Friday, August 4, 2017

Swinging Flix from '66

For this weekend’s blogathon on films of the UK, I wanted to concentrate on 1966, a turning point in that country’s cinematic culture, and specifically on a quartet of films that became quintessential examinations of the Swinging London mindset.  Of course, films ranging from the kitchen sink dramas of Lindsay Anderson & Tony Richardson to the electric A Hard Day’s Night (Lester, 1964) and stylish social commentary of Darling (Schlesinger, 1965) paved the way for that year’s set of films.  But it still represents a telling chronological marker of how content, character, and craft all made a significant step to a more recognizably modern world.

Alfie (Gilbert, 1966) chronicles the caddish exploits of a profligate womanizer (Michael Caine in a game-changing part) living a libertine lifestyle with little concern for commitment or accountability but who is forced to learn some harsh lessons that chip away at the state of denial he values so highly.  The revolutionary conceit of the film is Alfie narrating his own tale by breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera directly.  Of course, this wasn’t unheard of as the occasional comic aside by Groucho Marx or Bob Hope, but to have the whole movie built around this form of internal monologue, with him making constant casual asides to the audience right in the middle of the action with his fellow characters unawares, was very new in its intimacy.

From a psychological perspective, it’s also a way to provide a window into his web of justifications in what amounts to a romantic laissez-faire worldview.  He seduces a slew of women (married and otherwise) but never makes his nature or intentions a secret.  They’re ostensibly free to do what they want, but his emotional game of coercion is effective in its simplicity: upfront, charming and full of sexual confidence.  And his monologues craftily perform double duty as both a vehicle for viewer complicity (since we’re identifying with him through his story) and confessional, since he lays out his entire outlook on life with brutal, boyish candor.  We see Alfie do some distasteful things, but it’s tough not to fall under his spell, from his flirtatious introduction through his brazen honesty and up to his final moments of gradual self-awareness.  We never ally with his position, but we’re grateful for his progress.

It makes one wonder what Georgy Girl (Narizzano, 1966) would be like if the filmmakers took the same approach to Georgy’s callow roommate Meredith (a young and exquisite Charlotte Rampling), a perfect promiscuous counterpart to Alfie.  Rampling makes a singularly unsympathetic character rich with complexity and opaqueness and the movie is clear-eyed in depicting the double standard women face trying to live an Alfie lifestyle.  Like Alfie, the movie is remarkable for its time in accepting abortion as an everyday reality (though not without its stigmas and legal repercussions).  And while “plain Jane” Georgy (a wonderful Lynn Redgrave) pursues love in unexpected places, her final choice is a bittersweet one, borne out of compromise, insecurity, and an acceptance of the limited choices working class women have.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up is the first film he made outside of Italy, and London brings a new sensibility to his filmmaking, taking his trademark theme of alienation and transposing it to the modern youth scene.  The result is a film full of coiled energy, stark compositions, and bursts of vivid color, and while his previous films were often about seething passions muffled by societal restraint, Blow-Up dives deep into a sensualist landscape where everyone is getting off but no one seems to be having much fun (best exemplified by the most ennui-tinged rock concert ever, courtesy of The Yardbirds). 

The central driving force of the film is photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) investigating what he thinks is a murder he’s captured on film in a fit of voyeurism, and the methodical series of darkroom enlargements is a masterclass of construction by Antonioni, all in the service of a mystery that’s ultimately peeling an onion.  For unlike Rear Window or The Conversation or Blow Out (all classic cinematic exercises in forensic sleuthing), the evidence in Blow-Up evaporates—or perhaps was all just a figment of Thomas's restless imagination—and the mystery becomes just another fleeting moment for him.  From the shocking (at the time) full female frontal nudity to the final enigmatic tennis game, Blow-Up shook the censors and the artistic establishment like few films had before, a perfect film to represent a generation undergoing a major tectonic shift.

Vanessa Redgrave is memorable as a femme fatale with a hidden agenda in Blow-Up, but she makes an even more substantial turn in Morgan! (Reisz, 1966).  In that, she plays divorcee Leonie trying to move on with her life despite the pervasive meddling of her former husband Morgan (David Warner).  It’s often said that films from the sixties feel dated, but that’s often in reference to window dressing like fashion, music or lingo.  But of these four films, Morgan! (subtitled A Suitable Case for Treatment) feels the most dated because of the prevailing attitudes that now feel so clich├ęd of that time: the enormous sense of male-entitlement, the knee-jerk embracing of radical leftism (in this case, Trotsky), the romantic metaphor of mental illness as a middle finger to the square status quo.  It's a hipster film, mostly full of empty posturing and zany swagger.

Certainly, romantic comedy in film has a rich tradition of former lovers entangling themselves in their ex’s love life (Cary Grant practically made a cottage industry out of it), but their tactics were usually a fine balance of suave and sympathetic.  But Morgan is just a self-absorbed cretin and like other charmless films of the 60s (Kiss Me Stupid, Irma la Douce), Jealousy is fawningly used as a toxic yardstick for Love. It’s a testament to Redgrave’s talents that she makes her conflicting feelings (but never her resolve) fluid and ambiguous, a study in how letting go may be essential but is never easy.  The most effective moments in Morgan! come late in the game, when Reisz projects us into Morgan’s mind where he reenacts the fantasy jungle worlds of King Kong and Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan, though that hardly helps the case of a man who wants to live outside even the most considerate norms of civilization.

These four films combined earned 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (Alfie), Director (Antonioni) and lead acting nods (Caine and both Redgraves).  Of course, the British film that swept the awards that year was a 16th-century period piece, far more the Academy’s speed.  And A Man for All Seasons (Zinnemann, 1966) is certainly a fine film, and one that’s worth revisiting these days since it talks about men of principle standing up to authoritarian heads of state and speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.  But it’s still a staid movie, with great dialogue and memorable characters but quite stagy, lushly produced but devoid of any personality.  This quartet represented the future, and it’s fun seeing certain points of future convergence, like how Georgy co-stars Rampling and James Mason would reteam 16 years later for The Verdict, or how Alfie co-stars Caine and Denholm Elliiott would compete for an Oscar 20 years later --with future Hannah and Her Sisters and A Room with a View writing winners Woody Allen and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala fresh off What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and Shakespeare Wallah respectively back in 1966.

It’s funny to think about how people complain about franchises in the cinemas now when we see that there was a wealth of them from England in 1966.  Hammer had Christopher Lee reprising his Dracula and Fu Manchu roles, Caine was back as Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin, there were new installments in the long running Carry On! And St. Trinian’s comedy series, and TV’s Thunderbirds made their way to the big screen.   And like Antonioni, we saw high-profile directors from the continent making their way to their island neighbor: Francois Truffaut (Fahrenheit 451), Roman Polanski (Cul-de-Sac), and Vittorio De Sica (After the Fox) all had distinguished contributions in 1966.  And don’t forget the war movies of both colonial days (Khartoum) and WWII (The Blue Max), and new riffs on the spy genre (Modesty Blaise, The Quiller Memorandum) in the wake of the huge success of James Bond.  But perhaps my favorite British film made by an actual Brit in 1966 has Caine (in his third film of that year) heading a game cast in the very funny old-fashioned comedy The Wrong Box (my first exposure to a tontine), directed by Bryan Forbes.  And if you want to be a Caine completest, there’s also Gambit from that year, too.

My Top 10 favorite films of 1966

  1. The Battle of Algiers (Pontocorvo)
  2. Persona (Bergman)
  3. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone)
  4. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky)
  5. Daisies (Chytilova)
  6. Blow-Up (Antonioni)
  7. Black Girl (Sembene)
  8. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson)
  9. Seconds (Frankenheimer)
  10. Tokyo Drifter (Suzuki)


The Oscar de la Renta stamps from earlier this year (Scott #5173b, e, & i) worked perfectly with the fashion-based films of Blow-Up and Darling, the latter card being featured previously on this blog here.  The Gee’s Bend quilt is #4097, the Edgar Rice Burroughs stamp #4702, and the Year of the Monkey stamp #3895l.  William S. Hart is #4448, the Civil War centennial #1181, and the Bellatrix Lestrange stamp (from the Harry Potter issue) is #4844.  Last year gave us Carlsbad Cavern National Park (#5080e), corn lilies (#5042) and Halloween (#5137), plus this year had the WPA poster #5183.