A tale of vengeance and consequences in “Kill Bill: Volume 1”

Quentin Tarantino, “Kill Bill: Volume 1” (2003)

Inspired by and paying homage to grindhouse cinema and the film genres that dominate it – cheap ‘n’ cheerful Asian martial arts movies, samurai flicks, blaxploitation and spaghetti / paella Westerns – the two “Kill Bill” films revolve around a lone avenger, known as The Bride, who seeks retribution against those who tried to destroy her and her future as a wife and mother. Implicit in this theme is the notion that past and present actions have future consequences, even years down the track when people’s attitudes and lives change and they may no longer believe in what they used to do.

The original “Kill Bill” film turned out to be about four hours long so it was split into two parts for cinematic release and the two parts have now become independent films in their own right. The otherwise straightforward revenge plot is chopped up into chapters that jump backwards then forwards and back in time but they are not difficult to follow and provide viewers with background information at the appropriate time so that later developments can make sense without viewers having to remember what happened earlier that is significant to the future action. In “… Volume 1”, The Bride (Uma Thurman), at this stage not named, despatches in brutal fashion Vernita Green (Vivica A Fox) after a knife fight in Green’s own home. Green’s daughter witnesses her mother’s death and The Bride acknowledges that the child may seek her own revenge against her years later. The film then jumps back to a point in time when The Bride is about to marry her groom at a chapel in El Paso. The wedding party is attacked by her former colleagues in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. After telling the Squad leader Bill (David Carradine) that she is pregnant with his baby, The Bride is shot in the head and left for dead. She miraculously survives but lies unconscious for four years in hospital, during which time a hospital orderly has been selling her body to his buddies. One of her colleagues, Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) tries to kill her but is stopped by Bill who considers Driver’s action to get rid of The Bride while she is unconscious and defenceless unworthy of the squad.

The Bride revives and kills the hospital orderly and one of his pals mercilessly. Escaping from the hospital with the orderly’s car keys, she commandeers his van and while she teaches herself to walk and fight again, and makes plans to eliminate the people who tried to kill her earlier, viewers are treated to a partly animated interlude about one of those people, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), her background as an orphan losing her parents to Japanese yakuza, her later training to be an elite assassin and her current position as head of the yakuza underworld. The rest of the film follows The Bride to Okinawa where she commissions a sword to be made by Hattori Honzo (Sonny Chiba), a former master swordsmith now working as a sushi chef, and then seeks out O-Ren Ishii at a restaurant, The House of Blue Leaves, where she fights off Ishii’s squad of fighters, the Crazy 88, and Ishii’s improbably schoolgirl bodyguard Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama). The two women later face off against each other in a snow-covered garden.

The thin plot is well structured though perhaps some sequences are a little too long and could have been edited for length. The animated interlude enables the violence and an act of paedophilia to be viewed from a distance, and probably helped the film gain a rating that allowed it to be viewed by a mainstream adult audience (as did filming the scenes where The Bride fights the Crazy 88 in black-and-white). Cinematography and the use of split screens – I actually think the split-screen filming technique to tell part of the story could have been used more – are very effective and help to give the film a distinct appearance and style. The sadism, while intended as cartoonish, can appear brutal and excessive to audiences unfamiliar with low budget slasher and porn films. Aliens from outer space viewing films like this might conclude that Western civilisation is brutal, exploitative, seedy and sordid, not realising that such a world is part of the grindhouse movie phenomenon.

The acting may not be great and fight sequences are ridiculous but those are expected in a grindhouse homage of the nature of the “Kill Bill” films. Ultimately the two Tarantino films are no more than what Tarantino set out to do. Perhaps the most significant part of “Kill Bill: Volume 1” is the fight between Vernita Green and The Bride, and what the characters themselves could have represented in that scene. Green actually manages to get what she and the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad denied to The Bride: marriage, a daughter and a nice suburban life in a Californian city. The fight might have had more poignancy if The Bride had expressed some jealousy in a voice-over at what Green enjoys, and if the conversation the two have before The Bride knifes her had included something from Green about her life in the suburbs, how good it is or isn’t, and how she might be missing (or not) her former life.

Elite commandos, Tiger Mafia gangsters and Ugandan Shaolin Temple monks go head to head in “Who Killed Captain Alex?”

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Who Killed Captain Alex?” (2010)

Reputedly made on a budget of US$200 (though American-born Ugandan producer Alan Ssali Hofmanis admits the budget was actually US$85), this action-packed comedy of Uganda’s finest military commandos taking on the country’s most dangerous criminal organisation is a riveting work of amateur improvised film-making under conditions of poverty in a corrupt and authoritarian state. Captain Alex (William Kakule), one of the finest officers in the Uganda People’s Defence Force, sets out to destroy the evil Richard (Ernest Sseruyna) and his Tiger Mafia, which controls the slum neighbourhoods of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. After losing most of his commandos in a near-botched stealth operation on a group of Tiger Mafia drug couriers, Captain Alex manages to capture Richard’s brother and bring him to the police. On seeing the bad news on Ramon TV, the major TV channel in Wakaliga (a poor suburb on the outskirts of Kampala), Richard swears vengeance on Captain Alex and sends out a female spy to the military headquarters to seduce the officer and lure him to Richard. Alas and alack, Captain Alex ends up very dead in his tent – but no-one knows who killed him.

Alex’s brother Bruce U (Charles Bukenya), a Ugandan Shaolin monk, arrives in town, having heard of Alex’s death, swearing vengeance on Alex’s murderers. Bruce U has a few adventures in which he must do battle with the local Kampala kung fu squad and is nearly seduced by Ritah (Prossy Nakyambadde), one of Richard’s numerous and expendable wives. In the meantime, Richard is determined to find out who killed Captain Alex and hires Puffs (G Puffs), a mercenary from Russia, to steal a military helicopter and bomb Kampala for revenge. The Uganda People’s Defence Force also swear to avenge Captain Alex’s death by capturing Richard, though this means having to work out an ambush plan which clearly taxes their brains. They manage to work out where in Uganda Richard is likely to be hiding and start to encroach on him and his minions. Bruce U is captured by Richard’s men who bring him to their boss, who then forces Bruce U to fight Puffs’ assassins. Just as Bruce U succumbs to one flying kick, the commandos arrive and proceed to bomb the warehouse where Richard and his people are hiding. At the same time, Puffs’ destruction of Kampala creates breaking news on Ramon TV and forces the Ugandan government to declare martial law in Kampala.

When the dust eventually settles and the remaining commandos and mafiosi have to count the huge numbers of casualties, viewers are still no closer to discovering just who killed Captain Alex. At least the exuberant and histrionic acting, the crazed machine-gun shooting and the resulting mayhem, the kung fu fighting, and most of all the hilarious dialogue and narration by VJ Emmie (“What da fuck?!”) maintain the cheerfully frenetic pace in this devil-may-care, self-referential work. With respect to VJ Emmie’s voice-over narration and commentary, filled with jokes and openly exuberant as Emmie becomes absorbed in the plot and the action, there are very many highlights but the funniest of all must be the conversation over a woman early on in the bar-room scene: 1st man says, “Are you crazy? That is my wife! Get off my wife!” – to which 2nd man replies, “I thought [she] was a goat!” Another gem, this one from Emmie: “… All Ugandans know kung fu! …” One joke clearly meant for Ugandans involves a woman who is tortured because she insists on watching Nigerian movies.

Surprisingly for such a cheaply made and shot film with meagre resources, the plot is very involved and quite sophisticated in its own way, even though many details of the plot are full of holes, with a mystery that remains unsolved despite the body count and the destruction, and the ending remains open as the Ugandan government puts Kampala under lock-down while Puffs flies off in his stolen chopper into the sunset. The cinematography can be astonishingly good, especially in Bruce U’s training and fight scenes. The action is brisk and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, expecting the … well, the unexpectable!

Part of the film’s charm is that the cast is drawn from local people in director IGG Nabwanza’s home community in Wakaliga, and all the props used in the film are local as well. The action takes place in and around Wakaliga. The special effects are really very good when one considers they were done on computers that Nabwanza himself put together out of salvaged scrap. The film is highly self-referential, as VJ Emmie constantly reminds the target Ugandan audience what it is they are watching, and this continual self-referral builds up the notion of an all-embracing universe called Wakaliwood, in which supa-killa elite commandos and supa-crazy Tiger Mafia killers fight as much for the fun of fighting as they do for control and dominance.

Attack on Nyege Nyege Island: mini action thriller short featuring killer King Kong kung-fu kicks

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island” (2016)

The tiny but already globally famous Ugandan film industry (known as Ugawood, taking after the manner of Bollywood and Nollywood which represent the popular film industries of India and Nigeria respectively) already boasts its very own Quentin Tarantino cult figure in the person of one Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, also known as Nabwana IGG, who since 2009 has been making comedy action thriller flicks on literal shoe-string budgets as low as US$200 (!!!) with cheap special effects which he knocks up on his computer, which he built himself out of scrap material in his impoverished neighbourhood Wakaliga, a suburb in Kampala, and featuring voice-over narration from so-called “voice jokers” who dub or translate the dialogue into English for audiences and who often add their own interpretations and jokes into the narration for hilarious effect. Beginning with his most famous film “Who killed Captain Alex?”, Nabwana’s films take place in a particular universe, of course familiar to us and yet an odd place where it seems blaxploitation and martial arts flicks common in the 1970s never went out of fashion, drug lords commanding mafia gangs and big bosses running worldwide trafficking rackets not only still exist but still wear the most god-awful flamboyant fashions, and fighters are as likely to send one another to overflowing morgues with well-aimed kung fu kicks as with AK-47s that they just can’t seem to control.

In case this all sounds too much for readers, Nabwana kindly provides a taster of his distinctive world with a 12-minute short “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island”, a film he improvised and made in two days during the Nyege Nyege Festival. The musicians and the audience at the festival, and the community who hosted it, make up the film’s entire cast. All you need to know is that the festival is gatecrashed by commandos from the fearsome Tiger Mafia gang – whose big boss wears an odd mask of three CD-ROM discs over his forehead and eyes – who proceed to shoot up everyone in sight in their quest to kidnap somebody called Anna whom their boss seems inordinately fond of. In desperation two girls in the Nyege Nyege community summon the spirit guardian, a human-sized King Kong figure who proceeds to knock out and knock off the Tiger Mafia gangsters with Killer Kung Fu fighting.

The acting is probably better than might be expected in a cheerfully cheap film such as this, and the special effects are actually on par with the famously legendary cheap special effects of the old original Doctor Who television series that ran from 1963 to 1989. Needless to say, the plot is almost non-existent and just when it almost runs out of juice, the film ends on a cliff-hanger that can only be resolved at the next Nyege Nyege Festival. The voice joker is as much an essential part of the action as he introduces characters and does not so much explain or narrate as push the story along with exhortations and hurrahs.

The remarkable thing is that this and other films by Nabwanza’s film production company Ramon Productions (named after his grandmothers) exist at all, with their breezy self-deprecating humour and fearless gung-ho DIY spirit, in the slums of Kampala.

Exploring destiny, reincarnation and transformation in “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives”

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” (2010)

The last days of a farmer dying from kidney disease on his farm in a rural area in northeast Thailand, where in 1965 as an army soldier he helped kill Communist sympathisers in Nabua village near Laos, form the portal to an exploration of destiny, reincarnation, transformation and extinction, and ultimately an expression of the Buddhist understanding of the transitory nature of the physical forms of life. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), being cared for by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and Jaai (Sakda Kaewbuadee) in his last days at his farm, where he employs migrant workers from Laos, is joined by the ghost of his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and his long-lost son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong) who appears as a forest monkey as he contemplates the reasons for his chronic illness and reviews previous lives he has lived, including those of a water buffalo that ran away from its owner but became lost in the forest and allowed itself to be led back home by its owner, and of a catfish who seduces a disfigured princess who rejects the amorous advances of a soldier she secretly desires.

Through Boonmee and the stories he tells, viewers gain a sketchy overview of the history of Thailand from its peasant origins through to the present day with past political and ideological struggles, and its current status in which Thai traditions and beliefs sit more or less uneasily with the trappings of Western culture and technology. Boonmee becomes more than just a farmer: we see he has served his country, but in a way that troubles him despite Jen’s reassurances; we see that he misses Huay; and we see that though he employs possibly illegal migrant workers, he seems to treat them well and they appear loyal to him. What we take to be reality becomes rather less so: our assumptions about the nature of things, of structures and of the world itself become less sure and more unstable, until some force acting on them or even just as the result of the passage of time they dissolve and become something else altogether.

While the film follows a very basic linear structure, past events and reminiscences intrude at intervals so that time becomes a circular dimension. For viewers watching the film after 2018, the scenes that take place in the cave will remind them of the real-life incident in which a soccer team of 12 boys and their coach were trapped in a network of caves in northern Thailand for two weeks – so that incident becomes an unexpected future addendum to the film! At its end, the film appears to divide into two, so that two endings, one in which two characters stay in a room watching television and the other in which they go to a karaoke restaurant, are possible.

The cinematography is well done with many beautiful shots of the countryside. The background soundtrack of ambient nature and insects in particular exercises an immersive effect on viewers. No plot exists as such: rather, the director sets up dioramas in which scenes take place, not necessarily having much connection with one another, and the action not significantly advancing any particular narrative apart from presenting an idea or concept for contemplation and meditation. For this reason, the film is not likely to appeal to Western audiences wanting a linear story-line where an action leads to another action and so on. Character development is weak and at the end of the film we know no more about various characters than we did at the beginning.

If viewers are prepared to give up preconceptions about what films should do for them, and instead watch “Uncle Boonmee …” as an expression of Buddhist philosophy and in particular of the constant transformation of life that extends even to the transformation of cinema, the methods of film-making and the relationship between the viewer and the act of watching a film, they may find plenty to ponder and marvel at.

Animal: in a ruined world, hope, tradition and openness to new consciousness can overcome despair

Jules Janaud and Fabrice le Nezet, “Animal” (2017)

In the not too distant future, in a post-industrial world, communities living on the margins of society will find new ways of accommodating and blending cyber-technologies with traditional folk customs that pass on knowledge and a sense of identity and belonging. An elderly man, Jawak (Issaka Sawadogo), lives a reclusive life in one such impoverished community, somewhere on the outskirts of Paris or Dakar (Senegal), caring for his pet, Noodle: it is a mutant cephalopod born in an environment where various toxic chemicals, some radioactive, have been dumped for a long time. The wildlife has changed in order to cope with the high levels of radiation. Half a century ago, as a child Jawak entered a radioactive zone with two friends, one of them Marcel; while exploring and looking for something, Jawak suffered an accident for which Marcel was in part responsible. Since then permanently disabled (and presumable unable to find work where he needed to be able to walk and move normally), Jawak has nursed a long-simmering resentment against Marcel (Bass Dhem) who has done much better in life.

An opportunity to settle an old score arises when Jawak and Marcel agree to match their cephalopod animals, Noodle and Bouma respectively, in a fight at which bets will be placed and money will change hands. For this, Jawak prepares Noodle carefully: he dresses the creature in warrior regalia and feeds it special food which includes his own blood as advised by a traditional healer to get rid of the anger and resentment he still feels from his childhood.

For much of the film, the action is slow and leisurely, the preparation for the fight being as much a ritual in itself as the fight is: Jawak goes to great lengths to buy the special food and feed Noodle, and to make special armour which he also paints carefully. At the match itself, Jawak in semi-traditional dress dances a ritual dance signalling the beginning of battle; Marcel on the other hand, natty in his Western suit, brings out his well-fed animal with little ceremony. This part of the film shows up the huge disparity in Jawak and Marcel’s circumstances and their attitudes to tradition and modernism: Jawak has always been poor and stayed close to his west African culture and traditions while Marcel has enjoyed a fully Westernised lifestyle with little regard for his ancestors’ backgrounds and culture.

While the film seems slow and appears not to say a great deal initially, after a second watch this viewer perceives how tradition and secret knowledge can enrich and benefit an individual and even effect a transformation that will resonate through that individual’s life for a long time. Jawak’s use of tradition to achieve several goals is skilfully and minimally demonstrated in the straightforward plot: he has his revenge on Marcel and at the same time is able to relieve his feelings of resentment, and presumably can go forward in his life. The climactic moment occurs when Noodle, appearing badly bitten and beaten by Bouma, suddenly responds to the spirit messages and nourishment infused into it and begins chasing the bigger mutant.

The acting is very good and the narrative and cinematography work together well to create and escalate tension and anticipation while at the same time working in a theme of culture and tradition providing a basis for hope, sacrifice, transformation and resurrection against astronomical physical odds. In the end, it is the state of mind and one’s openness to a new consciousness and reality that wins against brute physical force.

Aeranger: a meditation on how duty, self-sacrifice and love of one’s people have far-reaching consequences

Anthony Ferraro, “Aeranger” (2019)

A twelve-minute film about an alien crash-landing somewhere in North America thousands of years ago when mammoths were still roaming the continent and humans had just entered it becomes, in director Anthony Ferraro’s hands, a meditation on self-sacrifice, duty and how one’s role in the scheme of things, no matter how small it might seem, has the potential to change history and even direct the course of future civilisations many aeons later. Alien visitor Kallelle (Bobbie Breckenridge) emerges out of her wrecked spacecraft and grabs a small metal container. Critically injured, she manages to make her way through the landscape – it’s a forest beside a small shallow valley – and finds a spot to plant a seedling. After sending a hostile earthling (Nic Kretz) on his way, she makes contact with an alien (Damo Sultan) back home and he asks her how her mission is proceeding. We learn from their terse conversation that their home planet is dying from an unimaginable catastrophe and many Aerangers like Kallelle have travelled far and wide through the cosmos trying to find new planets where her people can settle with no luck. Kallelle seems to have found the right place. Her contact piece seems to be on the verge of giving out so the alien back home tries to reassure Kallelle that her seedling will grow into the filtration system that their people will need thousands of their alien years into the future when eventually they can come out of hibernation and travel to Earth to settle. With this comfort, believing that her actions will benefit her people, the dying Kallelle completes her mission.

The film ends with a very surprising twist and posits the notion that should Kallelle’s people arrive on Earth, they will find that, like them, we are also on the verge of global environmental catastrophe due in no small part to our activities and our failure to act as responsible stewards of our planet’s resources. Whether they decide to wipe us out or deign to share their knowledge and solutions to the environmental crisis is a story for another film but Kallelle’s encounter with the human suggests that her people might regard us as savages who do not deserve to be saved.

The film would not have worked without Breckenridge’s acting: she portrays Kallelle with astonishing insight in an otherwise sketchy character who is at once vulnerable, hesitant and in great pain, yet determined and focused when the need arises. In her final moments, she looks at a picture of a loved one on her hologram gadget with tears in her eyes. The forest environment itself is a significant character, Eden-like in its immersive and serene quality, with a herd of mammoths travelling through the hills in the distance, yet not without its dangers hiding behind its curtains of trees.

With its themes of duty, self-sacrifice and love for one’s family and people, and how such qualities can have consequences extending far into the future, the film has the appearance of a parable.

Royal Madness: a fun cartoon on finding a new purpose in life

Mriganka Bhuyan, Romain Couderette, Eunbyeol Ko, Sean Lewis, Milan Salmona, Wenkai Wang, “Royal Madness” (2019)

Not one of the better offerings from the 2019 Gobelins graduation class but very stylish in its early moments, “Royal Madness” is a fun family-oriented short about losing one’s motivation and zest for life after fulfilling all one’s personal goals and finding new meaning and purpose in relationships with others. Long ago, in a distant kingdom, the king fights and slays all the dragons and monsters menacing his people in splendid stylistic displays of fighting in which the hero monarch and his frightful enemies resemble characters in an Indonesian shadow-puppet play. The king does his job a little too efficiently and before long all the monsters have been chased out of the kingdom. The peace that everyone has hoped for turns out to be the king’s worst enemy: with no enemies left to fight, he lapses into depression. His tiny princess daughter, remembering the former days of glory, cooks up a plan with his retainers to get the king out of his torpor … but the plan could backfire and put all their lives into danger.

The plan is daring if not very original – the retainers put a mechanical monster together – and sure enough, the king is roused out of his fug and goes straight into axe-swinging action. Eventually of course, he has to discover what is actually powering the machine monster before he accidentally kills everyone! The realisation dawns on him that perhaps he has been wasting his time yearning for a past that will never become the present again, and he must find a new purpose, one that will include his daughter.

The animation is very fun and exaggerated, with Disney influences, and the short proceeds very briskly with lots of fast and sudden action. A very creditable job, given that a number of students were involved in its creation, but originality is in short supply here.

They Watch: a dystopian sci-fi film of the oppressed being used to oppress others

Andre LeBlanc, “They Watch” (2016)

In the near future, a mother and her teenage son living in small-town America are under siege from an oppressive police-state bureaucracy using an ingenious surveillance system that exploits prison labour as disembodied spies and snitches. The teenage son has been secretly working to expose the corruption of the system by helping to edit and distribute copies of a samizdat-style newspaper called The Truth; this act of defiance has brought him and his mother to the attention of the authorities who use the astral bodies of prisoners to invisibly infiltrate the homes of people suspected of dissident activity and to passively report back to their controllers via technology that sees what the prisoners see and broadcast it back to the controllers. One of the two prisoners sent to spy on the boy and his mum turns out to have a connection with the boy, and this poses a moral dilemma for the prisoner. Whatever decision he takes will lead either to his own death or to the capture and certain torture and imprisonment of the teenage boy and his mother, with death in custody or capital punishment a very likely fate for either or both of them.

The film does have a slick Hollywood-style about it: it runs smoothly with quite good credible special effects; but at the same time, it does have sloppy presentation and editing. The logic of the narrative does have holes: it seems unbelievable that a hi-tech surveillance system would make such a blunder as to assign the astral body of a prisoner who once taught the teenage boy debating in high school to spying on the boy. (Though of course the databases we have that collect vast amounts of information about people for future blackmailing purposes would not be 100% infallible and there is the possibility that such databases would assign stalkers to observe people they know and care for.) Setting alight a pile of papers in a closed room seems to be asking for trouble; viewers might find themselves rooting for the secret police to bust down the doors before the kid and his mum suffocate from lack of oxygen.

The plot idea is of the sort that the 1990s television series “The X Files” might well turn its nose up at: it’s a hokey mishmash of hard science fiction and ghost thriller fantasy. The idea that has been done to death in some form or another: the state co-opting prisoners into snitching on other, perhaps innocent people for very little reward. Surely the use of astral bodies to do things that ordinary people and even AI technology can’t do seems far-fetched, especially if the astral bodies turn out to have minds of their own. Nevertheless the idea of an oppressive system using those it oppresses as slaves to enforce extreme conformity and cut off dissidence is one that will continue to disturb audiences long after they have seen this film.

Dejeuner sur l’herbe: a character study that skewers intellectual and religious arrogance

Jules Bourges, Jocelyn Charles, Nathan Harbonn Viaud, Pierre Rougemont,”Déjeuner sur l’herbe” (2019)

A droll character study of a scientist called Etienne initially dedicated to pursuing truth and logic, experiencing a crisis of faith after being stood up by a female friend at a beach and seeing an apparent UFO, and refusing to speak to anyone and to carry on as usual with his career for seven years, this film punctures both intellectual arrogance and the arrogance of religious fanaticism alike. By presenting its narrative through Etienne’s viewpoint, the short immediately captures and maintains viewer attention, steadily increasing the tension of the scientist’s descent into a raving religious lunatic until the clanger drops with regard to what the UFO silhouette actually was all those seven years ago.

The animation can be a bit bizarre: characters are drawn rather crudely with oversized heads and tiny mouths, while backgrounds and especially the movements of the sea and waves are done with much care for detail so the lapping waters and the shadows that appear and break up constantly over them look real. The characters themselves though are not very well developed and the animation and narrative rely heavily on the voice actors to make the characters seem more than angst-ridden millennial-born stereotypes.

While the narrative does have holes in parts, and the notion that a scientist or academic could be so easily fooled by a very mundane everyday object in the natural world – which in itself says something about how estranged humanity has become from nature and, by implication, reality – the film deals with its themes and the way in which the narrative develops and unfurls very deftly. One finds oneself sympathising and commiserating with Etienne while also laughing at him.

O Lucky Man! – a blackly comic odyssey criticising capitalist ideology and values

Lindsay Anderson, “O Lucky Man!” (1973)

A satirical allegory that exposes life in Western capitalist society and the values and beliefs needed to survive successfully in it, “O Lucky Man!” presents as an odyssey of one Michael Travis (Malcolm MacDowell) who starts the film as a novice sales representative thrown by his employer Imperial Coffee into the deep end to market and sell coffee to various retail clients in northeast England after the regular sales rep Oswald disappears. During his time as salesman, MacDowell is seduced by Mrs Ball (Mary MacLeod), a housekeeper at the hotel where he stays during his business trips around the designated sales zone; he later discovers that a number of his company clients have closed shop and retrenched their workers (so they won’t be needing any more coffee to keep the staff happy) due to the prevailing economic climate of the period (early 1970s); and he ends up imprisoned and tortured at a secret government nuclear facility that happens to be a company client. (The bureaucrats there believe he is a Communist spy.) The facility has a fire emergency that blows up the buildings and sets Travis’ car on fire but Travis manages to find his way out of the secret facility.

He winds up at a private medical facility owned by Dr Millar (Graham Crowden) who is conducting secret genetic research that generates quite alarming results. Travis manages to escape and winds up with the Alan Price Band, travelling to a gig in London with groupie Patricia Burgess (Helen Mirren) in tow. Through Patricia, with whom he falls in love, Travis gets a job with her father Sir James Burgess (Ralph Richardson), a millionaire industrialist who sells a hideous napalm-like chemical euphemistically called “honey” to Dr Munda, the dictator president of Zingara, a brutal Third World police state that keeps its people in poverty and enslaved on plantations and factories producing products for the First World while managing at the same time to pose as a playground for wealthy First World tourists. Burgess, Dr Munda and their staff scheme to frame Travis as culpable for fraud and Travis ends up being convicted in a rigged trial and sentenced to jail for five years.

After serving his time, during which he studies philosophy and behaves as a model prisoner, Travis is released back into the community where he undergoes more trials involving contacts with the poor and the marginalised in society, culminating in a vicious attack on him by homeless people in a dump.

Interspersed throughout the film are shots of Alan Price and his musicians singing and performing songs that comment on Travis’ adventures and the pitfalls that await those who, like Travis, strive for material success, wealth and the admiration of their peers above all else. A subplot that starts with an “old” grainy film of Latin-American labourers harvesting coffee beans and one defiant worker (MacDowell) having his hands cut off by a foreman for a colonialist plantation owner and then demonstrates Britain’s downfall as an imperial empire to the extent that the country tries to maintain its status as a world power by engaging in indirect colonial rule through proxy dictators oppressing their own people, so that the British can continue to grab profits from exploiting former colonies’ natural resources, is threaded through Travis’ adventures: the relationship between the colonialists and the colonised may change and become more indirect and complicated, but the violence and exploitation remain much the same. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The exploitation and violence that Britain visits upon Third World populations with “honey” are soon turned on Travis himself; his innocence, helpfulness and ambition exploited by Burgess, he is soon sent to prison. After his five-year stint there, Travis is let loose in the streets with nowhere to go, despite his new knowledge of philosophy and the reading he has done; this is analogous to a layer of middle class people in Third World countries who absorb all they can of Western civilisation but can find no way of using it to benefit their poorer compatriots. Unfortunately the poor and the homeless are no better than the rich or the middle class in beating up on Travis and leaving him for dead; this may be director Anderson’s way of showing how capitalist ideology and values degrade all of society, not just its upper and more privileged levels.

Several actors play at least two or three different roles in the film which may highlight the apparent randomness (or not) in capitalist society in its selection of some people for fame and fortune and others for disaster. This fact is exploited for comic effect in parts where some of Travis’ fellow prisoners are played by the same actors who played the salesman’s fellow trainee sales reps near the beginning of the film. Even with actors juggling different roles, the size of the cast is still astonishing. Probably the most outstanding performances, aside from MacDowell who carries the film admirably on his shoulders, are those of Rachel Roberts in playing a corporate psychologist with a secret crush on Travis, Dr Munda’s secretary / mistress and Mrs Richards the suicidal working-class housewife; and of Ralph Richardson as James Burgess and Monty, a caretaker at a working-class hotel.

The film may be rather long in piling punishment upon punishment on Travis, particularly in his post-prison life where he is literally lost in a wilderness, unable to find a niche where he can survive without being kicked around. It does lose focus at times in a plot of black comedy skits barely hanging together but every so often Alan Price and his band appear in the nick of time to critique 1970s British society. The three-hour marathon running time passes very quickly as there is so much to absorb in each little episode – and the episodes featuring Dr Munda are not only at once droll and gruesome in their detail, they are also painfully contemporary and confronting in an age in which Western countries, in their long economic twilight of deindustrialisation, decreasing influence over other nations, and dealings with corrupt governments to safeguard their own interests, are going backwards.