Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: PETULIA (1968)

PETULIA (1968)

Directed by: Richard Lester.
Written by: Lawrence B. Marcus.
Starring: Julie Christie, George C. Scott, Richard Chamberlain, Joseph Cotten.
Director Of Photography: Nic Roeg.
Music: John Barry.

The British Invasion of the sixties extended to film, and two of my favorite movies are from UK directors who came to the USA in the late sixties to make films that partially take place in San Francisco and featured Alcatraz in the stories and used crazy fractured chronology that turned cinema into a visual poem... and both begin with the letter “P”. This is the *other one*. Everybody knows my favorite film is John Boorman’s POINT BLANK (1967) because it can be watched again and again and is open to so many different interpretations, not because the story is vague but because the story is so *dense*. Packed with more information than you can see at one viewing. Though PETULIA is probably something you might watch more than once, it’s more because you may not get the scene order in your mind first time around and need to see it again to confirm that you’ve put the puzzle together correctly... also because it contains some great performances and an amazing score by John Barry.



The story is kind of Plot 52B: Middle aged, recently divorced man Archie (George C. Scott) meets a free spirited young woman Petulia (Julie Christie) at a party and they have an affair that changes the direction of his life... except this is the dark, psychodelic version where nothing is as it seems. The story takes place in 1968 San Francisco. Which was ground zero in the cultural revolution. There have always been some form of “hippy”, a young anti establishment group that tries to shake up the world... from the Beats to Flappers to Wandervogels to Swing Kids. But add all of the things happening in the 1960s from Civil Rights to Women’s Rights to Viet Nam War Protests, we really had a cultural revolution. Add in the changes in technology and the explosion of drug culture in America and you have a volatile point in history... and that’s when and where this film takes place.

Where this movie takes that stock plot and makes it original is in its fractured chronology. It has flashbacks and flashforwards and flashsideways and just jumps around time like crazy... even pausing for some odd images that we can only assume are *symbolic* of the relationships. “It’s a Pepsi generation,” as Archie says at one point. Like POINT BLANK, the film comes off as a tone poem *and* a movie and has an amazing style that seems to have been lost today (except for filmmakers like Soderbergh who used it in his homage to POINT BLANK, THE LIMEY). Since two of my favorite films that begin with the letter P both use this technique... as well as all of those Nic Roeg films... I think it’s interesting that no one does this anymore. Oh, and speaking of Nic Roeg, he was the DP on this film... and his last film as DP for another director. He would co direct his next film, the equally trippy PERFORMANCE. Roeg's movies were a huge influence on me, and some of my screenplays (like the unproduced LAST STAND) use the fractured chronology that Roeg took away from this film directed by Richard Lester.

The other difference between PETULIA and all of the other films about middle aged dudes who hook up with a hippy girl half his age is the *bleak* and edgy look at life. This film has no shortage of shocking moments.



Archie is a doctor who attends a hospital fund raiser where Janis Joplin and Big Brother And The Holding Company and The Greatful Dead are entertainment, and this strange young woman Petulia keeps hitting on him. What? She’s half his age and way out of his league and doesn’t seem to take no for an answer. She points out her jealous husband (Richard Chamberlain) who is a wealthy failed yacht designer living off his uberrich father (Joseph Cotton) who is kind of the “whale” this whole shindig is aimed at. Petulia has only been married for six months, and is already trying to find someone to have an affair with... and Archie is the lucky guy. They head to an ultra modern no tell motel: where the desk clerk is on a video screen and the keys and credits cards or cash go into a vending machine below that video screen. Oh, the desk clerk on that video screen is played by Richard Dysart (from THE THING and a million other films) in his first role! So begins the affair from hell...

Petulia is wild and unpredictable, but not always in a good way. You see, she’s being physically abused by her husband who is a few steps from crazy. Returning from their honeymoon in Baja, a little Mexican kid tries to sell them some junk while they wait to cross the border back to the USA... and when Petulia jokingly invites the kid into the car... her husband David decides to *kidnap* the kid and take him all the way back to San Francisco! He beats the hell out of her a few times, and when Archie tries to talk to David about it, he’s basically told to mind his own business if he wants the hospital to get its regular donations. Petulia smashes windows in order to steal whatever she wants, including a *tuba* that Archie is stuck returning to the store (and probably paying for the broken window.) Archie gets more trouble than pleasure from this affair. Why did she pick him?



In a flashback at the *end* of the movie, you find out why... and it has to do with that kidnapped Mexican kid. The film is a puzzle, and you really have to pay attention to put the pieces together.

Along the way, Archie has to deal with all of the normal problems of a divorced guy, from his ex wife Polo (Shirley Knight) who is still in love with him... but dating the most boring man in the world (Roger Bowen) to try to make him jealous, to his two sons who like mom’s new boyfriend better, to fellow doctor Barney (Arthur Hill) who is about to break up with his wife, to the nurse May (Pippa Scott) who has a crush on him and wonders why he’s having an affair with a woman half his age who is so much trouble. Just as the film’s chronology is fractured, the way we live our lives is equally fractured.



PETULIA is more than just a time capsule of the late sixties, it’s a haunting film with a haunting John Barry score with strong images and a nightmare look at that cliche middle aged crazy plot... and an ending that might remind you of... ANNIE HALL! A movie you will never forget. Directed by Richard Lester, who probably invented the music video with films like The Beatles A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP.

PETULIA is an uncommon movie.

Bill

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