Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Winding down (for twenty-five years): Deceased Artiste Nicolas Roeg (part 2 of two)

And now comes the depressing part. After the Seventies, it became harder for a truly visionary filmmaker like Roeg to get a project off the ground. That changed for a short time in the late Eighties when more “product” was needed for home-video labels, but by the Nineties it was again difficult for a filmmaker known for skewed chronologies to get a film made in Hollywood or even in the U.K.

Roeg’s cousin in dream film, Ken Russell, took anything he could get in the Eighties and Nineties with the results ranging from the sublime to the disappointing. The “mavericks” in America settled for making mainstream projects with little to nothing of their stamp on the projects. Scorsese became the gent who makes overblown multiplex fare with with the un-versatile Leonardo. And Altman — well, he remained the one visionary who kept his “identity” by constantly working in theater, television, and on low-budget film projects and films with European funding.

Roeg, however, was not as much of a “salesman” as Altman was (and didn’t want to switch to theater like Altman, or theater and opera like Russell). So his output slowed to a crawl from the Eighties onward. As with Russell, it was odd that a director who created “music videos” in his films before the phrase ever existed couldn’t find much work in the music-video era of cinema. But as with “Unkle Ken” Russell, Roeg did direct a few music videos and thankfully did benefit from that late Eighties need for more VHS product.

Here Roeg talks about one of the reasons the film industry “shut down” creatively in the early Eighties: the emergence of conservative leaders Thatcher and Reagan, whose influence spread to the movie industry.

For an interesting look at what could’ve happened with the arthouse world, check out the anthology film Aria (1987), which featured segments by Roeg, Russell, Altman, Godard, and several other directors who were struggling to retain their unconventional filmmaking styles in the post-Star Wars film industry. Here’s the end of Roeg’s segment, starring Theresa Russell (in male drag), a visualization of an aria from the opera Un ballo in maschera by Verdi.

The first Roeg feature in this new era was the very ambitious Eureka (1983). Drubbed by critics and dumped by its distributor when it came out, the film now has a strong cult reputation in the U.K. It has a sterling cast of American character people but, to this reviewer’s eyes, it is a willfully uneven affair that is one of only two of Roeg’s films that can, sadly, be deemed extremely corny. (The other is Cold Heaven — see below.)

The film is a decades-spanning tale of wealth and intrigue centered around an American gold prospector (Gene Hackman) who becomes a millionaire and is undercut by the French boyfriend (Rutger Hauer) of his daughter (Theresa Russell) and a Jewish gangster-businessman (Joe Pesci, assisted by an impossibly young Mickey Rourke). The early scenes depicting Hackman striking it rich are perfectly in line with Roeg’s previous five films, but the ensuing melodrama is something he didn’t do very well (because he was always very sincere in his best work, no matter how outlandish the plots were).

All five of his preceding films were intimate studies, even if they were set in an incalculably big setting (the outback in Walkabout) or concerned cosmic issues (The Man Who Fell to Earth). Eureka tackles big themes but within the context of one man, his family, and his business rivals, making it feel like a TV miniseries about an embattled family (in the “Winds of War”/“Thorn Birds” tradition).

The film’s second half hinges on a major surprise that is introduced in a long, violent sequence. This “trauma” is then followed by melodramatic plot twists that are embarrassingly hokey — including a lengthy bit where a husband (Hauer) interrogates his wife (Russell) on the stand in a court trial sequence that would’ve seemed overbaked in a Forties “poverty row” picture.

The next film by Roeg was a return to form, which seemed fairly gimmicky upon its release but has aged very well. Insignificance (1985) is an adaptation of a play about a hypothetical meeting between Marilyn Monroe (Theresa Russell) and Albert Einstein (Michael Emil, Henry Jaglom’s brother), joined by a McCarthy-like senator (Tony Curtis) and a non-DiMaggio-like baseball player (Gary Busey).

The film is one of only three Roeg comedies (that’s counting the Jim Henson production The Witches), so it’s quite unique. The premise is indeed a gimmick, but the contents of the film are pretty radically weird, especially the scene in which Marilyn explains the theory of relativity to Einstein, to show him she knows how it works.

It’s quite a comprehensible encapsulation of the concept and was in fact a favorite scene of Stephen Hawking (see the end of the Roeg documentary embedded below). Hawking clearly enjoyed hearing a scientific principle explained by a woman in heels and a billowy skirt.

Insignificance is also very much about how fame affects people. Its ending is truly a master stroke — Einstein imagines Marilyn and his hotel suite blown up by a nuclear bomb (since this version of Einstein is riddled with guilt about the dropping of the atom bomb). In this scene Roeg’s tendency for exploring dreams and fantasies comes to the fore again, with uncommon power.

The next film is an underrated gem that, as of this writing, is out of print in the U.S. Castaway (1986, no connection at all with the simpering Tom Hanks picture) is a brilliant exploration of male-female relationships and the notion of modern urban folk trying to cope with life on a deserted island (it’s not a spoiler to say that they can’t).

One can readily see the appeal of the material for Roeg – like Walkabout, it deals with the veneer of civilization and how it changes (or disappears) in a remote locale. Here, the story is a real one — a middle-aged man advertises for a “wife” to accompany him to live for a year on a deserted island between New Guinea and Australia.

The man (played by 48-year-old Oliver Reed) finally finds his desired partner for the experiment in a young woman (played by 24-year-old Amanda Donohoe, in her first starring role). The two sleep together before journeying to the island, and clearly Reed’s character thinks they will be partners in all regards. But the young woman has absolutely no interest in having sex with him the minute they arrive on the island.

Kate Bush wrote the theme song for the film, based on a line said by Reed’s character later in the film, “Be kind to my mistakes.”

Although the couple have no sex for the majority of the picture, their bodies are always centerstage, as Donohoe is nude throughout and even old Ollie is mostly clothes-less. The latter, in fact, creates the film’s only only problem — since both characters are suffering from malnutrition, anther man’s scrawny belly has to be shown instead of Ollie’s rather ample one.

Roeg came up with a brilliant way to explain this in the course of the film. The lead couple don’t see themselves as scrawny, and thus when they are seen by the few visitors to the island they are then (and only then) seen as scarily thin. The rest of the time, since we are living in their world, we see the couple as they see themselves, sunburnt and plagued by bug bites but not fatally thin.

Adapting the book about the “experiment” by Lucy Irvine (whom Donohoe plays), the film also functions as a terrific allegory about male-female relationships when the parties involved are removed from polite society. In an interesting twist on Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, which Roeg evoked in several of his films, here the woman is the sensible member of the couple and the male is the “dreamy” one who would prefer to be having a good time.

One Aussie character, who visits the island as a census taker (a very funny interlude), sums the situation up quite handily with the question, “What happens when people know too much about each other?”

By this point Roeg’s style was “out of fashion” (for feature films — not for music videos), so his “simplified” style is seen here for the most part. Thankfully, though, as Castaway moves on, more dream images and montages appear. It’s an absolute shame the film is currently out of print in both the U.K. and the U.S.

The aforementioned late-Eighties surge in the production of movies made on modest budgets with a recognizable star or two resulted in at least a handful of worthy films by arthouse directors like Roeg and Ken Russell, who were able to return to their Seventies level of productivity by turning out a film a year.

The off-kilter, playfully perverse comedy Track 29 (1988) was the only time the late, great Dennis Potter worked with a director whose talent was the equal of his own. The film is a variation on Potter’s teleplay “Schmoedipus” in which a young drifter (played by a pre-Rocky Horror Tim Curry) arrives at the house of an middle-aged housewife claiming to be her son. In the film the “son” (Gary Oldman, with dyed orange hair that makes him look like his later pal David Bowie) visits the house of a sexy, bored Southern wife (Theresa Russell).

In real life, Russell is only a year older than Oldman, so there is no way she could be his mother. His character could be telling the truth, but is more likely to be a scam artist or some kind of mental case. He knows quite a lot about her life, including information about the baby she gave up, although here Potter changed the scenario and made certain that we know early on that Oldman’s character is an hallucination that Russell is having.

The scenes between Russell and Oldman are sublimely odd and curiously sexy. The latter cannot be said for the very funny sequences depicting the affair between Russell’s doctor husband (Christopher Lloyd) and a kinky nurse (Sandra Bernhard). The scenes featuring these two concern the husband’s model train fixation (and a side interest in being spanked by the nurse); the scenes where he attends a model train convention offer an amusing satire of American patriotism, similar to the critique of Americana offered in Insignificance.

The Nineties brought a slowdown to Roeg’s career, resulting in him making a few TV movies. A thoroughly “normal” adaptation of Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth was made for NBC and aired in prime time in 1989 (thus making it the most easily seen of Roeg’s films in America, unfortunately). A very well-acted but otherwise (again) normal adaptation of Heart of Darkness (1993) was made for TNT with Tim Roth and John Malkovich. The most normal project Roeg ever undertook as a director was the two-part 1996 telefilm Samson and Delilah (part of the Turner-funded series of Biblical dramas).

The only Roeg TV-movie that had any connection to his features was the Showtime film Full Body Massage (1995). Essentially a play in filmic garb, it concerns an art gallery owner (Mimi Rogers) who has a substitute masseur (Bryan Brown) show up one day for her usual session.

The film made quite an impression on younger male viewers because of the fact that Rogers is nude throughout the majority of the film. It actually is quite a compelling dual character study, but still fits into the post-Eighties safe sex mindset, as it concerns the two lead characters’ love and sex lives but contains not a single sex scene.

On the theatrical front, 1990 saw the release of the only family friendly Roeg film, The Witches. The last picture personally produced by Jim Henson, the film splits quite neatly into two halves. In the first half, there’s content meant to frighten children; the second half is a cutesy, barely watchable journey by the lead character, a boy turned into a mouse by Anjelica Huston and her rather middle-class-looking coven.

The second half reassures the kids watching that all will be right with the world — thus it is another Roeg project that is extremely well-shot and edited but has little connection to his main preoccupations as a filmmaker. The noxious super-happy ending turned off one adult in particular — author Roald Dahl, who was outraged that Roeg, Henson & co. changed the more downbeat ending of his book.

Cold Heaven (1991), Roeg’s last film with Theresa Russell, is a puzzle, as anyone familiar with Roeg’s best films will wonder why he consented to adapt this rather tepid thriller about a “resurrection” that ends with an almost insultingly preachy ending.

Here are interviews with Roeg and Russell on location for Cold Heaven. Most interesting is hearing Roeg discussing how he has major trouble getting funding:

Compared to the usual supernatural (or simply “linked by coincidences/fate”) scenarios that drove his earlier pictures, Cold Heaven is an out-and-out piece of Catholic mysticism that ends up being, as mentioned above, a regrettably corny affair.

An affair is in fact the core of the plot — a wife (Russell) is planning on leaving her boring husband (Mark Harmon) for her more lively lover (James Russo), but the husband’s sudden injury and death from an ill-timed swimming accident throws her into a panic. The husband’s sudden reappearance constitutes either a nightmare/hallucination or an honest-to-you-know-who miracle (since this is not a Dennis Potter scenario, take a guess which direction this screenplay takes).

There are some of Roeg’s trademark associative edits and beautiful montages throughout the picture (including some lovely undersea images), but the fact that the film is predicated entirely on the lead character’s guilt over cheating (on an incredibly boring person, it must be said) makes Cold Heaven a lesser Roeg title.

His next film, Two Deaths (1995), is an incredibly solid work that is barely known. Another scenario that takes place in a limited amount of indoor sets, the film is a return to the themes of Bad Timing, as we see a charming but morally repulsive protagonist recount the tale of how he “destroyed” a woman.

The small ensemble cast — another low-budget film staple that makes a film feel like a play — are superb. The male leads are nearly all British actors and the female star is Brazilian, but they all play Slavs. The film is such a tight, moving drama that one can easily set aside that bizarre decision.

Michael Gambon (reunited here with his Singing Detective costar Patrick Malahide) stars as a well-respected doctor living in an Eastern Europe country that is undergoing a revolution. He invites his old school chums to dinner one night and proceeds to tell them about how he “destroyed” the most important woman in his life, the maid (Sonia Braga) who has been tending to them throughout the evening.

The set-up is classic Roeg, as we initially feel that the doctor’s obsessional love was at one point sincere, but we realize very quickly that he’s been playing a literal game of “master and servant” with this woman — who made a deal to be his maid/sex partner if he kept alive her true lover, a comatose revolutionary.

The editing and visuals are mostly straightforward but the extreme story line is the kind of grim yet thoroughly involving material that established Roeg as a brilliant and influential filmmaker in the Seventies.

After a long layoff Roeg made his last film in 2007. Puffball: the Devil’s Eyeball is a strange, amorphous creation that thankfully has some terrific moments despite its uneven script and lamentably goofy title (which comes from the source material, a novel by Fay Weldon).

The film’s plot concerns a young Englishwoman (Kelly Reilly) who is remodeling a house in Ireland to live in with her boyfriend. Her neighbor (Miranda Richardson) is resorting to supernatural means to get pregnant and becomes jealous when our heroine gets there first. The motivations of the characters get increasingly murky as the film moves on, but the performances are terrific, especially those of Reilly, Richardson, and Rita Tushingham (as Richardson’s witchy mother).

Everything in the film’s plot is related to fertility, so it makes perfect sense that Roeg was able to reintroduce his intense sex sequences (when he was directing at age 79!). There are three of them here, with the best being a roll in the hay (yes, a real one) between Reilly and Richardson’s farmer husband.

The film is far from Roeg’s best work, but it is watchable and has some gorgeous images (and the frenzied sex scene). The finale is a major disappointment, considering the direction in which the material has seemingly be heading but, let’s face it, even an uneven Roeg picture is better than most Oscar-winning directors’ entire output.


Three last Roeg-related items. The first is very odd indeed, a BBC production for a series called “Sound on Film.” Roeg directed the short film, which is a flashy assortment of images featuring the super-model scored to music by Adrian Utley of Portishead. It’s a uniquely over-the-top project, which seems to suggest that the birth of Ms. Schiffer was the beginning of the universe as we know it.

How often do you hear a song devoted to the work of a single filmmaker? Mick Jones clearly loved Roeg’s films to pieces — thus this song and music video, which celebrates Roeg’s films from Walkabout to Insignificance.

As a final offering, here is the most authoritative documentary thus far on Roeg. It aired in conjunction with the book The World Is Ever Changing, a 2011 memoir taken from a series of interviews Roeg’s wife Harriet Harper conducted with him.


Thanks to Paul Gallagher for help obtaining some of the titles mentioned here.

1 comment:

laredo said...

I am quite sure many people read your work, are positively impressed by it, and simply don't bother to comment. It is a relief to know there are truly educated reviewers like yourself still in existence and you help me to at least learn and grow when breaking down the works of filmmakers I dislike, such as Nicholas Roeg - a major feat!