The ’68 Comeback Special: Girl on a Motorcycle

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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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25 Responses to “The ’68 Comeback Special: Girl on a Motorcycle”

  1. Marianne is related to Leopold Sacher-Masoch, you know. So this is perfect typecasting.

    Cardiff is a peerless DP, but his directorial skills are variable. Gavin Lambert once said to me “He couldn’t direct his way out of a paper bag!” — as obviously he didn’t like the job Cardiff did on Sons and Lovers whose screenplay is by Gavin. It’s quite OK but not exactly inspired — at least in the way Gavin would have wanted.

    As for Girl, here’s a link to the recording of my interview with Andy at the Silver Factory back in 1965 (Hope it still works.) On it at one point you can hear some hustler (of the show biz rather than sexual variety) trying to talk him into taking out an option on the book. As usual Andy was noncommittal. But it’s not hard for many of us to imagine a Warhol version with Edie Sedgwick in black leather in our Cinematheque in The Sky.

  2. As I recall, Lambert felt Cardiff didn’t understand the book, and asked why the character needed to have artistic aspirations. Wouldn’t that make him hard for an audience to relate to?

    I think that points to his weakness as a director — he can come up with amazing shots, but there’s nobody there to question what the shots are for. Put him together with a mind like Powell’s, or Hitchcock’s, or Huston’s, and you certainly have something.

    I remember hearing Nestor Almendros say that Cardiff’s work on Rambo was “the exception in that film” — ie, it was good. That’s a movie that could qualify for the Late Movies Blogathon, but I hope nobody chooses it!

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH! Well that brings back memories of my one viewing and they were not good. C’mon, David C. – bite the bullet!

  4. I had never seen HERE WE GO ROUND THE MULBERRY BUSH until TCM showed it three or four years ago and I recorded it. I did the Pauline Kael gag and only watched it once. To me it’s a good argument against (a certain kind of) ’60s cinema. I didn’t even know they were going to present this at Cannes, and still can’t believe it.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    Whoever knew Donald Sutherland could be such a dire actor?!

  6. Give Sutherland a British accent and he’ll work wonders, every time! The genius of Don’t Look Now includes casting him as a Brit but getting him to play it Canadian. Not nearly as distracting as an accent would have been.

    Mulberry Bush is a car crash, and part of my resistance to writing about it is that it would seem unkind to trash the star and director who are both dead. Clive Donner did other, better work and deserves to be remembered kindly. And Barry Evans has never personally harmed me, apart from with his acting.

  7. That ‘Joanna’ clip is astounding. The Netflix description reads in part, “Psychedelic imagery and a solid performance by Donald Sutherland augment director Michael Sarne’s Golden Globe-nominated movie.” Wow. And the blurb on the poster: “The Graduate… Bonnie and Clyde… This year it may be ‘Joanna.'” — Saturday Review. …And good news! That music playing in the background? There are LYRICS. And they areperfect.

  8. Yes, Sutherland’s performance is “solid,” the only question being “Solid WHAT?”

    I think I may have to volunteer to profile Joanna as an honorable way to escape writing about Mulberry Bush. “This year it may be Joanna… ah, who are we kidding?”

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    It may be due more to Mike Sarne than Donald. Donald was fine in his DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS segment and may also have been in the BBC TV Lee Harvey Oswald play featuring Tony Bill as the “patsy.” Sarne was a better singer than director. Remember “Come Outside” (1960) with Wendy Richard and “”Will I What?” with Billie Davies who would soon hit the charts with her cover version of “I know something about love.”

  10. Sarne gives a perfectly good performance in A Place to Go, so he knew a bit about acting. I’d say the performances in Myra Breckinridge are… appropriate to the film. It’s his overall concept that was flawed.

    But Sutherland in Revolution is bizarre, in The First Great Train Robbery he’s awkward. Give him an accent and he loses his ability to be the wonderful player we know he is.

  11. Besides the final big scene, all I can remember of Girl on a Motorcycle are seemingly endless process shots of Marianne whisking her hair about in the fan-induced breeze. Awful.

    Joanna is unwatchable, and I should know…I’ve watched it twice, once in pan and scan, once in widescreen! Terrible either way. The only good bit is the coppers singalong at the end.

    Must admit to being fond of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. I guess someone has to be.

    Haven’t seen Charlie Bubbles in ages, but I recall enjoying it.

  12. sjmwestienne64 Says:

    Just reacquainted myself with Girl on a Motorcycle, which still feels like a fever dream from my teenage years. I recall seeing an interview with Cardiff, probably done for the UK DVD release, where he pronounced himself satisfied with the optical effects used during the sex scenes. They were apparently a form of self-censorship: I suppose that by 1968 nudity (even a flash of full-frontal) was the coming thing, but naked coupling was still some years from respectability. One thing I picked up from this viewing: it was based on a novel by André Pieyre de Mandiargues, a name I knew from Borowczyk’s La Marge. (It turns out that that’s not the only Mandiargues work that Borowczyk adapted: there’s also one story each in Immoral Tales and Three Immoral Women, plus his final film Love Rites.)

  13. Charlie Bubbles is lovely. Joanna is one of my favorite bad movies. It’s right up there (or down there) with Under the Cherry Moon

  14. So what is your thought on the end of CONTEMPT, since, y’know, car crash with Jack Palance & Bridget Bardot…

    Also, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE & I think VAMPYRES (whatever that Belgian lesbian vampire film is called)?

  15. Cardiff uses lots of different effects to get us to believe Marianne can ride a bike. I don’t find the blue-screen as problematic as the wide shots where she’s doubled by a burly male stunt rider in a wig. The shots where her bike is mounted on a low loader so the camera can move all around her as she “drives” are very effective, sometimes.

    The Flemish vampire flick is Daughters of Darkness. I’m not crazy about those crashes as plot devices, but those films aren’t particularly dependent on plot anyway.

    Starting to look forward to Joanna. I’d only seen the Sutherland scene, and boggled.

    1968 seems critical for two things: the normalisation of nudity and colour.

  16. The end of Contempt is Godard’s recreation of the car crash that killed his mother. Needless to say this tragedy has haunted his entire life and career (eg. Weekend)

    Mike Sarne should also be credited with discovering

    (wait for it)

    UDO KIER (!)

    A young and relatively “fresh” Udo stars in Sarne’s short The Road toe St. Tropez.

  17. Wow! Well, that retroactively justifies Sarne’s entire, mercifully brief directorial career. Give the man a cigar!

  18. There is only one correct reaction to Marianne Faithfull’s voice over being criticised:

    “Bastards! You’re all bastards!!”

    Weird that it has a similar final pull back shot from its carnage as Easy Rider would a year later.

  19. Nicely put, Mr Cox!

  20. “the normalisation of nudity and colour.” I was just thinking about that! By the 70s every director who’d come of age in Black & White had at least tried color. Jansco’s Confrontation was perhaps even more of a revelation to me because The Red & The White makes such elegant, expert use of B&W, and then within mere months he’d managed to master a palette as diverse as Nick Ray’s. If anyone knows of a later curtain pull, so to speak, I’d love to see it, because there’s nothing as wonderful as when an artist dives head first into technology and wins. The best of these might be Lang discovering sound. Everything sings in those early loudies.

  21. Lang gains a whole new grammar, since those dialogue hooks help him leap from scene to scene like a monkey (his familiar animal).

    Godard’s forthcoming venture into 3D may well teach us all something…

  22. […] this week’s ’68 Comeback Special for a look at rogue cinematographer-turned-director Jack Cardiff’s Girl on a Motorcycle. This film was met with howls of laughter and stark, outraged silence when I […]

  23. […] this week’s ’68 Comeback Special for a look at rogue cinematographer-turned-director Jack Cardiff’s Girl on a Motorcycle. This film was met with howls of laughter and stark, outraged silence when I […]

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