V’07 : pt3 : Archive features : Killer of Sheep (1977); The Working Girls (’74); Julia (’77), etc


KILLER OF SHEEP                                               [7/10]               
I'd heard many great things about Killer Of Sheep before I finally managed to see it (the film has been effectively out of circulation for a couple of decades). and while I don't think it's any great masterpiece, I can see why it's regarded as a major landmark in American cinema. Burnett used the format of the "art movie" to chronicle everyday life among the poor, black residents of a Los Angeles ghetto – concentrating on one particular family and their acquaintances – with results that are often powerful and poetic, if at times a little self-conscious and over-oblique in their experimentalism.
   Performances are distractingly variable, the general rule being that the scenes with the least dialogue work best (and not just because the combination of the slangy vernacular language and the scratchy sound-recording makes some exchanges difficult to hear clearly.) Indeed, the most striking elements are the wordless, grimly documentary-style sequences set in an abbatoir, whose relation to the main 'narrative' remains intriguingly ambiguous throughout.
   Nearly as effective are the many scenes involving children at play out on the street, which have the tang and grit of unmodulated reality. An engaging combination of the carefully-calibrated and the raggedly rough-edged, Killer of Sheep still works sufficiently well as a drama to be of much more than purely historical-cultural importance – its invidual episodes may be uneven, but the cumulative effect is impressive and haunting.

THE WORKING GIRLS                                         [7/10]               
I only managed to catch two entries in Vienna's Stephanie Rothman retrospective, but The Working Girls showed enough to suggest that this tribute was both justified and overdue. It's a disarmingly chirpy take on "women's-lib" issues which were such a topical subject in mid-seventies America, specifically ideas of workplace equality. The film takes its breezy tone from its lead actress Sarah Kennedy, a shapely blonde who brings an appealing freshness the central role of Honey, a happy-go-lucky hitchhiker ("she's pretty hard to resist!") who winds up in the laid-back, sun-kissed Los Angeles suburb of Venice.
   Accommodation is easy to find – lucrative employment, less so. We follow Honey and her two housemates through cartoonish adventures in the chauvinistic world of work ("maximum hours, minumum wage!") – including numerous jokey action-sequences and raunchy detours to a strip-club (Charlie's Angels meets John Cassavetes' Killing of a Chinese Bookie, perhaps), the latter by no means the only element of the picture that feels just a knowing step or two away from soft porn.
   With her babyish voice, pinup Honey may seem the stereotypical 'dumb blonde', but – rather like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Holliday before her – as she discovers the joys and pitfalls of Californian capitalism it soon becomes clear that she's nobody's fool. Similarly, Rothman makes essentially serious points in a bouncy, frothy style that's lost little of its satirical oomph three decades on.

I HATE BUT LOVE                                                [6/10]               

Colourfully effervescent road-movie-comedy-cum-media-satire, undeniably overlong, but just about managing to sustain its demented energy through the course of a 105-minute running-time – a sort of freewheeling Tashlin-via-Godard take on the kinds of issues handled with rather more sobriety in Blow-Up and Medium Cool.
   The story follows is an archetypal "redemption of a louse" arc, in which a Tokyo celebrity-about-town – radio and TV megastar presenter/DJ Daisuke (ISHIHARA Yujiro) – comes to realise the shallowness of his hyperkinetic, ultra-flashy lifestyle. He does so by means of an epic journey across Japan, delivering a jeep to a doctor in a remote village in far-off Kyushu – the impulsive result of a "human interest" story on one of his programmes. His colleagues instinctively regard this quest as a smart publicity-stunt – "he's drunk on humanitarianism!" – and the trek quickly becomes a chaotic media circus.
   But as Daisuke ventures through city and country – if nothing else, the picture is a striking travelogue time-capsule of booming early-60s Japan – this "over-blown jerk" finds time to reflect on the multiple errors of his ways and discover the meaning of "true love". The shifts in our hero's personality and passions are mirrored by some wayward tonal upheavals in the movie – garishly eye-popping one minute, noirishly existential (and even incongruously violent) the next, all scored with relentlessly perky comedy-style muzak. It's a thinnish story, handled with an agreeably daft brio – although nothing quite lives up to the jaggedly hip brilliance of the prologue and opening-titles, which misleading suggest that the following will be some kind of demented masterpiece.

Though less than four decades old, Pollack's movie holds up rather less well than the 1935 novel by Horace McCoy on which it's based – and, unless you're a very slow reader, you'll rip through the book in about half the time it takes to watch the film. The shortness of the book isn't coincidental – its brevity stands in mocking contrast to punishingly lengthy 'dance marathon' in which most of the characters are engaged throughout the narrative. These events, popular in the USA during the Depression years, offered penniless folk activity, food and shelter – at the price of taking part in a last-couple-standing contest for the entertainment of better-off spectators, with sleep snatched only during brief rest-breaks.
   The result: a gruelling vision of exploitation whose more horrific moments Pollack captures with nightmarish vibrancy – making up for the grinding literalism of his prologue in which an injured horse is shot. But the picture does become something of a slog for the viewer as well as the performers – many of the actors look as if they're really being put through the mill, especially during the second half. It doesn't help that main duo Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin are somewhat miscast – Fonda is merely sassy, stroppy and gloomy, whereas McCoy's anti-heroine was a viciously misanthropic cousin of the harpy-like Ann Savage character from Detour. Gig Young – who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar – fares rather better as the rabble-rousing master-of-ceremonies, although even he reveals a somewhat unlikely softer side in a picture which looks into an abyss of sardonic cynicism only to timidly pull back into sentimentality.

THE VELVET VAMPIRE                                     [6/10]               
Hats of to Stephanie Rothman for trying to do something new with the vampire movie – just a pity that she didn't have sufficient budget to do her ideas justice. Her film is like a knowingly campy cross between Bob Kelljan's Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) – in which a contemporary, thrill-seeking Los Angeles couple encounter a Dracula-like bloodsucker – and Harry Kumel's Daughters of Darkness (1971), in which a contemporary, thrill-seeking couple encounter a slinky lesbian arisocrat who may or may not be the notorious Elizabeth Bathory.
   Here it's contemporary, thrill-seeking, swinging Los Angeles couple Lee and Susan (Michael Blodgett and Sherry Miles, neither of them any great shakes acting-wise) who come across the enigmatic Diane (Celeste Yarnall, classy), a raven-haired, intense-eyed lady of indeterminate age who resides in a fancy mansion in the desert. Diane may be a vampire, but she's able to walk around during the daylight without too much trouble – provided she takes normal precautions to protect her porcelain-like complexion. As the threesome get to know each other better, Diane's attentions move from man to wife – and loyalties are tested…
   Bargain-basement special effects are a nagging distraction, likewise the 'functional' dialogue and the woodenness of some of the acting. But while the loud Goblin-ish soundtrack is by far the most consistently offbeat and vivid element, The Velvet Vampire is notable for its iconoclastic take on a jaded genre: Rothman incorporates certain tropes, scraps some altogether, adapts others to suit her purposes. And the picture has a kind of confidence in its own kinky transgressiveness that proves unexpectedly appealing, Rothman proving particularly adept at handling the trippy dream-sequences that punctuate the (slim) plot. Very much of its era – occasionally, laughably so – but nevertheless worth a look.

JULIA                                                                         [5+/10]            
I can remember being most impressed by Julia when I saw it on TV many years ago, but the years haven't been too kind – it comes across as the kind of stilted, big-budget Hollywood production aimed principally at Oscar voters (with considerable success – nominations and wins duly followed). An episodic, elliptical biopic of playwright Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda), it focuses on her relationship with lifelong friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) – from their childhood (when the pair are played by notably well-cast juvenile performers) through college, and Julia's involvement in Europe's cataclysmic 1930s. Indeed, the focus remains firmly on specific individuals while the monumental events in which they're caught up remain, indistictly, in the background.
   Director Zinnemann adopts a thuddingly old-fashioned, flashback-heavy, tastefully-opulent and grindingly reverent approach to the material (when the action moves to Paris, he shows us the Eiffel Tower while an accordion is heard on the soundtrack) invariably shooting Fonda through what looks like a thick gauze. This occasionally produces unintentionally amusing results, especially during a firelit night-scene on a beach, when those gauzy/foggy images of Fonda alternate with crystal-clear shots of Jason Robards (who somehow won an Oscar for his extended-cameo performance as Hellman's on-off partner Dashiell Hammett).
   Even the legendary editor Walter Murch has a couple of off-days here – cutting poor Hal Holbrook off mid-sentence ("Wonderful!–") and losing grip of a key scene where Julia and her fellow leftists at a Vienna university are attacked by Nazi thugs. The screenplay is also a problem – Julia often feels like a rather silly picture about a rather silly woman (Hellman brags about not knowing where Idaho is on a map, and later chirrups "I like being famous!"), and of the three acts the opening and closing sections, tracing her development as a writer, suggest a shaky grasp of the creative process: one minute Hammett is delivering a sharp critique of Hellman's latest work, the next he's hailing its rewritten form as "the best play anyone's written in a long time". And what about Dorothy Parker (Rosemary Murphy) – the character makes such a limited impression that it's only when the credits roll that we realise that the innocuous woman who pops up here and there was intended to be the legendary wit.
   Things only really click into gear during a thrillerish, sub-Hitchcock second-act in which Lillian has to deliver a mysterious item into the hostile territory of Berlin, and in which the two stars have an touching, all-too-brief reunion in a cafe (it's Fonda's best scene by far, and Redgrave is terrific). Elsewhere, however, there's an evasive air to proceedings – we're told that Hellman achieved literary fame through a play entitled The Children's Hour (we have to take its excellence on trust) though at no point is the lesbian theme of the play mentioned. Then, late on, a drunken interloper makes a lewd comment about how "the whole world knows" about her relationship with Julia – a relationship which, on the evidence we're shown, is never anything other than platonic (although there are two instances of some kind of supernatural/psychic link between the pair.)
   Was Alvin Sargent's screenplay rewritten to 'sanitise' out Hellman's true feelings towards her great friend? Or is there something more unusual and interesting going on? The opening voice-over tells us about the concept of pentimento, whereby an artist paints over his original work with a revision (having 'repented'), but the original outlines become visible, over time, through the paint. Are we supposed to regard the film of Julia as an example of pentimento, and to discern the 'actual' story through the rather blurry shapes on Zinnemann's lumpy "canvas"? Perhaps – but this seems like an awfully handy get-out for the film-makers, who could have put all manner of nonsense up on the screen in the hope that viewers would be able to penetrate and see the "masterpiece" hidden within.

Neil Young
12th November, 2007

Killer of Sheep : [7/10] : Charles BURNETT : US 1977 : 80m : seen 24th Oct, Gartenbaukino
The Working Girls : [7/10] : Stephanie ROTHMAN : US 1974 : 81m : seen 28th Oct, Kunstlerhaus
I Hate But Love : [6/10] : Nikui an-chikusho : KUREHARA Koreyoshi : Japan 1962 : 105m : seen 26th Oct, Stadtkino
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? : [6/10] : Sydney POLLACK : US 1969 : 120m : seen 29th Oct, Urania cinema
The Velvet Vampire : [6/10] : Stephanie ROTHMAN : US 1971 : 80m : seen 25th Oct, Gartenbaukino
Julia : [5+/10] : Fred ZINNEMANN : US 1977 : 118m : seen 28th Oct, Kunstlerhaus

(all complimentary press-delegate ticket, except Killer of Sheep and The Velvet Vampire – paid  ‚¬7.50 for each)