PRINT May 1968


Charley Bubbles, Hour of the Wolf, Up the Junction

Charley Bubbles is the first movie about a cool sleek 1968 artistic success: an ennui-ridden, spoiled rotten writer who can hardly breathe from the fatigue of being an acclaimed artist. It is for the most part an irritatingly stinting film, even though the photography’s pleasant, the apple orchard color is cheery, and there are two fairly good female performances by Lisa Minelli, an extraordinarily willing no veneer actress, a gnomic, quaint, slight girl with enormous eyes, and Billy Whitelaw as Bubbles’ leathery ex wife.

It’s also a single-minded film. Bubbles, in Albert Finney’s puritanical, sucked-in, ungiving performance, is not so much a man as a particular stage when life has lost its zing and there are no more visible goals on the horizon. It’s a unique performance of a Bully who sullenly recedes: Finney keeping his acting technique below a dead flat surface, acting as a foil for the other actors, in the one-note role of a washed-up, limp prick. No matter how far back and under Finney plays, he is like a bull trying to hide. Every time the camera works around a stiff scene, the one outstanding fact is not so much the obnoxiousness of the role (even ordering some prime roast beef is an imposition; he makes a point, offensive manner and all, of flashing 5 pound notes as tips, with the recipients being obsequiously grateful, never showing the slightest resentment) but the fact of Finney’s bulk. His deliberate, non-pouty sulkiness not only springs him in front of scenes, but suggests a self-centered soreness.

Part of the fascination is that Bubbles is so singularized. It’s beyond simplification into a Chaucer-like parable of Ennui, each section of its journey illustrating one or two explanatory sentences about the Writer’s Life (“and on the road he met a friend from his youth”). The opening fiasco sequence sets Bubbles up as a puzzled Personality, appalled at the vacuity—complacency—reed in an upper class restaurant (nowhere else does Finney score so heavily with his pancake makeup and posh clothing); the rest of the film continues as a wooden march through stock situations. There’s an awareness that these situations (the fact that a guy, no matter how rich, still has to deal with nagging intrusions: bullying servants, a wife who doesn’t think Bubbles the hot shot that the public does—in her eyes he’s the guy who wrecked her life, a son who is contemptuous and distant) are stock, but the film stands on the belief that any given person, successful or not, is involved continuously in the Banal.

Bubbles is beset by parasites of all types: in between men, aspiring neophytes, crocodiles who work in cafeterias and at gas pumps, snotty lower-class types who watch enviously, seething on the sidelines while Bubbles fills up with premium gas or views a football match from a glass-enclosed booth. There’s the implicit fact that Finney’s male seconds give him little competition in acting or physical attractiveness in these scenes. But more interesting is the weird notion of how much obeisance is given a Famous Writer.

The chief effect is of a constipated actor hooked onto a trolley line. The first half is comprised of programmed, rigid segments, holding on to scenes which, to begin with, are of questionable if not zero interest. The low point: Mrs. Noseworthy and her relentless kvetching over the chore of having to prepare a cheese cracker snack for Finney and a dismal actor named Colin Come Bleakly. The only occasions where the paralysis works are situations where the action would be normally run down: the creepy, dazed, don’t-bother-me mood of an expressway stop and its waitress at about post-midnight. Even here the situation crumbles with the arrival of some drugged hedonists out of late Fellini. Who the hell are these lacquered zombies who seemingly bring an assortment of vapors into the scene and also work magic on the image which begins to tilt and get giddy? Everything’s a mystery: where they come from, the insidiously familiar way they begin addressing Bubbles, the dialogue from L’Avventura by way of Outer Space.

After all this mannerism, the back door is opened near the end and the work becomes a memorable fresh air film starring Billy Whitelaw, as the sharp-tongued Mrs. Bubbles, no time for anything except her son and animals. A straggling Julie London hairdo on a packed frame, she is unimaginable as a health-food nut or a by way hide away (what’s that broad doing so far out from the Action?). But she goes well with a living room, and is very likeable feeding livestock, a cigarette dangling from her lips, crouching down to chuck some grain, still dispensing acid around the funny-fishy Finney farm; barnyard animals all over the front yard, but perfect grass?

This last 20 minutes suggests a flower suddenly blooming out of a wooden box. Compared to the strongly typed symbolic parable style of every other actor, Miss Whitelaw is loose, relaxed, attractive inside a taut, bitter portrayal. The whole section blooms, due to her unpretentious act and the fact of the house, how it’s conceived in movement, credibility, exact timing: the way that even the up-to-now wooden Finney is made easy by the fulsome calm house, turned off from the I-love-Finney isolationism. It’s one of the richest 20 minutes to be found in current film. There’s good casting: the whole undertone negativism in the boy’s regard of his father (the parental wrangling over his upbringing, the dead-look-alike down to the short neck and broad face). The peak of this magical treatment is at the very end, with its Dylan Thomas exuberance and scenery. A film that starts as Big Finney seems to end up as Little Finney floating away over a devastatingly lovely countryscape in an aerostatic balloon.

A consistent minus in deep dish foreign films has to do with a jog that occurs in mid film (the hour of the woof), about the time Monica Unvital or Jeanne Morose are turning green with jadedness. It usually involves a peanut butter orgy and a contaminated group of upper-class people who are supposed to stand for muck, sordidness, disillusionment. A police line-up turns up, people who look like they issued from a vacuum cleaner that serviced the set of a Theda Bara movie. Even before they’re over dressed in vampire movie costumes, gone to seed Victorian elegance, these fusty ensembles apparently have been hired for the stale dumpling look of their skin and the effect of super dullness, as though they came from a Transylvanian employment office for decrepit domestic help.

A large section of Hour of the Wolf is devoted to this Instant Horror, a preachy chastisement to suggest that this decay can happen to anyone in the audience. Someone pushes a computer button and out pours another variation of these Fag Ends of life, a more solemn, stone-like, Northern version than the ones you find in L’Avventura (shallow and gossip-y), La Notte (grossly commercial), or Juliet of the Spirits (fatty, with rancid makeup). Hour of the Wolf tries to solve the mystery of a semi-mad, all-bad slick Baskin-ish symbolist, who disappears mysteriously while breaking apart on a craggy isle off the coast of old Frizzled. Almost from the start, an Ark-like scene of a giant rowboat (a death boat, as opposed to a lifeboat) creaking into and then out from shore, the feeling is old, old, old, as though the color (a grailer shade of angst), faces (syphilitic), and obsessional idea (the danger of pursuing art to its furthest extremity?) had been dug up from an abandoned mind shaft.

There’s this self-centered Swede (Max Von Sydow) who stares morbidly between his cupped hands at a flickering candle, peeks furtively behind curtains to see if the dawn has arrived so that he can finally go to sleep, or studies his wrist watch as it ticks out sixty seconds. What’s bothering smileless Max? His wife (acted with fine patience by Liv Ullmann) waits with the spectator for Max to Sydow but he just glums it.

The painter, supposedly a combined Munch and Bosch, is obsessed by Night Creatures (big idea, circa 1832) who poke out of the landscape to bedevil his painting and peace of mind. One by one they turn up, minus footsteps: an ancient aristocratic Isak Dinesen lady, meticulously dressed in the style of 1918, and a couple of pallid, bodyless Undertaker types.

One of the most disgusting relics of Bad Living is an executive’s wife, totally useless with a dyed hair, eyebrow less face put together at a beauty parlor. Supposedly the essence of Beef Broth in its most sexually rapacious form, this woman produces a disgusting movie effect every time she appears: bragging about the bruise near her crotch, all the while talking non-stop of the delicious bedtime excitements shared with a cold-faced husband (one of the Undertakers).

The banality of Max’s visions should make him unhappy. His ghosts, the emissaries from his past, are like an empty day in the 42nd St. bus terminal. Occasionally a spare nebbish with very thick lenses in his horn rims asks for a light and what happens? Getting a sadistic pleasure out of letting people know about their intrusions, Max responds with a fantastic indignation, his billiard pin face going very cold and hard.

Actually, before it gets involved with the castle creeps, the movie reveals Liv Ullmann as a unique perpetrator of humanistic depth and female presence. Like a sharp knife going through old cheese, she opens up the entire first third of this film: natural, perhaps even homely, shunted to the side, she portrays an accommodating frump. This whole off-actress treatment is remarkably different from her Elizabeth Vogeler in Persona, where she is decidedly intellectual, willful and controlling. She is one of those rare passive Elegants in acting who can leave the screen to another actor and still score.

The Big Eat is another growing factor in films, an effect probably invented by Finney in his Saturday Night. In his case, it was a combination effect, involving a big chomp, heavy breathing, slashes of braggadocio, a side swivel and baring of his teeth. This emphasized eating has been filmed and slowed down in his latest work, but within the time span of four Finneyfilms, it has taken hold, cementing a new convention for giving an underside, the animalistic traits, to character. The same message laden eat has appeared in Pumpkin Eater (James Mason steals it with his putrid, lecherous teeth and mouth work), Accident (a symphony in Bogarde Baker nuances around the cooking and eating of an omelette), not to mention the current indigestion examples: Henry, a yellow sweater in La Chinoise who keeps cutting away to talk while buttering and jamming sixteen pieces of bread; in the Wolf film there is a crucial scene where Ullmann goes on in an inspired sadness about the household expenses (she’s just read about her husband’s infidelity), and Von Sydow inexcusably kills the scene with a wrong note of silent arrogance.

In other words, Specialized Eating has become a pocket for arty effects, but more importantly it is one of three new maneuvers which scriptwriters are using to get the movie into an undertone area and away from overt dialogue. This tangentialism—taking off at an angle from the movie’s plot self—also includes athletics and pop music overloads. Benjamin the graduate, as he floats in his pool, or races in his red sports-car, is enmeshed in an endless grid of wire sounds, back and forth nasality, a dreamy blanket of Garfunkel simon or semen. Hatari, Live for Life, Darling, Bonnie and Clyde—in so many films, there is a scene of a mod type in jeep, car, airport lobby, with the celebrated music by Miles Davis or the Yardbirds stamping chicness on your temples.

Up the Junction is a love paean travelogue in which Suzy Kendall, free living and free loving, takes music-engulfed walks, looking like a blah sweet version of Julie Chrustie. Whenever Polly Suzy Chrustie starts her philosophical, Marxiantoned sight seeing, the image takes on the misty pretty color of Tulip Week in Rotterdam. Swans are seen through weeping willows, smiling 80 year old lovers stroll by. While she drifts in a molasses like park scene, the music track is the dregs of sweet folk rock.

It is a conglomerate of up-shot stray scenes in which there are three inevitable presumptions (1) a good British sound track consists of giggling, jeering, well-aren’t-you-the-cheeky-one (2) the coolest movie is. one jammed with blotched skin, snarled hair, grease (3) good acting is the automatic result of a deep, uncritical tough saccharine grubbiness.

Manny Farber