January 23, 2017

Boom! (1968)

Joseph viagra professional Losey's BOOM! (1968) along with SECRET CEREMONY, which followed panting on its heels the same year, marks a strange detour in its director's career, a swerve into highly theatrical exercises in style, discarding the social reality and observation which had informed such acclaimed works as THE SERVANT (1963) and ACCIDENT (1967). It baffled and frustrated critics and audiences, and has gathered a reputation in part by remaining hard-to-see, nearly always a helpful quality in a cult film.

Based on Tennessee Williams' largely unloved late work The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, BOOM details the last days of a fading millionairess, Isola Goforth, as she is visited on her private island by a young poet with a reputation for turning up as his hostesses die — he is nicknamed “the angel of death” and in symbolic terms this is what he represents.

In a fit of some kind of madness, Losey cast Elizabeth Taylor as the terminal heiress and her husband Richard Burton as the toy-boy lover / deathbird.

This makes nonsense of most of the script, as Taylor positively radiates good health, despite attempts at coughing fits and panic attacks, and she certainly isn't old — not compared to Burton. Taylor's performance is vigorous and thoroughly bogus, a robust drag-queen attack on the scenery (and what scenery!) with each alternate word given thudding or shrill emphasis. Far from seeming like a dying but beautiful old woman, she looks like she could wrestle the whole cast to the floor and sit on them until they passed out.

Film stillBurton coasts by on his voice, that marvelous rumbling instrument, occasionally grinning in a cold and mirthless way, failing to live up to Taylor's description of having lovely legs. Most of the time, the voice is enough. I hope Death DOES have Burton's voice, I'll be dreadfully disappointed otherwise.

The meat of the film is the Burton-Taylor dialogues, but its 55 minutes — half the running time — before they actually share

the screen. Before then, we have some mildly amusing diva antics from la Taylor, abusing the help and storming around in diaphanous gowns or wearing a colossal sea anemone for a hat. There's no drama until Burton starts in on her, so instead we have a series of straggling encounters with the dwarf head of security, the Italian doctor attempting vainly to treat the stroppy Taylor, the secretary to whom Taylor is dictating her incoherent memoirs and, as an island of amusement in a sea of drivel, the great Noel Coward as the Witch of Capri. While Losey was never a master of comedy, and Coward's bitchy scenes with Taylor are strangely timed to stifle as much humour as possible, this stuff is nevertheless enjoyable, from the Witch's entrance, riding on the shoulders of a manservant, yodeling, to his exit by funicular railway, the 69-year-old actor, playwright and songwriter breathes more life into the movie than anyone else.

Film stillApart from Coward's humanity, the film has to survive purely as a kind of visual poem, since nobody has any reality as a personality and nothing whatever appears to be dramatically at stake. Fortunately, eccentric production designer Richard MacDonald created an extremely elaborate and interesting lair for Taylor's recluse to hole up in, a modernist castle on a rock overlooking the Mediterranean and decorated with sculptures, murals and gun emplacements (Liz takes her reclusiveness seriously, a bit like Peter Cook's impersonation of Greta Garbo, driving around in a tank while declaiming “I vant to be alone!” through a loudhailer). Through this impossible kingdom, the great Douglas Slocombe's camera prowls like a predatory beast, stalking the characters and capturing the changes in light from day to night in this beautiful setting. Such was the camera's mobility that at one point, caught up in the excitement of it all, Losey strayed into its path and had his toe broken as the dolly rolled over his foot. A slight judder can be seen onscreen at this instant.

The soundtrack mostly consists of the ceaseless pounding of the sea, which is one meaning of the film's onomatopoeic title, the other being the human heartbeat, “the shock of each moment of still being alive,” as Burton puts it. The sound interacts with the restless camera to create a sleepy, drifting ambience that allows the long, dramatically flaccid film to float by without quite becoming altogether dull. It's mesmeric and occasionally irritating, but not dull.

Apart from the surf, the film also boasts music by John Barry, usually played as source music on Taylor's tape deck. The music is allowed to dominate when it plays, becoming score instead of background music, until sharply interrupted by the “off” switch, a Brechtian device which seems to give Losey some pleasure. When the music plays, the film can luxuriate in abstract movement with more comfort, whereas Williams' dialogue is sometimes too pedestrian or too poorly-delivered to attain the kind of high weirdness the film strains for.

Film stillAll this prowling starts to pay off once Burton and Taylor get to talking. There's an immediate boost of interest as their much-celebrated screen chemistry kicks in, then a drop as nothing much seems to be happening, and at a very slow pace, and then there are some real moments of pure cinematic beauty. Burton intones the opening passages of Coleridge's Xanadu, and as his sonorous Welsh voice flows over the words “Through caverns measureless to man…” the camera begins to float through the various rooms of Taylor's palatial home, leaving the characters behind for a moment to indulge in a pure coup de cinema. It's so close to the similar scene in Edgar Ulmer's mysterious THE BLACK CAT (1934) that it's hard to believe that Losey wasn't influenced by the '30s horror flick. Both films are death-obsessed, rambling, unmotivated, and play out in the confines of bizarre modernist castles, so it's a suggestive connection. The prominent placement of a chess set in Taylor's spacious apartments is another hint at a connection (and it's an unlikely appurtenance on the face of it: Taylor clearly lacks both the capacity and the inclination for strategic thought).

Losey's long takes are consistently impressive, even when they seem to be capturing nothing at all. Williams' play lacks drive, is endlessly repetitive and dependant on dull wordplay (the name Goforth is punned upon several times), reminiscent of Dennis Potter's very last works. Both men were not in the best of health, and their writing catches fire only in brief sparks, otherwise flopping around without a spine, aimlessly and at great length. But from that Coleridge quote onwards the film seems to have found itself, and the final death scene is genuinely striking: twenty minutes or so of untouchable pure cinema at the end make this strange madhouse of a film unforgettable.

David Cairns Shadowplay film blog


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About David Cairns

David Cairns has written 103 post in this blog.

David Cairns is a filmmaker, teacher and critic. As writer-director, he was responsible for the short comedy smash Cry for Bobo (2001), and since then has written several unproduced feature screenplays and worked in kids' TV. He teaches film at Edinburgh College of Art. As critic, he writes the blog Shadowplay and contributes to various online publications, including a regular column at Mubi.com, The Forgotten. He has provided essays for DVDs and BluRays of Rififi, Stagecoach, and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?