Archive for Peter Watkins

The Sunday Intertitle: Interzone

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2015 by dcairns

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I was almost despairing of finding an intertitle in a seventies sci-fi film — because that’s the kind of thing I spend my time worrying about (as opposed to, say nuclear war, overpopulation or the collapse of social order) but then I found Elio Petri’s TODO MODO, a vaguely science-fictional doomsday wallow from 1976. Petri’s THE TENTH VICTIM is a hip and zippy pop-art spree of a film, but this one, despite being set in a reinforced concrete bunker designed by the great Dante Ferreti, or perhaps partly because of that, is a bit turgid and airless. Even exciting actors (Mastroianni, Volonte, Melato) and Petri’s snaky camera moves can’t quite bring it to life. But it earns its place in a mini-entry about the various films I’ve looked at but am not devoting big pieces to.

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Dante Ferretti and Mariangela Melato remind us of the Mike Hodges FLASH GORDON, of course, a film which, like THE BED SITTING ROOM, could be said to sum up everything about the preceding decade while also anticipating everything about the decade to come.

In TODO MODO, officials from church and state are gathered underground as an epidemic begins to spread across the country — we could situate this in our future history books between THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and TWELVE MONKEYS. Funny how these films can link up.

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This setting in Tarkovsky’s STALKER suggests some connection with PHASE VI — Lynn Frederick must be lurking just under that powdery sand, wearing an enticingly thin top. The heroines in both STALKER and SOLARIS freak out on the floor while wearing similarly revealing garb.

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Bra-less-ness, of course, was a big seventies phenomenon, and it’s understandable that science fiction filmmakers assumed that things would carry on in that general direction. John Boorman, in ZARDOZ, went as far as to imagine Future Man clad in only bandoliers, thigh boots and nappies, a natural extrapolation of seventies fashion.

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Here’s Nigel Davenport, more sensibly dressed. Why is he concealing his hand? It must surely be crawling with ants, as in PHASE IV, but this is THE MIND OF MR SOAMES, made four years earlier. Terence Stamp plays a man whose been in a coma since birth but is brought to consciousness by Robert Vaughan and then educated by the unsympathetic Davenport. Quite an interesting piece, despite its basic impossibility. Stamp’s child-like performance is affecting, and it’s a very unusual piece to have come out of Amicus Productions. A predatory TV camera crew hang around filming the unfolding tragedy (and contributing to it) — reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ glum futuristic mockumentaries THE WAR GAME, PRIVILEGE, THE GLADIATORS and PUNISHMENT PARK, but TV director Alan Cooke doesn’t use them as a narrative device in that way.

One of the TV crew is played by Christopher Timothy, famed for seventies vet show All Creatures Great and Small. His co-star in that, Carol Drinkwater, plays a nurse in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, another film about Bad Education.

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Note also the b&w production design, even in the nursery set — Mike Hodges must have liked this, as he appropriated the look for the haunting THE TERMINAL MAN, a ruthlessly colour-coordinated vision of Los Angeles. Even the operating room looks similar, with its hexagonal viewing gallery. I’d always assumed that, like Boorman, he was under the influence of inveterate park-painter Antonioni. While SOAMES is an intriguing curate’s egg, TERMINAL MAN is a despairing masterwork, and a far more interesting take on Michael Crichton than the JURASSIC PARK series we’re all assailed with today.

(Remember when JP first came out — weren’t we all struck by the fact that the author of WESTWORLD had done it all again only with dinosaurs? Had he lived longer, surely he’d have gotten around to writing a botanical garden where the monkey puzzle trees go on a rampage.)

We watched Red Shift, a TV play written by novelist Alan Garner and directed by Edinburgh man John MacKenzie. A very odd piece of work, shifting about over a thousand years of history in one small geographical spot in Cheshire, and hinting at psychic links across the centuries. And there’s James Hazeldine, star of BBC Scotland’s The Omega Factor, which dealt with psychic phenomena and freaked me out as a kid — saw it again years back, and it’s very disappointing — and there’s Hazeldine again in THE MEDUSA TOUCH, being defended in court by Richard Burton.

Red Shift’s best bit is the first shift, when an oddly-written but basically social-realist family drama is abruptly interrupted by a savage battle between Romans and Britons, the most startling transition I’ve ever seen in a TV play. We were also pleased to see Leslie Dunlop (that nice nurse in THE ELEPHANT MAN) and Stella Tanner, who also turned up in sci-fi kids’ series The Changes, and in Spike Milligan’s unique take on the Daleks ~

The Changes manages a more nuanced take on multicultural Britain, featuring an extended family of Sikhs as major characters. The concept freely adapted from novels by Peter Dickinson, is unique and wondrous — one day, the whole population of Britain starts smashing their machinery, driven by a sudden conviction that the stuff is evil. As if a Luddite meme had been downloaded into every brain. The series then follows the adventures of a teenage girl in an England that’s been sent back to medieval standards.

I watched this show religiously as a seven-year-old, though it strikes me that the rioting, madness and so on must have been a little disturbing. But somehow I missed the final episode. So I had to ask a friend at school what happened, and this is what he said: “There was a big stone that had been asleep for hundreds of years and then it woke up and there hadn’t been any machines when it went to sleep so it didn’t like them so it told everybody to smash them.”

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I liked the Big Stone Explanation of Everything but was never sure it was true — I also kind of liked the idea that he had just made it up. But it turns out to be EXACTLY TRUE (the BFI have kindly re-released the series). And here I am, forty years later, having entirely forgotten the kid who told me the story, but remembering the story he told. Says something about my priorities.

If women burned their bras in the seventies (which they didn’t — but in the mostly magnificent SLEEPER Woody Allen makes the worst joke of his career on this subject: “As you can see, it’s a very small fire,” a kind of perfect own-goal of a joke, proving that anti-feminist attitudes make you smug, stupid and obnoxious) the men really let it all hang out. Rip Torn allows little Rip to be fondled and addressed in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (more on that tomorrow), Terence Stamp is seen full-frontal in his coma in MR. SOAMES, and in SHOCK TREATMENT, a sort of Twilight Zone narrative about a predatory health farm, unsustainably extended to feature length, Alain Delon enjoys a nude romp in the sea. A cheerful note to end on.

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The Near Future

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2010 by dcairns

My friend Niall Greig Fulton’s retrospective season at Edinburgh Film Festival has already produced some fascinating and little-seen works from Britain in and around the seventies. While Peter Watkins’ PRIVILEGE is often dismissed as a misfire, it’s a very interesting one, and I haven’t ever read anything which really pins down its virtues and vices in a way I recognise.

Paul Jones and Jean Shrimpton get a lot of stick for their flat, depressive delivery, but the non-actors actually work quite well with Watkins’ faux-documentary approach. It’s the more experienced cast members, playing in a slightly comedic manner, who clash with the verité trappings. And indeed, those stylistic choices seem a little unhelpful. This is meant to be a near future world where a pop star is used as a means of controlling and subduing dissent. But no BBC documentarist would ever be allowed to document such a process in a real totalitarian state, so the film might have been more convincing as fiction. Or, if Watkins was determined to employ the style he’d successfully used on CULLODEN and THE WAR GAME, he ought to have had the grotesque establishment figures played in a more subdued manner — inventing the low-key comedy of something like The Office, perhaps.

Watkins seems a reclusive sort, but Kevin Billington was on hand to introduce his 1970 film THE RISE AND RISE OF MICHAEL RIMMER, which he co-scripted with Peter Cook, John Cleese and Graham Chapman (who all appear). While PRIVILEGE is set in a sixties vision of the near future, the Billington is resolutely contemporary, yet seems far more prophetic. It was nice to learn that the drones of Watkins’ dystopia are watched over by a coalition government, “since there is no longer any difference in policy between Labour and Conservative,” but RIMMER’s idea that party politics are rendered redundant by the overwhelming power of the PR department is more sinister yet.

In PRIVILEGE, the church harnesses the power of a youth icon to make the masses conform — “By 1990 the only people going to church will be the clergy,” and to boost attendance (but the film is oddly tone deaf about pop culture, and we’re never convinced a move this bald-faced would work), but the bishop played by the great Graham Crowden in RIMMER has progressed beyond this. “We’ve tried everything, you know:  pop groups, bingo, hallucinogenic drugs in the wafers, son et lumiere in the graveyards…” Rimmer, played by Peter Cook with sinister smiling emptiness, a thin void in smart duds, tells him the problem is God, and they had best get rid of Him.

Like all the films so far, the movies are both thronging with familiar acting talent — the lovely James Cossins is in both. And Harold Pinter appears as a current affairs show host — I laughed at the name of his show, Steven Hench is Talking To You. Here’s Billington on meeting Pinter ~

Billington: “It all seemed to be I was in, as I discovered later, this Pinter world, when you were with him. […] Whenever you were alone with him, wherever you were, the world became the way he wrote. It’s the most extraordinary thing. With just one or two marvelous writers, in a funny way, this is how the world is with them.”

Billington very sweetly apologized to the ladies in the audience for the film’s prevalent sexism — a near-pornographic advert for sweeties produced by Rimmer is acceptable as satire (and anybody who’s seen a ’70s Cadbury’s Flake ad know how close to reality it is) but starlet Vanessa Howard is served up in a gratuitous nude scene which cheapens the movie. She doesn’t have much of a role, and it’s sad when you see how amazing she is in Freddie Francis’s nearly-lost weirdfest GIRLY.

Meanwhile, we have creeping dictatorship, covert invasion of a non-threatening country, bogus weapons of mass destruction, and the evidence of a generous budget from Warners, making this an unusually lavish and ambitious British comedy for any era (produced by David Frost of FROST/NIXON fame).

Me: “There must have been times in the last several years when you’d be watching the news and experience deja vu. Was there a particular moment when you thought, ‘This might not be satire anymore?'”

Billington: “Absolutely. I do have to say that the whole New Labour thing smacked so much… of how you ask the people… this whole thing is the people, they’re going to decide. Which has obviously strong links back to socialism in the early days. That’s not the way it’s used here. […] I could see the way politicians wanted to use television, and what they were actually thinking was ‘How do we come across?’ […] So when Blair suddenly was there, and his youth, ‘a New Tomorrow’ etc etc… I shouldn’t go on about Blair because at the moment we have a chap called Cameron who has a certain amount of PR about him. So I’m not being party political at all now, it just happened that that’s the way it came.”

It certainly did.