Wednesday, July 15, 2015


Though based on a John Collier short story called "Sleeping Beauty", James B. Harris' film diverges significantly from its source material. This is fine by me as I'm not a big fan of Collier (his stuff tends to read too much like New Yorker fiction--which I think it was) and Sleeping Beauty in particular is a pretty glib, cynical little tale. In it, a wealthy man discovers the titular character at a carnival and procures her for a small fortune. I won't say "buys her" as we're meant to see his action as a kind of enforced liberation, or at least an act of perceived benevolence that only vaguely suggests his less noble motives. Ironically, it only changes her circumstances. When the girl finally awakens, her crass personality clashes overtly with her superficial beauty. Collier's point is made very quickly and there's little else going on. The ending (which is the same as in the film version) has little impact other than the invocation of bemused sarcasm.

Harris' film, by contrast, is gloriously rich and bizarre and deserves to be far better known. There's a multitude of things going on here, not the least of which is that the man (played by a fantastic and fascinating Zalman King) is not wealthy though he lives in splendor. He shares a mansion with two women, and one of these women appears to be the source of the material wealth. This implies that the male character is "kept" to start with, though he seems to have free access to anything he wants within reason. With almost no establishing exposition we are introduced to the hermetic lifestyle of these three characters, which is entirely devoted to living out fantasy role playing situations.

At first I thought King's central performance was listless and uninspired but it quickly became evident that this was precisely the way to play a man worn down by an excess of sensual abandon. And the approach he takes allows the moments when he is affected deeply to really resonate. There are some quietly devastating scenes in here of great emotional honesty. Of course mention must be made of Richard Pryor as well, who plays King's best friend, a strung out graffiti artist. This performance is wildly inchoate and almost impossible to describe adequately. I think the reason for this is similar to the reasoning behind King's opaque turn. These are simply not performances which emanate from any fixed psychological point. Part of that may be Harris' clear disinterest in psychological portraits as he seems to be after something else entirely.

In the Collier story, the male character becomes disillusioned because the girl does not conform to his idea of what she should be. The same is true here except that this girl is actually sweet and kind and the disillusionment is consequently of a different sort. Once awakened, she happily embraces the role playing within the house, even while King's character is wearying of it. He sees her potential for openness and authenticity and grows frustrated that she willingly submits to an abstract notion of freedom which effectively restricts those qualities. We, too, get lost in the fantasies, all of which are designed to give a heightened reality to the immediate moment but ultimately overwhelm, confusing our orientation and eliminating all possible emotional investment that could exist beyond the immediate. There is rarely a comfortable sense of being outside the fantasies, which once again makes those few moments when we seem to be deeply poignant and troubling. It's the relinquishment of any possible conventionally realized emotional development. Everything is surrendered to the presumed liberation of an all encompassing imagined reality; and this reality mainly serves to rigorously protect from any vulnerability. Hope for the possibility of meaningful human contact is constantly offered, withheld, finally dissipates. The complete immersion into this world does not dismantle human feeling but rather forces it to be expressed in a more narrow sense, through the stricture of unstated stipulations. The eventual ending becomes tragic, though it's not overstated, for exactly this reason.

Some Call It Loving also lends insight to King's own oft misperceived later career on the other side of the camera. In fact, I would go so far as to say it's key to an understanding of that career. Rather than being a simple series of soft core fantasias, it can be argued that his films are criminally misread--that they actually begin with a presumptive thematic given several steps past the conclusion of this earlier piece. In short, King's films are unapologetic melodramas which take for granted that fantasy and the re-imagining of self are deeply attractive prospects that offer their own potential for access to truth. This in no way should diminish our sincere empathy; the affect of his characters could not possibly be more pure or their investment in an imagined reality of expansive potentiality more complete. It's King's misfortune that what he is doing is unfashionable in a cynical, albeit "sophisticated" time.

This film foreshadows a number of others: one is Egoyan's Adjuster, which also includes a slowly unraveling couple completely devoted to rigorous role playing and unable to escape it; another is Lynch's Lost Highway, in which the main character is a jazz musician (as is the main character in SCIL) and the plot revolves around the fact that this character is profoundly frustrated by his ultimate inability to control the female figures in his life--oh, and it also includes Richard Pryor giving a similar type of performance. I thought briefly of Boxing Helena when I watched this as well but Some Call It Loving is infinitely superior as it understands what is presupposed by longing and the uncluttered sensibility that can be lost to imagination and particular forms of narrowly conceived idealism.

The tragedy in all these pictures is the ultimate inability to conceive of or accept any life outside the parameters of one rigorously imagined and absolutely controlled.

The new Etiquette Pictures Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome provides an exquisite formal presentation of the film and a selection of excellent extras. The film's unique and distinctive look is enhanced here through attention to detail. The disc provides the best presentation possible of elements that seem particularly endemic to their time, such as the soft lighting and Richard Hazzard's sensitive and subtly moving score. Extras include a commentary with direcor James B. Harris as well as a couple of short reflections from both director Harris and cinematographer Mario Tosi. Also included among the extras is a collection of outtakes which are instructive to see as they are suggestive of the winnowing down process Harris went through to find his thematic focus. For a very long time this film was only available on hard-to-find and inferior quality VHS tapes. To have such a superb and carefully restored edition of the film released after so many years of neglect is a rare and very special occasion indeed.


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