Monday, June 29, 2020

CATS 2019

T.S. Eliot: “The great thing about cats is that they possess two qualities
to an extreme degree—dignity and comicality.”
Director Tom Hooper: "Hold my beer."

Cats was the first Broadway musical I ever saw. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s insanely popular Jellicles-in-a-Junkyard musical was crafted from T.S. Eliot’s 1939 collection of pussy-centric poems: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and premiered in London’s West End in 1981. It opened on Broadway 17 months later in October of 1982. The Hamilton of its day, tickets for Cats were extremely hard to come by, but I managed to get one for the matinee performance on the afternoon of January 26, 1983, during what was my very first visit to New York. It was a long-saved-for, whirlwind dancer’s holiday of taking classes (given by Anne Reinking!), seeing shows (Little Shop of Horrors, Extremities, Agnes of God, and ill-fated Doug Henning musical Merlin), and being utterly thrilled that the city still looked the way it did in All That Jazz (1979), Fame (1980), and The Fan (1981). 
The Man Who Loved Cat-Dancing
25-year-old me in the throes of serious Cat-mania

I’d been studying dance for a little over two years at this point, ever since Xanadu’s muse-kiss inspired me to drop out of film school and take up classes at L.A.’s Dupree Dance Academy. The earliest time I remember hearing about Cats was when the studio’s owner, having just returned from seeing the London production, enthusiastically spread the word around the studio that Cats was the ultimate dancer’s musical. Declaring it less a voice or acting show, and more a two hour and 20-minute dance concert, he proclaimed it a must-see experience for anyone seriously studying dance, stopping just short of making it mandatory for students interested in staying on at the Academy to make the pilgrimage to NYC to see it when it finally opened. 
By description, Cats’ plotless structure sounded a lot to me like a "kitties on a picket fence" version of A Chorus Line: characters introduce themselves to the audience in song; compete against one another towards the attainment of a prized goal; the show concluding with the character who has fallen furthest from grace being given a shot at redemption.

But unlike A Chorus Line’s minimalist stage production, Cats promised uncommon spectacle and an immersive experience born of a $2-million near-gutting of Broadway’s Winter Garden Theater to create an oversized junkyard that spilled from the proscenium-free stage and overtook every square foot of auditorium space up to the balcony.
Cathouse Wednesday
Taken just before attending the 2pm Matinee performance of Cats

Thinking back to seeing Cats on Broadway—then just four months into what would become a record-breaking 18-year-run at the same theater—it’s nearly impossible to separate my thoughts on the show itself from the collective memories of my first visit to New York. But, putting as objective and impartial a face on it as I can, I have to say…Cats was fan-fucking-tastic!
An astounding, never-seen-anything-like-it, sung-through dance concert of captivating beauty and playful, witty charm. (The troweled-on Heaviside layer of mysticism and absurdly misguided self-seriousness was something Cats only acquired later in its legacy run. A byproduct of winning seven Tony Awards and evolving into a “Now & Forever” merchandising industry.)
Between the show’s soaring orchestrations and that breathtaking oversized set, I must have spent the entire evening with my mouth agape and my eyes as big as New York bagels. Goosebump sensations attended every then-unanticipated twist and turn of theatrical magic; my orchestra aisle seat even affording the once-in-a-lifetime experience of nearly being smacked in the face by the Jellicle balls of a frolicsome feline as he climbed over my chair.
Cats came along at a time when--thanks to MTV, aerobics, and TV shows like Fame and Solid Gold, dance was making a post-disco, pop-culture comeback. One of the reasons Cats didn't look nearly as bizarre to me in 1983 as it so clearly was, is because the design of the 'cats' in the show captured the emerging look of '80s concert rock. Enormous, mane-like hairdos, spandex, legwarmers, exaggerated makeup; all were staples of music acts of the day. Indeed, Cats was often criticized for being little more than a stage-bound MTV music video.

My effusive enthusiasm for Cats survived the ‘80s, but began to wane in the new decade, a victim of over immersion (I played my London & Broadway cast Cats albums to death); oversaturation (“Memory” overload…you couldn’t escape that song); and diminished novelty (Thundercats, Zoobilee Zoo, and kids face-painting parties really helped drive that whole anthropomorphic cat thing into the ground). By the time a neutered version of Cats was preserved on video in 1998, I just couldn’t bear to look at another dancer in mime-mode, cupping their hands into paws and whimsically brushing at their invisible whiskers.

Jump ahead to Christmas, 2019. All of Los Angles is covered, from bus shelter to highrise, with signs and billboards heralding the release of “The Most Joyous Event of the Holiday” and “The must-see film event of the year” – a $100 million, all-star, big-screen version of Cats. Had the time finally arrived where I was ready to give Cats another try in a different medium? Could an obscenely expensive movie version restore me, like a male Grizabella, to the Cats-fancier I once was?
Dame Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy
Idris Elba as Macavity the Mystery Cat
Taylor Swift as Bombalurina
Sir Ian McKellen as Gus the Theater Cat

"CATS - 2019"  or  "Jellicle rhymes with Hellicle"
On stage, Cats didn’t really require a plot. It was essentially a cat-sized British Music Hall variety revue featuring a tribe of felines deigning to grant us humans a song-and-dance tour of their secret, nocturnal world. In fact, I’m convinced that a large part of Cats’ phenomenal success is owed to it being one of those shows that can be enjoyed with little or no attention paid to what is happening. All spectacle, song, and movement, folks the world over were able to bring their parents and grandparents to Cats, let them doze off occasionally, and no one had to worry about that pesky business of losing the narrative thread. It may have challenged your sense of reason, but at no time did Cats place any demands on your concentration.
Cats' plot-free structure recalls that other story-free musical about a tribe (of hippies), the 1968 Broadway phenomenon HAIR; so much so that Webber's show could easily have been subtitled HAIR-ball.  (OK, I’m sorry about that.)
But I bring it up because the1978 film adaptation of Hair solved its plotless problem by inventing a naïve outsider character to serve as the audience surrogate (John Savage), and have him fall in with a tribe of New York hippies whose lives we learn about through song. Cats: The Movie borrows the same device. 
Set in London in the 1930s, Cats: The Movie (which I'll be calling it hereon out) has an abandoned housecat named Victoria taken in by a tribe of alley cats calling themselves Jellicles. She arrives on a special night, the night of the Jellicle Ball. An event in which cats dance and compete (in the vaguest ways imaginable) for a chance to ascend to the Heaviside Layer where they’ll be reborn into a new life (we never really find out what the Heaviside Layer is, but I'll lay bets it's something like the "Carousel" in Logan’s Run).
Francesca Hayward as Victoria
Her role as the tribe newbie in Cats serves the same 'stranger in a strange land' narrative purpose
as John Savage's transplanted Oklahoman Claude Hooper Bukowski in the film version of HAIR

Milos Forman was successful in adapting the film version of Hair in a manner both cinematic and true to the spirit of a show many had thought too dated for contemporary relevance. Alas, in bringing Cats to the screen, director Tom Hooper (Les Misérables) stumbles right out of the gate. I’m not aware of how many viable options exist for bringing Cats to the big screen (cartoon animation, stop-motion), but surely at the bottom of such a brief list had to be the idea of making it look like a musical version of The Island of Dr. Moreau crossed with the world’s most expensive PornHub “furries” video.
Some ideas present audiences with such a hefty obstacle to overcome—like saddling The Wiz (1978) with a 33-year-old Dorothy, or casting Mame (1974) with a leading lady who can neither sing nor dance—that no matter how successful other aspects of a production may be, the film never recovers. Such is the case with the decision to make Cats: The Movie with live actors transformed by the “magic” of DFT: digital fur technology.
Robert Fairchild as Munkustrap
Laurie Davidson as Magical Mr. Mistoffeles
I'm not sure anything could prepare me for the kind of keenly-detailed, hyper-realistic anthropomorphic abominations dreamed up by the digital mad scientists behind Cats: The Movie-- furred creatures with too-tiny heads (a result of having their ears moved to the top of their skulls), human hands and feet, and cat faces with lips and human teeth. But this weird conceit might have worked had the film confined its perspective solely to the cats and their cat world and never showed us a human being. Of course, the very first thing Cats: The Movie does IS show us the hands, legs, and feet of a human being (the woman seen tossing the sack-bound Victoria into the junk heap) leaving us to thereafter ponder a world in which cats and their owners share the very same physical characteristics. The mind blows a fuse.
The appearance of the cats is so disturbing, I don't think I heard a single word of the film's first number "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats"; my mind was turning somersaults trying to make sense of all that was being thrown at me. It was like watching the ending of Hereditary while listening to Andrew Lloyd Webber music on headphones.
A fantasy full of hellscape imagery, Cats: The Movie is one of the ugliest films I've ever seen.
And I've seen a naked, tattooed Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man
Despite my history with Cats, I didn’t come to the film as some kind of purist hoping for a to-the-letter replication of the stage production. Indeed, after having seen the trailer, my expectations for Cats: The Movie were exceedingly low. But I reasoned that surely, given  ALL that money spent and ALL that high-caliber talent assembled, at the very least I would come away with a memory of the music (which I’ve always liked), the dancing (which is plentiful in the film, when the merry-go-round on crack camerawork and ADD editing allow you to actually see it), and a “goosebump moment” or two. 
Well, despite my best efforts to suspend disbelief and allow myself to surrender to Tom Hooper’s vision; two significant elements sabotaged me at every turn: 1) the grossly unappealing, hard-to-look-at digital design of the cats themselves, and  2) the lazy inattention to a consistent size-scale for the cats. In one scene those Jellicles are as tall as doorknobs, the next, scarcely larger than a stemware glass.
Jason Derulo as Rum Tum Tugger
I don’t play video games and I rarely watch superhero films, so the CGI-heavy look of Cats: The Movie—which, in the wide-angle dance sequences create a Colorforms® effect that makes the cats look as though they’re hovering above and in front of their surroundings—never really set right with me. The close-ups are even worse, for the film's digital cat technology is never more blood-curdling than when it's doing its job well. I found myself averting my eyes at the sight of a whiskered Sir Ian McKellen lapping milk out of a saucer, and, mood-killer though it be, I had to watch Grizabella's big number--beautifully sung, by the way---through the fingers covering my eyes...seriously, who the hell thought it was a good idea to have snot cascading like Niagara out of Jennifer Hudson’s human-nose-on-a-cat’s-face throughout her entire frigging song?
Jennifer Hudson as Grizabella the Glamour Cat
Cats are said to have 3 names. If she were my cat, I'd name her Mavis McMucus

Ultimately, watching the film became something of a spine-tingler; every time I found myself relaxing, something would come along to gross me out (James Corden coughing up a furball, for example) or make me curse whatever drugs these people were on to even conceive of such lunacy.
One has to dig up a copy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, especially one containing the illustrations of Edward Gorey or Nicolas Bentley, to get a sense of the charming wit and self-aware silliness of Eliot’s original cat poems written for his godchildren. You see fleeting glimpses of it in the corners of Cats: The Movie—for example, during “The Ad-dressing of Cats” (which Judi Dench knocks out of the park) there’s a lovely moment after Deuteronomy declares “A cat is not a dog!” and the cats surrounding her exchange glances like children lovingly humoring an elder parent who might be losing it. But those few and far-between hints of playfulness are largely obscured by eyesore production values and a ponderous solemnity that feels tonally at odds with the movie’s in-your-face bizarreness. 
Rumpleteazer (Naoimh Morgan) & Mungojerrie (Danny Collins)
Prepare to be discomfited if you find yourself thinking one of the cats looks hot.
Mungojerrie's got bod.

But I really shouldn’t complain about the film's self-serious tone when Cats: The Movie’s idea of silly fun are those twin atrocities: Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones. As written, both characters are delightful (Jennyanydots perhaps less so because she's clearly cracked), but as cast, they are simply ghastly. The thunderingly unfunny Rebel Wilson gives us endless pratfalls, David Cronenberg-levels of body horror (her skin comes off!), and Kafkaesque mice and cockroaches with human faces (the latter we get to see her devour moments after they’ve been introduced to us). If it sounds hellish, trust me, it's nothing compared to the visual experience.
With barely time to catch one’s breath, we’re confronted with the equally dire James Corden in an eye-assault number loaded with more pratfalls, spitting, and hits to the groin. All in support of the comic premise that the mere sight of an overweight cat eating is inherently hilarious. Both numbers are such irredeemably crass clusterfucks, they make John Waters movies look like Pixar productions. 
Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots
James Corden as Bustopher Jones

Grizabella's story arc, which represents Cats' underlying message (bet you're surprised to know there is one!): that everybody just wants to be accepted for who they are, each of us is unique and we should celebrate our differences, all while recognizing our shared humanity (or, unashamed felinity) and common dignity—is emphasized further in Cats: The Movie by the invention of Victoria and her forgettable Oscar-bait new song. It's a nice message for what is essentially a story for children. Even I (after subjecting myself to Cats: The Movie a second time to write this essay) felt my pugnaciously set jaw unclench when the unceasingly overwrought Grizabella finally smiles, and when Victoria finds her new family. 
And another theater and dance major finds her new gay bestie.
From the start, I just took it for granted that Mr. Mistoffeles was a sensitive gay cat, and everybody applauding the mastery of his magical powers at the end was a metaphor for his coming out of the closet. The film, however, kept thrusting the implausible pairing of Victoria and Mistoffeles at us, when all I wanted was for her to end up with the hunkier Munkustrap 

So that I might end things on an upbeat note here, let me just say that there were a few things about Cats: The Movie that I liked, very much indeed.
I'm a verified cornball, so I found it a thrill to hear Andrew Lloyd’s Webber’s gorgeous score again after so many years, doubly thrilling to find I still knew all the words. Despite their familiarity, certain songs and musical passages  (especially during the Jellicle Ball, when Hooper could be trusted to let the music take over and not break the rhythm with cutaways) sustained their ability to move me and give me waterworks (calling to mind the line from Noel Coward’s Private Lives: “Extraordinary how potent cheap music is”).
The dancing in the Jellicle Ball sequence is superb and marvelously staged; Jason Derulo, though ill-served by that terrible song, makes for a welcome, James Brownish Rum Tum Tugger; and Taylor Swift has fun playing Nancy to Idris Elba's Bill Sykes. But the one number to give me that much sought-after "goosebump moment" was "Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat." It’s terrific. And for once music, the dancing, and CGI all come together to create a moment of only-possible-in-the-movies magic.
It has always been my favorite song from the show anyway, its earworm rhymes and peppy rhythms reminding me of a children's chant, but for my taste, it’s the only musical sequence to strike a tone of playfulness and fantasy that is thoroughly exhilarating. Helping out in no small part is the fact that it's a tap number, so a measurable element of weight factors into it (the magic of dance has always been the dancer's triumph over gravity. The overuse of special effects and CGI in movies always places dancers in a zero-gravity limbo rendering it unimpressive). 
Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat
Secondly, it helps to an immeasurable degree that Skimble has pants on. Outfitted with tap shoes, suspender britches, and conductor’s whistle, when his cap is on, The Railway Cat looks less like an anthropomorphic nightmare and more like a shirtless, abundantly hirsute ginger fellow with a handlebar mustache, tattoo sleeves...and a tail.

The1962 Judy Garland-Robert Goulet animated musical Gay Purr-ee
So while I didn’t enjoy Cats: The Musical very much and think the show would have been better served as an animated feature, as both a movie fan and musical theater geek, I also hold the opinion that a lousy screen adaptation of a Broadway musical is still better than no screen adaptation at all. And as was my experience with the much-pilloried 1977 movie version of A Little Night Music, maybe folks who’ve never seen Cats onstage will feel differently about the film than I did.

I don't know if Tom Hooper made the Must-See Film Event of the Year, but I'll tell you this, Tom Hooper’s Cats turned out to be precisely the movie 2020 deserves.
A suitably repurposed ad for the 1969 thriller Eye of the Cat

If you're like me, after seeing Cats: The Movie you'll be ready to kill the first person who ever dares utter the word "Jellicle" in your presence. But for the record, according to Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jellicle cat is "dear little cat" (as Pollicle Dog is "poor little dog") as misheard by T.S. Eliot when he was a child.
On Friday, May 15, 2020, Andrew Lloyd Webber provided a livestream commentary for the YouTube airing of the 1998 straight-to-video production of Cats featuring the British touring company. Benefitting The Actors Fund and dedicated to the recent death of his cat Mika, the commentary was notable to me for: the constant (hilarious) digs and potshots Webber made at Tom Hooper's film; getting choked-up watching the finale number; and the brief visit by Oddy (pictured), another member of Webber's cat family.
 Tom Hooper can take solace in the fact that finding the proper scale for
humanoid cats has always been a problem. In this 1986 anti-smoking PSA
Andrew Lloyd Webber's felines are as small as mice.

I Tawt I Taw a Putty Tat!
Cats is bookended by the image of a cat's face (winking at the film's start)

peeking out through the clouds over London

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020

Sunday, May 31, 2020


I Am a Camera...and, apparently, so are you

If Rocky Balboa and Martha Stewart have taught us anything, it’s that everybody loves a good underdog story. In fact, when it comes to pop culture consumption, the American public has something of a God Complex: we enjoy resuscitating failed TV shows, put-out-to-pasture celebrities, and critically-lambasted movies far more than we do investing in the minimally open-minded effort it would have taken to appreciate these things during their first go-round.

The late director Michael Powell (1905–1990) was one of Britain’s more prolific—if uneven—wartime filmmakers before overwhelmingly negative critical response to his film Peeping Tom brought his career to an abrupt and grinding halt in 1960. Powell, in collaboration with longtime screenwriting/producing partner Emeric Pressburger, was responsible for many enduring and well-regarded works of British cinema—The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). But when the pair dissolved their partnership in 1957 and Powell ventured out on his own, no one expected the director of such colorfully humanistic fare to return with such a dark and morbid deviation from type.
Peeping Tom, a lurid horror-thriller about a voyeuristically-inclined serial killer obsessed with filming his victims in the final throes of death, was deemed so offensive, the film was promptly pulled from theaters, its distribution rights sold off, and Powell’s reputation went from paragon to pariah virtually overnight. Peeping Tom didn’t fare much better on this side of the pond, either, flopping at the boxoffice and disappearing quickly after a meager initial release.
Powell, self-exiled to Australia where he went on to make a handful of movies and TV shows, saw his name fall to the forgotten fringes of film history. Meanwhile, Peeping Tom, MIA from movie screens since its release, had begun to develop a mystique as the must-see film no one had ever actually seen.
Ad appearing in a 1981 college newspaper. By this time Peeping Tom
had become the darling of the college/midnight-movie circuit 

Jump to 1978. Enter director Martin Scorsese, the New Hollywood hotshot of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore whose own string-of-hits ascendance had taken a recent brickbat hit with the expensive flop of New York, NewYork (1977). A devoted cineaste and lifelong fan of Powell’s work, Scorsese’s high-profile interest in Peeping Tom was instrumental in retrieving the film from obscurity and getting it screened at the 1979 New York Film Festival. With the subsequent theatrical release of the now 20-year-old film, the once-reviled Peeping Tom was introduced to a new generation quick to reevaluate, revere, and hail the film as a lost masterpiece and Michael Powell an underappreciated genius. (The “Martin Scorsese and Corinth films present” credit served double-duty as a marketing device and a kind of film geek Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.)
Carl Boehm / Karlheinz Bohm as Mark Lewis
Anna Massey as Helen Stephens
Moira Shearer as Vivian
Maxine Audley as Mrs. Stephens
Mark (Carl Boehm) is an assistant cameraman at a London movie studio and a part-time photographer of cheesecake models for racy magazines (“Those with girls on the front covers and no front covers on the girls”). As a child, Mark’s psychologist father used him as a guinea pig in filmed, highly sadistic experiments exploring the effects of fear on the nervous system. The trauma of having spent an entire childhood under the unblinking scrutiny of a camera lens has left Mark with a severely damaged psyche plagued by homicidal compulsions. Withdrawn and socially awkward, Mark’s only way of connecting emotionally to the world is from a distance…through the viewfinder of his own ever-present movie camera.
"But you walk about as if you haven't paid the rent!"
Helen discovers that the shy fellow tiptoeing about and
peeking through windows is actually her landlord 

Helen (Anna Massey) and her blind mother (Maxine Audley) are roomers in the house Mark inherited from his father. Helen is a librarian and budding author who has written a children's book about a magic camera that photographs adults as they were as children. Visiting Mark on the occasion of her 21st birthday, she finds herself attracted to his timid, gentle, nature. A constrained demeanor owing as much to his warped upbringing as it is indicative of the effort Mark must exert over himself to suppress and conceal his madness from others.
The victimized object of his father's relentless gaze as a child, the adult Mark seeks to reclaim himself by asserting the dominance of his own gaze. Rarely taken notice of and never photographed, Mark is unsettled by Helen's blind mother "seeing" his face.

The first time I saw Peeping Tom was as recently as 2010. I’m not sure what took me so long to get with the program (I even missed a 1982 TV broadcast of Peeping Tom on Elvira Mistress of the Dark), but I tend to associate its “Martin Scorsese Presents” 1979 theatrical run with a time when—ironically enough—my life was moving away from observation (three years of film school) to participation (studying dance). After years of being one of those “wonderful people out there in the dark,” movies occupied a less prominent place in my life and Peeping Tom just sort of fell through the cracks and stayed there for a couple of decades. 
When I did finally get around to seeing Peeping Tom, it was on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary, at which time the film had spent more years hailed as a masterpiece than as a career-killing flop. But Peeping Tom is nothing is not one of cinema’s most triumphant underdog stories, so with each rerelease, reissue, or digital restoration, the resurrection of the film’s calamitous past remains a necessary and intractable part of Peeping Tom’s mystique and, more importantly, its marketing.
Even Powell appeared to understand this, seeing fit to reference Peeping Tom in his 2nd autobiography Million Dollar Movie (1995) simply by reproducing the very worst of the 1960 reviews, tacitly letting the film's ultimate success do the rest of the talking.
“This is a sick film, sick and nasty.”  The Sunday Express 
“The film is frankly, beastly”            The Financial Times 
“The sickest and filthiest film I remember seeing.” The Spectator 
“It is crude, unhealthy sensation at its worst”  The Sunday Dispatch
Pamela Green as Milly
When cast in Peeping Tom, Green was already a popular '50s nude glamour model with her own pin-up photography studio and publishing company. She is credited with being the first woman to appear nude in a British feature film, its explicitness later reduced after the film's initial screening 

My first time seeing Peeping Tom was largely motivated by a curiosity to find out just what it was about the film that could possibly have gotten so many 1960 British knickers in a knot.  
Like Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and later, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)—both being films that dramatize the obsessive gaze—Peeping Tom begins with a shot of an open, startled eye. This is followed by an establishing shot of a stylized recreation of a street in London’s Soho district that looks like a set for a stage production of Threepenny Opera. A bored prostitute in a scorchingly red skirt is staring abstractedly at a store window display of objectified parts of the female anatomy by way of a segmented mannequin. A male figure enters the frame, a swift change of angle revealing that he is concealing a movie camera within his jacket. As he advances, the lens of the camera fills the screen until we, the viewer, have been swallowed up into the darkness of the camera itself. Suddenly our view of events ceases to be objective, we are now privy only to what is visible through the eye of the camera's viewfinder. And it’s horrific. 
Columba Powell as young Mark Lewis
Michael Powell's son portrayed Mark as a psychologically abused child, while Powell himself played the sadistic father. The late Pamela Green tells the tale on her website of how Powell obliged her request for a closed set for her nude scene. Come time for the shoot, she discovers Powell has allowed his two sons (ages 8 and 14) to observe. 

Powell introduced a situation of prurient sexual interest and swiftly subverted my expectations by forcing me to witness an act of violence through the eyes of a killer whose anonymity provoked the disquieting phenomenon of voyeuristic complicity. By effectively peeling away the myth of the objective gaze, Michael Powell fashioned a very dangerous film. And thus, in the space of fewer than 5 minutes, I came to completely understand why Peeping Tom struck such a nerve back in 1960.

When I was a teenager, the movie Jaws sneak-previewed at the theater where I worked as an usher. Making my usual rounds that night, I remember walking up the theater's center aisle sometime during the scene when Amity Beach is reopening following a series of deadly shark attacks. It’s about an hour or so into the film, the audience is completely on edge, and due to it being a sunny exterior shot, a considerable amount of light is coming from the screen behind me, illuminating the entire auditorium.

As bright light brought the audience’s faces into view, what I recall most vividly that the clearer they got, the more invisible I felt as I looked out at row after row of upturned faces staring beyond me …through me…to the movie screen. Different faces, but all with roughly the same expression: a kind of rapt, hyper-attentive stare that’s equal parts voracious scrutiny and blinkered immersion. 

And there I stood, my face most likely wearing the exact same expression, lost in the process of watching people engaged in the act of watching.

That’s what it felt like seeing Peeping Tom for the first time.

Looking Violence in the Eye
Mark's macabre method of murder is to film his victims and have them witness their deaths in a distortion mirror attached to a spiked tripod. An idea borrowed by director Donald Cammell (Performance) in his thriller White of the Eye (1987).

In my opinion, it's close to impossible to be a true cineaste and film buff without also being a bit of an obsessive and possessed of a slight voyeuristic streak. Perhaps that’s why the film fan set embraced Peeping Tom for its insight into compulsion while the general public took umbrage at being asked to empathize with a necrophilic nosey parker.

The act of watching is what Peeping Tom is all about. Under the guise of making a psychological thriller, Michael Powell and screenwriter Leo Marks (Twisted Nerve -1968) crafted a disturbing film exploring the dark side of the obsessive power of the gaze. A film whose subtext examines the dysfunctional side of the synergistic relationship between filmmaker and the audience. The filmmaker: in attempting to reveal life’s truths, can, in the end, only reveal themselves; what we are shown always reveals more about the individual holding the camera than it does the events recorded. The audience: the presumptive seeker of truth who, should the filmmaker flatter their self-perceptions enough, is usually satisfied just being the person who sees themselves seeing themselves.

Seeking Something Authentic in the Artificial
Film is not fact and images are not truth. But the feelings films can sometimes evoke are genuine and part of one's emotional reality. Which makes looking at films a tempting (and risky) substitute for human experience. 

While all these incisive subthemes serve to enrich an already arrestingly provocative film experience, I doubt any of them could have taken root had Michael Powell & Co.—the contributions of cinematographer Otto Heller and composer Brian Easdale are invaluable—had not been so successful in crafting Peeping Tom into such an intoxicatingly creepy, visually breathtaking horror-thriller masterpiece. A Filled with scenes of vivid color and dynamic lighting that overwhelms even while one is made to feel increasingly discomfited, Peeping Tom also boasts a great deal of dark humor and displays an unexpectedly gentle attitude towards its characters. 
Shirley Anne Field (still with us at 83) as Pauline Shields, and, still with us at age 88, an
unbilled Roland Curram (Julie Christie's gay pal in Darling - 1965) as Young Man in Sports Car

Austrian actor Carl Boehm is haunting and heartbreaking as the psychotic Mark; his character depicted in a sympathetic light (a cliché now, but novel then) being one of the more consistent complaints levied at the film at the time. It’s no small benefit to both the film and the character that Boehm so reminds me so much of one of those Von Trapp kids in The Sound of Music. His soft, accented voice underscore Mark’s “otherness” while his indistinct, overgrown-infant features suggest a kind of trauma-based arrested emotional development that has come to settle on the surface.

Anna Massey is essentially the film's heart and hope. She's also its sole tether to normalcy and she has several scenes, largely silent, in which she is remarkably good. One in particular, the camera stays on her face as she watches a film, her expression going from curiosity to disquiet, to fear, to outrage. Brilliant.

When I saw Peeping Tom I hadn't yet seen Moira Shearer in Powell-Pressburger's
classic The Red Shoes: her film debut and legacy. 

It's surprising to think Peeping Tom turns 60 this year. No longer a cause for scandal, it nevertheless remains a magnificent achievement and a very powerful film. Peeping Tom may not be to everyone’s taste as entertainment, but I can’t imagine anyone interested in cinema and film culture not fiding something intriguing and compelling in Peeping Tom’s ideas...if not its execution(s).

"The sky is the limit. Art is worth dying for."
In 1986 Michael Powell appeared on an episode of the arts-related Britsh TV program
  The South Bank Show devoted to him and his works with Emeric Pressburger. 

You can't keep this guy away from cameras or London's Soho district.
Carl Boehm played a reporter doing a story on strip clubs in the 1960
Jayne Mansfield film Too Hot to Handle (U.S. title: Playgirl After Dark).

"Do you know what the most frightening thing in the world is?"

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020

Tuesday, March 31, 2020


Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.

For as long as I can remember, I've been drawn to movies about the fluidity of identity. From the great grandmother of all identity crisis movies, Ingmar Berman’s Persona (1966), to mind-melding favorites that have intrigued and captured my imagination over the years: Secret Ceremony (1968), The Servant (1963), Images (1972), Obsession (1976), Single White Female (1992), 3 Women (1977), Vertigo (1958), Fedora (1978), Black Swan (2010)—the cinema of self-exploration has always held a weird fascination for me.

Perhaps it has to do with my childhood. After all, I did grow up during television's Golden Age of the polar-opposite-twin. That '60s pop-culture window when The Patty Duke Show (identical cousins!) spearheaded the trend for every sitcom coming down the pike to feature characters who are identical twins with yin/yang personalities: Bewitched, I Dream of JeannieThat GirlGilligan’s Island, etc. Prolonged exposure to that kinda stuff can't help but mess with a kid's head.
Alas, the less fun but more persuasive theory is that I'm drawn to movies about fragmented personality because the most impressionable years of my adolescence hit at precisely the same time America was in the deep throes of an ideological identity crisis. Responding to the Vietnam War, social injustice, and a veritable laundry list of grievances leveled at standard cultural norms, the nation trained a mirror on itself and began the process of deconstructing years of conformist conditioning.
With consciousness-expansion and self-exploration the rallying cries of the counterculture, young people challenged society's demand for individuals to always be in performance; constantly donning masks and role-playing in support of hollow, outdated concepts of so-called normalcy. Few films have captured the generational ethos of the "put-ons" (traditionalists adopting false personas to conform) vs. the "drop-outs" (bohemians withdrawing from society and rejecting convention) with as much assurance and visual distinction as Performance.   
James Fox as Chas Devlin
Mick Jagger as Turner
Anita Pallenberg as Pherber
Michele Breton as Lucy
The hallucinatory brainchild of screenwriter Donald Cammell (Demon Seed) making his collaborative directing debut with cinematographer/co-director Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), Performance is set in the waning days of the Swinging London era, circa 1968. Albeit, a shadowy, considerably seamier Londontown than one might associate with Twiggy or Austin Powers. (Performance was completed in 1968, but distributing studio Warner Bros. was so appalled by the results, they shelved it until 1970).

Dandyish Chas Devlin (James Fox) is an enforcer for genial protection racketeer Mr. Flowers (Johnny Shannon). Chas' inherently sadistic nature makes him a man happy in his work, but when his equally-inherent arrogance and temper lead to the death of a rival partner, he winds up running afoul of both his gangland employer and the police. Assuming the unwittingly self-aware persona of a professional juggler named Johnny Dean, Chas takes refuge as a roomer in a dilapidated Notting Hill townhouse owned and occupied by a retired, reclusive rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger), and his two bisexual bedmates: longtime paramour Pherber (a Delphic Anita Pallenberg) and boyish hanger-on Lucy (16-year-old Michele Breton).
Predating Father Merrin's portentous arrival in The Exorcist (1973), Chas'  appearance at 81 Powis Square signals his entrance into another world. In fact, when he enters Turner's house, we never see him go through the door. One minute he's outside the door speaking through the intercom, the next he's standing in the entryway; as though passed through another dimension or beamed aboard an alien spacecraft.

Two (dis)similar men, tenant and landlord, both in hiding of sorts, under the same roof. One violent and aggressive, ever looking into mirrors and (too) quick to assert that he knows exactly who he is. The other, a nowhere man, an erudite “male, female man” creatively adrift after being abandoned by what he calls his inner demon. The uncurious Chas, certain he has landed in a madhouse ("It's a right pisshole. Longhairs, beatniks, fee-love, name it!"), simply wants to lay low while awaiting a fake passport and passage to America (Turner: "Place to go, isn't it, for gangsters?").

But for Turner, Chas holds a strange fascination. Recognizing a brethren showman and fellow mask-wearer behind the fastidious swagger (Chas is the Joan Crawford of mobsters), Turner endeavors to get into the gangster's head to find out why the turn-on of violence has always been life's crowd-pleasing, repeat engagement headliner compared to the turn-on of drugs, sex, and rock & roll.

A psychedelic head-trip whose themes of fragmented identity and malleable reality illuminate every frame, Performance gives the appearance of being a hallucinogenic enigma, but it's a film that knows precisely what it wants to say, its path and vision clear as crystal. From its dizzying opening montage, Performance establishes itself as a bombardment to the senses and assault on reality.
Hitting the ground running, it volunteers nothing in the way of explanation, exposition, or exits as it sets about dismantling linear notions of personality and identity in a startling tapestry of images and ideas. And it goes about it at breakneck speed, fairly daring you to keep up.
Anthony Valentine as Joey Maddocks
Early drafts allude to a past sexual relationship as being the source of the
ambiguous acrimony between Chas the enforcer and Joey the bookie

Contrary to its reputation for being impenetrable and opaque, Performance's plot is really pretty straightforward in and of itself (slim, even); it's in the telling where things take a headlong turn into crazy. With duality as its defining thematic and visual motif, everything about the look and feel of Performance—from its fluid representation of time (past, present, and future intersect kaleidoscopically) to its recurring patterns of mirrors and twinning—is linked to the concept that everyone and everything has its shadow and light, yin and yang.
Peace & Love / Hate & Violence
The paradox of the '60s "All You Need Is Love" flower power hippie movement is that the '60s was also an extremely violent and socially turbulent decade. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated three months before filming began on Performance. Here, a newspaper clipping referencing King's 1964 trip to Oslo, Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize has been posted on a headboard by one of Turner's previous tenants.

Performance is the Doublemint Gum of head movies. A double your pleasure, double your fun mind-fuck expedition to the axis points of male/female, sex/violence, queer/straight. Virtually everything in this film is the mirror image of something else; a reflection viewed through a fractured prism that turns in upon itself and back around again.
Performance’s most ingenious application of dualism is in having the film itself—paralleling the arc of its two lead characters—structured as two separate movies that ultimately converge into one.
The first film is a brutal gangster movie about a preening East End hoodlum. The second is something like a stoner’s homage to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.; the recluse in this instance, a past-his-prime rock star (“He had three number ones, two number twos, and a number four!”) numbing himself with drugs and decadence. Their eventual convergence—a dive into the deep end of the magic realism pool—leads to the dreamscape collision of two separate worlds and the hallucinatory merging of two disparate men.

Memo from Turner
Making good on his desire to get into the head of his houseguest, the vampiric Turner assumes the dual role of mobster and rocker in Chas’ drug-fueled musical hallucination. A taunting ode to brutality, dominance, macho posturing, and their role in repressed queer desire. 

Chas and Ferber take aim. He with a gun, she with a movie camera.

"Who am I? Do you know who you are?"
Identity and image. The watcher and the watched. Throughout the film, characters suddenly appear to be looking directly at us, addressing us and challenging our presumptive certainty that we have the slightest idea who's who, what's what, or can discern reality from fantasy.

Though Performance was not successful in its initial release, it has since gained the reputation of being the film that defined an era. And in many ways, that’s true. While Hollywood depictions of the '60s and hippie culture invariably leaned towards the absurd (Skidoo -1968) or exploitative (Angel, Angel, Down We Go – 1969), Performance distinguishes itself through its matter-of-fact depiction of bohemian drop-out culture, casual drug use, and libertine sex. Further anchoring it to the era is its visual style, which is reflective of the underground and experimental films of the day.
The gender-fluidity that's now practically a prerequisite for pop music stardom was far from common back in the '60s. Even with the proliferation of long hair, gender representation in rock has always been assertively male and hetero. Jagger was among the first to mine the hip marketability of androgyny and bisexuality.

The life that Turner lives defines the epitome of the hippie ideal: no work; an independent income; a sprawling house overflowing with pillows, posters, and Moroccan accents; and nothing to do but spend the day screwing, getting high, listening to music, and reading Jorge Luis Borges.
But where Performance truly excels is in capturing the era's fascination with psychedelics and inner-exploration. The 1950s, with its emphasis on conformity and rigidly-defined gender roles, was the decade that professed to know all the answers. In direct contrast, the late-1960s was all about questions.
Dressed in a caricature costume of a gangster, Chas' self-identification with his work asserts brutality, aggression, and power as the provinces of maleness. Turner shakes up Chas' already wobbly self-certainty by proposing that when you change your drag, you change your perceptions. Identity-based labels like masculine, feminine, male, female, are but another form of discardable, reusable performance.    

Actor James Fox is no stranger to identity-crisis dramas. He first gained notoriety for The Servant (1963), which was another film about mind games and power plays carried out in a sexually cryptic arena. From the first time I ever saw him (1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie), I’ve felt Fox radiated an appealingly ambiguous “Is he gay or just British” vibe that is put to good use in Performance. His finishing school take on an East End Cockney thug is as frightening as it is canny.
Johnny Shannon as gay crime boss Harry Flowers. Anthony Morton as gang member Dennis 

Making his film debut, Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger may have frustrated Warner Bros. stockholders by making his official entrance into the film at roughly the 45-minute mark, but it’s the kind of delayed unveiling that bestows gravitas and narrative heft on a character before they utter a sound. Playing a man of mystery, Jagger gets to let his rock star mystique do most of the talking, bringing both erotic danger and a sort of touching melancholy to his role. I’m not sure if he’s very good or very well-used, but his Turner is perfection.
As the Black Queen/The Great Tyrant in Barbarella, Anita Pallenberg almost stole that film from Jane Fonda. And she nearly does the same with Performance. Hers is a captivating, devilish performance.

Being that I was 12-years-old in 1970, Performance’s scandalous reputation and gender-bending ad campaign were sufficient reasons for my parents to forbid me to see it during its original release. I was in my 20s when I saw it for the first time in a Los Angeles revival house.
What impressed me about Performance then is what I contend to this day; it is one of the rare examples of a genuinely startling film. Not shocking in terms of explicitness, but audacious in the uniqueness of its personal vision and so very unlike anything I’ve ever seen. And I gotta say, seeing it now on Blu-ray with the much-needed assist of subtitles is like discovering the film anew.
Truth and illusion. Masculinity redefined. Identity reassigned.

When Chas arrives at Turner's home, he notices on the stoop several bottles of milk, a box of mushrooms, and four Mars candy bars. This is a jokey reference to the notorious 1967 drug bust at the Redlands country estate of Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. The arrest made headlines (and later refuted) because, along with finding drugs, reports claim that when the police broke in, Jagger was seen eating a Mars bar out of the vagina of then-girlfriend Marianne Faithful.

Documenting Decadence and Debauchery
In the short film from 2016, actor James Fox and Performance producer Sandy Lieberson discuss photographer Cecil Beaton and his visit to the set in 1968. Watch it HERE.

Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2020