For all of his musical influence and his famous/infamous turn as Jareth the Goblin King in the Jim Henson production Labyrinth, my original introduction to the cultural phenomenon that is David Bowie came from a strange, somewhat disjointed British science fiction film from the 1970s. The first film in which Bowie ever appeared as a leading actor, The Man Who Fell to Earth is a surreal, satirical, and ultimately very bleak look at American values, as seen through the eyes of a visitor from another world. In much the same way that the Martians in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds find themselves vulnerable to Earth’s diseases, Bowie’s alien finds himself far from immune to the destructive allure of earthly pleasures like alcohol, sex and television.
Thomas Jerome Newton, as Bowie’s alien calls himself while on Earth, lands in the New Mexico desert in search of water to bring back to his home planet, Anthea, where his wife and children are in danger of dying from a sever drought. Using the advanced technology of Anthea, he gains incredible wealth and a great deal of notoriety by patenting various inventions and becoming the head of World Enterprises Corporation, a technological conglomerate he forms with the help of patent attorney Oliver Farnsworth (Buck Henry). Newton’s ulterior motive with the company is to construct a space vehicle with which to ship water back to Anthea, but he soon becomes distracted from this purpose by a dalliance with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a hotel chambermaid who introduces Newton to alcohol and sex, and with whom he eventually moves into a house in New Mexico.
This week’s box office preview has been canceled both by some hopefully not at all serious health-related family tasks I’m handling today and also by the death of a truly notable filmmaker. Aside from being both extremely talented and extremely inconsistent, he was a sort of bridge between the classic Hollywood era and post-“Bonnie and Clyde” era of film school auteurs that arrived just his career faced its first major crisis. He was a little too hip and raunchy for the old school crowd and a little too old school for the hip crowd, and I think that was Blake Edwards’ most interesting quality.
Excessive consistency was not one of Edwards hobgoblins. I have to admit there are a number of his films — mostly from his later career — that I haven’t seen primarily because their reputation isn’t so good. I’ve probably forgotten a couple that I have seen by an act of will. At his best, though, there are very few Hollywood directors who could claim anything half as marvelous as “The Days of Wine and Roses,” the brilliant slapstick set-pieces of “Return of the Pink Panther” and “The Pink Panther Strikes Again,” and, most of all, 1982’s “Victor/Victoria,” a film that was both aggressively old-fashioned and easily the most bold pro-gay, pro-tolerance film ever to be made by mainstream Hollywood to that point. It was also simply topnotch entertainment, a work of hilarious compassion, and a joy forever.
Of course, that’s merely scratching the surface of Edwards’ films. Some of his less perfect pieces are nevertheless hugely entertaining and, in their own way, fascinating documents of their time. Prolific as a writer, producer and director from the 1950s until the 1990s, he had a career that supposedly went back to helping Orson Welles write the 1939 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast when he was still a young teenager and continued into television in the fifties, so there’s quite a lot to go through. The assertively naive-yet-sophisticated silliness of “The Great Race,” a childhood favorite of mine from numerous TV viewings, still holds up, and looks better in widescreen than those panned-and-scanned TV prints I grew up with. “S.O.B.” is famous as the film in which Julie Andrews’ naked breasts all but received top billing; they certainly got a stars’ entrance. It’s also is a fascinating case study in how Edwards got caught in the crossfire of the Hollywood generational wars and is one of the most interesting anti-Hollywood films made in Hollywood. (I’d love it if you took a look at my 2008 thumbsucker about “S.O.B.” over my currently dormant blog.)
Largely because of Audrey Hepburn’s lingering fame and greatness, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a lot of people’s favorite movie and it’s not hard to see why. It can be breathtakingly wistful. Because of Mickey Rooney’s over-the-top godawful portrayal of a sex-crazed Japanese neighbor, it’s also not hard to see why none of those people are Asian. Bert Kwouk’s far more human, relatively competent and hilarious Kato in “The Pink Panther” series is a small consolation, but still a consolation.
Blake Edwards really was a hugely contradictory director. Deeply cynical, terribly romantic, a champion of tolerance and capable of creating stereotypes so vicious they stand-out even among films of their day, lacking in an obvious “style” but nevertheless a notable auteur in his versatile way, Edwards was just weird enough to be, maybe, truly great.
As usual, David Hudson over at MUBI has much, much more.
Yup. My hometown is getting destroyed by aliens. Again. Kind of puts the traffic and those annoying Santa Ana winds into perspective.
A rather nicely done, battle effects heavy teaser trailer for “Battle: Los Angeles,” an apparently military-themed alien invasion flick scheduled for this spring from Sony.
If this reminds you a bit of the movie, “Skyline,” being released today, Mike Fleming points that the makers of this film apparently feel that’s no coincidence and that there’s been talk of some possible legal action. Personally, I think everyone should just be grateful that the novel, The War of the Worlds, is now in public domain in the U.S., or the H.G. Wells estate could be suing the heck out of everybody.
With “District 9” having made a pleasantly surprising $37 million, it seems fitting to wrap this theme up with a couple of trailers from the grand-daddy of all alien invasion stories with a political subtext. H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds,” was pretty clearly intended as a metaphor about British colonialism. Certainly, any decent version of the story gives us an idea of what it must be like to have a vastly powerful nation suddenly invade for some reason of their own (not that that ever happens anymore).
“The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?” — H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds, 1898