Sunday, January 13, 2008

Soul Desert: Part III

(Jerzy Skolimowski, UK, 1971, 35mm, 90 mins.)

Part III (click here for Parts I and II)

I don't want to work away
Doing just what they all say
Work hard, boy, and you'll find
One day you'll have a job like mine.

-- Cat Stevens, "But I Might Die Tonight"

Long before Can and the Smiths, I fell in love with Cat Stevens (born Steven Demetre Georgiou)--a love affair that continues to this day. Yes, he supported
the Ayatolla's fatwa against Salman Rushdie in the wake of 1988's The Satanic
. The media was quick to spread the word. Sadly, few outlets took the op-
portunity to report his retraction. Now known as Yusuf Islam, the British singer/
songwriter blames the fervor of a new convert for his poor judgment. He remains
a Muslim, but has since returned to the peace-loving ways that once defined him.

I didn't discover Stevens's music on my own. My mom had copies of his fourth
and fifth albums, Tea for the Tillerman (1970) and Teaser and the Firecat (1971). I played them more often than she did. His career didn't end there, of course, but Stevens never again released records as consistent as these folk-pop masterworks. a hat

The same year Hal Ashby set 1971's Harold and Maude to Stevens's music, Skolimowski did the same with Deep End. There's a key difference, though.

While the former is saturated with his sound, the latter makes use of a singular number (Ashby also mined Tea for the Tillerman for material). That's it: one Can song, one Cat Stevens song, and the possible inspiration for a Smiths song.

Just as Zodiac reminds that Donovan had a dark side--David Fincher's patient procedural opens and closes with the haunting "Hurdy Gurdy Man"--Deep End repurposes Cat Stevens to similar effect, with anger replacing dread.

The cryptic credit sequence begins with Tea for the Tillerman's "But I Might Die Tonight." It's hard to tell what's going on. There's a hand, machinery, and some
kind of red substance, either paint or blood. (The final act clears up the mystery; it's paint and blood.) Then Skolimowski cuts to the impossibly pretty Mike riding his bike down a London street. This exhilarating scene could be straight out of Ridley Scott's first film, Boy and Bicycle (1959). In fact, I'm willing to wager Skolimowski had seen it (Scott's younger brother, Tony, plays the talkative truant of the title).

Tony Scott on a bike

It's Mike's first day as a bathhouse attendant. Susan, a 23-year-old strawberry-blonde, shows him the ropes. She proceeds to tell him everything he needs to
know. But nothing can prepare Mike for the desperation of the bathhouse's den-
izens, from Diana Dors's football-fixated matron to former classmate Cathy, whose advances he politely rejects. The reason is simple: he's got Susan in his sights. He knows she's engaged. He knows she's sleeping with the sleazy swim coach. Mike is too young, too poor, and too naive for an experienced social-climber like Susan.

Click here for the song and here for a film clip

But knowing is only half the battle. When Mike's hormones take over, proportion
and propriety go out the window. Soon, he's a stalker, a peeper, and, to quote
Steve Miller, a "midnight creeper." Susan may be a demi-bitch, but as embodied
by Asher, her attraction isn't hard to understand. (Paul McCartney once felt the same.) Did I mention that Deep End is terribly sexy? At one point, Mike imagines
her naked in the pool-an image to rival Jenny Agutter's dip in Nic Roeg's Walkabout.

[jane asher]

Mike's interest in Susan's physique merges with an increasing interest in her soul.
It isn't a Christian compulsion, but it might as well be. She has an active sex life,
but not much of a love life--not much of a life at all, other than work and sex. Mike
becomes convinced he loves Susan, and wants her to share his idealistic ardor.

Towards the end of the film, he follows his co-worker and her boorish companion
to London's seedy Soho, where Can's "Mother Sky" signals his confusion and dis-
orientation. What are they doing here? How can he extract her from the situation?

As the band pounds away, Mike comes up with a plan. It isn't much of
one, but at least it's a start. Exults Britmovie's Drew Shimon, "Not only is
it one of the most evocative and captivating, but quite simply it's one of
the most utterly bonkers scenes in any British picture ever released...and
all the better for it." And it involves one life-size placard and six hotdogs.

Deep End concludes with "But I Might Die Tonight," which builds to an anguished
cry, followed by an organ flourish. The final shots echo the first, but everything
has been turned around. Mike gets what he wants, but not the way he wanted it.

I wasn't prepared for something so bleak after so much humor, but Skolimowski signaled his intentions from the start. Like his protagonist, I reveled in the qualities I found most appealing, while ignoring their uglier intimations. As the The Rock Man might put it, "You see what you want to see. You hear what you want to hear." Arguably, the director should've exercised more restraint. Then again, Mike gives in to his baser impulses; Skolimowski's filmmaking reflects that loss of control.

As the year continues, more sophisticated entertainments are sure to hit the rep-
ertory circuit. And I've admitted my biases up front: Can, Cat Stevens, Swinging London-and anything that inspired Stephen Patrick Morrissey to pick up his poison pen. (Ah, but that's wishful thinking. According to my research, "Half a Person" was actually inspired by fact, not fiction.) Nonetheless, Deep End is the kind of movie I might've conjured up in my dreams, but never imagined could ever possibly exist. Miraculously, however, it does. And here it is. Better 26 years late than never.


Irons and Skolimowski

You may be wondering what the now Los Angeles-based Skolimowski has been doing lately. After all, he hasn't released a film in 16 years. First, he and Frederic Raphael have been working on an adaptation of Susan Sontag's In America. More significantly, in 2007, the actor/director/poet/boxer/drummer/painter scored his best gig in ages.

Just as Deep End is a British feature made by a Pole, 1982's Moonlighting, his most successful picture, is a Polish feature starring a Brit. That Brit, Jeremy Irons, has done some of his best work, like Dead Ringers and M. Butterfly, for David Cronenberg.

So, my theory goes like this: Irons introduced Cronenberg to Skolimowski. Hence,
he ends up as Naomi Watts's Russian uncle in the London-set Eastern Promises (Irons's wife, Sinead Cusack, plays her mother). In Senses of Cinema, Bruce Hods-
don explains that, "Somewhat paradoxically, identifying with Russian culture was a way of resisting Soviet influence." Cronenberg's film represents another chance for resistance-against the ink-stained Russian mob. And he's brilliant. So is Deep End.

Click here for an addendum.

Deep End plays the Northwest Film Forum from 1/18 - 24, Fri. - Thurs., at 7 and 9:15pm. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. For more information, please
click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from the All Music Guide, Amazon, Film Reference, Microcinema DVDs, MovieMeter, Nostalgia Central, and Pop Thing!

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