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Tiger by the tail

The wild and woolly cinema of John Boorman
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  November 18, 2008

POINT BLANK: This Lee Marvin revenge thriller is so flamboyantly well assembled, you have to marvel at it.

“John Boorman’s Primeval Screen” | Brattle Theatre + Harvard Film Archive: November 20-24
John Boorman's most recent film, The Tiger's Tail, still doesn't have a US distributor, so there's an irony to the impressive four-day festival of Boorman films that the Harvard Film Archive and the Brattle Theatre are hosting this weekend. Everyone knows the Boorman hits — Deliverance, Excalibur, and Hope and Glory — but fine pictures like his neo-Shakespearean comedy Where the Heart Is (1990) and the political adventure Beyond Rangoon (1995) opened and closed without leaving a trace. Boorman has a distinctive visual style — he loves wide, wondrous, prismatic landscapes — and he's drawn to material that interrogates institutions; in his early career he also loved mythology and pop philosophy. But his instinct for subversive visions has made him risky and usually kept him far from the mainstream.

The series includes neither Where the Heart Is nor Beyond Rangoon, and it's also lacking another memorable Boorman, The Tailor of Panama (2001), which improves on the John le Carrû novel from which it's derived. (The one other omission is his 2004 disappointment In My Country.) But it does provide a rare opportunity to see one of his least-known gems, his 1965 debut, CATCH US IF YOU CAN (HFA: November 23 at 9:15 pm), which was released in America as Having a Wild Weekend. This was a fitting introduction to his career: it came out in the wake of the success of the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, but it wasn't the picture anyone was anticipating from the Dave Clark Five. Instead of showcasing the band, Boorman, working from a melancholy script by Peter Nichols, cast them as stunt men, one of whom (Clark) runs away with a famous model (Barbara Ferris) in the middle of a shoot. They're looking for escape from the sewn-up, commercialized city world, but the farther they venture from the heart of London, the more they discover that everything's been co-opted, and the only alternative appears to be competing forms of desperation. The movie is utterly remarkable — a eulogy for the '60s when they've barely begun that's lyrical and haunting.

Catch Us If You Can is unusual; most of the time Boorman isn't at his best when he makes an overt social or political statement — it dries out his imagination. (That's the problem with In My Country.) Take his 1968 film HELL IN THE PACIFIC (HFA: November 22 at 7 pm), in which Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune play a Yank pilot and a Japanese captain stuck together on an island during the Pacific War. Or THE EMERALD FOREST (HFA: November 24 at 9 pm), from 1985, in which a young white boy is stolen by Amazon tribesmen from his parents and raised as one of them. These are wearying and fairly idiotic fables whose only shared virtue is the glittering, sun-kissed cinematography. ZARDOZ (Brattle: November 22 at 10 pm; November 24 at 9:30 pm), a 1974 sci-fi extravaganza featuring Sean Connery in a loincloth, a Fu Manchu, and a braided ponytail, is even dopier, though it has moments of irresistible high camp. Then there's LEO THE LAST (HFA: November 24 at 7 pm), like Hell in the Pacific one of his earliest efforts, with Marcello Mastroianni as a naïf who inherits his father's mansion in a neighborhood grown poor and interracial and leads an insurrection against the powers of urban corruption. With its absurdist depictions of the ruling class, it's undeniably a period piece; released in 1970, it represents an era when people still took Jean Giraudoux's play The Madwoman of Chaillot, with its crazy street women pitted against the soulless suits, seriously. (Giraudoux seems to be Boorman's inspiration.)

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