Demon Seed 1977 ***

demonseed

With the world moving towards an as-yet-undefined period of self-loathing circa March 2020, it’s worth looking back to another cultural and social crisis point, 1977. Star Wars was round the corner, and a new era of family-friendly fare was about to dawn, but in 1977, things were tough all over. Attendances were down, terrorism was on the up, oil prices were rising, governments were failing, dystopian sci-fi, horror and pornography were the hot subjects of the day, and in an alternate universe, Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed would have been the movie that caught and reflected the bleakness of the time.

The Exorcist has married old-school fire and brimstone with new-fangled medical detail, and Demon Seed takes energy from that, as well as science-gone-wrong entries like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Hal in Kubrick’s 2001. Filmed in Germany, it’s the story of an artificial intelligence called Proteus who turns on his creator Dr Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) and incubates a child via his wife Susan (Julie Christie). The method of Proteus’s take-over was tricky to understand in 1977, but makes more sense in 2020. The Harris house-hold is supervised by a voice-activated computer (think Siri or Alexa), and Proteus takes over the home by supplanting the existing program, trapping Susan.

Demon Seed has a few wild stabs at visualising this; unfortunately these involve a wheelchair with a metal arm attached, which looks easy to resist. More effective is the sight of Proteus forming itself in an elemental way, a kind of Rubic’s snake which coils around and then decapitates a suspicious scientist. And oddly, Proteus speaks with the silky, saturnine tones of Robert Vaughn, rarely betraying anything but omnipotent power. With the action largely confined to one location, Demon Seed needs a good actress for the central role, and in Julie Christie, it gets a great actress, with Christie remaining empathetic through some difficult narrative transformations.

The kind of movie that the BBC used to show as a prime-time, 9pm, Saturday night treat in the early 80’s, Demon Seed is dark, unpleasant and eventually psychedelic, as might be expected from the visionary behind Performance. Horror would seem a reasonable reaction, and yet Cammell, a Scotsman raised with an interest in Aleister Crowley, seems to be clinically interested rather than repulsed by this formation of a new being that fuses flesh and metal. The final scenes involve a baby with a metal shell which Alex and Susan gingerly remove; after a series of bombastic light-show effects, the effect is strangely tender.

Demon Seed is a pretty horrid film, but it’s a way-ahead-of-it’s time entry in the sci-fi stakes; this was the third time I’ve seen it, but the first with proper framing, and it really makes a difference. What seemed murky and undefined in pan-and-scan seems more precise in widescreen; Cammell was a genuine talent and visionary, even if what he saw was disturbing and hard to fathom.

Darling 1965 ****

darling-julie-christie

 

John Schlesinger’s best work has stood the test of time; Darling isn’t particularly well remembered today, but it’s a sleeping giant of a film, with a script by Frederick Raphael (Eyes Wide Shut) that deserved its Academy Awards win. Julie Chistie also won an Oscar for her portrayal of Diana Scott, a British model who escapes her humdrum marriage as her career temporarily ignites at the hands of various powerful men, including Dirk Bogarde and Laurence Harvey. Perhaps it’s the black and white photography that was at odds with the examination of glamorous jet-set lifestyles; Darling’s concerns seem remarkably modern now, and in keeping with the meetoo movement in a portrayal of a woman wronged. There’s no sentiment here, nor redemption, just observation of how the sweet life might turn sour for one individual, and how escape from one set of traps might turn into a dead end. Success is shown to be an illusion, and perhaps that’s why Darling’s portrait of an amoral world hasn’t resonated; a revival on streaming may find a new audience for this skilful dissection of a life drained of meaning.

Away From Her 2006 ***

images-4

Adapted with great sensitivity from Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over The Mountain, Sarah Polley’s directorial debut rises far above the disease-of-the-week TV movie genre. Set in a snowy Ontario, Polley’s script depicts the internal angst of Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsnet), who notices that his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Reluctantly accepting the need for Fiona to be in a residential home, Gordon has to face a stark reality when it becomes apparent that his beautiful wife has forgotten his caring touch, and started a relationship with another man. Mental illness is often stigmatized in cinema, but Polley takes a less judgmental tack, sticking closely to the emotional journey of her characters and maintaining sympathy for all parties in an unusual take on sexual jealousy. Pinsent and Christie are magnificent, capturing all the nuances of a sophisticated relationship foundering on the rocks of a difficult reality.

Memoirs of a Survivor 1981 ***

Unknown

Doris Lessing’s brilliant books have rarely been the subject of major films; this 1981 drama featuring Julie Christie is one of the few examples of her work translated for cinema. D (Christie) lives in a bleak futuristic urban metropolis, where teenage gangs roam the streets; an opening credit reads ‘When Things Stopped’. D takes refuge in a council flat in the UK, where she forms a relationship with a young girl Emily (Leonie Mellinger). D also finds a membranous wall in her flat which allows her to explore and interact with people in Victorian times. Writer/director David Gladwell seems content to relay rather than challenge the semi-autobiographical obscurity in Lessing’s text, but the deep social concerns and Christie’s strong performance make it regrettable that more of Lessing’s work has not been filmed.

Heaven Can Wait 1978 ****

Unknown-1

One of the few 1970’s evocations of screwball comedy to hit the mark, Warren Beatty stars as sax-loving athlete Joe Pendleton, whose US football career is cut short by a fatal accident. Rejected in heaven has having arrived before his time, Pendleton is sent back to earth to inhabit the body of a millionaire, under the watchful eye of the angelic Mr Jordan (James Mason). A likable romance with Betty (Julie Christie) ensues, leading to a bittersweet but remarkably romantic ending. Collaborating with Buck Henry on direction and Elaine May on the script, Beatty fashions a winning role for himself in this light, bright comedy from 1978.

Hamlet 1996 ***

images-2

William Shakespere’s classic text is usually cut for theatrical or cinema performances, Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 production goes the opposite way, restoring every possible word over a mighty 242 minute running time. Branagh himself essays the student who returns home to find his father dead and his mother Gertrude (Julie Christie) in thrall to his uncle Claudius. Elsinore is depicted in majestic fashion, and the cast, combing Charlton Heston, Ken Dodd, Robin Williams, Richard Briers and Jack Lemmon, is as highly eclectic as it sounds. Casting Brian Blessed as Hamlet’s father typifies the larger-than-life feel of this epic production, one more jewel in a film laden with glittering elements, woven together to create a great record of the definitive revenge story.