Wednesday, February 14, 2007

BOOM (1968)

Like THE DAY THE FISH CAME OUT, this is one of my Holy Grails from the '60s, a notoriously bad movie I'd heard a lot about but thought I might never get to see; it's not on DVD but the Sundance Channel, bless its independent little heart, showed it in January. It has the reputation of being a camp classic, helped no doubt by the fact that it's John Waters' favorite movie, but while I did find some of it laughable, it never really rose to camp levels. I can't say it's a very good movie, but it's not as bad as its reputation would have it. Based on a Tennessee Williams play ("The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore") from the beginning of his declining years, the story concerns Sissy Goforth (Elizabeth Taylor), a monumentally rich woman, much married (and divorced), who is aging quite gracefully but also dying (of an unspecified illness, probably a kin to that infamous Fatal Cinematic Disease that allowed Ali McGraw to die so beautifully in LOVE STORY). She is spending what is likely to be her last summer on earth on an island that she owns, in a fabulous bone-white villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Her days (and sometimes the middle of her nights) are spent dictating her memoirs into any one of a vast network of tape recorders, to be transcribed by her long-suffering assistant (Joanna Shimkus), and bossing around her small army of servants, including security man Michael Dunn (Dr. Loveless from Wild Wild West) who has his own small army of slathering hounds at his beck and call. One day, dissolute poet Chris Flanders (Richard Burton) hitches a boat ride to the island, rising up out the surf and climbing a cliff to be attacked by Dunn's dogs. Taylor allows him to stay in a guest room to recover from his mostly superficial wounds, but otherwise pays little attention to him until her gossip buddy, nicknamed the Witch of Capri (Noel Coward), tells her that Burton is known in high society circles as the Angel of Death for his knack of being a sponging houseguest whose aging hosts often wind up dead just after he leaves. Taylor invites Burton to dine with her and most of the rest of the film consists of conversations between the two which play out like a less intimate, dumbed-down version of their classic rants in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

At first, the whole thing feels heavily symbolic, like a Twilight Zone episode without either horror or whimsy (and thanks to a Yahoo Groups friend who pointed out the film's similarity to a specific Zone show with Gladys Cooper as a dying old lady and Robert Redford as the handsome death figure). But we find out near the end that it's all too literal: Burton's character really is just a dissolute poet who believes he has a gift for helping dying people accept their death. The real problem here is the casting. Taylor is too young and healthy to be effective as an aging, dying woman--her way of showing pain is to moan a bit and shriek, "Pain!! Injections!!" into the house intercom. Burton, though by no means old or unattractive, is also not nearly beautiful or ethereal enough to be an angelic stud--Tab Hunter played the role on stage opposite Tallulah Bankhead, and while the staging was not a success, certainly the two were more appropriate for the roles than Taylor and Burton. While overall the movie doesn't work, there are pleasures to be had: Taylor's force-of-nature delivery is fun to watch, as is Coward's serious feyness. Almost every frame of the film looks gorgeous, thanks to director Joseph Losey and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (credited oddly as "lighting cameraman"), the lovely seaside locations in Sardinia, and the stunning house, which is probably a combination of a real house and built sets. The music, which alternates between sitar music and a more conventional score, is very nice as well. The title refers to the sound of the waves crashing against the rocks, as explained by Burton, sounding like "the shock of each moment, of still being alive," a thought I rather like, and which is complemented by Taylor's complaint that "life is all memory except for each present moment which goes by so quickly you can hardly catch it." My favorite scene is the dinner between Coward and Taylor, with the grande dame dressed outrageously in a fabulous white Kabuki outfit with a huge, shiny Aztecy headdress. It is almost worth catching this film just to see Taylor in the outfit; she's probably the only actress ever who could get away with it, except maybe Divine. (Everything comes back to John Waters eventually...) [TCM]

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