Wednesday, 13 January 2010
The Final Programme
(Robert Fuest, 1973)
Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius books, along with his other assorted forays into non-linear and radical fiction in the 1960s and 70s, have long been one of my favourite bodies of work in modern literature, as both this blog’s title and current banner picture attest. Initially conceived as a public domain character and signifier of a new ‘instant genre’ by Moorcock and his fellow writers at New Worlds magazine in the mid ‘60s, and continuing in some form through to the late ‘80s, the Cornelius stories mix a recurring cast of ambiguous, larger than life characters into a time-shifting panorama of alternate world apocalyptic scenarios, usually derailing expectations of a conventional action/adventure narrative in favour of a jarring Ballard/Burroughs-inspired approach that sees oblique emotional battles and existential sagas of entropy and decay played out beneath disconnected vignettes full of dazzling, brutal and beautiful imagery that function like dream collages of the twentieth century’s most poignant nightmares, dreams and disasters.
Despite their proudly ‘difficult’ nature, I’ve always thought that the Cornelius stories carry vast cinematic potential. Whilst reading books like “The English Assassin” and “The Condition of Muzak” for the first time as a teenager, the climatic scenes of destruction and rich aesthetic details seemed to leap into full visual form in my mind, as if crying out for a visionary director to appear on the scene and make them a reality. Of course, to do these books justice, a potential film adaptation would require not only the aforementioned director, but also Hollywood blockbuster scale production values and enough creative freedom to allow for the almost total abandonment of a linear narrative – a combination of elements that seems unlikely to become a viable prospect for would-be producers and financial backers anytime soon, unfortunately.
So needless to say, “The Final Programme”, writer/director Robert Fuest’s 1973 adaptation of the first Cornelius novel, is NOT that film by any stretch of the imagination. But, as Jerry’s only cinematic outing to date, or simply as a goofy early 70s sci-fi/spy caper in its own right, I thought the film must surely be worthy of a viewing and a quick review at the very least.
Having sung Moorcock’s praises above, it is ironic that many of “The Final Programme”s failings as a Cornelius movie carry straight across from the source material. Whilst it’s still a good read, it’s safe to say that “The Final Programme” is probably the weakest entry in the series. Initially serialised in New Worlds in ’65-’66 and finally appearing as a novel in ’69, it seems to have been written before the elements that went on to define the later books had truly coalesced. For one thing, many of the series’ most memorable characters – Una Persson, Bishop Beesley and Shakey Mo Collier amongst them – are notable by their absence, having presumably not been created yet. More importantly though, “The Final Programme” is also the only one of the books to retain the vestiges of a traditional linear narrative, replete with elements suggesting the kind of rather less challenging counter-culture spy spoof that may have seemed daring in the mid-‘60s, but that must have quickly become dated as the decade’s greater excesses picked up speed. Clinging rather naively to a strain of pre-hippie utopianism that was stone dead by the dawn of the ‘70s, events in “The Final Programme” often seem to lack any real narrative drive as they ramble on toward a ‘dawning of the new age of man’ type conclusion that sees Jerry and the vampiric Miss Brunner united in an awkward alchemical marriage, an idea that seems almost embarrassing in light of the far more convincing sense of collapse, despair and near cosmic pessimism that Moorcock developed as he moved the series into the grimmer realities of the 1970s.
Of course, such missteps can be easily overlooked when they spring from the pen of an author as prolific and imaginative as Moorcock, especially in the context of a book that also introduces us to the doomed psychodrama of the Cornelius siblings for the first time, and that rewards us with perhaps only actual instances of Jerry fulfilling his original role as ‘the James Bond of the counter-culture’. But in a standalone motion picture, this sense of narrative drag, underpinned by a rather confused and simplistic philosophy, is more of a problem, especially as the aforementioned ‘70s comedown was already in full swing by the time the film entered production.
It seems that the idea of adapting the book came from Robert Fuest himself, and, riding high from the cross-over success of the two ‘Dr. Phibes’ movies, it seems he had enough muscle behind him to get the wheels rolling (if, admittedly, on a pretty miniscule budget). Somewhat inevitably, Fuest approaches the film as an excuse for what we might call a ‘Zany Countercultural Caper’ movie. I’m not sure whether or not any film critics have previously bothered to trace the history and conventions of the ‘Zany Countercultural Caper’ (ZCC, if you will), but it is a genre that’s long been recognised in the autonomous state of my head, so I’m gonna go with it, and possibly write a longer piece on the subject at a later date.
Although rarely seen as the province of high cinematic art, the ZCC aesthetic did manage to bring us its fair share of utterly strange and incredible films during the ‘60s, but by the turn of the ‘70s, entries in the genre were often floundering, carrying with them a residual sense of ‘bummed out-ness’ that undermined the light-hearted goofery on screen, as the films began to seem increasingly out of step with the fast-moving times and a cloud descended that not even the sight of Peter Sellers wearing a variety of amusing hats could quite lift. This feeling perhaps reached its nadir with Joseph McGrath’s Terry Southern adaptation ‘The Magic Christian’ in 1970, in which we were expected to guffaw at the oh-so-satirical sight of stuffy, bowler-hatted bankers fighting each other for a pile of money dropped into a vat of excrement, accompanied by the strains of Thunderclap Newman’s abysmal ‘Something in the Air’, right at the moment when the ACTUAL counterculture was fast disintegrating into drug addiction and political extremism.
And it is at the far end of this ‘bummed out’ after-life of the ZCC cycle that we find “The Final Programme”. Despite the fairly frivolous storyline and characterisations, an undertone of melancholy can be detected throughout the film, thanks in part to Norman Warwick’s decidedly autmunal cinematography (which at times pays a visit to the same drab, overcast ‘70s Britain seen in flicks like Jose Larraz’ “Vampyres”), and to the film’s obvious budgetary constraints.
As anyone who has seen “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” will know, Fuest was far from an untalented director, and, as with that film, his love of imaginative mise en scene is evident throughout “The Final Programme”, as is a healthy dose of the energy, dark humour and love of visual puzzles and gadgets that Fuest demonstrated in “..Phibes”. The overall effect is muted though by a painfully obvious lack of resources - reportedly, the film’s budget was less than £60,000, a meagre enough sum for folks inside the British film industry to start taking bets as to whether Fuest would be able to deliver the finished product at all. It’s to his credit that he did come through on such a pittance, and with a movie that doesn’t ENTIRELY fail as an eye-popping sci-fi extravaganza to boot, but nonetheless – compromises clearly had to be made at every turn.
It’s clear for instance that Fuest relished the idea of realising the interior of the Cornelius mansion – a purpose-built pop-art labyrinth which Jerry and his father’s associates have to infiltrate at one point, braving clouds of poison gas, chess/music based boor opening puzzles, a balloon-like maze of brightly coloured parachute fabric and weirdly dated modernist décor in the process. And whilst all this is handled as well as it possibly could be under the circumstances, the whole sequence is rendered somewhat unsatisfactory, possibly because the sets emerge resembling an up-market Dr. Who set, and the low-key visual approach can’t help but sit awkwardly with such an extravagant set-up.
Similarly, when we get a glimpse of Jerry’s London flat, it’s less of a space-age bachelor pad, and a lot more like the kind of gaff that someone – say, someone in the film industry - might ACTUALLY have lived in circa 1973, complete with well-trodden carpet, messy kitchen, Venetian blinds etc… which is kind of charming actually.
In fact, for me the most effective moments in “The Final Programme” came when the film embraces this underlying pessimism and drabness. I particularly enjoyed the wonderfully realised sequence in which Jerry drives his Rolls Royce through the woodlands bordering the Cornelius estate, sipping scotch and guzzling chocolate digestives from the glove box, for a secret rendezvous with the family retainer to outline his plans for ousting his brother Frank and rescuing his sister/lover Catherine.
Also great is the scene in which Jerry briefly visits Trafalgar Square and finds Nelson's Column buried under a mountain of abandoned cars – a brilliant and evocative image, even though aforementioned budgetary constraints only allow us a few quick shots of the scene (one of which can currently be seen at the top of this blog). And it’s also great to see a prologue and a few later inserts in which Jerry relocates to a suitably moody Indian temple location to consult with his guru/buddy, the mystic scientist Professor Hira.
Altogether less effective are the film’s various attempts at ZCC-worthy antics and set-pieces. For instance, Sterling Hayden makes a mystifying cameo as a Texan general, ranting and raving with a comedic fake beard in what seems to be a goof on his role in ‘Dr. Strangelove’. Pretty much totally pointless, although his scene does at least manage convey well the apocalyptic feeling of Moorcock’s books. Witness the moment when the General’s sultry, Iron-Cross wearing German secretary conveys a message received from the malfunctioning WWII radio set –
“You heard about Amsterdam?”
“Yeah – some mistake. 28 miles of white ash.”
“For once the Americans did something right.”
Moments like that can’t help but make me smile, in spite of the film’s flaws.
The movie’s other big ZCC set piece is a protracted sequence in which Jerry visits a sort of gigantic underground pinball arcade / pleasure palace, in which he arranges to buy some explosives off a mate of his, plays pinball, watches girls spinning around in giant hamster wheels and nuns playing slot machines, flirts with groupies and swaps mumbled dialogue with a whitefaced woman who is supposed to some sort of psychic. Then there’s the scene where Miss Brunner takes Jerry out to dinner, to a club where semi-nude combatants wrestle in a vat of milk and rude waitresses profer plasticated tubes of gourmet industrial waste-contaminated wine – ah, that crazy apocalyptic future. All of this seems an attempt to infuse the film with some decadent, Barbarella-via-Fellini visuals, but none of it really makes much of an impression, despite presumably using up a hefty chunk of Fuest's spending money.
Budgetary constraints also take their toll on the story’s requisite globe-trotting, and again, Fuest is definitely deserves the admiration of all tight-fisted filmmakers for shooting scenes that purport to take place in Kazakhstan, Albania, Lapland and India, all seemingly without leaving the British Isles. Much like Kubrick recreating the Vietnam war in the London suburbs for ‘Full Metal Jacket’, careful framing and cinematography means that the results are far from ridiculous, but the local colour that helps liven up a lot of more expensive spy yarns is… shall we say, somewhat lacking.
And so, with limited production values undermining “The Final Programme”s potential as a visual spectacle, it is up to the cast to carry the film, and by and large, I think they do a surprisingly good job. Almost inevitably, screen versions of much-loved fictional characters are going to disappoint, and when Jon Finch makes his first appearance as Jerry, he looks all KINDS of wrong. Far from the svelte dandy of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythos, Finch initially turns up in aviator shades, with curly locks, muttonchop sideburns and a rather too robust physique – more of a Jim Morrison type; a big hippy oaf. Despite this poor first impression, it is to Finch’s credit that he actually embodies the character pretty well, playing Jerry with the sort of arrogant swagger and studied charisma that befits a superhero born of the rather elitest British counterculture. And more to point, he’s got a terrific stride, a brooding, Oliver Reed style physicality, and looks as if he was born in the requisite frock coat and driving gloves.
Such a portrayal is great as far as it goes, with Fuest and Finch occasionally approaching the same brand of lapsed aristocratic profanity that Bruce Robinson captured so perfectly in ‘Withnail & I’. But as the film goes on, Jerry’s characterisation becomes increasingly heavy-handed and eventually flat-out irritating, as his feigned boredom and constant demands that people “piss off” start to grate, making him seem more like an irritable teenager than a jaded interdimensional assassin. Subtlety and unpredictability are vital components of any eccentric British hero, and both are squandered here as the scripting inexplicably takes a nosedive. Likewise, the first time Jerry’s fondness for ‘choccy biccies’ is referenced (in aforementioned driving scene) it’s an amusing idiosyncrasy, and a great image, but by the time Fuest has crammed a gag about it into every single scene, it simply becomes infuriating, as if he hasn’t got the imagination to pull any other traits out of this potentially fascinating character, leaving Jerry looking like a one dimensional bore on a par with a cat stroking villain or a one-armed man.
In fact, there seems to be an overall drop in quality in “The Final Programme”s second half, not just as scene set ups become sparser and less interesting as – I suspect – the production began to run short on time/money, but the genuine wit of the some of the earlier scenes is also traded in in favour of lame gags and visual puns, as exemplified when Jerry gets a glimpse of a brain preserved in a tank of water, and comes out with “evidently some kind of brain washing machine” – ouch. Pretty poor show from a guy who was effortlessly tossing out wry, Alfie-style one-liners not half an hour previously.
Also characteristic of the way in which the freedoms of post-60s anything goes ‘creativity’ can often lead to inconsistency and boredom is the way that Catherine Cornelius (as played by Sarah Douglas, who went on to become Ursa In Superman II!), the film’s natural love interest / leading lady, is unceremoniously dispatched halfway through the film by a stray needle-gun round as Jerry and Frank fight it out in her bedchamber, having only had a chance to utter a few lines. Obviously this is another element carried over from the novel, and it probably would have been considered a bit beyond the pale for the film to dwell on Catherine and Jerry’s incestuous relationship. But rather than seeming distraught at the death of his one true love, Jerry simply seems bored in subsequent scenes, as he drifts under the influence of Miss Brunner.
As an amoral and manipulative older woman who vampirically ‘consumes’ her lovers for sustenance, and who is portrayed in Moorcock’s stories as a pre-emptive Thatcherite attempting to control the fluctuations in world events via the logic of primitive computer programming, Miss Brunner seems an extremely unlikely choice for a substitute heroine, and a traditional Hollywood narrative would not have allowed her to fall into that role. But hey, this is the new era baby, we can do whatever we like (even if it’s dull and makes no sense).
In actual fact though, Jenny Runacre is a fine actress, and manages to make the character her own. Moorcock’s Miss Brunner is always a bit of a gargoyle – one of the only characters in the mythos who is generally outright ridiculed for what she represents – but Runacre’s performance brings a lot more subtlety to the role, creating an ambiguous but not entirely unsympathetic character, despite an initial lack of resemblance to the stern dominatrix of Moorcock’s books. The scene is which she ‘consumes’ her subservient assistant Jenny (Sandy Ratcliff) in a lesbian encounter on Jerry’s couch is extremely well done, and pretty daring for this kind of movie – definitely another highlight.
There are some welcome faces in the supporting cast too, and in particular the always wonderful Graham Crowden (whom you’ll recall from Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If..’ and ‘Britannia Hospital’) takes on quite a prominent role, breathing life into the otherwise quite dull rogue scientist Mr. Smiles. Patrick Magee puts in an appearance too, as a disgraced scientist who shelters the fleeing Frank in his Eastern European villa, although sadly he’s not given much time to rev up his patented scenery woodchipper before falling victim (off-screen, thankfully) to Miss Brunner’s lusts.
The film’s soundtrack has some interesting moments, although it’s not that prominent overall – there are some nice period psyche jams anyway, and a surprisingly pleasant bit of mellow trad jazz, courtesy of Gerry Mulligan, plays over the end credits, and…
Oh yes, the end. Well, I’m not going to give it away or anything, but let’s not beat around the bush: the ending of this film stinks. It is, in the parlance of our times, a total fail – the kind of thing where you just think “hang on, they must have viewed the daily rushes at some point, and somebody thought that was good?” So the less said about that the better, really.
So there we go – ‘The Final Programme’, ladies and gents. Not exactly a rip-roaring success of a motion picture, but far from a total wash-out, and certainly worth seeking out if you count yourself a fan of Moorcock’s books, or ‘70s British science fiction, or the aesthetics of pop art informed action/adventure movies in general. At it’s best moments, the film is truly excellent, and even outside of them it still has enough striking images, great performances and memorable scenes crammed into it to last a canny b-movie maker for years, and sometimes, out of the corner of your eye, you can just about see the vision of the New Worlds writers moulding itself into tangible form. Thus it’s a crying shame that these abundant strengths are so pulled down by the even more abundant failures and missed opportunities, particularly in the saggy and de-energised final act and the startlingly crap conclusion.
A noble effort from Mr. Fuest then, but the bottom line is that I’m still waiting for my mythical Terry Gilliam-meets-Jean-Luc Godard character to emerge from the shadows and make the REAL Jerry Cornelius movie. Better stock up some fire wood and ammunition then, cos entropy levels being as they are, it’s gonna be a long wait.