Thursday, June 23, 2011

Petulia (1968) — Uncommon

In this Mostly Movies blog titled Open the Pod Bay Doors, HAL, it may be odd that I haven't actually written a post about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Chances are that I won't as I've done so elsewhere and, really, I can't improve on what's already been said by deeper thinkers about it over the past 43 years.

But I do occasionally use it as a reference point when talking about other films, and I'm about to do so again with another title from 1968 (my fourth after The Lion in Winter, The Party, and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas). Because if he hadn't been making 2001 at the time, you might reasonably wonder if Petulia had come from the hand and head of Stanley Kubrick. Possibly in collaboration with Kurt Vonnegut.

I mean, you can't miss Petulia's chilly dissection of relationships in the dehumanized final third of the 20th century. Or its acidly comedic observations on the ubiquity of mechanization, violence, and the sterility of our environments. Or its dreamlike probing of the inability of human beings — even husbands, wives and lovers — to connect through physical, social, or emotional walls. Or the technical virtuosity of its striking cinematography and editing. Hell, Petulia does a better job of being Eyes Wide Shut than Eyes Wide Shut did.

Instead, this stabbingly fractured, moodily pitched romantic tragedy about two would-be lovers (Julie Christie and George C. Scott) is from British new-waver Richard Lester. It's his best besides A Hard Day's Night, although the two could not be more different in content, tone, style, and pop purpose. It's arguably his most artful film. That may be because Petulia looks like an even three-way collaboration between Lester, his cinematographer Nicolas Roeg, and editor Antony Gibbs, all three pushing the boundaries of their craft to make Petulia distinctively, almost aggressively other.

It's also a film that's been alarmingly lost in our overflowing late-'60s cultural closet. Petulia is one of the key era-defining films of '68, a DNA-sequencing of the local zeitgeist that can stand tall alongside not only 2001 but also Faces, If..., Once Upon a Time in the West, Rosemary's Baby, The ProducersBullitt, The Lion in Winter, Planet of the Apes, and Yellow Submarine (with which it would make an interesting push-me/pull-you double feature). In 1978 a Take One magazine poll of 20 film critics — including Vincent Canby, Richard Corliss, Stanley Kauffman, Janet Maslin, Frank Rich, Andrew Sarris, Richard Schickel, David Thomson, and François Truffaut — ranked Petulia among the best American films of the previous decade, taking third place after The Godfather (I and II) and Nashville, and ahead of Annie Hall, Mean Streets and 2001.

And yet, while it hasn't fully dropped down the memory hole, you can just see its manicured fingers clinging to the rim. Petulia had been scheduled to compete at the 1968 Cannes festival, where it undoubtedly would have received high-profile marquee attention. But that May's historic mass riots and wildcat strikes in Paris forced the festival's cancellation. We can only guess how film history would have treated this underappreciated entry had it received the full Cannes exposure treatment.

Petulia is a cutting and conspicuously non-sentimental portrait of its era. It's an anti-The Graduate that provokes by not buying into the American myths we hold about ourselves or (almost uniquely) by not playing to trite sentiments of the time. It's an essential film from and about America in the dying days of "the Sixties," yet the modernism of its style and ambitions makes Petulia impressively ahead of its time.

With this jaded satire of our shifting social values set against the psychedelic Summer of Love scene in San Francisco (locations), with Vietnam battlefield newscasts providing televised wallpaper that everyone chooses to ignore, the film crystallized Lester's growing misanthropic view of a society cracked by its neuroses and alienation.

At the same time, Petulia's recognizably Roegian imagery, shattered-time narrative, and themes of despair and casual brutality anticipate Roeg's later celebrated work such as Don't Look Now (with Christie) and Bad Timing.

If you lay out Petulia's non-linear plot in a straight line, you get a conventional melodrama about middle-aged, almost-maybe-divorced surgeon Archie Bollen (Scott in one of his great performances) embarking on an affair with the beautiful self-proclaimed "kook" Petulia (Christie, ditto and looking fab doing it). The consequences arise when her wealthy and hair-trigger abusive prettyboy husband (Richard Chamberlain in a rare bad-guy role) finds out about it.

Simple enough. But the film takes that story and smashes it with a hammer.

As the trailer's portentous narration points out, Petulia's kaleidoscopic story "starts in the middle," then it "moves towards its end and its beginning at the same time." It does so via flashbacks and flash-forwards, some as quick and sharp as slivers of glass.

At its start we meet Archie and Petulia encountering each other for the first time (or is it?) at a charity dance, "Shake for Highway Safety." The dance band for all those pearled matrons and tuxedoed swells is Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, backed by psychedelic projected oil light shows. (The Grateful Dead also appear in the film, both musically and as cameo hippies.) The contrast is startling and wryly funny. It's the first of many contrasts Lester sets up to illustrate, as Dave Kehr put it, "a world fatally fragmented into rich and poor, past and present, compassion and indifference."

Lester's funny-sad, Vonnegut-like touches depict an America so at odds with itself that two people can't drive to a hotel for an affair without encountering roboticized, automatic "service" at every step. (If Lester were making the movie today, there'd be scenes underscoring with cold-steel irony our generation's search for personal connections via laptop screens and Facebook and Twitter.)

Petulia surprises Archie by installing a portable greenhouse in his San Francisco apartment, "a little bit of life in all this steel and glass." We're the only ones who notice that the greenhouse is itself a stronghold of steel and glass. Although 40ish Archie is beguiled by 20-something Petulia's behavior, he makes a show of brushing it off with a shrug and a quip, "It's the Pepsi generation," defining her character with a TV commercial jingle.

At one point Archie confesses to a friend, "What do I want? To feel something." It's such moments that should make me wince at the film's tendency toward thesis-statement screenwriting and its characters' expository self-awareness, but they fit the film's pitch and tone so well that it doesn't bother me here.

Meanwhile, Petulia wants to be Holly Golightly in all her flip rebelliousness, but she's too bruised by her own melancholy and twisted hell of a marriage to make going lightly anything more than a mod affectation. Her "kookiness" — as Archie puts it, "All this I Love Lucy jazz, it's only cute for a while" — is hardly even that, just a few pranks (the tuba being the most outlandish) and a cheeky attitude that appear put on like her diamond earrings rather than a natural impudent expressiveness. Her facade as Archie's Manic Pixie Dream Girl is another mask and pretense in a world where masks and pretenses, screens and barriers are everywhere and everyone. Scratch her surface and Petulia is a wrenchingly heartbreaking character, a woman aching to be rescued but unable to grasp a lifeline even if one's offered to her.

Lester makes it clear that even when the opportunity presents itself, feeling something is too hard or uncertain a path for most of us to take. Freedom may be just another word for nothing left to lose, but Lester shows via Archie's trip with his sons to a heavily allegorized Alcatraz — then again with Petulia in the film's final, devastating moments — that for some lost souls freedom means the single choice of remaining in the prison we've made for ourselves.

Although set in the Haight-Ashbury scene, its point of view doesn't cut the hippies any more slack than anyone else. Here they're as self-absorbed as the materialist society they have nominally dropped out of.

None of which is to say that Petulia is only a pessimistic drag. It's alluring and seductive, from the smart screenplay (by Barbara Turner and Lawrence B. Marcus, from a novel by John Haase) to Nic Roeg's visuals to John Barry's doleful sax-heavy score, to the on-target performances from its leads, especially the subdued dynamics between magnetic Christie and tightly bound Scott.

Also splendid here are Shirley Knight as Scott's ex-wife, Arthur Hill as Archie's friend Barney, and Joseph Cotten as Chamberlain's enabling, banally despicable father. Look for Rene Auberjonois and, uncredited, Howard Hesseman and Austin Pendleton.

Petulia defies simplistic categorization, and is such a rich and stratified experience, with so much of its substance tucked between the lines, that it deserves and benefits from repeat viewings. Its characters and their motives are open to interpretation and re-interpretation.

So there's no question Petulia is a conversation-starter.

You get a sense of that by reading the reviews from the period. To Time magazine's Richard Schickel, this "terrific movie" is "at once a sad and savage comment on the ways we waste our time, our money and ourselves in upper-middle-class America. It is a subject much trifled with in movies these days, but rarely — if ever — has it been tackled with the ferocious and ultimately purifying energy displayed in this highly moral, yet unmoralistic film." On the other hand, Pauline Kael, in her famous lengthy essay Trash, Art, and the Movies, utterly loathed it. "I have rarely seen a more disagreeable, a more dislikable (or a bloodier) movie than Petulia," she says before going into considerable length explaining why. This movie about our dearth of passion sure does inspire it in others.

More recently, Steven Soderbergh names Petulia as a seminal influence on his work.

If you choose to taste Petulia on DVD, Warner Home Video's 2006 disc offers a few extras that provide some useful background and context. The two "making of" pieces don't tell us more than surface-level insights, but they're worth a look. The newer one is "The Uncommon Making of Petulia" (14 min.), a thin production retrospective with producer Raymond Wagner and Richard Chamberlain. That's where we discover that George C. Scott couldn't get a handle on what the film was about, but he trusted Lester with it.

Next is the vintage piece shot on-set, "Petulia: The Uncommon Movie" (12 min.) that tries too hard to sell the film to the hip set — "If you're like most and get 'with it' pretty quickly, you will have a lot to talk about afterwards" — but it's worthwhile for the behind-the-scenes footage and input from Lester and Scott. Also here is that pompous, overreaching original theatrical trailer that again makes it clear Warner Bros. didn't know what to do with such an "uncommon movie."

Near at hand: Shadows on the Globe, opening scene experiment