Monday, January 07, 2008

SKIDOO - As Bad As All That?

Turner Classic Movies recently screened one of the most widely reviled films of the 1960s, Otto Preminger's SKIDOO (1968) -- the movie that inspired so many critics of its day to advise "Skiddon't."

I suppose it goes against the common wisdom, but it's my own belief that there are different kinds of bad movie. Some bad movies are simply dull and incompetent; some movies become a mess due to the inability of the filmmaker to grasp what he/she is reaching for; some movies are bad because they think their message is above your head when it's really beneath your contempt; and there are also movies, made by competent people, that just happened to be made with the wrong people at the wrong time and became an unintentional freakshow that, depending on its audience, either elicits our condescending sniggers or empathy and curiosity. If SKIDOO must be seen as a "bad" movie (a term I try my best to resist because it tends to slam the door on understanding), it best fits into the latter category.

I'd like to give SKIDOO the benefit of the doubt. First of all, I think it's unfair to be so harsh on a film that hasn't been given every opportunity to make its best impression. Despite a brand-new-looking Paramount logo, TCM's presentation of the Panavision 2.35:1 feature was cropped, had the stale look of an aged VHS conversion, and sported a horrendous sound mix that sometimes had background score drowning out dialogue. Whatever our knee-jerk response to SKIDOO, in all fairness we must remind ourselves that this is our reaction to seeing the film in this wretched state. We're looking at a distorted presentation -- photographed by the great Leon Shamroy (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, SOUTH PACIFIC, PRINCE OF FOXES), no less -- so our response is bound to be similarly distorted.

No, I'm not going to make a case for SKIDOO's unrecognized brilliance, but I certainly wasn't bored at any point. (I wish I could say the same about Mike Nichols' last twenty years on the job.) One thing that interested me most was that the movie I saw had little to do with the godawful reputation that preceded it. It has been called Otto Preminger's mid-life crisis movie, but it's not really an auteur picture, even if Preminger himself thought of it in those terms. The script was written by Doran William Cannon, who later wrote Robert Altman's rather more respected fantasy BREWSTER McCLOUD (1970), and I can see a fairly straight creative line between those two pictures that simply doesn't exist between SKIDOO and Preminger's next, TELL ME THAT YOU LOVE ME, JUNIE MOON (1970), or his previous HURRY SUNDOWN (1967, excepting the shared presence in both of John Phillip Law).

SKIDOO has long been the subject of underground finger-pointing: after all, it's the movie where Jackie Gleason takes an acid trip, the movie where Groucho Marx smokes a joint. From the days when I bought ZAP Comics in head shops, people have traded these bits of information as if such ideas were themselves contraband, but both actors handle these dramatic challenges, if that's what they were, with aplomb. In fact, smoking a joint from a roach clip is the only thing that Groucho does with his usual masterly ease in the movie, where it's painfully evident that he's reading all his lines off of cue cards. Even his trademark shoe-polish mustache is applied unevenly. I've never known anyone to mention, in conversation anyway, that the movie is about the Mafia. Jackie Gleason -- who plays a retired suburban mafioso recalled by his ex-captain "God" (Groucho) to infiltrate a prison and commit one last hit (against Mickey Rooney, of all people) -- gives his usual fine performance, one that actually reaches a kind of pinnacle at the height of his delirium, though it's surrounded by a lot of noise (like casting that sometimes feels decided by dartboard, panning-and-scanning, and that infernal sound mix). Seen today, SKIDOO makes it almost tempting to see Jackie Gleason and his pampered Jersey wife Carol Channing as psychedelic templates for Tony and Carmela Soprano; indeed, the adventure taken by this Tony (Gleason, it's also his character name) has probably become an easier pill to swallow now that we've followed James Gandolfini's Tony through the weirder side-streets of his life and crimes on HBO.

SKIDOO opens with a lot of remote-control zapping of a televised image and later indulges in solarized color psychedelia, both of which featured prominently in Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson's Monkees movie HEAD (also 1968). If it's bad, it's certainly not because Otto Preminger was out-of-touch on the subjects of the youth and drug culture of the day, something that can't be said about THE LOVE-INS (again, 1968), the riotously conservative groove-fest that followed SKIDOO on TCM's schedule. Where SKIDOO goes astray is not in having establishment movie stars dabbling in counter-cultural amenities, but in taking an interesting premise and other intriguing divertissements and trying to make a comic musical out of it all. Even here, Preminger was not necessary incompetent; he had the good taste to hire Harry Nilsson (another Monkees affiliate) to supervise this end of things, and Nilsson's songs are fine, a bit in his COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER mode. Unfortunately, they don't have any kind of organic fix on the story at hand. Nilsson also appears in a very funny (because so unexpected) scene as one of two tripping prison guards -- the other is CURSE OF THE MUMMY'S TOMB's Fred Clark (again, "of all people") -- and looks down from his observation post to see a large yellow-orange hot-air balloon being filled to facilitate Tony's escape, which prompts him to ask the rhetorical question "Scrambled eggs?", which I, for one, found very funny.

People make a lot of fuss over SKIDOO's unfocused casting, its bizarre shuffling of media images, but this aspect of the movie is perfectly consistent with HEAD (which featured The Monkees, Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Carol Doda and Annette Funicello) and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE (Mae West, Rex Reed, John Carradine, Raquel Welch, William Hopper) -- not to mention the grand-père of them all, CASINO ROYALE (1967, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, David Niven, Daliah Lavi, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Vladek Sheybal, Frankenstein). All of these movies were long reviled by critics -- still are by the stodgier ones, say I -- but nowadays each of them has found champions among a subsequent generation of critics who have a better grasp of the zaniness these films were reaching for. Perhaps these films so kaleidoscopically of their time really were ahead of their time; perhaps they still are, though we are showing signs of drawing nearer to a better appreciation of what they captured, through design or sheer recklessness, about their moment.

In researching my (unpublished) book on Jefferson Airplane's CROWN OF CREATION, I found interviews with band members who remembered Otto Preminger dropping in on a recording session, probably because he happened to be at RCA Studios in Los Angeles to oversee Nilsson's SKIDOO scoring sessions. The Airplane were a little creeped out by his presence and they didn't find him particularly warm or likeable, but he assured them with his trademark icy unctuousness that, if they bothered to get to know him, they would realize they had much in common in terms of tastes and beliefs. It's said that Preminger, like Roger Corman prior to THE TRIP, took LSD in an effort to change his outlook -- and while it didn't have too positive an effect on his filmmaking, it does seem to have done something positive in terms of dismantling one of Hollywood's most infamous egos and making him a more empathetic human being. I can understand how some people might see SKIDOO and whatever Preminger was going through at the time as a mid-life crisis, but mid-life crises don't always have to be destructive or embarrassing. At least SKIDOO shows Otto Preminger attempting to push his work in a different direction -- more relevant, more playful -- and, disaster or not, I would personally prefer to watch it than just about any other movie from his last twenty years on the job.

In 1968, generational lines were so rigidly drawn that Jefferson Airplane couldn't help but see Otto Preminger as "the man," even as a dirty old man who was hanging around the studio to keep his epicurean eye trained on the comely Grace Slick. Looking at SKIDOO in 2008, I don't see anything that suggests Preminger as a dirty old man or as a card-carrying member of the Establishment. I see a brave, pleasurably catastrophic attempt at turnabout by an artist who was earnestly determined to reinvent himself, his life and his art. He didn't succeed of course, but even Bob Dylan, the master of self-reinvention, delivers the occasional DOWN IN THE GROOVE.

The important thing for any artist is to try and keep on trying -- or, to use another word, becoming. ("He who's not busy born is busy dying," to quote he who went down in the groove.) We, in turn, as their audience, need to become less insistent that high quality is the only valid aim for a piece of art, whether it's a film or a book or a piece of music, and more appreciative of work that scatters in all directions, reflecting the internal struggle that resulted when its makers set out to chart the unexplored territory of self and career, or simply to move from one place to another.

Stash, the hippie character played with a wink by John Phillip Law, has a line that puts what I'm trying to say right into the proverbial nutshell: "If you can't dig nothing, you can't dig anything... you dig?"

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