Tuesday, July 03, 2007

This Is THE DAMNED


If you were lucky, on Monday night you were able to see Turner Classic Movies' premiere broadcast of Joseph Losey's Hammer film THESE ARE THE DAMNED (known in the UK simply as THE DAMNED), made in 1961 and first released in 1963. This showing marked the first time it has ever been shown on American television in its original Hammerscope 2.35:1 width and its original length. Until last night, I don't think I had ever seen a version longer than its 87m US running time, but TCM's print ran 95m 9s.

This is one of a select number of films, and perhaps the only Hammer film, that I find grows more profound with the passing years. I've always admired it, and always for different reasons. In my teens, I admired it for its alienated quality; in my twenties, for its nihilism; in my thirties, for its irony; in my forties, for its doomed idealism; and now, in my fifties, I am most impressed by the previously unsuspected depths of its realism. (Losey was in his early sixties when he made it.) This film still speaks with great urgency to our world and the cruel ways in which it operates, like a candle burning toward its center from two lighted ends, but also with a certain resignation. It's a film that believes in survival, while questioning the idea of survival-at-all-costs.

Oliver Reed as King, his earliest fully realized performance. Kenneth Cope as Sid, another important character, at frame right.

Scripted by Evan Jones and an uncredited Losey, the film is said to be loosely based on "The Children of Light," a story by H. L. Lawrence. The script is ingeniously aimed at the eventual convergence of three separate male-female relationships representative of different phases of life. The first is between King (Oliver Reed), the neurotic leader of a Teddy Boys gang, and his younger, independence-craving sister Joan (Shirley Anne Field); the relationship of these young people is predicated on the past, as it has been traumatized by their abandonment by their parents. The second is between Joan and Simon (Macdonald Carey), a middle-aged American tourist whom Joan lures into victimization by King's gang, but she is drawn to him by his old world gallantry, which makes her feel more a woman than a child; their relationship is predicated, as with all new lovers, on the future they might inhabit together. The third relationship is between two middle-aged lovers, Freya (Viveca Lindfors) and Bernard (Alexander Knox), respectively a sculptress and a former public servant whose professional ascent has left him in charge of a Top Secret military science program whose nature must be kept under wraps at all costs. Their once appealingly provocative oppositions have aged into dangerously divergent philosophies; their relationship is thus predicated on the past, because only in the past was there cause to believe in the future. Freya finds solace from reality in the pursuit of her art; Bernard has no such consolations.

Viveca Lindfors and Alexander Knox.


As I watched THESE ARE THE DAMNED again, I found myself most drawn this time to the different stages of life reflected in these three relationships, as well as the film's subtextual conviction that the world would be a much better place if we could all simply find a way to do what we most like to do. If this is a naïve idea, the film argues, that is its saving grace because any philosophy more cynical lends us as a civilization to our doom. This is an idea that comes out, as do all the film's meatiest philosophic exchanges, in dialogue between Freya and Bernard. As Freya suggests at one point, Bernard's ambition to public service was not his failing, but rather that his morals were different to hers. The film runs riot with divergent morals, and the worst we can do -- the film seems to say -- is to believe the conservative propaganda that there is only one valid morality, because therein lies the key to fascism and the ultimate instrument of political blackmail. Bernard has turned this key in his own heart, and his strict need for secrecy has closed him off, made him cold -- and coldness figures in his secret itself: the existence in a subterranean complex of nine naturally radioactive children who are being groomed to inherit the Earth after the inevitable nuclear devastation of the planet.


Bernard's clandestine classroom -- note the looming shadow of Freya's "cemetery bird" sculpture visible in frame with him.

Bernard's tenure in the world of politics has left him worse than a cynic; he's become a fatalist, too beaten down by bureaucracy to believe any longer in human solutions to human problems. His entire approach to his life and future has a basis in death. He's also a hippocrite, bemoaning how "the age of senseless violence" has reached the British Isles with the vicious antics of the Teddy Boys though he represents a far more conscious and final brand of senseless violence. For her part, Freya -- being a sculptress and daily engaged in the process, discipline and indeed the religion of creation (not creationism!) -- scoffs at Bernard's stoic certainty that such a day will ever come, and when she finally learns of the existence of the children, she rightly questions (as perhaps only a woman can) exactly what kind of world Bernard is preparing them to inhabit. It's my reading of the film that what Bernard hopes will survive the holocaust is not really the children, but rather the principles with which they have been inculcated, so that these creatures of radiation might endure as a tribute to the extinct ideals that promulgated them. Freya's accidental discovery of the children shatters her romantic covenant with Bernard, and naturally signs her own death warrant, and in this way Losey emphasizes that any government that keeps secrets from the people is by definition our enemy, deranged and fascist. When the light of the outside world touches upon Bernard's dark secret, the result is chaos in the classroom -- an anarchic rebellion among the children, itself an indictment of the postwar realities that gave rise to the Teddy Boys' own brand of violent anarchy.


Anarchy in the U.K., fifteen years before the Sex Pistols.

Joseph Losey, of course, made this film as an American expatriate working abroad, during the time following his blacklisting in the United States. Though Michel Ciment's career-length interview book CONVERSATIONS WITH LOSEY finds the director not overly enamored with the film, nor with science fiction as a genre, it's hard not to see powerful personal currents coursing through it. The importance that Losey places on doing what we love to do is most effectively illustrated with Freya's decision to return to chiselling away at her sculpture-in-progress, though she knows she has only minutes left in which to live. Though she lives in almost complete isolation, she has chosen to live in accordance with her ideals and beliefs, and truthfully tells Bernard that she will not live in denial of what she knows. She is, then, a victim of her own honsty, rejecting the offer to join Bernard in his world of shadows, much as Losey himself was sent into exile from a supposedly free country for his political beliefs. In the film's closing moments, seen from the God-like vantage of a government helicopter, we see Bernard's project in ruins, with many lives traumatized if not ended and much faith destroyed, and a barren seaside landscape only modestly removed from desolation. What most survives in the film's closing tableaux is the power of Freya's art, much as the power of this film has survived the political turbulence of Losey's own life and times.

Joan and Simon -- literally kept at sea by the forces of intimidation on a yacht flying the American flag.


It's hard to believe that critical reaction to the film was lukewarm at best. The cutting of ten minutes from the film may have done it no favors, but it didn't really damage it or obscure its bravery and brilliance. Among other things, Losey was criticized for hiring "the bland American actor"Macdonald Carey for the lead role of Simon. What I see in Simon's relationship with Joan -- again, at my present age -- is an illustration of how people necessarily go through life, on some levels, wearing rose-colored glasses, preferring to believe in a fantasy of life rather than look too closely at the true complexion of the world they inhabit. Vacations are always invitations to romantic fantasy, of course, and we imagine that the relationship between Simon and Joan is unlikely to endure even if they survive their accidental exposure to the contaminated children. It is dreams such as they discuss while in each other's arms that makes day-to-day life bearable under the best circumstances. That said, when they are made aware of the hideous truth buried beneath the craggy cliffs surrounding Freya's studio, they show righteous outrage and dedicate themselves to the children's cause. If they ultimate do more harm than good by following their hearts, it's because Bernard's experiment has nothing to do with matters of the heart, or even common sense.

Carey may be unlikely casting, but he conveys a strong humanistic quality in his performance, quite genuine in contrast to Field's initially cool but increasingly warm portrayal, and he's convincing too as the film's only truly pro-active character. Field's dead-on performances as a vapid girlfriend in HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and as a vapid actress in Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM were responsible for her earlier excoriation in the British press, but her scenes here with the children, or when she asks Simon to put her back ashore, convince me that she was better than competent, seem to me just what the Joan on the page needed.

Joan and Simon discover the cold children who do not turn warm when touched.

Seeing the film for the first time in its correct aspect ratio made me more aware of the specific importance of a supporting character, Sid, played by Kenneth Cope. Sid is first singled out by the film's framing when King (Reed) asks Joan if she thinks he'd ever let another man's hands touch her; it's cropped offscreen in standard ratio prints, but here we can see Sid's wounded reaction to King's words as he realizes that he, too, will have to tangle with King if his secret feelings for Joan ever come out.

Speaking of the film's cinematography, THESE ARE THE DAMNED is without a doubt one of the finest showcases director of photography Arthur Grant ever had. Though overshadowed in his career by the likes of Freddie Francis and Jack Asher, Grant was a master of widescreen photography in his own right, as this film and Roger Corman's TOMB OF LIGEIA show in particular. Both films, in fact, accrue a certain ambience from the presence of calcified rock -- the abbey in LIGEIA and the stony seaside cliffs of Portland Bill in THE DAMNED. The opening moments in the town square of Weymouth, set to an original James Bernard '50s-style rock song called "Black Leather Rock," offer us a fascinating idea of what A CLOCKWORK ORANGE might have looked like had a film been made closer to the time Anthony Burgess wrote his original novel. (Its first edition appeared in 1962, the year after THE DAMNED was made.)

King, Simon and Joan strike a temporary truce as they begin to succumb to radiation sickness.

But moreso than giving rise to appreciations of how well it is acted, directed, constructed, and photographed, viewing THESE ARE THE DAMNED reminds us of what a positive social tool the science fiction genre used to be, in the years before it succumbed to special effects, comic bookery, and soul-sucking nihilism wearing the expensive disguise of style. It was once a cinema of ideas and aspirations. At its best, science fiction could be a political force. As downbeat as this masterpiece may be, it has always left me feeling somehow more alert, more alive, with my hopes for the future in the ascendant. Part of that feeling is based in my own fundamental alliance with Freya's life philosophy -- it's not that I deny that bad things may happen, but that I refuse to live my life in service to the certainty that they will. Another part is my belief that the wisdom of this world-weary (yet world-loving) film is so eloquent and undeniable that -- as long as it can be seen by young people who might someday rise to positions of power -- our chances for survival should be in good hands.

Which brings me to my closing statement: This film has been out of circulation for too long. It's a profound pleasure, perhaps even a relief, to welcome it back.

Ken Russell at 80

The last two times I saw Ken Russell, it was rather unexpected. He makes surprise cameo appearances in two recent features, COLOR ME KUBRICK and TRAPPED ASHES, turning up late in the stories to play two different sorts of lunatic in two different asylums. Viewers of British television might feel that they too last saw him as an asylum inmate, as he turned up earlier this year as one of the surprise house residents of Channel 4's wonky reality show CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER.
Is he trying to tell us something?
Ken Russell has every right to gravitate to such roles because his asylum has always been the cinema, and our world is a madhouse if Ken Russell cannot be allowed to make movies. He hasn't made a full theatrical feature since 1991's dramatic monologue WHORE, though the IMDb claims that he's currently preparing a new version of MOLL FLANDERS for producer Harry Alan Towers. We can only hope that this provocative meeting of minds will yield something more ingratiatingly volatile than what he's been able to give us in the meantime, which ranges from the staid (PRISONER OF HONOR) to the silly (THE INSATIABLE MRS. KIRSCH), and from the disastrous (MINDBENDER) to the agreeably tame (LADY CHATTERLEY) and the unrecognizably bland (DOGBOYS).
Though it's been nearly twenty years of varying degrees of candy floss and novacaine, one instinctively knows that it hasn't been entirely his fault. Thirty years after VALENTINO (1977), I still can't see Ken Russell's byline on any film without imagining concussions of gunpowder and hearing the triumphal passages of the 1812 Overture. Only the spectre of Stanley Kubrick causes me to hesitate before hailing Ken Russell as the Beethoven of English-speaking cinema -- and yet, where Kubrick embodies the gravitas of Beethoven, Russell is the elation of Beethoven. And of Tchaikovsky. And of Mahler. And of Liszt. And of Townshend.
My first exposure to Ken Russell was THE DEVILS in 1971, when I was not really old enough to see it in the eyes of the MPAA. Walking into THE DEVILS without a clue is like inserting a finger(or worse) into a light socket without a clue; in retrospect, I'm certain there was much about the film that went over my 15 year-old head, but some very important life lessons have stuck with me, and every subsequent time I've seen it, I have felt renewed awe in regard to its intensity, passion, and honesty. I feel it's a necessary film to see if one resolves to see the world as it is, which is by no means a sugar pill on the tongue. I wrote a definitive article about THE DEVILS for VW some years ago, which compared all the extant video versions and explained what was still missing and what was known about it. Mark Kermode gave the issue to Ken Russell and sent word back to me that the great man had considered my work "authoritative." Years later, following the blueprint of that article, Mark made it his own cause to see THE DEVILS restored and did so, even managing the impossible: finding the film's notoriously suppressed "Rape of Christ" sequence and having it shown on the BBC. I'm very proud of playing even a detached inspirational role in that remarkable turn of events.
Next Russell film: WOMEN IN LOVE at a revival booking in 1974. When I tell people that going to the movies in the 1970s was exciting because one always went knowing that it was possible you might see something that would completely change your life, or at least your outlook on it, I am mostly thinking of WOMEN IN LOVE. Ken Russell was one of very few English directors who could be counted on to deliver this sort of ego-shattering blow every single time to bat. I was knocked out by WOMEN IN LOVE; I saw it four times the week I first saw it. It inspired me to read the D.H. Lawrence novel, followed by all of Lawrence, and later that same year, it was the movie that Donna and I saw together before I proposed to her.
The same theater where I saw WOMEN IN LOVE subsequently played host to THE MUSIC LOVERS and SAVAGE MESSIAH, and it was in the company of the theater's owners when I saw TOMMY for the first time. In the parking lot, they put me in such a condition for the screening that I felt like I was inside that burning cockpit with Robert Powell. I've since watched TOMMY more times than any of Russell's films, and while the cockpit shot now looks to me quite blatantly phony, everything up to and including the Cousin Kevin sequence is as much like a dramatization of my own life story as I've ever seen onscreen. There are moments, certain shots, when I actually feel as though I'm looking through my own navel at events that took place before I was born.
My Whitman Sampler of Unforgettable Russell Moments: Max Adrian as Delius, honking the score of his next masterpiece to amenuensis Christopher Gable in SONG OF SUMMER... Glenda Jackson taunting the bulls, Alan Bates' reading of the fig poem, and of course the wrestling scene of WOMEN IN LOVE... Richard Chamberlain's suicide attempt in THE MUSIC LOVERS... Oliver Reed's response to the threatened demolition of Loudon in THE DEVILS... Helen Mirren's spectacular nude scene in SAVAGE MESSIAH... Ringo Starr as the Pope, Rick Wakeman as Thor, and Paul Nicholas as a vampiric Richard Wagner in LISZTOMANIA... Ann Margret writhing about in soap suds, baked beans and chocolate in TOMMY... William Hurt and Blair Brown eroding like sand sphinxes under the passing winds of time in ALTERED STATES... Annie Potts wrapping a gift for her estranged husband John Laughlin in Life Savers wrapping paper in CRIMES OF PASSION, and the long dialogue scene between the two of them where she admits to feeling unclean about sex... and literally everything that Oliver Reed does in TOMMY. (Ken Russell gave us the best of Oliver Reed -- never forget that.)
Someday the BBC must release DVD box sets of all of Russell's short films and television works, including the long-withdrawn DANCE OF THE SEVEN VEILS (1970), the subject of a still-standing injunction by the Johann Strauss estate. And Warner Home Video must release THE DEVILS, preferably with Mark Kermode's wonderful "Hell on Earth" documentary included in the set. The day's not over yet -- announce it as a birthday offering, you infidels!
And so bravissimo, Maestro, and a very Happy Birthday to you, wherever you may be. We've never met, but you know me too well. Not only have you changed the way I see, you've shown me how to live.

Monday, July 02, 2007

What, Me Thinking?

Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter blog, which I've recommended to you in the past, has seen fit to "tag" me with a Thinking Blogger Award. There's no tangible award involved; rather, it's a thumbs-up from a fellow blogger, entitling one to include the above jpg with one's blogging and their blessing. I have no idea who started this ball rolling, but I'm flattered that it came to me before it rolled full-circle.

As I explained to Jeremy, I'm appreciative of his supportive gesture but I was reluctant to acknowledge it because that meant compliance with the rules that come with winning this honor, particularly the meme-like obligation to reassign it to five other worthy blogs. I'm really not that much into reading blogs, especially not film-related ones. (Believe me, I have enough film-related material to read by publishing a monthly magazine!) So the few blogs I do frequent, like Jeremy's, typically touch on a variety of different subjects. Also, the blogs I like can be, but are not necessarily, cerebral. Some are, but in many cases, I'm most attracted to the personality of the blogger, their kindred quality, their point of view, the brand of information or wisdom they impart.

As I was saying, it was my intention to thank Jeremy privately for his kindness (which I did) and otherwise pretend it didn't happen (which he understood), but now Peter Nellhaus over at Coffee Coffee and More Coffee has seen fit to give me an Honorable Mention on his list... so I'm feeling like I must make some kind of acknowledgement or run the risk of appearing snobbish.

So, okay, I'll tag some thinking blogs. Here are some personal favorites -- in no particular order, other than "ladies first" -- that I believe would make honorable additions to the roster. I don't know any of these bloggers personally and, to the best of my knowledge, none have been previously tagged:

THE SHEILA VARIATIONS by Sheila O'Malley

IF CHARLIE PARKER WAS A GUNSLINGER THERE'D BE A WHOLE LOT OF DEAD COPYCATS by Tom Sutpen, Stephen Cooke and Richard Gibson

ROBERT FRIPP'S DIARY

MORRICONE LOVER by Soundtrack Lover

JAHSONIC: A VOCABULARY OF CULTURE by Anonymous

I don't want to explain why I chose these particular blogs. Follow the links, check them out, and come to an understanding of your own. Likewise, I'm not going to tell any of these bloggers that I've "tagged" them. They can find out for themselves -- by reading my (ahem, award-winning) blog.