The ’68 Comeback Special: Joanna
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?
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.
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.
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?