Wednesday, September 05, 2007

THE SLIFR 100: #55 THE DEVILS (and some thoughts on the Dark Ages B.B.-- Before Betamax)

Is it some kind of heresy, or blasphemy, or out-and-out idiocy to admit that sometimes I miss the dark ages before instant gratification became an expectation, an entitlement in the long shadow of VHS, DVD, Blu-ray and whatever configuration is next up on the horizon to make whatever format you’re backing obsolete? Remember those headless pre-VCR days when you’d go to see a movie in a theater—didn’t matter if it was The Searchers, or The Harrad Experiment, or Mildred Pierce, or Circus World, or The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three-- and have no idea if or when you’d ever get a chance to see it again? Of course, it mattered more to think this if you liked the movie—honestly, there weren’t too many of us who saw S*P*Y*S or Saturn 3 on their original releases who much cared whether we ever crossed paths with those mongrels ever again.

But when you came floating out of a screening of Lawrence of Arabia, or Fiddler on the Roof, or Straw Dogs (did anyone ever float out of a screening of Straw Dogs?), there might have been a pang of regret upon imagining that was the last time you’d probably ever see the movie on the big screen. (Almost worse was imagining re-encountering a bloodied and mangled version of a favorite film after the surgeons at the ABC Sunday Night Movie got through with it.) One way I used to deal with this problem, being a resident of a small town in the Eastern Oregon desert who felt lucky whenever our local theater played anything unusually good, was to load up on screenings the week the movie played. When movies like Dirty Harry, The Poseidon Adventure, American Graffiti, The Seven-Ups, The Groove Tube, Car Wash, Escape from New York, Tron, The Stunt Man, The Fury, Blazing Saddles and Kelly’s Heroes played their Wednesday through Sunday engagements, I and my friends ponied up for at least three shows each, sometimes more if we could. We had no idea we were living in the dark ages, and that in 10 years or less we would find ourselves taking for granted the kind of decadence that would allow you to cough up $1,500 for a 95-pound slab of whirring, wheezing machinery called a Betamax that would play back a limited selection of prerecorded movies, or movies cut and mixed with commercial breaks that you could tape off of TV yourself (with a blank cassette that only cost about $20.)

In the mid ‘70s we movie geeks certainly never expected we’d get to a point where we would have if not the whole, then at least a goodly chunk of film history at our disposal whenever we wanted to see it. And if you think about it, neither did the people who made the movies themselves. As screenwriter Lem Dobbs observes in an upcoming documentary on the early films of John Ford, none of these filmmakers ever imagined a life for their work beyond the initial theatrical run, which makes the lasting poetics of someone like Ford, or the diamond-sharp wit of a Hawks or a Wilder, or the roguish splendor of a Walsh even more notable in how it stood out from the chaff of the day. Sure, even up through the ‘70s every once in a while a popular hit might get reissued—that’s how many of us got the opportunity to see big MGM blockbusters like Gone With the Wind, Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter and, yes, even 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen for the first time. But more often than not, studio product was treated like studio product, and unless a movie ended up on the bottom half of a smelly double bill somewhere down the line, one didn’t have many chances to see it before some new picture (and they made a whole lot more of ‘em 40 and 60 and 80 years ago than they do now) came along and took its place.

Conversely, in an age where digital technology is often the tail that wags the dog, some filmmakers may even be making and editing films thinking less about the big-screen experience and more pointedly on how the film plays on home theater wide-screen TVs. In a recent post on the shaky-cam verisimilitude of the Bourne films, particularly the last two directed by Paul Greengrass, Jim Emerson had an illuminating thought:

“In the middle of the movie, when I should have been into the movie, I found the pile-on style so abstract and distancing/alienating (a Brechtian espionage thriller?) that I began to wonder if Greengrass had actually shot the movie with an eye for the small(er) screen rather than the big one. Perhaps on a reduced scale, even on a large HDTV set, the illusion would be less distracting and more involving. Disorientation can only be pushed so far before it all becomes a blur, like taking a hand-held video camera on a roller coaster.”

But I digress. (Boy, how I digress!) My original thought, about a kind of longing for the days before the glories of VCRS and DVD and the home theater revolution, probably wouldn’t have been jogged out into the open had it not been for a couple of screenings I had the pleasure of attending this past summer courtesy of the American Cinematheque in Hollywood. Both films were hotbeds of controversy when they were released, in 1971 and 1975, respectively, neither had I seen, on big screen or small, in close to 20 years, and after seeing them again in 2007 they both made my personal Top 100 List. And in the aftermath of compiling that 100, I decided I would pop in at random points on the list and take a closer look at each title, with whatever attendant thoughts may be inspired by it. I am looking forward to writing about the far more disreputable of the two, Richard Fleischer’s Mandingo very soon.

However, the experience that got me ruminating about the dark ages when our movie-going and consuming habits were so much different came about when the Cinematheque screened Ken Russell’s hysterical, perhaps blasphemous and inescapably brilliant The Devils for one night only about a month ago. When this film made its bowdlerized way across American screens during the summer of 1971 I was seven years too young (legally) to see it—it had been rated X by the MPAA, even sans the notorious “Rape of Christ” sequence. Consequently, it became one of those holy grails for me—a film I was just a few years too late to see, a film not well-championed by critics here, and one rarely revived. Though I had seen Warner Bros.' VHS (!) release first, sometime during the mid ‘80s, it wasn’t until 1987 that I actually saw The Devils on a wide theatrical screen. Twenty years later, I saw it again. And in those 20 years the movie had expanded in my head into a unique masterpiece I was almost afraid to see again, for fear the actual thing would not live up to my vivid, horrible memories of it.

From the first appearance of the hyper-clear Panavision images shot by David Watkin (The Boy Friend, Chariots of Fire, Out of Africa), even when attended by the slight dust and speckle of the print, I felt a sensation, a frisson, if you will (and if I must), that seemed connected directly to the fact that seeing this movie was a special event, something that doesn’t happen every day, that couldn’t happen (for the time being, anyway) courtesy of Netflix or (ha!) Blockbuster. The very Russell-esque pageant of twisted, intermingled sexuality, politics and religion that opens The Devils was itself a tonic-- an impatient Cardinal Richelieu awaits an audience with King Louis XIII, with whom he hopes to discuss the impending campaign to bring down the walls of the fortified city of Loudon, a self-sufficient city led by the theologically and sexually liberal Father Grandier (Oliver Reed), whose sway over the citizenry (and the libidos of a demented sect of nuns) threatens to swing the city even further away from the harsh influence of the Catholic Church. The event that keeps Richelieu waiting, rolling his eyes and pinching himself to stay awake, is a grotesque performance in which King Louis XIII unveils himself as the lead in a musical staging of Boticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The sequence is deliciously unsettling and sets an approrpiately cross-wired tableau for the conspiracy of these perverse fanatics over setting upon Loudon a militaristic religious assault bent on destroying the priest’s influence, and perhaps even the city itself. This initial sequence has an almost jolly formalism (which Russell would expand into a feature-length exploration of the musical form in his next film, The Boy Friend) compared to the relentless hysteria with which the rest of the film is infused. Russell’s movie, based on Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, is all about the degree to which power corrupts, to which power is corrupted, and the lengths to which those in power will go, with motivations both religious and secular that are equally rooted in the tangled logic of madness, to preserve the belief systems to which they’ve staked their reputations and their souls.

Russell, of course, sides squarely with the sexually ambiguous spiritualism of Father Grandier, even though he makes clear there’s more than a whiff of megalomania about how Grandier conducts himself within the city walls, both rejecting and basking in his increasing role as spokesperson—and martyr candidate—for the doomed citizenry. But Grandier’s hypocrisies and denials are no match for the force of corruption set against his own brand of moral lassitude. The dogs of Richelieu’s religious forces are unleashed—first in the person of a sneering, silver-tongued Baron De Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), an officer in the royal army, and eventually that of the fairly rabid Father Barre (Michael Gothard), an exorcist whose hysteria for the Host of Hosts frequently crosses the line into wanton, animalistic fury. (As does Gothard’s performance; a friend who saw the movie with me suggested that Gothard, with his slender build, long hair and granny glasses, was Russell’s tip of the cap to the younger generation that was, at the time the movie was released, fueling a resurgence in movie attendance, especially for risky ventures like this one. And it’s true—Gothard comes across like the necessarily unholy offspring of Ray Manzarek and Warren Zevon.)

But Grandier is beset from within Loudon’s walls as well, most relentlessly by the pathological attentions of Sister Jeanne (Vanessa Redgrave), whose own sexual obsession with Grandier will set into motion the political and religious forces that will bring him down. Redgrave’s performance is much more of a piece with the more outrĂ©, baroque stylistic indulgences that Russell brings to the table—Reed, as Grandier, is comparatively quiet and introspective, especially for Reed, and quite powerful. His ace in the hole is the simmering anger underneath his posture of theological rectitude, which eventually comes bursting through in the film’s fiery conclusion, when Grandier must finally address the twisted hypocrisy that the Church brandishes as “truth,” a truth by which, if confesses, he will condemn himself in a bed of satanic lies. “If the Devil's evidence is to be accepted,” he rages to his persecutors, “the most virtuous people are in the greatest of danger, for it is against these that Satan rages most violently. I had never set eyes on Sister Jeanne of the Angels until the day of my arrest, but the Devil has spoken, and to doubt his word is sacrilege.”

Redgrave is as riveting as she is repulsive here. Her hunchbacked Sister Jeanne has become so debased by her own delusions, and her own twisted entanglement of religious servitude and sexual passion, that she has transmitted her own madness into the fragile minds of her convent mates, until they all serve themselves up, heaving and screaming and wretching, on the altar of carnal desire for Grandier. From her first moments, gliding toward the camera through the halls of the convent, which recall the dank catacombs of Marat-Sade (the film’s sets were designed by Derek Jarman), she punctuates her fervent tones of prayer with an incongruous cackle that makes you laugh and sends chills through your sternum, and from that moment on the movie belongs as much to her wide, hallucinatory eyes as it does to her director’s all-encompassing vision of hell on earth.

Surely, The Devils is not for the faint of heart, nor for anyone who isn’t already predisposed to see the Catholic Church as a somewhat less than effective (or sincere) vessel for the Gospel of Christ. But it is undeniably powerful, in its excesses and sometimes despite them. In its insistent renderings of nuns masturbating to the memory of would-be lovers recently burned at the stake, the full-on hysteria of those possessed not by demons, or even sundry madness and plague, but by the intoxicating delusions of religious mania, and the mechanics of medieval torture, The Devils remains, 36 years after its release, horribly potent. It is one of the view movies, especially (I would imagine) seen in the uncensored British cut featuring that sensational “Rape of Christ” sequence in which Sister Jeanne and friends have their way with Christ on the cross, that would just as easily warrant and receive an NC-17 rating today as it did an X in 1971. As Danny Peary noted in his 1986 book Guide for the Film Fanatic, the movie’s “repulsive imagery [may be] overwhelming at times, but for once Russell’s seemingly out-of-control, hallucinogenic style is appropriate for his subject matter.” Or, as Sister Jeanne more than aptly puts it, “Satan is ever ready to seduce us with sensual delights.” As one who has perhaps more of a taste for Russell’s indulgences than does Peary (and surely many more than just him), I would still agree that Russell is at the height of his powers in The Devils, a movie as deeply rooted in pictorial classicism and movement as it is in heightening its pitch and tone to match the hollow screaming and heaving madness of its midsection. It is a brilliant consideration of the ghastly potency of extremity, particularly when that extremity betrays strains both political and religious, a brutal, searing, splendidly expressionistic specimen of filmmaking that takes full advantage of the scale and power of the wide screen to present a story that no studio would ever have the fortitude to release today. I almost wish it would never find its way to DVD, so powerful is it as a movie that can exist only in the forever affected memories of those who have seen it, a testament to what it was like to experience movies before the rise of the digital realm.


For more on The Devils, check out Iain Fisher’s Savage Messiah Web site. There is also much information about the “uncut” version of the film available from Mark Kermode at the BFI as well as here at Seen and Heard International. And if you absolutely must, click here to sign a petition calling for the release of The Devils on DVD. (I probably will too!)



Greg said...

You didn't like Saturn 3?!??!?! Just kidding.

A few thoughts on the first part of the post: My father bought us our first VCR in 1980 for a mere $950, a good $550 less than the betamax. Quite a deal, huh? The first movie we rented from National Home Video was Dr. Strangelove at my insistance. Ten minutes into the movie, the VCR shorted out. It took two weeks and a couple hundred more of my dad's hard earned bucks to get it fixed and get the tape out.

Fortunately for me, the local college taught film though only as an elective, there were no degrees offered in the field. But as a result they showed films from throughout film history on a weekly basis so I was able to see many classic, highly regarded films for the first time on the big screen. Well, kind of a big screen. It was a pull down screen about 9 x 12 feet.

As for Ken Russell I was fascinated by his work when I was a teenager (though admittedly, not so much now). His imagery was so completely over the top it played perfectly to my teenage sensibilities of sensory overload being art. By the time I saw most of his films it was the early eighties when film, at least to my eyes, starting to pull itself in and become more reserved and at times, even staid. So when I'd see something like Oliver Reed wrestling in the nude I'd think, "You can do that in a movie? I thought that was forbidden." Or Ann-Margaret rolling around in mounds of beans. Or that Anti-Christ figure with the goat's head on the cross. Or any number of other bizarre images you can think of from his films. All of it made possible by studios still willing to support alternative films due to the box-office changes of the early seventies, which is fresh in my mind because I just
wrote about it
(and then practically wrote Part II in the comments section)on me own 'umble blog. But The Devils I haven't seen. Although from your description it sounds as if it could have only gotten distribution in the early seventies.

Which leads me to an open-ended question: Have we gotten to the point where movies like this don't get made anymore because no one cares? I don't mean movies with violent or gory imagery like Hostel or Saw. I mean movies that present bizarre imagery within the context, not to shock, but to entice thought and rumination. When I think about Ken Russell I think of his career effectively ending in 1980 with Altered States. After that, no one cared anymore. It all became about imitating Spielberg (and I know/think(?) you're a fan of his) but his work in the eighties just leaves me cold. The gooey sentimentality of Spielberg and the hardcore eccentrism of Russell couldn't exist in the same era.

So are we in an era now where you have to sign a petition to get a movie released on DVD that doesn't have that polished feel? And am I the only one who doesn't like all my movies to look so polished? If you're discussing slasher exploitation flicks for instance, I much prefer the shaky, grainy, dirty look and feel of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre to the perfectly lit and edited horrors of Saw or Hostel. There's something to be said for the look and feel of Mean Streets over the look and feel of goodfellas. I miss that look. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore has it. It looks like a movie should look about a broke single mother waiting tables in a diner.

I hope The Devils does come out on DVD because I would like to see it and it doesn't sound like something the A.F.I is going to show (although maybe) here in Silver Spring.

Anonymous said...

'the devils' is one of my favourite films. i have a so-so old vhs copy, but i would love a crisp, uncut dvd to show up sometime soon.

i have to mention that i think russell had at least one more hit post-'altered states', and that was the under-rated 'lair of the white worm', a terrific black comedy.

your account of seeing 'the devils' on the big screen reminded me of seeing 'lair' in the theatre when i was at college in toronto (i also saw it a second time at the great rep theatre, the bloor, on a double bill with 'the tenant'). the audience collectively jumped when amanda donohoe spit venom on a crucifix, again when catherine oxenberg touched that same crucifix causing her to have a typically russellian vision, and again when a snake-like hose moved of its own accord. that same effect just doesn't happen when watching 'lair' on tape or dvd.

it's also been a revelation for me to see 'taxi driver', 'blue velvet', 'vertigo', and 'the birds' on the big screen after having been introduced to them via vhs. dvd's are great, but they are no substitute for seeing flicks in the theatre.

Anonymous said...

I did see The Devils on the big screen. A friend who wondered why I looked so desheveled when she saw me following that screening understood when she saw that film for herself.

By the way, as you have an affinity for films about schools and teachers, let me recommend an award winning Thai ghost story, Dorm.

Anonymous said...

I've only seen four of Ken Russell's films on the big screen (Altered States, The Rainbow, Gothic and Lair of the White Worm) but they were all amazing film going experiences.

I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about Thee Devils! As you know Dennis, it's one of my favorite films too and I think it's a shame that so many of Russell's movies are not available on DVD yet. He's getting on in years and some company really needs to sit him down and make the time for DVD commentaries and interviews with the man about his movies like The Devils, The Music Lovers, The Rainbow, etc.

He's a really under-appreciated talent so it's nice to read positive thoughts about his work.

Anonymous said...

I remember when Betamaxs first went on sale at Sears. I was maybe nine or ten and they had one large, laminated catalog of the few video movies that I don't think were even available yet.

Nevertheless, whenever my mother went to the Sears in Santa Monica, she'd park me at the one catalog of maybe fifty movies they had tied down to some kind of podium, and I'd read the descriptions and stare at the artwork while she shopped. Nobody else seemed all that interested in the new technology.

JT might be slightly interested to note that that was actually the first time I ever heard of "Dr. Strangelove" which freaked me out a bit as I was just figuring out this whole nuclear war thing.

A year or two later some rich, Beverly Hills relatives actually bought a Betamax and then invited everyone over to watch what was my first ever time-shifted TV show: Tiny Tim's wedding to Ms. Vickie.

Somehow this all must relate to Ken Russell.

Anonymous said...

Jesus, Dennis, you even make me want to give this a second try, which I remember not liking at all when I saw it about ten years ago. Well, I thought Oliver Reed was terrific, but otherwise...

Greg said...

Bob - You've got a pretty good memory (except for my initials: JL not JT). Sears starting selling the Cartavision for $2400 in 1972 and they offered fifty titles including M*A*S*H and Bridge on the River Kwai among others (48 others to be exact). I've got more info on it in a book at home but right now I'm at work (and obviously putting my nose to the grindstone, huh?). And it may not be Ken Russell related but it does relate to the post as Dennis was discussing the technology for the first part anyway.

And you're right, people just didn't seem that interested at first. Odd. The first movie I can remember that featured a film geek exploiting the new technology of VTRs (as they were then called) and videotapes was Fade to Black with Dennis Christopher and an early appearance by a young Mickey Rourke. Although it didn't make us film guys look too good.

Anonymous said...

"The Searchers, or The Harrad Experiment..."

Good lord. The alpha and the omega of moviegoing, right there.

I showed The Harrad Experiment to a bunch of college-age freinds this summer and halfway through the screening, this one girl stood up and screamed, "I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE! This movie is like a porno without sex scenes to look forward too! ARRRRRGHH!"

It would take too long to list the funniest moments, but when Tippi Hedren strips down to her underwear, on the lawn of a SoCal mansion that's supposed to be the Radcliffe Quad, and tries to seduce a pit-stained Don Johnson, we were in hysterics. Then, when she starts yelling at him and says, "You're like a stallion mounting a mare!", we had to pause the DVD because people were literally gasping for breath and about to pass out. The Harrad Experiment, jesus. Zoom!

Anonymous said...

John...I mean Jonathan...

Can't even spell an abbreviation right, what can I say?

And, wow, that 50 number was just a wild guess, but we remember what's salient, and I'm a movie lover born and bred. Though this is the first time I can remember seeing the word "Cartavision."

On a separate though related (by this post) track, I've never seen "The Devils", but I do have a copy of the Aldous Huxley novel it's based on. Anyone know if it's worth reading?

Greg said...

I've never read the book so I couldn't say one way or the other. Now that I'm not "working" and can access my history book I can tell you the full name was the Avco Cartavision Video Player but I was wrong about the price. It retailed for $1600 in 1972. The movies that were sold were done through Magnetic Video of Michigan that had aquired the rights to 50 movies and they sold for $50 a pop. Sears let you "hire" them for 3 to 6 dollars. Other titles included Stagecoach, Hamlet, High Noon, Cactus Flower, The Anderson Tapes and Patton.. Here endeth the lesson.