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October 25, 2010

Don't Leave Me Hanging

Spoiler alert: The following post of necessity reveals the endings of two old movies.

Spoiled alert: The following post is pulled from the author's hip pocket (or from somewhere in that general region), and contains almost no serious research, or even research, period. (But isn't that part of what the privilege of blogging is all about?) The post doesn't even have much of a point. (Blogging, privilege, etc.)

Each of two nights this past weekend, after a couple of grind-it-out days in the studio getting some paintings on paper done (no suffering-artist bleat intended here; I just got it into my head to finish them there and then), I wound down with old movies on TV--one on IFC and the other on TCM. The first night, 'twas the newer, the British film, "The Wicker Man" (1973), with Edward Woodward as a straitlaced mainland cop, Christopher Lee as a sinister lord of the manor who runs a pagan-hippie cult on his inherited island, Diane Cilento as a colluding earth mother, and Britt Ekland as one of the hippies. (Yes, there are a couple of quick, gratuitous nude shots of Ms. Ekland.) Wooodward arrives on the island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl who, he comes to suspect, will be a human sacrifice in the cult's rites on behalf of successful crops. (The cult is apparently a pioneer in the local food movement.)

The second flick was one of those low-budget, black-and-white, postwar English mystery/sci-fi deals in which a B-level American male lead finds himself in Old Blighty, getting mixed up in something nasty. Sometimes that guy is Dane Clark or Cameron Mitchell or Richard Conte, but in this case--"These Are the Damned" (1963)--it's Macdonald Carey. He's a tourist with a boat who a) gets mugged by a sort of Teddy Boy criminal played by a young Oliver Reed, whose sister (Shirley Anne Field in full sweater-girl flower) becomes an improbable love interest for the quarter-century-her-senior Carey, and b) happens across a secret mad-scientist operation to raise in a cave a bunch of already radiated eleven-year-olds on the premise that they'll be the only ones capable of surviving the "inevitable" nuclear war.

Here come the spoilers: Each movie ends not only on a downer, but with near identical closing shots. In "The Wicker Man," Woodward ends up as the cult's human sacrifice (the "disappeared" little girl was only bait to get him to the island); he's put into the eponymous giant straw gent and burned alive. As he goes up in smoke, the camera pans to a long shot of the sun setting over the ocean. In "These Are the Damned," the attempts to rescue the cold-storage kids fail and the film ends with one of the children's cries of "Help us!" over a panning long shot of sky over ocean.

Dennis Leary once summed up the plot of Oliver Stone's film about Jim Morrison and The Doors as, "I'm drunk, I'm nobody; I'm drunk, I'm famous; I'm drunk, I'm dead." Similarly, the blips passing for story arcs in the two movies in which I sought shelter from the atelier could be described, respectively, as "Cult wants to sacrifice a human; cop tries to stop it; cult sacrifices a human" and "Mad scientist wants to raise captive radioactive kids; hero tries to stop him; mad scientist continues to raise captive radioactive kids."

My reactions, on subsequent nights, were twofold. First, I felt cheated out of an hour and a half's time. It's like when I watch one of those cheesy true-crime TV shows (another favorite decompressor), and the accused is acquitted in the end. As Leary might say, "Unsolved murder becomes unsolved murder." Second, I had flashbacks to--and here's as close as I'll get to a point--my adolescent and undergraduate days in the late 50s and early 60s when downer, or semi-downer endings like these two were considered, if not exactly avant-garde (we're talking cranked-out studio movies and, in a moment, network TV), at least arty. My college friends and I liked, for instance, "Route 66," a weekly hour-long drama in which two guys in a Corvette drove around the country searching for some je ne sais quoi (or "themselves," in the psychobabble of the day). They'd cruise into some godforsaken little burg, encounter people having difficulties, mix it up with the locals, and depart, leaving behind a situation at best ambivalently, or marginally, improved. Cool.

I asked my friend Steve Hayes (an encyclopedically knowledgeable cinéaste who has a great little YouTube show, "Tired Old Queen at the Movies") about the phenomenon of inconclusive downer endings and he winked and said--with scare quotes--"Keep it open." I don't know, maybe I'm no longer arty, even by Eisenhower-era standards. If I'm going to invest some of my precious time in front of the tube, the least I can expect is resolution. Right?

October 25, 2010 2:22 PM | | Comments (7)


Seems to me like there's plenty of point here, Peter. The point is pessimism as cliche. Recently I came across this quote in Ellen Willis's "Tom Wolfe's Failed Optimism," published in 1977. Willis liked Wolfe even though she couldn't stand his politics, and this essay was about how much more insupportable his lionization of red-blooded Americanism had become not in the '60s but afterward. But she also contextualized Wolfe by observing, acutely even for 1977: "The modernists' refusal to be gulled or lulled has long since degenerated into a ritual despair at least as corrupt, soft-minded, and cowardly--not to say smug--as the false cheer it replaced. We're smarter than that now. But by how much is often a vexed question.

The way I've come to describe it is, "The cynic always wins." Sadly and unfortunately so, since some other smart person once said, "Despair is the worst of the negative emotions because it opens the door to all the others."

You guys have managed to take a pair of first-class imports and make them sound boring. "The Wicker Man," based on an original screenplay by Anthony ("Sleuth") Shaffer, is a cult classic that was unfairly gutted and tossed away the first time around. Now restored, it brilliantly skewers the arrogance of the self-righteous. "These Are the Damned," directed by the once-blacklisted Joseph Losey, is a fascinating cautionary tale, which, on one level, works as an addendum to "Dr. Strangelove." Mr. President, we must not allow a mind-shaft gap! Rather than analyze the bejesus out of a pair of cult items, I suggest watching them in the context of their time. You'll thank yourself in the morning.

Thanking Mr. Lovell for his informative comment, a few points, however:
* I didn't mean to make the movies sound "boring," they're just frustrating, or somewhat pointless in the end. The destination of a film, even if it's at the end of a full circle, is, of course, only part of its purpose. There's also the ride itself. In the case of these two, the trip is moderately engaging.
* What's on the screen, though, is what's on the screen. Pedigree (screenplay by famous playwright, director with blacklist chops) does not a good flick make.
* I presume I saw the restored version of "The Wicker Man" on IFC. Whatever, "skewers the arrogance of the self-righteous" (is Mr. Lovell sure it isn't "skewers the self-righteousness of the arrogant"?) seems a bit of a truism, like, oh, "proves the nastiness of bad guys."
* Dennis Potter said that in his fishmonger father's household, "The term 'dover sole' covered a multitude of sins.'" Similarly, the term "cult classic" covers a multitude of truly wretched films. I do like, however, Mr. Lovell's play on "cult" regarding "The Wicker Man."
*TWM sometimes feels like it ought to be a porn flick, with the uptight cop opening doors and discovering a succession of carnal goings-on. (The costumes, art direction, and old-studio-guys-in-suits' imaginings of hippies only adds to that ambience.)
* If I got a movie ref from TATD, it was much less an addendum ("addendum" is a good thing?) to "Dr. Strangelove," than it was as a pastische of that weird-English-children genuine masterpiece, "The Village of the Damned" (1960).

I'll have to come back later with a more extensive post, but Wicker Man doesn't need the word "cult" to be called a classic.

"Cinéaste" is French for filmmaker, not film buff. You get points for putting the accent in, though. The word you're looking for with respect to your friend Mr. Hayes is "cinephile."

You really don't understand "TATD" at all, but you certainly can tear the limbs off of anyone with the temerity to take issue with you on the matter, so I'm gonna quite while I'm almost ahead. I trust you're enjoying yourself. All that stuff with the "privilege" and "blogging" and its isn't-this-crazy impications—man, you sound just like Jay Nordlinger! And it's really nice that you and Bob seem to have made up.

My rather measured reply to Glenn Lovell about TWM and TATD hardly constitutes "tearing the wings off anyone with the temerity to take issue with you."*

Both Wikipedia (yes, I know) and Merriam-Webster define cinéaste as a movie enthusiast.

I saw TATD, which is in my native language, English, without commercial interruptions, and wasn't doing anything else except drinking a diet ginger ale while I watched it. I've seen both "Dr. Strangelove" and "Village of the Damned" more than once. While hardly an authority on movies, I've seen a lot of them--especially 20th century films--read a few books on them, and read a lot of movie reviews. It's hardly possible that I "don't understand 'TATD' at all," unless if one projects it backwards it turns into "Nosferatau."

Mr. Kenny's reference to Jay Nordlinger--who writes about music, not movies or art--seems intended only to tar me with being, somehow, a cultural right-winger, which I'm not.

* I reply to comments mostly to up the comment count, to try to contribute to the perception that "ARTicles" is widely and avidly read.

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