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The Ballad of Tam Lin (1970)
decadent fun from ancient Scottish ballad
One should be a fan of British cinema, retro pop culture, fantasy/folklore, and personal auteur-ship for maximum enjoyment of this likable but format-challenged film from the late 1960's/early 70's. I sure am, and as such quite savored this cinematic retelling of the Tam Lin ballad.
It's sufficiently enjoyable that I immediately transferred the VHS tape to DVD for future viewings. One suspects it had been slated for same, what with its 17 minute director's introduction, but remained lost in the ether of Republic Pictures' post-demise assorted distribution deals. One further suspects that its release under of aegis of an Ava Gardner tribute series was the ticket for its seeing light of day at all post theatrical debut. It's been written that Roddy McDowell lost control of this, his only directed film, with it subsequently languishing in drive-ins of the 1970's under such noms-du-exploitation as "The Devil's Widow!" As McDowell's sole direction job, this is a movie one ever so wants to be as good as Charles Laughton's similar solo effort "Night of the Hunter," which it isn't and cannot be, as few films can match "Hunter's" expert, mannerist weirdness. McDowell's is a B+ to Laughton's A+. What is it does share is the quirkiness of a singular vision, seeming unlike anything else of its respective era while still conforming to mainstream requisites, and the retelling of a dreamy but occasionally frightening fairy tale in modern clothes, with assorted decidedly odd touches. A true loss to cinema that both actors never directed another film.
Simply put, it's the ballad of Tam Lin (its original title in fact) retold with late '60's characters, and peopled with a cast of still working, familiar British names like Ian McShane (representing the titular captured knight Tam Lin,) Joanna Lumley and Stephanie Beacham (the Hammer horror ingénue, here as the ballad's Janet) with both Cyril and Sinead Cusack in tow. Gardner as the controlling "Faerie Queen" seems an apt focus of the swirling debaucheries and cruelties rationalized as group activity fun. This, strangely, isn't so much part of the fantasy as modern viewers might conclude: some of us who were adolescents in the '60's remember the genuine, wealthy older types lending their mansions to us young'uns in order to share in the decadent fun, whether vicariously or actively.
In "Tam Lin" you'll find a little seen but quite good updated fairy story, plus amusing music from jazz to the Pentangle, great costuming, retro period fun, gorgeous Scottish border scenery and an always great to watch cast. Time for whoever owns Republic's split assets this week to fund that DVD release.
Lessons from 1960's Pop Culture to ponder today
The formerly preposterously rare (two extant prints in the universe) 1967 film "Privilege" has just been digitally restored in its original color and is now available on any DVD sales site.
This matters for several reasons. Firstly, because the film was as prescient as many consider Nostradamus to have been. Its plot, considered so far-fetched at the time that the film was oft labeled science fiction, centers around an increasingly totalitarian government in a first world country that attempts social engineering at all levels, including utilization of pop culture. It's hit on the formula to control youthful rebellion and dissent in general by investing a young pop idol with state-sponsored power (more in a minute) as centerpiece of national obsession. EVERYONE cares about this particular pop idol and what happens to him every week, since his act has been designed to attract universal sympathy and diffuse caring about one's self and one's own troubles. I'll not reveal how because the strange design of the first tour of his that viewers see is a revelation within itself.
What he says, what products he endorses, and how he steers the populace into state-sponsored trends and philosophies is a fait accompli in the film. The government notes a surplus of apple crops, idol Steven is immediately shown eating lots of apples, as now will the general populace. Got religion? Steven now does, and you will too. It always works. You buy what he wears, what he endorses. But what sort of personality would go along with being such a figurehead? And what sort of actor could even pull this messianic stardom off realistically, since the film is made in documentary style? Luckily, the answers are pretty good. The plot centers on the gradual breakdown of this personality, as no one but an insane megalomaniac could keep this up forever, his world of his every action micro-managed by others and every "creative" output predetermined for him. (Not like....now in 2008!) This person hired to quell all rebellion eventually starts to rebel against the state-sponsored "love." And the actor hired to be both this convincing a pop star and soul tormented practically to torpor was an actual rockgod, Paul Jones, the tall, good-looking blond singer of the Manfred Mann group of the mid-60's, if you recall the hearty voice on classic Brit oldies "Do Wah Diddy" and "Pretty Flamingo." "Privilege"'s director Peter Watkins, known for terrifying all of Britain with the first realistic, ultra-violent post nuclear apocalypse film "The War Game," knew how important casting is, despite trade-offs. Paul Jones was of the minute modern, and could convey this fantastical idea of Orwellian government control through a pop star by being a credible pop star known at the time. His co-star, 1960's icon Jean Shrimpton playing the instigation of the star's rebellion, was the most beautiful and famous model ever, at that particular moment in history. The trade-off was you believed them in their roles, even if you didn't believe them as trained actors.
It's not so much that they can't act, more that both leads were directed to be underplayed a la Garbo: you put your own reflections of the proceedings on their visages, in contrast to the freneticism of Steven's fans and the steely controlling of his handlers. Suffice it to say, their roles and performances well hold up today: they are who they play, and they look perfect.
Jones is actually a compelling performer and great vocalist, singing real (as opposed to "movie") rock songs in this film. Pretty good rock songs too: one was covered 25 years later by Patti Smith and Paula Pierce and The Pandoras, which then sounded as modern as ever. Punk legends Chainsaw based their one ballad on the opening scene of "Privilege." And Shrimpton!* Even with purportedly wooden acting, she remains a focus you cannot take your eyes off of. You instantly understand her visual domination of the first half of the 1960's and her incontrovertible allure.
In fact it all holds up pretty well today, and the film appears far more tellingly intelligent than it did when it was released and reviled enough to force its director to move abroad. It's been a lost cult classic ever since 1967, and, with the recent release of Brian Wilson's lost "Smile" album, finally completes gaps in the best of pop culture from the 1960's, ironically so with its very indictment of pop culture manipulation gone totalitarian. "Privilege" feels more real and works better today in 2008 than when it was released forty one years ago. Check this treasure out! *Her photographer mentor/lover David Bailey and she were heroes to my generation, for being their own personae and successes to boot: the "one of ours" syndrome. A wrongly ascribed shyness was assigned to this, her one acting role. In front of the still camera she was as extrovert as you can get, confident, dazzling and compelling. I'm a still photographer, and I know what it takes for model to project: something from within beyond the interaction of mere direction.
She was ultra-successful, but not well remunerated, as the book "Model" which explored the various decades of the profession pointed out (only models after the mid-70's became millionaires as the business changed along with the agencies and licensing practices.) She even verifies this, without bitterness. Folks question why she seemingly dropped off the face of the earth (Cornwall, actually.) Lastly, people who were successful in their aspirations but not necessarily in finances oftimes think in terms you might not suspect: I've done it all firsthand, I was at the center of the hurricane's eye, I don't need to continue immersing myself in this business anymore and pretend to go along with the changes in fads; I can happily go away and be at peace. This just makes heroes like Shrimpton, (and little known photographers like me) artists, not artiste manques.
White Mischief (1987)
Strange, decadent, and worthwhile
Based on the book by James Fox (not the handsome English actor of a certain age) this film remains hard to pin down: it's part murder mystery, part sociological study, part history of pre-WW2 East African colonialism, part romance, part dionysian orgy (really), part Evelyn Waugh/Somerset Maughm, part romance, part.... etc. etc. And it's all true.
Yes, the actors are more spectacular looking than their real life counterparts (particularly Scacchi, seldom more stunning.) Sarah Miles' strange character wafts through as most memorable of all in a rich ensemble set of louche decadents. (And yet the actress in real life admitted she may not have gotten a handle on the real woman, just an impression. Based upon my reading of Fox's and Trzebinski's books' accounts on the Alice de Janze, I'd have to agree. Nothing like her except the memorable quips and woozy flair.) Plus, most folks who didn't swim through the primo decadence of the 1960's firsthand might be appalled at what passes for entertainment in British colonial East Africa of the 1930'/40s. But what you'll get for your treasure hunt (this is a hard film to find) is the truth of a murder mystery, weird but real characters, a slice of history, all against the gorgeous panoply of Kenya, despite all its troubles one of the most beautiful spots on the entire planet, all shot on location right where the real events unfolded.
Deep End (1970)
My life in the "Deep End," and yours, too
Okay, here's a cine-challenge. There are some films that take you back to a particular time in your life at absolute warp speed. Frequently, these films are reasonably universal, but their associations might be obfuscated, personal and subjective, never understood even by your friends unless explained. One such film, which chronicled absolute obsessive teenage love and its destructiveness was a wake-up call to a frequent, formerly obsessive type, myself in my misspent youth. This and the film's innate mastery instantly time-travel me back to days that were simultaneously more innocent and more complicated than today, late night smoky college discussions in a candle-lit apartments.
And that film would be "Deep End" directed by Jerzy Skowlimowski, pal of Roman Polanski, with the same great mix of bizarre sensibilities and takes on life, done in professional, Hollywood-caliber production, even if on an indie budget.
It's from 1970, featuring music by Cat Stevens (Yusef Islam now to the non-infidel) and two unbelievably strong leads: a 15-year-old John Moulder Brown and 25-year-old Jane Asher (Paul McCartney's 1960's trophy girlfriend.) I never even knew Asher had these acting chops: she outdoes Susan Sarandon (similar upper class background) for letting us in on the nuances of a naturally pretty, fairly low-class young person. Moulder-Brown was the go-to kid for late 60's/early 70's films that required a teen to actually act. (Both are still working, happily.)
This is a dance of death pas de deux between a teen boy working at a grimy public pool in Britain, all hormones and eagerness, and his slightly older female co-worker, who's both a beauty and a inveterate tease. These two should never have been allowed to work together, as he quickly fixates on her, stalks her, and she tries to control the situation with her normal, over the top sexual flirting. It's pretty light and entertaining for a while, then it goes south. . . The title is "Deep End," after all. I've rarely seen a such a disturbing, creepy film about young lust that still has you rooting for everyone involved, no matter how wrongly they both behave. That's the sign of a sure cinematic touch.
Sunset Strip (2000)
The Real Stuff
What do you want in a movie? If it's verisimilitude, you must have subjective overview for the context, or else it's just another period piece as distant and impersonal as The Napoleonic Wars. If it's a character study, you must accept this as the basis of the filmed entertainment.
"Sunset Strip" should be viewed as a character study companion piece to "Almost Famous" with far more accurate verisimilitude. "Famous" is a wondrous pastiche, lotsa entertaining bang for your buck. But "Sunset Strip" represents the real s**t. I know. I was there. And here's why you should take my anonymous word for it.
When I first saw this movie I was astonished that I didn't recognize the name of its writer, for I recognized every one of his characters, literally as well as figuratively. The writer obviously was exactly the same age I was, worked in the exact aspects of the entertainment industry that I did, at the exact same time in the early 70's at the exact same spots in Hollywood and knew the exact same people I did (or knew of.) Anna Friel was Genie the Tailor, who did in fact die in an auto accident with several members of British band Fairport Convention. The geeky manager was seemingly an early Geffen clone. The disolute songwriter was a Warren Zevon-alike, while Jared Leto was, dare I say, a completely interchangeable popstar type of the era. My own future husband, popstar of that era, lived in the exact same Laurel Canyon mountain aerie depicted in the film (replete with benevolent landlord), while I worked as a music photographer amongst the main protagonist's doppelganger. And I did know who he was. He was one of the names you'll recognize on photo credits of the era, who owns a major restaurant here. But he didn't want his name on the writing credits, so I'll respect that.
"Sunset Strip" is a highly entertaining character study that is unbelievably accurate in its depiction of an assortment of characters on the perimeter, or the earliest stages of ascent, of the music scene in Los Angeles in the early 1970's. It's all true. And we did go out there every night. . .