I am turning 60 today.
When I started this page I was 46!
A lot of pages. A lot of words.
More to come ...
If you read this column every day, you realize that I usually leave the
vintage stuff for others. I want to get the latest stuff to appear in the
theaters or on DVD or even occasionally on TV. About seven years ago, that
included a lot of older material which was coming to DVD for the first time,
but now that most of the classic nude scenes have made it to DVD, there's
really nothing "'new'' coming out of the past, so I'm looking for material
created in the past year or so. I've never been much interested in reliving
the past, anyway. To paraphrase "Madison County," the old dreams were good
dreams, and I'm glad to have dreamt them, but they are gone now, and there are
new ones ahead. Reviving the past with friends at reunions can be kind of fun
because that version of the past changes as you do, and as you need to
remember it. But reviving the past by watching old movies can be downright
depressing, because those movies have not changed with you. Many of the films
you loved in your youth just don't hold up to any objective scrutiny. You
loved them because of the time and place in which they existed, and that time
is gone, as is the person you were then. It's much nicer to leave those films
as treasured memories, where they shine unblemished, and intermingle with warm
recollections of the events that surrounded them: "I saw this on my first date
with ..."; or "I remember that film - I was trapped in Oswego in a snowstorm
and there was nothing else to do, so we caught the late show in a neighborhood
theater and ate at a pizza place which only happened to be open because the
owner couldn't get home in the storm."
Unfortunately, I had to rewatch many 1967-74 films during the past decade
in order to chronicle the nudity, and I often found myself wondering why I
ever thought they were any good. Perfect example? I had such great memories of
The Graduate - until I actually watched it again. It does have a good
beginning up to the point where Benjamin is seduced by Mrs Robinson, and it
has a memorable ending. Of course, those are the only sections anyone ever
remembers about the movie. And with good reason. In between those parts is an
unbearably bad story line about a total douchebag of a guy who is stalking a
girl despite the fact that she keeps getting more and more creeped out by him.
Dustin Hoffman's character could not be less appealing. If you saw that part
without the intro, you would assume it to be the introduction to a unpleasant
grade-B slasher movie which ends up with Katherine Ross being eviscerated in a
Sigh. Memory shattered.
That brings us back to The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer. I never saw it
in 1970, but I have heard friends speak of it warmly and often, perhaps
because it disappeared almost completely, unreleased on home video and rarely
shown on TV, and therefore existing only in their memories. It featured the
all-star team of British comedy from the second half of the 20th century. The
droll comic genius Peter Cook starred and co-wrote the script with Monty
Python's Graham Chapman and John Cleese, who also play minor roles. Other
members of the cast include Denholm Eliot, one of The Two Ronnies (the
dwarfish one), and the Nobel laureate playwright Harold Pinter, using his
memorable basso profundo voice to impersonate a slimy TV presenter, and making
his only film appearance between 1967 and 1985.
And it has a great nude scene.
Sounds good, right? When it came to Region 2 DVD, I jumped on it.
Yet another disappointment. It's not a bad film, but is an unexpectedly
serious one. Expecting silly shenanigans, surreal situations, farce, and
absurdist notions, I instead found dark and deadpan social satire.
The basic problem with the film is that the authors are out of their
element. They are all excellent at writing sketch comedy with absurdist
touches and non-stop humor, but this is more or less a dark comedic story in
the Kubrick vein. That format requires both a slick narrative and
characterization, and that immediately raises two problems:
1. The film contains long stretches with exiguous wit, as the authors
establish characterization or plot.
2. Point one is bad enough, I suppose, but the problem might be overcome if
those three guys were any good at writing plots and creating dimensional,
developed characters. They are not. They are good at creating zany
caricatures, non-sequiturs, and jokes. As a result, the story drags on and on
and on in completely predictable fashion at a snail's pace, and some scenes
don't even try to be funny. Denholm Eliot and Graham Chapman are straight men
here, as they usually are. Cook is known for his wit, but has to stay in
character here and really makes no effort to be funny at all. He is an eerily
menacing and Machiavellian character who walks into a failing advertising
agency, pretends he's employed there, and works his way up until he becomes
master of the house, then of the Tory party, then eventually absolute dictator
of all the UK. He has no punch lines. In fact, his role mostly consists of
disguising his feelings by saying things like, "Oh, yes, quite," while he
smiles falsely and seems to be reproaching the person he has just agreed with.
This is the sort of undeveloped, one-note character that works well in a short
sketch, but 90 minutes of him is about 88 too many. His continuous presence on
screen means that much of the film makes no effort at verbal wit.
That's not to say the film is a complete waste of time. Several of the
minor characters are humorous, and there are moments when the film uses the
authors' considerable gifts to great advantage. Cleese even does some silly
walking (and silly dancing), and it can be hilarious, especially to Python
fans who make the association. Cook's ex-partner, Dudley Moore, did not appear
in this film, but he was represented in absentia by a fictional place
name. On his way to the top, Cook's character becomes the MP for a remote
place called "Budleigh Moor."
And the nude scene really is as good as advertised: a beautiful woman stark
naked, photographed perfectly in just the right light. That leads to another
of the film's significant plusses, one which came as a complete surprise to
me. The cinematography is uniformly excellent. And I don't mean just kinda
good, but spectacularly good. Who could have guessed? The DP on this film was
Alex Thompson, the same man who received a justly deserved Oscar nomination
for having photographed Excalibur. The interiors of Rise and Rise include
gorgeous sets which are photographed elegantly, and many of the exteriors are
highly memorable. There are many brilliant exterior scenes from which to
choose an example, but my favorite shots came during a sub-plot in which a
troop of British special forces crossed the mountains to rob some Swiss gold.
The dramatic visual presentation of that caper would be the most impressive
part of a Bond film, let alone a silly satire of British politics. It is so
stunning that it almost seems inappropriately dramatic in a film made by Cook
and some Pythonites.
The cinematography probably seemed to be the film's greatest strength when
it screened (and bombed with both moviegoers and critics), but seen in
retrospect, the film's real strength is its perceptiveness. The script may not
be all that funny, but it absolutely gets the Order of Merit for prescience.
It depicts politicians as scheming egoists clinging to power with highly
orchestrated presentations of half-truths, while presenting the public false
images sculpted from opinion polls. In a pre-Watergate world that must have
seemed like a combination of satirical exaggeration and surrealist humor. The
intervening years have taught us that it is pretty much just a straightforward
exposition of the way things really work.
The naked lady (including
a full frontal behind a translucent door) is Vanessa Howard. She retired
from acting within a couple of years after playing this part, and she later
admitted that she hadn't been much interested in acting in the first place.
That shows in her performance, which is mediocre at best. She ended up living
in Hollywood, married to beaucoup de bucks in the form of Hollywood
high-muck-a-muck Bobby Chartoff, who produced a lot of memorable films,
including Rocky, Raging Bull, and The Right Stuff, all of which earned him
Oscar nominations. (He won the Oscar for Rocky.)
Sample frames below.