upside-down-movies and back-to-front cinema, sliced eyeballs and skips
HE THOUGHT ABOUT, then forgot, and remembered again back-to-front stories at the cinema, a fuzzy historic phenomenon that sounds made-up but isn’t. Of course, he seeks confirmation.
At this time, he imagines his own miniature back-to-front story. The film is tiny and exists only in his head. He is thinking of the film now.
Gala’s in the main bedroom in early January, sitting on the pink armchair by the window with the glass pane holding back the cold. A sharp winter sun floods the corner of the room lighting up her hair. She is on holiday, at leisure, with the MacBook Air sat in her lap, scrolling through jewellery descriptions on Etsy.
And this happens. At the opposite end of the room, across from the black fireplace, suddenly through the open door flies an unidentified object. A bundle of fabric dances in the air heading for the double bed. She sees his multi-striped, multi-colour dressing gown fall on the white duvet and listens to the bathroom door closing as he takes a mid-morning shower.
Within the hour, they are out walking in the bright cold, headed to a semi-detached property on sale for a second viewing with masks on. After the viewing, which is a success, they drift toward the main road with no particular plan. (Does anyone have a plan?) There’s a large skip hauled to the side of the road and filled to the brim from a household clearance. At the top of the heap a dark wardrobe is sprawled on its back, a busted single mattress flopping out its door like a corpse.
From a tight close-up of the mattress leaking from inside out, the scene dissolves to a different dumpster. A mini skip, completely empty, is arriving outside a property on the Essex Borders. The mini skip is on hire for two weeks only. A time-lapse sequence begins as the skip fills at speed with old discards and items to go, while the house declutters and the process of selling and leaving gathers pace.
He re-runs the miniature movie but this time coming in half way through. Starts where the big skip dissolves to the little skip, watching the mini dumpster getting winched into place on Gala’s front drive. Statically he observes the ditching of unwanted goods and ex-keepsakes, then cross cuts to a close-up of the laptop screen. The browser window fills the frame with rows and columns of jewellery – silver, platinum and palladium rings.
What would Nicholas Roeg make of this counterpoint structure – switching up the narrative flow, flipping from linear to back-to-front? And what does the reversal reveal?
Camberwell Cinema, 1956
In south London, last century, dropping down Denmark Hill into Camberwell, all through the nineteen forties, the nineteen fifties, and deep into the nineteen sixties, a quartet of cinemas, an axis of dream palaces flourished and then declined.
Through its golden years, SE5’s cinema strip, stretched no longer than a quarter of a mile, starting with the Odeon at the apex of Denmark Hill and Coldharbour Lane. This glam, two-thousand-five-hundred capacity auditorium was so glam it had two pillared entrances, one on each street, and soaring fin towers that lit up the night.
Heading north, next up in no time was the Essoldo and its gleaming gold domes; The Grand, dating from 1909, previously a roller-skating rink; and finally, on the corner of Camberwell Road and Medlar Street, the large art deco ABC – the only one of the Camberwell Quartet still standing in 2021.
With a combined seating of six thousand, SE5’s architecturally-varied picturehouses, erected between 1909 and 1940, offered film-goers the horn of cinematic plenty. (And if Camberwell’s four screens weren’t enough, short bus rides to Elephant, Brixton, Peckham, East Dulwich, or Herne Hill, brought plenty more venues in reach.) Across the country, purpose-built ‘super cinemas’ of the nineteen twenties, constructed in a Populist Palatial style, featured warm, luxurious interiors, providing some patrons with their first experience of walking on carpet. The Regent cinema in Brighton (1921) sported a vast screen, but also a restaurant, café, tea rooms, and a large ballroom above the auditorium. Similarly deluxe venues opened in Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds, and back to London’s West End, where silent film performances were accompanied by full live orchestras as well as ascending theatre organs.
Cinema-going in the UK was massive, but never as widespread as watching television would become. A survey of 1938 reported that 31% of the population went to the cinema weekly, 13% attended twice a week, 3% three times, and 2% four or more times. And then 12% never went at all, with the remainder only occasionally. Snow White (1937) was seen by a third of the UK population. Though a vast number, you still expect a larger share.
Following World War Two, London’s long-range population trend saw a drastic decline in headcount. Bomb damaged, and with severe housing shortages, the capital leaked residents to the lure of aspirational new towns beyond the greenbelt. By 1981, the flight out of London had taken the population down two million in three decades.*
Similarly, after a mid century surge, cinema-going started to lose big numbers to TV, and central heating, trapped in a steep Technicolor, Cinemascope, even an occasionally 3-D-shaped decline, that saw the Camberwell Four slip away one by one.
The Essoldo closed in August 1964, while the Grand went dark in January 1968. The ABC ceased operating in October 1973, with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid its last picture show; and the Odeon Camberwell shuttered in July 1975, the kinky psychodrama The Night Porter its final screening.
You walk down into Camberwell, the hive that never rests, and you feel the loss of the four cinemas, although you were never here to see them. You turn your gaze to their heyday era. You imagine long queues on a Saturday night in the nineteen fifties, as the week’s new releases are reeled out for their debut screening. Film queues wind along Camberwell Road and Denmark Hill, up Camberwell New Road, or down the spur of Coldharbour Lane.
You picture mass audiences inside the raked auditorium, expectant in the dark, a hubbub of voices, a fug of fags on the go. Projector beam, animations, the weekly newsreel, a short movie, some ads, the trailers for coming attractions. And with the busy lead-up completed, the screen curtain closes, and opens again, as the lights go dim. The babble of voices susurrate, then cease, as the audience gets ready. The main feature is about to commence. THIS is cinema.
And yet – was this cinema? Not necessarily. Not always. For many people going to the pictures through cinema’s boom era played out quite differently.
Contemporary film audiences expect a visit to the cinema to follow a predictable form – when there isn’t a pandemic going on – where you buy a film ticket with a specific start time and duration, and often with a designated seat. And you sit in your designated seat and watch the movie from start to finish, in this order, and at the end of the film, you leave.
Reverse back in time, two or more generations, and you encounter many movie-goers with a fundamentally different way of doing things. For several decades through the twentieth century it was commonplace for people to simply ‘go to the movies’ – meaning many folk would arrive at some arbitrary point in the film, grab whatever seat, and start watching the screen. This is where they came in – often half way through.
‘Many people went to the pictures,’ writes a film historian on Reddit, ‘no matter what was playing, or what time it was showing. Movie theatres did not list show times in newspapers. If they did, few paid attention to them. You just turned up and entered the dark theatre while the movie was playing. You would wait a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the dark and then shuffle to empty seats. You’d watch the film from the middle to the end. Wait a few minutes for the same film to start again and continue watching from the beginning.’
Back-to-front cinema, where the second half of the movie plays first. And the story’s beginning – the basic narrative components, the introductory set-up of plot and character and conflict – this comes later.
‘And you’d watch like this, and then a few hours after arriving, came that memorable moment when you or one of your companions would nudge the others and say, “This is where we came in.” And then you’d shuffle out.’
This was common practice. It wasn’t the weird quirk of the scatty few, but the ingrained habit of lots to arrive and join a film at any old time that suited.
‘I was born in 1955, so my movie-going experience started in the sixties. The practice of ‘go in when you want, leave when you get to the point where you came in’ was definitely the order of the day for movies. When my mother would take us to movies, she would just drop us off. Sometimes I would complain about missing the beginning, she would tell us that it didn’t matter. You could always stay to see the beginning. She had done it all her life and considered it normal.’
‘Folks were continuously entering and leaving the theatre.’ People would arrive to the cinema and get seated while a different party was getting ready to depart. And then another spectator would show up, or a couple of spectators, stumbling around in the shadows.
But how did it work, how did spectators find a way into the story of an already half-done movie? ‘They’d work it out. The viewer’s brain performed some kind of guesswork and forgot about the losses involved in seeing the ending prior to the beginning.’
‘I was born in 1945 and so am familiar with the phenomenon. The main difference was movies ran continuously. They usually started around 11am and then there would be a newsreel, coming attractions, a short subject, then the movie, followed by the newsreel, and the whole process would start again. The one advantage to the system was if you loved a movie you could sit there and see it over and over for one admission price. I recall sitting through The Great Escape three times.’
‘When I was a child, my family used to see movies all the time like this. If I could go back in time, I’d remind my mum that this ridiculous practice of showing up halfway into a movie and watching the first half later is as absurd as picking up a novel, turning to page 76 and start reading, telling yourself, “I’ll just go back and read the first 75 pages after I finish it.”’
Into the nineteen sixties, this unrefined, popular tendency for back-to-front cinema became unwittingly in tune with radical new thinking in European arthouse – although there’s little evidence anyone noticed the conjuncture. ‘I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end,’ observed director Jean-Luc Godard, ‘but not necessarily in that order.’ From Breathless through Vivre Sa Vie and Week-end, Godard’s urge to bend narrative out of shape would inspire and bewilder. But coming in half way through was not really what he had in mind by disrupted cinema.
In Annie Hall (1977) Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, waits outside a Manhattan arthouse cinema, kerbside, nervously checking his watch. The film is about to begin but Annie is late, arriving a minute or so after the advertised start time. Alvy shakes his head, resigned but adamant that now they will just have to go see another movie. The couple argue. Annie says the main feature probably hasn’t even begun. But Alvy is unbending, it’s too risky, he has to see a picture ‘exactly from the start to the finish’.
check-in, relax, take a shower
Although over-stated with neurotic obstinacy, Alvy’s requirement makes perfect sense to contemporary viewers. It is strange therefore to realise that once upon a time filmgoers had to be encouraged to show up on time, before the main feature started. The original ad campaign for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), reveals a concerted effort by an anxious director to encourage (if not insist) his audience come see his daring new shocker from the start.
“It is required that you see PSYCHO from the very beginning! The manager of this theater has been instructed, at the risk of his life, not to admit to the theatre any persons after the picture starts… Any spurious attempts to enter by side doors, fire escapes, or ventilating ducts will be met by force.
… The entire objective of this extraordinary policy, of course, is to help you enjoy PSYCHO more.”
— Alfred Hitchcock
Two years previous, Universal ran a publicity drive promoting a timely arrival for the perplexing Vertigo “It’s a Hitchcock thriller… You should see it from the beginning!”.
‘It was a big deal with Psycho in 1960,’ a Reddit film buff remembers. ‘This was a particular problem because the star Janet Leigh dies halfway into the movie. If a person arrives halfway in, then they would have no idea what was going on as they expected to see a Janet Leigh picture. I’ve always pegged 1960 as the transition point where people started watching films from the beginning.’
But the film historians don’t all agree about Psycho. ‘I cannot say for certain if Psycho was some kind of turning point, but I can absolutely attest to what was a very common practice when I was a kid. In my family, we always went to the movies whenever we were good and ready to go, regardless of when the feature might have started. My earliest recollection of this was Lawrence of Arabia , which my dad dragged the whole family to see. I can still remember arriving, sitting down in the darkened theatre during the last scene of the first half of the movie, where Claude Rains utters some prophetic remark just before the screen goes blank for the intermission. It wasn’t until I was much older that my dad began making an effort to see movies from the beginning. What a concept! I also remember seeing a double feature of Bullitt and Bonnie and Clyde. My friends and I sat down just in time for the car chase in Bullitt and, when we got to the part ‘where we came in’, we decided to watch the car chase again. Then we left.’
‘I recall seeing an early episode of TV’s Happy Days which starts with the gang at the movies and all of them getting up and leaving ‘where they came in.’ It struck me as odd so I asked my mother; she confirmed that it was something younger people/teenagers especially did in the ‘50s.’
‘I remember going to a movie in the mid-to-late seventies with my grandparents, one summer in Odessa, Texas. I wish I could remember the film. We arrived at least a third of the way into it and then waited around for the next showing until leaving at the part of the movie where we came in. I remember thinking it was bizarre, especially sitting in the empty theatre between showings. But my grandparents acted as if it were perfectly normal.’
‘What struck me as bizarre, even as a kid, was how precisely we would leave ‘where we came in’, within that minute, even if that point was close to the end of the film. We went to see The Spy Who Loved Me, and found our seats just as Roger Moore’s 007 was disarming the atom bomb. Through the second go-around, that’s exactly the point at which we left.’
[Fact check for the sticklers – Bond is reprogramming, not disarming, the atom bomb.]
‘My family used to do it this way into the 70s. When my brother and I got older, we would refuse to ‘leave where we came in’. The last time my mom tried this with me was in 1985. It was the movie The Emerald Forest, with Powers Boothe.’
All this coming and going in the theatre while he’s trying to watch. Irksome disruptions no doubt at the worst possible moment. A spectator leaving mid-film, barging past and blocking his view as Sandra Bullock drives the bus over the broken flyover. Do viewers learn to ride it out with the ruptures, or do people regularly lose it? That tall guy, big head, two rows forward just got up, stood there wrestling to put his coat back on, departing bang in the the middle of a tense scene. And so you didn’t see Roman Polanski open Jack Nicholson’s nose with a switchblade. You missed it.
In a San Francisco porno cinema in the mid nineteen nineties, he buys a ticket and ducks inside an ill-lit auditorium, off to do some field research for a book on pornography.
The theatre’s so gloomy it’s actually scary. Before he can adjust his eyes, he trips over a live human foot. Copping an earful off a cranky Californian, he considers having an argument but decides against it. Up a steep set of stairs he climbs to locate an empty row distanced from the mostly single guys sat away from each other. He parks on the aisle seat and glances towards a huge screen where a vital, into-it couple are copulating with great sound and energy.
But the action on screen is of no interest. He’s not here for some escape-hatch fantasy, he’s come for the American grindhouse experience – hard core in a public space. To observe the porno audience, putting his furtive apparatus to work in the dark.
First thing, it’s a surprise how few people are in the auditorium. He hadn’t expected a full house on a sunny May afternoon, but the theatre headcount is low.
Second thing, the small audience is oddly restless. Apparently, people don’t just sit and watch porno. There’s a steady dribble of spectators on the move, leaving their seat, stumbling around, going to another seat, with no discernible plan or objective, tipping down the steps to the bathroom, or headings straight out the theatre exit to the right of the screen. But then another jumps up out their seat, and shuffles off, and then comes back again, but to a different row. And so it goes.
The busy onscreen screwing cannot keep his eyes off the audience musical chairs. Is anybody here into the movie? He scopes left and right, front and back. A man and woman couple two rows behind just landed in their seats and are staring straight back at him unblinking. And actually this isn’t the only couple in the house. It isn’t just single guys dotted about after all. There is even a party of three, over there on the far side under the false balcony. Two women and a man sat together, who soon as he properly clocks them, jump from their seats.
Suddenly in motion, the threesome descend to the bathroom. Watching them go, wondering what they’re getting up to missing the movie – almost wishing he could be down there to see – slowly the penny drops on him. It is one of several research epiphanies he has preparing the book, as each time another porno category error reveals itself to his cluelessness. This is a picture house showing hard core movies; but porno isn’t cinema – not regular cinema. It is actually nothing like the movie-going he’s known his whole life. Porn is an anomaly for audience engagement and narrative. Porn-goers have different goals watching hardcore.
This first time out at the San Fran grindhouse, he’s very much a rookie leaving his lane, lurching into a semi-secret dimension he barely understands. In the shady crumbling auditorium he recognises once again there is much to learn. He thinks this and shifts in his seat and finds the soles of his shoes have become part glued to the ancient tacky carpet, as a clammy realisation dawns on him as to possibly how come. Yuck! He needs to leave now. It’s high time.
Back on the street, striding away from the porn movie, he doesn’t want to check his shoes, already feeling dipped in a state of gross. He shakes his head. Speaks out loud into a humid Bay Area afternoon. Gross! He looks back on this moment as an early instance of talking to himself in public.
Un Chien Andalou
What sense can be made of back-to-front cinema? Of ‘this is where we came in’? Of so, so many viewers tipping well-designed stories upside down for decades? Does the power of narrative lie shredded due to back-to-front spectating, or reconfirmed as cinema’s essential glue? Basic film theory hangs on the film spectator with a stable point of view anchored inside a classic narrative system of rules, codes and expectations. And yet long before the TV remote, home recording, or video on demand, armies of film-goers were remixing movies in the dark.
In Paris in the 1920s, a young Luis Buñuel and fellow surrealists often passed the day wandering from fleapit to cinema to picture palace in the service of research, watching each movie only briefly. The young surrealists didn’t want to get hooked on a film’s storyline, believing that imagery decoupled from narrative could open a portal to the irrational – that the subject’s chaotic innermost becomes accessible once aesthetic but also social and moral conditions are upended. Flip the overlay and reveal the undercroft.
The surrealist assault on straight stories encouraged the making of Un Chien Andalou (1929). The landmark short silent movie, co-directed by Buñuel and Salvador Dali, is a free-associative assembly of imagery inspired by a dream logic denuded of plot, timeline, or realist characterisation. A human eye is sliced in two; a man dressed as a nun cycles aimlessly; a hole in the hand leaks ants; a grand piano dangles from the ceiling, the rotting corpse of a donkey falling out its lid.
Almost a century later, despite these media saturated times, Un Chien Andalou’s razor-sliced eye hasn’t lost its edge. (‘We’ll never quite catch up to this picture,’ suggests director Guy Maddin.) However, ‘In our current era,’ argues a writer on Reddit, ‘detailed and complex moving images are so ubiquitous that we forget how exciting it was to just… go see a movie back then. Not just for the narrative, but the actual experience of seeing lovingly crafted imagery on a huge screen with loud sound + music, this was thrilling.’
He listens as film-goers on Reddit explore several ways to watch a movie. ‘Many Thirties musicals, it barely mattered if you started watching them from the beginning. As long as you caught all of the musical and dance numbers.’
‘I prefer to see things from the beginning, but I have to admit that many movies it doesn’t make much difference. I’ve seen the last 15-20 minutes of the Maltese Falcon about seven or eight times. I’ve never been able to catch the beginning. However, the power and effect of the film are present in every one of those final 20 minutes, and I don’t feel like my enjoyment of it is diminished.’
‘To be honest, most movies made before, oh let’s say, the eighties were always truly organic in that the part always contained the whole. After a very short time (let’s say less than five minutes), you pretty much knew who was who, what they were doing, and what the possible endings might be – and what the possible beginnings might have been.’
‘Yes, it was commonplace in the Fifties to simply “go to the movies” – to walk in at whatever point you happened to get there. But when we got to the “This is where we came in” point, me and my buddy sat right there and watched the rest of the movie over again. Doing this from week to week, but especially with a really good film, I began to be more aware of how many details were planted throughout a movie, unobtrusively, with the idea that they would bear fruit, take on or reinforce significance, before the film ended. In short, it was early training in form, structure, and meaning for a film critic.’
If it lasts forever – more waves of Covid, lockdowns recurring – he should try it for himself, surely – rejig his regular evening entertainment with some back-to-front cinema.
‘I actually tried this a few times some years ago, going into a film half way through and leaving at the same point where I came in. I was inspired equally by recreating a bit of film-going history, but also by Andre Breton’s habit of wandering in during screenings and leaving once he’d figured out the plot. I found it a pleasurable way to shake up routine entertainments. Seen this way, action films were even more gleamingly nihilistic without the false progression imposed by stalking down the big bad villain. There was a fresh perspective on how movies work… films seemed both more casual and disposable, but also more mysterious and more overpowering to submit to. Romantic comedies, especially, became almost wistful as the union you’d just seen consummated looped around to tentatively begin anew before crashing on seeming insurmountable shores right about the time I’d get up and leave.’
5×2, a French film from 2004, lays out the story of a broken relationship through five vignettes retold in reverse. The film opens with fortysomething exes Marion and Gilles receiving their divorce papers, and concludes with their first meeting as a couple. The end at the beginning, the start at the end. With the young lovers about to become swept up in romance, it all still to come, as they sit together at the water’s edge of a Sardinian beach at sunset, gazing towards a speckled future for sharing, the movie credits rise.
He adored 5×2. He watched it three times over in a year. The reverse structure seemed so ingenious it was almost mind splitting. (Oh simple mind.) The movie’s director, Francois Odon, has suggested that reversing time’s arrow created another way into the relationship for ‘a true, lucid reading of a couple’s story.’ This switching the structure round brings mystery to a love affair. From out of the ruins of the break-up, the spectator seeks proof of what the pair once meant to each other. And in locating the source of their love in the final act, hope rises against all the evidence. Maybe they get it right next time.
A Funny Story by Luis Buñuel
The final scene of 5×2 is tender and romantic and not what the film’s sour opening suggests. He wonders if Luis Buñuel would have seen it coming? In Hollywood in the nineteen thirties, Buñuel was convinced he knew where every last movie was headed, that he could tell you a Hollywood ending in minutes of the film starting.
After Un Chien Andalou, and his follow-up feature L’Age D’Or, Buñuel left Paris to go work in Hollywood. ‘Long before I arrived, I was in love with America,’ he writes in his memoir My Last Breath. ‘I loved everything – the styles and customs, the movies, the skyscrapers, even the policemen’s uniforms… As we sped across the country, America seemed to me to be the most beautiful place in the world.’
On arriving in LA, Buñuel meets Charlie Chaplin and tries avocados for the first time. But plans for Buñuel to get a crash course in how to make a Hollywood movie are quickly sidetracked. Following a misunderstanding, Buñuel is kicked off the set of the latest Garbo movie. He hunkers down at home, where his emerging doubts concerning Hollywood multiply. ‘Most of the directors I watched seemed little more than lackeys… they had no say in how the film was to be made. Or even how it was to be edited…
‘…In my frequent moments of idleness, I devoted myself to a bizarre document + synoptic table of the American cinema. There were several movable columns set up on a large piece of pasteboard; the first for ‘ambience’ (Parisian, western, gangster, war, tropical, comic, medieval, etc.); the second for ‘epochs’, the third for ‘main characters’, and so on. Altogether, there were four or five categories, each with a tab for easy manoeuvrability. What I wanted to do was show that the American cinema was composed along such precise and standardised lines that, thanks to my system, anyone could predict the basic plot of a film simply by lining up a given setting with a particular era, ambience, and character. It also gave particularly exact information about the fates of heroines. In fact, it became such an obsession that my friend Ugarte, who lived upstairs, knew every combination by heart.’
It became Buñuel’s ringstone of certainty that he’d travelled all this way, crossing an ocean and a large continent, from the old world to America, to discover at journey’s end the deep structure of Hollywood’s narrative system.
‘One evening, Sternberg’s producer invited me to a sneak preview of Dishonored, with Marlene Dietrich, a spy story which had been rather freely adapted from the life of Mata Hari. After we’d dropped Sternberg off at his house, the producer said to me:
‘A terrific film, don’t you think?’‘Terrific,’ I replied, with a significant lack of gusto.‘What a director! What a terrific director!’‘Yes.’‘And what an original subject!’ Exasperated, I ventured to suggest that Sternberg’s choice of subject matter was not exactly distinguished; he was notorious for basing his movies on cheap melodramas.
‘How can you say that! the producer cried. ‘That’s a terrific movie! Nothing trite about it at all! My God, it ends with the star being shot! Dietrich! He shoots Dietrich! Never been done before!”
‘I am sorry,’ I replied, ‘I’m really sorry, but five minutes into it, I knew she’d be shot!”‘What are you talking about? the producer protested. ‘I’m telling you that’s never been done before in the entire history of the cinema. How can you say you knew what was going to happen? Don’t be ridiculous. Believe me, Buñuel, the public’s going to go crazy. They’re not going to like this at all. Not at all!’
He was getting very excited, so to calm him down I invited him in for a drink. Once he was settled, I went upstairs to wake Ugarte.
‘You have to come down,’ I told him. ‘I need you.’
Grumbling, Ugarte staggered downstairs half-asleep, where I introduced him to the producer.
‘Listen,’ I said to him. ‘You have to wake up. It’s about a movie.’
‘All right,’ he replied, his eyes still not quite open.
‘Ambience – Viennese.’‘All right.’‘Epoch – World War I.’
‘When the film opens, we see a whore. It’s very clear she’s a whore. She’s rolling an officer in the street, she . . .’
Ugarte stood up, yawned, waved his hand in the air, and started back upstairs to bed.
‘Don’t bother with any more, he mumbled. ‘They shoot her at the end.’
Theories of narrative are as old as the hills. The early to mid twentieth century saw a renewed enthusiasm for analysing the mechanics of stories. In 1928, the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp published a study of Russian fairytales identifying recurring elements and conventions suggesting an underlying framework to narrative. Propp’s work fed into structuralist theories, that narratives through history, and cross-culturally, possess recurring features and themes. Theorists from Lévi-Strauss to Roland Barthes to Joseph Campbell to Northrop Frye listed the ways in which stories all around the world matched.
Joseph Campbell’s analysis of comparative mythology was acknowledged by George Lucas as a key influence in the development of the Star Wars epic. The first Star Wars movie (1977) gripped the imagination of many viewers somewhere deep inside. Many found they wanted to see the movie over and over. He remembers at school his friend Roy saw Star Wars more than fifty times. The film played for several weeks at the Odeon on Barking Road. Roy’s family lived across from the Odeon and he knew a secret entrance at the back. Often after school, Roy headed to the cinema and sat and watched Star Wars in a state of wonderment.** Roy’s habit was an extreme version of a common enthusiasm for repeat viewing that caused cinemas to rethink their system of screening movies, switching to selling tickets to specific programmes. In this way the curtain came down on the tradition of catching a movie from half way in. ‘The end was probably brought about by the advent of movies people wanted to see again and again,’ writes a Redditor. ‘I’m thinking Star Wars was probably the big catalyst.’
‘We keep walking into the middle of these movies!’
In the decade leading up to Star Wars, a broader cultural shift had seen the critical status of film upgraded. Cinema was more venerated as an art form, and less disposable, and therefore to be consumed in the correct order. In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer worships at the high altar of great movies. Like many others also worshipped. ‘So yes, I’m an Alvy Singer type, just like you.’ a Redditor writes, ‘I’d rather sit through the Sorrow and the Pity for the fifth time than go into something new without starting from the beginning.’
Such big changes at the cinema carried forward unexpected ironies and twists. Starting in the mid sixties, from Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde upwards, a fresh wave of American cinema made under the influence of European arthouse brought a different kind of Hollywood movie to the local picturehouse. An emergent generation of serious American film directors with beards defined themselves as authors of their movies. As if to prove this, the author was prone to shuffling the narrative in unexpected ways. Innovative storylines caused bewilderment for a generation that had gaily watched films back to front. ‘My parents hated the majority of movies that came out between Midnight Cowboy and Jaws. Even Sam Peckinpah’s relatively mainstream film The Getaway, in which my mother complained, “I don’t understand why they showed Steve McQueen and that actress jumping into a creek before it happened! We keep walking into the middle of these movies!”
The movie-goers who had been narrative disruptors were losing their bearings in a new kind of disjointed cinema that lacked the filmic markers they previously relied on. One wonders how the parents got along with the re-arranged narratives of Pulp Fiction and Mulholland Drive. Or the labyrinthine stories of Christopher Nolan. ‘I remember going to see Christopher Nolan’s Memento a decade ago, and two women came strolling into the theatre twenty minutes into the movie. Of all the movies you do NOT want to be late for, I’d say that one ranks right up there. I’d love to have heard their discussion in the car afterward…’
Film-maker Nicholas Roeg regularly explored non-linear narrative through the seventies and early eighties. Roeg’s experiments were not to everyone’s taste. ‘When I was a kid back in 1973, my parents went to see Don’t Look Now. They returned home ranting: 1) Either the newspapers printed the wrong start times for the movie because surely they had walked in during the middle of it; or 2) The projectionist mixed up the reels and showed the movie in the wrong order.
‘When I finally saw the film years later, I realised that my parents simply couldn’t intellectually grasp Nicolas Roeg’s innovative and inventive (for 1973) structure, which, for many people of my folks’ generation, was disorienting and akin to “walking in the middle of something that already started.” Not to mention the fact that Roeg was experimenting with the idea of the ‘flash forward’ – a mind-bending concept that was perceived as an annoyance for the folks weaned on linear story-telling.’ ***
It’s been almost fifty years now, but still Don’t Look Now provokes strong feelings, with some viewers displeased at what they got: ‘Terrible directing and sloppy acting,’ writes Disappointed of Amazon. ‘…and the storyline was ridiculous and nonsensical! – A waste of time!’
Another dissatisfied viewer dispenses with any in-depth analysis, reaching instead for the pithy put down: ‘Don’t Look Now. Wish I hadn’t.’
‘Have to admit I have never watched this film until now,’ confesses a third. ‘And to be honest with you I wasn’t impressed…. I mean the love scene went on for ever, I even went to the kitchen to make a butty and cup of tea and when I came back they were still at it… Overall, not the best film.’
He remembers his parents also getting in a twist with Don’t Look Now on its first release. Back when mum and dad were full-tilt communists, they took a comrade from London’s Soviet embassy to see a British thriller, set in lovely Venice, in what turned out to be an evening of confusion but also cringing embarrassment at such naked Western decadence, as a bubble-hair Donald Sutherland performed cunnilingus on an blatantly ecstatic Julie Christie.
The explicit Sutherland/Christie love scene – still notorious, never forgotten – acquired its fragmented structure largely due to external pressure, being Roeg’s creative response to the British film censor. On being presented with the original cut, the censor found the sex too strong and told Roeg to reduce the heat if he wanted a release certificate. By chopping up the sex scene into smaller units, interleaved with depictions of the couple before and straight after making love, Roeg retained all the explicit content, but diffused the intensity in a form that left the censor satisfied.
The rearranging and overlapping of now, before and after, encapsulates the movie’s non-linear composition, with its commentary on time and consequences. Don’t Look Now is a mosaic work. Its patterned motifs dispersed through the story – water, the colour red, glass, characters repeatedly falling – reflect recurring themes of disconnection and reconnection, of loss and being lost. The movie’s non-sequential delivery – the presentiments and pre-cognition, the flashbacks and flash-forwards to an enigmatic future – the multiple fragmented components slowly arranging into a legible form, suggest a psychic undergirding, a deeper structure to narrative but also to actuality’s tangled weave. Roeg spoke in this time of film-making as a ‘will to master reality,’ while regretting that in life as in film ‘we’re bound, as in everything, by a dictated grammar.’
a sick film made by sick people for sick people
Roeg enjoyed a purple streak lasting six movies. Performance (1970), Walkabout (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), are baffling, fascinating works with a dazzle and a buzz, but also had about them a mysterious quality hinting at deeper meanings to be excavated carefully.
When Roeg delivered the final cut for Bad Timing, his Viennese sex thriller of 1980, the head of Rank, the film’s distributor, condemned the work as ‘a sick film made by sick people for sick people’. And yet there’s not a sickness but a kind of innocent hope in Roeg’s speculative movies – that beyond the daring, complicated adult stories, viewers often sensed a film-maker perhaps onto something big and meaningful.
The first time he saw Bad Timing, at a university film society screening, he remembers the shock at so much smoking onscreen, and how unfair since the campus auditorium had a no-cigarette policy. Early the next day – very early, before lunch, in fact – a friend came rushing towards him at the college library, skittering across the tungsten carpet in his long, grey winter coat, hair in its usual haystack, fresh with excitement. The friend, who grew up in a provincial town reading the NME, was convinced that structuralism contained the meaning of life. They decided not to study this morning, hmm, but to go downstairs instead, where he had one coffee from the machine and two cigarettes, listening as his mate explained how he’d figured it out, the film, Bad Timing. After watching the movie closely at last night’s screening, and having then gone home to think on it at length, the friend reported the news that he had cracked the code to Roeg’s elusive meanings.
Bad Timing is a twisting tale of bad love between Alex (Art Garfunkel) and Melania (Theresa Russell) – a pair of troubled Americans with stripped psyches living in late cold war Vienna. ‘If we don’t meet, there’s always the possibility it could have been perfect,’ suggests Alex at their first encounter at a drinks party. Naturally, neither party heeds the warning inside this throwaway remark, that the flip side of perfect could be pretty terrible indeed.
Unspooling in a startling and dense split narrative, Bad Timing intertwines the story’s climax event – the night Milena attempts suicide – with earlier scenes dramatising her tortuous relationship with Alex, culminating in the decision to take her own life.****
Melania is young and bohemian while, in contrast, Alex is cool and detached and has a beady eye. Cinema is a dedicated space where we go watch in the dark and Bad Timing is a movie preoccupied with the drive to look. Alex is a research psychoanalyst who also teaches. One of his students defines the ‘shrink’ as also ‘spy’, in a city with a long tradition of espionage, secrets, and lies. Although Alex prefers the classification of ‘observer’, a more suited label is voyeur, as he intently scrutinises Milena, digging into her past relationships, unsure if he’s excited or disgusted with jealousy.
A fragmentary dramatisation of psychic dislocation, Bad Timing is thick with books and art and music alluding to states of disorientation – specifically, and at times humorously, the perils of losing your head. Who Are You? sing The Who, as the protagonists cross Vienna in a moody montage. Arriving to the art museum, Alex contemplates Klimt’s glimmering painting Judith I (Judith and the Head of Holofernes, 1901), in which Judith from the bible holds the head of Holofernes after decapitating the wrathful general. Klimt’s orgasmic déshabillé Judith is partially obscured by the back of Alex’s head, with the section featuring Holofernes’s severed dome out of view. After the gallery, the lovers move through the city to the soundtrack of Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert, a recording noted for the trademark wailing of the genius pianist losing himself inside the moment.
The storyline of Bad Timing and the film’s multiple meanings takes some piecing together. The layering of patterns commenting on themes of identity and desire, memory and time; the sly deployment of culture, analysis, and puzzles, as well as Roeg’s experiments with deconstructed narrative, makes for a ‘writerly’ movie requiring its viewers do some of the meaning.
Doing the meaning can make arduous but satisfying work. Doing the meaning can also cause difficulties. He remembers the sinking feeling, that day in the uni library coffee spot, when his friend declared Bad Timing’s arcane message became crystalline with the Lüscher colour test as the movie’s core moment. No. How could this be?
The Lüscher colour test is prime quackery, an evaluation tool that tasks subjects to arrange a set of colour cards in order of preference – the colour choices allegedly ‘revealing’ the subject’s psychological truth. Milena is so eager to participate they do the test on the bonnet of Alex’s car. But the high ranking she gives the colour violet is interpreted as a very worrying sign indeed, proof of a breakdown in Milena’s ability to distinguish reality from delusion.*****
While watching the movie, he’d interpreted the long-discredited Lüscher test as being a feint. Not the film’s key, or its crux revelation, but a red herring.
Coincidentally, the Lüscher test does re-state the obvious – that there’s much repair required if Milena, or Alex, are to get out of their story intact. In this way, Bad Timing’s disordered narrative captures the afflicted, collapsed state of its protagonists; with its dramatic route towards a greater narrative coherence being its own kind of psych work. By the end, both Milena and Alex, as well as the film itself, have realigned into functioning beings – the couple meeting fleetingly one last time, years later, in another city; choosing this time to say nothing at all.
It’s in the Eyes
Leaving Bad Timing, Roeg ascended to Eureka (1983), the tall tale of a man who strikes gold and loses everything. Roeg’s sixth and final major work, Eureka critically barely touched sides. Rapidly and quietly the film shuffled off-scene, into a long oblivion that continues. Eureka landed in the wrong era. It was the nineteen eighties and there’d been a change in the weather. We were post-modern and losing our convictions, no longer certain of a buried treasure of deep meanings at the bottom of an art movie.
Both culturally and commercially the figure of the author/director/auteur had passed its peak. Being called Roeg, or Altman, or Godard wasn’t enough to sell tickets like before. While the name of the director remained prominent on the movie poster, and in the conversation, the ‘auteur’ as Primary was finished, dead, kaput.
The author no longer god, and belief in grand narratives under pressure, theory refocused on the relationship between film and its audience. Which is where we came in… What is the viewer thinking? What are they like? Where do we go visit when the lights dim down – a boundless imaginary space, or an ordered realm of codes, conventions, and rules?
The pleasures of film and story are seductive, and for many, for him, quite irresistible. But down spectrum lurk demons. Few will watch Bad Timing – Un Chien Andalou, the Matrix, or Hidden – and exit untouched and one hundred percent intact. Though the gaze is strong also it can be fragile. Fix those eyes on the screen as the camera holds a static single take longer than the ‘norms’ for duration, and you start getting twitchy. The longer, the twitchier. Say the same word over and over, semantic satiation, and the word disintegrates and dies on your lips.
He may back himself as his own stable solid centre of the world. But the two of them together on the sofa, sat playing a looking game that he read about in a magazine, staring on and on into their eyes, in time reality buckles, the ‘He’ becomes hazy. Did he look for too long? Is this where he went out?
* In 1946, Labour minister Lewis Silkin declared the new towns springing up beyond London and into the Home Counties as encouraging a ‘healthy, self-respecting, dignified person with a sense of beauty, culture and civic pride’. One of the first post-war new settlements was Basildon.
** The joy of repetition. He thought his friend Roy watching Star Wars fifty times broke the world record. Later he worked in a record store with a Marc Bolan fan, with hair and clothes to look like Bolan, who’d seen the T. Rex concert movie Born to Boogie seventy three times and counting. (His friend Roy meanwhile left school at sixteen and joined the army and was killed in Northern Ireland.)
*** One warm summer evening in the nineteen eighties, he saw The Man with the Golden Arm with Frank Sinatra, in Paris, in an old cinema in the 13th arrondissement. And the projectionist muddled the reels but nobody noticed the film was playing out of sequence. It was only the cinema manager who realised and he insisted the projectionist start the film again. He wasn’t sure it made a lot of difference.
**** In a grim and grisly coincidence, Art Garfunkel’s long-time partner killed herself during the making of Bad Timing.
***** European and America cinema of the nineteen eighties is teeming with ‘mad’ women – Fatal Attraction, Betty Blue, One Deadly Summer, Blind Date, Blue Velvet, Frances … a long list far from complete.
This Is Where We Came In… features contributions from Reddit True Film.
And here is corroboration of back-to-front cinema as a real thing, and not just made up