Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 33, Number 9. 25 June, 1970
Boom, a film that can affect in many ways, produces two divergent reactions (rather like Wagner, if I may be forgiven the pet reference): people either recoil and walk out halfway through, in ignorance or fear, or stagger out at the conclusion, stupefied and muttering imprecations. The film did not find in me, a totally willing response at either pole, although I did admit that sitting out the preceding Scales of Justice in the nearest hostelry may have exacerbated my already unresponsive mood. It is not often considered, but is nevertheless significant, that films, or, I suppose, any other form of communication or expression, very often catch one on the wrong foot. A work that might be adjudged great when experienced on Thursday might be viewed as something less startling if seen on Friday instead. The influence of mood, disposition, or what you will, cannot be underestimated, especially in the cinema where each fleeting two hours worth may be an experience never to be repeated. In this snort lime we demand of ourselves an acceptable response, or at the very least the faculty of being open to suggestion and influence. To clam up when prodded, and express boredom or distaste, is the easy way out if the mood is not right, and even overt hostility often arises out of this conflict between the pressures of the film and the resistance supplied by the viewer's inappropriate frame of mind.
Having come this far, I will pursue the matter. An initial "this is great stuff" reaction to a movie often looks distinctly shallow second lime round. (My current apperceptions of Hiroshima Mon Amour, Blow Up, and Wild Strawberries are of this order.) The probable explanation is that in the first instance one is attuned to an extent where the positive response is an effluence of the way one is feeling at the time as much as of the film. Another viewing will reveal whether or not the film has the capacity to stand a change in the emotional disposition of the viewer. My own opinion is that the best films are capable of being seen many times, since their particular impact is independent of changing fashions in techniques, or temporary titillations like plot twists and so forth. How else to explain my being able to sit through Citizen Kane three times in one day, a certain Western 13 times in ten years, or a number of other favourites to a comparable degree? Here are cases where a film's strengths are sufficient to override momentary vagaries of temperament. This persistent satisfaction may cynically be ascribed to infatuation rather than thoughtful apprehension, but it exists whatever explanations are offered.
These prefatory remarks express my disappointment at being not as appreciative of Boom as I feel I perhaps ought to be, or as visibly moved as have been most of my friends. One must be wary, however, because this approach is beginning to veer dangerously towards the state of affairs where aesthetic 'truths' are attained by counting heads. There may, after all, be very good reasons why one should not be so overwhelmingly impressed by the film. My own prejudice is against the Grand Allegory approach, which I have always found wearisome. Presumably, though I may be wrong, part of the impact of Boom derives from the implication that the events depicted are related in some way to our lives and secret fears. I find it difficult to jump the abyss between Isola Goforth's craggy redoubt and RB's psyche. Since the Angel of Death and his victim do not trigger the appropriate archetypal response, I am left in vacuo with a bizarre fantasy. The setting is splendid and the technique superb, but stripped of psychological relevance there is unsufficient dramatic content to [unclear: so] stain a high degree of involvement.
The film nevertheless inspires a detached kind of interest throughout, and is at times quite exciting. Joseph Losey's directorial style is fascinating, even in those films where he has to prevail over wild and woolly scripts. In Boom! as in The Servant, he has a ball manoeuvring his camera and actors about amidst the decor, producing a kind of prowling sensation which is mildly hair raising. Douglas Slocombe is one of the world's best lighting cameramen, which status his incredible colour photography in Boom bears witness. Without these two fine artists the film would have been a flop, worthy only as an excuse for the brief, extraordinary appearance by Noel Coward (invited by Tennessee Williams, rumour has it, to improvise at will).
Richard Burton enunciates his lines as beautifully as ever, and although I generally find his particular brand of pedantry irritating I must concede that Burton is impressive, especially when the script requires him to make obvious to the shrinking Mrs Go forth his role as harbinger of ultimate tidings. I am never quite sure whether Elizabeth Taylor is brilliant or atrocious, always excepting Suddenly Last Summer, in which she matched the great Katherine Hepburn with a virtuoso performance. In Boom Taylor is haggard, overripe, slightly rotting even. This physical presence is perfect, whatever one might wish to say about her screechy delivery and flouncing hysterics. I think the performance becomes more believable as the film progresses, and her last scene with Burton is the best in the film. Apparently vast liberties were taken by Williams when adapting his play The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore for the screen. The action bears his seamy imprint from beginning to end, but whether this is a help or a hindrance I cannot say.
An analysis as perfunctory as this cannot possibly do justice to such a complex work. If my initial assumptions are correct, a second viewing should decide the matter for me. Until then I shall have to regard Boom as a marvellous technical exercise (and worth seeing again for just that reason), but one devoid of the emotional tone I invariably respond to. Having waited so long to see this film, perhaps now we will be allowed the pleasure of Joseph Losey's Accident, as yet unreleased in Wellington. The management of the Princess might continue their sterling work of the last five years by inquiring whether or not Accident is available for screening. Given the undoubted stupidity of the distributors, this reputedly great film has probably left the country for good.
Elvira Madigan, more than most films, is subject to the kinds of temperamental influences I have been discussing. I came out of this film awash with melancholy and mostly impressed by what I had seen. But further reflection began to reveal flaws in the film's style and structure, until I am now at the stage where I think it was only the events of the few hours preceding my going into the theatre that made me receptive to the story and its ill-fated characters. I ask myself, for example, why the two lovers committed suicide in the first place. An inspection of the film reveals little in the way of motivation, and since the narrative is said to be based on an historical incident there can be no falling back on the explanation that the relationship is a mythic one, doomed to extinction by nothing less arbitrary than a decree of the gods.
The plot has it that the lovers kill themselves because" they are starving. They are starving because they have no money, and there is no hope of improving their lot because it is impossible for them to get work. This tragic progression would be convincing if the film provided some reason for their not being able to find employment. There is the barest hint when a motley peasant assures our hero that manual work is not for the likes of him. But this, surely, is not enough. Something more substantial is needed to explain the fatal pessimism that grips the characters, since this pessimism pervades the film and is the very essence of its appeal. If less time had been spent on lyrical photography and more on providing a reasonable explanation of events, the film would have been a consistent dramatic entity. I don't think this attitude is unduly sceptical. Elvira Madigan builds up to the tragic act of suicide, and although the moment itself may be intensely moving, one can feel only deflated when thinking about the film later on. A more than usually convincing motivation must be found for this course of the narrative-two people killing themselves is, one need hardly point out, not a trivial affair.
There is a line in the film that goes roughly something like this: "If you lie with your eye close to a blade of grass, the grass can be seen clearly, but you can't see what's behind it. The rest of the world is blurred." This metaphysical tit-bit reflects accurately, it seems, the working philosophy of Widerberg and his photographer Jorgen Persson. Their over-reliance on the telephoto lens, with exactly that visual surface unwittingly described by the character, is a heavy strain on the viewer struggling to find something in the film he can get his teeth into. The use of the long lens is fine in short doses, and has been used in this manner to good effect in other films, but when the technique is employed for lengthy periods the resulting 'lyricism' ceases to be poetic, and becomes eventually superficial gloss, exquisitely boring.
Another aspect of the film that I object to is the music. At every moment of portentous implication, at every morsel of bump and grind, a little piece of Mozart soars over the soundtrack, as if to remind us that something significant is going on. The device is unworthy of this level of film making, and is about as piddling as canned laughter in TV shows. I appreciate, on the other hand, the way in which the film states at the outset what is going to happen. At first I thought this a misguided tactic, in that it would deprive the plot of a considerable measure of its impact. I became gradually convinced, however, that this was precisely the point, that the film eschewed dramatic surprises and attempted instead to engage our sympathies in spite of our foreknowledge. Countering this, though, is the suspicion that the paucity of properly stated motive may have been even more apparent if the final deed had been sprung on us without the forewarning.
Having made these several remarks, what am I left with? Some nice colour, very fine acting, and a sequence here and there that is genuinely effective. This does not seem to me to be enough, and I now think of Elvira Madigan as only a partial success, despite my initially favourable reaction.