Jun 27, 2011

Two by Nicolas Roeg

Actually one and a half. On Netflix, I got John Schlesinger's Far From the Madding Crowd, based on the novel by Thomas Hardy. Cinematography by Nicolas Roeg.
Check out this astonishing trifecta: Peter Finch, Alan Bates and Terrence Stamp. The three of them in one movie is too much for the heart to bear. And they are all in love with Julie Christie! She says no to Alan Bates (impossible), perhaps to Peter Finch (probably the most charismatic human being ever) and she falls for Terrence Stamp, the worst choice of the three, but the most handsome one. It's a great story and it is gorgeously, stunningly shot in wide lenses and long lenses by Nicolas Roeg. There was a time in the sixties and seventies in Britain when they were making adaptations of English classics like this and the excellent Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963). They told classic period pieces with modern panache, and Far From the Madding Crowd is not a dusty, fusty period piece, but a sensual feast for the eyes. It invites you to dwell in the life of the country with its harvests and storms and natural dramas. It is also one of those big epics where they have a musical overture and an entre'acte (so you can go buy popcorn or smoke in the lounge in style). Very recommended.

The next night I saw The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) at Film Forum, which was directed by Roeg but shot by Tony Richmond. This cult movie is deeply strange. It's hard to reconcile the flawless cinematography of Far From The Madding Crowd (or even the elegant Don't Look Now, also directed by Roeg and shot by Richmond), and the experimental cheesiness of this one and think they come from the same visual mind.
It's a bit of a disappointment but well worth seeing just to bask in the glow of some truly insane seventies camp.
Some of it is hypnotizingly poetic, some of it is incoherent, vulgar and gratuitous. The actors are mostly campy. Bowie plays an alien who comes to earth to save his planet from drought (this we learn as the movie is ending). So he watches several TVs at once to try to understand humans. There is not much point in trying to summarize the plot, but there is a lovely sadness in an alien who claims that he is incapable of hate and gets corrupted by gin and tonics. He becomes a lush and doesn't fight back the evil humans who thwart his homesick desire to go back to his family. Bowie looks as elegant as Tilda Swinton, with amazing red hair and fabulous clothes. He is a great choice for an alien and has the high cheekbones of a true movie star, without the acting chops. Everybody else looks like shit. And then there is Rip Torn, who shows up, growls in his macho sarcastic way and steals the show. He's the only one who seems to know he is in some strange wonderland that doesn't make much sense and he doesn't give a shit. He's so much fun to watch. He feels like danger.
There is a plot, but the movie decides not to stick too closely to it. Roeg's predilection for intercutting scenes that happened in the past with the present, and his avoidance of narrative coherence gets a bit tiresome. There is some graphic and campy sex, but it is more shocking for the fact that it makes you realize that in movies nowadays the naked human body only seems to be comprised of the upper torso.
Some of its powerful images have been borrowed by people with bigger budgets (like The Truman Show). I also have a feeling that this movie was very influential to people like David Lynch and Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant. It's a frustrating movie, but on occasion quite transfixing.

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