I went to Temple and Sunday classes like any good Jewish boy; I wasn’t just bar mitzvahed, bubbeleh, I was confirmed, which is like finishing with honors at Bar Mitzvah Graduate School. Yet, despite my insufferable slacker-Job disposition during those quizzical coming-of-age years, I now recall questioning the whole heaping story from as far back as I can remember. By the time I nearly minored in religion at Cal State Fullerton, my longstanding lack of faith in the Bible as any kind of truth became as entrenched as my assessment of it merely being a nice book with an abundance of morals, vengeance, bloodshed and repetition. Not unlike The Lord of the Rings.MORE...
Skepticism squashed the orthodoxy out of me. I tend to get stubborn and pissy about this, but for me the Holy Handbook undoes itself almost right away. During your next hotel stay, flip to Genesis 4:16-17, otherwise known as the couplet where Cain, firstborn son of Adam and Eve, goes off to Nod and knocks up his wife. (Wait, let’s be accurate: He knew his wife. You know, like how Trump knows America.) The literal impossibility of this still gnaws at me no matter how many theories you want to lob at my soul. Stuff your semantics, oh pious ones, and give me a valid answer: Where’d this nubile spouse come from, other than nearby?
Lemme see if I’ve got the chronology more or less straight: Heaven, Earth, darkness on the deep, spirit of God moving over the face of the waters (maybe the best biblical description ever? and we just started!), now let there be LIGHT!, and FIRMAMENT!, and how about some land, sea, day, night, evening, morning, sun, moon, stars, plants, poultry, SEA-MONSTERS (fruitfully multiplying leviathans!), cattle, CREEPING THINGS (?!), Adam, day of rest (whew! what a week), Eve, snake, tempting but bad-very-very-bad apples, bye bye Eden, introducing Cain, Abel, Mrs. Cain ...
Hang on a tick ... how did you just poof! into this funtime fable? And hey: Where’d all those people in neighboring Nod come from anyway? They with you? Are they on the list? Great Caesar’s Ghost, what kind of nonsense is this? And why are millions upon millions upon millions of us still living out our eventually microscopic existences according to the “laws” stiltedly strewn throughout this saga? Which gets me wondering: If in, let’s say, another thousand years the foundation of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim world has somehow eroded to the point of meaninglessness in an ultimately god(s)-free universe, will The Matrix seem just as believable a creation story? And thus spawn just as many sheep to be flocked?
This is what The Milky Way does to me. I’m left pondering imponderables, spiraling deeper into rabbit holes lined with contradictions and conflicted streams of (il)logic — precisely the sort of mad-world philosophical absurdity that surrealist master Luis Buñuel taps into so skillfully, often piercingly.
Several of his justly celebrated films fire at other trigger topics, whether eviscerating the entitled class in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, for which he won the Oscar for best foreign language film) and satirizing its mores in The Phantom of Liberty (1974, for which he should have again) or exploring the boundaries of kink and the depths of obsession in still-edgy works like Belle du Jour (1967, starring a ravishing, and ravished, Catherine Deneuve) and his final masterpiece, That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Those are only his autumnal masterpieces. This is also the same Buñuel who took Cannes and the cineaste world by storm in 1950 with Los Olvidados, and who two decades before that had co-created with Salvador Dali that most famous sleight — and slice — of sight, Un Chien Andalou.
But Buñuel’s most persistent target was religion, specifically that branch most overburdened by theological constraints and bylaws: Catholicism. In one of his most powerful works, Viridiana (1961), he deftly stitched together two of his lifelong artistic passions, skewering the sacred and fetishizing the profane, back when a trenchant tone toward unspeakable themes was controversial enough to get both Buñuel and his picture branded sacrilegious and often banned. It’s a milestone in his filmography for a reason. And yet I wouldn’t have picked that title to represent my relationship with religion this past half-century even if it were also born in ’69.
The Milky Way (properly La Voie Lactée), a considerably odder experience, comes closer to encapsulating my nattering bewilderment and endless fascination with the Good Book’s fantasies, “evidence,” and ongoing molding (someone say destruction?) of our world. I greatly empathize with Pierre and Jean, a maybe-agnostic pair journeying through a maze of faith-clouding incidents like Damon & Affleck’s Dogma angels gone hobo. As their pilgrimage along the Way of St. James takes them from Paris to the Spanish holy city of Santiago de Compostela, they come across all manner of canonical perversions and symbolism gone awry: stigmatic hitchhiking children, nuns crucifying nuns, a sword fight during which the duelers debate predestination vs. irresistible grace, a Jesus who thinks he could do with a shave.
It’s all baffling and wordy and uncertain and strangely funny, and though Buñuel later considered it the first salvo in a truth-seeking trilogy (including Discreet Charm and Phantom), I’m not sure it all adds up to anything but a lot of heretical notions and mental masturbation. In other words: life as I’ve always known it.LESS
Here’s one to elucidate what I mean about stretching the before-and-after limits of this bedrock BenFest category. Technically this seething, scathing critique of British boarding schools (and thereby class conflict in general) was first released in the UK on Dec. 19, 1968; it didn’t debut stateside until almost spring in New York City and would go on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May. So there’s not much denying its impact began in ’69, a year teeming with revolutionaries both solid and pseudo, artistic and asinine, and verging on a tipping point before flooding into a truly golden era of film history that really couldn’t help but be overpopulated by antiheroes.MORE...
Among those pivotal performers who could so innately and unnervingly embody the fed-up explosiveness at the core of the youth movement by the end of the ’60s, very few rival Malcolm McDowell, whose competition for most menacing thespian of his era pretty much starts and ends with Jack Nicholson. (Maybe Oliver Reed, too.) McDowell’s wildly varied, decades-long body of work can’t compare to the overall immensity of Nicholson’s, nor does his output during both actors’ most seminal years (’69-’79) measure up. Whereas Jack racked up eight indelible roles by ’75 — from Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger and more in between — Malcolm’s alluringly violent visage had only emblazoned itself into the collective imagination thrice. In reverse order: Lindsay Anderson’s woefully under-appreciated Pilgrims Progress-esque road picture O Lucky Man! (1973), Stanley Kubrick’s still-jaw-dropping dystopic horrorshow A Clockwork Orange (1971), and our BenFest selection, Anderson’s earlier breakthrough, If....
What initially appears to be a staid drama in the soon-to-rise spirit of Merchant/Ivory is instead revealed as an unexpectedly anarchic and groundbreaking work, roiled by the same palpable energy that coursed through Anderson’s striking directorial debut, the rugby-and-rough-hearts intensity that is This Sporting Life (1963), Richard Harris’s breakout film, a sports-movie performance bested only by De Niro in Raging Bull (1980). That barely-controlled fury is much more bottled up by Anderson and his lead actor this time, then twisted tightly shut — all the better for the eventual pressurized BANG of the film’s ending, a predecessor to the finale of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), foreshadowed by poison-dart stares only McDowell’s raised eyebrows can properly convey. As with two other equally less-seen master classes of sociopolitical cinema from 1969 — the boyhood struggle of Ken Loach’s Kes and the crossfire hurricane of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool — the grip of If.... is hard to sense and even harder to shake. And then it chokes out an unthinkable inevitability in an unanticipated (yet not so inexplicable) stunner of a finish, one that cuts even deeper today than it did when I first saw it in my early 20s. I still wonder if we won’t yet see revitalized mutations of its message emerge from these years of apathy and madness.
Anderson’s treatise on school-sanctioned cruelty levied upon children Lord of the Flies-style — and the virulent resentment it incurs — seems to me borne as much from his frustrations with living some kind of allegedly closeted life as it does his hostility toward the Establishment’s perennial efforts to churn everyone out the same. McDowell would work with Anderson a third and fourth time after O Lucky Man! — on 1980’s remake of John Osborne’s angry-young-man template Look Back in Anger and 1982’s fantastical, Hammer Films-influenced Britannia Hospital. He places Anderson’s sexual conflict somewhere in a gray area, which resonates with me. “I know that he was in love with Richard Harris,” he told Geoffrey Macnab of The Independent in 2006. “I am sure that it was the same with me and Albert Finney [whose Memorial Productions produced If....] and the rest. It wasn’t a physical thing. But I suppose he always fell in love with his leading men. He would always pick someone who was unattainable because he was heterosexual.” That kind of tension is hard to cope with; no wonder his films made it their lifeblood.LESS
Full disclosure: This was not among the original choices to represent my entry year. Rather than see most of these spots snatched up by the usual indisputable landmarks of ’60s cinema — The Wild Bunch and Midnight Cowboy vying for pole position, closely followed by this countercultural classic and the first smash-hit Newman & Redford pairing, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — I decided early on that I’d simply address their importance and subsequent dismissal, just as I am now, and move on. Those staples, all must-sees, seemed best set aside for another year, I felt, in favor of spotlighting something that perhaps more people haven’t seen.MORE...
Thus, this space had been reserved for Downhill Racer, an innovatively-shot character study in reckless ambition and aloof loner-ism that marks not only the auspicious directorial debut of one of the lesser-celebrated talents from the decade to come, Michael Ritchie, but also the inauspicious launch of Robert Redford’s career as producer and filmmaker via Wildwood Pictures, which he established to fund this self-starring venture for Paramount.
So including their appropriately chilly but riveting behind-the-skis piece would have given me reason to touch on both artists’ oeuvres, starting with how Downhill Racer’s what-now? ending is expanded upon in Ritchie & Redford’s next teaming, the Poli-Sci 101 mainstay The Candidate (1972). It also would have permitted me to boast how there’s never been a sports-genre director outside of documentaries capable of capturing such raw, untrammeled action as the man who would go on to make The Bad News Bears (1976) and the less-successful but still worthwhile Semi-Tough (1978). Check the tapes: Here was that rarest of movie men uninterested in employing slo-mo to heighten suspense. Real-time gameplay delivered with rapidly judicious editing could be even more invigorating, especially since winning or losing never seemed to matter much in Ritchie’s films. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his December ’69 review: “In the end, Downhill Racer succeeds so well that instead of wondering whether the hero will win the Olympic race, we want to see what will happen to him if he does.”
But then, on Aug. 16, just as would-be hippies everywhere were toking up in tribute to the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, one of the icons of the Summer of ’69, Peter Fonda, died of lung cancer at 79 — and Downhill Racer instantly downshifted to Easy Rider. Suddenly it seemed ludicrous to exclude the biggest grass-roots movie sensation of 1969, as much a totem of a generation as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Catcher in the Rye. How I could deny the justly heralded, fully drug-fueled road trip that rocketed Jane’s baby brother and Jack Nicholson to stardom; that proved both boon and bane to its whacked-out but visionary-adjacent director and co-star, Dennis Hopper; that successfully catapulted independent cinema into the mainstream and, perhaps more than any of its filmic brethren, bashed open studio doors for New Hollywood forces; and which further cemented Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” already a chart-topper from the year before, into biker lore? It’s still compelling viewing, still a picturesque/picaresque snapshot/travelogue, still a weird American epic with a French sense of rhythm.
It’s far from this particular Fonda’s finest screen work, however, an inarguable statement to which anyone who has seen his Oscar-nominated turn in Ulee’s Gold (1997) will attest. Ironically, he lost, and I’m not so sure he should have, to his old Easy Rider roadmate Nicholson, who accepted the prize for As Good as It Gets. (They each got one at the Golden Globes, thanks to that award show’s genre-segregated categories.) Two decades and then some later, I only really remember “you make me wanna be a better man” from Jack’s screen romance with Helen Hunt — but I can still conjure the most moving images from Peter’s performance. It has a profound stoicism at its core that’s downright (Henry) Fonda-esque, and when you can watch the younger star during his motorcycle-and-leather days backward through that lens of time, the natural presence and stature inherited from his father leaps right out. If you’ve never seen it — but have seen, say, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s spot-on terrific resurrection and rethinking of the Manson legend of ’69 — you really owe it to your cerebellum to step back in time with this one, especially now, and get context.LESS
Fifty years later — as opposed to just thirty or so, when I saw it for the first time while my sexual clarity was far more clouded — I find it all too appropriate that this cornerstone of married life and sex in cinema arrived roughly a week before I did. If you know me even slightly intimately, which is to say you’ve been invited to read everything on this site, you’re likely aware of some part of my checkered past, romantic and otherwise, or my three-count-’em-three failed marriages, and you’ve probably at least heard whispers of screaming infidelities. So let’s set the record straight.MORE...
The first attempt at forever-after, a pathetically half-hearted one on my part, was with a wise, determined soul named Tenny, who later would become a prized talent at CNN and the Los Angeles Times. We were great friends who never should have stepped up our relationship, and I was the fool who urged that to happen. The judge rubber-stamped the annulment of our partnership, such as it was, within months of the wedding. Beloved by those fortunate to know and/or work with her, Tenny succumbed to cancer in 2017 after an admirably valiant battle, the Times reported, during which she never stopped working, fulfilled a wish to travel to Japan and, as a lifelong foodie, managed to eat her way through renowned restaurant critic Jonathan Gold’s list of the 101 best restaurants. She would have been 50 two months before me.
My second marriage comprised two years of blind bliss, followed by two years of boundary busting and betrayal, openness and exploration, pornography, prostitution, a LOT of makeup and high heels and a strange parade of barely identified men and sometimes women, culminating in several bouts of manic depression, one 5150 arrest (not mine) and at least one suicide attempt (also not mine). But there’s no need to name names or get into the gory details. Not here, anyway.
The third marriage was to my beautiful son Sam’s mom, Roxanne, and she’s a peach, now officially Mrs. Ancona, which sounds a helluva lot better than Mrs. Hack-Wener. It wasn’t her fault that I hadn’t figured myself out and kept trampling hearts and other body parts along my unfaithful path to owning up to who and what I am. Like Owen Wilson’s Dignan at the launch of Bottle Rocket, Rox had a 5-year, 10-year and 25-year plan; I had none, other than to keep working as a music critic until I finally had some kinda reputation. By the time we’d reached the 5-year “let’s have a baby” milestone, I’d already shattered our foundation and sensed, as did she, that we wouldn’t last — and yet Sam was on the way. So we struggled and communicated and fought — and yes, soon divorced — and most importantly never stopped putting Sam first. And after that first hardest year, it gradually got easier to co-parent and, crucially, rebuild our trust and friendship. I’ve been blessed in innumerable ways, chief among them having Sam and finding Jessica, my two greatest joys. But my enduring partnership with Roxanne may well be my (dare I say our?) proudest achievement.
What’s all this got to do with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice? Plenty. Dated though some aspects may or may not be — elements of Esalen and the Human Potential Movement might seem quaint or groovy-silly today, yet our collective drive for self-awareness via group therapy has hardly waned a half-century later — what I found in Paul Mazursky’s trendsetter when I finally saw it in my 30s was exactly the sort of brutal honesty and sexual frankness I could scarcely find in movies of the ’90s or ’00s (or even now).
Never mind that both couples — Robert Culp & Natalie Wood as sexier stand-ins for Mazursky and his wife Betsy (by then 15 years into their own ultimately enduring marriage), Elliott Gould & Dyan Cannon as their more conservative best friends — were stars of my parents’ generation, not mine, although I find it amusing that Culp and Wood were the bigger names at the time yet it’s Gould and Cannon, both just beginning to find widespread fame, who nabbed Oscar nominations for their performances. I looked past what didn’t shallowly apply to my life at 30 (or now) as much as I did some of the film’s surface, which verges on television-style caricatures despite how well B&C&T&A holds up as a template for decades of dramedy to come. Beyond all that, plus the outmoded fashions and slang, what I encountered were people I related to, who were legitimately struggling with questions of lust and fidelity, possessiveness and ego, double standards for hypocritical chauvinists vs. none for empowered women, society’s rules vs. nature’s way — and every bit of it addressed in the same humorously pseudo-intellectual way I was contemplating just about everything at that time.
My high-school-graduate self, hyper-eager to seek out ribald material yet incapable for years of finding a copy or catching it on cable, always expected to smirk and drool over what I imagined was something scandalously naughty. My thirtysomething self was quite astonished to discover instead a provocatively thoughtful — and funny, and sexy too — account of the “lifestyle” (oy, that word) I had only recently adopted. It was sobering viewing, especially that ending. Did they? Didn’t they? Mazursky says no. Tarantino, who recently said he considers it “the best sex comedy that Hollywood had made during that era” and thinks only Hal Ashby’s brilliant Shampoo (1975) measures up, isn’t so sure. “For all the enlightenment they may or may not achieve,” he pointed out, “there are still lines they can’t cross.” What those lines are, exactly, he can’t say, and neither could I. You should decide for yourself — by pondering the flick, that is. Maybe don’t try my way.
Fun fact: Four years later it was spun into an obviously much tamer — and presumably dumber — sitcom starring Robert Urich, soon to find fame via two of ABC’s better-faring hourlong dramas, S.W.A.T. and Vega$, plus Anne Archer, eventual best supporting actress nominee for Fatal Attraction, and Jodie Foster, two years younger than she was in Taxi Driver, as Ted & Alice’s daughter, even though in the movie they had a son. Like it mattered. Scheduled against two hit shows — CBS’s Top 10 smash The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and NBC’s cops series Adam-12 — it sank like Natalie Wood (what, too soon?) and was axed after two months, with only seven out of a dozen episodes seeing airtime.LESS
I absolutely despised D.H. Lawrence in high school, so angrily that I willfully lowered my overall grade in AP British Lit during junior year by essentially refusing to pay close attention to anything going on in Sons and Lovers apart from the passages and parsing I was forced to endure on campus. My foolhardy misreading of the English firebrand’s first of many legally challenged and widely banned books led to pretty piss-poor test scores. (Ironically, I spent my time reading and re-reading Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, all the rage back in ’85/’86, a book that, like countless others, owes a debt to all that Lawrence’s novels suffered.) But my Cliffs Notes-level of study was plenty to test my patience. I simply could not get on Lawrence’s wavelength, nor comprehend the actions and reactions, never mind emotions, behind what I then viewed as overly veiled prose that made Shakespeare’s look as breezy-readable as a Harlequin romance. If Tons of Lovers, as my classmates and I wishful-thinkingly re-dubbed it, was such a tedious, tortured and Oedipally bonkers slog to get through, how in the world could Lady Chatterley’s Lover, about which we’d heard all kinds of delicious rumors, really be worth wasting a wank on?MORE...
Ah, to be 16. It wasn’t until I’d reached drinking & gambling age that I even considered giving anything else Lawrence-related a chance, and that’s only because the crazy Englishman who was Ken Russell had adapted something called The Rainbow into a pastoral vision that looked like he’d gleefully smashed Wuthering Heights into A Room with a View, two favorites with which I’d recently fallen in breathtaking love. To that mix he then added full-frontal nudity, something I was very much in favor of at that age (as well as now, and also ... now). Back then (ok, now too) I’d sit through any kinda retread Upstairs Brideshead Downstairs Revisited twaddle that any hot-shit director wanted to stage if there was maybe a shot at seeing one of my dream Brits (they were always Brits) in the buff for two measly seconds along the way. Surely I’m not alone in this blatantly prurient voyeuristic pursuit. An ’88-into-’89 example I remember well: There is no possible way that enough people went to see Dangerous Liaisons — an excellent, nominations-lavished period piece from a more-than-hot-shit director, Stephen Frears — for such a modestly-priced picture to pull in nearly $35 million at the box office without some percentage of mostly male patrons deciding “sure, what the hell, I’ll take my girlfriend and look classy” chiefly because other male friends told them “you gotta see this Uma Thurman chick’s tits!”
Ken Russell, I’m convinced, had a lot to do with how I got this way about sex-steeped cinema, highbrow or low.
Of course, I could say the same about Blake Edwards’s “10”, which I saw at the Cinedome in Orange when I was in fact 10, sitting bewildered by jokes that went over my head, perplexed at how the neighbor who Dudley Moore keeps spying on is able to just pull some woman’s panties down and insert himself while she’s bent over for her next billiards shot, and also alarmingly aroused by any scene that involved Bo Derek. I believed that new and very fleeting star was so beautiful, her face so eerily, icily purrrrfect, that she couldn’t possibly be human, no, she must be some otherworldly replicant, like in Blade Runner. (I also felt this way about Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot when I was still young and impressionable, and even once I grew up and knew better, Jeanne Moreau’s sad gorgeousness still made me second-guess everything.)
I also ought to lay some blame on the makers of a slew of movies both great and terrible that could keep me doing the HBO > Showtime > Movie Channel remote-control roundelay into the quietest hours on late and lonely nights, desperate to glimpse some T&A by catching key scenes from Animal House or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, or their inferior B-versions Bachelor Party and Porky’s. Or ones that appealed to my boyhood fantasies: I was all-in any time Private Lessons with Sylvia Kristel of Emmanuelle fame could be found. Hell, I could happily tolerate pure drivel like Screwballs and The Last American Virgin (such a mean-spirited mess, that one) just for a peek of skin. These brats today don’t know how good they have it with all their free porn.
But then I saw Russell’s notorious flop Crimes of Passion sometime around high-school graduation in ’87. Yes, because Playboy had told me to, without their critic Bruce Williamson actually liking the movie, as I recall. No one liked it, nor had reason to; it’s an utterly ridiculous movie that keeps trying to say something Very Important about ... good lord, I don’t know ... marital ennui? Men who suffer from Madonna/whore complexes? Mysterious office drones seeking solace in alter-ego thrills? Whatever point is being made either gets completely smothered in Anthony Perkins’ outrageous overacting — he practically hyperventilates as a psychotic street preacher wielding a sharp metallic vibrator he calls Superman — or is undone by the single most wooden performance I’ve ever witnessed, by one John Laughlin, who beat out Jeff Bridges, Patrick Swayze and Alec Baldwin for the role. Because Laughlin was cheaper.
But the wild descriptions I read of Kathleen Turner, already a long-legged orgasm in six-inch heels in addition to her considerable acting chops, and here portraying a meek-mannered fashion designer by day but a seedy roleplay-ready hooker named China Blue by night — that was far too promising not to prove at least half as scintillating on screen as it all sounded on paper. On that level, Crimes of Passion is near-hardcore porn of the highest quality, which meant that I gawked gape-mouthed so many times at Ms. Turner’s trick-turning scenes (the stewardess bit was a particular favorite) that the spots on the VHS tape where they would begin soon required splicing to keep from crumbling.
So you can appreciate why I felt compelled to pay attention to The Rainbow, regardless how instantly wary I was of its source material. By that point, near the dawn of the ’90s, my compulsive desire to rewatch Crimes of Passion (at least parts of it) had led me to connect some dots in Russell’s career, although it would be at least another 10-20 years before I’d catch up with the more bizarre, obscure and phantasmagorical entries in his catalog, like The Devils (1971, for years widely censored or banned) and Lisztomania (1975), which he made with Roger Daltrey as Franz Liszt shortly after committing The Who’s Tommy to celluloid. I’d seen that undeniably engrossing monstrosity more than once, unable to shake some of its strangest imagery: Tina Turner terrifying as the Acid Queen! Ann-Margret emerging face first from a bathtub of baked beans! Jack Nicholson singing! I’d also never forgotten the still-intense sensory-deprivation trip Altered States (1980), partly because the insane visual panoply Russell provided for William Hurt’s mental deterioration got me to understand what a psychoactive hallucination could be like, but also because Blair Brown was in it, and I had a puppy-love crush on Blair Brown from Continental Divide in 1981 until well past her exceptional TV series The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd ended a decade later.
Observing The Rainbow, however, as well as the series of literarily-steeped showcases that preceded it — Gothic (1986), based on Mary Shelley’s first telling of Frankenstein; the theatrically erotic Salome’s Last Dance (1988), expanded from Oscar Wilde’s controversial play; and The Lair of the White Worm (also 1988), from a lesser-known Bram Stoker novella — I began to realize what kind of lunatic genius Ken Russell really could be. The Rainbow and Salome also introduced me to the scarcely-bested greatness of Glenda Fucking Jackson, as that most esteemed of actresses is known in our house — and that discovery, along with some non-Russell detours to find out about her touted comedies with George Segal (1973’s A Touch of Class) and Walter Matthau (1978’s House Calls), eventually led me to the ultimate D.H. Lawrence adaptation, the film that conquered my fear & loathing of him: Women in Love.
The Midlands-set story, a sequel to The Rainbow that Russell tackled 20 years before filming its backstory, concerns the Brangwen sisters, grounded yet yearning schoolteacher Ursula (the fetching Jennie Linden) and philosophical yet impetuous painter Gudrun (the transfixing Ms. Jackson, in the first of her two Oscar-winning performances*). Their perpetual curiosity leads them into various phases of affairs and fights with, respectively, school inspector Rupert Birkin (affable Alan Bates with a bad makeup job attempting to cover a nose wart) and coal-mine heir Gerald Crich (the molten presence that was Oliver Reed). If recollections of surviving parties are to be believed, Rupert was based on Lawrence himself; Ursula, whom Rupert pursues relentlessly despite her inability to fill the void of passion he has for Gerald, was drawn from his wife Frieda; Gudrun was derived from the traits of friend and fellow author Katherine Mansfield, another writer who palled around with T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf; and Gerald was culled from Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murray. In real life, John had an affair with Frieda and was later vilified for riding his dead wife’s coattails after her premature passing from tuberculosis at 34, in 1923.
In Women in Love, Gerald is as enraptured by Gudrun as she is initially indifferent toward his advances (“I love you,” he tells her; “that’s one way of putting it,” she replies) — and then she’s openly repulsed, belittling him during an Alps getaway by assaulting his manhood and shacking up with a gay German, which leads the explosive Gerald to almost choke her to death. Ultimately, Reed’s simmering brute faces a curiouser fate — eroticized nude wrestling by firelight with Bates’s more wiry Rupert, complete with several free-willy sightings — as well as a humiliating, if self-styled, end. What that all signifies (or doesn’t) is open to interpretation. But what’s unmistakably bold is the vivid richness and visceral power of Russell’s filmmaking, lunging through demented segments kaleidoscopically, shattering our sense of cinematic tradition via lengthy takes that are eerily meditative (most famously Jackson’s interpretive dance before an actual herd of Highland cattle set to stampede while Linden sings “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”), or smacking us with sudden jolts that are still startlingly frenetic (let’s pause here to picture that nude wrestling match once more ...).
That its ending is bleak should come as no surprise. What stays with me most, though, is Rupert’s indecision, how he willfully dooms himself to permanent unhappiness by remaining torn between the straight path that leads to wedded bliss (?) with Ursula and the harder-to-face reality that he’ll never feel complete without Gerald in the mix. What better 1969 choice, then, by Ken Russell or anyone else, for a queer duck such as I.
That said, should this one miraculously win the Jury Vote (ha, yeah sure), I reserve the right to program it as a double-feature with Performance, the infamously withheld, definitely weird, wildly brilliant psychosexual head trip from co-directors Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg. The latter of the two, a sought-out cinematographer by Truffaut and Lester and Schlesinger and others throughout the ’60s, would soon create some of the next decade’s most enduringly mysterious works of film art: Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Bad Timing (1980). Which is why I’ve always assumed the reason Performance’s barely-controlled chaos holds together and succeeds as more than an unusual time-capsule item has lots to do with Roeg, much less Cammell.
It also doesn’t hurt that it contains two striking titular breakouts from Mick Jagger, in his screen debut, and James Fox, rising English star previously seen in The Chase (1966) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Fox gave up acting after Performance, however, to become an evangelical Christian — unlike his more famous brother Edward, a familiar face that Anglophiles will recall from Gandhi (1982), The Day of the Jackal (1973), A Bridge Too Far (1977) and dozens more. That Jagger fellow, meanwhile, apparently still plays in some kind of pop combo, I hear.
(*Keen observers may wonder how it is Glenda Fucking Jackson could win the best actress Oscar in 1971 for a film originally released in late ’69. Answer: It didn’t open stateside until March 25, 1970.)LESS
Age of Consent, one of Michael Powell’s overlooked late-career gems, with a tanned and bearded James Mason (who co-produced) as a stand-in for the free-thinking Australian artist Norman Lindsay, and Helen Mirren in all of her young, unadorned Helen Mirrenness as his model; Cactus Flower, a Gene Saks comedy scripted by Billy Wilder’s best screenwriter, I.A.L. Diamond, featuring screen legends Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman ushering in the arrival of another one, Laugh-In star Goldie Hawn, on her way to Oscar gold; The Cremator, an eye-grabbing b&w horror film from the Czechoslovak New Wave that I’ve only recently discovered; De Sade, one of three-count-’em-three ’69 movies (including two strictly devoted to Justine) focusing on the sadomasochistic life and writings of that naughty-naughty imprisoned boy the Marquis de Sade, this one starring Keir Dullea, an odd choice for the titular role, and odder still to take it on immediately after 2001: A Space Odyssey (and why wouldn’t all three be shown in the same day, with a wee-hours nightcap of pure fucking courtesy of Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie?); Fellini Satyricon, because of course, love it or loathe it; The Honeymoon Killers, a raw, arresting b&w indie flick that plays like John Waters doing film noir, which I almost picked for this year’s Top 5 to represent my train-wreck of a second marriage; The Illustrated Man, based on three Ray Bradbury short stories, chosen mainly to gauge reactions when Rod Steiger’s full-body tattoo art is revealed; John & Mary, Peter Yates’s unusual proto-Before Sunrise choice to follow up the Steve McQueen action smash Bullitt, a piece of chatty-intellectual dating-life angst involving post-Midnight Cowboy Dustin Hoffman and post-Rosemary’s Baby Mia Farrow, and they might as well have attached their names to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice; Last Summer, a remarkable, alarming coming-of-age picture starring then-unknowns Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison and Richard Thomas (shortly before he became John-Boy on The Waltons), plus an Oscar-nominated turn from still-unknown Catherine Burns; The Love God?, question mark intentional, because this preposterous comedy posits Barney Fife himself, Don Knotts, as a babe-magnet whose mere presence is aphrodisiacal (how envious would Mr. Furly be?!); Mississippi Mermaid, swampy intrigue from Francois Truffaut involving mistaken mail-order bride Catherine Deneuve and the man who marries her anyway, Jean-Paul Belmondo; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Maggie Smith’s irrepressible breakout role, which landed her an Oscar; Putney Swope, Robert Downey Sr.’s still-scathing satirization of race, advertising and corporate corruption; The Rain People, Francis Ford Coppola’s first attempt at something serious, starring Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman; Staircase, a fascinatingly dated portrait of a gay married couple played by the unlikeliest pair, Rex Harrison and Richard Burton; The Sterile Cuckoo, if only to remind people that Liza Minnelli had that It Factor well before Cabaret; Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, a terrifically tense chase-drama pitting Indian outlaw Robert Blake against deputy sheriff Robert Redford in the first film from blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky since his wicked 1948 noir Force of Evil; They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, director Sydney Pollack’s first triumph, with Jane Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, Susannah York, Red Buttons, Bruce Dern, Bonnie Bedelia and, best of all, best supporting actor Oscar winner Gig Young all caught up in a Depression-era dance marathon of death; What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, because I’ll watch anything with Ruth Gordon in it, especially unintentionally campy horror films; and The Wrecking Crew, which God’s-honest-truth I had on this list before I saw it spotlighted prominently in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, although now that I’ve fallen for his reimagining of the Manson murders and other 1969 elements, I also think it’d be fitting to show this goofy Dean Martin comedy alongside one of the last exploitation flicks shot at the infamous Spahn Ranch, The Female Bunch.