Jean Cocteau is one of my many, many cinematic blindspots. I watched the first (and so far only) film of his not long after I moved to London, a screening of Orphée one Sunday evening, and the only context I really had for that was that Sam Raimi borrowed a shot from it for The Evil Dead. As my lack of background in the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice hampered my comprehension of that film, so too did my ignorance of Cocteau’s writing for theatre detract from my understanding of The Human Voice (Pedro Almodóvar, 2020). Expectations were high, given this short film – now available on MUBI after a brief theatrical showing earlier in the year, no doubt owing to the creative pedigree behind it I’m about to big up – brings together Tilda Swinton and Almodóvar for the first time. I watched it with B, since we’ve been working our way through the latter’s filmography this past year-or-so, often coupled with culturally appropriate Spanish meals. Well, one time we made tapas, the rest we drank calimocho while we watched. Well, I drank calimocho.
Despite our affection for Almodóvar and swooning for Swinton, we were both a bit non-plussed by this forth-wall-bothering adaptation of a Cocteau monologue written for the stage. Swinton occupies a typically bougie, primary coloured Almodóvar apartment, and has increasingly desperate telephone conversations with an absent lover who is clearly trying to break things off. She takes these calls on her Airpods, so mostly Swinton is free to wander and remote without being stuck holding a handset, adding to the theatrical air. Oh and also sometimes the camera pulls back far enough to reveal the soundstage the impeccably-designed set was built on. To what end, we were both unsure. And we’re proper smart, like, so I reckon it’s more of a muddled premise than something we missed; or else, it was a playful adaptation which, not unlike Orphée, is signficantly lacking if you’re not familiar with the original text.
Feeling frazzled by work/life, I opted for something signficantly less demanding the following Monday, and sat myself down in front of The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987). It should be fairly obvious why a schlocky eighties film co-starring Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI agent appealed to me. Kyle teams with an LAPD detective investigating a series of serious felonies committed by individuals with no previous criminal record. Turns out they’ve all been vessels for a horrible slimy alien, which you see a handful of times dropping out of one poor sod’s mouth into the other, which is delightfully disgusting each time. Once safely ensconsed in a new flesh-vehicle, the alien pursues pleasure over all, gorging on food, sex and material goods. Might the appearance of Kyle Kyle as an otherworldly, pure-of-heart FBI agent placed up against a supernatural force this unbridled ID-monster in the cesspool of Reagan’s America, their battle unmasking the respectability politics of the age to reveal the depraved baseness beneath, prefigure Twin Peaks? Probably, but this dry run is signficantly less artful. Fun though, and it does have an enjoyably pulpy look, sharing a colour palette with the proto-Vertigo Comics artists of roughly the same period.
One of the lodestars of my youthful cinephilia was my dad, who put me onto everyone from John Carpenter to Mel Brooks at an impressionable age. A favourite of his I’d so far neglected to check out was Bob Rafelson and, having been gripped by a mania for New Hollywood after reading a book about the making of Chinatown during the first lockdown, and with a free evening, I figured I’d rectify that. Setting aside his work with The Monkees for the time being, I went for a double bill of the two canonical features, both featuring his close collaborator Jack Nicholson in the lead: Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (Bob Rafelson, 1972).
Each film has an entirely distinct structure, even genre, and two very different Nicholson performances, but each circles the same pervasive mood as the swinging sixties gave way to the paranoid, neurotic seventies. I don’t think I can write about it as well as Kent Jones does in an essay that accompanies the Criterion release of Five Easy Pieces:
“The solitude. Of men, sometimes women, who refused to settle on a place, a role, a “stable” identity. They walked through my life for a few years when I was a boy – carpenters, child-care workers, counselors, psychiatric patients. Some of them were my teachers. Were they happy or sad, kind or mean? None of the above. They were discontented with the choices offered to them. They were acutely aware of their discontent, and they were trying to find a way to act on that awareness…The people who lived it either adapted or shifted gears, stabilized or imploded.”
In the earlier film, Nicholson is an almost irredeemable prick. He despises and cheats on his live-in girlfriend (Karen Black), clearly thinks himself better than the occupants of the remote Californian town he resides in and his colleagues at the oil field where he toils. Rather than the American equivalent of the British angry young man, however, he comes from immense privilege; a shift at the film’s halfway mark takes us from Nicholson, charming even with his antagonistic behaviour, bumming around in the desert to visiting his family of academics and piano virtuosos cross-country. He switches roles with Bruce Dern for The King of Marvin Gardens, with Nicholson the meek but no less lost radio monologist dragged to Atlantic City by his wheeler-dealer brother, promising riches or, at least, a more interesting life along the boardwalk.
In each film, as Jones notes, there’s the sense not only of potential not being lived up to, but the impossibility of that potential ever finding a home in the world these characters find themselves in. Cast adrift and with nowhere to moor themselves, they eventually spin out and you assume, before too long, they’ll have sunk entirely. All of which makes these films sound rather maudlin, which they’re anything but. The crackling charisma of Nicholson in the earlier film and Dern in the latter mean they’re a pleasure to watch, the cinematography of László Kovács a further blessing, and the feeling that you’re watching a film about grown-ups for grown-ups a minor miracle for someone who barely a week ago sat through Black Widow.