Saturday, March 26, 2011

MODESTY OR TRAVESTY? The 1966 cult film MODESTY BLAISE is something most viewers either love or hate. There seems to be no middle ground where this film is concerned. Released at the height of the swinging sixties, director Joseph Losey's adaptation of Peter O'Donnell's popular comic strip has really very little to do with its source material. This seems to be a major bone of contention with Modesty Blaise fans who have been known to refer to the film as "Travesty Blaise". Equally fervent are the film's cheerleaders who find the wacky 60's pop art style makes MODESTY BLAISE a camp comedy classic.
Femme Fatale Modesty Blaise (Antonioni muse Monica Vitti) is brought in by the British government to help them foil a diamond theft. Along the way are a series of spy-type situations involving Bond-villain-like Gabriel (a silver-wigged Dirk Bogarde). That's basically it. You see, there IS a plot. But that is only an excuse to set the movie in motion. Any thought of a literal translation of O'Donnell's strip should be quashed immediately when we see Modesty change her hair colour and wardrobe in the blink of an eye. Literally. Snap your fingers and she goes from blonde to brunette. We're not dealing with reality here; this is a surreal exercise in go-go-checked, day-glo pop art from deep in the heart of the groovy sixties. Yes, there is a deliberate surreal quality to the film which cannot be ignored. The clothes, the decor, the furniture, the gosh-darn lamps -- the film looks truly wonderful (in a nice, crisp print like the one I screened) as an over-the-top depiction of 60's ginchiness. The acting (for the most part) is funny because it's played straight without a knowing wink at the audience; the possible exception being Vitti herself who sometimes has her tongue jammed a little too far in her cheek. Dirk Bogarde is an absolute joy as the effete master criminal Gabriel -- he even tells Modesty at one point that he is the "villain of the piece" in a voice that fairly purrs -- and the film is worth watching for him alone if for nothing else. But there is plenty more to watch. Clive Revill has a dual role as Gabriel's accountant-like odd sidekick McWhirter (which Revill plays very straight) and Modesty Blaise's adopted sheikh father Abu Tahir (which he plays very broadly). Modesty's partner in crime Willie Garvin is quite nicely played by a bronzed Terence Stamp who never asks anyone to kneel before him once. Reliable Harry Andrews as British gov functionary Tarrant sends Modesty on her mission while Rossella Falk plays the psychopathic Mrs. Fothergill. The late Johnny Dankworth provides the suitably swinging Eurospy spoof music and Jack Hildyard lenses the film beautifully; some of the psychedelic interior sets can actually be tasted if you lick the TV screen. Tastes like candy, you dig?
Circumstances were such that I was forced to watch the film in two sittings: half one day and the other half the next. I must admit that the film annoyed me when I sat down to watch the first half. However, the next day when I took up the film again in the middle I quite enjoyed it. There can be no greater warning to the casual viewer that it will probably depend on your mindset at the exact moment when you sit down to watch it whether or not you will enjoy the film. If I had watched the entire film when I started it, I probably would be telling you now I hated it. However, if I had watched the whole film from start to finish the second day, I'd probably be raving about it. Suffice it to say that, as things now stand, I quite enjoyed it in a cotton candy kinda way. As ever, I am the square peg in the round hole because, unlike most I neither love nor hate the film. I enjoyed it fairly well while in a certain frame of mind but that's about as far as I'd go. The direction by Losey could've been better; another director would've made the film probably a more satisfying experience. Monica Vitti (who I love) seems like perfect casting in the role and she looks marvelous; however her "superspy" skills leave a lot to be desired. As a formidable femme fatale, Vitti's Modesty Blaise is rather hopeless having nary an action scene with very little evidence of fighting skills or weaponry prowess. She also seems to cower a lot while Willie Garvin gets her out of some scrapes. Not the capable heroine we are expecting. Perhaps it was the time period OR the multiple attempts at a screenplay OR the failings of the director OR most probably all three. However, none of this really matters since the original Modesty Blaise concept is only the bare bones skeleton on which to hang a sixties camp romp. MODESTY BLAISE is simply a movie which could not have been made a few years before OR a few years after 1966. Before that year, the style and concepts of the film would've been incomprehensible and by the late sixties the film would've been impossibly innocent and naive. As such, MODESTY BLAISE is a slight but valuable glimpse at a brief moment in time.

Monday, March 07, 2011

JUSTIN BIEBER?!?!?! Please! Before there was the Bieber hair there were the Cowsills, beeyotches!
"I was at a party and this fella said to me: 'something bad is happening; I'm sure you do agree. People care for nothing, no respect for human rights. Evil times are coming. We are in for darker nights.' I said 'Who are you to talk about impending doom?' He got kinda wary as he looked around the room. He said, 'I'm a minister; a big shot in the state.' I said, 'I just can't believe it! Boy, I think it's great! Brother, can you tell me what is right and what is wrong?' He said, "Keep on rockin', baby, till the night is gone..."

Friday, March 04, 2011

CIVILISATION: A PERSONAL VIEW BY KENNETH CLARK was a groundbreaking series anyway you look at it. However, it is only the first of about 3 or 4 documentary television series which made a huge impact on my life. I love documentaries and watch a ton of them; but documentary series on TV are a relatively rare breed sadly and I don't know why. And unfortunately, they have been co-opted in recent decades by the rather execrable, historically inaccurate Ken Burns fiascoes. But when it comes to my favourites -- ones I revisit again and again -- I would number among them Sir K's CIVILISATION, Carl Sagan's COSMOS in 1980, the GREAT BOOKS series from the 1990s narrated by Donald Sutherland and Simon Schama's 2000 HISTORY OF BRITAIN. I first saw CIVILISATION in the early 80s (after, in fact, having first seen COSMOS during its original 1980 premiere) and it was probably my first REAL encounter with art history. It no doubt heavily influenced my decision to minor in art history in college.
CIVILISATION burst forth in glorious colour in 1969 on BBC-2 in a deliberate effort to bring colour television to the masses; up till then the idea of colour TV was held to be a dubious prospect with fears of garish colour dragging down all efforts. However, David Attenborough, then head of BBC-2 programming, was determined to do colour and do it right. He therefore set about launching an arts programme in cohoots with director Michael Gill and co-producer Peter Montagnon to be shot in incredibly-more-expensive 35mm. But who to write and host the thing? Attenborough had no other thought than Sir Kenneth Clark (later Lord Clark) whose impeccable reputation as a preeminent scholar (based on seminal books on Leonardo and "The Nude") seemed ideal. Sir K, however, was a bit of a hard sell. For some reason, he had gotten it into his head that his fast approaching 70th birthday would spell the end of any and all meaningful contributions to art scholarship. His wife, Lady Clark, also was dead set against his wasting time on a television series while there were more "important" projects her husband could be devoting himself to. Sir K actually turned the TV project down . . . gently and none too definitively. A lunch in the BBC canteen convinced Clark that the Beeb was solidly behind the project and he relented; especially when the concept of the series being "a personal view" was floated. This would eliminate Sir K's reservations as to how he could possibly cover everything in a 13-part series. Whatever didn't fit (such as most of Spain's contribution to Western Art) was simply ignored! Yes, they got a lot of stick for that policy but there was really no other way to carry on with the series.
The companion book to the series which I've had since the early 80s.
The "Personal View" angle of CIVILISATION is probably what appeals to me most. After all, 3 of the 4 documentary series I mentioned above feature an on-screen host taking you through the programme; that host, whether Kenneth Clark, Carl Sagan or Simon Schama, can also be described as "quirky" and a little bit eccentric. More the better! Clark's obvious credentials as an authority of Western art were never in doubt but its his (sometimes barely contained) enthusiasm for his subject which carries the viewer through the series and spurs a lively interest for the subject at hand. How could one hope not to be charmed by Clark's enthusiasm for Rodin's statue of Balzac or his genuine hurt over the Protestant habit of knocking the heads off carvings of the Life of the Virgin in a Catholic Church? He genuinely cares and, through him, we care as well. And more, we understand what we're looking at and why it's good. And also there are the priceless moments when Sir K lets fly with his "quirky" observations. At one point he describes a painting of wild grasses by Durer, "much admired", he states, as reminding him of the back of a box containing a stuffed animal toy. Or when Clark states that the fact that Lord Byron wrote quite a lot of bad poetry isn't as bad as the fact that it was his bad poetry that brought him great fame! Priceless. And this attitude, far from seeming stodgy, shows Clark is down-to-earth despite his patrician aura. In the final episode, he even describes himself as a "stick in the mud". Someone who takes himself too seriously would not make those kind of comments. The art, however, he takes very seriously . . . if it is worthy.
The other aspect of the series that cannot be overstated is the wealth of marvelous art lovingly poured over by the camera. Some wag at the time poked fun at the series by lampooning Clark's on screen hosting in this way: "Here I am in front of the beautiful gothic Cathedral of X which you can't see because I'm standing in front of it". This, of course, isn't true. . .we always get a supremely good look at every painting, sculpture and building. Then there is also the extreme care taken with the music; chosen from the same time period as the artwork we are seeing and complimenting the visuals perfectly in every instance. When it comes to that rare instance when civilisation brings us to England, Clark presents Shakespeare to us by actually presenting Shakespeare -- we get renowned Shakespearean actors like Eric Porter and Ian Richardson (as well as an unbilled, impossibly young Patrick Stewart) performing scenes from KING LEAR, MACBETH and HAMLET. The HAMLET sequence in particular has always been a favourite of mine and I wish the BBC had filmed a complete Richardson HAMLET performance of the play at the time. Hell, Sir K even manages to make my intense dislike for Rococo art mellow to a mild distaste. That's the mark of a true miracle worker!
CIVILISATION is a treasure trove of Western art and one can only wish in vain that there had been 26 episodes instead of a mere 13. The series was not only a very respected triumph in TV programming but it was also a huge hit with the casual viewer. Attenborough describes (in a new interview on the dvd) how, at the time, the rarity of households with colour TV sets saw the rise of "Civilisation viewing parties" each week as friends and neighbours would gather to watch each new episode -- and Attenborough sneakily got round the huge budget the programme was costing the BBC by scheduling each episode to air twice in one week thereby halfing the show's budget. Sir K also travelled to America where the series was shown multiple times a day in Washington's National Gallery. Lines stretched around the block and Clark was cheered, applauded and swarmed by an admiring public. So great was the adulation by the "man in the street" ordinary viewer that, according to his memoirs, Clark had to hide himself away in the men's room where he sat and wept for 15 minutes before composing himself. Such warmth and appreciation from the TV viewer was well-deserved. CIVILISATION, even today, stands as one of the finest, most satisfying television experiences ever aired.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Animalympics (HD STEREO) Pt. 1

25 Masterpieces #3: Steven's Lisberger's ANIMALYMPICS (1980) OK you probably get by now that I'm being facetious here....

The Pirate Movie ~ Hold On (Kristy McNichol)

25 Masterpieces #2: Ken Annakin's THE PIRATE MOVIE (1982)

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The fish that saved Pittsburgh. Mighty Pisces by The Sylvers

25 Masterpieces #1) Gilbert Moses' THE FISH THAT SAVED PITTSBURGH (1979)
As you may already know, our friend Weaverman over at the FLEAPIT has undertaken the task of listing 25 Film Masterpieces: films which he feels are true (and rare) masterpieces of the cinematic art. You may also know that he's gotten a bit of stick for his choices being "unsurprising" or "predictible". Well, the month of March is upon us and I thought that I would also undertake to list 25 film masterpieces which do not duplicate Weaverman's choices . . . AND which I hope will be a tad more surprising and thought provoking. In the choosing of which films I think are cinematic masterpieces, I shall try my very best to spotlight films which, for one reason or the other, haven't gotten as much attention from the critics as CITIZEN KANE or CITY LIGHTS. But rest assured, these are not merely "great" films but, I think, are true film masterpieces illustrating the highest form of the art. Stay tuned for the very best film has to offer.