Category: 1969


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Don’t let this astonishing film’s title fool you. If you’re expecting a tale of sapphic romance, look elsewhere. In one of the most remarkable studies of human sexuality that I’ve ever watched, not just from the 1960s but from any film ever, 1969’s Women in Love is mature and thought-provoking cinema at it’s finest. Tackling issues as taboo at the time as polyamory, bisexuality, and homosexuality, and then truly diving into why some relationships fail, why others can work, and why, to paraphrase Jack Kerouac, “boys and girls have such a sad time together” (though in this film’s case, men and women). It is exceedingly rare to see this type of rich, character-driven portraiture accomplished on the big screen and Women in Love is the antidote to your stale romantic drama blues.

Based on a 1920 novel by D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love‘s subject matter should be no surprise. Though, in his time, D.H. Lawrence was hounded as a pornographer and purveyor of smut, modern literary criticism has vindicated the man’s enormous talent. If you couldn’t tell by the figure of two naked men wrestling in the film’s poster, Women in Love is a very sensual and some may say racy film (though, it’s fairly tame by modern standards). Exploring an almost absurd number of themes that would fascinate an author after World War I, Women in Love is a tale of repressed homosexual longing, all-consuming heterosexual passion, the class divides that were ravaging Britain at the height of industrialization, the psychic wounds caused by World War I, and the alienation of passionate intellectuals.

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Set in the years following World War I, Women in Love is the story of four very different and very passionate men and women. Gudrun (Sunday Bloody Sunday‘s Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden) are two schoolteachers, bored with their lives that straddle the line between their working class neighbors and the wealthy bourgeois that they associate themselves with. This sense of not having a place in society is established in the very first scene where they are invited to a wealthy friend’s wedding but simply watch it from the cemetery next to the chapel. Their father was also a schoolteacher, and it has afforded these girls an opportunity in life that they neither fully appreciate or understand. And, it isn’t until their romantic lives intersect with two wealthy older men that their lives begin to take on any direction.

Ursula and Gudrun fall in love with Rupert Birkin (The Rose‘s Alan Bates) and Gerard Crich (Oliver Reed) respectively. Rupert is a manic-depressive, alienated intellectual whose stark and, for the time, radical world view makes him something of a joke and novelty among his bourgeois friends. He rejects his girlfriend at the beginning of the film because of her complete inability to express spontaneity and joy, though that may be Rupert’s rationalization to avoid discussing his own bisexuality. Rupert’s best friend is Gerard Crich, a cold and repressed industrialist who is as cruel to those who work in his coal mine as he is to the woman he pretends to love. After a naked wrestling match that oozes more homoeroticism than possibly any movie sequence ever, Rupert and Gerard decide to pursue their romantic attractions to Ursula and Gerard, and essentially nothing but misery follows for all involved.

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Women in Love isn’t just one of the most homoerotic films I’ve ever watched; it’s also easily one of the most erotic and sensual pieces of cinema I’ve ever seen. There’s a scene early in the film where Rupert discusses the fine art of eating a fig that makes any of the sexual fantasies from Belle de Jour seem hamfisted and vulgar in comparison. As a metaphor for the act of oral sex (which is sadly made a little too explicit at one point), it’s enough to make anyone a little hot under the collar. And the actual love scenes are rivaled only by¬†Don’t Look Now in the tasteful and lush eroticism department. And, I don’t just mean the love scenes between the men with the women. Although I believe the implication is that Rupert and Gerard don’t actually consummate their physical attraction to one another, their wrestling sequence is still an astounding visual metaphor for their intense and fiery sexual attraction and how badly these two men want to be with one another but can’t allow that to be.

Ken Russell’s direction is marvelous. The visual composition of the film reminds one instantly of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The easy comparison would be to compare Women in Love to a Merchant/Ivory film like A Room with a View, but much like Scorsese’s nominal costume drama, Russell’s film has so much more going on underneath its surface than the period details. Though the film gets the period details right and obsessives of the 1920s would have much to enjoy there, Russell knows when to subvert period expectations to make an artistic statement. To wit, it is not uncommon to see Ursula and Gudrun in attire that seems anachronistic for the film’s time period and that would have been more appropriate in the late 1960s. And, Russell owes a great debt to the French New Wave with his unconventional use of jump cuts and jarring transitions.

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And the performances are practically universally revelations. Glenda Jackson won an Academy Award for her performance in this film and though I did not find it as awe-inspiring as her work in Sunday Bloody Sunday, that may only be because she spent less time as the center of the film’s attention. After only seeing two of her films (ever as far as I can tell), Glenda Jackson is quickly making a case to be one of my all-time favorite British actresses. She has a toughness and resoluteness that runs counter-intuitive to practically everything I know about actresses from that period. Jennie Linden was quite good as her sister, but Gudrun was a more demanding role, and Jackson aptly captures the spiritual decay and torment that Gudrun continually suffers from the beginning to the end of the film. Glenda Jackson is a long-lost heroine of powerful female acting.

However, I honestly think that the two most entrancing performances of the film come from its male leads. Rupert is more or less an avatar of D.H. Lawrence himself, and he used the character in his novel to espouse his philosophical, religious, spiritual, and sexual beliefs. Oddly enough, Alan Bates bears more than a passing resemblance to Lawrence, and alongside Jake Gyllenhaal’s turn in Brokeback Mountain, it’s one of the truer portrayals of bisexuality in cinema. The Brokeback Mountain parallels are eerie if you interpret Rupert as a bisexual and Gerard as a deeply closeted homosexual (as I do). And Oliver Reed is no slouch himself as the far darker and more tormented Gerard. He has to tap into some fairly violent and damaging places in his performance and at the film’s brutal climax, you believe the pain that would lead him to such depravity.
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This review is getting lengthy so I suppose I shall draw it to a close. There are certain topics that consume all of us, or at least, there are certain topics that consume all of us who allow ourselves to be concerned with intellectual affairs. And for a great many people that fall into that category, “sexuality” and to a different extent “love” come to define our quests for meaning in our short, finite lives. And, Women in Love tackles the themes of love and sexuality with more skill and insight than practically any film I’ve ever seen. Ken Russell (and D.H. Lawrence) approached human sexuality and sensuality like adults instead of in a voyeuristic or condemning manner. The film is light on flashy spectacle, but for those that have the patience for a mature, character-driven portrait of the price of ignoring our sexual passions, Women in Love is a must-see film.

Final Score: A

 

How does it feel Mitt? How does it feel to be completely bitch-slapped around the stage by your better for 90 minutes? If you didn’t know that tonight was the final US presidential debate, you had either better be a foreigner or planning to voluntarily take yourself out of the gene pool. Because the stakes have never been higher in a presidential election. The clear choice between a safer, stronger, and more economically secure America led by Barack Obama against a war-mongering, greedy, corprotocracy led by Mitt Romney was made abundantly clear in tonight’s foreign policy debate. I’d be the first to admit that the President stumbled in Debate #1 but he and the Vice President have been on fire since, and tonight was the best performance out of all of the debates thus far. I’ve chosen Creedence Clearwater Revival’s classic “Fortunate Son” as my Song of the Day to remind everyone that Romney is part of the entitled, leechful plutocracy in America. And that if Romney wins, he will only make things better for his super rich buddies while the rest of America suffers. Make the right choice. Four more years for President Barack Obama!

As has been reported by virtually every source on music news on the planet, Levon Helm, the drummer and vocalist of legendary 60s/70s roots rock group The Band, has entered what his family is calling “the final stages” of his battle with cancer. That assuredly translates to “Levon Helm only has days or weeks to live,” and it’s a sad, sad day for music fans around the world. A group who earned their moniker as THE Band by being the backing band for none other than Bob Dylan himself and went on to cement their own legacy as one of the best touring and studio bands of the late 60s is losing one of the key parts of their sound. The Band was the group that reminded me that it was ok to enjoy country-tinged and southern fried rock and roll even as I was raging against the blandness of the modern country musicians who tried to capture the rootsiness of acts like the Band and their kin. I’m choosing to honor Levon Helm and his legacy as one of the premier musicians of his era by making one of their songs, the seminal “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” as today’s Song of the Day to do my small part to help cherish this band’s memory.

The above video is from the Martin Scorsese directed documentary film The Last Waltz which was the last time that Levon Helm performed the song with The Band. I chose this particular song (as opposed to perhaps more appropriate fare like “The Weight,” “I Shall Be Released,” or “Up On Cripple Creek”) because of a recent event that occurred with me and this song here in NYC that I will now always associate with this classic track. I live in a predominantly African-American/Caribbean neighborhood although I’m whiter than vanilla ice cream. My neighborhood is perfectly safe, but, it’s not easy to forget I’m the minority here. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” came on my iPod one day when I was coming home from work. I was also the last white person left on the train (as usual after I get past Franklin Ave.). While there are no racist undertones to the song (and considering that Helm was the only American in an otherwise entirely Canadian band, I highly doubt that they were pro-Confederate) and as Dylan’s backing band I’m sure their political beliefs were suitably leftist, I’m still a white liberal suffering from loads of liberal guilt, and as soon as this song came on, I began to freak out that I was going to become the center of some Spike Lee, Do The Right Thing-esque racial incident. I was too packed in to grab my iPod out of my pants pocket to change the song, and it was playing so loudly I feared everyone on the train would hear it. Thankfully that wasn’t the case.

The 1960’s was the beginning of America’s sexual liberalization. With the onset of the “hippy” and free-love movement, the Victorian and Puritan notions of proper sexuality were finally being swept aside in a joyous rapture of personal freedom. One of the great powers of cinema is in the way in which it often helps to act as a mirror to the society that produces it. Think about all of the great Vietnam movies to come out of the 1960’s and 70’s. All of the great movies about the excesses of capitalism and greed in the 80’s. Well, the sexual liberation needed its own cinema verite as well. One such product was 1969’s John and Mary, a then controversial film about a one night stand, and probably the first main stream film to be about a one night stand.

The film tells the story of… wait for it… John (Dustin Hoffman) and Mary (Mia Farrow). They met one night at a bar and went home to “listen to records”, or as they both realized, to have sex. The film bounces back and forth between the night at the bar, the awkward next day, and some scenes from their past relationships. At the time, I’m sure this movie was down-right scandalous and relevant, but it was honestly boring and so, so, so dated in 2011. Dustin Hoffman is one of my favorite actors, and as always, he was great in this movie. This isn’t The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy caliber performance but he plays the part the way it needs to be played. I hate Mia Farrow though. She is neither physically attractive or a talented actress. I’ve never understood how she was both Roman Polanski and Woody Allen’s muse. She bothered me in this as much as she did in Rosemary’s Baby. Not to mention the fact that the ending was a complete cop-out. I thought, for a minute, that they were actually going to gamble on the darker and more scandalous ending, but they wrapped it up too neatly with Hollywood happiness and it cheapened the whole product. I only recommend this film to hard-core Dustin Hoffman fans.

Final Score: C+

Two of my favorite directors of all time are Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. Pound for pound, I don’t think there are two more artistic and stylistic directors out there. They ram more symbols and activity into one frame of a movie than most directors have in their entire oeuvre of films. When I watched Fellini’s earlier film La Strada, I got the impression that he was a director in a similar vein to those two artists, but I never expected I would watch one of his films that I would put int he same league as classics like A Clockwork Orange or Mulholland Drive. I was wrong. I just finished Fellini Satyricon, and though (much like when I first watched the two films I mentioned earlier) I feel the need to watch this film four or five more times to know completely and grasp the fully the film I just watched, I also knew when the final credits rolled that I had watched a brilliant masterpiece.

Fellini Satyricon tells the story of Encolpio, a young Roman (in ancient Rome) and his many, many trials and tribulations. Encolpio’s former best friend is Ascilto, though they are no longer friends because of Ascilto stole Encolpio’s (for lack of a better word) sex slave Gitone, a young, very handsome boy. Encolpio and Ascilto (like most Romans) are openly bisexual and pederasts. I would be lying if I didn’t say upfront that this is one of the most homo-erotic films that I have ever seen. The film continues through escalating troubles as Encolpio is captured and enslaved, kills a demigod, fights a mintoaur in a labyrinth, and must find a cure for his impotence.

As gripping and interesting as the plot gets through its many different episodes (which are often as epic as one of Homer’s poems), the real strength of the film rests in Fellini’s direction and his sense of visual style. There are the times when one’s senses are almost unable to grasp everything that is happening on screen quickly enough to register them the way they must be experienced. Fellini does not let your brain rest. Nearly every scene is filled in both the fore- and background with so much activity and little detail that you find yourself paying attention to pretty much every aspect of the film. It was one of the most visually inventive films I’ve ever watched, and it managed to accomplish in the 1960’s without the aid of computers. Fellini just composed his film like a masterful painting and simply let reality do the talking.

One of my favorite aspects of the film is the way in which Fellini composes the movie much as if it were a stage play and being the master of surrealism, combines the two mediums seamlessly. The film’s opening scene could have been Shakespeare had not been about two gay ancient Romans. From the expository nature of the dialogue literally explaining what the characters were doing on screen at the second to the grand poetry of the lines themselves, it seemed as suited for the stage as well as the silver screen. There are times later in the film a well where stories within stories occur and Fellini manages to combine “reality” with “fiction” in marvelous and original ways.

The only reason I can’t recommend this film to everyone is for the same reason that I can’t recommend A Clockwork Orange or Eraserhead to everyone. It takes a certain intellectual capacity to be able to pay attention for the length of this film in the way it deserves and to constantly be processing all of the sensory information that Fellini throws at you. However, if you think you are up for the challenge of this film and you have a history of being able to handle films by artists like Lynch or Kubrick, then you simply have to watch this movie. It’s one of the best movies that I have seen in a good, long while.

Final Score: A+