Top 50 of 1980s January 27, 2009Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1980s , 11 comments
My lists of Top 50 films from each decade seem to be quite popular and I’m happy to continue with them. They are compiled for the purpose of submission at the Criterion forum (.org), in the Lists Project. I then put together an attempt to justify my selections via a few sentences, as well as adding links whenever I’ve written about a particular film. This decade, the 1980s, is a particularly difficult one for multiple reasons. Foremost, I don’t like it. The ’80s in general just don’t interest me. I don’t really like the movies, the music, the television, anything. There are, of course, exceptions and all 50 of these films listed below are ones I do enjoy on some level. The additional snag is that I’ve probably seen less movies of merit from the ’80s than any other decade since the ’30s, or maybe even the ’20s. I tried to fill in a lot of the more obvious gaps (I’d never seen Blade Runner before this project, for example), but some things still eluded me.
Another problem is the multiple versions for so many of the important films of the decade. There’s a director’s cut for this and an extended cut for that. Who can see all of these different iterations? Mostly, I found a version that seemed definitive and used it. Thus, The Big Red One is really the Reconstruction from 2004 and Fanny & Alexander is the longer television version. I don’t even know which Manhunter my vote is for, though. The simple idea of so many versions and so many extended cuts makes for additional anxiety. I cheated with Fanny & Alexander since it has a television and a theatrical cut, but I didn’t feel right about including mammoth productions like Berlin Alexanderplatz or Kieslowski’s The Decalogue. How do you begin to weigh a program that lasts hours upon hours against a simple 90 minute picture? My decision was to stick to theatrical features.
The list itself is one of my more eccentric offerings. There are things you won’t see and will wonder where they are, and there will probably be others that you’ll fail to understand how they either made the list at all or received such high placement. I can only say that this is what felt right at the time and I’m sure it’ll change or improve eventually. Enjoy, and thanks for reading.
1.) Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986) - A film full of disorienting playfulness hidden behind suburban America. Lynch is so good at turning the sense of what makes us feel safe completely on its side and resulting in something terrible and horrific. I’m not a fanatic of Lynch’s films, but absolutely no one in American cinema has been able to so successfully peel back the scab of suburbia. I think this is still his best film and I’d be extremely disturbed to encounter either Dennis Hopper or Dean Stockwell in the darkness of night. Virtually every film (plus Twin Peaks) that Lynch has made since owes some debt to Blue Velvet.
2.) After Hours (Scorsese, 1985) - Better than Raging Bull?? I don’t know. I do know that I’d rather sit down with After Hours. I absolutely love movies that veer off into unpredictable and odd directions with the protagonist in tow. This is, in my opinion, the best of that sort of film. Griffin Dunne plays a guy who has the night of his life in New York City, all while simply trying to get back home. You get a sense of the frustration and the strange exhilaration he experiences in the process. Scorsese is one of my favorite directors, and I’ve seen virtually all of his films, but this may actually be my favorite. When I met him a couple of years ago, this was the DVD I asked to have signed.
3.) Wings of Desire (Wenders, 1987) - The idea of the “life-affirming” film too often gets relegated to a ghetto full of junk. This is different. This is nearly perfect in its insistence on gathering everything we know about the human experience and reminding us how privileged we are. We’re privy to the idea that our emotional treasure chest is greater than most anything the world has to offer. I’ve not seen all of Wenders’ work by any means, but it’s nonetheless surprising to find him having made this particular film. It is far from being overly sentimental or treacly. It is, however, entirely life-affirming.
4.) Raging Bull (Scorsese, 1980) - Brilliant indeed, but what turns me off slightly from Scorsese’s mammoth achievement is the sheer brutality of the whole thing. There is no redemption. There is no sense of any warmth being exuded at all. I don’t feel that even Scorsese likes Jake La Motta. De Niro probably does, but not screenwriter Paul Schrader or Scorsese. Otherwise, this is a high point in the film biography for its unflinching desire to reveal the unsympathetic reality of celebrity. There’s no one in the film I feel any emotion for, but like a car crash, I’m still completely enthralled.
5.) Videodrome (Cronenberg, 1983) - I was a latecomer to the Cronenberg parade. It took actually hearing him speak and then trying to understand his point of view before being sold, but I think I’m there now. I watched Videodrome one night and couldn’t believe my eyes. Where Cronenberg excels is by inventing these situations seemingly indebted to the science fiction genre while still maintaining a more intellectual stance that allows for separate consideration apart from stomach cavities. This is, for me, his peak thus far and just about as compelling as cinema gets. If you can get past the muck and ooze of the make-up, there’s an important cautionary tale about technology and obsession. And, of course, some people enjoy the muck and ooze.
6.) Do the Right Thing (Lee, 1989) - Incendiary statement against racism, certainly. Powerful announcement of a new voice in American cinema. Spike Lee is another of my favorite contemporary directors. This is simultaneously loud and aggressive, truly the work of a master filmmaker with strong opinions. He’s since managed to alienate a great deal of the moviegoing public, making his name almost a liability on a picture, but very few directors from Lee’s generation have branded themselves to such a degree on the public at large. Do the Right Thing is special because it was clearly made for a select few who might understand the intentions of a simmering racial divide in the midst of what is supposed to be one of the most diverse areas in the country. The film was slightly misunderstood, but has never abandoned its reputation of being, foremost, an important work of its time.
7.) The Verdict (Lumet, 1982) - Unfortunately, this didn’t even rank in the final tally, but it’s very nearly Paul Newman’s best performance, rivaled by The Hustler and, possibly, Hud. I particularly like Sidney Lumet’s films because they seem free from so much of the superfluous nonsense actors often try to inject. Lumet got great performances from his actors time and again. The work here from Newman and the script from a young buck named David Mamet are extraordinarily balanced and distressing. The film does well in highlighting one man’s attempt at redemption and the constant force he seems to be struggling against. It’s not a movie about alcoholism or, really, the judicial process, but the idea of a last chance where failure really means the end.
8.) Something Wild (Demme, 1986) - Proof that the studio system didn’t take a break the entire decade. Jonathan Demme’s outrageous and entertaining tribute to both film noir and screwball comedy is a marvel of the unexpected. You think one thing and the film does another. It’s two very separate halves that form an impressive whole. Melanie Griffith has never been better and Ray Liotta has rarely been as psychotic, though the competition is a bit fierce there. Yet, it’s Jeff Daniels who holds it all together as the suburban geek whose home life is shot to hell. Griffith’s Lulu is using Daniels no more than he’s benefiting from her.
9.) The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen, 1985) - Jeff Daniels once again, this time in an effective dual role as both a 1930s film character who emerges from the screen and the worried actor who portrays him. Mia Farrow seems to basically be imitating Woody Allen with her mannerisms, but it’s somehow okay this time. If you love film in general, especially watching old movies in the cinema, this should resonate. There’s a perfection via Allen’s reluctance to go overboard that he rarely achieves in his films. The only complaint is Danny Aiello’s character, who may be necessary but still comes across as a stereotype.
10.) Veronika Voss (Fassbinder, 1982) - Such beautiful black and white cinematography that the rest almost seems beside the point. Inspired by the tragic life of Sybille Schmitz, Fassbinder finds an affecting plot to complement the aesthetics and ends up with a film that’s both engrossing and deeply unsettling. The character of Veronika Voss may have been modeled after German actress Schmitz, but here she also resembles Norma Desmond from Sunset Blvd. and I think that elevates the film into something beyond simply the fictional biography.
The Natural April 5, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1980s , add a comment
The Natural, now twenty-three years since its theatrical release in 1984, seemed like an almost instant classic. Call it nostalgia if you like, but Barry Levinson’s movie of the 1952 Bernard Malamud novel just feels like it was made several decades before it actually was. Mostly set in 1939, the film effectively captures the look and mood of that era in baseball. Its PG rating accurately reflects the limited profanity and lack of overt sexuality that would make The Natural feel right at home if it had come out a generation or more earlier. As a child, I can remember being shocked that the film wasn’t older since it seemed like the mystique of The Natural had always existed.
Then again, I was partially right, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Aside from the period detail, the main reason Roy Hobbs’ story resonates so loudly and feels so authentic is because it’s heavily steeped in mythology. Taking its cues from Malamud’s book, the film goes to great lengths to connect Roy Hobbs, fully embodied by Robert Redford, to characters like Odysseus and King Arthur. This not only adds a sense of timelessness, but also advances the idea that baseball is merely a backdrop for a story that applies to countless persons throughout history. A large part of why Greek tragedy and mythological stories have remained popular for so long is their eternal relevance to human life. Specific circumstances have changed over time, but no emotions are felt that haven’t been agonized over repeatedly before.
There’s more to the mythology angle though. No other film about baseball has had the cognizance to recognize the nearly intangible mythic qualities of the game of baseball itself. It’s the journey of Roy Hobbs in the story of The Natural, but there are many other figures from the real life history of the game that inspire comparisons to mythology. Babe Ruth, the obvious inspiration for the character of “The Whammer” in Malamud’s story, will probably always be the supreme baseball god, the Zeus of the diamond. His legendary strength (he finished his career with 714 home runs, surpassing the all time record when he hit his 139th in 1921) and seeming invincibility were unknown to baseball mortals. Other players from before World War II, when baseball was unrivaled in popularity among sports, have been deified for their unbelievable accomplishments as well. Lou Gehrig’s incredible 2,130 consecutive games played and the once-believed untouchable strikeout total of pitcher Walter Johnson have both been bested, but in significantly different circumstances and decades later. Thus, it’s not too much of a stretch to call baseball players the mythological gods of the American twentieth century.
If Roy Hobbs had been real, he might have been right up there on baseball’s Mt. Olympus with Ruth and Gehrig. Sports stories have a way of feeling stale or recycled in the movies, but The Natural is able to make its own path despite using a few of the old stand-bys we’ve come to expect. Much of its enjoyment lies in the intriguing idea of a supremely talented, confident young ball player who is literally shot down before his prime, only to be resurrected on the downside of his thirties to lead a cellar dwelling team to the pennant. The execution is key as well though, with Barry Levinson ably directing only his second feature film. Levinson has been a frustratingly inconsistent director who’s made some wonderful films like Bugsy, Wag the Dog and the Oscar-winning Rain Man, a film I still love despite a downsliding critical consensus. He’s also directed some pretty mediocre things, but his heavy involvement in the television series Homicide: Life on the Street, the best procedural drama ever, tips the scale in his favor for me.
A lot of what makes The Natural so enjoyable for myself and others is subjective. The viewer has to approach the film more as a fantasy than reality-based (similar to another great baseball movie of the eighties, Field of Dreams), and it surely helps to be a fan of baseball. But if you give yourself over to the mythology of the story, The Natural is a wonderful film. The cinematography of Caleb Deschanel is spectacular and was deserving of an Academy Award (he was nominated, but lost to the work of Chris Menges on The Killing Fields). Countless scenes look like poster-ready photographs in motion. The slow motion sequences, complete with Randy Newman’s intense and oft-imitated score, succeed because they’re reinforcements of the cliche, serving as an example of why such scenes became cliches in the first place instead of seeming trite and unoriginal. The acting is uniformly top-notch, including great character turns from Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth and Redford’s charismatic lead performance.
There are plenty of possible criticisms to hurl at Levinson’s film though. It’s emotionally manipulative, arguably too long, the baseball scenes are lacking from a technical standpoint, and some more character development would have been nice. All are valid complaints, but most wouldn’t provide significant improvement over the finished product (or the recently released director’s cut, which has apparently become the only version available since Sony decided to not include the theatrical cut on the new release while also taking the original disc out of print). There’s magic running through The Natural and you either allow yourself to fall under its spell or you don’t. Some of the pitching and hitting scenes look a little too inauthentic for my taste, but that’s a minor, nagging detail that still doesn’t detract enough to stamp out the twinkle that appears in my eye when Hobbs shatters the clock or breaks the stadium light. A film as earnest as The Natural, with a subject as cinematic as baseball, gets a free pass for a few tugs at the heartstrings.
For some people, though, the main problem with the movie was that it changed the ending from what was written in the novel. The happy Hollywood version eschews the bitter failure and public decline of Malamud’s Hobbs. The mythological aspects are more in tact in its literary incarnation also, punishing Hobbs and denying him a second-chance victory. The character, in both film and book, doesn’t really learn from the mistake that got him shot initially so perhaps Malamud’s original conclusion is the fate Roy Hobbs deserved. Regardless, I’m not one who believes movies based on books are obligated to adhere strictly to their source. The film version of The Natural would seem more appropriate to end as it does, given the filmmakers’ other creative decisions to make the picture less dark and more crowd-pleasing than the book. Hobbs is still a deeply flawed character in the movie, but, as one of the interviewees on the newly released two-disc director’s cut alludes to, the 1980s audience was different than the post-war readers of Malamud’s novel.
Twenty-first century audiences may not see with rose hues like they did twenty years ago, but the legend of Roy Hobbs remains as vital as ever. The man who wanted to be “the best there ever was” is baseball’s great mythic figure of fiction, a name more famous today than the majority of the actual players enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The company Ebbets Field Flannels produces and sells replica uniforms and hats of vintage professional baseball teams. All their memorabilia is authentically detailed to closely match what real players wore in baseball’s bygone era, but I believe there’s only one team whose merchandise they sell that’s fictional - the New York Knights, the team of Roy Hobbs. I wonder if, fifty years from now, kids will know Hobbs’ name and, if so, think he actually played the game. I’m guessing they will, on both counts.
White Dog February 22, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1980s , 3 comments
I’m not entirely sure where to start with this film, frequently identified for being one of the most bootlegged videos even though it’s still largely unseen. I guess the most logical place would be with Paramount’s absurd decision to withhold its release in 1982 due to pressure from the NAACP and likely fear of a controversial backlash. The film’s basic storyline of a white German Shepherd trained to attack black people somehow became a hot potato 25 years ago despite the story’s basis in fact and repeated accounts of similar situations, recounted in the film as originating when slave owners would train their dogs to attack runaway slaves. The biggest headscratcher is how someone could view White Dog as even the least bit racist or perpetuating racist ideals.
The dog’s attacks and training are consistently portrayed as shameful and wrong. The whole movie is built around the premise of trying to get the dog to unlearn his violent reactions to black persons. There is absolutely no indication at any point in the film that racism is acceptable behavior. The dog itself can’t even be accurately classified as racist since it was merely trained to act out of fear and anger towards persons with dark skin. Furthermore, the inevitable ending provides a definitive answer for anyone who hasn’t caught on throughout the film’s entire running time of showing racism as evil and hateful. It’s simply unfathomable how such an anti-racism movie could be shelved by its studio because of worries over it being deemed racist. Yet, that’s exactly what happened and has continued to happen ever since, as evidenced by the lack of a full U.S. theatrical release and an absence of a North American VHS or DVD release.
The origins of the story began in a magazine article, later expanded into a novel, written by Romain Gary, whose then-wife Jean Seberg had found a dog much as Kristy McNichol’s character does in the film. Seberg, who had starred for Jean-Luc Godard in Breathless, soon realized the seemingly friendly animal had been trained to attack black people after several incidents where the dog specifically targeted them. In White Dog, McNichol’s character, also an actress, becomes protective of the dog after he saves her from a rapist and wants to have him unlearn his violent training. She takes the animal to Paul Winfield’s character, an animal trainer who’s dealt with these types of dogs before but hasn’t successfully cured one without incident.
Going in to the film, I was sort of expecting some kind of horror type of movie with an out of control dog attacking black people in a rampage as the authorities tried to put an end to the animal attacks. As it turns out, director Samuel Fuller gives the audience something else entirely. It would be easy to watch White Dog and take the face value approach of seeing the Cujo-like story I had initially expected. It certainly plays a little like one of those exploitation films cable channels used to air late at night. Indeed, there’s little doubt that Fuller’s film could have enjoyed a rich life on television stations alongside Stephen King adaptations and animal gone wild tales.
This duality between cheesy 80’s attack dog film and brave parable on racism creates somewhat of a baffling response at first glance. It’s deeply entertaining, but there’s a surreal quality to seeing Kristy McNichol, Paul Winfield and Burl Ives in a film that many read as an allegory about racism in general. Frequent dips into humor from Ives, whether he’s bemoaning R2-D2 or showing his appreciation for sour cream, only add to the bizarreness. There are campy moments galore that nearly make it difficult to take any message being espoused very seriously. It’s almost like learning valuable life lessons from a very special episode of any number of laughtrack laden sitcoms.
Yet, when the film truly works, such as Winfield’s speech as to how the dog was trained over time to fear and then attack black people, it becomes clear that Fuller’s intent to allegorize the evils of years of racial prejudice through his simple story manages to movingly succeed in the unlikeliest of places. These scenes are crucial to set off the light bulb in the viewer’s mind that we’re dealing with more than just a story about a dog trained by a racist. While most of the film triumphs as a nearly unclassifiable horror/human-dog love story hybrid, the few moments of introspection into generations of racist stereotypes and fears are exceptionally potent without ever seeming preachy. By using B-movie techniques of economic filmmaking and viewer-friendly plotting and editing that Fuller built his career on, the director was able to insert a profound message about the dangers of continued prejudice.
The question then becomes to what degree was this message intended. I’m not exactly sure how far Fuller and Curtis Hanson, who co-wrote the script and went on to direct fine films such as L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, meant for the audience to take the premise of the white dog as representative of white America. Could the film possibly be insinuating that white society, like the white dog, has been conditioned or indoctrinated to view black people negatively? I’m honestly not sure. The white dog is ultimately an innocent who’s been trained to hate and I can see a possible correlation with media portrayals of black men conditioning white audiences to fear and create prejudices against black persons. I don’t know if that was the intention, to go to that extreme, or if such a comparison ever crossed the mind of Fuller or Hanson, but it can certainly be made with a little imagination.
In fact, much of the praise that is sometimes reserved for White Dog may reflect what viewers want to get from the film more than what the film actually gives us. Certainly that’s not an entirely bad thing since too often we’re hit over the head repeatedly with a glaring “message” reiterated umpteen times just in case we missed it meandering along the first few attempts. But, on the surface of Fuller’s film, it’s mostly left for the viewer to put together the ultimate take-home message, as the narrative plays a much more important role than the racism angle. Winfield’s speech is the only true insight the filmmakers provide for emptyheaded viewers to catch their not entirely subtle message. Since audiences probably prefer to draw their own conclusions and opinions, assuming they’ve been nudged ever so slightly, this might account for part of the film’s esteemed reputation.
I also think that the positive cult status surrounding White Dog may in large part be a result of its unavailability, a cinematic forbidden fruit of sorts. The film could easily disappoint those expecting an eloquent, thoughtful exploration of race in America. Instead, the film is a little clumsy and awkward at times and leaves most of the serious discussion for the audience to mull over on its own. These flaws are characteristic of much of Fuller’s work, and White Dog certainly fits well in his unique catalog. However, I don’t think it’s the director’s best film, and would give the edge to some of his earler films like Pickup on South Street or The Naked Kiss. Regardless, White Dog, occasionally popping up in a sparkling new print in retrospectives, shouldn’t be missed by anyone interested in Fuller and his films.
Time Bandits October 4, 2006Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1980s , add a comment
I’ve never considered myself a big follower of fantasy films and I had only a slight interest in watching Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, which he wrote with fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin. However, with Mr. Gilliam’s announced presence at a recent screening I decided to give it a chance and I’m really glad I did. The new 35 mm print of the film was stunningly beautiful, especially for a movie first released twenty-five years ago. I discovered that the film itself is a brilliantly realized story of a young boy’s adventures through time. It’s also a whole lot of fun.
One night Kevin, the child protagonist, stuck with bickering parents who are obsessed with their latest technological appliances, goes to bed only to see men on horseback leaping from his closet. The next night the boy, eager for an encore, gets a different result as six dwarf-size men come barreling out of the closet doors. Kevin soon learns that his closet is a time warp and joins the small men who have a map of all such doors throughout history. Their plan is to rob some of history’s richest men and jump through the time warps before facing the consequences. Along the way they encounter Napoleon (a priceless Ian Holm), Robin Hood (John Cleese) and his not-so-merry men, and Sean Connery as King Agamemnon. They also wreak havoc for Michael Palin and Shelley Duvall (twice), an ogre with back problems and somehow end up aboard the Titanic. All this is done while trying to avoid the all-knowing Supreme Being, whom they stole the map from originally.
Stealing the show, though, is David Warner as the Evil Genius, a devilish character with a huge chip on his shoulder against the Supreme Being, whose decisions he humorously questions. (”If I were creating the world I wouldn’t mess about with butterflies and daffodils. I would have started with lasers, eight o’clock, Day One!”) His dialogue hilariously borders on camp and, in a movie that’s quite funny, his scenes manage to be the funniest. “I feel the power of evil coursing through my veins, filling every corner of my being with the desire to do wrong! I feel so bad, Benson!” That line and Warner’s impeccable delivery are magic.
The real stars of Time Bandits, despite the opening credits and advertising materials, are the little bandits themselves. Gilliam recalled that he decided to use actors who would be roughly the same size as the young boy and that the small men were tirelessly pushing themselves past their limits to the point that one even broke his arm near the end of the shoot. Their characters are refreshingly normal as opposed to some sort of freakish portrayal as we’ve seen in numerous other films and television shows. I particularly liked the scenes with Napoleon, who was of course quite diminutive himself, and his love for all things little. The small stature of the men is never a burden and they even use their size as assets for their rescue from the Evil Genius.
After the screening, Terry Gilliam commented that the small studio that released the film was, understandably, hesitant of the darkly comic ending and wanted it changed. A preview screening was held in Fresno, California and the audio suffered from technical difficulties. By the time the film was over and the audience was asked to select their favorite part of the strange fable they’d just seen, the most popular choice was “the end.” Even if the responses were intended to mean that the audience was happiest once the picture was over and not how it ended, Gilliam was able to keep his demise of Kevin’s parents as scripted.
Overall, I was really delighted at how much I enjoyed Time Bandits. The original poster and DVD cover art both left me uninterested in seeing it and I wrongly inferred that the story was primarily set on a boat. Not surprisingly, the water scenes with the Titanic, the ogre or the giant were the ones I found to be the weakest, but there were so many other sequences that I didn’t mind those a bit. Apparently, the Criterion Collection’s DVD was one of their earliest efforts and surpassed by Anchor Bay’s release in terms of picture quality. While the Criterion version does have a commentary by Gilliam, Palin, and others, it’s also non-anamorphic and a possible candidate for a new release either on DVD or perhaps on HD format somewhere down the line.
Bad Timing July 19, 2006Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1980s , add a comment
I try to not write about films that I’ve only seen once and feel like I don’t fully understand their significance. Having said that, I recently watched Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing for the first time and I’m not sure what to think of it. I’m rather new to Roeg’s films, having previously only seen Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. After having time to digest those films, however, I decided that I enjoyed both quite a bit, especially the latter. Reading the novel included with Criterion’s release of The Man Who Fell to Earth DVD added a whole new layer to the film for me and I also particularly liked David Bowie in the lead role. For the follow-up to that film, Roeg continued his casting of famous musicians (which also included Mick Jagger in Performance, Roeg’s first film and co-directed by Donald Cammell) with the somewhat improbable Art Garfunkel in the lead role of 1980’s Bad Timing.
Garfunkel plays Dr. Alex Linden, a psychoanalyst working as a professor at a Viennese university. Through a dynamic series of edits, Roeg shows the audience how Linden meets and becomes involved with Milena Flaherty, played by Theresa Russell in a brave performance. The film opens with Milena being taken to a hospital via ambulance following a drug overdose. At the hospital, Linden is first questioned by Inspector Netusil (Harvey Keitel foregoing an Austrian accent) who then interrogates him at various points throughout the film on his involvement in Milena’s overdose. Denholm Elliott is along for the ride as well, playing Milena’s Czech husband.
The most striking thing about Bad Timing is its editing. As in other Roeg films, the director alternates between the present and the past and the audience must make sense of the puzzle-like composition. In this particular film, though, the fragmented nature is never severe enough to confuse the attentive viewer to the point of no return. We understand what is happening even though we’re not sure exactly where everything fits just yet. One particularly memorable sequence is when surgeons make an incision in Milena’s neck immediately after we’ve seen Alex and her in one of the film’s many erotically charged scenes.
One can look at Garfunkel’s performance as either appropriately detached given the oddly obsessive nature of the character or as blandly uncharismatic resulting from his lack of acting ability. I’m still undecided, but leaning towards the latter. Watching the film, I had trouble figuring out what Milena was ever attracted to in Linden and Garfunkel’s lack of emotion was a key factor in this. I suppose the effects of timing and coincidence hover over the film enough that the two lovers being such opposites may be an essential element, but the idea that Milena would be drawn to Alex was a distraction for me nevertheless. On the other hand, Garfunkel’s mostly lethargic acting does infuse the climactic scene between his character and the nearly comatose Milena with an additional shock value. The other performances fare better and Russell is particularly quite good, if almost too enthusiastic especially when compared to Garfunkel. If you can get past Keitel being somewhat miscast as a Viennese inspector, his performance is fine as well.
Despite its flaws, however, Bad Timing manages to stick with you and roll around inside your head for a good while. When films are capable of making you think without being overly manipulative, something worthwhile must be present and Roeg was a master of this in his prime. His films are ideal for multiple viewings, when the audience can pay less attention to the plot and instead focus on other interesting aspects such as taking a closer look at the characters. The viewer can peel back the first, superficial layer and look deeper inside the film. One example of this in Bad Timing might be Roeg’s use of paintings by the artist Gustav Klimt. I also found The Who’s “Who Are You” to be an interestingly appropriate choice and somewhat jarring given its unique inclusion. It’s rare to see a film use a single rock song since we usually hear multiple instances of rock music if any at all. The song’s use is timed perfectly as we see Alex watching Milena from afar. The notion of spying or watching that he had lectured on at the university is perhaps revisited through Alex’s actions here.
Overall, Bad Timing is certainly worthwhile viewing but seeing it once may not be enough to fully grasp everything that’s going on. It’s obvious Roeg has a reason behind his choices and has much more talent than fancy camera tricks . What’s less obvious is exactly what his motivations are at times and whether the audience is meant to comprehend them. Regardless, Bad Timing works best not as a thriller or mystery, but as an exploration of the two main characters’ obsessive natures. When viewed as a psychological journey, the film is much more interesting and compelling, which I assume was what the filmmakers intended anyway. Additionally, the Criterion Collection DVD supplements are helpful for digging deeper into the film. The interview with Theresa Russell, in particular, is very informative. I imagine most anyone interested in Roeg’s films would certainly find much to keep them occupied in Bad Timing and the DVD is a great resource for watching, rewatching and learning more about the film.