Archive for The Miracle Worker

Southern Discomfort

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2021 by dcairns

END OF THE ROAD (1970) is certainly an extraordinary thing. Terry Southern adapting a John Barth novel (to Barth’s eventual dismay) and Aram Avakian directing it.

Avakian isn’t a well-known name: he only directed four films. I enjoyed his laid-back thrillers, COPS AND ROBBERS and 11 HARROWHOUSE. I haven’t seen LAD: A DOG, made eight years before this. The guy never seemed to get any momentum going.

But as an editor he was a star: he cut JAZZ ON A SUMMER’S DAY, THE MIRACLE WORKER, LILITH, MICKEY ONE, and Coppola’s YOU’RE A BIG BOY NOW. All of them dazzling works from a vision-mixing standpoint. He’d periodically break out of cutting into directing and then get shoved back into the editing suite. After this, Coppola got him to cut THE GODFATHER but Robert Evans fired him — Evans’ memoir says Avakian was going behind Coppola’s back, saying the film wouldn’t cut. Evans had some rushes assembled, proving him wrong, and showed him the door. I find this unlikely. Avakian was, after all, Coppola’s ally going into production, so a scenario where Evans fires a Coppola crony is readily explained by Evans wanting more influence on the film. Evans lies quite a lot elsewhere in his book.

Anyway, END OF THE ROAD shows an artistic ambition not on display in the nice thrillers. And I’m guessing not in the dog movie. The montage — a pyrotechnic, hallucinatory phantasmagoria of abstraction and dissonance, unsettles and dazzles. The performances go right to the edge, then over it. Stacey Keach and James Earl Jones who should by rights be our points of entry and identification, swing wildly through a dizzying repertoire of funny voices and bizarre line readings. Keach is the catatonic patient quicky revived by Jones’ unorthodox methods/madness.

As screenwriter/producer, Southern is on particularly indulgent form. I haven’t read Barth — I feel like I should now — but Southern appears to have transformed an early, comparatively naturalistic book into something a little more like later Barth, but a lot more like mid-period Southern (the film makes me wish Avakian had been entrusted with The Magic Christian).

Keach and Jones’ funhouse lunacy — it’s a toss-up which of the two is more disturbingly demented — is joined with a terrific, naturalistic performance from Dorothy Tristan, and a creepy one from the excellent Harris Yulin, who seems to be trying to bridge the chasm of performative styles on display. It’s absolutely never boring. Profoundly alienating, technically stunning, infuriatingly incoherent, yes. Boring, no.

What put me off was the glib, jokey end-note, which follows a horrific botched abortion scene — the swerve into tragedy after surreal farce was effective and I could go with it, but the cheap wink at the end ruined that — it’s of a piece with Southern’s other repulsive violations of taste/the audience apparently elsewhere in his oeuvre, particularly the comic treatment of the heroine’s suicide in the novel Blue Movie and the film THE LOVED ONE — both motivated by out-of-character nastiness from the male lead, both ghastly — both moments that really make you wonder about the guy.

I recall a student making a short film in his first year which rather upset everybody, and he was kind of proud of himself, when a colleague, who’s more combative than me, told him he had to take responsibility for the emotions he was evoking, and they had to achieve something. Just showing that he could make us uncomfortable wasn’t a positive achievement in itself. Possibly a lesson Southern and Avakian needed to learn. Avakian perhaps did.

Gordon Willis shot it (Michael Chapman operating) and it looks AMAZING — his first feature and he’s already doing his toplight thing. Robert Q. Lovett cut it, a future Coppola guy. FFC essentially crewed THE GODFATHER from this movie.


Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on January 5, 2011 by dcairns

From Thomas Berger’s novel Nowhere ~

“I confess I find it curious that the clergy of all people would condone the exchanging of schools and churches for cinemas.”

The priest laughed merrily. “‘Condoned’ is too mild a word, my dear fellow! We were positively ecstatic to do so. For the first time in a century we have full houses!”

“And the movies are also a substitute for school?”

He frowned. “The choice of words is not appropriate. The movies are not substitutes! If anything, church and school were the substitutes. They were poor imitations of life. Now we can see the real thing.”

“Old American films are the real thing?”

“Yes, of course,” the priest said forcefully. “The virtuous are shown to succeed, the evildoers invariably come to grief, and the general philosophy that informs every picture is that there is a common good, which is recognized by everyone — including the wicked, who of course are opposed to it, but they know what it is. Believe it or not, before the Enlightenment, Sebastiani society had no such standards or beliefs. The church had utterly different aims from the schools, and the code one learned in each was utterly confounded by one’s experience of life. And the government received no respect from anyone, which of course is still true, but now the government is intentionally performed as a farce, and is quite effective.”

“Namely, it does nothing.”

His smaile became ever more radiant. “Exactly! And are you aware of what an achievement that is? Unprecedented throughout history! Not even the Austro-Hungarians were quite able to pull that off.”

A riff on the Utopian novel, and particularly Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (try in backwards), Nowhere is intermittently amusing, although the narrator’s tendency to talk like a Rudy Vallee character in a Preston Sturges film sometimes put me off. I read the whole thing before realizing that Berger is the author of Little Big Man, which made sense: Indian society in that film is another not-quite-utopia. Haven’t read it, but I like the Arthur Penn movie very much. Weird coincidence: I discovered Berger’s connection just as Fiona plunged into one of her regular fits of obsession, this time over Penn’s film of THE MIRACLE WORKER.