Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 24: Camelot (1967)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Camelot (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 153 of the first edition hardback, Ebert mentions that he lacks a formal film education and that he learned a lot about filmmaking as a craft by visiting sets as a journalist. He writes, “I spent full days on sound stages during movies like Camelot and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, watching a scene being done with a master shot and then broken down into closer shots and angles. I heard lighting and sound being discussed. I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I absorbed the general idea. I learned to see movies in terms of individual shots, instead of being swept along by the narrative.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: Camelot is exactly what we were promised: ornate, visually beautiful, romantic and staged as the most lavish production in the history of the Hollywood musical. If that’s what you like, you’ll like it.” – from his 1967 review for The Chicago Sun-Times

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Looks like I finally hit the inevitable crossroads in this project where Ebert & I greatly differ on our enthusiasm for a work. The late, great critic was ecstatic about the mid-60s movie musical Camelot, a towering production that managed to stretch across 170 minutes of celluloid despite omitting several musical numbers from its stage play source material. Personally, I only see the same uninspiring Big Studio bloat here that Ebert chided in our last lesson, the John Wayne action epic Hellfighters, except without that film’s stray moments of immense beauty. Arriving at a time when New Hollywood rebels like Bonnie & Clyde and The Graduate were re-energizing an increasingly workmanlike, dispassionate movie industry, this three hour swashbuckling Ren Faire musical feels lame, stale, uninspired. I can totally see how musical theater geeks or folks obsessed with Arthurian folklore could be enamored with the late-era Old Hollywood spectacle of Camelot (Ebert doubly so, since it was one of the first film sets he was invited to visit as a writer), but the movie just did nothing for me. Outside of providing some extratextual context for the recent film Jackie & boasting a delightfully mischievous performance from a young, scene-stealing Vanessa Redgrave, Camelot weighed on me heavily as an overlong bore. I couldn’t even take pleasure in its period-specific costuming, which had all of the visual interest of a local, underfunded Ren Faire.

Is there any point to summarizing the plot of this Arthurian legend? King Arthur, Merlyn, Excalibur, Guenevere, Lancelot, and the Knights of the Round Table should all be familiar names in the public conscious, even if by secondhand knowledge through Disney’s The Sword and the Stone or a half-remembered Wishbone episode. Besides a dirty hippie version of Merlyn nearly pulling off a proto-Rob Zombie look, there’s really not much deviation worth describing here. The one thing Camelot does differently from most tellings is delivering most of its character work through song, a result of its nature as a cinematic Broadway adaptation. The film’s main crisis centers on a love triangle vying for Guenevere’s affections, a tension that leads Lancelot & Arthur to engage in battle. The battling itself, depicted through carefully staged sword fights, isn’t nearly as important as the forbidden three-way Hollywood romance, a conflict conveyed through a series of characters noticing each other notice each other with intensely jealous eye contact. This might be compelling if all three participants in this doomed Arthur-Lancelot-Guenevere trio were interesting as individual characters, but only Vanessa Redgrave’s portrayal of Guenevere registers as particularly memorable. In her first two musical numbers, Guenevere sings about the simple joys of living single and how Springtime makes her horny, a one-two punch of strikingly modern numbers with entertainment value never touched by Richard Harris’s nostalgic/sappy performance as King Arthur. Unfortunately (but understandably), Arthur’s whiny inner conflicts eat up a majority of the runtime and Redgrave isn’t given nearly enough screentime to counterbalance the film’s overlong chore of a slow-drip narrative & uninteresting visual appeal.

Obviously, it’s highly likely that I’m the one who’s wrong about Camelot‘s entertainment value & filmmaking merits. After all, Ebert was likely much better equipped to judge the worth of a musical theater adaptation than I, a cynical outsider to the genre, and it did win three Academy Awards for its efforts: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Music. As heavily referenced in Jackie, the original musical version of Camelot was also a personal favorite of John F. Kennedy’s, so the musical & this adaptation surely held a strong cultural & historical significance in the years following his 1963 assassination. I’m okay with being the modern philistine who can’t relate with the material, because it’s just so far outside what I usually seek out in my entertainment media. It would take a very specific kind of theater/Ren Faire nerd to fully embrace Camelot as a first watch in 2017 and I just don’t fit the type. I will say, however, that Vanessa Redgrave’s performance, particularly in her musical number about Springtime horniness, almost made the three limp hours that surround it worthwhile. She’s that great.

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Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

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Brandon’s Rating (2/5, 40%)

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Next Lesson: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

-Brandon Ledet

Opera (1987)

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fourstar

Widely considered to be the last great Dario Argento film, Opera (promoted in the US under the unwieldy Agatha Christie-esque title Terror at the Opera) is a sharp movie with a fast pace and some great new ideas from the aging director. Argento was invited to La Scala after Phenomena and asked to produce and mount a stage opera; he was happy to do so, but the project never went anywhere due to artistic differences. Instead, he channeled that idea into his 1987 film, which concerns a production of Verdi’s Macbeth staged by a transparent avatar of himself, with heavy influences from the plot structure and recurring images of The Phantom of the Opera.

The film opens with an unseen prima donna diva (this role was to have been played by Vanessa Redgrave, but Argento, hilariously, simply fired Redgrave when she tried to throw her weight around for a higher salary; the role was reworked to be played entirely unseen) being injured after throwing a tantrum and storming out of the the theatre. Her understudy, Betty (Cristina Marsillach), feels unready for the role, but she is encouraged by the director, Marco (Ian Charleson), and her friend and agent, Mira (Daria Nicolodi). Marco is himself a newcomer to this realm, having made his name as a director of shocking horror films. After her first performance, she discovers that she has a fan in Inspector Alan Santini (Urbano Barberini), who is at the opera house to investigate the murder of an usher who was killed during the performance. The usher’s killer begins to stalk Betty, tying her up and taping needles beneath her eyes in order to force her to watch as he murders others: first stage manager Stefano (William McNamara), with whom Betty has a tryst; later, he stabs and slashes costumer Giulia (Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni).

This image, of eyes forced open and surrounded by pins, became the movie poster’s centerpiece, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s haunting, primal, and memorable, much more so than the film as a whole. It’s also hyper-real, like much of the film itself, which is a note in its favor. This is one of Argento’s darker movies, and the violence is visceral in a way that his earlier films, with their limited special effects and beautifully vibrant but utterly unrealistic blood palette, were not. Instead, reality is elevated to emulate the same ultra-aesthetic and slightly histrionic approach that permeates the operatic world, and although this is a much more successful approach to experimental film-making than is present in Argento’s other works, it doesn’t quite work for me. I know that this one is Brandon‘s favorite, but it never gels into a cohesive whole in the way that some of the director’s other films do, despite their more disparate plot structures or occasional tonal dissonance. This movie is certainly good, but it never quite manages to be great; not having seen any of Argento’s movies that followed this one (other than Mother of Tears, which is a very different animal), I’m not ready to say that this is the first evidence of his genius starting to crumble. If anything, this journey has taught me that Argento’s earlier, reputedly greater body of work is a mixed bag. For every Tenebrae, there is a Four Flies on Grey Velvet; for every Suspiria, a The Five Days (maybe the real lesson here is to never use a number in your title).

Despite its opulent and sumptuous visuals and its decision to forego many of Argento’s favorite tricks, Opera is a relative step down from the pedestal that he had largely lived atop in the ten years following Suspiria. Again, the killer is acting out repressed fantasies after something, in this case Betty, reminds him of an earlier, sexually violent experience. The reveal of the killer’s identity and, more importantly, his motivation, works for me not at all, and I feel like Opera is all but daring the audience to feel insulted by its audacious defiance of logic. It’s not illogical, per se, but it feels disingenuous. The killer’s age, upon reveal, is at odds with what we learn about his backstory through Betty’s flashbacks, and it feels more like a “what a twist!” moment than any of Argento’s other sudden, third act plot complications. Misleading clues–not red herrings, but clues that are utterly meaningless in the end–are scattered throughout, the most prominent being the gold bracelet with an engraved date. What’s the importance of the date? What year is engraved on the bracelet? Whose bracelet is it? How did Betty’s mother even die? Did the killer do it? None of these questions are answered.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Opera. It’s an imperfect film, but that hardly differentiates it from Argento’s other works, even some of his unequivocal classics. Its hyper-realistic energy and frenetic camera work are wonderful, and there are some absolutely beautiful giant spectacles that are a lot of fun. Betty, despite Marsillach’s weak work and tepid screen presence (Argento has been quoted as saying he should have gotten an actress who could sing instead of hiring a singer and trying to force her to act) is much more of a triumphant final girl than his other heroines, excepting Jennifer Corvino. She’s quick on her feet and demonstrates surprising cunning for a character whose primary attribute is meekness. Still, other than the haunting image on the front of the box, there’s not much that gives Opera much staying power. It’s a paradoxically luminous but forgettable gem.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond