Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '77 - James David Patrick ""

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Underrated '77 - James David Patrick

James David Patrick is a writer with a lifelong moviewatching habit. His current projects include #Bond_age_, the James Bond Social Media Project ( and Cinema Shame ( Follow him on Twitter at @007hertzrumble.

1977 feels so top heavy with banner films that anything beyond Star Wars, Close Encounters, Annie Hall, etc. seems underappreciated and overshadowed. While I only really have one legitimate deep cut to share, I felt justified in highlighting a selection of personal favorites that deserve a little more affection. With so many great films on my shortlist, I had difficulty cutting down to five. So I listed six instead. It's a wild and wooly list that I hope does justice to the breadth of offerings during this particularly unique year in cinema.
Jabberwocky (Terry Gilliam, 1977)
When I mention this oft-overlooked gem in the Terry Gilliam filmography, it's often dismissed outright as lesser Gilliam. From an early age Jabberwocky left me agog. Agog seems like the most appropriate word here. The cacophony of filth, the whimsically dreary and raw essence of Gilliam left me transfixed as an inquisitive child of 8 years exploring my aunt's bizarre collection of dubbed VHS tapes.

A recent rewatch left me just as consumed by the dense dialogue and glib references to the nonsense poem in Alice Through the Looking Glass that inspired Gilliam's madness. As Palin's character fails into heroism, he navigates an uncaring world, searching for his place in a society that would quite literally rather piss all over him. The film, however, is more concerned with abstract notions of commercial evils, the corruptive nature of power, and the elusive nature of happiness than it is the obstacles in front of its beleaguered barrel maker.

When Gilliam finally reveals his titular monster, he's not playing the scene for catharsis or shock value; the battle against the Jabberwock is merely one more example of how life in Gilliam's universe is a traveling shitshow of filth and injustice. You know, but pretty funny... if you know where to locate the humor behind the ugliness of human nature.
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The Last Remake of Beau Geste (Marty Feldman, 1977)
Am I going to dislike a movie starring, directed and written by Marty Feldman. A movie featuring Marty Feldman and Michael York as identical twins? A movie featuring the likes of Trevor Howard, Spike Milligan, Peter Ustinov, James Earl Jones, Henry Gibson, Avery Schreiber, Terry-Thomas and Ann-Margret? I'm not and nor should you. Even poor Marty Feldman dismissed the film as a travesty.

Feldman always seemed more comfortable as a supporting player in a room full of comedic talents. In Young Frankenstein and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother he excels as the oddest wit in a room full of weirdos. He's strained somewhat as the focal point of Geste's comedy, but such a high percentage of these gags land that I can't be too critical of the ones that bounce. They're easily swept aside as the film moves swiftly from gag to gag. Feldman serves the individual comedic set pieces rather than the other way around and he never slows down to admire his own cleverness. Credit to Feldman in that he always seems to stay one step ahead of the audience's narrative expectations. It's this sense of imbalance that makes the film feel unpredictable and perfectly offbeat.
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Wizards (Ralph Bakshi, 1977)
1977: the year that spawned a legion of movies to deconstruct my fragile childhood psyche. I've already discussed Jabberwocky, which left an uncertain impression and the occasional nightmare. Now, let's check in with Ralph Bakshi and his post-apocalyptic animated fantasy that first introduced me to the notion of nuclear war, nuclear fallout, cold-war-era anxiety, and probably the torture of small animals.

Wizards tells the story of two warring brothers. One represents inevitable industrialization (along with liberal usage Nazi propaganda) and the other represents past and tradition (fairies, magic, etc.). Bakshi claims he wanted to prove that he could create a "family picture" with as much impact as his more adult-oriented films. Despite this stated intent, that little version of me witnessed something subversive and frame-of-reference shattering. This is not family fare. This is gloom and doom of the highest order, just with tepid jokes. The tease of hypersexuality and rather overt violence dominated my memories of the film, but Bakshi is always more than exploitation.

The struggle between the future and the past remains perpetually relevant; it's only the specific stakes that change. What seems more prescient now is the way this battle played out in the art of animated cinema. Even in 1977, it seems that Bakshi predicted the imminent demise of his craft. Modern audiences might balk at the relatively crude animation and slapdash nonsense narrative, but Wizards remains a surreal and unique experience rooted in both visual beauty and visceral ugliness. This is a masterwork of a visionary struggling against a system that wanted to steal his buzz but constantly feared the consequences.
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Pumping Iron (George Butler, Robert Fiore, 1977)
Most everyone should be aware of Pumping Iron by now, but do enough people truly appreciate Pumping Iron as a work of true late 70's pop-art? Of the pre-Hollywood Ah-nold personality documented in utero? This documentary follows the 1975 IFBB Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions and most specifically the larger-than-life figure of Arnold Schwarzenegger (and Mr. Schwarzenegger's entourage and legendary psychological warfare).

Focusing on the parallel lives of reigning 5-time champion Arnold and the reserved, homely Lou Ferrigno lends the film honest emotional resonance. Even if you have no interest in bodybuilding, the beating heart of Pumping Iron is its story of fragile humans beneath massive muscles. It's a meditation on competition, mental preparation, and fame. Arnold's unchecked natural competitive personality runs roughshod over the film and his opponents and provides more entertainment than any potential scripted material could have dreamed.
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Pensione Paura aka Hotel Fear (Francisco Barilli, 1977)
A bizarre little nugget of Italian madness. Set during World War II, a young woman and her mother manage a hotel. When the mother dies, the lecherous guests decide they can have their way with the beautiful Rosa. Some are merely crude and leering and others, well, worse. I'll leave that to your imagination. After Rosa suffers a few of these gross indignities, a cloaked figure begins knocking off the guests that step over the line.

The horror isn't especially effective, though the film manages an undercurrent of constant unease. It's not a perfect comparison, but Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro's Delicatessen feels like a tonal descendant. The limited-color palette and stoic cinematography contribute to this sense of doom. Rosa can neither escape the eyes of her guests, nor the vague sense of existential wartime dread that prevents her father, her potential savior from returning.

Pensione Paura shifts between horror and uneasy comedy and indeed the film may not even differentiate between the two in practice. As Rosa begins to lose her own grip on reality, the film heightens the surreal and allows the horror and humor to entwine rather seamlessly. For an unknown bit of Italian horror cinema, Barilli's film balances sexual subtext, exploitative nudity, rape-revenge, giallo elements, unsettling comedy and war-time melodrama into a fascinating melange of styles and genre. It's not quite up to the standards of Barilli's prior film, Perfume of the Lady in Black, but it's a memorable film that deserves its own slice of cult appreciation.

Abba: The Movie (Lasse Hallstrom, 1977)
A Hard Day's Night, except Swedish. Lasse Hallstrom's film documents a grinding 1977 10-city Australian tour and highlights the 70's Swedish pop sensation at the peak of their powers and popularity. It's a strange concoction of performance, documentary footage, staged skits, and Abba-mania yet somehow it all coheres so vibrantly that even the Abba-skeptics can get wrapped up in the beauty of how clearly Hallstrom captures this moment in time. You don't have to admit you like Abba in mixed company, but it is cathartic.
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