Unwatchable

Robert Castle


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk

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i.

The Nearly Unwatchable (or the Barely Watchable - or the most likely unwatched).

For many reasons a movie could be unwatchable. You might not get to the theatre soon enough, so fast do mediocre and lame films move through.  The movie, perhaps, hasn’t found a distributor and never gets released. There’s cable and the VCR, yes, but you might not have these or, just as unlikely, you’re a purist who will not see a film under any circumstance save in a theatre on the largest screen with stadium seating.  Less unlikely than being a purist, you think Hollywood produces vile products that offend morals, corrupt youth, and violate good taste. Or you might just be blind or deaf or both.

An unwatchable movie, by any standard, is not likely to have been watched by many people.  Thus, defining it is like trying to describe a bird species native only to central New Guinea.  But I will try: 
 I start watching but cannot watch it all the way through. 

Sounds quite simple.

Yet, there are too many movies that have done this to me.  By the terms of my definition, the movie should be all the more interesting after one hasn’t been able to watch it completely.  Instead of being disdained or forgotten or resented for being a nuisance, unwatchable movies belong to an exclusive club. 

I won’t go as far as Stanley Cavell and create a four movie genre (Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, p.3.).  However, they should be cherished and have (if they haven’t, it wouldn’t destroy the bond) a subtle kinship.

Indeed, an unwatchable film represents so great a contradiction to my moviegoing habits that I have been compelled to reflect on it.  I will watch a movie, any time, regardless of content.  Japanese monster films, foreign science-fiction flicks, kung-fu debauches, the normal fare of Mystery Science Theater 3000, even musicals and romances. Movies that I shouldn’t have watched or should have gone unwatched after a few minutes, I have watched and delighted in. 

Speaking cases, I have seen both Dr. Phibes movies, not to mention the unutterably (thus its saving grace in the cinematic imagination) embarrassing duo, also starring Vincent Price, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) and its over-conceptualized [sic] sequel, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs (1966).  The latter Goldfoot might resemble an unwatchable film so incomprehensible is the idea that anybody seriously or enthusiastically watched the former Goldfoot; so wretched they contained episodes that made one wonder what the actors/writers could have been thinking when obviously this was not a good idea for a movie gone bad during production. The same could be said for many American International features produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff.  So how do we excuse the early Dustin Hoffman vehicle, Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?

    Something ineluctably present at the core of their 
    unwatchability.  Such that not only could I identify 
    them as unwatchable but the readers likewise would 
    conclude absolutely with my judgment

A plausible reason for Girl Bombs’ incomprehensibility (and, yet, the fatal fascination which makes it watchable) is a pair of Italian comedians (Ciccio Ingrassa and Franco Franchi) whose routine certainly doesn’t improve in dubbed or subtitled translation.  Why Italian comedians?  The production starred Price and Fabian (Bikini Machine had the beach movie, pop-recording artist, Frankie Avalon) but was shot in Italy and featured future sexy superstar, Laura Antonelli (Till Divorce Do us Part).  Also connected to this movie was director Mario Bava - a cult favourite for his witty handling of Hercules and other muscle-bound pictures.  Was he expected to do the same for spy films?  The chase scenes induced a headache more than bellyache. 

Unbelievable would be my reaction to this cult status.  A man barely on the cinematic map gets elevated to I know not what - for serving the gullible public shit to watch.  Camp is one thing (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) bad camp is the absence of  the minimum standard for watchability.  Maybe my basic complaint is that such an  elevated  status  creates an  expectation for some thing good to happen, in effect creating the groundwork for an Unwatchable movie. 

Movies made by top directors bereft their former talent for drama, comedy, or interesting premises and characters fit better in the incomprehensible column.  Return to the Bikini Machine credits and you’ll find an academy award-winning Best Director, Norman Taurog (for Spooky, a 1931 Jackie Cooper film). 

Taurog’s career eventually descended or ascended (who’s around to evaluate Spooky?) to Martin & Lewis and Elvis movies.  The chasm between his (hypothetical) Academy Award winning direction and Bikini Machine might be great enough to allow some reservation as to how good Taurog’s talent was.  But few would dispute the greatness of Carol Reed, maker of The Third Man, Odd Man Out, and Oliver!.  But what happened with the Anthony Quinn (this time an Indian) thing called Flap? This movie could easily have been one of the favoured few of any unwatchable movies that will be mentioned in this piece, except that I could barely watch five minutes.  Too short a time to form an attachment or even deeper involvement to the more respectably unwatchable kinds of movies.  In the  case of Girl Bombs, had I stopped watching it there would be little motivation to think much about the film because there had been little or no expectations for something decent to happen.  Which would explain why no American International film could be declared Unwatchable.  Yet, the good director taking a wrong turn, however briefly, would prove to be matchless for finding an ore of unwatchability. 

ii

The Ore of Unwatchability.

I had been fascinated by a title in Roman Polanski’s filmography, What? (Che? 1975) if only because I could not locate information about it.  I should have considered this portentous, and further should have wondered why no Polanski interviews mentioned it.   On the other hand, he had made it immediately before ChinatownWhat? was also made fifteen years before Pirates (what could be his Bikini Machine or Flap depending on your feelings for Frantic, Bitter Moon, and Death and the Maiden), in between he had made the sumptuous Tess (1978).  The blurb in the catalogue hadn’t signaled something abhorrent; the presence of Marcello Mastroianni and Polanski himself in the cast  virtually assured me of something decent. Che?’s production values were scarily reminiscent of Girl Bombs’.  Mastroianni was insuperable in nearly everything he had starred in; Polanski had a comic flare (The Fearless Vampire Killers) and dramatic capabilities (The Tenant) as an actor in his own films (but even better in someone else’s: Tornatore’s A Pure Formality).  He was also using an unknown actress, Sydne Rome, as he had in many of his previous films (Tess, Frantic and Bitter Moon); emboldened, I bought the What? video sight unseen.
The enigmatic title.  So promising.  What?  The soul of a metaphysical quest, maybe?  A mystery to outdo all mysteries?  Had I bought a computer prior to this, I would have had Leonard Maltan inform me it was a “[r]ibald  comedy about a gorgeous innocent who stays at a mansion of an eccentric millionaire.”  I would also have had his two-and-a-half stars  and  a line that told me Polanski didn’t do such a bad job.  So much for having information at one’s fingertips. Too much or too little, I  would have bought the damn tape.  My reaction to the first scenes was utter incomprehensibility. What? made the unbearable (a category between incomprehensible and unwatchable), if not unbearably unfunny, Pirates (1985), bearable! 

Certainly What? was aptly titled to augur probable audience response to its hyper-lurid sexual jumble.  Incomprehensible.  Moreover, the title could appropriately top a list of incomprehensible films (whence plot, characterization, motive for making the film, production values are all lacking); what a small surprise indeed that it would become unwatchable.

Nothing prepared me for the salacious, amateurish content, which started immediately.  A beautiful young women accosted by a couple men who had picked her up hitchhiking.  She ran for shelter down to a villa which turned out to be populated by psychotic freaks and couples who wanted the woman sexually.  Amateurish soft porn that had been better executed by less auteurish directors (whoever does the Andrew Stevens and Shannon Tweed stuff).

Yet this and the lame humour didn’t necessarily stop my watching the film.  I wanted to give Polanski a chance. 

The torturous plotting explained everyone’s presence at the villa, as well as to get the woman into sexual situations and fending off aggressive men (or the men confronting each other to see who deserved her attentions), and briskly destroyed my hope that the film was worth watching.  In one scene, Sydne Rome awakens to a man performing cunnilingus on her (the promise of something good - stimulating - if not funny.  His explanation for his presence in her room let alone between her legs was no less weak than what Polanski believed humorous in the entire film thus far and, finally, I ejected the cassette. 

“Faith” isn’t too strong a  feeling for my enduring forty minutes je ne sais What?.  Hadn’t the Millerites suffered the “Great Disappointment” and lived on in the form of Seventh Day Adventists?  Did the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ disband after the 1914 end of the world prediction disappointed them?  Couldn’t auteur theory save great directors who were susceptible to the bad movie? 

I could have used What? to give myself greater faith in Polanski’s moviemaking abilities, a la the phenomenon described by Leon Festinger in When Prophecy Fails.

Yet, What? neither resembled an interesting failure nor the low-budget quirkiness of a first film.  While few critics praised Kubrick’s Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss, they were singular works in terms of preparing Kubrick for greater, more massive bouts of moviemaking; besides, he wasn’t twenty-five years old!  And other nascent efforts exhibited primitive raw talent: Coppela’s Dementia 13; DePalma’s Greetings and Hi Mom!; Scorcese’s Who’s Knocking at My Door; and Demme’s Bloody Mama.  These films also embodied the nuclei of basic themes, motifs, styles, and characterizations; the nucleus of What? contained question marks and questionable talent.

What? happened between Chinatown and The Tenant.  Not Polanski’s first film nor first English-made production.  What? was as unwatchable as the most tedious art film from a film school.  From a man who had previously directed one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare on film.

So complete did What? become unwatchable, despite owning the video, I was never able to reach the end of the first hour.  A week later I went back to it but could only bear five minutes.  Polanski on camera for an extended period.  In pursuit of the girl.  Making threats.  Not funny.  Not dramatic.  There wasn’t even enough soft core material to keep me going!

Then I rewound the tape - a critical act.  I was telling myself many things.  First,  I didn’t want to resume the movie at any time.  Second, I was unlikely to watch the first half of the movie again.  Moreover, I wouldn’t try to find the spot where I had left off.

A few months later I loaned What? to a friend at NYU’s Film School.  I didn’t tell him my reaction, not wanting to taint his opinion.  He hasn’t mentioned it to me since (the last five years) and I’m strongly counting on him never returning it, which  unfortunately means I will never get his opinion of it.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s also equally unwatchable for him and wouldn’t mind having some form of validation of this “unwatchable” categorizing.
 

iii.

Pretty Unwatchable.

Film musicals represent a kind of unwatchable cinema and countless of them could join this exclusive club--and ruin its exclusivity - save that I will not watch enough of Finian’s Rainbow, Kismet, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Yentl (or any film associated with Barbra Streisand).  This repulsion for the musical defies cursory explanation, if only because I often watch Singin’ in the Rain and Bye Bye Birdie.  But I can reduce my feelings to this scrap: I love music but not singing (in films, the singing delays what should be happening, or I’m simply too impatient to wade through the singing to figure out what’s going on, but what’s going on is the problem).  I could watch Swan Lake but not There’s No Business Like Show Business.  Opera. . .out of the question, filmed or otherwise.  Singing without context (on record, cassette, CD, and in concert) leaves me cold.  The exceptions merely validate my unpraiseworthy predilection.

Thus I cannot assert much by incorporating two musicals under the Unwatchable banner.  Unless I believed that musical aficionados - those very people demanding that I renounce my humanity for ignoring An American in Paris, for shunning the vocal gift of mankind (and by implication for feeling great antipathy for the human channels to joy, community, positive feelings, romance, and sentimentality) - would rush to my defense, hug me and shake my hand, even ask my forgiveness for thinking so little of me, when I unveiled the names of those unwatchable musicals.

Two very successful Broadway shows were forced upon a disinterested  movie-going public.  The first had two of the most successful actors of the late Sixties; the second was not filmed until ten years after it had first appeared.  They both represented, in their singularly diverse ways, familiar if broadly mythologized and misguided aspects of the 1960s.  Hair was the commonplace and celebratory exploitation of the hippie movement and Vietnam War protests; Paint Your Wagon incorporated within its general plot the sexual liberation binges of the era whence husbands and wives, as well as the unmarried, swapped and shared partners (I’m surprised a full-scale production of the Yankees’ pitchers wife-swapping episode didn’t get a “treatment”).  A free-and-easy morality swirls through both musicals, and I would be hypocritical to deny the benefits I had received from this sexually slackened era.  Too much screwing was the least of these movies’ drawbacks, let alone our society’s failing point (unless you want to believe that’s how Rome/America declined and fell [but did Rome fall in a day, week, or several centuries? (has it ever really fallen or just been replaced by Rome wannabes?)]). 

Paint Your Wagon had watchability because of the cast.  Lee Marvin, Clint, Eastwood, and Jean Seberg drew me into the proceedings at the No Name City mining camp.  But notice that the producer brought two successful “actors”; unfortunately, their repertoire did not include singing (Honkeytonk Man hasn’t dispelled this fact for Eastwood), a not-so-small oversight given that one of the largest film budgets of the time, $20 million, was lavished on the production.  An oversight?  Maybe not.  Just the willful calculation of bean counters who, in the end, deserved to be stuck with this incredibly uneatable turkey.  And Eastwood insisted on singing!  Nobody had the courage, foresight, common sense to perform voiceovers as in My Fair Lady and Camelot.  At least - and this may be a variation of France’s love affair with Jerry Lewis’ humour - unspeakable more than unwatchable was Mr. Lewis’s Slapstick of Another Kind - Lee Marvin recorded and secured a hit record in England. 

Watching the parts of the movie that I did, I skipped those in which Eastwood sang.  Merely delivering lines he appeared stilted and out of place, his character secretly desiring to be back at the end of the rope at the beginning of Hang ‘Em High;  only less rough was listening to the warbling of the mutton-chopped Marvin.  From feeling embarrassed for the actors (and boredom deriving from the impossibility of the proceedings, with or without the singing).  A similar embarrassment I didn’t feel for Roman Polanski or any of the other makers of the Unwatchables to come. 

Paint Your Wagon’s plot could barely titillate veteran watchers of, or match, either Marvin’s palimony case or Eastwood’s ditching of Sondra Locke.  This musical Jules et Jim, a frontier Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, strained believability when it shouldn’t have.

Persisting with a critique of that thing which is past critiquing becomes the central characteristic of an Unwatchable film.  Out of love for this dislike do I go on and on and on. Unlike many critics who go on and on about that which they can feel no love, out of a  misplaced need to protect you from what they consider unwatchable (as if not seeing a stupidity will make you smarter).  I need people to see the Unwatchables here, so firm am I in the opinion that you will confirm my deepest feelings.

One’s basic feeling is to root for Seberg to leave both men - putting up with their singing would have been grounds for a battering case. Unfortunately, not having seen more than five minutes consecutively of the movie I can’t judge it on the basis of how things turned out.

We must return, again, to the Musical as “star vehicle”: transparently capitalizing on the presence of two megastars in the worst possible vehicle imaginable for them.  A Marvin-Eastwood musical challenges all sanity, we’d sooner accept a Bronson-Norris version of Julius Caesar.  Yet without this kind of idiocy we would have been deprived further sources of personal superiority in the form of Otto Preminger’s Rosebud, Elaine May’s Ishtar,  Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, and other low-breed specimens of what sounded like good - no, compelling - ideas at the time. 

Yet, would it be too easy, or too expected of me, to say that I thought less of Hair than Paint Your Wagon?  I wouldn’t have dared watch Hair  watching hair grow would have been better  but I had given an assignment to students to watch a movie dealing with the Vietnam War or the Sixties in general.  I tried to dissuade them from watching this musical.  But one girl was so enthusiastic, so loved the film that it was her favourite movie, who was I to deny her.  A teacher doesn’t want to kill a student’s excitement to do a project.  To evaluate the subsequent paper fairly meant watching the damn thing. This imperative and my inability to fulfill it, alone, made Hair special and expressly unwatchable.  Anticipating the “Hair” and “Age of Aquarius” songs, nor knowing Milos Foreman might direct it to a potentially palatable conclusion, couldn’t sustain me or overcome my aversion for the contents. The very reason I didn’t want the students to watch and write about it became evident from the first scene: perpetuation of the hippie myth.  I may have been able to stomach the hippie characterizations had they come at a time when hippies existed. 

Seeing Hair in the late 1990s was one thing but the further incongruity of it being made in the early 1980s was too much.  Not all of an era’s character types lose significance after a decade, but many of a society’s extreme or eccentric fringe do (some of the dialogue in 1940’s and 1950’s films noirs don’t survive the period, especially the posturing of the “hard boiled” types, but they aren’t extremely embarrassing either).  And the legacy of the hippies is, at best, problematic.  Television serves up caricatures of them in Dharma and Greg.  However, Abbie Hoffmann remained true to his radical calling to the end (a suicide), while Jerry Rubin sold out in the end (death by auto).  If you want, you can blame the baby boomers’ lackadaisical attitude toward drugs on the longhairs.  Regardless how one feels about them, hippies for all intents could not exist after the Carter years (with the same reasoning, here, that Paul Schrader uses when he claims that film noir can only exist with a particular time frame).   Not to include the remotest irony or skepticism about hippies nearly made Hair inexcusable more than unwatchable.  Do people who designate themselves “peace loving” deserve instant respect?  What we get in the opening scenes: Hippies running around acting free, men in beards, women without bras, both in sandals and smoking dope, objecting to authority, ostensibly homeless in Central Park (unless they secretly lived in the buildings surrounding the park).  Whatever hippies were, their representation as ersatz radical, ersatz autonomous creates the kind of embarrassment one had for the superstars who were singing in Paint Your Wagon.  In his 1966 album Freak Out, Frank Zappa had already parodying hippie-speak in the cut “Help I’m a Rock”:

Yes yes yes--I’ve always felt that
Yes I agree man, it really makes it
. . .yeah. . .
It’s a real THING, man
And it really makes it.

The liberated hippies in Hair resemble the way hippies were shown in 1960’s television shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and Gomer Pyle USMC.  Jethro Bodine becoming a hippie had more reality to it than did Foreman’s stoned glad-kids dancing and hopping when not taunting authority and condemning conformism.  At least Jethro understood hippiedom was a means to get laid.  Beads, long hair, jeans, ripped shirts, social dope smoking, free love (“love the one you’re with”), and the best rock music.  Foreman takes his hippies as seriously as he would later Larry Flynt; the realities firsthand are a bit uglier than ideas of social or first amendment freedoms.  Further, once one enters the hippie heaven of Hair, the exacting conformism to “act free” becomes insufferably tyrannical itself.  Crippled attempts to be free are also embarrassing to watch - a central emotion of the Unwatchable watcher - and boredom emerges like a froth from the viewer who subjects himself to these dismal actions. While there’s no doubt that the “hippie-image” struck deep chords of fear in middle-class America, the reason seems obvious: the superficial glance at the phenomenon will lead to an overreaction not unlike the response to an internal Communist threat in the late 1940’s. 

What seems equally atrocious is the continuing assault on the baby boomer/ Sixties Era by George Will-like righteousness, who merely foster the fossilized images of hippie drug-crazed revolution for the sake of a specious political agenda.

Hair venerates the myth and becomes a romantic hippie Camelot.  Rejection of material culture was short-lived; yippies became yuppies.  One might object and say that only a few brave people became hippies (honestly rejected the material gehenna and the direction this was taking the country), and I would agree: in effect, they were statistically insignificant and left but two legacies: drug-taking and, in relation to the drug-taking, narcissism as a virtue.  The drug-taking at the heart of hippie anti-authoritarianism was the ultimate way to bust society’s balls.  A politician’s mark of Cain as we enter the third millennium can still be the taking of drugs as a youth (ask Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg; or listen to the snickering at Bill Clinton’s “I didn’t inhale response”; or grow bored by the repeated questions to George W. Bush on past cocaine use).  Hippie narcissism I would correlate to the emphasis on sexuality and personal fulfilment.  A hippie allegedly personified self-discovery and self-fulfilment; society came second to this small community of instant gratifiers.  The hippies certainly didn’t create the trend which evolved into junk like I’m OK, You’re OK and EST and Transcendental Meditation.  But they were on the frontline of the battle to make the self the centre of attention.  Realizing the self.  Making society the enemy.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Man is born free, society corrupts him” supplanted Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential freedom.  And sex became attractive.  Hippies were getting “some,” and people in their simplified, eyes wide shut view of life either envied or hated them (reminiscent of misconceptions toward the Oneida community in the 1850’s).  Maybe it was fitting that the late-Carter, early-Reagan years unleashed the movie Hair, canonizing Me-Generation narcissism.

iv.

The Un-Unwatchable.

Despite insisting on a personal design for “unwatchable,” I  mention the films above and below to a public that, I am confident, will not feel much differently about them.  Yet, I must be lucid about my feelings of revulsion or distaste and have you identify the source of these feelings, not necessarily to provoke your disagreement but to flesh out the deeper differences to our ostensibly similar responses.  Which is why I must reaffirm my position: what becomes “unwatchable” must gain a special significance for you other than it being “campy” (a category taken care of long ago) or boring (a category I’ll take care of below).
 I wish things were simple for us.  That I could have used Polanski’s What? as the permanent measure for the unwatchable film, provided a list of unwatchable films, possibly have found an inner connection among the unwatchable bunch, and proceeded in another article to define a new category of movie.  In a sense, mined the vein until I had exhausted it.  However, there were problems - problems with the “defining” equipment needed to extract this precious ore.  Unless I lied to you, my biggest problem became what to do with a couple of movies destined for unwatchability that I had the misfortune to watch all the way through.  Indeed, within this biggest problem lay another problem which might have discouraged my attempting this essay at all; namely, the premises of this piece would be violently undermined unless I found a solution in time (which is why I am delaying the announcement or presentation of the quintessentially unwatchable movie in the history of cinema). 

I should have stopped watching Ken Russell’s Lizstomania.  Maybe music (without words) sustained my watching it, or my cinematic voyeurism cherished Russell’s outrages, perchance waiting for one of them to redeem the film.  Unfortunately, blasting Roger Daltry to the moon didn’t make good the atonement.  I sat through the movie in one sitting but didn’t perceive aesthetic value from the experience, by which I mean getting the sense of a larger, finer structure or pattern to the film’s action and progression.  First and foremost to the aesthetic experience is an emotional response to what I’m seeing.  An excruciatingly painful viewing eliminates emotional involvement immediately, as if one were afflicted with a migraine or sneezing fit, nearly a physical impediment to any approach to the film.  With Lizstomania, as with What?, the absence of drama, pathos, and humour created the severe pain watching (with the Dr. Goldfoot films, the attempts at humour become painful - a pain much worse than say from Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood and Life Stinks but maybe not so much worse than Ishtar, which couldn’t become unwatchable because I wouldn’t subject myself to a feeling that potentially could be more painful than watching Dr. Goldfoot).  So why didn’t I absent myself from Lizstomania?

An unwatchable film must be fervidly anticipated.  Ken Russell’s work, just by being Ken Russell’s work, attracts negative reviews from critics who can’t forgive his portrayal of classical composers in The Music Lovers (Tchaikovsky) and Mahler - the last  straw: Roger Daltry cast as Franz Lizst.  More so, being branded excessive (a chord often  vibrating in the Unwatchable melody) has haunted Russell since The Devils.  One might debate his interpretations of D. H. Lawrence (Women in Love and The Rainbow) and The Who’s Tommy (especially when Ann-Margaret is nearly drowned in a room of baked beans), but The Devils contained many scenes which would shock people in the first year of the twenty-first century (presuming we go along with the pundits who rant that the we have become unshockable by explicit sex and violence in movies or White Houses).

By the time he made Lizstomania, one would think Russell had used up his bag of outrages.  Until we see Franz Lizst depicted as a nineteenth century pop music star, in one of the severest cases of present-ism since Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell

Rather belatedly, I mention these musicals.  Will the baby boom generation ever forgive itself these two narrow narcissisms?  Better sense would have had me ignore anything religious (the small print might discourage the intolerantly religious types).  However, the mixture of the hippie and religion was too much to allow them to remain unmentionables.  Perhaps the worst conceit of the late sixties was the notion that Jesus Christ (once “the greatest salesman in the world”) was an early version of a hippie.  Part of a sect he may certainly have been; kicking ass in the temple of moneychangers gives him classical anti-big business credentials.  Jesus Christ Superstar (whose music I’ve heard once complete through) remains an unswallowable concept, not the least being the idea of  “superstar”- the greatest celebrity in the world.  Attached to this (and Godspell starts here) is the absurdity of a flower child Christ, one palatable for the ages.  Anti-authoritarianism raised to the level of. . .Christ!   I’m not sure whether his new “identity” was actually meant to soften Christ or raise the image of the hippie.  But was Christ really a peaceful man?  Would he have placed a daisy in a Roman soldier’s helmet?  Why is The Life of Brian the only palatable sword-and-sandal epic?

Maybe not as bad as making Christ a hippie, Russell dresses Richard Wagner in a Nazi uniform.  I remember Time’s review trying to salvage the film by taking the perspective that Lizstomania represented the essence of Ken Russell’s stylisation, dubbing the film as a piece of “Russellmania” (this also reinforced my feeling that any movie can eventually garner a good review).  In fact, this slightly positive slant ultimately encouraged my eventual viewing the film more than a decade later on video, while the film itself did not last long when it was playing in the late 1970’s.

And another decade still had to pass for someone to write about this barely remembered film. Nothing seemed right with Russell’s “interpretation” of Lizst’s popularity.  Con-forming to the Tommy/Daltry scenario, he wove the story around the force of a man’s personality and how that personality affected the masses.  Screaming, adoring fans followed Lizst as if he were a rock star.  Mindless multitudes (maybe Wagner’s Nazi outfits are relevant) created a 19th century sensation.  What can one do with such a mindless mob on film?  The best aestheticization of concert fans was done by Oliver Stone in The Doors in the way he bound Jim Morrison’s charisma to the rhythms of the mania-driven fans, whereas Lizstomania’s crowd scenes are perfunctory.  Russell imposes a “rock thesis” which, for better or worse, he upholds very loosely dramatically.  We get a pastiche of forced fantasies culminating in the single image which both repulsed and lasted in me of Daltry/Lizst (one never imagines The Who’s lead singer as the composer- it could have been easily have been Bob Hope or Bing Crosby or David Bowie) bouncing along a stage on a set of gargantuan testicles.  Russell pushes the rockstar/sex symbol to an obvious if not banal extreme (by contrast, David Cronenberg’s extreme thesis in Crash equates sexual energy to car crashes that both shakes you up and, despite its weirdness, eventually seems plausible), and ultimately bypasses the emotional wavelengths of the masses of listeners who ARE manic (The Doors presents one possibility; Alan Parker’s The Wall, another).  Lizstomania dulls our senses with such fantasies and excesses rather than making us revile their implications (again, something that Crash accomplishes - with the aesthetic risk of destroying its reception by the usual reviewing outlets who jumped at the chance of placing Crash in an unwatchable categorization).  And unlike his other films, Russell creates a didacticism amounting to condescension, especially with his caricature of Wagner, which otherwise might have yielded something else, say, had he played up the fact that Lizst was Wagner’s father-in-law.  The aridity of Lizstomania wore down this most dedicated Russell-maniac, especially one who enjoyed his takes on sexuality and fantasy in Gothic, Crimes of Passion, Lair of the White Worm, and Whore

Nothing could seem more tedious. . . .only the potential for cohesion and, especially, violation  (Lizst drowning in a vat of baked beans) kept me watching.  Also, a sense of duty to the director.  Faith in what he had accomplished.  A belief something would arise.  A pattern of motifs which would connect it to his other movies.  I waited in vain.  The experience was exhausting.  I thought I would never sit through a movie as unwatchable as this again. 

v.

The Ersatz Unwatchable.

A fool’s gold of unwatchability, like any other fool’s gold, you behold and declare to the world it’s the real thing.  Then the expert arrives, assesses the value of your discovery, looks to the ground nearly afraid to speak and disappoint; soon you leave humbled.

Because the Unwatchable film is my abstraction, I must claim to be that expert.  I’m not here to flaunt expertise so much as to prevent the reader from declaim too quickly that this or that movie is unwatchable.  I must act as both fool and expert to cancel the ego incumbent with this project. 

Ego?  Yes, the Unwatchable doesn’t exist outside the viewer, in this case: myself.  The Unwatchable is NOT an object and cannot be found anywhere.  Yet, it exists and my duty has been ongoing to describe the ineluctable subject.  The temptation merely to call the Unwatchable into existence is inevitable. 
I have recently watched a film which I cannot believe anyone could redeem in any manner.  I found fifty or sixty reviews and not one endorses the film.  Occasionally, reviewers wrote singular nice things (a good performance by the lead actress; however, the main male stars were eviscerated) but from all possible perspectives the movie was deemed silly, implausible (the plot: a woman is psychically connected to the brain waves of a serial killer; the reason for the connection is never established), and a waste of great directorial talent.  Some reviews are more vicious than others, but the impression that not one reviewer thought the movie worth seeing might set the stage for the purest vein of the unwatchable.  You think immediately that this film qualifies, if only because it succeeds at the very thing that I want to happen: universal acceptance of a verdict that some (but definitely one) films are unwatchable.   Actual empirical evidence here!  Even the fact that I had watched the film might not be so great an impediment as the terminology seems to require, i.e., not watching the film entirely.  A recent film, besides.  Confirmation of the “concept” while I was elucidating it.

The film was In Dreams (1999), directed by Neil Jordan.  And another aspect of the Unwatchable structure seemingly falls into place; namely, a distinguished director (The Crying Game, Mona Lisa) had produced a clutter - a movie disabled from concept to execution to conclusion.  My purpose tracking down so many reviews was to find somebody who found redeeming values.  Given the sweeping odium toward In Dreams, which seems to come only for the worst of the worst material (Phantasm and American Pie sequels), I imagine most people would have, movie unseen, considered In Dreams the kind that audiences leave en masse, the kind that readers of this article would believe an automatic Unwatchable.  Yet, nearly as astounding would be the ensuing realization that In Dreams never neared the mad incomprehensibilities of the Goldfoot movies or near-unwatchables such as Flap and Honky Tonk Freeway.  But could we call this a career misstep for Jordan, in lieu of the fact that although the film was stunning in its improbability it was also very watchable? 

Maybe I’m a sucker for the In Dreams' premise.  Or did I continue to watch to see how Jordan could untwist the cinematic wreckage by the end (in fact, its opening images of a town submerged beneath an artificial lake had gripped my imagination).  An outrageous premise just isn’t enough, in the sense that the normal moviegoing sensibility would not be offended enough - such that the offense or revulsion would create a fascination. 

Critics often suggest ways of making the movie they’re reviewing better in small and big ways, a practice that I have found ridiculous, no less so than suggesting to the director how he or she  could make a film 
unwatchable.  Lizstomania fails as an Unwatchable if only because I was induced to suggest that Russell do something else with his crowd scenes.  But before condemning for not living up to my principles, amending those crowd scenes would not have overcome Daltry/Lizst bouncing around on the giant testicles. 

All this fool’s gold of an unwatchable movie tells us is that the ingredients for the Unwatchable are unpredictable, although less unpredictable than the sensibility that defines the unwatchable film: the Unwatchable film has no essence but exists only in the communion of the viewer and a particular film.  For some, there may be no chance for this type of film to exist - not because they find all movies interesting but that they have never quite ascertained the special nature of unwatchability (not to mention those who have rejected the concept out of hand).
 

vi. 

The Bore of Unwatchability.

The one quality that all the above un-, and nearly un-watchable films have not produced was boredom, the very thing I’d banish from the qualification to be unwatchable.  Weariness, ennui, even angst (Hair) are acceptable responses to these movies and, essentially, more admirable as a response than indifference.  Boredom ensues from an event not satisfying a high prospect (that is, previous high stimulation has deadened the nerves of interest), but for me it has pejorative ramifications associated with children, adolescents, and young adults who feel the world doesn’t performed spectacularly enough.  I wouldn’t want it to be the criterion for anything I experience.  Yet, this essay might well be a phenomenology of Boredom as it examines what makes one lose interest or, looking at it from the other direction: what one was impatient to see!  But was I really bored by Hair, Paint Your Wagon, Lizstomania, and What?  Or just caught in the trap of a peculiarly optimistic expectation (even a hair’s breadth expectation that Hair was cut by the director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)?  Lizstomania technically must default as an unwatchable because it kept the expectation alive, whereas the others did not; whereas Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, Flap, and Who is Harry Kellerman? didn’t offer enough expectations and therefore must also default. 

However, I cannot disguise the truth that Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice was purely fatiguing watching .  At the time, maybe fifteen years ago, I weakly knew about the director and film - I had watched The Leopard but it had left no impression save that I was curious about Burt Lancaster (whom I associated with Birdman of Alcatraz, Elmer Gantry, and The Professionals) appearing in an Italian production.  The greatest prospect within Death in Venice was actor Dirk Bogarde, my favorite English actor, in the lead role.  The opening and successive scenes were crushingly long and static, the classical (Mahler) music intolerably loud, so momentously crushing were the scenes that I was convinced in ten minutes that Visconti’s version of Thomas Mann’s novella was the quintessentially deadliest cinematic experience one could hypothesize. 

I wasn’t convinced that the composer’s homoerotic attraction for the unfeeling teenager was anything more than the farce of an old fart wanting the freshest possible body for a sexual experience, which is central to the story itself and the aesthetic epiphany connected to his attraction.  The temptation didn’t seem to match the Mahler music.  In retrospect, having since seen several Visconti films, this desire should have been as compelling as the homoerotic content in The Damned, as well as the suggested homosexual relationship in Ossessione (adding this element to a version of The Postman Always Ring Twice contributed to it being the best film version of the Cain novel).  In Death in Venice the obsession was risible and the composer was better off dead.

Other elements connected it to other unwatchable films.  The classical composer as a character linked it to Lizstomania, although the respective composers and their actors performing the roles couldn’t be more acutely opposed.  Having a musical element alone brought together Death in Venice with Paint Your Wagon and Hair, not to mention the unconventional sexual relationships embodied in them.  What? stood alone as amateurish and, in subject matter if not presentation, unworthy of its director, perhaps unworthy of being unwatchable. 

Having left Death in Venice to the penultimate unwatchable types, I also have less to say about it than the other movies.  Partly I haven’t seen it in fifteen years, but more likely I may be losing faith in the category “unwatchable.”  For it will be inevitable that my “criticisms” and categorization will be misunderstood in many ways by many people - too many ways to address here.  If the reader can first understand that I admit that the faults I have found in these movies, most especially their supreme fault, originated in my own limited watching.

vii.

The Most Unwatchable.

In the interest of definition and understanding (against your best interest of giving you too much information), I must cite a film that, like Lizstomania, would qualify as “unwatchable” except that I had watched the entire movie.

But I had not watched it in an uninterrupted sitting. 

Recall that I had given What? a second chance a week later when I thought my stamina could suffer the last hopeless forty to fifty minutes.  With Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books, I needed several (4) viewings, as well as a reading of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.  Not only this, but I used the Internet to track down every article written about Propero’s Books and its director.  Three days, several rest stops, a cold shower. 

A conscious act to prevent it from becoming unwatchable.

Che!?

I had seen and enjoyed two earlier Greenaway’s films: The Belly of an Architect and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover.  But do not mistake this use of “enjoy.” Greenaway’s films work at the highest artistic level in addition to having a crude, bullying, if not outrageously gross appearances (reminiscent of Marco Ferrari’s La Grande Bouffe), which made the experience of his films difficult enjoyments.  These and the film I saw after Prospero’s Books, Drowning by Numbers, are very ornate movies which ignore regular plotting devices and instead present a demanding cinematic language which the regular filmgoer will never possess, nor the regular art house patron manage to tolerate.  But The Cook, The Belly, and Drowning are amateurish in their demands for watching attentively compared to Prospero’s Books.  Only a partial if subtle pleasure arose from an intimation that I was watching a cinematic sensibility unlike any other (the closest being David Lynch, whose background in experimental art influenced his own film aesthetic in ways similar to Greenaway; likewise, the excruciating delights of Eraserhead resembled those offered in Greenaway’s movies) kept me going the second and third days of watching.

Paradoxically, Prospero’s Books became an opposite pole of inspiration to Death in Venice for writing this essay.  After fifteen minute I was giving up - a time limit not enough to truly become “unwatchable,” so I have said, but Prospero’s Books defied all movie-watching rules in its first few minutes.  I was convinced (and nothing that I have read since watching the entire film has changed this opinion) that only critics who had a vested interest in either a) the career of Peter Greenaway, b) film adaptations of Shakespeare, and c) John Gielgud’s late film career choices, could watch this movie. 

Unlike What?, for example, Prospero was a cinematic fete; indeed, it embraced the major flaw or encumbrance to watching more than five minutes: it was TOO RICH, there was TOO MUCH happening.  No human could comprehend all that was happening on the screen.  Such an assault on the visual sense and our mental capacity to take it all in that hadn’t been seen since the “psychedelic” sequence in 2001 (in retrospect, elementary to grasp compared to Prospero). 

A flaw? 

Shouldn’t this be what cinema’s supposed to be doing?  A visual profusion whence we only know and care what we see without the encumbrance of the plot (in the present case, we know the story of  The Tempest and don’t have to be burdened with figuring out the sequence of events)? 

A flaw! 

Yes, a small but important one.  Did you miss it?  One would have had to see the movie several times, see it with the point of studying it and not just watching it (most ersatz or near unwatchable or un-unwatchable and some Unwatchables are unstudiable).  No small flaw for a film guaranteed to give you a migraine from being unable to comprehend what you’re seeing after a few moments.  To put oneself through this several times, a two hour movie that feels like two hundred!  For art’s sake.

Yes, yes, yes.  Why do you think I laboured three days to watch it?  Re-read Shakespeare?  Even replayed the scenes with the boxes within boxes which I later learned was called Quantel Paint-box?

But I am also aware of a vast stock of twentieth century fiction that is just as or more daunting.   Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (unfinishable?).  The novels of William Gaddis.  Joseph McElroy’s trio: Lookout Cartridge, Plus, and Women and Men (unreadable).  Paul West’s The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests and Terrestrials (a novelist who is the closest literary equivalent to Greenaway).  The density of these novels I was reminded of during the three-day ordeal (Terrestrials took me six weeks).  Several post-modern novels are simply too difficult to get through because of the way they’re constructed.  Arno Schmidt’s entire corpus, for example capped  by Evening Edged in Gold, which might be the most ambitious book ever written. The mathematically calculated books from the Oulipo authors: Jacques Roubaud’s The Princess Hoppy, Harry Matthews’ Tlooth.  The fact that few of these authors would be known or well known testifies to an analogous place where Greenaway’s films fall. 

Further, Prospero’s Books warrants, ultimately, unwatchable status by resisting a second viewing!  The thought of watching it again can not be banished absolutely   Among all Unwatchables, it should be the most unwatchable because I had watched it.  Once confronting this monster of monsters, I couldn’t leave it in the cassette case (a five-day rental).  A challenge or simply my determination not to take it back unfinished (I hadn’t taken it out of the case the first time I had rented it)?

The common flaw among previous Unwatchables: What?, Hair, Paint Your Wagon, and Death in Venice, their inabilty to be quintessentially unwatchable like Prospero’s Books was that. . .I couldn’t watch them!


Also see:

The Good, the Bad, and the Wretched
 
 
 
 
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