Tag Archives: Nicolas Roeg

ARIA (1987)

It’s no  revelation to say that supporters and patrons of the arts mantle an attitude of progressiveness and promote themselves as such. For the most part, in the contemporary West at least, that’s a fallacy. A spirit of ultra-conservatism has hijacked virtually every art form. One finds it even in the least expected places. Impressionism can be found in bland texture-less prints  at Corproate Christendom’s Hobby Lobby, who even have their own dead hypocritical hack pseudo-impressionist: Thomas Kinkade. Abstract expressionism has gone the way of J.C. Penny office decor. Surrealism has been relegated to melting-clock stickers on the folders of angsty teenaged boys. Horror and sci-fi film aficionados subscribe to formula expectations, often reacting with hostility to anything that contains an ounce of originality, style, or challenge (i.e. A.I., Prometheus, The Babadook, The Witch). With damned few exceptions, rock and roll is dead, as is jazz, which has been sabotaged by the self-appointed tradition preservationists (i.e. Wynton Marsalis) and devolved into the oxymoronic smooth jazz (Kenny G). Nowhere is orthodox contagion more in evidence than in that Queen Mother of all art forms: Opera. American opera fans are about the only demographic that can actually render comic book fanboys a comparatively innovative lot. Who would have thunk it?

Yet, the tradition of opera, ballet, art music hardly paved the way for such conservativism. As both conductor and opera director, Richard Wagner found no one’s music or ideas sacred, not even his own, and complained that younger conductors were playing his music too reverentially. Gustav Mahler took an equally innovative approach to stage direction. His own body of work took the art form (the symphony) into an astoundingly elastic direction, even influencing the Second Vienesse School (which makes the sanctification of both his and their music rather baffling).

When that uncouth Leopold Stokowski and  teamed up for Fantasia (1940) and dared to suggest that art music could be both dangerous and kitsch fodder for transcription and animation, the purists were outraged. The outcome was an unparalleled flop for Disney; it took decades to recoup his investment and earn critical reevaluation (Stoki, par for the course, weathered everything). Financiers took note, and nothing on this scale was really attempted again until Continue reading ARIA (1987)

CAPSULE: BAD TIMING (1980)

AKA Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Art Garfunkle, ,

PLOT: A woman is rushed to the emergency room; flashbacks explain the troubled relationship between a psychology professor and a free-spirited younger woman that brought them to this pass.

Still from Bad Timing (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Extremely subtle weirdness + adequate Nic Roeg representation on the List already + shrinking available space (only 85 slots left at the time of this writing) make it a bad time for Bad Timing to come along. Had this review been written earlier in this site’s existence, this movie’s layers of mystery might have convinced us to shortlist it, but now we have weirder candidates waiting in the wings.

COMMENTS: Nicolas Roeg shows excellent, if somewhat deceptive, timing with Bad Timing. He feints that he’s about to give us a bittersweet meditation on a failed love affair, but instead probes ever deeper into a psychology of paranoia and obsession, using a subtly dislocating style to keep us off guard. Opposed dualities appear everywhere: male vs. female, rational vs. emotional, East vs. West, law vs. crime. The setup is classic amour fou, pairing successful academic Dr. Alex Linden with the hard-drinking, free-loving Milena. As the relationship is slowly revealed in flashbacks, we see the power balance between the two shift back and forth, as both parties become mired in an increasingly destructive relationship, in different ways. Alex appears coldly rational—Milena bitingly advises him to try to love her instead of trying to understand her—but his advanced training doesn’t inoculate him from human frailty; he’s as subject to jealousy as the next man, and when he falls from his logical perch, he falls hard, into a churning id.

Paranoia and second-guessing are the rule in Alex’s world. The ever-present Cold War background, which is seldom explicitly mentioned, aroused more paranoid associations at the time than it does now. Alex lectures his Intro to Psych students about how everyone is a spy, starting with children peeking on their parent’s lovemaking; later, it appears that the psychiatrist himself is being analyzed by the detective, whose intuition and experience may lead him closer to Alex’s essence than Freudian methodologies would. Alex’s nemesis is a source of mystery and paranoia, too. Harvey Keitel’s obsession with investigating what on the surface seems to be an open-and-shut suicide attempt is itself obsessive, and seems almost unmotivated (until a last minute revelation). Wearing a greasy mullet, Keitel doesn’t make the slightest pretense of being Austrian; I don’t think this is bad casting, but deliberate dissonance, a clue that his character is pure metaphor.

Art Garfunkle, on the other hand, really is bad casting, and his presence damages what could have been an unqualified classic. Roeg’s good taste in casting as an alien The Man Who Fell to Earth doesn’t carry forward here. Not only is Garfunkle a stiff in the acting department, but we’re asked to view him as a suave sex symbol, someone whose magnetism would ensnare the heart of a young woman who could have her pick of any stud in Vienna. Fortunately, an excellent, brave performance from the underappreciated Theresa Russell blows through Art’s inadequacies in their scenes together.

The finale is truly shocking, but well-earned. Also of note is the excellent soundtrack, featuring hits from , Billie Holiday, The Who, and Keith Jarrett. The difficulty of re-securing the rights to all of this music for home video release put Bad Timing out of circulation for many years. It was released to mixed reviews and big controversies: it was rated “X” in the U.S. (a commercial death sentence), and the U.K. distributor called it “sick” and had its logo pulled off prints. Although the film is better appreciated today (even receiving a Criterion Collection release), the furor over Bad Timing led to a perception of Roeg as box office poison. After starting his career off with five memorable films, the director’s career fell off precipitously in the 80s, with 1990’s adaptation The Witches marking a brief comeback to relevance.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of Roeg’s most complex and elusive movies, building a thousand-piece jigsaw from its apparently simple story of a consuming passion between two Americans in Vienna.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by sometime contributor Eric Gabbard,  who pleaded “The odd juxtapositions and time shifts. It’s a definite weird candidate. Give it a chance.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

“I have no idea what that was about. Was it about alcoholism? Was it about corporate realities? Was it about sex? Was it about nothing?” –P.C. Clair

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, , , Bernie Casey

PLOT: In a desperate bid to mitigate a drought back on his home planet, a humanoid alien is sent to Earth: “The Planet of Water,” in his people’s language. Adopting the name Thomas Newton, he sets about establishing a technology company, World Enterprises, to fund his mission and design a vessel to allow his return. During his stay on Earth, the combined distractions of a young woman and alcohol (an even greater love) nearly break him, and he feels forced to hasten his decampment.

Still from The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay was based on Walter Tevis’ 1963 novel of the same name.
  • The unfortunate mix of cocaine abuse and emotional detachment that overwhelmed Bowie during and after the filming meant that the actor/singer’s planned soundtrack for the film never came into fruition. John Phillips (of The Mamas and the Papas fame) was pulled in last minute to create the soundtrack before the premier.
  • Candy Clark played both Newton’s lover, Mary-Lou, and his wife on his home world. In a small turn for a third “role”, she appeared as Thomas Newton himself during a brief scene — exiting the World Trade Center—when Bowie himself was unavailable.
  • Wanting a “big name” for the lead, the movie’s backers were pushing for Robert Redford to play Newton. Fate–and budget restrictions—fortunately got in the way.
  • The U.S. distributor cut about twenty to thirty minutes out of the film, making it more confusing than the (already challenging) director’s cut, and leading to some bad initial reviews.
  • In 1987 the same story was adapted less successfully for a television movie starring the undistinguished Lewis Smith.
  • In 2015, in one of his last creative works, Bowie co-wrote “Lazarus,” a musical based on The Man Who Fell to Earth; one theater critic wrote that “What they have created makes perilously little sense,” but “it’s nearly impossible not to be persuaded and baffled and at least a little thrilled.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a David Bowie 1970s cult science-fiction movie directed by Nicolas Roeg, one expects to find a lot of shots that are “indelible.” However, the most memorable (and distressing) occurs when we find Thomas Newton in his media room. Beginning with a creepy stare and a rictus smile, he gazes at a bank of televisions all wired together to a remote on his viewing throne. His mania and desperation break through the audio-visual spasms pouring from the cathode ray screens as he begins shouting, “leave me alone!”

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Never enough televisions ; glitter-helmet assassins ; I see the past and it sees me

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Without David Bowie’s presence, this movie would still make the “Certified” cut— but much less readily. The ambiguity of the narrative, boldness of the visual style, and abstruseness of the soundscape all work together to form a solidly weird experience. David Bowie acts, as it were, like the prodigious amount of frosting on this weird layer cake. Depending upon your view, Bowie was very good at acting like someone who’s an alien— or maybe didn’t need to “act” at all.


Original trailer for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

COMMENTS: What would the people of Earth do with a space visitor? How would the traveler cope? When faced with an unrelenting Continue reading 276. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. Read the official Certified Weird entry here. Comments are closed on this post.

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Roeg

FEATURING: , Candy Clark, Buck Henry, Rip Torn

PLOT: An extraterrestrial visits earth in search of water, but becomes distracted by alcohol, television, corporate politics, and a tempestuous relationship with a human woman.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Roeg’s usual penchants for nonlinear storytelling and rich, occasionally disturbing imagery are stretched to their breaking points here; the resulting film is not always coherent or consistent, but it is fascinating and intermittently very weird.

COMMENTS: Only Nicolas Roeg would have taken a story roughly in the vein of Starman or E.T. and turned it into this.  Instead of falling into a facile, friendly relationship with earth’s inhabitants, Roeg’s spaceman, Thomas Jerome Newton, is afflicted with a severe case of culture shock.  Struggling to simultaneously save his faraway family and understand human behavior, he ends up failing at both, and the film traces out his steep rise-and-fall arc with a plot so disorientingly scrambled that it sometimes threatens to become stream-of-consciousness.

Through this frenzied editing style, we’re witness to Newton’s past, present, and future, although it’s rarely clear which is which at any given moment.  This extreme nonlinearity conveys the sensation of being a stranger in a strange land, as flashbacks bleed readily into the film’s putative reality or its characters’ fantasies; however, this also tends to make plot developments foggy and render motivations obscure.  In this sense, it’s a very messy film, often more interested in delving into Newton’s frazzled interior logic than in aiding the viewer’s comprehension.  Stretched with epic sweep over 138 minutes, the film’s detours and repeated segments (like that of the spaceship crashing) can get frustrating, but The Man Who Fell to Earth is more about visceral sensory experiences and emotional intuition than narrative flow.

Under those terms, the film is a qualified success.  Newton’s skyrocketing financial fortunes, his dalliance with a sweet small-town girl named Mary Lou (Clark), his alcohol-driven decline, and his subsequent institutionalization are all tightly interwoven, delineating a tragic, decades-long trajectory.  The tragedy is further illustrated by the interspersed snippets of memory and fantasy, including a violent musical interlude set to the song “Hello Mary Lou” that recalls the “Memo to Turner” scene from Performance.  Also like Performance (and the rest of Roeg’s early films), The Man Who Fell to Earth abounds with graphic sexuality, which becomes one more avenue for Newton’s experimentation with life on earth.  Both formally and morally, this film is tailor-made to offend conservative sensibilities.

The film’s mounting transgressions are compounded by the way that Bowie’s cadaverous, androgynous body blurs the line between human and alien, especially during the lengthy sex scenes.  His star power and otherworldly aura make the film’s sci-fi conceits believable, since with his shock of unnaturally red hair, his eyes (which are different two colors), and even his British accent—which stands out against the voices of his American costars—Bowie is believably not of this world, and when he chooses to remove his human skin and eyes, the outcome is only marginally stranger than the his original appearance.  As he changes from freshly arrived naïf to contaminated wino, Bowie anchors the film, his intractable presence acting as a counterpoint to Roeg’s flighty direction.

Since Roeg speaks in such an indecipherable visual language, it’s hard to know what to make of The Man Who Fell to Earth.  It’s partly a spaced-out parable about capitalism and chemical dependence, and possibly a satire of the rags-to-riches American success story.  Although it drags on too long and is often unfulfilling, it’s still inexplicably captivating.  When it’s all over and the poor man is stuck here on earth, you’re left with a film that’s as enigmatic, tormented, and unexpectedly beautiful as the pale face of Bowie himself.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story is complicated. It is set up as a near-total mystery that unfolds bit by bit, leaving—it must be said—a few small unexplained gaps. The price paid for this method is a certain confusion; the gain is the spectator’s tingling desire to have the puzzle work out.”–Richard Eder, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

70. PERFORMANCE (1968/1970)

PHERBER: What do you think Turner feels like?
CHAS: I don’t know.  He’s weird, and you’re weird.  You’re kinky.
PHERBER: He’s a man, a male and female man!

–dialogue from Performance

DIRECTED BY:, Nicolas Roeg

FEATURING: James Fox, Mick Jagger, Anita Pallenberg, Michèle Breton

PLOT: Chas, a sadistic associate gangster who terrorizes local businesses for London crime kingpin Harry Flowers, is forced to go into hiding when he kills one of his boss’ allies.  He rents a basement from Turner, a former rock icon caught in creative doldrums, now living as a hermit in a luxurious town house with two beautiful live-in girlfriends and a never-ending supply of dope.  Turner initially wants to get rid of Chas but gradually grows fascinated by him, sensing that the thug’s energy might help him break out of his artistic slump, and he begins to make over Chas in his own image.

BACKGROUND:

  • Donald Cammell, a former painter turned screenwriter, wrote the script and directed the actors.  Nicolas Roeg, already a sought after cinematographer for his work on films such as The Masque of the Red Death and Fahrenheit 451, supervised the film’s visuals.  It was the first directing credit for either.
  • Donald Cammell took his own life in 1996 with a bullet to the head.
  • Warner Brothers agreed to distribute the movie solely because rock star Mick Jagger was attached to the project.
  • The role of Chas was written with Marlon Brando in mind.  Depending on whom you ask, Brando either declined the role, or the producers decided he could not play a convincing lower-class Brit.  James Fox, a rising young actor known for his posh upper-class persona, studied actual London gangsters to get down the Cockney accent and criminal mannerisms.
  • Fox, in his acting prime at the time of Performance, suffered a nervous breakdown after filming (reportedly brought about by a the combination of his father’s death and smoking the powerful hallucinogen DMT with Jagger) and did not act again for 8 years after completing the movie.
  • Tuesday Weld and Marianne Faithfull were the original choices to play Pherber, but Pallenberg, a model and Rolling Stones groupie (then Keith Richards’ girlfriend), was brought in after Weld was injured and Faithfull became pregnant.
  • Nicolas Roeg recalls seeing members of the film development lab destroying “intimate” scenes of the film “with a fire axe,” apparently believing they had mistakenly been sent illegal hardcore pornography to develop.
  • Jack Nitzsche composed much of the score on the ninth Moog synthesizer ever built (the Moog probably belonged to Jagger: the Rolling Stones had been
    one of the first rock groups to include a synthesizer on their 1967 album “Their Satanic Majesties Request”).
  • The movie was completed in 1968, but shelved for two years after a disastrous test screening at which audiences yelled at the screen and walked out of the theater.  A studio executive’s wife reportedly vomited from viewing the graphic violence, and audiences were offered their money back.  The movie’s eventual release was delayed for two years while the film was re-edited; much of the violence was trimmed, and Mick Jagger’s first appearance was moved forward in the film to appease Warner Brother executives.  Roeg has already left for Australia to make Walkabout and was not involved in the final cut.
  • In order to compress the beginning of the film, partly so that Jagger would appear onscreen earlier, editor Frank Mazzola created the fast crosscutting montage that begins the film.  “I knew I’d have to slide things back and forth or extend something to make it hit on a note or a frame,” the editor recalls.  “I could do three or four or five of those cuts and bang!, it was perfect, like a beat… You could do anything to that film and it would work, because of the way it was happening.  It was
    poetry, it was organic…”
  • Among the cuts later demanded by the British censors was a scene of Fox being flogged, intercut with a scene of him making love to a woman digging her fingernails into his back.
  • Performance was savaged by critics on its initial release, but its reputation has improved over the years.  In 2009 Mick Jagger’s Turner ranked number one in Film Comment’s poll of top film performances by a musician.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Turner is dancing around with a large fluorescent tube before a stoned Chas when he suddenly howl and thrusts the glowing cylinder at the mobster’s ear; a tracking shot through his auditory canal reveals Chas’ mob boss imprinted on the tympanic membrane. The camera plunges past this barrier and suddenly Jagger replaces the crimelord in the scene; he launches into an taunting song aimed at Chas and assembled gang lieutenants.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even before Anita Pallenberg feeds James Fox hallucinogenic


Original trailer for Performance (trailer contains brief nudity and sexuality)

amanita mushrooms on the sly near the climax, the crazed editing of the first half, which cuts back and forth across time and space without warning while setting up the tale of Chas’ fall from gangster grace, is so trippy that it’s almost completely disoriented us.  Performance is almost exactly what you would expect to see if you matched a couple of smart, artsy, experimental directors to an eccentric half-amateur cast of drug addicts in 1968 and the set’s caterers fed the crew a diet of nothing but hash brownies and magic mushrooms for the entire shoot.

COMMENTS: When you notice a bullet shattering a portrait of Jorge Luis Borges on the way Continue reading 70. PERFORMANCE (1968/1970)

CAPSULE: WALKABOUT (1971)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Roeg

FEATURING: Jenny Agutter, David Gulpilil, Luc Roeg

PLOT:  A father drives his two children out into the Australian outback for a “picnic.”  While

Still from Walkabout (1971)

there, he commits suicide, leaving the children to struggle for survival in an unfamiliar and harsh natural world.  Eventually they cross paths with an adolescent aborigine who is partaking in his “walkabout”; a rite of passage that entails journeying into the wilderness alone to achieve manhood.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: With the exception of a few odd camera shots, it is not a weird film.  It is certainly a thought-provoking and undeniably beautiful film, but depictions of cultural differences and anthropocentricism are easily attainable on the Discovery channel or—to a much higher degree of weirdness—the National Geographic program “Taboo”.

COMMENTS: Most critiques of this film assert that it simply contrasts the natural world vs. the trappings of modern civilization and its unnecessary conveniences.  I think that’s too obvious.  To me, the underlying theme of budding sexuality and the transition to man/womanhood takes precedence.

The beautiful Jenny Agutter plays the girl (no names are given to the lead roles).  We assume she is around the age of sixteen and living a privileged life of private schooling and residing in a luxury home with all the modern amenities she could need.  An early shot of the girl swimming with her much younger brother in a crystal clear pool right next to an enormous, vast ocean is a personal favorite.  We don’t know anything about the family dynamics or how they interact with each other.  We can only guess the parent-child relationships are cold and impersonal.  The mother listens to cooking recipes on the kitchen radio, and any disturbance from his offspring only annoys the father.

Once we get to the outback things become even more unclear.  Why is the father trying to kill his kids?  Why is he such a bad shot?  Who knows?  He then offs himself, leaving the kids to fend for themselves.  Right away the viewer is treated to close-ups of reptiles, insects and other strange creatures to convey that the youngsters are definitely out of their element.  There is a really nice juxtaposition of the young 6-year-old boy (Luc Roeg—the director’s son) fading into the landscape: a melding of human and nature.

Nicolas Roeg is an amazing director.  Lovers of weird cinema know him through classics Continue reading CAPSULE: WALKABOUT (1971)

AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART 3

In 1987, producer Don Boyd brought his labor of love, Aria, to the screen.  The concept was to have ten directors, each with a distinguished style, visually interpret ten arias.  Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman, Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell were among the directors.  Predictably, many less than erudite American critics put their working class hero noses to work, sniffed it out like the gold old boy guardians of true blue Americana, and immediately pounced on it, pretentiously charging high pretension as they are usually apt to do.  Whenever the subjects of opera or classical music are involved in film, rest assured American critics are going to become engaged in loudly espousing anti-pretension pretensions. Actually, Aria is a stylishly, irreverent and satirical, if uneven, treat.

ariaroddamFranc Roddam’s “Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” is set in Las Vegas with Bridget Fonda and James Mathers excellently capturing the pathos of the doomed pair.

Ken Russell, an expert eccentric at this sort of thing, memorably tackles Puccini’s “Turandot” with hallucinatory model Linzi Drew, inlaid rubies and diamonds, and an operating table in a typically heady Russellesque mix of bizarre, mystical excess and eros.

Godard, tongue delightfully in cheek, sets Jean Baptiste Lully in a work-out gym as two women contend with narcissistic male body builders.

Charles Sturridge’s interpretation of Verdi’s “La Forza Del Destino” subtly grows brighter upon repeated viewings. Sturridge’s “Destino” aptly paints troubled youth on a joy ride through an apathetic adult world in a lament to the Virgin.

Bruce Beresford’s film of Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt,” starring a young Elizabeth Hurley, captures the music’s superficial sheen.

Nicholas Roeg, Robert Altman, Derek Jarman, Julian Temple, and Bill Bryden interpret Verdi, Rameau, Charpentier, and Leoncavallo to lesser effect, but even the slight failures here are far preferable to the bulk of Hollywood drek.

Ken Russell has had an ongoing obsession with composers: Tchaikovsky in The Music Lovers, the justifiably infamous Lisztomania, and Elgar, but his most hallucinatory and, oddly enough, Continue reading AVANT OPERA ON FILM, PART 3

1. DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)

AKA A Venezia… un dicembre rosso shocking
Recommended

DIRECTED BYNicolas Roeg

FEATURINGDonald Sutherland, Julie Christie

PLOT: John and Laura Baxter (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) lose their daughter in a freak drowning accident. Life goes on, however, and they travel to Venice as planned, where John is directing the restoration of a Gothic cathedral. While there, they meet a blind psychic woman who tells them she can see their daughter, and John begins to catch glimpses out of the corner of his eye of a red-hooded figure that looks suspiciously like his drowned daughter.

=

BACKGROUND:

  • This was director Nicolas Roeg’s third film, after Performance (1970) and Walkabout (1971). The movie was adapted from a short story by the British novelist Daphne du Maurier, whose works also inspired Rebecca and The Birds.
  • The love scene between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland was so graphic for the time that (unverified) rumors persisted that they had actually had intercourse on the set.  Roeg has since dismissed the rumors.
  • Some of the style of the film may have been influenced by Italian giallos of the period, though this connection has been exaggerated simply because of the Venetian setting.
  • Don’t Look Now is #8 on the British Film Institute’s list of the all-time great British films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE : The color red. (More would constitute a spoiler).

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDDon’t Look Now is subtly unnerving—perhaps toos ubtly—throughout. But the last 20 minutes are a truly unsettling, nightmarish experience, capped by a shocking, largely unexplained resolution that leaves it to the viewer to solve the film’s mystery. By the end, the city of Venice has turned into a strangely deserted, Gothic labyrinth that may haunt your nightmares.


Trailer for Don’t Look Now narrated by John Landis

COMMENTS: Near the opening of Don’t Look Now is a fast-moving montage in which key Continue reading 1. DON’T LOOK NOW (1973)