So, I'm starting to get over my cold, which is alright. It's kind of amazing how much being sick can fuck with your brain. Yesterday, I was totally freaking out over some shit or another. Kind of spectacularly, a few friends came through to totally talk me down, and I'm feeling pretty good and lucky in general today. Not to be all sentimental and stuff, but friends, y'know, they're good. It's easy sometimes to forget they're around...
Anyway, I wanted to write about Joseph Losey's BOOM!, from 1968. This is one of those notoriously bad movies, like THE OSCAR, that I'd heard about for years and years before finally seeing. It's been a couple days, but I'm still trying to wrap my head around the movie. It's bad in some ways but in other ways it's pretty great. To be fair, BOOM! might have been a victim of exaggerated expectations. Director Joseph Losey had done a number of unusual, acclaimed and controversial films- TIME WITHOUT PITY, THE DAMNED, THE SERVANT...Screenwriter Tennessee Williams was adapting his own play for the first time since THE FUGITIVE KIND, 8 years earlier, and stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had just two years between WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF? and this.
It seems like a project with this much talent behind it would be garaunteed gold, but all the players involved happened to be at the head of the most wonderfully weird phases of their careers. Hits aside, Losey had just done the pop art mod spy musical MODESTY BLAISE, and would soon do the mindbending SECRET CEREMONY, also with Taylor, and the even stranger FIGURES IN A LANDSCAPE, with Malcolm McDowell and Robert Shaw. Taylor and Burton, together and separately, made some geniunely bizarre and risky films in the late 60's and early 70's. She had just been in John Huston's underrated, but admittedly perverse and odd, REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, he had just been in the all-star international pop art mod psychedelic sex comedy megabomb CANDY. Together they'd starred in the unsucessful DOCTOR FAUSTUS, which Burton co-directed. The play Williams adapted his screeplay from (in turn, it was adapated from a Williams' short story) was a huge flop. In retrospect, most of this work is really stranger than it is bad, in some cases was ahead of its' time and in all cases remains pretty fascinating.
That said, BOOM! is kind of a mess. It's meandering and incoherent without any real story, but moments of the creators' collective brilliance shines through. Taylor plays Sissy Goforth, an extradorinarily wealthy madwoman who has sequestered herself on a private island in Italy as she slowly dies (of cancer? we're never totally sure), although she's not entirely willing to admit to herself that she's dying. Goforth spends her time working on her rambling, philosphical memoirs and berating her staff. Burton is a homeless poet who shows up on the island for some reason. At first, he mostly lurks around the edges of things, looking for something to eat, but finally the two engage, hour for an argue or so. Noel Coward shows up for a while, then leaves. Finally, Taylor dies. The end.
The interaction between Taylor and Burton is clearly meant to recall their intense verbal sparring from WHO'S AFRAID FROM VIRGINIA WOLF?, but whereas that film was painfully intimate, Losey keeps a degree of distnace and detachment throughout BOOM! Viewing the film means accepting ambiguity and frustration, accepting the unexplained and unexplainable, reading between the lines, understanding that some things can't be understood. The audience is kept intentionally at arm's length, and as a result, the film is often far from engaging, but it has moments, some really great moments. Williams' dialogue shines repeatedly, with lines like "Did somebody tip you off that Sissy Goforth was about to go forth this summer?" and "I have always found girls fragrant in any phase of the moon."
I suppose you have to have a taste for infuriating cinema, but if you do (you are reading Negative Pleasure, after all), BOOM! is kind of great. Not good, not especially enjoyable, but a consistently engaging and perplexing viewing experience, one which requires some effort and thought on the part of the viewer, yet gives little in return, yet still manages to maintain an air of intelligence and provide some kind of rewarding, if not wholly satisfying, viewing experience. Which is to say, BOOM! is a pain in the ass, but I kind of loved it anyway, almost despite itself.
Losey followed BOOM! up with the equally difficult, yet more entertaining, and in many ways superior, SECRET CEREMONY, another film with Taylor (and Robert Mitchum and Mia Farrow) that provided some odd intimacy in its' distance, while requiring a certain dedication from the viewer it seemed to want to simultaneously alientate. I suppose it's a particular brand of filmmaking unique to its' time, owing heavily a debt to the films of Michelangelo Antonioni (La Notte, L'Eclisse), a particularly European sensibility, one which thrived on an air of mystery, which played on the distance between the characters.
At a certain point, classifications of good and bad cease to matter. BOOM! is in no way a good movie, but it's far from a bad movie either. Rather, it's a viewing experience, with emphasis on EXPERIENCE, one that vexes the viewer and refuses standard narrative satisfaction, yet provokes a strong reaction nonetheless. I'll take a wonderful failure like this over a film that holds your hand through all the difficult part and easily explains everything any day.
More to come...