Archive for Mike Sarne

A Delicate Operation

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 26, 2018 by dcairns

I considered following up VISIT TO A SMALL PLANET with BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, since Orangey the cat who plays Cat (typecasting) in that film has appeared in two of our sci-fi season (in the important roles of Butch and Josephine) but in the end I opted for a Gore Vidal farrago theme and we ran MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. This seemed apt as we had just watched THE DANISH GIRL. Of the two, MYRA BRECKINRIDGE probably is the more sensitive and accurate portrayal of the trans experience.

That’s not quite true or fair. THE DANISH GIRL has pretty design and is deadly dull as drama. We didn’t believe real people lived in these rooms and we didn’t meet any real people. Alicia Vikander comes closest to human life. Fiona had read both the novel and, not satisfied with that, the source memoir. I guess the movie wanted to tell an inspirational trans story, and so omitted the highly dysfunctional, dependant relationship Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe had with her surgeon (in reality, more than one doctor, combined into one characterless cypher in the film). We aren’t told that the doctor was attempting to implant ovaries and a uterus, something that could never have worked and wasn’t particularly sensible or necessary anyway. It WAS the first sex change op, so they didn’t know what they were doing. But had nobody already discovered that you couldn’t chop bits off one person and stick them on another and expect it to work?

The movie invents a scene where Lili is beaten up by transphobes, a desperate attempt to create some tension. That’s a terrible bit of writing, because it not only didn’t happen, it doesn’t lead anywhere. It’s just a cheap attempt to upset us. Fiona remembers a much stronger and more nuanced scene in the memoir where Lili meets a businesswoman who is horrified by her simpering mannerisms and scolds her for thinking this is how women are. The first TERF? Eddie Redmayne, accurately I suppose, IS really simpering, and such a scene would have been immensely liberating for those of us tired of his one-note performance.

MYRA BRECKINRIDGE is so farcical it mainly deserves a free pass on all its inaccuracies and insensitivities. It’s pretty far removed from reality and it’s being deliberately crass — a defense that might work for James Gunn — sick humour depends on our shared recognition that something is beyond the pale. If you accept that, where you draw the line becomes a very delicate operation, depending on what you take the joker’s attitude to be. Most of Gunn’s jokes were really unfunny, which doesn’t help his cause. But you can see he’s trying to shock, albeit for no particular reason. Contrast with the joke that sank, or more or less sank, Milo Iannopolis, which merely confirmed that he doesn’t care about anything he says. It probably offended the squarer part of his rightwing base, who had liked the idea of having a gay ally so they could claim they weren’t homophobic, just because it explicitly referred to same-sex sex acts. These guys do not like to think about those things. The fact that it was a joke about child abuse was more or less an alibi for their disgust.

MYRA’s big set-piece is the rape of a straight man, something I’m a bit uncomfortable with. It IS a reversal of the norm and it IS subverting patriarchal assumptions, but men getting raped has quite often been treated as comedic (can I back that up? WHERE’S POPPA? and TRADING PLACES, with its randy gorilla, come to mind) which is about men distancing themselves from it, “proving” it can’t happen to them because it only happens to ridiculous comedy men. That’s surely not what Gore Vidal had in mind, but I think Michael Sarne, the film’s adapter/director, did not have such a nuanced worldview.

Sarne, a decent actor, had made the appalling JOANNA in 1968, one of the worst things that ever happened, and then pitched MYRA to 20th Century Fox, claiming he’d had the perfect idea of how to film the unfilmable. This idea was, basically, It Was All A Dream. This plays out in a somewhat intriguing way in the movie, but is nevertheless pretty lame. I don’t blame Sarne, but I do blame Richard Zanuck for being impressed at all. This is 1970, where all the major studios knew was that they didn’t know what the young audience wanted. The same year they made BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. One obvious connection being the involvement of film critics: Roger Ebert as co-writer on the Russ Meyer phantasmagoria, Rex Reed as co-star in MYRA.

The idea of Myra’s male self, Myron (Reed) following her around as a vision only she can see (like the faux-Bogart in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM), sometimes taking her place for a moment (like Jason Miller in EXORCIST III) is quite a good and cinematic one — would that THE DANISH GIRL had a single narrative idea to lift it from the mundane. And Reed, though a little lacking in variety in his distant, acidulous manner, is fairly effective. The real stars are of course Raquel Welch, who has some stunning moments of campery; top-billed Mae West, who isn’t embarrassing at all (unlike in SEXTETTE), proving that there ARE third acts in American lives, and they’re like the first and second acts only dirtier and a little slower; and Calvin Lockhart, who’s swishy turn gets many of the best laughs in the first and best half, but who unaccountably vanishes from the story midway like King Lear’s Fool or VERTIGO’s Midge.

Mae, who once dressed as the Statue of Liberty, here puts me in mind of the end of PLANET OF THE APES: a magnificent ruin. Her once-great blues voice is now a husky croak, but she can still sell a song by sheer force of personality. Cinematographer Richard Moore, acquired by Huston for a couple of late follies, is unable to get light into those lacquered eyes, so it’s not always clear if Mae is really in there or phoning it in from some spangly pre-code afterlife, but she still, on some level, has it.

All the casting is good, and all of it is almost cruelly apt. John Huston seems perfectly happy to emphasise his physical grotesquerie — his cowboy walk, as “Buck Loner,” is hilarious. As a silicone construct, Raquel is absurdly apt, and the Brad & Janet figures she corrupts, Roger Herren and Farah Fawcett, project precisely the required vapidity (Raquel’s regal delivery of “She is mentally retarded,” marks her as some kind of comedy genius). I’ll give Sarne credit for some of this because he’s an actor, though more of the kitchen sink school himself. The performances in JOANNA are appalling, and the better tha actor the worse they are, with Donald Sutherland soaring far, far beneath the rest.

Clearly somebody decided the film was in need of rescuing and editor Danford B. Greene, fresh from MASH, is the one who played Galahad, reshuffling scenes for pace rather than narrative logic and splicing in snippets from Fox’s back catalogue to rupture the flow with celebrity cameos and joke Freudian symbolism. Given Myra’s cinephilia, that may always have been part of Sarne’s scheme — it works like gangbusters, until you stop being surprised, and finds the only acceptable use for Laurel & Hardy’s dispiriting Fox features.

Also featuring Harry Mudd, Mr. Magoo, Og Oggilby, Baron Latos, Phoebe Dinsmore and Magnum, P.I.

And 36 views of the Chateau Marmont.

Sarne didn’t direct again for twenty-three years, and when he did, he adapted a punk novel, The Punk, written in 1977 by a fourteen-year-old. In 1993, this must have seemed not exactly up-to-the-minute stuff. Did Sarne realise he was making a period piece?

As for Vidal, he argued strongly that the writer is the true creative force on a film. When William Boyd made the same case, someone rather unkindly pointed out that with his credits, a safer argument would be that the writer was entirely blameless, a minor component in an infernal machine. But Vidal wasn’t in any sense in charge here, and his vision wasn’t being faithfully followed (though Sarne probably hewed closer to the trail than any Hollywood hack at the time would’ve).

What can we learn from MYRA? “Don’t try to be Fellini when you’re an idiot” seems like a good general principle. On the other hand, Sarne’s ludicrous ambition resulted in probably the best film he ever made, and it’s never not highly watchable. It’s the kind of farrago I’m glad exists, like the even more shapeless and obnoxious CANDY.

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If all men were brothers would you let one marry your sister?

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2015 by dcairns

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(Thanks to Theodore Sturgeon for the title, which I have stolen. This is a reprint of an article originally published at BritMovie.com. The original linking piece is HERE. I’ve kept the few original framegrabs but included more from an upgraded copy — thanks, Eclipse!)

The soundtrack of Basil Dearden’s racially-charged 1959 cop-flick SAPPHIRE, composed by Philip Green but arranged by the great Johnny Dankworth in a sleazy jazz style reminiscent of TAXI DRIVER, comments on shocking turns in the action in the traditional manner, with excited blasts at key moments. But the decisions about what is actually supposed to be shocking are pretty interesting, and convey all kinds of sublimated panic.

A young white woman is found stabbed on Hampstead Heath.

Her brother (Earl Cameron) arrives at the police station to give evidence. He is black.

BA-DAAA! The music blares out in horror. Not just at the appearance of a non-white character, but at the meaning behind this — miscegenation has occurred, at some distant time in the past, and a black girl has passed herself off as white.

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Police examine the murdered girl’s clothing. Respectable outer garments, racy red undies beneath. “There’s the black under the white,” remarks racist copper Michael Craig.

Later, in her bedroom, detectives break into a locked drawer. As it opens, more voluminous red satin underwear bursts out.

BA-DAA! The music goes into a shocked paroxysm at this explosion of erotic lingerie. The police try to figure out how to trace the panties to their source (for no obvious reason, they are seized on as a vital clue) and the music slowly turns sexy and saxy, getting to quite like the idea of frilly knickers now that it’s over the shock.

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The weird thing is, Sapphire is a progressive movie for its day, using the format of the whodunit and police procedural to look at racial attitudes across British society at a time when immigration had become a big talking point. Dearden’s VICTIM, a superior film, would use a crime story to examine British attitudes to homosexuality, and achieve a lot in terms of consciousness-raising, censorship-loosening and eventually doing its bit towards getting the law changed to decriminalise homosexual acts. Whatever Dearden’s knowledge of gay activity in Britain was, he seemed able to achieve a level of conviction that rather escapes him in SAPPHIRE. Perhaps because the presence in the cast of actors like Dennis Price and Dirk Bogarde helped set the tone. SAPPHIRE features numerous black actors, but apart from Cameron, most of them had little film experience and little acting experience of any kind. It also feels like they don’t have the authority to insist on authenticity, so that they are forced to utter weird Americanised dialogue (VICTIM’s Janet Green rewritten by DIRTY DOZEN scribe Lukas Heller). The film’s suppression of authentic West Indian accents (only a couple are heard, well into the film) also acts against a sense of a reality, although a bonus is to be had in the stereotype-defying spectacle of an exceedingly posh black barrister, with a bishop for a dad. But this character proves to be a habitué of sleazy jazz dives, drives a flash car, and has a girlfriend who talks like she’s from Harlem, so it’s uncertain if the film is hinting that his respectable facade conceals a set of inherently non-Caucasian vices.

An equally dubious moment occurs in The Tulip, where the proprietor boasts that his club’s bongo rhythms unleash a wild side in his patrons that separates the black from the white — and behind him, a curvy blonde on a bar stool starts to twitch her feet to the music, revealing her African blood.

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If the film’s racial attitudes are a mixed bag Craig’s racist cop is shown to be misguided, but no alarm is expressed at the fact that he holds those opinions and that job — it may be partly because the plot is too. Dearden scored an early success with sections of the compendium horror film DEAD OF NIGHT (there’s an expressionistic side to his work that contradicts the more naturalistic flavour) and followed that with parts of TRAIN OF EVENTS, and he seems to have favoured sprawling, multi-character narratives. Here, there’s the domestic whodunnit, with its secrets and lies, different family members suspecting each other (Sapphire was engaged to a white music student, and his bigoted family opposed the match); the police procedural, with Nigel Patrick crisply efficient in a role that’s not so much underwritten as completely unwritten; and the social study, with racist landlords and London’s Afro-Caribbean night-life under examination. It’s enough for two or three better films.

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About halfway in, Dearden cuts loose with a nocturnal chase, as new suspect Johnny Fiddle goes on the run through a noir city that’s all blue backlight blasting in great shafts from behind every building, A THIRD MAN kind of look that’s very typical of Dearden — he stages such chases in nearly all his thrillers. In Sapphire’s lurid Eastmancolor, the effect is more hallucinatory: the night is as searing as the day. As sequences like the climax of DEAD OF NIGHT (surreal nightmare attack) and the carnival in SARABAND FOR DEAD LOVERS (choreographed baroque phantasmagoria) show, Dearden had a command of the expressive power of cinema that he was rarely allowed to exercise. Sapphire’s night-flight hints at a weirder, more exotic film that could have slipped into BLACK ORPHEUS territory.

By making the transition from Ealing dramas like THE BLUE LAMP (a rather gentile detective story) to ’60s social realism flicks like A PLACE TO GO (Rita Tushingham and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE wrecker Mike Sarne), Dearden showed a great deal of adaptability (he also tried his hand at Lean’s brand of epic, with KHARTOUM, and made a jazz Othello, under the title ALL NIGHT LONG, which is most notable for allowing Miles Davis and Dickie Attenborough to share screen time). POOL OF LONDON, another multi-character panoply of Britain, wrapped up in a crime thriller, made in 1951, is a more successful look at race relations. It stars the spanner-faced, fast-talking yank Bonar Colleano, and Earl Cameron again, a likeable actor in a rather neutered role: but when Cameron finally snaps under the pressure of the relentless racist attitudes around him and goes on a drunken bender, he “confirms” the prejudices of his persecutors, and it’s quite powerful stuff. The persecutors are entirely working class, however, and the film is careful to avoid suggesting that the same thoughtless inhumanity might be present among the British police. (See the film for Cameron’s drunk scene and the climax, involving Max Adrian, improbably cast as a criminal acrobat.)

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Dearden is a broadly sympathetic social observer, but in SAPPHIRE he fails to convince us of the veracity of his black London. The inexperience and awkwardness of the black actors needn’t have been an insuperable problem: several players have charm and grace, but they’re saddled with unsuitable dialogue and attitudes, and unfairly contrasted with seasoned British professionals who sometimes appear stuff by comparison, but own their lines in a way most of the black actors cannot — what was needed was for them to be empowered to rephrase the dialogue into their own words.

Worst acting honours go to Paul Massie, however, as Sapphire’s white fiancée: he gives a constipated interpretation of a working class English boy with a Canadian accent. This is where the film really has no excuse for getting it wrong. And the other moment that might inspire rage is the fleeting, uncredited appearance by Barbara Steele — how one longs for the film to simply abandon its narrative and follow her sexy adventures as a music student in dawn-of-the-sixties unswinging London.

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The ’68 Comeback Special: Joanna

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 19, 2013 by dcairns

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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?