Bad timing (1980) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Although this film was directed by a major British director (Nic Roeg) and starred Theresa Russell, Harvey Keitel and Art Garfunkel, I wasn't really aware of it until today. Oh, I had seen the name here and there, but I never associated it with Roeg or with any sort of film achievement. It turns out that my ignorance, and probably yours as well, was calculated by the film's producers, The Rank Organization, who buried the film in the deepest hole they could find because they considered it to be degenerate.
They began by failing to distribute the film to their own Odeon theater chain in the UK. It was the only Rank film which was never shown in a single Odeon theater. The second largest theater chain in the U.K. was owned by Rank's rival, EMI, which had no intention of helping their competitor financially, so the film ended up in Sir Lew Grade's tiny chain of Classic theaters. The Rank executives were so embarrassed by the film that they even went so far as to remove their trademark opening gong from the film's intro, and kept it from being released on video tape. As recently as the summer of 2004 (a year ago as I write this), Roeg felt that the film would never again be seen in its proper condition, as per this comment at IMDB:
Fortunately, The Criterion Collection came along like a white knight and rescued this distressed damsel in 2005. Not only have they managed a digital restoration of the entire film in a gorgeous, anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 aspect ratio, but they have assembled 15 minutes of deleted scenes, about a hundred rare photos and original posters, an interview with Roeg, and an interview with the star (later Roeg's wife), Theresa Russell.
So what made the film so damned degenerate?
The basic outline is as follows.
Art Garfunkel and Theresa Russell are American expatriates living in Vienna, Art playing a visiting university lecturer and Theresa portraying a free spirit blowing with the wind. Although totally mismatched, they strike up a relationship which begins in passion and high hopes but is ultimately doomed by their incompatible personalities. The 40ish professor wants an orderly, controlled world filled with sensible thoughts, one in which schedules are honored, promises kept, mates won and held. The 20ish woman is essentially a hedonist who is in a stage of life where she wants to experience as much as possible, and to do what she wants to do when the mood strikes her, often without regard to earlier commitments. She also has a flexible attitude toward the truth, which further irritates the older man, and impels him to imagine even greater infidelities than the ones she is really committing. As their relationship inevitably degenerates, they continue to hang on to one another in certain ways, as lovers so often do. Long after it is obvious that they have no future, the professor is still obsessed with her, still jealous of her potential suitors, and still longing for the way things once were between them. Simultaneously, the woman still needs to stay in contact with the professor for the stability and common sense which he brings to her, especially as she descends into a world of depression and alcohol abuse.
A dramatic event drives the film. One day the woman calls the professor to report that she has overdosed on booze and pills. He eventually gets her to the hospital, but a local police inspector feels that there was a great deal of time elapsed between the professor's having received the call and his having summoned assistance. What happened in that period?
The mystery is revealed in flashback, as the woman lies on her hospital bed, struggling for breath, hovering between life and death. Scenes from the suicide night are intercut with flashbacks as the police inspector interrogates the professor, and the audience sees the disparity between the professor's non-committal answers and reality.
At this point you may wonder why anyone thought this film was disgusting. In order to reveal that, I need to spoil the plot. If you would rather find out for yourself, read no further in this section and proceed to the part below "end spoilers."
It turns out that the professor arrived at her apartment, cut off her clothes, and raped her before calling an ambulance. This was an act trapped somewhere between murder and necrophilia. It might have been considered manslaughter if he had merely failed to call for aid immediately, but he did far worse than that. The sexual act might well have been the very thing to kill her, although it did not. While she was gasping for breath, he was enjoying a masturbatory reverie of the way things used to be between them, while simultaneously feeling despair from the loss of their love and overwhelming shame at his act.
The film's close, uneasy relationship with some ugly truths about reality was exacerbated by uncannily parallel events in the lives of the main participants. Nic Roeg's obsession with Theresa Russell paralleled the feelings of the Garfunkel character for Theresa's character. Roeg would marry her, and work with her again. They remain together decades later. If the Roeg/Russell story proved that obsession might have a sunny face, Art Garfunkel's story could not have been any gloomier. At the very end of shooting, just before the film crew was to return to New York for some final scenes, Garfunkel relived the anguish of his character when his own life partner, Laurie Bird, committed suicide. Garfunkel was forced to relive his character's desire to withdraw into himself while the investigating police officers wanted to draw him out. Although Garfunkel had no legal responsibility for Bird's death, his deep sense of guilt reflected the situation in Bad Timing. He wondered what he could have done to prevent it. He wondered if he had done something to cause it. He was a man deeply obsessed with his woman, happy in his life with her, yet suddenly faced with the overwhelming and final realization that their love had obviously not provided the same happiness for her.
Is the whole film disgusting, as Rank suggested? Is it a great film, as others have suggested? Could it be both? Opinions will vary, but Criterion deserves a standing ovation for having given us all a chance to judge the film ourselves, for having restored it so magnificently, and for having found and created so many additional features.
It's not a mass audience film because the movie is not without flaws, and Nic Roeg's films are an acquired taste to begin with. In fact, I have never acquired that taste myself. Yet I feel that Bad Timing is a great work of art in many ways, and I am not talking about its great visuals and a fascinatingly eclectic musical score. It has those elements, but many films do. Bad Timing rises to a higher plane because it is personal, passionate, close to the bone, and complex. It is, above all, a masterpiece of psychological drama because it makes us feel disgust at the professor's actions at the same time that it makes us realize that we could easily have done something similar in his position. At the very least, Bad Timing makes us realize that all of us, even those with no great secret like this, have been in doomed, obsessive relationships which ended in some form of regrettable, shameful ugliness. In digging so close to the truth, the film provokes us. It makes us feel the same way we do upon the re-emergence of a repressed memory which we would have preferred to stay subconscious.
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