hate-watching the oscars
bernard king: 50

by request: don't look now (nicolas roeg, 1973)

Tomás requested this one, not that I needed any prodding. As I have noted many times, in the early 70s, when I was a film major, Nicolas Roeg was my favorite director. His first three films as a director (Performance, which he co-directed with Donald Cammell, Walkabout, and Don’t Look Now) have never lost their appeal to me. I listed Performance at #10 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list, and could easily have listed Walkabout as well. I think Roeg started fading with The Man Who Fell to Earth, and by the 80s, I lost interest for the most part. Watching Don’t Look Now again, I wonder if the decline started there. Such a statement is unfair; Don’t Look Now is a terrific movie. But for me, it’s just a notch below the first two.

It is amazing and unsettling how Roeg manages to fracture our sense of the real world in Don’t Look Now. Kael wrote:

[O]ne may come out of the theater still seeing shock cuts and feeling slightly dissociated. The environment may briefly be fractured; for me ten minutes or so passed before it assembled itself and lost that trace of hostile objectivity. I don’t recall having had this sort of residue of visual displacement from a movie before …

I’ve told the story many times of our own experience when we saw Don’t Look Now when it was first released. As we left the theater (feeling as dissociated as Kael described), we walked past an alleyway, and down in the shadows, we saw a short person in a red coat. It was a holy-shit moment.

In Don’t Look Now, there is a sense that nothing is as it seems, alongside a feeling that one could figure out the puzzle if you just gave yourself over to your gifts of second sight. Roeg plays with time … what the film calls “second sight” allows for flash-forwards as premonition, and the past never leaves us, either. John Baxter (Donald Sutherland) sees past events just as often as he sees the future, although he doesn’t believe in those premonitions, only in what happened in the past. The film is full of visual allusions, shapes that occur in multiple settings, motifs of water and broken glass, and the color red, always red. Venice is a character in the film, as well, but it is far from what you might see in a tourist brochure. The Venice of the film is as ominous as the Venice, California of Welles’ Touch of Evil. And as with Welles’ great film (#23 on my Fave Fifty list), Don’t Look Now isn’t quite worthy of everything Roeg throws at it. Welles transformed pulp into art, but art that showed off rather than illuminated. Roeg is very busy in Don’t Look Now, as he is in all of his best films, but here it’s at the service of a relatively mundane Gothic story. It isn’t difficult to construct elaborate analyses of Don’t Look Now, but seeing it this time, I felt like it was a technical masterpiece without much underneath. According to one source, Roeg considered Don’t Look Now to be “an exercise in grammar", and Roger Ebert, who originally gave the film a rather uninspired 3 stars out of 4, later re-evaluated it, praising the movie after watching it a frame at a time. He then called it “a masterpiece of physical filmmaking”.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Borges, who made an appearance of sorts in Performance, and whose sensibility is apparent throughout Don’t Look Now. And yes, the love scene (it’s a sign of how perfect that scene is that you don’t think of it as a sex scene, even though it was as explicit as any mainstream movie of its time). And I’d like to give a belated shout out to a couple of people who were influential in Roeg’s early directorial work. Antony Gibbs was the editor on Petulia, a film that helped introduce the kind of fractured editing we associate with Roeg (Roeg was the cinematographer on that film). Gibbs also worked on Performance and Walkabout. The legendary Dede Allen has credited Gibbs as a great influence on her own work as editor. Don’t Look Now was also the first Roeg film to feature Anthony Richmond as director of cinematography (Roeg had done his own in his first two films). Richmond worked many more times with Roeg, and his skills blend seamlessly with the director’s.

Don’t Look Now is #129 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Two years ago, in a poll of 150 British film industry professionals, Don’t Look Now was named the best British film ever. I think that’s pretty cool, even though I’m going with 9/10.