Wednesday, April 8, 2009

It's A Dastardly Plot!

A few nights ago I was channel surfing and caught the last few minutes of The Bed-Sitting Room (1969), the cult classic about a post-Nuclear England with only 20 people left alive. A notorious flop on first release, it's now celebrated for the visuals of director Richard Lester and cinematographer David Watkin, the often surrealistic gags of Spike Milligan, and the amazing cast -- Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Marty Feldman, and Milligan himself as well as British theatre greats Michael Hordern and Ralph Richardson. There are many classic moments: Frank Thornton, as the only surviving BBC announcer, who goes around giving everybody the news personally; Feldman as "The National Health Service" in a nurse uniform; Harry Secombe as a frustrated bachelor willing to pay for certain wifely duties; An old lady who is now Queen because she was a housemaid at Buckingham Palace and thus the closest survivor to the throne. 

In 1956 the 24 year old Lester had directed Peter Sellers in A Show Called Fred, Milligan's attempt to bring Goon Show humor to TV. 

The Bed-Sitting Room shows what Fred might have looked like with a bigger budget.

But what's always impressed me most about The Bed-Sitting Room is its virtual lack of a plot structure. I suppose it does have something resembling plot -- Ralph Richardson mutates into a the title room, and in the last five minutes or so various character concerns are resolved. This section has one of the film's few major flaws: Rita Tushingham starts showing real emotion about the baby she wants to have, and this seems out of place in a film otherwise devoid of standard plot arcs and character motivations.

The great comedy producer Hal Roach once said that you could do anything you want in a film for about 20 minutes -- after that, the audience demands some kind of plot. The anarchic stage hit Hellzapoppin had a conventional musical romance grafted onto its film version. Even a seeming free-for-all like the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup has a definite narrative. Of all Hollywood studio-era comedies, perhaps W.C. Fields' Never Give A Sucker An Even Break came the closest to totally jettisoning conventional plot structure, though that may have been due more to incompetent scripting than avant-garde experimentalism. In any event, Fields:Sucker (as its auteur suggested it be called) was still little more than several (admittedly eccentric) shorts strung together.

By the late '60s, the studio system was crumbling and Hollywood was willing to try just about anything. TV producer Bob Rafelson wanted to move into features and decided a rock group he had created would be his ticket. 

The Monkees had run for two years on NBC, even winning an Emmy for best comedy program. Using Lester's Beatles film Help! as a foundation, The Monkees was more specifically indebted to the Marx Brothers and even the Goons, relying on running gags, fourth-wall breakage and quick-cut editing -- a technique that has completely disappeared from comedy, although ironically it has come to dominate action films and music videos.

After The Monkees left the air in 1968, Rafelson figured he could get one last bit of mileage out of the rock group he'd created, and conceived a feature film that would be a satire on the rock group he'd created. Working with a refugee from Roger Corman epics named Jack Nicholson, and getting input from the Monkees themselves during a pot-fueled writing session, something called Head was dreamed up.

Head has even less plot than The Bed-Sitting Room. It really has no plot at all. Its "structure" comes from running gags. It's the most successful attempt ever at a plotless feature comedy, although as a comedy it has one obvious flaw: weak gags. Rafelson and Nicholson were not comedy writers. They should have let some gagmen from the sitcom go over the script and add jokes.

Still, there many great things in the film, the famous "TV commercial" with the Monkees as dandruff in Victor Mature's hair being the most celebrated. You can actually make a case that Head was the most innovative feature produced by Hollywood in the 1960s.

1 comment:

  1. Splendid stuff, sir!

    I seem to recall THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN wasn't exactly overburdened with plot; whilst THE GREAT MCGONAGALL has one of the best breaking of the fourth wall moments I've ever seen - Spike and the other actors in the scene suddenly appear to mess up. Spike gets angry and the director steps into frame and tells everyone to go to lunch! Not a good film but worth watching just for that moment.