Saturday, September 15, 2012

Mod's Lonely Man

“If he had been a dog in a city, a policeman would have shot him and sent his head to a laboratory, to see if he had rabies.” – Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse Five

The above quote occurs to me more often than I'd care to admit. There's a certain kind of character -- in movies and in real life -- that always calls it to mind: the guy who is outraged when he's given the due punishment for (or reaping the natural consequences of) his bullshit behavior. The kind of guy who cuts you off in traffic and then flips YOU off. Or, in the case of Jimmy (Phil Daniels), the type of bloke who runs roughshod over vacationing families on Brighton Beach, tosses bricks through windows, smashes cars, burglarizes pharmacies, etc. etc. and then gets all bent out of shape when he gets tossed out of his parents' house (or nabbed by the police). Jimmy and his ilk are often labeled "antiheroes" but -- as they slamdance their way back and forth across the line between anarchy and nihilism -- they’re perhaps closer to the spirit of Antichrist.

Jimmy is the central figure in Franc Roddam's 1979 film QUADROPHENIA, out recently in a stunning new Blu rendition via the Criterion Collection. Obviously, the raison d'etre for the film is the Who's eponymous 1973 album. Roddam and Daniels are cogs in the machinery of Pete Townsend's original vision, a bloated concept album that depicts adolescent self-destruction via an epic battle between mods (like Jimmy) and rockers. The idea of musical subcultures battling like religious extremists seems absurd but -- as a pair of supplemental documentaries elucidate -- it was a very real scenario for a brief time in Britain. (I can’t think of a modern corollary for the mod vs. rocker paradigm – hipsters vs. rednecks perhaps?)

I've been a Who fan for quite a while and I consider The Who Sell Out and Who's Next to be among the greatest rock albums ever recorded. However, I've never paid too much attention to their post-Who's Next output and several attempts at apprehending Quadrophenia the album fizzled, leaving me with no interest in pursuing its film adaptation. Compounding my indifference was Ken Russell's TOMMY, a horrible film that all but ruined its source album for me. On the other hand, THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT -- Jeff Stein's fierce Who hagiography, released the same year as QUADROPHENIA -- is one of the most rocking rock and roll films of all time. So which Who would show up this time?

I expected another TOMMY -- a baroque, dated, on-the-nose muddle that people love purely out of misguided nostalgia. In this case, however, I had no real connection to the music. Expectations were very, very low (especially when I saw that Sting was one of the few "name" actors mentioned in the press materials). What I got was much better than expected. 

QUADROPHENIA’s plot in brief: the aforementioned Jimmy and his buddies eke (and tweak) out the end of their teenage years, barely putting in enough hours at their jobs to pay for the clothes, scooters, and (most important of all) amphetamines that their mod lifestyle requires. Their nominal rivals are the black leather-clad, motorcycle-riding derelicts known as rockers. Sartorial and automotive habits aside, it would seem that the only other difference between the groups is their take on Gene Vincent (rockers: pro, mods: decidedly con). The uber-square adults in Jimmy's life are flummoxed and disgusted by his profligate ways. Tensions at home, trouble at work, and conflict with the slut of his dreams (Leslie Ash) drive Jimmy further and further toward self-destructive isolation. The film builds to a bank holiday outing to Brighton where mods and rockers violently clash with each other (and any poor saps who happen to get in their way).

QUADROPHENIA is a great-looking film.* Cinematographer Brian Tufano (who would go on to lens Danny Boyle's early efforts) has desaturated Jimmy's bleak environment almost to the point of exsanguination. Exuberant color only peeks out occasionally, in moments of freedom:

Or alienation, as in this lone appearance of Jimmy's sister (Kim Neve) as she engages in a little indoor sunbathing (one of my favorite shots in the film**):

The film's first shot is fantastic (though you wouldn't know it from my lousy image rips from Youtube**): Jimmy at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea as the sun sets.

It's an elegiac, pensive way to open a film that's all about the hormonal ferment of young adulthood. There aren't many of these moments throughout the film but, when they come, QUADROPHENIA sets aside sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll long enough to become poignantly tragic (and Jimmy becomes suddenly sympathetic). 

During the other 98% of the film, I would have been happy if the snarling, dingo-esque brute had been rounded up by animal control and gassed. The thing about Jimmy and his pals is that they're not pure, dystopian evil like CLOCKWORK ORANGE's droogs. They're mangy curs but lack any real teeth. Their default setting is self-destruct; there's no real profit (or apparent pleasure) in their misdeeds.

The grimness of QUADROPHENIA’s vision made me occasionally wish for some of TOMMY’s prismacolored outrageousness. However, Roddam and Townsend were clearly aiming for a kitchen sink nightmare and the film never breaks its own internal logic. QUADROPHENIA is more Ken Loach than Ken Russell.
According to the interview with producer Bill Curbishley that’s included on the disc, the film was an attempt to capture “the adolescent dilemma.” I’m not sure how many adolescents are driving motor scooters to meth-fueled beach riots but there’s a shred of Jimmy’s frustration and powerlessness (and his attempts to deal with both via full immersion into a subculture) that resonates. While I still hold that the album is a bit overwrought, the film is as lean and mean as Jimmy himself.

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A few other things:

- In his interview, Curbishley laughingly states that the reason Roddam was chosen to direct was because he was “enthusiastic… and cheap!” For whatever reason, Roddam never really put out another film as notable as QUADROPHENIA. The film feels capably directed, if not exactly mesmerizing or groundbreaking. I think Tufano’s work is the strongest element here.

- Most of the time the Who's songs are used, the context is laughably explicit -- "5:15" finds our hero riding the train, "Cut My Hair" accompanies his getting a haircut... the cues are employed about as cleverly as if Lars Von Trier had used R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World and We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" at the end of MELANCHOLIA.

- The film features early performances by Ray Winstone and Timothy Spall, two actors I never imagined as being as young as they are here. In his introductory scene, Winstone is completely naked and singing Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” something I never thought I’d see (and, God-willing, will never see again).

- As I mentioned before, Sting is in this film. I have a long-standing loath-hate relationship with Sting – his music, his babblings about tantric sex, his general smuggery – so seeing he was in QUADROPHENIA almost guaranteed that I’d hate it. However, Sting’s turn as the Ace Face – a character to represents the shining, grooving pinnacle of mod-dom – is one of the film’s strongest elements. As the young hooligans descend upon Brighton, Ace Face injects some much-needed vitality into the film and for a moment it’s clear why one would be a mod in the first place. Furthermore, the resolution/demystification of Sting’s Ace Face persona (which I won’t divulge) is the film’s Great Scene and almost single handedly overcame any reservations I had about the film.

- I’d love to see more albums turned into films. Three suggestions: Daydream Nation, Exile on Main Street, Mag Earwhig!

- In the film’s other Great Scene, the boys attempt to buy a sack of amphetamines of a drug dealer played with oily precision by John Bindon. There’s a reason Bindon was able to pull off the casual thuggery so wonderfully: he was the real deal, a mob enforcer who dabbled in acting and, among other things, inspired the character Vinnie Jones played in LOCK, STOCK, AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS.

- The title refers to Jimmy’s alleged split personality that he is somehow four different people at once (and each of these personages is represented by the four members of the Who). I didn’t pick up on this in the film or on the album. Jimmy’s repugnance is singular and decidedly one-note.

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* On this point, it's really worth watching the ten-minute restoration demo that accompanies this disc; what the Criterion people were able to do with the source material (both visual and aural) is nothing short of alchemy.

** Here I'd like to mention that one of my major excuses for not writing more regularly in this blog is my inability to grab stills off Blurays. The shot of Jimmy's sister is taken from the bowels of the internet and is representative of the SD version of QUADROPHENIA, not this stellar new print. If anyone reading this has a preferred method for grabbing Blu stills they want to share, I'd be much obliged. The most fun I have in writing this stuff up is gathering the images and playing off them. I really don't care to hear myself talk about what I thought of a film. I prefer to grab five-to-twenty arresting images and bounce a few words/thoughts off of them. This is the reason I value and respect Matthew Dessem's Criterion Contraption blog so much. He says more with a handful of stills and a couple hundred words than most film bloggers (and "professional" film writers) will say in their careers. I don't think anything in my work approaches Matt's insight but his model is definitely the only one I find tenable in a sea of internet film writers. If I can rant a little more, I'll also add that my aim has always been to write films and not about films. So there's something depressing even about the posts I feel best about. So I suppose I'm a self-loathing film blogger... something the world really needs!

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