Tag Archives: Richard Lester

230. THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969)

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“Nobody ever got the point about what it was about. What we were trying to say through all this laughter and fun, was that if they dropped the bomb on a major civilisation, the moment the cloud had dispersed and sufficient people had died, the survivors would set up all over again and have Barclays Bank, Barclay cards, garages, hates, cinemas and all…just go right back to square one. I think man has no option but to continue his own stupidity.”–Spike Milligan

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Rita Tushingham, Michael Hordern, , Richard Warwick, , Mona Washbourne, Marty Feldman, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore,

PLOT: After a nuclear bomb is dropped on Britain, about twenty survivors prowl the wreckage, including 17-months pregnant Penelope and her parents and lover, who live on a still-functioning subway car. Aboveground, Lord Fortnum seeks the opinion of a doctor, who confirms his suspicions that nuclear mutation will soon turn him into a bed sitting room. When the chocolates taken from vending machines run out, the family makes its way to the surface, where Penelope finds herself engaged to the doctor, the mother turns into a wardrobe, and the entire family moves into Lord Fortnum.

Still from The Bed Sitting Room (1969)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Bed Sitting Room began its life as a one-act play, written by comedian Spike Milligan and John Antrobus in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
  • Promoters acknowledged the film’s limited commercial prospects by issuing a poster with the tagline “we’ve got a BOMB* on our hands” and the footnote (“*BOMB – a motion picture so brilliantly funny it goes over most people’s heads”).
  • The film bombed so hard, in fact, that director Richard Lester could not find work for four years afterwards, and when he returned to movies he toned down the absurdism of his early films and worked in a mainstream idiom, returning with the action-comedy The Three Musketeers (1973) and going on to direct blockbusters like Superman II (1980).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The BBC, tidy tuxedo on top his top half, sackcloth on the bottom, squatting in an empty television frame on a blasted salt flat to deliver exposition.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: BBC post-bomb broadcasts; dad’s a parrot and mom’s a wardrobe; a doctor living inside his patient

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Twenty very British survivors of the apocalypse go about their business amidst the rubble, despite mutations that gradually change them into furniture or bargain housing. This absurd anxiety nightmare about the Bomb could only have come out of the Swinging Sixties; it’s one of the weirder relics of an era when filmmakers felt it was their patriotic duty to laugh in the face of the imminent apocalypse.


“Trailers from Hell” annotated original trailer for The Bed Sitting Room

COMMENTS: The original play “The Bed Sitting Room” was written Continue reading 230. THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969)

CAPSULE: HOW I WON THE WAR (1967)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Michael Crawford, Lee Montague, , Karl Michael Vogler, ,

PLOT: An incompetent rookie British Lieutenant leads a reluctant squad on a mission to set up a cricket pitch behind German lines.

Still from How I Won the War (1967)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There are a few funny/clever bits, but mostly misfire gags that are often more incoherent than absurd. A nice try, but bit of a dud from Richard Lester, who would bounce back soon with The Bed Sitting Room, a much more effective comedy in the same surreal style.

COMMENTS: The absurdity of war and absurd-minded director Richard Lester would seem to be a match made in heaven. Why How I Won the War didn’t work, then, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps war is too serious a topic for an artist of Lester’s flippant temperament. Since no one really supports war as an abstract concept, to make a military satire work it either needs to be extremely specific (i.e., have the balls to explicitly attack the Vietnam conflict) or to go truly dark (blow up the whole damn world, a la Strangelove).

More likely, War fails simply because the jokes just aren’t funny enough to carry the feature. Characters and situations are ill-defined, and the thick accents and humour largely based around British class system don’t make things any easier for the outsider. Despised by his working class troops, young Lt. Goodbody is sent to North Africa and sent on an insanely dangerous morale-building mission. Eventually he is captured by the enemy, where he finds a Nazi officer to be better company than his own squadron (his captor also gets the movie’s best lines: “we are not all supermen, you know”). The story jumps back and forth in time in a series of sketches and asides which are further broken up by tinted footage of actual World War II battles. Perhaps this methodology is intended to convey the confusion of a combat campaign, but it keeps us from getting invested in the characters or their mission. Without comment, the squad takes on mute soldiers painted green and pink (the suggestion is they’ve been reassigned into this movie from the archival footage). At one point a laugh track appears when Jack MacGowran puts on a clown nose and starts a comedy routine (his character also does a ventriloquist routine and dons blackface for battle). A disturbed soldier holes up naked in a truck and refuses to come out; he’s seen banging on the door in an institution, then the moment is forgotten as he’s back in the desert. It’s not so much that these bits don’t make sense in themselves as that they don’t appear to serve a larger purpose in a grand comic scheme. The point seems to be that war is, you know, crazy. Lester doesn’t follow up on the intriguing suggestions that the events of the movie are a funhouse mirror version of real-life historical battles, which might have given War a greater sense of purpose. Instead, like its real-life counterpart, War has no winner.

How I Won the War‘s marketing campaign was built almost entirely around John Lennon’s presence in the cast. To this day, posters and ads deceptively suggest this is a starring role for the pacifist Beatle. Actually, his part is extremely small, hardly more significant than the other half-dozen grunts in his squad. While Lennon was incredibly talented, those talents did not extend to acting. (, the group’s least talented musician, turned out to be the only halfway decent Beatle actor). The best thing about Lennon’s performance is that Lester made sure he wasn’t tested; his lines are throwaway one-liners buried among routines from the rest of the squad, and his character is cynical and detached so that his emotionless delivery becomes an asset.

Kino Lorber released War on Blu-ray in 2016 along with a number of other 1960s Lester features. Trailers (often with commentary from the “Trailers from Hell” gang) are the only extras on these discs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…manages occasionally to hit home with its blend of surreal lunacy and barbed satire.“–Geoff Andrews, Time Out London

CAPSULE: A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Wilfrid Brambell

PLOT: A day in the life of the Beatles as their handlers try to prepare for a show that night—but the lads are always goofing off, chasing girls, and trying to track down Paul’s grandfather.

Still from A Hard Day's Night (1964)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: For all its cult cachet, all the talk about its irreverent anarchy and its “surreal humour,” and all of the “underground” techniques it mainstreamed (using techniques pioneered by the French New Wave, Day’s Night is also often credited with inventing the music video), the Beatles’ first feature isn’t “weird” (except as a corrective to the overly-stiff style of 1950s filmmaking it was reacting to).

COMMENTS: “They’re ‘fab’ and all the other pimply hyperboles,” goes one typically sparkling line in A Hard Day’s Night. The speaker, a cynical, unhip adman specializing in teen marketing, was talking about shirts, not the Beatles, but he might as well have been expressing the dismissive attitude most grown-ups shared for the Fab Four before Richard Lester’s rollicking A Hard Day’s Night recast the group as trickster archetypes rather than just four young men pandering to underage girls’ romantic fantasies. Lester makes the Liverpudlians universally lovable: the movie caters to the spirit of rebellion and style kids and teens connected with, while simultaneously disarming adults’ fears and contempt with a witty script. The jokes and wordplay (“I’m a mocker,” Ringo says when asked if he’s a mod or a rocker) were too sophisticated for the crowds of screaming, erotically ecstatic girls (mostly pre-teens, as the concert footage reveals—the Beatlemania demographic, it turns out, was the same age group that later embraced the Backstreet Boys or One Direction) who populate the film’s electrifying concert sequences. The script aimed at broadening the group’s audience by playing up the group’s reputation for clever wordplay and irreverent ad-libs, while not apologizing for their boy band magnetism. It worked. After A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles were no longer just kids’ stuff: they were spokesmen for a youth movement with a cool new insouciant attitude.

Although each of the band members has a distinct personality (wry John, boyish Paul, quiet George and mopey Ringo), “the Beatles” as a group emerge as the movie’s principal character. The boy’s adventures tweak the status quo without eviscerating it; the film’s satire is so gentle that its targets—joyless adults, out-of-touch media, and the humorless of every stripe—laughed at the jibes, not recognizing themselves. Yeah, its pro-youth, but it doesn’t alienate older folk, most of whom would rather identify with Paul’s mischievous (but clean) grandfather and his penchant for sneaking off to the casino than with the wrinkly sourpuss who refuses to open the windows on the train. The spirit embodied by Lester’s Beatles was welcoming, and it wasn’t about chronological age: it was about choosing “parading” over propriety. The plot, such as it is, is a constant stream of sequences where someone wanders off to do his own thing, leaving the authorities (the band’s manager, the television producer) wringing their hands. Paul’s grandfather is constantly getting into trouble; the boys leave practice to go frolic in a field; with only an hour left until the big show, Ringo goes off on his own, ending up in police custody. In the end, naturally, the lads pull it together and bring down the house, proving that the stuffed shirts needn’t have fretted—they should just enjoy the ride, like the rest of us.

Naturally, the Criterion Collection gives A Hard Day’s Night the royal treatment. Aside from the restored picture and (possibly more important) audio (including a new stereo mix), the 2-DVD (1 Blu-ray) set collects four short documentaries on the film, interviews, and more. The commentary track includes almost a dozen people who worked on the movie–including extras, editors, the cinematographer—but unfortunately, nothing from director Lester. Of major interest to cinephiles (and of some interest to weirdophiles) is Lester’s short “The Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film,” with Spike Milligan and , a series of silent gags (such as a man who places a record on a tree stump and plays it by running around in a circle holding a needle) that was nominated for an Oscar and was a big favorite of John Lennon’s. Rounding out the package is an 80-page booklet with an appreciation by Howard Hampton, an interview with Lester, and behind-the-scenes photos of the Beatles. The release is a must-have for movie fans and Beatlemaniacs alike.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… looks chaotic and slapdash enough (and just occasionally, for me, depressing enough) to count as an experimentalist or underground movie.”–Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (2014 reissue)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969)

The Bed Sitting Room has been promoted to the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies Ever Made. This post is closed for commenting. Please make all comments on the official Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Michael Hordern, Rita Tushingham, Richard Warwick, Arthur Lowe, Mona Washbourne, Marty Feldman, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore,

PLOT: After the Bomb falls, a family who lives on a still-functioning subway train travels to the surface in search of a nurse for their pregnant daughter.

Still from The Bed Sitting Room (1969)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This absurd anxiety nightmare about the Bomb could only have come out of the Swinging Sixties; it’s one of the weirder relics of an era when filmmakers felt it was their patriotic duty to laugh in the face of the imminent apocalypse.

COMMENTS: The Bed Sitting Room began its life as a one-act play, written by comedian Spike Milligan and John Antrobus in 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that time, at the height of Cold War paranoia, nuked-up powers were playing games of chicken with each other and worldwide nuclear annihilation seemed inevitable. In the average person’s eyes the world and its leaders had gone insane, and who better to depict the inevitable aftermath of our self-destructive impulses than Milligan and his “Goon Show” squad, under the cheerfully absurd direction of A Hard Days Night‘s Richard Lester? The results are a ridiculous apocalypse the likes of which has never been depicted on screen before. Looking like it was shot in a Welsh garbage dump, with heaping mountains of discarded boots and crockery and the police flying through the sky in a burnt-out VW bug attached to a balloon, the movie anticipates the junkyard visuals of post-apocalyptic films to follow. Tonally, however, Bed Sitting Room is miles away from the cutthroat scavenger worlds of Mad Max or A Boy and His Dog; it’s Theater of the Absurd performed by vaudevillians. The jokes are almost feather-light, contrasting with the inherent horror of the situation. “I’m not eating,” complains a patient. When the doctor asks why, he answers matter-of-factly, “can’t get the stuff.” In another scene a lonely recluse asks “would you do for me what my first wife did?” to a nervous middle aged woman who’s fallen into his fallout shelter. Having no choice, she reluctantly agrees, and he hands her pots, pans and teacups to throw at him as he dodges them shouting “she means nothing to me!” The movie is full of corny Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969)