Thursday, October 13, 2005

Pretentiousness is Good for You

In this day and age, "pretentious" has become an ugly word to most people, like "liberal." And yet, if one looks up this adjective in the dictionary, one finds it related to synonyms which are largely positive: challenging, demanding, elaborate, energetic, exacting, formidable, grandiose, impressive, industrious, aspiring, visionary. (We've become a much better society since "pretentious" and "liberal" became dirty words, haven't we?)

Billed as "The Mystery Film of the 1960s," Eclectic DVD Distribution's THE COMMITTEE (1968, $24.95) is certainly pretentious -- but in a good way, and it's all those other affiliated adjectives, too. Though I approached the film openly, I must admit to finding it opaque... but I am intrigued by it, and will gladly give it another go in the near future. I'd never heard of this strange little British film before; it's literally little, less than an hour long, but it has several points of interest that snared my attention straight away. It stars Paul Jones, the Manfred Mann vocalist who had previously appeared in Peter Watkin's dark cult rockudrama PRIVILEGE (1967), and features music by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (who perform onscreen, as pictured above) and The Pink Floyd, who contribute score. (This was done just after Syd Barrett bailed out, but before they became, simply, Pink Floyd.) A further enticement is that it's directed by Peter Sykes, who went on from this to direct episodes of THE AVENGERS and such distinctive horror features as VENOM aka THE LEGEND OF SPIDER FOREST (1971) and Hammer's DEMONS OF THE MIND (1972).

It opens with Jones (as the protagonist named "Central Figure") hitching a ride from a compulsive talker and decapitating him as he puts his head under the bonnet to check the motor... and then it gets stranger from there. Much of the dialogue is non sequitur, like the action, but there is a discernible purpose underlying all the opacity, namely an assertion of individuality/originality/non-conformity in overbearing societies, local and national, that take the form of committees. As I say, it's not a lucid film, at least not on the first pass, but it's diverting and it speaks the language of cinema beautifully. I can see why AVENGERS producer Albert Fennell would screen this and, regardless of not understanding it, invite Sykes to come and work for him. The disc is handsomely produced and the film's standard ratio B&W photography (by Ian Wilson, who also shot CAPTAIN KRONOS VAMPIRE HUNTER and QUEEN KONG!) is most attractive. I'm glad to add this to my Peter Sykes collection.

The DVD compensates for the sub-feature length of the picture with an almost equally long and certainly equally entertaining "The Making of THE COMMITTEE" featurette. This is composed of interviews (conducted by SPITTING IMAGE producer Jon Blair) with Sykes and writer Max Steuer, a noted economist/hot air balloonist/bass player whose only film experience this was. The questions are intelligent and forthright, and both men speak engagingly and articulately about their influences (Sykes mentions Franju and Bergman) and their intentions with the picture, freely admitting that THE COMMITTEE is not easily grasped or even wholly successful. What struck me is that, although I didn't feel I had responded to the film particularly warmly, whenever the interviews were interrupted by an illustrative film clip, I found myself responding to them with delight, pleased to be reminded of certain Pythonesque gags that were actually more amusing the second time around. Yes, it is a bit Pythonesque, but without all that eccentric mugging to underscore that "this is a gag" -- which, I suppose, would make it rather more Buñuelian. My response to the clips would seem to support Steuer's point that the film is most rewarding on subsequent viewings.

Sweetening the deal is a second disc (a CD) consisting of a new Paul Jones track called "The Committee" (not heard in the film itself, it recapitulates the story in song), where he is musically supported by the Homemade Orchestra. There are also two other unrelated songs performed by the Homemade Orchestra, "Bird" and a lovely cover of Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes the Flood." The CD runs just one second over 23 minutes, making it as shy of an album as the movie is shy of a feature.

Stimulating fun for those who are up to the challenge, certainly useful to those who need to fill that empty niche in their Pink Floyd collections -- and I'll kick in an extra point for generosity. My rating: B+

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