Malcolm McDowell Double Feature

Last night was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with an old friend that I’ve never met. Malcolm McDowell has been an actor I have watched for decades now in a variety of parts. I was of course first introduced to him as were most Americans by his brilliant turn in the Stanley Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange”.  This is a film that I love but that my wife loathed, but her dislike for the movie had nothing to do with McDowell. In fact, one of the two films playing last night was a favorite of hers and it may be one of the most romantic films we saw together as a couple.

One of the ways you can get a little spoiled by living in Southern California is by having these kinds of opportunities on a regular basis. In fact it was only six months ago that Malcolm and I previously spent time together. He was a host at a musical salute to Kubrick by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Most of the stories he told that day focused on his work with Kubrick and their subsequent relationship. Last night however, at the break between films, the subjects of his stories were primarily about the Director Lindsay Anderson, who plucked McDowell from theatrical work in Great Britain and plugged him into the film world that would become his main home.

There were dozens of stories he told to interviewer Alex Simon, but every time Simon tried to move on to Kubrick or Schrader, McDowell found a way to bring the discussion back to his long time friend and mentor. There was a terrific story about Lindsay Anderson visiting John Ford near the end of the western directors life. McDowell is quite the raconteur and was never at a loss for something interesting to share. He offered us the invitation to watch a film of the presentation he did about Lindsay Anderson at a Film festival a few years ago. I found the link he suggested and I am sharing it with you now. I look forward to watching the whole thing.

 

 

As for the features, well it has been a long time since I saw “Cat People”, the overly literal remake of the classic horror film from 1942. This film came out forty years later in a great cinema year but definitely a different time in Hollywood.

I had forgotten the long lead in sequence with backstory about the origins of the Cat People of the story. It actually looks like a long outtake from the new version of “Dune” that we are supposed to get next year. The desert sky is orange, the tree in the center of the sequence is dead and there is dust everywhere.

The real story picks up when Nastassja Kinski shows up in New Orleans to reconnect with her brother played by Malcolm McDowell. They were separated as children after their parents died and it is just as she is turning twenty or so that they are reunited. Mr. McDowell had nothing but great things to say about her beauty in the film and how happy he was to be working with her. In his introduction to the first movie, he did point out that he had to learn to act backwards because there is one sequence early on that is shot in reverse to give the actions of the character an more ethereal feel. He did seem to regret that he never needed this skill for any subsequent film.

In 1982, this film felt weird but not out of place with the times. There was a lot of experimentation with psycho sexual themes and mystery stories and even science fiction horror moments. I can’t quite put my finger on why 80s horror movies feel as ominous as they do, but also fresh and distinctive in spite of mining some of the same tropes over and over. Director Schrader does allow the slow build of some of the tension in the film, but cuts down so much on the narrative that at times it was hard to figure out the motivations of any of the characters. For instance, actress Annette O’Toole plays a character who seems at times to be romantically linked with leading man John Heard, but she also seems nonplussed at the growing romance between Heard and Kinski’s characters. In the end it doesn’t matter much because she ends up naked in the pool while being stalked, so the focus is all on her in that scene when in the original it was the exact opposite. The shadows and light were the focus of the pool scene in the 1942 film.

Probably because Schrader has a deep history with religious themes, McDowell is presnted as some sort of religious zealot, although that ends up having little to do with the story, except to create a sense of regret and guilt in his character. That would have been a worthy way to make this film more distinctive, rather than the more explicit sex and violence path that the movie ends up following. Another one of those weird elements that seems to fit in with the times is the presence of another character who may or may not know about the carnivorous sexual habits of her employer. Ruby Dee is enigmatic as the housekeeper that is also keeping secrets. Her facial expressions and have spoken warnings seem to fit with a lot of short hand characters from movies of that time, Scatman Crothers in “the Shining” is a similar character.

I did remember how the film ends and it is both laughable and tragically appropriate. Still the most memorable element of the movie is the score by Giorgio Moroder  and the theme song by David Bowie. The Bowie tune will be most familiar to modern audiences through it’s use in “Inglorious Basterds”.  Here is a link so you can enjoy the song as you continue reading.

After the first film is when Alex Simon and Malcolm McDowell engaged in their discussion and some Q and A with the audience. I’ve already described some of it to you and I’m sure the video on “Never Apologize” above will have some of the same things. I do want to briefly talk about his response to an audience member’s question about “Caligula”. McDowell was brutal in his assessment of Gore Vidal as a screen writer. Vidal had his name taken off the film and claimed that Bob Guccione, the producer and uncredited director of the film ruined it. McDowell says that Vidal’s screenplay was shit and nothing could have saved this turkey. He then told a great story about pranking Vidal with Truman Capote, a writing nemesis, over some laundry. It was quite amusing, as was McDowell’s comment that Vidal could take his name off the film, but Malcolm couldn’t.

The second film on the schedule is far better and more memorable for a lot of reasons. To begin with, the script is a tightly plotted mystery thriller with an irresistible concept. H.G. Wells, the author actually has a time machine and Jack the Ripper uses it to escape to the future where Wells attempts to pursue him. It is a great mash up of science fiction, horror-thriller, procedural and romance in one. The director here was Nicholas Myer, making his directing debut. Myer had previously written the screenplay for the movie made from his novel, the “Seven Percent Solution” another pairing of historical characters, Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes.

Time After Time” is actually the final film on my original blog project from 2010. There is not much I would add to my original comments about the film, I would urge you to go back and read them. I think the less you know of the plot mechanics the more satisfying the film is. There was one element that I will repeat here and it ties into my point about this film being a romantic masterpiece. When asked about the most memorable part of part in this film, without hesitation McDowell said meeting, falling in love with and marrying Mary Steenburgen. Their marriage lasted more than a decade and they have two children together and a very friendly relationship despite the break up. I claim that you can literally see them falling in love with one another in this movie.

Of course that is the story of the film but the idea of chemistry between actors has never been so obvious in my eyes. good actors can fake it even when they despise on another, but this is a case of reality intruding into the film itself.

I think I was a little critical of the special effects when I first wrote about this movie a decade ago. The photographic effects work pretty well for the kind of story we are being told here and they seemed to hold up better on the big screen last night then they did on home video when I last saw this film for a review.

I will just briefly mention that before the program started, I had gone up to the bathroom and I was a little put out by the fact that a group of people were conducting a conversation in the entryway of the theater, blocking my return to my seat. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the two people involved were the interviewer and the special guest for the evening. I did eavesdrop a little on their conversation. Alex Simon was reminding McDowell that he had interviewed him almost fifteen years ago for a different project and they engaged in some more small talk. I went back to my seat, comfortable in the knowledge that the featured guest was here and in good form, and thankful that the cranky old man in me had not snapped at them for blocking the path.

Echo in the Canyon

Part concert film, part behind the scenes featurette and part documentary, “Echo in the Canyon” was a delightful surprise that is likely to end up on several year end lists because of it’s subject matter. Laurel Canyon has been known for forty years as a mecca for the creative community in Southern California. The 2002 drama featuring Christian Bale and Francis McDormand explored some of the bohemian lifestyle that flourished there but it was mainly focused on the psycho sexual drama of it’s story. This film emphasizes a very different component, one that a lot more people are likely to care about, the music scene in SoCal, particularly the years from 1965-1967.

Automatically, modern audiences might be put off by the subject of music from fifty years ago that they may be unfamiliar with. I was flabbergasted a couple of weeks ago at some of the bands my students had never heard of. But once the music starts flowing in this film, our DNA kicks in and even people who don’t know the artists will know the songs. If you pay enough attention, they will also know the importance of this period to popular music. This was a transitional period as Rock and Roll was maturing from the pop strains of the fifties and the early Beatles, to a more sophisticated music structure and lyrical content. The Beatles influenced The Beach Boys who in turn influenced the Beatles, and all of that influenced dozens of other musicians.

The film was executive produced by Jakob Dylan and he is featured as an interviewer and a performer. As a way of contextualizing the music, he brings together a variety of artists to put together a tribute show to that era and to record songs for an album. In the course of the film he digs up stories about the most influential acts that were thriving in that period and place. “The Byrds”, The Mamas and the Papas”, “Buffalo Springfield” are the main acts, but there was a sense of comradely competition and sharing among all the musicians of the Canyon. Dylan is an effective performer but as an interviewer, his main skill is to get out of the way of the subjects that he is talking to. Michelle Phillips is pretty honest about the lifestyle she led, David Crosby brutally assesses the reasons that the Byrds broke up, Roger McGuinn is thoughtful in his analysis of what made people creative. There are a dozen other members of that community who share thoughts and stories as well, but just as you might start worrying that all we are going to get are talking heads, a musical sequence, archival footage or outtakes from a forgotten Hollywood film made by French film makers arrives to entice us further.

The retro footage from “Model Shop” shows the era of the film and was an inspiration to the producers and director to put this film together. Mid to late sixties Los Angeles is where I grew up so it has a nostalgic feel for me as well as providing some historical context. The biggest thrill in the film however is revisiting the songs that still thrive in our heads.  TV clips from the Sullivan show and Dick Clark often introduce a song, and then we get to hear from the creators themselves and finally, the music is re-created for us. Those new versions are sometime performed in an intimate living room jam session, or maybe in a recording studio as a new collection of the songs is being prepared for an album. The most joyous place we hear them however is onstage at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles in a concert from 2015 when this project began. When you hear the music, time stands still and at least for me, my memories are stimulated as much as the drugs stimulated the creativity of the original artists.

I don’t see enough documentaries to feel confident about comparing their technical qualities very much. I can talk about their style and themes however, and this film hits it’s themes very effectively. The entertainment value of the movie is not neglected either, especially since the subject matter is a form of popular entertainment. I was very wistful each time the late Tom Petty was on screen. Although he was not a member of the community of that era, he is the embodiment of the influence it had on popular music, and he knew that well. His reflections serve as a sort of Greek Chorus to the whole enterprise and the film ends up being dedicated to him. I saw this at the Archlight in Hollywood and in addition to be surrounded by the neighborhoods that are featured in the film, there was a special feature after the film where a correspondent for the Archlight Theater chain interviewed the film makers and they added some more to the story. If this is playing somewhere near you at an Archlight Theater, i’m sure you will find it worthwhile to stay for the extra ten minutes.

By the way, we immediately went next door to Amoeba Records to try and get the soundtrack, sadly it is not out until the end of the month. I will be digging up the original songs to listen to until then. I could not recommend this film more highly.