Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 4. 1969.
Putting Flesh on the bones
Richard Lester made his name with the two Beatle films, displaying a frenetic involvement in the film techniques of television commercials. In fact, the two films were little more than super-glossy advertisements for the group's original talents. It was difficult to detect just how much was Lester and how much was Beatle.
Lester's next two films, The Knack and How to Get It and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum were both based on well-known material. But both films showed that Lester was able to embelish them in his own personal style, in spite of an over-use of gimmick.
His new film Petulia (Warner Bros.-Seven Arts) begins in a flurry of flash-backs and forwards, making one groan at the thought of another incomprehensible-till-the-end jumble. But the beginning is only that. The films soon settles down into a reasonably coherent and pointed drama of Human Communication.
In his first Hollywood film the director is obviously revelling in the opportunity to use superior resources, as several other young British directors have found (Boormans Point Blank and Yates's Bullitt), and the chance to extend the maturity of his content. Violent, as opposed to fluent, technique—present a chaotic and destructive picture of modern life. No detail escapes the camera as we are bombarded with the grotesque and the inane.
The background is modern San Francisco, home of the topless craze and the hippies. But the film is not about vouth and revolt. No-one cares for the Beatles or the Knack. The problem is trying to integrate existence with satisfaction. Arch-kook Petulia (Julie Christie) seeks solace from her tenuous marriage in an affair with Archie (George C. Scott). She wants commitment to fulfil her emotional desires, but Archie, still under-going a re-assessment after his divorce, is unwilling. His job as a doctor constantly forces him to be involved with people, but he finds this restricts him.
In Petulia he sees something which he cannot understand or appreciate. Their first meeting, a bizarre sequence in an automated motel, ends in nothing. Archie is torn between his ex-wife, his children, his mistress and Petulia. He goes through the motions of trying to give them meaning and feeling but ends up like the automatons we see lurking throughout in the background.
Petulia's attempt at overcoming her emotional sterility and her desire for freedom is compromised by her inability to grasp her situation. When she is discovered at Archie's flat by her husband (Richard Chamberlain) and beaten up, she later denies it to Archie. The audience is held in suspense as to what actually happened, but what eventuates is never in doubt.
The acting is as detached, in keeping with the theme. Even so, Lester, is seems, is better at controlling cameras and lights than people. Julie Christie doesn't have quite enough kookiness to convince, though Scott, seldom seen on screen, is good, as expected. Chamberlain is excellent as the cool guy with a nasty streak, able to switch easily from one to the other.
Nicholas Roeg's photography is excellent. Almost every frame of the film is packed with detail. So much so that the significance or otherwise can easily be lost. The plot triangle is filled in with quick slashes till the final picture emerges, cold and shattering. Throughout emotions are remotte. The film presents sentimentality only In softfocus closeups of Archie's wife Poly (Shirley Knight), the rest is aggression and brutality.
Petulia will, because it may appear incoherent and over-stated, be under-rated in its impact. We rarely see outside of news-reels, the realistic future face of domination by the machine. Generally gimmicks are used for comic effect. Here they are used as menacing threats. Petulia may not seem to be obvious at present, and only time will tell its real value.
As to the growing maturity in Lester's films we can only speculate. How I Won The War will, if previous trends are any indication, take a year to reach Wellington.
The Good The Bad & The Ugly
Generally the film scene has been excellent for the number of interesting and worthwhile new releases. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (United Artists) mixes sadism and poetry into a long saga of western man. Not up to the quality of its immediate successor For a Few Dollars More, it allows the stars of the latter film to be outplayed by Eli Wallach relishing his one of his meatiest parts since Baby Doll. Morricone is there again on the soundtrack with his yahoos to pierce the air, breaking film into comic episode. Just as Antonioni showed the British with Blow Up, so Leone shows up many Americans who seem to have forgot ten what the Hollywood greats used to do with atmosphere and technique. Clever-clever scripts, basically trivial while striving for significance, are the chief faults of all Hollywood Westerns seen lately.
Advertised as "Is this the most daring film ever?" many would have had little problem reaching a negative conclusion. What D. H. Lawrence put into his novella disappeared somewhere among Christmassy postcard snowscapes and three extremely uncomfortable and embarrassed people. Even Anne Heywood's Scene was as antiseptic as her bathroom; Sandy Dennis was unsuited and miscast as an alleged lesbian (ambiguities abound so that it is fruitless to attempt to discuss the topic on the basis of this put-on) and Keir Dullea (fast becoming the screen's foremost succesor to Anthony Perkins) as a director's favourite actor. The Fox (Warner-Seven Arts)—symbol of the male!!—had something going for it but missed all the way.
Better things, though not without some strain, were offered in the film adaption of Waugh's Decline and Fall—the ... of a Birdwatcher was a pun draeged in by some philistine at 20th Century-Fox. Apart from a whole string of veterans (some seldom seen, and one, Sir Donald Wolfitt, now gone) it was notable for a fresh debut by Robin Phillips. Genevieve Page glided through exuding charm by a mere quiver, fas she did in Belle de Jour). John Krish directed it in lush colourful conventionality, emphasising throughout the story. It's one of the best told film lately, something that can't be said for the unfortunate Villa Rides! (Paramount). For those who turn up their noses the thought, heed that a co-script credit went to Sam Peckinpah, and Buzz Kulik was the director. An interesting combination, but one which failed overall. But some small scenes were excellent. Villa's political career was depicted with more than usual Insight (Peckinpah) and Charles Bronson had a field day by the stable (Kulik, the sort of thing that ran him foul of our censor: his Explosive Generation is one of the select few we cannot see).
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Film Society offerings this year have drawn disappointing audiences, despite a reasonable variety and a programme for the year which emphasises films which are unlikely to be seen again on the commercial circuits for any period. Many have had only a week run a year or two ago and this may account for a certain amount of ignorance about such films as The Deadly Affair. Tomorrow night Arthur Penn's violent The Chase will be screened. Recently, in the Movie paperback series, an interesting, if overargued, hagiography of Penn's career has appeared by Robin Wood, a Hitchcock devotee.
Till the initial thrill of Bonnie and Clyde died away Penn was perhaps over-rated on the basis of a gradual build-up to the one film. The Chase will offer a more realistic appraisal to Penn's achievement.
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The Wellington Film Society (screenings Wednesday at 8 p.m. and Thursday at 5.15 in the third week of the month) offers its best programme for several years. Membership for students is $2.50, more than previous years but worth the additional cost when films like Hands Over The City, Breathless, He and She, The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short and Eroica are offered for the first time in New Zealand.
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Films not available for screening at university because there is as vet no provision for 35mm will be rectified by a combined Film Sociery-Roxy Theatres venture on Sunday afternoons where specially selected films will be screened at concession prices at the Princess cinema. First attraction will be Morgan (two weeks if justified) plus The Collector, followed by The Caretaker, Landru (Bluebeard), The Pawnbroker, The Game Is Over, The Swimmer, In Cold Blood and A Fine Madness. Coffe will be available and the sessions will begin this Sunday Watch newspaper ads for details.
Those who saw Bedazzled will remember a featurette written and directed by the former pop-singer and actor Mike Same. His first Feature, Joanna, has been praised and condemned: some think it better than Blow Up, others call it a lot of rubbish. Same says: "Nobody makes films about today, about the world he lives in and this is precisely what we wanted to film. Every so-called 'contemporary' drama is about yesterday, about the safe world of established responses and attitudes. Joanna's world, on the other hand, was an environment I knew well, the world of artists and criminals and the idle, aimless society which makes up the metropolitan scene. The conclusions we drew in our film and related to day and for this reason there are no villains in Joanna, only heroes".
Genevieve Waite as Joanna, Christian Doermer, Calvin Lockhart, Glenna Fortster-jones and Donald Sutherland. Produced by Michael S. Laughlin (The Whisperers), photographed by Walter Lassally (Zorba The Greek), with music and lyrics by Rod McKuen. Written and directed by Michael Same. Released by Twentieth Century-Fox.