Fields, on the other hand, stayed customarily strong and weird over the course of another opening short, the relatively primitive yet hilarious The Barber Shop, from 1933, and the comedian’s great late-period, near-indescribable marvel Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, from 1941. (Fields himself worried that the title would be reduced on a marquee to “W.C. Fields: Sucker!”) When people talk about the oddest films ever released by a major studio (and people fluttering around the lobby of the TCMFF do tend to talk about such things, believe me), if they fail to mention Sucker, then you can safely assume that they really don’t know what they’re talking about. This is a very strange, fitfully hilarious production, one which seems made to satisfy Fields himself and no one else, and fortunately in that regard it fails miserably; the TCMFF audience was in its proverbial stitches. (Sucker also features the greatest Zasu Pitts crack ever committed to celluloid, and if you haven’t seen the film, don’t expect me to give it away.)
One way that the thematically inclined TCMFF programmers were admirably sly was in scheduling John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, dubbed an “Essential” under the rubric of the official festival calendar, to be followed immediately, if one so chose, by the director’s fabulous high-wire act from 1953, Beat the Devil, listed by TCMFF as a “movie spoof.” I’ve seen The Maltese Falcon countless times, and had it not been for the relative paucity of juicy choices in the other Friday-morning time slots I might have decided on seeing something else. But as it turned out, experiencing the 1941 film with a packed house who knew every line, every story beat, every raised eyebrow among its stellar cast far better than I did, only magnified just how delightful, how straight-faced funny it really is.
One might think there’d at least be a measure of nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor to be mined from recognizing the familiar iconography of the hard-boiled detective film noir for which The Maltese Falcon laid much of the foundation. But thankfully, the audience responded with appreciative laughter, not with the sort of annoying knowingness that signals “Yeah, I’m aware of all these signature detective drama tropes.” To be in an audience beside itself with happiness when Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade tosses off the line about having stolen back Wilmer Cook’s (Elisha Cook Jr.) guns from the crippled newsie who first grabbed them off Wilmer is to experience an audience delighting in a lightning-only-strikes-once sort of moment in film history, when everyone from director to stars to the bittest of bit players was firing on all cylinders. (It was a particular delight of mine to hear someone on the way out invoking the names Nick Danger and Rocky Rococo, centerpieces of the Firesign Theatre’s brilliant Maltese Falcon-derived parody “The Further Adventures of Nick Danger,” which made TCMFF’s inclusion of the Huston classic in such close proximity to the comedy umbrella even more satisfying.)
I was perhaps even less prepared for Beat the Devil. Like most of its initial audience, when I’d first seen it I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what Huston and company were up to. The director tossed out the film’s original script, which was based on a relatively serious book about a group of con artists trying to secure a North African uranium mine, and brought Truman Capote on to rewrite it, which resulted in a scramble to feed actors new lines every day as the film’s plot became more ramshackle unpredictable. The screening was prefaced by an interview conducted by historian Cari Beauchamp with Beat the Devil’s script supervisor, Angela Allen, who one might think had one of the more thankless jobs in film history on that particular set. But the way Allen told it, working on the production was a considerable amount of fun, at least enough to counterbalance what must have been a very high exasperation level inspired by Capote and Huston’s constant tinkering and revising of the film’s structure and dialogue.
Seen again with a more sophisticated eye, Beat the Devil’s level of perfection turns out to be sublimely amusing, another singular bolt of Huston lightning; everything from Humphrey Bogart’s frazzled charm to Jennifer Jones’s straight-faced tall tales, to Gina Lollobrigida’s delivery of tea for two, to the relentlessly sharp wit of Capote’s dialogue and Huston’s supremely confident direction, which may have been borne from precisely the opposite emotional impulse, gives this improbable lark true wings.
Those Huston films, especially seen back-to-back as I saw them this past weekend, go a long way toward indicating just how elusive the comic impulse can be, and just how unexpected it can be when it explodes. But whether or not they were traditional comedies, The Maltese Falcon and Beat the Devil both had comic awareness. When a “sophisticated” audience bumps up against something from another era whose intentions or execution bristles too roughly against their sensibilities, or seems on the surface too silly or misguidedly earnest to invite anything but laughter, the screening can turn into an unwelcome hootfest. Such as it was, at least for a while, at the TCMFF 2017 midnight screening of John Boorman’s 1974 film Zardoz.
Say what you will about Zardoz, and you will (and you should, as long as it’s something more substantial than “Awesome!” or “Whaafuck?!”), but this singular film is one sprung from the mind of a true visionary director, no matter our conclusions about that specific vision. Whenever I hear of a corporate drone who’s coughed up another dour superhero fantasy acclaimed as “visionary,” I imagine that vision being programmed in a boardroom at the behest of the keepers of the lowest-common denominators and in fear of legions of fanboys who don’t cotton to coloring outside of the lines. But Boorman, who conceived, wrote, produced, and directed Zardoz flush from the success of Deliverance, when he could have done any number of other projects to secure his commercial and artistic future, sustained the production of one of the more original, deeply felt, and genuinely hallucinatory science-fiction allegories ever to make it to the screen bearing the imprimatur of a major studio. In the annals of odd studio releases, it deserves a place right alongside Never Give a Sucker an Even Break.
Sean Connery is Zed, an Exterminator, one of a cadre of assassins murdering the population of Brutals in the name of a strange sub-deity called Zardoz, whose rock-carved visage floats over the hills and moors, vomiting weapons and ammunition to be used in the slaughter. Zed is somehow smuggled inside Zardoz, where he murders a man who claims to be Zardoz, found perched precariously at the mouth of the giant figure, and is subsequently transported into a realm, a vortex, populated by immortals, an elitist group of scientists and sensualists who have separated themselves from the society of Zardoz’s victims into what can only be described as a pastel-flavored religious commune. That commune is governed by the Tabernacle, an omnipotent, disembodied voice dedicated to sustaining the maintenance of life for these chosen, whose rare transgressions from the imposed idyll are punished by a measure of aging which, if enough infractions pile up, will result in debilitation and dementia, but never death.
Against the resistance of Consuela (Charlotte Rampling) and to the encouragement of May (Sara Kestleman), the immortal commune’s two arresting poles of rapacious, visionary (there’s that word again) pleasure, Zed slowly accrues awareness of his origins and of the past world, supplied by May and her minions. Zed slowly begins to approach a sort of godhead himself, one that might even replace the Tabernacle as the Immortals, grown weary of endless, unchallenged existence, mount an attempt to regain mortality, to kill God, to be able to once again experience life under the one thing that seems to give it meaning, the surety of termination.
That’s a lot to expect guffaw-ready, possibly chemically enhanced hipster audiences to digest, especially after a day filled with as many as six other films seen previous to it. Of course, when a director gives himself fully to the images and ideas cluttering his head, the result is usually not one that’s going to speak to great swaths of moviegoers who’d prefer the film to have more Gordon flash than existential philosophizing. And when Boorman drapes his hero in what looks essentially like a red diaper for the duration (and at one point, a wedding gown) and spins out phantasmagorical sequences draped in as much vintage early-’70s futurism as Zardoz sports, he runs the risk of looking like a fool. But for the patient viewer, Zardoz is also a film of ravishing beauty—and some of those images, particularly of the great Zardoz head floating across the Irish landscapes where the production was filmed, shoot straight beyond silliness and into the rarified realm of the sublime.
Zardoz doesn’t play by many recognizable rules, of narrative, of visual discipline, but even for the younger, presumably smart audience that it drew at TCMFF there’s apparently only a couple of ways to respond to something like it—derision, confusion, boredom, or some numb cocktail consisting of all of the above. The surprisingly large crowd, prepped by TCM’s invaluable programmer/host Millie Di Chirico and her peppy introduction/warning, giggled and hooted right out of the gate. But as I was secretly hoping, they didn’t end up having the stamina to turn the film into TCMFF’s very own episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and eventually, about a half hour in, the superiority-tinged laughs and gasps subsided as the audience gave in either to the effects of that numbing cocktail or, like I did, the strange buzzing in the brain caused by exposure to a genuine original.
The usual proclamations of “What the fuck was that?!” and “Worst movie I ever saw!” could be heard on the way out of the auditorium, but I left elated, as if my mental receptors had been seduced into opening at just the right frequency and taking in Boorman’s spectacular folly, letting it seed my brain and grow into what it would. And seeing it in such a beautiful DCP presentation on a big, big screen was a treat that unsuspecting audiences, or perhaps even suspecting ones looking for the next 2001-style head trip, shouldn’t take for granted. Zardoz is a head trip all right, and the mental terrain it traverses and transforms certainly isn’t without the frustrations and jarring transitions to accompany the beauteous revelation of a true journey. But when the whole thing is over there’s no mistaking the fact that you’ve come back from an allegorical somewhere which surely has inquisitive intellectual precedent, yet at the same time feels like uncharted, idiosyncratic territory as far as the movies are concerned.
Zardoz certainly is as atypical a film as I’ve ever considered to be a personal TCMFF highlight, and maybe it has no more business being in a festival devoted to “classics” than The Jerk or The China Syndrome do. But it’s the sensibility that would get Zardoz into TCMFF at all which needs to be sustained, alongside a re-emphasis on showcasing not just the tried and true, but also the unique, the unusual, the disreputable, the dismissed, the less-celebrated, so that TCMFF can continue to be a festival which truly believes all these disparate elements of Hollywood antiquity deserve a place alongside, for example, Casablanca and Singin’ in the Rain. We’ll never know if he would, but I’d like to think that Robert Osborne, currently presiding over his own eternal film festival, just might agree.