Thursday, December 29, 2011

This Sporting Life

In keeping with the spirit of the 'kitchen sink' tradition, 'This Sporting Life' is yet another film that I loved. I am generally wary of movies about sport, because the narrative tends to be very mundane and predictable. Lindsay Anderson's 'This Sporting Life' doesn't fit the mold of the average 'feel good' fable of triumph. Not with its unlikely cast and the interleaving of past and present events into the narrative.

Richard Harris (better known to kids and teenagers as the 'original Dumbledore') plays Frank, a young man with humble beginnings who becomes the star player of  a rugby club in Wakefield, Yorkshire. The film opens to Frank passing out after getting bludgeoned on the rugby field. It's Christmas eve, his teeth are broken and he needs a dentist. He is told that his front teeth will have to be pulled out. As he settles into the anesthesia, his subconscious rewinds through a blurry retelling of past events; of his try-outs for the league, of his landlady and of his ambition to be the best .

Frank lives in a rented room which is a part of a larger family home. His landlady, Margaret; a young widow with two little children, is pert, reserved and is in perpetual mourning for her husband. She keeps her husband's old boots by the fireplace as a reminder of her widowhood and Frank loathes the sight of them. It is quite evident that he wants her and the gulf between them seems to widen with every advance he makes. He brings presents for the children, takes the family out for rides in his car, and still sees no hint of approval in her eyes. There is tension between Frank and Margaret; a dreadful mix of longing and denial. They swing between moments of great tenderness and empathy to those of violent resistance and bitterness. Frank turns down the advances of other women. The only woman he will have is the one who won't have him.

Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts turn out wonderful performances. Both had reputations for being intensely passionate people, on and off stage. For this film, some of that passion is repressed. It is repressed to the extent that it shows up unexpectedly after a rare moment of gentle acquiescence. Richard Harris has a bestial quality. One can see it in his eyes and in the twisted features of his face, famously described has being one 'of a thousand Irish navvies'. This quality leaps forth on occasion; the one thing that makes his performance so unpredictable and believable. Rachel Roberts personifies perfection with her performance. She is bitter, anxious, wild and vulnerable at the same time. She resists and yields, she loves and loathes, and a part of her yearns for all that Frank has to give.

The film ends with Frank yielding a deathly blow to a spider crawling up the wall. He is aptly described as 'nothing but an ape on the field'. It is a tag he must endure for as long as he is invincible.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Look Back in Anger

Jimmy Porter, from 'Look Back in Anger', epitomizes the 'angry young man' of the early sixties. He sweats away at a job that helps to make ends meet. He is an anachronistic relic, languishing in a time that barely makes sense to him. He is angry, very angry and uncouth. His bitterness leaps from the pages of John Osborne's landmark play, and makes the present day idea of a 'quarter life crisis' seem like a trivial example of a 'first world problem'. In his dissent he takes no prisoners. He holds his wife,Alison, to ransom for all his grouses and bullies his good humored flatmate and business partner, Cliff.

The play was a part of the 'kitchen sink' movement of the 1960s, characterized by gritty, dark and unromantic depictions of daily life,particularly that of the working class, in English film, theatre and art. It caused quite a stir and the audience is said to have 'gasped' when they saw an ironing board on stage. A cinematic adaptation of it was released in 1959, starring Richard Burton as Jimmy Porter and Mary Ure (from the original stage production) as Alison.

I read the play before I watched the film. If I have one regret, it is that I never got to watch Peter O'toole on stage. Somehow, my perception of Jimmy Porter wasn't very different from O'toole's interpretation of Henry II in 'Beckett' (yes, I'm going through an 'O'toole appreciation phase' now). It is said that John Osborne himself considered O'toole's performance as Jimmy Porter, at the Old Vic, to be the best interpretation he ever saw. I was nevertheless thrilled to know that Burton had played Porter in the film adaptation and looked forward, with relish, to hearing the same sarcasm and dissent laced with Burton's divine baritone.

For starters, Burton didn't look the part. A 33 year old with a life of hard drinking and smoking is likely to have some difficulty passing off as a young man in his twenties. I was willing to brush aside the inaccuracy of Porter's appearance. After all angst knows no age, and a man as angry as Porter might as well look a decade older. Burton's performance seemed restrained. The baritone was intact, but there was something resigned and very complacent about his rage. It was as though he had been angry for ten years and had gotten fed up of his own bickering. At times it looked as though he struggled to deliver the lines that otherwise spring from the pages of the book and make you grit your teeth.

On the other hand, I loved Mary Ure as Alison. There was something very beautiful and disquieting about her  mild mannered vulnerability. She was convincing as the exhausted young wife, who gave up life as she knew it to live with a man who put her on trial for her upper class upbringing and for every letter she wrote to her mother. A particularly poignant moment in the film is when Alison visits the doctor only to learn that she is pregnant. She asks him if it's 'too late to do anything' and the doctor says, 'Don't ever say that'. She is shifty and uncomfortable around Jimmy, her squirrel like eyes waver as she avoids eye contact with him. I also liked Gary Raymond as Cliff, but thought that he was too handsome for the part as described in the play.

Another grouse I had with the movie was the introduction of characters that weren't in the play. Here, the character in question is an Indian vendor called Kapoor who faces discrimination at the hands of the inspector. The other vendors, with the exception of Jimmy and Cliff, sabotage his business and force him to quit and move to another place. 'I'm an untouchable in my own country', he says when Jimmy asks him why he came to England. I found this addition to the script totally unnecessary and irrelevant to what goes on in the Porters' living room. Perhaps it was an attempt to rationalize Jimmy's dissent and to provide a tangible reason for his otherwise inexplicable rage. Besides, the original Jimmy Porter was meant to be an atrocious trumpet player, something to add to the consternation of the other characters and the reader. In the film, he plays like the next Louis Armstrong in the making.

At the end of the day, the film manages to stay within the basic framework of the play. It still is, in my opinion, a classic case of the play being better than the movie. There have been other remakes of 'Look Back in Anger' and I'm pretty sure that I won't be watching any of them. I'll make an exception if someone goes back in time, and brings back footage of the Old Vic production starring O'toole.

The Ruling Class

When I think of 'The Ruling Class', the first word that comes to my mind is 'bizarre'. Critics and movie goers alike tend to remain divided over whether to call this film a work of genius or just plain monstrous insanity. The film didn't necessarily conform to the notions of cinematic brilliance at the time of its release. On one hand it was a commercial failure and on the other hand it garnered Peter O'toole his fourth Oscar nomination for 'Best Actor'. These days, 'The Ruling Class' is regarded as a cult hit; one of those films that was way ahead of its time and now deserves the distinction of belonging to 'The Criterion Collection'. Rumor has it that a severely edited version was released in the United States in the seventies. The 'Criterion' edition is supposed to contain all the original and uncut footage and is freely available on 'Hulu'.

'The Ruling Class' chronicles the trials and tribulations of the aristocratic Gurney family as it struggles to resume a 'normal upper class English existence' following the embarrassing death of the 13th Earl of Gurney. The dead Earl, in his will, has appointed his son, Jack (Peter O'toole), to be his successor. Fairly routine, one might assume, except that Jack is paranoid schizophrenic and believes himself to be the second coming of Jesus Christ and refers to himself as 'The God of Love'. As 'The God of Love', Jack preaches about 'truth and universal love';  he cavorts around, breaks into song and dance, spends most of his time propped up on a giant cross that he calls 'the Watusi walking stick', declares that pomp and riches are the root of all evil and even attempts to perform a miracle or two. The family, his uncle in particular, aren't too thrilled about a takeover by a potential Bolshevik. In order to save themselves any societal embarrassment, they decide that if Jack can be made to produce a male heir and can be declared 'insane' by a 'master of lunacy', then he can be locked away in a facility and lose all say in matters of the family estate. A hasty, and rather dubious, wedding is arranged between Jack and a gold digging young woman. As a last resort, Jack's psychiatrist performs some unconventional experiments on him in order to find a 'cure'. Following a particularly harrowing encounter with another paranoid schizophrenic, Jack is 'cured'. Except that he now thinks he is 'Jack the Ripper'.

The film takes a rather dramatic turn at this point, as does Peter O'toole's performance. It is as though there are two actors playing distinct characters in two completely different films. The new, 'improved' and misogynistic Jack is the  model of perfection. He laments the decline of social mores and the abolition of capital punishment. He appeals for a return to the glorious days of the aristocratic reign of terror. The latter part of the film is as disturbing as the first half is amusing. 

One thing that is quite evident, is that Peter Medak, the director, gave the actors complete artistic freedom to interpret their roles as they pleased. The acting tends to be rather theatrical. Proponents of the 'avant garde' and 'film noir' movements are likely to find this movie annoying and overly histrionic. It is said that the actors drank themselves to oblivion while filming, and it's amazing that they got any work done at all. One can appreciate and marvel at the sheer versatility of Peter O'toole's talent. From his impeccable comic timing to his decidedly dreadful mania,with all that singing and dancing in the bargain. Peter Barnes' script swings from being witty to being ridiculous. It takes a very blatant dig at the English ruling class and is not very subtle in depicting 'The House of Lords' as a room full of cadaverous old fogies who yearn for lost power. The supporting cast is simply marvelous. My personal favorites are Alistair Sim, who plays the blundering bishop, and Arthur Lowe, who plays the brazen and secretly anarchic butler.

Irrespective of whether one likes or loathes 'The Ruling Class', how such a film passed through the censors and the moral police is inconceivable. As someone once pointed out, present day actors would think twice before accepting a role that Peter O'toole played for free. I leave you with two clips from the film. The first one is of Peter O'toole playing 'The God of Love' and the second one is of him playing 'Jack the Ripper'.