Tag Archives: Nicolas Roeg

Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”

My mini-retrospective of films directed by former cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (1928-2018) has reached back to the one I remembered liking best, the 1973 adaptation of a story by Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca), “Don’t Look Now.” I’ll immediately stipulate that it looks good, mostly set with a backdrop of incipient winter in Venice.

 

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It opens in a cozy Hertfordshire house where Laura (Julie Christie is looking at reference books and her husband John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) is looking at a slide of a church. He has a feeling that something is wrong and rushes out to find his daughter Christine in her red plastic raincoat has drowned trying to retrieve a ball from the pond. This is far more dramatic than Du Maurier’s original, in which the daughter dies of meningitis, but the result in both cases is grief-stricken parents.

Leaving their son Johnny in boarding school, the Baxters go to Venice, where John is supervising the restoration of a church, San Nicolò dei Mendicoli. (His Italian fluency comes and goes.) In the hotel in which they are the only guests, the Baxters have a lengthy sex scene that eventually is intercut with the two of them dressing to go out to dinner. (I’ll return to the gratuitous Sutherland nudity and the sex scene below!)

In a restaurant a pair of elderly British sisters (no longer twins) focus on the Baxters, sensing their pain. The blind, clairvoyant one, Heather (Hilary Mason), assures Laura that Christine is happy. Back at their table, Laura faints and is hospitalized.

The news from beyond the grave has broken through her depression, which is a relief to her husband, but he is dismayed at her involvement with psychic mumbo jumbo, though he has “the gift” himself (as we’ve already seen from his rushing out when his daughter is drowning…).

Plot spoiler alert

He disregards a warning that he is in danger, and Roeg shows that he can do action scenes in an accident. What happens seems excessive to the stimulus and the stimulus highly contrived, but some action is welcome!

Then there is a late-night call from the headmaster of John Jr’s school and Laura rushes back to England. Except that John Sr. sees Laura and the two elderly women dressed in black on the Grand Canal.

From that premonition on, what happens is unbelievable to me. I don’t believe that the police would arrest the British women. Even if they did, I don’t believe the blind one would be left alone in the police station (from where John rescues her after talking to Laura as she is leaving their son’s school).

Either as someone with psychic powers himself or as the rationalist, I don’t believe John would relentlessly follow and corner whoever is in the red plastic raincoat like Christine’s. I don’t believe that Laura (whom no one contends is psychic) could follow the route he took. Moreover, knowing that Laura would be going to the sisters’ hotel to meet him, would he go rushing off like that? And why couldn’t Heather keep him there, out of danger? Etc.

And if John has psychic powers, why does he not share the blind woman’s premonition of disaster for himself. Or realize that he is not seeing a reincarnation of his dead daughter roaming the bridges and alleyways of Venice!

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Roeg, whose love of fragmenting narrative was mostly held back through most of the movie lets loose a montage of image as John bleeds to death, including seeing the three women in black at what will be his funeral cortege.

In short, exceedingly contrived and making no sense regardless of whether the viewer accepts the reality of psychic “second sight.”

End plot spoiler alert

I find most everything in the way of plot unbelievable, but in addition to the danker, non-touristy parts of Venice, I think the movie provides a solid portrait of grief-stricken parents and a fairly good portrait of church restoration.

Miscommunication between the sexes is Roeg’s leitmotif and abundantly in evidence in “Look,” between John and the sisters even more than between John and Laura. And there’s a lot of broken glass (including some smashed mosaic replacement bits) in the movie. And water, including repeated iterations of two female bodies being fished out of cold water. And enough symbolism to keep scores of analysts occupied for years…

As with the final sex scene in “Bad Timing,” I think that the extended sex scene in “Don’t Look Now” is excessively long. And as there is more of the tall, skinny Art Garfunkel’s derrière on view in “Bad Timing,” there is more of the tall, skinny Donald Sutherland’s in “Look.” I doubt anyone would describe me as a prude and complaining about too much male nudity is something I rarely do, but I think that Sutherland looked better in his dark blue coat and colorful scarf in “Look.”

Apparently, a reason for intercutting dressing with the sex scene was that American censors would not permit humping to be shown (something must have change before “Bad Timing” which has exaggerated Garfunkel humping! Or “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” which has full frontal male and female nudity). I think that the movie could have shown than the couple had passionate sex without going on and on, though that it upset Warren Beatty, who was then involved with Christie, makes me more sympathetic with Roeg’s exploitation.

If “Don’t Look Now” were more a movie about grief-stricken adults (and/or about the seemingly sinister characters played by Clelia Matania and Renato Scarpa), less propaganda for listening to clairvoyants (and clairvoyance), the sexual exploration would seem less gratuitous to me. For me, despite all the heavy-handed jump-cutting, plot implausibilities, and dawdling pace of much of the movie, the central performances and many of the images are powerful. I don’t think it is a great movie, though it has some great stuff in it (as does “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “Walkabout”). In fact, I don’t think it is a good movie.

Roeg elicited some outstanding performances (in other movies; there’s not much other than sex and moping and irritation from Christie and Sutherland herein), used varied locations brilliantly, and made movies filled with impressive visual compositions (working recurrently with Anthony B. Richmond), but in his time (the 1970s) I don’t think he made a good movie. And after it? I recall the 1990 “Witches” fondly, but perhaps need to extend my retrospective to watching it again. Certainly not the 1985 “Insignificance”!

The “Don’t Look Now” DVD has no bonus features other than a theatrical trailer. I’d have liked to hear from Christie, who has had intelligent things to say about her movies every time I’ve heard her. I don’t miss hearing from Roeg, however.

Bonus P.S.

Zipping back to the druggy 1970 first movie directed (codirected with Donald Cammell directing the actors) by Nicolas, “Performance,” I was impressed by James Fox as Chas, a violent Cockney (!) gangster who hides out with a faded rock star played by Mick Jagger. Jagger plays Turner, an aficionado of Borges and has a photo of Jim Morrison. What happens in the end is left to the audience to provide. It’s not even clear whose face (Chas or Turner) is in the white limo. (Bergman had already done that in “Persona,” no?) A bonus feature informs that Fox’s role (a Cockney gangster?!) was intended for Marlon Brando (!?).

 

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

 

Nicolas Roeg’s “Bad Timing”

I think that the late  (Friday) Nicolas Roeg was not just a serious film-maker, but a maker of serious (aka adult) films. Thus, I wish that I could like the films he made. Alas,…

Roeg was daring in, among other ways, presenting titles that seemed to invite easy critical dismissal: Don’t Look Now (1973), Bad Timing (1980), Insignificance (1985). The timing of the three points of the triangle in “Bad Timing” is not notably bad. The working title of “Illusions” would have been somewhat better. The tagline of “A Terrifying Love Story” might have been better still.

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The movie was (in)famously denounced as “a sick film made by sick people for sick people.” Most of the way through struggling to make sense of the extremely disjointed movie, I thought that attack extreme, and I don’t think that the movie was made by sick people. It sees to be about a sick (mentally ill) woman (Milena, played by Theresa Russell in her first Roeg movie) who has nearly died of some mixture of drugs brought into a Vienna hospital by an American research psychoanalyst Alex Linden (Art Garfunkel) who insists he is a “friend” not the boyfriend of the young woman and through most of the movie seems to have barely gotten out of a tempestuous relationship intact.

From fairly early on the very un-Viennese Harvey Keitel’s Police Inspector Netusil seems to be badgering the well-contained American. Alex has flashbacks of the relationship in the hospital, in Milena’s somewhat torn-apart apartment, and in timing the drive between his apartment and hers with the inspector. In her vibrant (and sane!) 2005 interview for the Criterion edition of the movie, Russell reports that the movie was shot chronologically, then carved into flashbacks from the arrival (and emergency tracheotomy) at the hospital, a reorganization about which she had initial misgivings.

As in “Memento,” a fairly banal story is so fragmented and strewn in deliberately misleading order that it looks experimental (or in a more skeptical alternative, “artsy”). Other Roeg films I’ve seen recently (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Insignificance) also struck me as excessively disjunctive—and also as beautifully shot. I haven’t seen “Don’t Look Now” since it first came out, but I’m pretty sure that the creepy mysteriousness in it also derives heavily from hyper-cutting.

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I have to say that Russell and Garfunkel were daring, beyond the extensive nudity and sex scenes. Their characters, who become obsessed with each other, are disturbed (and disturbing). Milena is something of a Pandora of unknowability for Alex who wants to own her and to obliterate her past (including her marriage to a cipher of a character played by Denholm Elliot who lives in Bratislava, Slovakia, then Czechoslovakia.) Having just read Julian Barnes’s Brooker Prize-winning A Sense of Ending with a clueless, buttoned-up man and a woman he wants to please and totally fails to figure out (40 years ago and now), the sick relationship seems very British to me, even set in Freud’s city with some zither music in the middle to recall “The Third Man” (which was a British film with two American males and an inscrutable European…).

On the Criterion Edition disc, I really liked the Theresa Russell interview and found Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas in the 27-minutes of their recollections more tolerable than I found them on “The Man Who Fell To Earth” Criterion edition. (They still came across as pompous to me, however.) I skipped the 16 deleted scenes (snippets), the stills galleries, and the original theatrical trailer. That is, for those who like the movie, there’s a lot to treasure on the disc. For most, 123 minutes of the movie is already too much.

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

“The Man Who Fell to Earth”

Cinematographer-turned-director Nicolas Roeg died, at age 90, on Friday, stimulating me to dig out what I wrote about “Insignificance” (1985) and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976).

From the retrospect about “Insignificance” (1985) and the commentary track on “The Man Who Fell to Earth” I have developed a dislike for Roeg. The posh accent does not help, but the pomposity and pretentiousness made me switch off the commentary track more than once. (Recorded separately, screenwriter Buck Henry who played a major part in the movie also struck me as pretentious. David Bowie, also recorded separately had some interesting things to say that were if not always scene-specific were at least related to the movie, as many of the musings by Roeg and Henry were not.)

 

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Having been seriously bummed out by the ending of “Walkabout” that I had suppressed from my memory, and underwhelmed by “Insignificance” and annoyed by listening to Roeg, could I give “Fell” a fair viewing? I think so. There are images of it that had stuck with me, and positive feelings toward David Bowie as an actor form his turn as “Mr. Lawrence” and for Candy Clark from “American Graffiti” (once upon a time). Plus knowing that Roeg made movies for adults, not pimply adolescents longing for realities other than the stürm und drang of their adolescences (though fanboys of the “Space Oddity” flocked to the movie when it was released, long ago).

Based on the two Roeg movies I screened this week and memories of varying degrees of vagueness of his first three attempts at directing (codirecting in the first instance), I have concluded that Roeg is like Win Winders in having lots of visual style and very little narrative competence. Even with small casts and circumscribed locations, his movies obscured what was going on with intrusive cutting (see also “Damages,” the third season of which I’ve started watching on DVD…).

The jump cuts and extreme zooms distract (and, I think, aim to distract) from rather simplistic stories in “Insignificance” and the first four movies he directed. Bowie plays a refugee from a distant planet (presumably orbiting around a different star than our sun) who lands in Lake Fenton, a New Mexico lake (I think in a tiny space capsule). Desertification is occurring on his home planet (and is happening on ours as well…). How he thinks he can transport water back home is never broached.

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With some advanced technology for taking pictures and recording sound, the alien who calls himself Thomas Newton visits NYC patent lawyer Oliver V. Farnsworth (Buck Henry), who is able to recognize in the calculations Newton pays him $10K to examine that they can lead to Big Money. Newton puts Farnsworth in charge of World Enterprises and uses some of the money it makes to build a space vehicle and launching pad.

Alienated physics professor Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn) is a conceivable confidant for the alien, who hires him to work on fuel economy (for the rocket), but it strains my credulity for the alien (whose concern for his wife and two children succumbing to the drought back on Anthea [played by White Sands. New Mexico) show up rather often, whether these are what the alien images is happening or sees across space (never mind time, even at the speed of light…) to be captivated by Mary-Lou (Candy Clark) who works as a mad, bellhop, and elevator operator in a New Mexico hotel.

It strikes me as ludicrous that someone who hurtled through space is made nauseous by an elevator ride, but a ghastly one with a shook-up Mary-Lou leaves him prostrate, and she carries him to his room, where he throws up (he was already bleeding from the mouth). She attaches herself to him more firmly than a leech does.

The alien’s human suit includes a penis (both Bowie and Clark display their genitalia and Bowie’s naked derrière is frequently on display in the movie), though the body underneath does not have hanging parts.

 

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The movie is, perhaps, more a paranoid thriller than a sci-fi movie (though I just mentioned its most sci-fi aspect!). Just before his going-home launch, Newton is seized by the US government and tortured. (The notion that the US government engaged in torture was alien to most people back in 1976, despite some publicity about atrocities committed in Vietnam at ground level as well as indiscriminate napalming from above.) When I first saw it, I thought that Farnsworth was defenestrated by goons employed by a rival conglomerate. This time, I thought they were government agents, but either way, the US government and a very big business collaborating in murder of a US citizen is more thinkable now than in the year of the US bicentennial (some signs of which appear in the background in the movie).

So, the innocent extraterrestrial is trapped and corrupted (the New Mexico setting makes an analogy to the use of liquor to subdue Native Americans jump out at me: at first Newton refuses alcohol, but eventually is putting away a couple of bottles of gin a day—which fits with his British passport, I guess…). Hatred and the American penchant for violence remain incomprehensible to him, though he watches a dozen television sets simultaneously (with the movie’s eye moving in repeatedly to clips from “The Third Man” and “Love in the Afternoon”).

For being a more intelligent/evolved species, Newton seems not to have done much research or given much thought about those on the planet to which he goes. Though the last part of the movie, set decades later, is perfunctory, I still thought the movie went on for too long.

But for about an hour and a half, I was impressed anew with the visual flair (which, I guess, has to include the montage cutting). The range of music is Kubrickian, with prominent segments of Holst’s “The Planets,” Roy Orbison (whom Bowie thinks among the most alien of pop performers), Bing Crosby, the Kingston Trio, Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw, Stomu Yamashta, and John Phillips (formerly of the Mamas and Papas) who is credited as the movie’s “musical director” and sings four songs (including covering Gene Pitney’s “Hello Mary-Lou”).

Anthony Richmond also shot the alarming, creepy “Don’t Look Now”, “Bad Timing”, and “Heart of Darkness” for Roeg (and “The Indian Runner” for Sean Penn, “Bastard Out of Carolina” for Anjelica Huston, “Sympathy for the Devil” for Jean-Luc Godard, etc.), Roeg marveled at Richmond’s ability to shoot in very cramped spaces in his commentary.

There have been multiple DVD releases of the movie (and a Criterion Blu-Ray that has gone out of print). In addition to the commentary track that I found mostly annoying, the Criterion DVD has an additional disc of bonus features. I don’t want to hear anything more from Roeg, but would be mildly curious about screenwriter Paul Mayersburg reportedly very candid interview and the 2005 Candy Clark and Rip Torn discussion of the movie. There’s also a 50-minute an audio-only 1984 recording of Walter Tevis (who also wrote the novels on which “The Hustler” and its sequel, “The Color of Money” were based) and another of producer Brian Eatwell and costume-coordinator May Routh (most of Clark’s clothes came from JC Penney).

“The Man Who Fell to Earth” is a cult film, and Criterion served its cults well. I am not a member of that cult and don’t think the movie is a “good movie” but it is a striking artifact of mid-1970s distrust of the collusion between the US government and very Big Business (before Republican-appointed justices purporting to care about “original intent” gave corporations unlimited expenditures to elect their lackeys under the guise of “free speech”)… that has become more pervasive in the intervening three and a half decades).

 

©2011, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

Nicolas Roeg’s “Insignificance”

I can remember the rising arc of cinematographer Nicolas Roeg’s career as director — Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976). I heard very little about him or his movies after that, though I was very taken with the 1990 adaptation of “The Witches” from Roal Dahl. Ihe directed an adaptation of Roal Dahl’s “Witches” in 1990 with Anjelica Huston that I adored. I saw none of the visual flair for which Roeg was famed during 1970s in the only other movie directed by Roeg I saw, the tv adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth” with Elizabeth Taylor and Don Johnson. (1989). He went on to directed a few made-for-tv movies (including a 1993 not very good one of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” with Bob Hoskins). Already when he was shooting “Insignificance,” he had a promising future behind him, a verdict that gives me no pleasure, since a director aiming to make movies for adults and of a keen eye is not something of which we have too much.

He just died at the age of 90, which stimulated me to excavate reviews of his movies that I wrote in 2011. Here’s the first:

 

Titling something “Insignificance” pre-empts criticism that the product (play turned into a movie) is insignificant. Celebrity is not insignificant in our society — and more pervasive, it seems to me, now than in 1985 (when the movie was released) or 1954 (when it is set). Nuclear annihilation is also not an insignificant subject and nuclear weapons are more widely diffused now than in either then. And then there’s the discussion about epistemology (how do we know what we believe we know) and the shape of the universe…

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Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio has lost some of his iconic status, though still a legend and the holder of a record that seems like to continue to stand (hits in consecutive games). (Joe) McCarthy is still the byword for bullying investigations. Einstein remains an iconic for brains and Marilyn Monroe for being a movie star about whom men salivated… and for being a vulnerable woman who played dumb blondes but was not so dumb (whether canny or smart is the alternative remains open to question).

Except for Monroe and DiMaggio, who were married to each other for a while during the early 1950s, none of these characters met each other, let alone being together in a Manhattan hotel room on hot summer night in 1954.

One of the irritating aspects of the movie is that the models for the characters are screamingly obvious, but they are referred to as Ballplayer (Gary Busey), Senator (Tony Curtis), Actress (Theresa Russell), a preternaturally sweaty Senator (Tony Curtis), and Professor (Michael Emil). Actress is clad in the dress that blew up in “The Seven Year Itch.” Professor has Einstein’s wild hair, glasses, mustache, and a Princeton sweatshirt. Tony Curtis’s Senator looks more like Roy Cohn than like Cohn’s boss, and Busey neither looks nor sounds at all like DiMaggio (whose Mr. Coffee pitches I remember; I only saw him bat in old clips).

The characters are too tied to iconic models to exist as independent characters, yet all of them are unbelievable to me as versions of these icons (Emil’s Einstein being the easiest to accept, having the genial modesty of the original). Moreover, the script does not imagine anything very interesting for these imagined interactions.

There are some flashbacks and the opening scene is on location filming the subway vent skirt-raising, but most of the movie takes place in the hotel (Roosevelt, if I remember correctly) and most of that in one room with a reproduction of a neoclassical Picasso painting of a mother and a child. The last provides grist for the Ballplayer to talk about his wandering wife’s inability to have a baby.

Roeg manages to get not only recurrent blood (from the Actress) but images of nuclear annihilation into the movie. Both seem gratuitous to me, though Einstein was dismayed about atomic bombs.

Because I have no trouble remembering Tony Curtis with Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like It Hot” (apparently there are people who have never seen it, nor anything else with Marilyn Monroe in it!), Curtis’s character thinking the Actress is a look-alike takes on additional comedy, though his character lacks the gallantry of the one who was onscreen with the real Marilyn Monroe.

In an interview for the Criterion edition, director Nicolas Roeg and producer Jeremy Thomas are unbearably smug about how clever they were and their movie was. They ramble on for 13 minutes and there is a 14-minute on-set featurette from the time (1985). There is also a trailer and a booklet with a fatuous essay about Roeg’s career and a more interesting 1985 exchange between Roeg and Terry Johnson who adapted her play for the screen and is articulate about the differences between stage-plays and screenplays. Roeg does not comment on his gratuitously showy editing (he was a cinematographer, not an editor, though as a director he seems to have been obsessed with making the editing jagged…): The zooms are particularly annoying IMHO. And for slow-mo explosions, Antonio had closed the book with “Zabriskie Point” IMO.

The (monaural) soundtrack is early (and unpromising!) Hans Zimmer, btw. And Russell was married to Roeg at the time.

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Though clearly not up to playing Marilyn Monroe, I don’t blame Russell (29 years younger than her then-husband who cast her in a series of movies), but something went badly wrong in Roeg’s artistic career. (I liked her as the title character in “Black Widow,” a 1987 movie made by another director whose career is puzzling, Bob Rafelson.) (More recently, she was in the ensemble in the 2005 miniseries “Empire Falls.”)

Johnson and Roeg mistake confusion for complexity. If they had a point, they failed to make it.

©2011, Stephen O. Murray