Edinburgh 2010 supplementary : AFTER THE WAVE


Scott Anthony - or is it Antony? - 'Savage Messiah'

A selection of films seen in After the Wave, a sidebar at the 2010 Edinburgh Int’l Film Festival showcasing underappreciated British features from 1967-1979 (curator: Niall Greig Fulton)

.     8/10     .
. SAVAGE MESSIAH : UK 1972 : Ken Russell : 97m : {22/28}
Vibrantly unconventional biopic, (melo-)dramatising the unorthodox relationship – more inspirational/mental than romantic/sexual – between penniless French sculptor Henri Gaudier (Scott Anthony) and a much older Polish writer Sophie Brzeska (Dorothy Tutin), in Paris and London during the early years of the 20th century. 
   A tragic/comic romp that’s (thankfully) a very long way from the standard run of stuffy 1970s British costume-dramas, this from-the-inside-out evocation of the creative process’s intensity and absurdity takes its energy from the restless Gaudier as he gleefully gallops the wild horse of Futurism towards the Modernist horizon. Rousing highlight is an extended sequence in which Gaudier stays up all night executing a sculpture at breakneck pace with chisel, hammer and racing-goggles, soon stripping to the waist as he flings himself into his sweaty exertions.
   Though not all of Russell’s flashy directorial and gambits pay off, Savage Messiah has a spiky, bracing charm all its own and rivals The Elephant Man among the most convincing, scruffily evocative cinematic visions of bygone London. The air of persuasively percussive exuberance renders the sudden ending (reflecting Gaudier’s fate in the Great War’s trenches) all the more jarringly poignant: a pair of sepia-tinted stills show Anthony-as-Gaudier among his comrades-in-arms, grinning laddishly in uniform, white of tooth and muddy of face.
   The film certainly makes a convincing case that Gaudier’s premature (dead at 23) demise was a major loss to art; in the context, Anthony’s unfulfilled promise (he effectively vanished from public view after 1974’s misfiring Dick Francis adaptation Dead Cert) as a charismatic leading man of British cinema is more regrettable than tragic. But while he’s not exactly the front-of-camera equivalent of Michael Reeves – he was last heard of running arts-projects in Gloucester – it’s more than tantalising to ponder what might have been, had the chips fallen more kindly in his (and our) favour.

.     7/10     .
. PRIVATE ROAD : UK 1971 : Barney Platts-Mills : 91m : {20/28}
One of the lower-profile selections in the After the Wave sidebar, this follow-up to writer/director Platts-Mills’ better-known Bronco Bullfrog (1969 – currently on re-release) is eminently ripe for rediscovery. 
   With the early-seventies hairstyles and fashions now pretty much back in vogue among both men and women, these elliptical, clinical scenes from a nervous middle-class romance in leafy NW7 – he a discontented, over-articulate proto-bohemian (Bruce Robinson), she a shy, sheltered, sweet bourgeoise (Susan Penhaligon) – have, despite the evident influence of Godard and various oblique nouvelle vague-isms, barely dated a jot.
   Indeed, eerie echoes of the future abound: several sequences prefigure Robinson’s own directorial career (Withnail & I‘s damp country-cottage; a skewering of ad-land pretensions that’s as acerbic as anything in How To Get Ahead in Advertising) and the general vibe strongly foreshadows Ricky Gervais’ memory-lane stroll nearly three decades later, Cemetery Junction (2009).
   But Private Road stands on its own terms as a formally ambitious, confidently cynical take on the blossoming of puppy love between a slightly twee, slightly mismatched couple – told with a certain arms-length distancing. Difficult to warm to, perhaps, but very easy to admire – and how depressing to note than over a decade would elapse before Platts-Mills returned to the fray with Hero (1982), his most recent credit to date.

. THE SQUEEZE : UK 1977 : Michael Apted : 105m : {19/28}
The unique cast-list immediately grabs the eye: Stacy Keach, Edward Fox, David Hemmings, and – in their penultimate movies – Ben Hur‘s Stephen Boyd (only months before his death) and Cathy Come Home‘s Carol White. Plus, in what remains his only big-screen outing to date (forgetting a late-50s bit-part), apocryphally hamster-munching telly comedian Freddie Starr.
   The picture itself is fine evidence of director Apted’s bewildering versatility, appearing (briefly) in cinemas around the same time as his eminently respectable 21 Up documentary was airing on TV, and slotting into his filmography between the globe-hopping decadence of Stardust (1974) and the genteel 1920s Harrogate tea-room intrigues of Agatha (1979). The Squeeze, by contrast, is a dourly London-centric affair, self-consciously unpleasant and gritty-grimy to the extent that more sensitive viewers may feel like a shower afterwards.
   Keach – the London-trained star essaying a near-flawless Brit accent – is an alcoholic ex-copper whose ex-wife (White), now with a wealthy new husband (Fox) is kidnapped, along with her young daughter, by the sinister henchman (Hemmings) of a well-connected gangster (Boyd). Violent complications rapidly ensue as our hero blunderbusses his way into trouble with the help of his chirpily attentive sidekick (Starr, providing a bit more than mere comic relief), at various junctures losing consciousness and/or his dignity in the process.
   Playing like a no-nonsense cross between Robert Aldrich’s The Grissom Gang and Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (both 1971) – while foreshadowing the breezy gangland brutalities of John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1979/80) – The Squeeze barrels us through the atmospherically mean streets of multicultural Britain at the grubby fag-end of the pre-Thatcher era. It’s based on a novel by a former Daily Mirror reporter and has an agreeably seamy true-crime flavour – the kind of slightly disreputable page-turner one might pick up in a second-hand bookshop specialising in those adult-oriented publications which boast more photographs than text.

. THE FINAL PROGRAMME : aka The Last Days of Man On Earth : UK 1973 : Robert Fuest : 84m : {18/28}
Surprising to discover that The Final Programme should be the only time a novel by wildly prolific British fantasy/science-fiction legend Michael Moorcock has been adapted for either big screen or small. Which means that Jon Finch remains the sole actor to have incarnated Moorcock’s most famous creation, Jerry Cornelius: a globe-trotting, nattily-attired, glamorously louche missing-link between Doctor Who and Austin Powers. 
   With his sneering, self-regarding charisma and sardonically jaded hauteur, Finch’s Cornelius is a magnetically off-beat sort of hero and it’s great fun watching him interact (playing it pretty straight, given the circumstances) with the gallery of grotesques, oddballs and exquisites who make up the cast – including some ripe character-acting from the craggily reliable likes of Sterling Hayden, Patrick Magee, Graham Crowden, George Colouris, Hugh Griffith, and so on. These weirdos keep cropping up as Cornelius stumbles across a nebulous, nefarious plot involving sinister scientists, his own renegade, loose-cannon brother (Derrick O’Connor) and a femme fatale (Jenny Runacre) who is, it seems, quite literally a man-eater. Highlight is a mano-a-mano combat scene near the end which operates at a Batman-like ker-pow, ker-crunch level and sees Cornelius tossing off a string Mockney quips as he seeks to prevent his black nail-polish from chipping and his shirt-ruffles from crimping.
   The modishly bizarre, nightmare-logic plot is, despite its essential slenderness (not that much really happens), a bit tricky to follow, and the pace does slacken towards sluggishness from time to time. But diversions are plentiful – not least writer/director Fuest’s own deliriously over-the-top and opulently futuristic production-design, taking things an elaborate step further from the flights of baroque retro-fancy that marked his two Doctor Phibes pictures. And the psychedelically FX-heavy climax, lampooning Kubrick’s 2001 and prefiguring Ken Russell’s Altered States, concludes (the by now thoroughly wigged-out) proceedings on a note of irresistibly histrionic conceptual loopiness.

. MADE : UK 1972 : John Mackenzie : 108m : {18/28}
Can it be sheer macabre coincidence that in 1965 and 1970 there were two plays written in England with the word ‘Saved’ in the title, and whose events included the violent death of a baby? The first – Edward Bond’s Saved – was adapted for Belgian TV in 1974; the second – Howard Barker’s None Were Saved became Made, based on a script by the playwright himself and directed by John Mackenzie (later responsible for 1979/80’s The Long Good Friday).
   A fairly sombre examination of psychological and sociologial themes, Saved is primarily a character-study of single mother Valerie (Carol White). Perpetually nagged by her ailing, aged mother (Margery Mason), Valerie has relationships – of varying kinds – with three men: a laid-back folk-rock star (Roy Harper) with whom she has a passionate fling, a socially-active young vicar (John Castle as the kind of character Mark E Smith would later dub the “hip priest”), and an earnestly besotted Asian work-colleague (Sam Dastor). Of the trio, Harper – in what remains his sole feature-film appearance – makes the biggest impact, the laid-back folk-rock star playing what presumes is a lightly fictionalised version of himself with disarmingly unartful directness, as well as providing several songs for the soundtrack. 
   Only partially a victim of her tough, sometimes tragic circumstances, Valerie is an unusual kind of protagonist – a working-class woman who’s confident of herself and her sexuality and is in search of self-realisation, but never expresses herself in terms of feminism or hippiefied mysticism (distant cousin of Barbara Loden’s Wanda, perhaps). She isn’t always entirely sympathetic (she blurts out a racist insult at one startling moment of high emotion) but she’s always intriguing, perpetually misunderstood by her ‘nearest and dearest’ as she instinctively, unfussily refuses to conform to expectations. 
   Director Mackenzie shows a strong eye for the quotidian (indoors and outdoors) detail of easily-overlooked “ordinary” lives in drab corners of London – a day-trip to Brighton is about as glamorous and exciting as it gets – and elicits strong, nuanced performances that prevent proceedings from becoming just another bleakly well-meaning exercise in urban grimness.

.     6/10     .
. PRIVILEGE : UK 1967 : Peter Watkins : 103m : {17/28}
The faux-documentary has become tiresomely ubiquitous in all areas of film-making over the past decade or so, but Privilege is one of the very early examples of the form. Set in an alternative – perhaps slightly futuristic – Britain, it purports to be a fly-on-the-wall study of an inarticulate, amiably blank and malleable pop star (Brian Jones of Manfred Mann fame, suitably bland) whose youth-appeal is harnessed by sinister far-right patriotic/religious forces in increasingly strident, implausible fashion. 
   These nefarious machinations culminate in a crassly excessive finale at a open-air gig – the budget seemingly didn’t stretch to very many extras for the crowd scenes – featuring black-shirted musicians performing a lounge version of William Blake’s Jerusalem before performing a fascist salute.
   At first glance one might presume that Johnny Speight and Norman Bogner’s script was at least partially inspired by chart-topping God-botherer Cliff Richard’s engagement with the reactionary movement known as the Nationwide Festival of Light – except the latter occurred a couple of years after the movie came out, suggesting that, if anything, the flow of inspiration headed in the opposite direction. 
   Privilege makes some sharp points about capitalism’s exploitation and manipulation of its consumers, but these are counterbalanced by some pretty broad-brush satirical swipes at the media, advertising and pop – so what might have been a scary combination of A Clockwork Orange, Blow-Up and Stardust instead comes across as cynically hip dystopianism.
   And, with the cameras picking up all manner of intimacies and indiscretions, it’s at best only intermittently convincing as a pseudo-documentary. One consistent, unexpected plus is the presence of Jean Shrimpton, the proto-supermodel an appealingly tentative, unspoiled presence as Jones’s upper-class artist girlfriend – a real shame that this auspicious big-screen debut should also prove her swansong as an actress.

Neil Young

16th August 2010

All films seen at Filmhouse cinema, Edinburgh (Edinburgh International Film Festival) June 2010 (Privilege on 18th; Made and Private Road 22nd; Savage Messiah 23rd; The Final Programme 24th; Pressure and The Squeeze 25th). public screenings — complimentary tickets. Timings: BBFC.
Also seen : Pressure (1976; Horace Ové) rating 4/10 {10/28}

Tribune report covering some new films at the festival

NB : Neil Young is a programmer for the Edinburgh International Film Festival but had no input into this sidebar.