Tuesday, April 26, 2016

X, Y & ZEE 1972

Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review, so plot points are revealed for the purpose of discussion.

She’s at that awkward age. Seventies-era Elizabeth Taylor, that is. Starting out as an exceptionally pretty child actress, Taylor grew into a breathtakingly beautiful movie star who then became (with the assist of Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton, and “le scandale”) a world-class homewrecker and tabloid darling. Over time came the respect and legitimacy of two Academy Award wins (Butterfield 8, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), too soon supplanted by the undesired notoriety as the star of several costly, eccentric flops. Come the ‘70s, Taylor seemed to settle into a kind of teetering-on-the-edge-of-irrelevance fame which cast her as the walking embodiment of movie star excess, symbol of fishbowl-celebrity victimization, and the near-obsessive object of  keyhole journalism. She was a public figure noted more for her jewels, illnesses, and fluctuating waistline than for her talent as an actress.
Elizabeth Taylor as Zee Blakeley
Michael Caine as Robert Blakeley
Susannah York as Stella 
I was 15 in 1972, and had you asked me then to name an actress, I would have named Glenda Jackson, Jane Fonda, or Faye Dunaway. If you’d asked me to name a movie star, in a heartbeat I’d have said Elizabeth Taylor. She was in a different category, altogether. Why? Certainly not because I was so familiar with her work. No, at age fifteen I had only seen Taylor in a couple of movies on The Late Late Show and only Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Secret Ceremony in theaters. The reason Elizabeth Taylor represented and defined movie stardom for me was because, for as long as I could remember and as far back as memory served, there had not been a single month in the entirety of my childhood that didn’t find Elizabeth Taylor’s face gracing the cover of a magazine, newspaper, or scandal-sheet. She was famous to me before I even knew what famous was.

But by 1972 Elizabeth Taylor had become an in-betweener. An eminent member of old-guard Hollywood too young to be nostalgically “hip” like Alexis Smith and Ruby Keeler (both of whom enjoyed brief career resurgences on Broadway in 1971: Follies and No, No Nanette, respectively); too big a star to go the put-out-to-pasture, weekly TV series route taken by Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and Shirley MacLaine (all starring in short-lived TV shows during the 1971-1972 season); and yet too old to be taken seriously in the "New Hollywood" which cast her  (preposterously) as a mini-skirted Las Vegas showgirl(!) carrying on an affair with 5-years-younger Warren Beatty in The Only Game in Town (1970). 
Granted far too little screen time (but making the most of it in a see-through frock) the fabulous Margaret Leighton plays party-giving socialite, Gladys. She could be the prototype for Ab Fab's Patsy

One of Taylor’s biggest drawbacks was that she looked like a movie star in an era valuing gritty naturalism and actors who more resembled regular folks. In a time when roles were written for people who looked like Karen Black, Elliot Gould, and Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Taylor stood out for all the wrong reasons. A de-glamorized Taylor tended to look matronly (something both her fans and detractors never let her forget), while an in-step-with-the-times Taylor (she was only 38 when X, Y & Zee began filming) came across like a trying-too-hard fashion trainwreck (something evident in most every frame of X, Y & Zee).
Seventies youth-oriented fashions were unique in that they seemed to come with built-in lie-detectors; they invariably made those who sought to appropriate the look of the “now” generation look infinitely older, not younger. Elizabeth Taylor’s short-stature and curvy figure (so fetching in the hourglass silhouettes of the ‘50s and ‘60s) was ill-served by the bright colors and form-fitting cut of mod and hippie chic. When she wasn’t looking like a Technicolor butterfly in blowsy caftans and height-reducing ponchos, she was encased and cocooned in trendy synthetics that appeared as uncomfortable as they were unflattering. 
As for her film career: the all-encompassing scope of Taylor’s tabloid notoriety, spate of ill-advised self-referential movie roles (audiences treated every Taylor/Burton film pairing as a dramatized glimpse into the couple’s real life), and stunt-like TV guest appearances (on the daytime soap All My Children and Here’s Lucy ‒both in 1970), all conspired to make it next to impossible for audiences to accept her in a movie as anybody but herself.

What was a contemporary cinema demi-goddess to do?

Well, one solution – especially if one was as in need of a hit as Taylor at the time – was to give ‘em what they wanted. And to a large degree that’s exactly what X, Y & Zee does. Author Edna O’Brien’s original screenplay about a toxic romantic triangle among London’s tony set (originally titled Zee & Co.), is an acerbic black comedy-drama which appears to have been whittled and shaped to suit the talents and persona of its star. (O'Brien contends that as many as four writers tinkered with her script...even changing her original ending - reportedly involving a ménage à trois - to a lesbian conquest.)
Elizabeth Taylor portrays Zee Blakeley, the coarse, overdressed vulgarian wife of shout-talk architect, Robert Blakeley (Michael Caine). Theirs is a sophisticated open marriage. A decidedly rocky one, however, sustained by constant bickering, wicked parry and thrust verbal matches, and relentless game-playing of the sexual one-upsmanship sort. This dysfunctional breakup-to-makeup cycle is disrupted when Robert meets and instantly falls in love with the serene Stella (the lovely Susannah York sporting the most astoundingly-constructed 70s shag), a widowed dress designer (who's boutique is named...appropriately enough...Kaftan) with twin little boys.
As the younger other woman who has caught both Robert’s eye and exceedingly fickle heart, Stella exudes an intelligence and sensitivity making it difficult to understand what she sees in the lizard-eyed lothario beyond the flattery of the ardency of his pursuit. As for Robert, it’s clear Stella represents an opportunity for a little quiet and a little less fashion eye-strain.
"I think she looks like a bag of bones."
Zee and best friend Gordon (John Standing) size up the competition

What ensues I can only speculate was intended to be a three-pronged war of wills in which everyone’s desires are ultimately revealed to be selfish in nature and motivated by rescue, dependency, or escape. What is actually served up is a one-woman battle and full-on frontal assault waged by Zee against Robert and Stella (both hopelessly outmatched) as she resorts to every trick in the book—and a few no one had yet dared think of—to keep her man and assure that things remain as they are.

Screenwriter O’Brien, having fairly exhausted the whole "modern marriage under stress" topic in 1969’s dramatically more satisfying Three Into Two Won’t Go (where Rod Steiger’s uncooked pastry dough countenance strains the credibility of his being cast as the apex of a triangle) strives for a tone of sophisticated cynicism and candor in X, Y & Zee, a note or two of which is occasionally hit. But for the most part, Taylor & Co. seem content to merely capitalize on and exploit every ounce of self-referential humor and drama possible.
The result: Elizabeth Taylor’s Zee, balancing on the brink self-parody and frequently leaping headlong into camp, is less a character than a burlesque amalgam of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’s Martha; Leonora, the scatterbrained chatterbox from Reflections in a Golden Eye; the claws-out Maggie from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and snatch-and-grab bits culled from years of Taylor’s press clippings.

Taylor makes knowing, self-aware jokes about her weight-
 Zee: “Real men don’t like skinny women. They only think they do because they’re supposed to look better in clothes. But what happens when the clothes come off and you climb between the sheets on a cold winter night? Then they like to know they’re with a real woman.”

Taylor turns critical barbs into self-directed comedy-
Robert: “She (Stella) suggests you open a fish store.”

Taylor indulges her well-documented bawdy sense of humor-
Zee: "Frankly Scarlett, I don't give a shit!"

Taylor reprises Maggie the Cat-
Zee: (On phone to Stella)“Is my husband in your skinny, chicken-like arms?”

Taylor reprises Virginia Woolf's Martha- 
Zee: “Come back here, you! I haven’t dismissed you yet!”

And, of course, with each scene of Taylor and Caine whaling on and wailing at one another between bouts of heated make-up sex, the tumultuous real-life Taylor/Burton union (which had about two more years to go) is evoked and (the audience hopes) reenacted.
Taylor, while balancing an enormous mane of Medusa hair, drowning in a fashion-parade of gaudy, sail-like caftans, and risking violet eye-shadow poisoning, gives a performance that is by turns unsubtle, nuanced, hilarious, knowing, touching, and assured 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I imagine the mental calisthenics a writer must perform in order to come up with something new to say about the romantic triangle are considerable. Edna O’Brien’s tack seems to be to examine what binds people together in an atmosphere of unbridled license. The Beautiful People populating X, Y & Zee are a rarefied set. Unlike the penniless, free-love hippies espousing freedom and “doing your own thing” in the atmosphere of the sexual revolution, the hedonistic individuals at the center of the film have both the wealth and autonomy to be truly free. And therein lies the problem.
Without the need to be tethered or tied to anyone, the whole idea of marriage and morality becomes confoundingly fluid. No one can be accused of cheating because cheating first presumes the existence of rules. And from what little we glean from this couple's past (Zee can’t have children and pets die on them with tragic regularity), like Albee's George and Martha, game-playing replaced rules for Zee and Robert long ago.
The introduction of Stella into the middle of this duo is significant. Stella, unlike Zee, is a working woman, and Robert, a self-made man, is wealthy but proud of his humble beginnings. Stella — calm in the face of Zee’s excitability, soft-spoken to Zee’s shrillness—also wears around her neck a Quran case amulet (an Islamic protective talisman which plays an important but subtle role in the film’s conclusion) suggesting a spirituality and connection to something outside of herself…another attribute lacking in Zee. Add to this the fact that Stella also has two children with whom Robert immediately develops a rapport, and we come to understand why Zee recognizes that Stella is no ordinary rival.

Both Susannah York and Michael Caine give noteworthy performances
This is the core conflict in X, Y & Zee, and while not earth shatteringly profound stuff, it makes for compelling human drama and (in the film's quieter moments) is exceptionally well-played by the cast


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Alas, quiet moments in X, Y & Zee are pretty hard to come by. As directed by Brian G. Hutton (Night Watch) X, Y & Zee is a crudely funny, visually flashy, magnificently photographed, and exceedingly noisy movie. Perhaps in an effort to better fashion O’Brien’s 3-character story into a star vehicle, X, Y & Zee not only tells the story from Zee’s perspective (which I can understand), but allows Zee’s aesthetics (loud music, loud clothing, and shrieking whenever possible) to become the film’s defining motif. 

I'm aware that the '70s presents its own unique challenges if one's intention is to depict a character as vulgar and coarse, and it’s a great deal of campy fun having Elizabeth Taylor run full-throttle diva roughshod over every and all; but it does tend to unbalance the narrative, making it difficult for the dramatic sequences to hit their stride. As a huge fan of Mike Nichols’ poorly-received 2004 comedy-drama Closer (about two sets of couples endlessly circling one another), I think X, Y & Zee could have benefited from a similarly deft balancing of the serio with the comic.


PERFORMANCES
As stated in previous posts, my respect for and appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor was rather late in coming, making me wonder what I would have made of  X, Y & Zee had I seen it when it was released to theaters in January of 1972. Because it plays so strongly to what I once thought were her weaknesses (her voice, her sometimes too-knowing camp appeal) I don’t think I would have rated it very highly. 
Today is a different story. Maybe it’s my own age (I’m 20 years older than Taylor in this film), maybe it’s nostalgia for the era (the ‘70’s never looked more Austin Powers-like), and most definitely it’s the dawning awareness that her like is nowhere to be found on movie screens today; but I think Taylor is damn good in this movie. As funny as she is in the first part (a broad performance not likely to win over detractors) she truly shines and is quite moving in the second half. I’ve seen X, Y and Zee several times, and while I find it to be uneven (I can understand Edna O'Brien's dissatisfaction with the script) I can't deny that I have - to quote the poster - an absolute ball watching it. 
In Richard Burton's published diary he wrote of how there was a genuine belief that X, Y and Zee would be the much-needed boxoffice hit for Elizabeth. Alas, it proved to be just another in a string of underperforming films which characterized her latter-day career. Taylor never stopped being a star, but she never again rose to the heights of her '60s film popularity. 

I especially like Susannah York. Her character doesn’t fully make sense to me, but York's performance is so natural and seems to come from a place of clear understanding on her part, I feel I'm always struggling to get up to speed. She draws me into her character in search of what I'm positive I'm missing. The scenes between Taylor and York are my favorites. The hospital scene being a real standout...both are just tremendously affecting together. In the buddy-film atmosphere of the ‘70s, not many big female stars were cast opposite other women, and I forever bemoan what was potentially lost in not having any women’s films comparable to the pairings of Redford and Newman.
X, Y and Zee's meta credentials don't stop with allusions to Taylor's previous roles as overbearing shrews. Susannah York's casting (her part was said to have first been offered to Julie Christie) harkens back to her controversial role in 1968s The Killing of Sister George


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Couldn't sign off on X, Y and Zee without commenting on two non-Elizabeth Taylor-related favorite things about the film. One is the luminous cinematography of Billy Williams (Women in Love, Night Watch). Maybe it's the pristine quality of the DVD, but I never noticed before how burnished everything (and everyone) looks. The garish '70s decor and fashions pop off the screen creating a glitzy world of numbing sensual overkill.
X, Y and Zee goes for every "sophisticated" and "adult" credit it can get by having two featured gay characters. Michael Cashman is Gavin, an employee at Stella's shop. Cashman, whose character Zee mordantly describes as a "poncy little fag" is, in real life, currently a member of British Parliament and the Labour Party's special envoy on LGBT issues worldwide. So shove it, Zee!  

Second is the film's musical theme, the eloquent ballad, "Going in Circles" by Ted Myers & Jaianada. The lovely lyrical version played under the film's opening credits sets the tone for a film which doesn't arrive until about 45-minutes in, and the closing vocal version I can't reliably attribute to a singer. Internet sources cite Three Dog Night, but they recorded a cover version on an album which sounds nothing like the one in the film. Someone once told me it's Three Dog Night producer Richard (Harry) Podolor. Further confusing the issue, a friend who claims to have seen the film when it was originally released says that Three Dog Night sang over the closing credits originally, but when the film came to VHS and DVD they replaced their version (copyright issues?) with the one we now hear (who that is I still don't know). In any event, it's a graceful song and curiously ideal for this not very well-regarded little film that has become one of my favorite Elizabeth Taylor vehicles.
Zee: "He loves his little games. Do you play?"
Stella: "I’m afraid I don’t."
Zee: "Nor do I."


BONUS MATERIAL
As a possible solution to the above quandary, I found this poster image online which contains a sticker promoting Three Dog Night singing "Going in Circles" in the film. (click on poster to enlarge)


One of my favorite Elizabeth Taylor clips: Taylor presenting at the 1981 Tony Awards. She's really adorable and infectiously hilarious.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

THE SHOW BEGAN ON THE SIDEWALK: TOP 20 Favorite Movie Posters

The Last Drive In
This essay is dedicated to Phil Gips and the late Stephen O. Frankfurt. Two legendary trailblazers in the field of motion picture advertising / marketing who collaborated on some of the most innovative and enduring campaigns and poster designs of all time.

I’ve loved movie posters and have been fascinated by the marketing side of the motion picture business for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest movie ad memories is of being about 8 or 9 years-old sitting in the back of the family station wagon and being thunderstruck when we drive by a naked man, three-stories-high and draped halfway around the side of a building.
What I saw as a wraparound billboard above a major movie theater advertising The Bible, John Huston's 1966 John Huston epic which prominently featured a nude Michael Parks (as Adam at the moment of creation, rising out of the dust of the earth with a strategically raised knee) in all its advertising.
This New York mega-billboard is similar to the one I recall gracing a movie palace in
 Denver, Colorado in 1966
When my sisters and I were small, my mother used to take us downtown with her when she went shopping on Saturdays. Back then, all the big department stores were along San Francisco’s Market Street, which was also the site of scores of those big, old-fashioned movie palaces. Grabbing the pedestrian's eye was the goal of these theaters, so a full day of shopping invariably turned into an impromptu art walk centered around some of the most arresting graphic design and illustration imaginable. I was forever lagging behind distractedly staring at one beckoning movie poster after another, begging for brief detours through the open outdoor theater lobbies, enthralled by the glass display cases overflowing with posters, stills, and lobby cards advertising current features and coming attractions.
My first job: usher at the Alhambra Theater on Polk Street in S.F.
Tuesdays were my favorite days because I got to change the marquees and put up the poster displays. 
Can't even tell you what a kick it was getting to see the publicity materials and pressbooks. 
Occasionally, the manager would gift me with a poster for a film I particularly liked (Night Moves)
or ones National Screen Service wouldn't miss (The Happy Hooker)

On Sunday mornings, when other more well-adjusted kids clamored for the expanded color comics in the newspaper, I hogged the San Francisco Chronicle’s entertainment pages (called DateBook, but due to the distinctive color of the paper, known to us locals as “the pink section”). I relished poring over the many movie ads, and even kept a clippings scrapbook of those of my favorites.

This was the late '60s, so pop-art poster stores (part head-shop, part record store) proliferated in the Haight-Ashbury district where we lived. Occasionally my older sister would allow me to tag along when she’d go to these teen hangouts where they sold t-shirts, candles, blacklight posters, and all manner of hippie-influenced, pop-culture novelties. This was at the start of the youth wave in nostalgia and camp, and a company known as Personality Posters Mfg Co. specialized in blow-up portraits of classic Hollywood stars. My sister's room was full of one-dollar posters of Bogart, Monroe, Fields, Harlow, and Gable. As a gift she bought me twin posters of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton in Taming of the Shrew, and with my own money I bought poster #30 from the chart below: Peter Fonda as Captain America astride his Easy Rider chopper- a BW image highlighted with yellow-tinted glasses and Old Glory gas tank and helmet. Too groovy for words!
Later, when we moved across the bay to Berkeley and I was old enough to walk to and from school alone; my after-school route was always a good half-hour longer and more serpentine than it needed to be, for it was my habit to stroll by and malinger in front of the many movie theaters peppering the UC Berkeley campus streets leading home.

In the days before 24-hour entertainment reporting and minute-by-minute behind-the-scenes production updates, movie posters were pretty much the means by which I first came to know of any of the films that would go on to become my favorites. Because this was when TV news was actually about the news (not the corporate subsidiary cross-promotion disguised as news we have today), I knew nothing about the movies beforehand and had to rely on these posters to give me an inkling of what was in store.
Sure, I looked at movie magazines (with names like Movie Mirror, Modern Screen, or my personal fave, Rona Barrett’s Hollywood), but they were primarily gossip rags. Movie posters had it all. They were glamorous, colorful, evocative...some were beautiful, and the best of them simultaneously caught my eye and fired up my imagination. Capturing the essence of a movie in a single image; revealing just enough, but not too much. They were part of the chain of anticipation that formed the whole moviegoing experience for me.
My profusely-postered bedroom of my first apartment
The Villa Elaine Apartments on Vine St in Hollywood -1980
It was during my freshman high school year that I made the “How long has this been going on?” discovery of there actually being stores (one store to be exact, a tiny shop tucked away in SF’s Castro/Mission District) which sell genuine, bonafide, National Screen Service movie posters to us lowly civilians. Who knew? Looking back, it surprises me to think how, during all my time spent newspaper scrapbooking and gazing longingly at theater display cases, I hadn’t allowed myself to even entertain the possibility of such a thing.
The first day I visited the store I easily spent more than an hour there - the veritable kid in a candy store - leaving with my very first authentic movie posture purchase: an original 1968 Barbarella one-sheet. This kicked off a near-lifelong collecting hobby which lasted until the mid-90s (when movie posters entered that dismal, artless stage of excessively airbrushed big celebrity heads).

I've since sold off or donated all but the most favored posters in my collection, the top tier examples I'll cite below. This list of favorite movie posters is limited to those which are still in my possession adhere to no particular criteria beyond my own personal tastes, aesthetics, and sentimental attachment. Omissions (of which there are bound to be many) don't signify a lack of quality, more than likely just a lower position on a much longer list.

(click on any image to see full size)

MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE MOVIE POSTERS
Rosemary's Baby- 1968 
One of the classiest poster's I've ever seen, as far as I'm concerned, the gold-standard in poster design. 
Stephen O. Frankfurt and Phil Gips are the New York admen responsible for the poster and ad campaign created for Rosemary’s Baby. A pivotal work not only in its artistic and commercial innovation but because it was also the first motion picture assignment for the two veteran advertising men who would go on to collaborate on more than 150 film campaigns over three decades of motion picture advertising.
Treating the film as they would any other account, they assembled a team of Madison Avenue ad artists, photographers (George Eliot-he photographed the baby carriage on one of the mounts in Central Park) and copy writers (Steve Gordon is widely credited with coming up with the tagline "Pray for Rosemary's Baby") to assist them in devising a suitable campaign. The image of Mia Farrow is credited to production still photographer Bob Willoughby.

I had the opportunity to interview these two industry giants back in 2005 (separately, they weren't on the best terms by then), both proud of what they achieved and aware of its influence on movie poster design.
In discussing  the idea behind Rosemary's Baby's initial concept, Gips explained, “What we were trying to do with Rosemary’s Baby was create a sophisticated ad.  A sophisticated ad conveys a mood or idea without providing too much information, while busy, or “schmear” ads, as they are sometimes referred to, appeal to the senses or emotions and often tell too much or try to show too much.  We set out to create an ad that appealed to the imagination.” 
The Day of the Locust - 1975
This advance poster hangs above my writing desk. The work of illustrator David Edward Byrd, this poster is drama with a capital "D." Totemic Hollywood symbols (palm trees, movie marquee with period lettering, klieg lights piercing the purple darkness) direct the eye to a super-sized, hyper-glam Karen Black, oblivious to the nightmarish chaos below her. It's an image that manages to capture the feel and thrust of the film in a single unforgettable image.
Barbarella - 1968
Artwork by Robert McGinnis, this Barbarella poster has always appealed to me because of its very period look and its evocation of a comic book. The heroic image of  a very leggy image of Fonda with her mane of hair flying in the space-wind is too cool for school. I love the space-age lettering font and most of all I love the tagline "See Barbarella Do Her Thing!"  which, after nearly 50 years, still brings a smile to my face. 
The Fox - 1967
The aesthetics of this poster and my fondness for it betrays my '60s-sympathetic sensibilities. The work of poster designer Bill Gold, This kind of sensuous, pseudo-psychdelic imagery was all the rage in the 60s, so the simple yet bold graphic got me from the start. As a kid I loved the clever way the figures of woman/man/woman/fox were so blended; today I really appreciate the visual economy.
Shampoo - 1975
If any one thing can be cited as to being the reason I fell so hard for this poster in '75, I'd say the reason was sexual effrontery. The aforementioned "big celebrity heads" wave in movie poster design was still a couple of decades off, so it wasn't particularly common to see such achingly gorgeous faces staring out at one from a movie poster. Indeed, the directness of the gazes (and warm brown tones of the photography) is brazenly sexy, hip, and stylish at the same time. This is a poster so sure of itself, it doesn't have to DO anything. Goldie Hawn never looked better, but I have to admit when the film first came out and I saw the poster, I didn't recognize Julie Christie at all. I actually thought they left Christie off and put Carrie Fisher front and center.
The Getaway - 1972
I'm not sure who designed this poster, but it with its use of a simple, dynamic image coupled with the mnemonic pairing of the last names of its stars, it feels like the work of Frankfurt/Gips. in any event, I loved the poster the moment I saw it. It's like someone asked for a single image that read "tough" and the designer miraculously complied.
Bonnie & Clyde - 1967
This iconic poster is another Bill Gold poster design. In my essay on this film, I related how this poster's graphic was quite unsettling for me as a child. Now it hangs above my bed. It still stands as a provocatively commanding image - violence and laughter juxtaposed - but these days I think I've come to better appreciate its gracefulness.
Just Tell Me What You Want - 1980
When I moved to Los Angeles, three of the strongest impressions the women here made on me were: berets, white wine, and slit skirts. The popularity of the latter comes to mind whenever I look at this smile-inducing poster featuring a exquisitely long-limbed Ali MacGraw pulling a Gladys Ormphby on comedian Alan King. Though this poster may look like your typical rom-com style ad, what gave it its kick in 1980 was how it played against Ali MacGraw's somewhat stiff image. She was more more animated in this still photo than she'd ever been onscreen.
Images -1972
The poster for this psychological thriller grabbed me with its simple directness (why is that camera pointed at ME, yet reflecting Susannah York in the lens?),  ambiguity (Why are there two Susannah Yorks in that lens?), and suggestion of violence. Kind of a perfect way to create curiosity and interest without revealing anything.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? - 1969
If capturing attention and keeping it is the goal of a movie poster, small wonder this striking yet agonized study in anguish still hangs on my walls. I think this might have been the third poster I ever purchased...right after Rosemary's Baby.
Reflections in a Golden Eye - 1967
If there's any kind of pattern to emerge in the kind of posters I gravitate toward, I guess I have to cop to being a sucker for its negative space when its used to draw your eye to a strong image. Here we come dangerously close to the "big celebrity head" thing, but that riding crop and the dissimilar countenances of the stars (stern/seductive) really makes this late acquisition (I purchased it in 1990) a hard-to-find fave.
Saturday Night Fever - 1977
This poster has the distinction of being the only one in my collection representing a film I largely despise. I really can't stand Saturday Night Fever for any number of reasons (although I do enjoy it when I can see only the dancing clips), but the poster is really something else. I have a sentimental attachment to it because it recalls my disco-crazy days (yes, I had a T-shirt with those exact words blazoned across it), and because I still can recall how excited I was by this now rather silly-looking poster when I first saw it.
There's a reason why so many things about this poster have become cliche and the stuff of parody, but I feel lucky to have my memories of that brief moment in time when everything you see here - from the white suit to the disco-lit floor) was part of a exhilarating wave of change.
Today, what has become the most dazzling aspect of this poster is its total lack of irony.


 These posters round out my Top 20 - Winners all! 


LEAST FAVORITE MOVIE POSTER 
What's The Matter With Helen? -1971
"I know...let's get people interested in our film by showing them how it ends!"


If any of you out there have a particular favorite movie poster, have ever wanted to own or collect them, or been persuaded to see a film because of one, please share it with us.



No discussion of movie posters would be complete without at least a tip of the hat to Saul Bass
The great granddaddy of motion picture graphic design 
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK 1975

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.” Edgar Allen Poe  1849

I love motion pictures for their storytelling, spectacle, entertainment, and escapism. But for as long as I can remember, the primary, fundamental appeal of movies has always been their ability to capture the ethereal, ofttimes rapturous quality of dreams and fantasies (as this blog’s title would suggest).

When I think of the moments when dreams and reality collided in movies for me, I think of the God’s-eye-view kaleidoscopic dance patterns of Busby Berkeley; the feverish surrealism of Ken Russell; the sound of Jane Fonda’s voice; the gravity-defying dancing of Astaire & Rogers; the consummate dignity in Woody Strode’s eyes in Spartacus; Polanski’s poetic evocation of dream logic in so many of his films; the way cinematographer Nicolas Roeg makes Julie Christie look in Petulia; the nightmarish, slow-motion demise of Beatty & Dunaway at the end of Bonnie & Clyde.

All of these moments—and moments like them—epitomize film’s miraculous capacity to both meet and exceed one’s fantasies while simultaneously inspiring new ones. Not every movie has to do this, but the fact that films possess the potential to render corporeal those very aspects of existence we ascribe to the ethereal is what made me fall in love with them.
For this very reason sports films, westerns, war movies, and action/adventures have never held a particularly strong interest for me. All that aggressive competition and combat – even when represented as heroic – just bring to mind the "nature vs. materialism" sentiments of Wordsworth’s The World is Too Much With Us. These films feel like products of the material (masculine) world, intent on exalting that which is singularly mortal, and therefore fundamentally minimal.
Movies that awaken me to what is beautiful and mysterious in the world - that inspire me to pay more attention, feel more deeply, recognize and appreciate the poetry in the unique and absurd...I like that. When I'm lucky enough to recall them, my dreams always feel like hyper-aware versions of reality. They seem to me to be, in their way, a truer vision of the magic and mystery in the world (and within myself) than my rational mind sometimes allows during what can be jokingly referred to as my "conscious" life. 
One of the more hypnotically exhilarating films to capture this sense of “movies as dreams/dreams as movies” (one I rate right up there with Robert Altman’s 3 Women) is Australian director Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.
Rachel Roberts as Mrs. Appleyard
Anne-Louise Lambert as Miranda St. Clare
Margaret Nelson as Sara Waybourne
Helen Morse as Mlle. Dianne de Poitiers
Dominic Guard as Michael Fitzhubert
John Jarratt as Albert Crundall
The enigmatic tale of Picnic at Hanging Rock, condensed on the teasing “based on a true story or not?” poster copy used to promote the film, concerns a fateful Valentine’s Day in 1900 when, during a school outing to Hanging Rock, a mystically foreboding rock formation in Victoria, Australia, two schoolgirls and a teacher disappear, never to be seen again.

From this deceptively simple mystery plot is suspended a host of enticing themes ‒ practical as well as metaphysical ‒ from which can be drawn entirely different (yet peculiarly complementary) interpretations of not only the event itself, but the lingering, escalatingly tragic effect it has on all the individuals whose lives were irrevocably changed by it.
Vivean Gray as Miss Greta McCraw

The enigmatic tale of Picnic at Hanging Rock, condensed on the teasing “based on a true story or not?” poster used to promote the film, concerns a fateful Valentine’s Day in 1900 when, during a school outing to Hanging Rock, a mystically foreboding rock formation in Victoria, Australia, two schoolgirls and a teacher disappear, never to be seen again.

From this deceptively simple mystery plot is suspended a host of enticing themes ‒ practical as well as metaphysical ‒ from which can be drawn entirely different (yet peculiarly complementary) interpretations of not only the event itself, but the lingering, escalatingly tragic effect it has on the individuals whose lives are touched by it.

Sensitively adapted for the screen by Cliff Green from the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, it was established long ago that Picnic at Hanging Rock was not based on an actual event. But the intentional obfuscation of this fact by Lindsay throughout her life ideally suits a story in which the attempt to arrive at logical explanations through pragmatic means proves, in this instance, a futile pursuit at best.
Flanked by French teacher Mille. de Portiers on the left and match instructor Miss McCraw on the right, the girls are formally briefed before they depart on their picnic by headmistress Mrs. Appleyard. A briefing which can be summed up as: enjoy yourselves but make sure you don't have a good time.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Establishing a mood of hazy paradox from the outset, Peter Weir’s ushers us into his film—which is, in effect, a waking dream—with the image of its most ethereal character, Miranda, waking up from a dream. It is Valentine’s Day at Appleyard College; a rigidly formal, upper-class English all-girls boarding school plopped smack in the middle of the Australian bush, and the girls are all caught up in a flurry of romantic preoccupation.
"Meet me love, when day is ending..."
The romantic valentines the girls share with one another express
a depth of emotion largely stifled by their surroundings
And just as the surrounding barren landscape contrasts with the school’s lush gardens, and Hanging Rock’s organic asymmetry silently defies the illusion of order presented by stark traditionalism of the school’s architecture; the sensual stirrings within Mrs. Appleyard’s adolescent charges bristle against the stern repressiveness of Victorian era British Colonialism.
These contrasts soon establish themselves as a motif in Picnic at Hanging Rock, the subtle discord between nature (encompassing both the supernatural and preternatural) and the desire to control it (as exemplified by the staunch dominance of school headmistress Mrs. Appleyard), are put to the test by the unexplained disappearance of the aforementioned students and teacher.
Little Girls Lost
The disappearance of Miranda (Lambert), Marion (Jane Vallis), and Irma (Karen Robson)
is depicted as an act of mystical somnambulism

Because the film begins with a title card already informing us of the girls’ disappearance, the early scenes, for all their soft-focus sensuality (makes me wonder if Brian DePalma caught this film at a festival before he shot Carrie’s memorable slow-motion girls’ locker room scene) carry a sense of menace and foreboding.
Natural emotions and actions are thwarted at every turn. Miranda, the school free spirit, is the object of a girlhood crush by her lonely roommate Sara. Sara’s overtures of love are accepted, yet frustrated by Miranda’s cryptic premonition: “You must learn to love someone else apart from me, Sara. I won’t be here much longer.”

In addition, after witnessing the girls binding themselves up with corsets (apparently a picnic doesn’t require comfort), we’re given scene after scene where teachers attempt to quiet and suppress the natural ebullience of girls anticipating an outing.
All this has the effect of creating an atmosphere redolent of an emotional pressure-cooker (a feeling enhanced by the strenuously non-romantic math instructor as she pragmatically demystifies the miracle of Hanging Rock by going on about its formation being the result of earthly eruptions).
(After posting the above screencap, my partner told me its painterly composition and use of light reminded him of George Seurat's pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte - completed in 1886.) Beautiful.

By the time the three more developmentally inquisitive girls traipse off to explore (the naïf Edith [Christine Schuler] tagging along) their eventual disappearance into the almost beckoning columns of the rock feels like a date with destiny.
Two local boys also on the rock that day – Michael, a high-born Englishman, and Albert, an Australian coachman – find their lives touched (profoundly) by the disappearances.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
If the first part of the film feels like a deceptively pastoral rumination on Victorian ethos imposed upon Australian culture (vis a vis British Colonialism); then the second part, structured as a crime mystery shrouded in a psychological melodrama, feels like a battle royale between nature’s enigmatic indomitability and man’s arrogant faith in all being comprehensible and tractable.

Among the townsfolk, the urgency to discover the fate of the missing girls (compounded when one is found unharmed, but lacking any memory of what occurred) arises as much out of the fear of uncertainty as concern for their welfare. At the school, Mrs. Appleyard frets over how the heedlessness of the event will color public perception of her institution, her inefficacy in the matter fueling a need to exert her will over the staff and pupils. Particularly the rebellious but emotionally vulnerable Sara. Sara is an orphan, abandoned by parents, Miranda, her caretaker, and her longed-for, absent brother (the latter, another lovely metaphysical quirk in a story overflowing with them). 
Mrs. Appleyard, intent on breaking the stubborn will of the student with the least social stature
The sum effect of all these emotional and psychological upheavals is that the disappearance of the schoolgirls comes to erode everything everyone has come to know and rely on. This discord and disruption dramatized in the contrasting images of Australia’s resilient-looking fauna juxtaposed against the fragile white swans introduced to Australia by the British settlers (only black swans are indigenous). Similarly, the vaguely threatening sounds of nature on the film’s soundtrack feel like an angry response to the near-constant sound of ticking of clocks indoors.

Picnic at Hanging Rock ends on a note of compound human tragedies. But true to the film's thematic responsiveness to the instinctual, sensual, and constant; nature seems to triumph and prevail. Hanging Rock remains as it has for millions of years: unchanged, unyielding, and the conclusive guardian of its mysteries.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
I find it somewhat remarkable to consider that outside of the mystical Australia vs Colonialism angle I  described above (the particular thrust of the film that spoke to me most fervently), Picnic at Hanging Rock actually operates on about fifty other levels simultaneously. Whether the themes relate to spiritualism, sexual awakening, death and loss, existential mystery, the birth of the Edwardian era in Australia, romantic idealism, etc. There are just so many fascinating and diverse ways to look at this movie.
Hanging Rock -  Appleyard College / A precipice vs. an edifice
One exalts the natural spirit, the other seeks to suppress it
Visually it is as sumptuous as they come. The almost otherworldly cinematography by Russell Boyd (Starstruck) renders Australia a continent of the mind. The seductively lush, yet mystifyingly ominous exteriors are pointedly offset by the meticulous (and spectacularly fine) art direction (David Copping, Martin Sharp, and I'm sure many others) which fills Appleyard College and the home of Col. Fitzhubert with determined Victorian overkill. It's clear the Colonialists intend to counter rugged Australia by bringing every stitch of orderly Great Britain with them.
It's impossible to speak of Picnic at Hanging Rock without giving credit to the invaluable contribution made by its haunting musical score. Composer Bruce Smeaton and pan flutist Gheorghe Zamfir (with some additional assist by Beethoven) imbue each dreamily-evoked scene with just the right tone of languorous unease.

PERFORMANCES
Welsh actress Rachel Roberts (stepping in for the last-minute departure of originally cast Vivien Merchant (The Maids) is the rock against which all the characters in Picnic at Hanging Rock must collide. Backing up her startling hairdo, severe manner, and clipped, precise diction with a forcefulness that knocks everyone else off the screen, Mrs. Appleyard is an even more memorable entity than the character of Miranda.
Peter Weir gets splendid performances out of the entirety of his cast. I have nothing but praise for the ensemble work in Picnic at Hanging Rock, with special kudos going to personal favorites Helen Morse (who I honestly thought was French), Anne-Louise Lambert, Margaret Nelson, and John Jarratt.
Tony Llewellyn-Jones and Jacki Weaver as Appleyard College's handyman and maid, are so very good as two grounded characters who, while lacking the dreaminess of the schoolgirls, instead possess a true gentleness of heart 

I saw Picnic at Hanging Rock for the first time in 1979.  Then, unfamiliar with the plot or Peter Weir's trance-like, atmospheric style, it felt like the most elegant horror film I'd ever seen. Very unsettling and disturbing in a compellingly subtle way. Since that then, I've seen this movie more times than I can count. Each time finding more to marvel at and discover. However, the best thing about it is that it has ceased feeling like a dream remembered. Even a little bit like a remembered nightmare: that's when you're no longer unsettled or frightened, but it's fun being reminded that you were.
A terrific scene of Polanski-level tension is when Irma, the only girl to be rescued of the
missing three, visits the gymnasium before departing for home


BONUS MATERIAL
Watch the two-hour "making of" documentary - Picnic at Hanging Rock: A Dream Within A Dream

No evening of TV watching in the early '80s was complete without at least one sighting of this record collection commercial for Zamfir: Master of the Pan Flute. Warning, if you're a fan of the delicate and stirring way Gheorghe Zamfir's music is used in Picnic at Hanging Rock, I strongly suggest you skip the commercial. Otherwise it's available on YouTube  HERE

“Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place.”

Copyright © Ken Anderson