JABBERWOCKY (1977)

JABBERWOCKY

Michael Palin / Max Wall / Deborah Fallender / John LeMesurier / Harry H. Corbett / Warren Mitchell / Annette Badland / Bernard Bresslaw / John Bird / Rodney Bewes / Neil Innes / Terry Jones / Brian Glover /  Art Direction  Millie Burns  /  Costume Design  Charles Knode & Hazel Pethig  /  Cinematography  Terry Bedford  /  Production  Julian Doyle, John Goldstone & Sanford Lieberson  /  Screenplay  Charles Alverson & Terry Gilliam  /  Director  Terry Gilliam

Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky has never really known what it was supposed to be, which considering it was inspired by a Lewis Carroll nonsense poem (from ‘Alice, through the looking glass’) is all quite suitable. That said, it is certainly the most dysfunctional of all Gilliam’s forays into cinema, which is quite an achievement in itself, given the number of capsized projects to fall by the wayside, or  else battered by harsh studio edits. *Von Stroheim shakes a small fist at the heavens, and mutters something unintelligible in German..*

Prior to his present incarnation as Director and all round risk-taking auteur, Terry Gilliam was of course the American, animation guy in that bunch of mighty comic surrealists Monty Python. The Python collective mind (along with Mr.Gilliam comprising of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones & Eric Idle), was never truly versed in the poetic cinematic eyes and ears of the business, contented to stick to the tried and tested loose structure of linked sketches when tackling their big screen appearances. Both The Life of Brian & The Holy Grail are largely stitched together gags, that either rely upon one unifying character bounding from one scene to the next (Chapman tending to take to the lead) and an even coating of contextual or atmospheric detail, generally the contribution of Gilliam’s fevered imagination and madcap visual referencing.

To stride out from the comfy confines of Python was never going to be a simple task, especially when it necessitated borrowing fellow Pythons Palin & Terry Jones to keep the backers happy. Killing off Jones in the opening sequence helped provide a little distance, and silence any unwanted directorial influence (Jones not only Directed ‘Brian’, but also took the lion share of the Directors chair on ‘Holy Grail’).  Unfortunately Jabberwocky winds up being far closer to ‘Life of Brian’, than I’m sure Gilliam intended, even regurgitating the beggar scene, albeit with a wry twist (Palin looking on in abject horror at a beggar reduced to chopping off his own feet in improve public sympathies).

Where Jabberwocky truly excels is in it’s extraordinary ensemble cast of comedy royalty. Harry H. Corbett (Steptoe & Son) gives one of his last great performances, dodging the wrath of ‘Carry-on’ giant Bernard Bresslaw ,  Warren Mitchell (Alf Garnett) cooks up a delicious role as Mr.Fishfinger, whilst John LeMesurier (Dad’s Army) plays the hilariously camp Lord Chancellor to Max Wall’s blissfully, unstately King Bruno the Questionable.  Curiously what hinders ‘Jabberwocky’ is it’s preoccupation with cramming as much humour in as possible, but at the same time it is that humour which ultimately allows the Period setting to work quite as well as it does. Without the humour we would be left with a series of beautiful visuals, some nice costumes, and very little else.

Every other Gilliam project is characterized by it’s complexity. Jabberwocky is the complete opposite.. which in a way makes it quite fascinating, showing a bare-bones Gilliam, caught with his trouser’s down. er.. that sounds worse than intendid.

 

In purely cinematic terms, a certain distance, or modern standpoint is required, from which perspective we can observe and remain afloat throughout a realised piece, without losing our way and stewing in the mix. Admittedly we have Michael Palin’s central character attempting to impart a ‘Modern System of Economics’ upon the Mediaeval marketplace, as a sort of pre-cursor to the coming of the ‘so-called’ Age of Enlightenment and Modernity (to be so beautifully explored and despaired at in ‘Baron Munchausen’).. but the wonderful epiphany of equating the past with dreams, and blurring the distinction between fantasy and reality, is yet to take hold. This revelation finds it’s birth in Gilliam’s forthcoming ‘Time Bandits’, before taking full, glorious flight in his Walter Mitty nightmare ‘Brazil’. There is though, something oh, so very attractive about standing on the brink of greatness, and enjoying the birth of a new creative genius in the making. Jabberwocky is fun, crude and chock full of dangerous risks. If only all first directorial projects were as full of freshness and infectious vitality. If you peer over the cartoon horizon at the films end, you can just about make out the glorious shape of things to come.. 

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand;

Long time the manxome foe he sought—

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

‘The Jabberwocky’ from ‘Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There’ (1872)

 by Lewis Carroll – Illustration by John Tenniel

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Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment (1966)

MORGAN : A SUITABLE CASE FOR TREATMENT

(1966)

David Warner / Vanessa Redgrave / Robert Stephens / Irene Handl / Bernard Bresslaw / Arthur Mullard / Newton Blick / Nan Munro / Peter Collingwood / Graham Crowden / John Garrie / John Rae / Music John Dankworth / Art Direction Phillip Harrison / Costume Jocelyn Rickards / Editing Tom Priestley & Victor Proctor / Cinematography Larry Pozer / Producer Leon Clore / Director Karel Reisz

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Despite a rousing reception upon it’s release in the mid sixties, a nomination at the Oscars, a Bafta win, Best Film at the Locarno International Film Festival that year and a Best Actress win for Vanessa Redgrave at Cannes, ‘Morgan’ has found himself somewhat sidelined these days. Written off as a confusing experiment by modern film critics, drifting into a sort of footnote limbo, usually reserved for disposable toot that missed the mark. Morgan dropped out of view while no one was looking, and lost it’s place among the key movers and shakers of the British New Wave. ‘The Knack’, ‘Blow-up!’ and ‘Billy Liar’, all share similar visual styles and surreal approaches, but all have stood the test of time unscathed by the decades since their release. I’ve a sneeking suspicion that Vanessa Redgrave may be one of the causes. Though a stunning woman back in her 60’s incarnation, and exuding much sexual alure in Antonini’s Blow-up!’, she is a far softer, less complex character in Morgan, more sweet than sexy, and ‘Blow-up!’ had a veritable parade of pulchritude before David Hemmings lens.. as with the Iconic opening of ‘The Knack’, with it’s near infinite flood of cloned feminine perfection. The loose nature of these films are held in place by a solid linchpin, like the beautiful girl in a farce. Now of course I’m not saying that Miss.Redgrave isn’t a beauty, far from it, but her elegant, willowy appeal doesn’t seem to arrest those used to such femme fatales from the period as say.. a Monica Vitti, or a Bardot.

Billy Liar’, had alot in common with ‘Morgan’ really, but Billy was a far less complex character than Morgan, Tom Courtenay’s Walter Mitty persona fails endear or engender much pity, and the kitchen sink elements seem a little clumsy in comparison to the likes of ‘The Family Way’ and ‘A Kind of Loving’. Both films were billed (somewhat loosly) as comedies, but ‘Billy’ succeeds only in making us uncomfortable in his lies.. a sort of Ricky Gervais without the funny bits. Whereas Morgan has a black humour with a perspective that reflects the new satirical comedy of Peter Cook & co. What does ‘Billy Liar’ have? It has Julie Christie. For fifteen minutes only of course, but that doesn’t really matter, her presence elevates the film considerably. Tom Courtenay was a fine actor, but David Warner (in his only substantial non-villain role) is far more interesting, and so are his fantasies. Lies catch up with Billy Liar, forcing him to deal with the consequences, accept the illusion of his dreams, and consign them to a lesser role. Morgan is in far more danger, his madness is the free will of the new generation in friction against the establishment. Morgan is fighting for the future of youth, for his very soul. A soul hidden beneath the hairy skin of an ape costume. As The Revenger’s Tragedy so elequantly puts it‘Surely we’re all mad people, and they whom we think are, are not; we mistake those, tis we are mad in sense, they but in clothes.’

A central motif of the ‘Morgan’ experience is that of the intercut wildlife footage, in a sort of reverse anthropomorphic comparison between the civilised world, and that of the animal kingdom. A beautiful, graceful girl seen gliding down an underground escalator becomes a majestic Peacock. Freedom is the ape, swinging among the topmost branches.. The legal system, with it’s predatorial Solicitors and bewigged, antiquated Judge are transformed into a pack of hunting lions dragging down the majesty of a regal Giraffe. ‘Have you nothing to say’ asks the stuffy Judge.. ‘I don’t recognize this Court’, replies a bemused Morgan in the dock. One other small stylistic flourish is the occasional freeze frame not uncommon in the 60’s visual lexicon, but a devise that seems to cause irritation among modern reviewers of the film. ‘Blow-up!’ clearly utilises the freeze frame to greater effect, and with greater resonance, being a film principally concerned with photography and the capture of static images. And it is quite true also that Morgan’s visual appeal isn’t in the same league as those jewels in the New wave crown by Godard, Malle, Vadim, Polanski etc. etc.. but it certainly is far from dull, and really does deserve at least a nod of appreciation for it’s bold visuals, and quirky innovations.

Morgan’s obsessions are derived and expressed principally through film, a most modern preoccupation hitherto the domain of the filmmaker and cine-artiste, now a universal means of expression and common cultural knowledge with the advent of the videotape, DVD and Digital Age. In this, ‘Morgan’ is decidedly ahead of it’s contemporaries, who utilise theatrical asides (as in ‘Billy Liar’) to represent inspirations and abstract connections. The modern audience has a wealth of cinema and TV to plunder and dissect as never before. Favourite scenes, clips and montages are uploaded and shared with an inexhaustable appetite for the moving image.

THE EGG TROTSKI SCENE

– ‘What’s all this?’

– ‘It’s an island of sanity this car. An island in a world of pain. I’m an exile waiting with an ice-pick. You do know about the ice-pick don’t you?’

-‘It’s ‘im that got it..Trotski..right there. Right in the back of ‘is skull. Leon Trotski: co-founder of the Russian Revolution, creator of the red army, great revolutionary thinker..’

‘Then BINGO! Right on the top of ‘is nut. Joe Stalin kicked Trotski out of his Mother Country..seventeen years in exhile he was.. that wasn’t good enough for Joe. No, he wanted Trotski dead.’

‘Now then, that’s Trotski (hands an egg to the policeman) This, is the ice-pick (brandishes a razor) A burning ‘ot day in Mexico, Stalin’s agent has wormed ‘is way into Trotski’s ‘ouse among ‘is wife and friends, and they’re both alone in the great man’s study.’

‘Trotski is sitting behind his desk..’

‘..quietly the killer creeps up behind ‘im and.. (crushes the egg with his razor) ..’

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– ‘You’re a class traitor Morgan, that’s what you are.’

– ‘Them’s fighting words Ma.’

– ‘I mean we brought you up to respect Lenin, Marx, Harry Pollitt. You was a Firebrand when you was sixteen, and you were clever. At Party meetings they always used to say to me, ‘You got an intellectual there Mrs.Delt, ain’t always the middle classes that’ve got all the brains y’know. It’s lads like Morgan that are gonna take over this country one of these days.’ Yees, now look at you. I don’t think you’ll take over anything Morgan.’

The one image that has managed to seep into the public conciousness, is that of Morgan done up in his gorilla costume speeding across London on a motorbike.. perhaps I should mention he’s on fire too. In any other film this would be a scene of farce (the sort of thing Spike Milligan would have done before breakfast each morn), but the donning of the Gorilla suit is far more disturbing than the comical scenario initially suggests. The suit itself is a fairly typical fancy-dress outfit, but the intense close-ups and almost mournful expressions that the cinematographer Larry Pozer manages to extract from the rigid mask are hypnotic. Morgan melds with the suit, and his sanity buckles and warps in a scene of abject horror, where he struggles to remove the mask.. wild eyed and raving.

Morgan’s fractured mindscape transforms those around him into a firing squad of communist freedom fighters, attacking him as a rogue element, dangerous to society, reminicent of No’6’s fight with for and against the individual in McGoohan’s iconic 60’s series ‘The Prisoner’.

As with the best of these stories that deal with inner turmoil and confused realities, nothing is ever truly settled. In the final scene we see a calm, collected Morgan meticulously arranging shrubs in a the garden of a Sanitarium. He is visited by a now pregnant Vanessa Redgrave, who telling him the child is his, tosses her head back and laughs in a slightly manic manner, in stark contrast to the now conformist Morgan. An ambiguity hangs in the air.. an uncomfortable judder that, were we standing, might necessitate a step backward. An element of comfort arrives in the final shot though, as the camera pulls back and reveals what Morgan has been so engrossed in.. a flower bed, in the shape of a hammer and sickle. Viva la revolution.

‘Then raise the scarlet standard high.
Within its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.’

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STILLS