of the particular moment, in San Francisco in the late summer of 1967. But Lester fans like me always see past the glittering surfaces and consider what the filmmaker is actually saying as well as how he’s saying it, and generally find a clever as well as striking match-up between the two.

THE GIRL ON A MOTORCYCLE — also known, salaciously and foolishly, as NAKED UNDER LEATHER — is fashionable in less defensible ways. The solarised images, where Cardiff runs amok with colour like an action painter high on horse tranquilisers, don’t seem suited to their purpose, whatever it might be, and the film’s basic attitude to what it’s showing us strikes me as confused. The film certainly has merits however, and though they may be incidental they are eye-catching.

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The cast — particularly Marianne Faithfull and Alain Delon — are photogenic and charismatic.

The leather cat-suit is — under the right circumstances (applied to Marianne Faithfull rather than Eugene Pallette) — a good look. The film helped establish it as suitable motorcycling gear. It beats the bomber jacket.

Cardiff should have received the Irving Thalberg Humanitarian Award or the Gandhi Peace Prize or something for the nude scenes. Nobody looks that good forever and if there isn’t a camera around it will all be lost.

Photographed as well as directed (and “adapted” too, since Cardiff apparently felt he needed a screenplay credit to be appreciated properly) by Cardiff, the movie looks lovely, even if you find the visual hi-jinks disruptive. The misty locations and rich colours are romantic and charming.

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Buuuuuuuut… in the course of the first five minutes, Cardiff gives us dutch tilts, dream sequence, wacky solarisation, soft focus, multiple exposures, tinting, repeated crash zooms (on what look like illustrations from a book of circus posters), superimposed birds, starburst filter, drunken hand-held, internal monologue — it’s a stylistic mash-up or smash-up that’s not so much bold as reckless, as if Cardiff was determined to outdo Michael Powell AND show how up-to-the-moment and pop-savvy he was. It’s mostly in aid of a dream sequence, and you never saw anything less like a dream.

And once Faithfull’s voice-over begins, I remember the reason I could never get on with this film — the character is such a dire, annoying bitch. I pretty much want her to crash and explode eight minutes in. Maybe Faithfull’s plummy tones interact with the character’s more entitled, youth-centric attitudes to make her more abrasive than she should be. Maybe Faithfull’s comparative inexperience as an actor causes her to hit the meaning of each line full-on in a way that emphasises unduly the character’s brattiness. Maybe… maybe…

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Ahh! The world’s most relaxing bedroom!

And maybe the whole Joycean stream-of-consciousness thing, always a doubtful device in movies, is fatally compromised by virtue of the character being a Swiss teacher’s wife played by an English pop star and written by a middle-aged male French novelist adapted by a middle-aged male South African screenwriter and a middle-aged male English cinematographer? At any rate, her rambling pontification does not endear her, or make her seem real.

God, I hate looking at an actor’s face as they strenuously shunt various thoughts across it and a VO tells us what the thoughts are. It’s probably the worst combination of sound and image ever invented. You might protest that a series of glistening product shots of a bountiful banquet, when coupled with the sound effects of unhealthy people going to the toilet, would be worse, but I say NO IT WOULD BE THE SAME THING.

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MADAME BOVARY ON A MOTORCYCLE? Or maybe ANNA KARENINA. It is, surely. Except that I always felt we were supposed to find Emma B and Anna K a bit sympathetic. Ditching her weak schoolteacher husband (the unfortunately-named Roger Mutton) at the start, Faithfull’s voice-over evinces such dominatrixian contempt for him, she kind of chills the blood. I guess the point could be that in the swinging sixties, such a character would no longer be tormented by guilt over her infidelity — in which case, there’s no suicide and no point.

Stories that end with a random car accident to illustrate life’s fickle unpredictability rarely work for me. The point seems trite, and the introduction of a random element like an oncoming truck too arbitrary to be compatible with good art. Life may be like that, but so what?

And so what is how I feel about TGOAM, despite what could be sympathetically viewed as artistic daring and defiance of convention. Is the spectacular death of the heroine a punishment for her modern, free-living ways? It certainly makes a vivid argument against indulging in orgasmic flashback montages on the autobahn. The horrible deaths of the other people in the accident — at least one person must be burned alive in that mini — make the implied condemnation all the more savage. But what makes this more than a road safety film with better-looking people?

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Cardiff stood by the film and, in his autobiography Magic Hour, still bristles with indignation at the British press reaction. Even though I don’t care for the film, I can see why he was proud of it — it’s bold, wild and different. Even the snotty central character becomes a bit more appealing once we start exploring her life via flashback, and one thing the film does illuminate is the difficulty of being an attractive woman in 1968 — there’s some pretty creepy behaviour from the bit players, though Cardiff’s camera does a fair bit of leering too. In a sense, the movie embodies Cardiff’s strengths as cameraman and his weaknesses as director — however stylishly he presents something, he doesn’t seem clear about why he’s showing it.

Magic Hour: A Life in Movies

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