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Category Archives: Oldies to look out for on telly

The Swimmer

The Swimmer posterSynopsis

Made in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster as the swimmer.  He proposes to get back home by swimming through each of the swimming pools on the way there.  He starts off optimistically surrounded by successful and seemingly friendly people  As he progresses the high summer gets autumnal.  The swimming pool hosts start from the friendly (one is hostile early in the film) to the snobby, then hostile and contemptuous.  He ends up back at his own house and everything is very different.

Criticism

One of the stars of this film is the swimming pool, the symbol of American affluence and self confidence.  In The Graduate it started as a symbol of Ben’s success, and ends up like bath water lapping his self pity.  In The Swimmer the pools are expensively cleaned, at the end he swims through eye burning chlorine.

Based on a story by John Cheever, it’s a tautly acted and written parable which packs a few morals depending on your interpretation.  Lancaster starts out as an enviable example of the American Dream.  He appears rich and successful and has two daughters and a wife.  His friends are as successful as he is and all is affluent and joyful. The first upset comes at the third pool where he is dismissed by a bitter tirade railing against Lancaster’s snubbing of a dying acquaintance.  We overhear elderly nativists  gossip about Lancaster’s problems and we know there’s something wrong.  Then he meets a young blonde admirer who refuses to satisfy his vanity by turning her childhood crush into a relationship and she is no longer the wholesome innocent she appears to be.  He then comes across a garden party where he is snubbed and learns that his wife sold a treasured possession behind his back.  Then he gets to a former lover who is very bitter with his status-seeking regard and she rebuffs him and tells him he is an inadequate.  Then he gets into a public swimming pool crowded with people.  There he is told about his family’s attitude towards him and he ends up in rain and squalor.

At first among the rich and successful, Lancaster is genuinely positive and thinks the best of people in a Panglossian way, as if everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.  For me, this is a jarring note in the story, in spite of Lancaster’s smugness he is also keen to spread happiness. Whatever his misdemeanours, you feel that he is a not an entirely unsympathetic person (unless you read this as a parable about US imperialism).  Even when his bitter ex-lover rejects him, she is ready to help him back to his house.  Lancaster’s character is brittle and proud and his progress through the pools is objectively monitored by seasonal deterioration.  Are the characters at the end too harsh with him?  It depends on the interpretation you give it.  Lancaster’s acting throughout is gripping.  You could read this film as a parable about growing up or about America’s supposed loss of innocence after the Kennedy assassination and about Vietnam.  This film also has the feeling of a nice dream journey into a nightmare.  As he walks away from the garden party the guests line up to see him off.  In the countryside we see the reliable old standby of cinematic dream symbolism: the horse galloping free.

This is a sixties film so it features that other stereotype of that decade: the embittered alcoholic wife/mistress.  At the start the characters talk like Stepford alpha men and women.  People say what’s required of them to sustain the facile optimism of money and high status.  At the end people are cynical and bitter but in a very literal minded way.  The story should evince hope even in the squalid circumstances of comparative poverty but it doesn’t do this.  I think it would be a better film if the moral possibilities in the story had been pursued.  Among the truth telling cynics, Lancaster has the opportunity to get through guilt and remorse to achieve some kind of expiation but it doesn’t happen.  We see a sinister squalor at the end but we don’t know the extent of his culpability.  Those victims of his arrogance achieve vengeance, and like them the film gloats over this person stripped of allusions shown to be living in lies.  The film’s mercilessly non redemptive end is very bleak.  A dark but absorbing film.

 

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Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies cover imageSynopsis

The Peter Brook film made in 1963 in black and white about war-evacuated British schoolboys marooned on a desert island and their descent into evil.  They victimize a fat kid they call “Piggy” and then turn on Ralph.  They hunt him down until they are rescued.

Criticism

It curiously replicates the faults of the book insofar as Golding tends not to go into details of desert island survival.  Things get done as if out of cloth, and it is the same in the film, you only see instant results of actions.  This just makes you think of the unseen film set adult supervision and handiwork, so it’s like being at Summerhill school where the kids are compelled to be themselves  This also reminds me of those adult actors playing children in Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills, of course the dialogue is stilted and the children are awkward and you wonder what they would be like away from Peter Brooks’ supervision and William Golding’s agenda.

The black and white gives the film a contemporary Starbucks style of coffee house primitivism, the coral seems almost to be sculpted into totem heads and the tropical vegetation looks denser than it would be in colour!  It’s as if this primeval anti-Eden had been given a Henry Moore workover in stone, bone, and wood.  Given the very young age of the school children, I wonder how convincingly Golding’s concern about original sin and natural human depravity can be presented by what looks like a school outing gone a bit haywire.  Jack is like Flashman from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, who comes into his own when fiendishly bullying Piggy’s plodding working class decency.  This is well done as Piggy becomes the sacrificial victim of Jack’s venomous class malevolence.  Ralph looks like a C.S.Lewis – Arthur Mee – Enid Blyton jobsworth of baffled Christian forthrightness, which is Brook’s intention.  At times these three look like they’re playing up, as precociously as they can, to what adults expect of them in what looks like arthouse anthropology.  Like the children in High Wind In Jamaica, this film is a corrective to the Swiss Family Robinson wholesomeness of Disney on a tropical island.   It certainly influenced subsequent ‘serpent in paradise’ films like The Beach.

As for Simon, the schoolboy actor can’t be expected to bear the load of moral significance which the book gives him, he can only look like a sulky lad.  As he stares at the pig’s head on a stick, he seems not to be confronting an hallucinatory scary symbol of evil but at a schoolboy prank gone wrong.

An occasionally exiting film (in spite of the arty flute music), but is not totally convincing.

 

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Kes

Kes posterSynopsis

About a northern lad in a poverty- ridden mining area of Barnsley.  He befriends a kestrel and he has problems at home and at school.  The film was made in 1969.

Criticism

This is Ken Loach and his thing about the ‘working class’.  I remember when this film came out, all the trendies in London loved it.  Of course they would, since it showed a quaint world of picturesque poverty and simple people in the cinematic equivalent of a Lowry painting.  The sixties were infatuated with kitchen sink dramas in their Wednesday plays and so forth.  I love that Monty Python sketch where there is a comical inversion of class roles:  the worker is a successful writer complaining about writer’s cramp and the posh lad is a miner enthusing about coal shovels.  Ken Loach and his leather jacketed squad must have been similarly comically out of place among the ‘real’ people of Barnsley.  Well intentioned it may be, but it cannot avoid being patronizing.  If you can cut these concerns out, then the film is quite poetic.  The boy’s relationship with the kestrel is like T.H. White meeting Ted Hughes in a lost world of rough and self sufficient kids.  The kestrel is a superbly lyrical presence as it soars over the dreary hard world of working class Yorkshire.  I’m sad at the passing of this toughness, although of course in most respects life has got better so there’s no need to be a Monty Python Yorkshireman bragging about the good old days.  The schoolteachers are the insecure cynics beloved of Pink Floyd parody in The Wall.  The observation of school life is funny and cruel, but I felt that the cruelty often wins out at the expense of the humour that’s supposed to balance it out.  Colin Welland is the wise mentor of the boy Billy Casper.  As a teacher you feel that Welland is a disappointed socialist, keen to eke out some potential from his pupils before they end up in an office or a factory.  Casper has story telling ability but this will never be realized as he lives with his thuggish brother.  Casper is routinely bullied so his only outlet is with nature.  For the trendies it must have been like watching some exotic Amazonian tribe, anthropological condescension appears to be an ineluctable aspect of such films.  This reminds me of another Monty Python sketch where a film crew desperately seek out social problems so they can make a documentary, only to find that no-one has any interesting life stories to tell of victimization.

Well meaning, but interesting more as an historical documentary that tell us something about the art of hawking.

 

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Planet of the Apes

Planet of the Apes posterSynopsis

The 1968 film of the Pierre Boule novel about astronauts stranded in the future when the world is ruled by apes who have taken over from self destructive humans.  Apes replicate the cruelty of humans by treating humans as mute slaves lower down the evolutionary ladder.  Astronaut Charlton Heston is captured and then escapes with the help of sympathetic simians who show him archaeological remains of hi-tech humanity.  Heston finds the Statue of Liberty on a deserted  beach, symbol of a post apocalyptic future.

Criticism

This is a gripping sci-fi film.   It has tensions between the cynical Heston and the more idealistic astronauts.  It has satirically inverted role play between simians and humans:  the apes replicate human vanity and cruelty vis a vis the rest of nature, this is down right Swiftian.  There are no special effects to get in the way, so we can follow Heston through this nightmarish dystopia in an austere setting like the Palaeolithic era.  The first sight of the apes on horseback is quite scary and novel, and it’s nice to see the tables turned on predatory humans.  There are good satirical points made at the expense of fear-induced taboo, racism, and self serving arguments for caste arrogance over a slave culture.  It makes us uneasy as it exposes the arbitrary  symbol mongering of our rituals.  The ape settlement appears to be a sort of visionary anthropological experiment.  The caged humans are like a stage set for do-it-yourself performance art..

The film could have tried to make the Simian world more alien.  At times it looks like a Western in fancy dress, and of course there has to be a love interest between hero Charlton Heston and one of the captives.  This film was made in the same year as 2001, by contrast it wants its astronauts to be old fashioned heroes rather than the cerebral astronauts of Kubrik’s film.  Interesting to see that humourless monument, Charlton Heston, playing a cynic who becomes a hero in spite of himself.

Planet of the Apes seems to have become something of a sci-fi template setter:  the horsemen in Zardoz wear masks and remind us of the apemen on horseback, there are naked plebs threatening a tyrannical social order, there is the clinching monument that symbolizes catastrophe and dystopia.  Here it’s the Statue of Liberty, in Logans’ Run it’s the Washington memorials.  Not a discarded supermarket trolley in sight!

 

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The Wrong Man

The Wrong Man posterSynopsis

Alfred Hitchcock introduces this film of his, which he says is stranger than fiction.  It’s based on the real life story of Manny Ballestrero who is a musician and family man who is wrongly accused of armed robbery.  He is identified as an armed robber by the woman who works in the insurance office he visits.  The police parade him before robbery victims, and they are all fairly certain that Fonda who plays Manny Ballestrero is the culprit.  He is taken to the station, his writing is compared with the robber’s, he is identified in the parade as the criminal.  We see him subject to the Kafka-like alienation of the prison procedures, we see his world cave in, and his 1950’s ‘American dream’ wife go to pieces and be admitted into psychiatric care.  The real robber is found, Fonda’s wife recovers her mental health, and the woman who did for him looks ashamed.

Criticism

This is a black and white 1956 film, and along side Twelve Angry Men we see Fonda playing the martyr to weakness and stupidity.  Interestingly, we only know of Fonda’s innocence because Hitchcock tells us so at the beginning.  His point is not to make a thriller whose outcome leaves us in suspense, but to show us the effects of wrongful accusation.  The effects, of course, are usually psychologically,socially, economically and morally devastating.

This was made during the paranoid 50’s, what with its ‘un-American activities’ conjured up by McCarthy and the threat of nuclear war, but there is an ironic inversion here:  instead of Fonda being a threat to citizens, they are a threat to him.  Their well intentional stupidity is destructive and alarming, as was the paranoia of the anti-communist hysteria.  I’d like to think Hitchcock was attacking such mean minded politics, but maybe not.  Interestingly his leading lady, Vera Miles, is ‘Mrs American dream’ at the start of the film, then she goes insane, unable to take the ostracism her husband suffers.  Whatever Hitchcock’s real intentions, he was exposing the fragility of the American dream.  It was okay as long as people behaved themselves; the paradise of the new washing machines could be easily upset.  This was the era of the Douglas Sirk film.

We see the slow pressure working on Fonda’s own sanity and self respect:  the suspicion surrounding him, the writing tests that seem to confirm his guilt, the identity parades all turning the screw on his self doubt.  Hitchcock is much better at showing ‘ordinary’ people trying to hold on to their sanity than he is at cod psychology in films such as Psycho and Marnie.

Anthony Quayle plays the lawyer defending Fonda, and you can see that he doubts Fonda but tries to battle his doubt.  This accentuates the loneliness of the accused person, if there’s so much accusation, surely there is something in it?  This is the nearest that Hitchcock gets to the genius of The Trial by Kafka.  Only Fonda, and we the onlookers, know that he is innocent, the implacable righteousness of his accusers is as terrifying as the intractable enigma of The Trial and its agents.  They are well intentioned people who think they are doing good but their very conscientiousness is appalling in its sense of right.  This fascinates Hitchcock, the process over which we  have no control and how it manipulates us:  it can be a psychotic’s mind, a flock of birds gone mad, people caught up in Cold War spy games.  Remember the mistaken identity of James Stewart  in North by North West and his helplessness in the face of sinister manipulation.  None of this is as bad as a real life case of mistaken identity.  Hitchcock traces the disintegration of this victims’ life with almost sadistic respect for detail, made worse by the fact that we don’t know the exact ending.  Mistaken identity or the search for an authentic identity are big factors in Hitchcock films like in Vertigo and there is no consoling redemption through love.  The Fonda victim is vindicated by accident, he could have easily gone to jail battling the indifference and suspicion of his lawyer and family.

This is Hitchcock at his best and yet amazingly is one of his least known films.  Note how the camera lingers accusingly on Fonda’s face like it did through the window of the hotel room at the start of Psycho or in Rear Window. We know Fonda is innocent but the camera wants to catch at any weakening of resolve, or at any doubt of self in the face of consensual slander abetted by the sort of bureaucratic processes which ensure the guilt of the accused.  An uneasy film, and scarier than the fictions of his other works of this period.  Hitchcock’s gaze is full on in this movie.

 

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The Caine Mutiny

The Caine Mutiny poster

A  superb Mutiny on the Bounty for the 20th century U.S. Navy. There had never been any mutinies in American navies, so Herman Wouk had to invent one!  The action is taut, and nothing is superfluous.  The action is gripping.  Bogart as the embattled paranoid martinet is usually superb, if transparently melodramatic at times.  The naive officers look sympathetic and the Iago-like.  McMurray is a vice hold of a performance.

The story is about the psychological disintegration of Captain Queeg (Bogart), the mutiny, and the court martial.   McMurray is good on superficially plausible charm and he shows well his weasel-like capacity to set people up and then back away.  He has literary pretensions and the film suggests that art  and life can conflict over trustworthiness and other issues of human relationships.  The fetid claustrophobic feel of the ship (a war time minesweeper) is convincing and the dynamics of ship life are well brought out.   Jose Ferrer is excellent as the defending lawyer and E.G. Marshall gives his usual coldly cerebral persona another work out as the prosecuting lawyer.  I found Queeg’s courtroom disintegration too Perry Mason simple and unconvincing, but it is on the whole an involving courtroom scene in line with other courtroom dramas the 50s excelled in (The Wrong Man, Billy Mitchell).  Surely this had a lot to do with McCarthy, a Hollywood riposte to McCarthyite hearings.

The film seems to delight in our ambivalences about military authoritarianism: we consider it acceptable when it assuages our vanity in being deemed to be worthy of us and when it puts on an affable face, but when it acts according to an original personality(Queeg’s), we feel the need to undermine it, this is what the officers did.  Ferrer exposes the duplicitously shitty McMurray at the end, and he gives a speech about acknowledging the war experiences of everyone.

 

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