Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Film '79

Watching an entire film all the way through is a pleasure that largely disappeared when the children arrived, but every now and again I make the effort. So last week we watched Quadrophenia. A great film, even if it does remind me of how utterly crap being a teenager was.

The soundtrack is possibly even better than the film, and what a tragedy it is for us cinema fans that Phil Daniels preferred the stage never played a major leading role on screen again.

The film came out in 1979, a year to forget in the real world. A right wing swing in this country brought Mrs Thatcher to power and an illiberal revolution in Iran brought the Ayatollah to power. We also had a second oil shock and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. All four events caused crises that are still ongoing.

However on the silver screen things were someone better, suggesting a sort of symbiosis between great cinema and global troubles, although that would suggest we should be in the middle of a golden age right now.

1979 was two years after Star Wars rewrote the rules on science fiction films. Whilst we all waited for The Empire Strikes Back, a splurge of films tried, but entirely failed, to clear the low bar set by the A New Hope.

In 1979 we these included Star Trek: The Motion Picture, or the Motionless Picture as it was dubbed which, as an odd numbered Star Trek film, was of course pants. Then we had the lightweight Disney film The Black Hole, then a movie that showed us the future looking like Las Vegas, namely Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and finally the leading contender for the worst Bond film of all time - Moonraker.

And yes, I saw every one of those in the cinema.

But not every sci-fi film of the year was rubbish, for this was also the year of Alien. Ridley Scott, H R Giger and a great cast, including Sigourney Weaver and John Hurt, got together to give us possibly the best outer space horror story of all time.

J D Ballard actually turned down the novelization after reading the script. He spent the rest of his life kicking himself, but in his defence I doubt anyone reading the minimal dialogue in 1978 could have had any idea how amazing a film would be made from it. In due course the dripping chains and so on would become clichés, and the Alien franchise utterly interminable, but you can't get past how great the first film was.

Another film, written as science fiction, turned into science fact before its run in the cinema had come an end. This was The China Syndrome.

The story of a nuclear accident was dubbed "sheer fiction" by the nuclear industry when it came out, but then twelve days later the TMI-2 reactor at Three Mile Island went into meltdown. Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and most of all Jack Lemmon, act their socks off on screen, but arguably the real horror was provided by the news headlines.

To date no fatal cancer has been attributed to Three Mile Island, and compared to Chernobyl and Fukushima it seems a very minor accident, but the terror hasn't gone away and possibly this is where it all started to go wrong for the nuclear industry.

Meanwhile, up in New York, Woody Allen was in a purple patch. Manhattan has the mild mannered, 42 year old, Jewish intellectual dating the then seventeen year old granddaughter of Ernest Hemmingway, something that would have given the old man a heart attack had he not already topped himself. Not withstanding the rumours about Mr Allen and young girls which this helps to stoke, it is a good film, surviving being black and white and scored by Gershwin without coming across as too arty-farty.

Also from the other side of the pond, and somewhat more epic, was Apocalypse Now. The most quotable Vietnam movie of all time, it survived a production process that would have sunk a lesser director than Francis Ford Coppola. Pretty much nobody involved in the film, except Harrison Ford - and he's hardly in it - ever scaled such heights again, but that doesn't matter. This is one of those great film that you suspect even the person who made Marlon Brando's tea still talks about being involved in.

Various versions have appeared since, but the original edit is still probably the best. Coppola said the production mirrored the war itself; too much money, too much equipment and everyone going slowly insane. Once the shoot was over he had the unenviable job of assembling a film from miles of mostly useless stock.

However what emerged from the slag heap was an absolute gem of a movie. Thanks to Apocalypse Now ceiling fans now always turn into helicopters, Ride of the Valkyries is no longer just part of the Ring Cycle and Heart of Darkness is just the book of the film. Even the Vietnam war itself seems to be just a reflection of Coppola's nightmare vision.

However the Yanks weren't the only ones making great films that year. Starring a young Ray Winston was Scum, a cheerful tale of what we used to do with young offenders in less progressive days. Too controversial for the BBC when it was written in 1977, most people didn't actually see it until it was shown on Channel 4 in 1983. Mary Whitehouse, who would rather we had all been watching Jimmy Saville, won a private prosecution of Channel 4, although the decision was overturned on appeal. Like Doctor Who, The Goodies and almost everything else she hated, it is now regarded as a classic.

Ray Winston though wasn't the only hard man on the screen. Bob Hoskins was also acting pretty mean in The Long Good Friday. A delay in the release meant the film came out in 1980, but production was completed in '79.

Possibly the best British crime film since Get Carter, it both looks back to the seventies, the era of The Sweeney and the IRA Mainland Bombing Campaign, but also forward to the eighties and beyond. Hoskins, a crime boss having a bad day at the office, is trying to make his dodgy business legitimate and redevelop the London docklands in the hope of luring the Olympics to the city, but comes up against an organisation even meaner than his.

But the film of the year for me is none of the above, worthy though they are. For 1979 was also the year that Monty Python had their annus mirabilis, and asked what, apart from giving us pretentious phrases to repeat ad nauseum, the Romans had ever done for us.

Still officially banned in Harrogate, The Life Of Brian is really just a series of sketches, at least a dozen or so being amongst the best the Pythons have ever done, but somehow it does all hang together reasonably coherently, thanks to Graham Chapman's wacky charisma, the team's underlying humanism and Eric Idle's musical finale.

Monty Python were six brilliant comedians who changed British TV comedy, but it was by sticking together long enough to come up with The Holy Grail and The Life Of Brian they escaped the confines of the small screen and became immortal.

Yes, it's a bit of a shame that whilst forty years ago people watched the Pythons because they hadn't a clue what they were going to say next, whereas today people go to Spamalot knowing every line in advance, but they were still brilliant.

So that was the world of film as the seventies drew to close.

A lot of science fiction for teenagers, teenagers on mopeds, teenagers in a borstal, a teenager dating a middle aged man, a nightmare in outer space, a nuclear nightmare, the Vietnam war as a nightmare, a gangster having a nightmare day and Monty Python telling us to Always Looks On The Bright Side Of Life. 

In the decade to come we were all going to need that advice.


Mark D. said...

Quadropenia, one of my original favorite films, and Apocalypse Know is another. Both were produced when i was still very young and i never stopped to think that they're release dates were both 1979. Thanks for posting i enjoyed the article.

Martin Porter said...

They're not just good films, they've stood the test of time and of their type haven't been beaten. Same with Alioen, Life of Brian and (maybe) Long Good Friday.

Dunno why the end of a duff decade made that happen.