Friday, June 08, 2007

Remembering the "If...." Girl

"I was secretly in love with Christine Noonan," Malcolm McDowell admits during his wonderful, open-hearted audio commentary for Criterion's eagerly-awaited issue of Lindsay Anderson's IF.... (1968), "but she was married, so there was no question of any hanky-panky."

McDowell certainly wasn't alone in his affections for IF....'s enigmatic, coffee dispensing heroine; in fact, I must admit that the possibility of learning more about Christine Noonan was one of the major reasons I was so keen to get to the audio commentary and extras for this superb set. On the one hand, I was disappointed in this regard because McDowell's commentary was recorded in 2002, a year before Noonan's premature death from cancer, so her passing goes unreported by the disc, even in the 2007 comments by film historian David Robinson, a visitor to the filming who augments the commentary track. But on the other hand, McDowell tells us just enough about this robust yet alluring Eastender to appease our curiosity and keep it vibrant at the same time.

The film, which Criterion will release on June 19, is a scathing criticism of Britain's public school system with surrealist passages, and was filmed by cameraman Miroslav Ondricek in both color and black-and-white. Noonan appears in only a few scenes of the film, and all but one of her scenes is in black-and-white, the palate that brings her particular qualities most to the fore. She first appears as the waitress in an off-the-A3 greasy spoon, who serves coffee to a pair of hooky-playing collegiates played by McDowell (in his first screen role) and David Hood. McDowell, sizing up the Girl (as she's called) like a predator, steals a kiss, for which she slaps him good and hard. He demands sugar for his coffee, takes two heaping helpings, then drops the polluted spoon back in the sugar bowl before walking sullenly away to a jukebox. Moments later, her hand appears on his shoulder.

He turns to face her.

Her eyes fix on him, tease him, tempt him.

They communicate through their senses of sight and smell, venting their sublimated passions through their teeth like a pair of tigers on heat. McDowell lunges at her, and she lunges back. Before you know it -- with David Hood looking on, touchingly covering his friend's forgotten coffee cup with a saucer -- the two of them are rolling violently on the floor, all teeth and claws and flailing limbs.
Then, in a sudden change of tense that cements the sequence as one of the most memorable in the postwar British cinema, the two wrestlers are suddenly stark naked in their tussle, the Girl baring her teeth and sinking them into McDowell's arm.

He grimaces in satisfaction, and then -- suddenly -- everything is back to normal, the scene utterly discharged of its sexual tension. The Girl joins the two young men at their table and says, enigmatically, "I like Johnny" -- Johnny being the David Hood character, who smirks contentedly as though he's been married to the Girl for years.
Cut to the three of them riding a stolen BMA motorcycle, the Girl standing between McDowell and Hood on the seat, extending her arms in the air -- a JULES & JIM image for a new age. On the Criterion disc, as they ride past the camera, you can barely discern a look on Noonan's face that suggests sheer, undisguised terror. McDowell admits that he had never driven a motorcycle before that day, giving her trepidations good reason.
The Girl shows up thrice more in the film. Offered a view of the heavens by his classmate Peanuts, McDowell looks through his telescope and points it down from the stars to a house, where the Girl makes a charmingly unlikely appearance combing her hair in her bedroom window, then looks back at him and waves fondly in his direction. When the protagonists are later punished for an indiscretion (nothing too serious -- shooting a faculty member) by being made to clean out a storage room, they find a cabinet of jarred fetuses, and the Girl steps out of nowhere to embrace one of these "mysteries of life" with warm, maternal hands. (McDowell recalls that Noonan actually fainted upon seeing the preserved human fetus and completed the scene only with difficulty. She's perfect in it.) The last time we the Girl, she's with the others atop the roof at College House, firing pistols and machine guns at the faculty and guests of the university.
Without the Girl beside McDowell and the others, the film's climactic act of revolution and anarchy would not only appear more random, it would root the scene in realism. However, with her there and actually taking part in their vicious assault on tired tradition, the climax becomes at once more fanciful -- she's there as an inspirational image, like the magazine clippings adorning McDowell's dormitory wall -- and more rooted in serious concerns. The presence of the Girl helps to coalesce the rebels into a family -- an alternative family, fighting for an alternative society (alternative to the school' s tiered and systemized cruelty), one more sensibly based in righteousness and brotherhood.

It's such an odd role and Christine Noonan -- short, thick-haired, and solidly built -- seems an odd, decidedly non-ethereal actress to have been cast in it, but she lays absolute claim to it, her appeal still direct and enticingly musky after all these years. "She was really like that," marvels McDowell as he watches the moment where she turns to meet his covetous gaze through a curtain of heavy black hair.
McDowell credits his reaction to Noonan's unexpected slapping of his face with his landing a screen career. The two of them auditioned together and he, knowing only his lines and not the scripted action, genuinely responded to her slap ("she didn't hold anything back") by stalking her like a tiger around the stage and tackling her. This, of course, was exactly the action that was scripted. "You've got your Mick and your Girl," screenwriter David Sherwin, all of 24 years old, told Lindsay Anderson -- referring to McDowell's character, Mick Travis -- and the rest is history. Anderson recreated McDowell's "Zen moment" at the end of O LUCKY MAN! (1973), the second film in his and Sherwin's "Mick Travis trilogy," himself slapping McDowell with a film script and thus launching Travis' own screen career. Christine Noonan also appears briefly in O LUCKY MAN! as a worker in a coffee factory, one of many, many correlations to the earlier film. (Unfortunately, this masterpiece still awaits its debut on DVD.) She was curiously absent from the final film of the trilogy, BRITANNIA HOSPITAL (1982).

Knowing that hanky-panky was out of the question with his wedded co-star, McDowell cheekily proposed to Anderson that he and Noonan perform some of their wrestling in the nude. ("It's up there with the one from WOMEN IN LOVE," he says of the sequence, "it was quite risqué for its time.") Anderson demurred from suggesting it to Noonan himself, but was agreeable if she had no problem with the idea. McDowell promptly approached his co-star and opened, "Lindsay has asked me to ask you..." to which she replied in her broad Eastern accent, "Oy don't moynd." Within minutes, they were both starkers and making cinema history. For his part, McDowell remembers feeling as though he had "died and gone to Heaven."
I didn't have the opportunity to see IF.... for the first time until I was in my late twenties, and obviously I'm American, but I can imagine how this film must have spoken to intelligent British youth when it was released in the wake of actual revolution in the streets of Paris and elsewhere in 1968. A film like this would have been taken immediately to heart by many politically- or progressively-minded young Britons, even young Americans dissatisfied with their different-yet-the-same System, as a blueprint for future action -- future action that might have taken any number of contrarian forms, from participating in public demonstrations, to starting an underground newspaper, or simply buying a copy of "Street Fighting Man" by the Rolling Stones.
However deep one's commitment to the ideal of change, finding a girlfriend like Christine Noonan would have surely been part of the plan. All these years later, her nameless heroine retains her uncanny ability to provoke, inspire, and encourage our vestiges of revolutionary spirit, and there are those of us who will always love her for it.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

I'm There Right Now

Robert Blake hands you the phone in David Lynch's LOST HIGHWAY.

Have you ever come across a song in the course of your listening that stands in front of you defiantly, like a roadblock, daring you to pass?

For me, recently, that song is currently "Ballad of a Thin Man" from Bob Dylan's HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED album -- and, for some reason, the live version from Manchester 1966 (erroneously released as THE "ROYAL ALBERT HALL" CONCERT) seems even more insistently impassable. I've taken to playing the song every night before retiring, a ritual I've been known to enact in the past with other minor key songs like "Telstar" by The Tornados, "Love Song for the Dead Ché" by The United States of America, "Share a Little Joke" by Jefferson Airplane, and "Swimming Horses" by Siouxsie and the Banshees.
There's a stanza in the song that goes:

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, "How does it feel
To be such a freak?"
And you say, "Impossible"
As he hands you a bone
And something is happening here
And you don't know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

It recently occured to me, in the course of this obsession, that if you just change "bone" to "phone," you've got a scene from David Lynch's LOST HIGHWAY.
"I'm there right now," says the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), his words unexpectedly poising the scene on the precipice of madness. Which brings to mind the title of Todd Haynes' forthcoming biopic, with six different actors (including Cate Blanchett) playing Dylan: I'M NOT THERE.
Curiously enough, "Lost Highway" is also the name of a Hank Williams song that Dylan can be seen playing to Bob Neuwirth in one of the hotel room scenes in the 1965 UK tour documentary DONT LOOK BACK.
Take my advice, you'll curse the day
You started going down that lost highway.
It was that Hank Williams song, incidentally, that delivered unto Dylan the phrase "rolling stone" and led him to the gunpowder moment of his reinvention.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Some Recent Viewings

The second of the four movies included in 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment's MICHAEL SHAYNE MYSTERIES VOLUME 1 collection, this snappy little number was actually the fifth of seven Fox B-mysteries starring Lloyd Nolan as Brett Halliday's "keyhole dick" hero. (After an interim of a few years, the character was resurrected at PRC in the person of Hugh Beaumont, of all people.) Marjorie Weaver, Nolan's leading lady in the series opener MICHAEL SHAYNE, PRIVATE DETECTIVE, returns as the daughter of a senator under investigation who hires Shayne to pose as her husband to unmask a "ghost" who goes around firing bullets into her bedroom at night. Essentially an "old dark house" thriller in then-contemporary guise (admiring a sunken marble bathtub in his room, Shayne quips, "Did DeMille have something to do with that?"), the movie has some superbly creepy atmospherics, a fun supporting cast (Billy Bevan, Olin Howland, Jeff Corey), and a beautifully executed opening sequence that runs a full three minutes without dialogue.
"Ozzie's Triple Banana Surprise" (1957)
The first family-authorized DVD release of THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET was recently released as a self-styled "BEST OF." As much as I'd love to endorse it (and I do recommend it to the show's fans), it's hardly all that it claims to be -- it emphasizes the later college-and law office-set episodes featuring the Nelson sons, skimping on the early episodes featuring Ozzie Nelson. For an essential core sampling of the real "Best of OZZIE & HARRIET, check out Mill Creek's 38-episode FUN WITH OZZIE AND HARRIET, which offers such must-see classics as "A Night with Hamlet" (with guest John Carradine) and "Tutti Frutti Ice Cream," an obsessive-compulsive gem in which Ozzie Nelson embarks on a nighttime quest to re-experience the forgotten taste of a favorite dessert of yesteryear. Even more extraordinary is this surrealist masterpiece, co-scripted by future GREEN ACRES scribe Jay Sommers, in which Ozzie's consumption of two Triple Banana Surprises at the malt shop inspires a sleepless night of adventures that make Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First?" routine seem lucid and linear. This single episode is worth the cost of the set, which gives you so much more -- and most of the programs include the original commercials for products like Kodak cameras, Hotpoint dishwashers (hawked by Mary Tyler Moore as "Happy Hotpoint") and Prophylactic Toothpaste (you heard me). How's the quality? Uneven, but generally as good as many of these episodes looked during their 1980s Disney Channel run.
"The Night of the Golden Cobra" (1966)
I was never a devotée of THE WILD WILD WEST when it was on the air, but David J. Schow's writing about the show for VW has been making a convert of me. In preparation for editing a forthcoming VW feature about the second season of TWWW, I watched this recommended episode without knowing beforehand that its Special Guest Star was Boris Karloff! The master of menace is in fine form as Dr. Singh, garbed in flowery silks and satins, and '50s genre heroine Audrey Dalton is on hand as his daughter. It amazes me how Robert Conrad, wearing a green suit that appears to be painted on him, could walk in such outfits without feeling sudden breezes, much less do his own stunts. The sitar-spotlighting score of this episode is unusual for its time and adds nicely to its exoticism.
And this week's disappointment:
Directed by Brian W. Cook -- Stanley Kubrick's first AD on every film from BARRY LYNDON to EYES WIDE SHUT -- this is a black comedy about the late Alan Conway, a flamboyantly gay British nutter who successfully impersonated Kubrick as a ticket to free meals and travel in the 1990s. (Kubrick had been out of the limelight for so long during this period, such a masquerade was actually possible, though Conway looked nothing like the great filmmaker.) The movie begins well, juxtaposing squalid scenes from Conway's life and the wake of his mischief with familiar classical cues from Kubrick's oeuvre, in ways that are not only hilarious but thematically mirroring as they point up the vast (unperceived) gulf between the real artist and the con artist. As Conway, John Malkovich is a somewhat sunnier shade of his usual Persian cat self, with a slippery accent that changes practically from scene to scene. At one point, "Conway" references Malkovich as an actor he is considering hiring for his next movie, making Cook's film a kissing cousin to the metafiction of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. Scripted by Anthony Frewin (Kubrick's former personal assistant), it's a clever but rudderless time-waster with fun moments, some delightful dialogue, but otherwise lacking in momentum, variety, and steerage. Ending abruptly with a crawl about Conway's fate, it doesn't amount to much more than the conventional wisdom that everybody is some sort of fake, at least while climbing the rungs of show business.

Hack Sunday

The main page of our VW website was hacked earlier today and left to display a skull-and-crossbones graphic boasting that it had been hacked by Team Maroc Hackerz, inscribed in Arabic and signed by Drs. Ayoub and Sakolako. "Two swell joes," as Brother Theodore might have said.

The problem has been cleaned up for now, but our site was hacked earlier this week and I guess it could happen again. With that in mind, in the event we're not able to receive online orders due to malicious mischief, if you need to subscribe or renew, our toll-free number is 1-800-275-8395. If you can't telephone toll-free from your area, our you-pay-for-the-call number is 513-297-1855.