Sunday, April 18, 2010

Time capsule and something more

George C. Scott said about the film Petulia (1968), in which he stars that he didn't know what it was about but that he was certain director Richard Lester did know. Move over, George. Let me be clear--being unable to state the theme or the intent of a movie in 25 words or less does not invalidate the movie. In fact, it may do quite the opposite. A work of art which can be completely restated in another form has no reason to exist. The film Petulia exists in its own perfected form as a film, as something which cannot be otherwise duplicated. But because it is so stimulating, one needs to write or talk about it, and so here we are.

Correction--it's not that hard to discern what the film is about. What actually happens in it--what the storyline is, or at least what order it happened in is a little difficult. But the overall portrait of adults struggling against the structures that society has created to separate and isolate people is fairly clear. The system has militated against anyone connecting with anyone else, including one's own spouse. Technology, work, fear of violence--everything is conspiring to keep everyone at arm's length from each other.

Along comes Petulia, who is a self-labeled kook. Except that she's not. Goldie Hawn was a kook. Petulia, as portrayed by Julie Christie in one of her best performances, is a woman at war with herself, attempting to distract herself and those around her with kookiness. But it doesn't ring true. She does indeed kidnap a tuba and later in the film has a greenhouse installed in George C. Scott's tiny apartment, but that is the extent of her zaniness. She announces to Scott that she is going to have an affair with him--or even marry him--as soon as they meet, but the affair is desultory, an attempt to escape her cold and sometimes abusive husband (Richard Chamberlain).

This brave new world boasts a motel room that connects directly to a parking garage, filled with automatic lights switches and vibrating beds, a joyless and unerotic topless club and sterile overdecorated, yet unlived-in homes. The very types of settings and objects which were the object of laughter and satire in Lester's earlier films, such as Help and The Knack create an air of melancholy and longing in Petulia

One of the things that makes the film such a remarkable document of its time is that while these 30ish-40ish upper middle class people are fighting their detachment, an entire society ready to connect is springing up all around them. The film is set in San Francisco and we see brief glimpses of Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, and members of the Committee (an sketch comedy group of the day) including Roger Bowen, Rene Auberjonois, Austin Pendleton, Howard Hesseman and Marshall Efron. Also, some genuine hippies wander through the film, although not in Haigt-Ashbury, but in strange (for them) locales like Telegraph Hill.

The film is noted today partly for the cinematography of Nicholas Roeg, who seems to be transitioning from the high-key slick lighting of commercial filmmaking of the era into something more real and revealing. More remarkable to me was the editing of Antony Gibbs. The film is an early instance of flash-forward, which is clearly identified and easy to grasp today, although it must have been bewildering in 1968. Interestingly, it seems to have its influence mostly on photographer Roeg, who used it very effectively as director of the thriller Don't Look Now (also co-starring Julie Christie).

Petulia very effectively reveals that the 1960s, especially the second half of the decade was not so much a thing in and of itself, but a time of transition from conformity to liberation; the style of the film itself reflects that very journey.

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