A Festival of Music, Death, and Ants

It has been an odd combination of emotions the last couple of days; if you watch the news at all, you know there was some flooding in Houston Sunday night through Monday. I picked the right part of that city to settle in, it seems. I’ve been nervous several times, but never terrified by events like this. Everything has been shut down and cancelled, leaving me with two days doing little more than sleeping (which, frankly, I needed), but it means the next three days will have five days worth of work crammed into them, so I should play catch-up right now. This will likely be rushed and graceless, for which I apologize.

Woodstock (1970)

woodstock-movie-posterThis is one of those movies I saw piecemeal over the years, but never as a whole. I kept getting tempted by a blu-ray package that promised the original Director’s Cut along with a ton of extras, and I successfully urged this digital Satan to get behind me until I found it in a Wal-Mart $5 bin.

Well, I ah… I still can’t say I’ve seen it as a whole. That’s not because of the movie itself, it’s because of me.

The music festival itself and the movie chronicling it are both cultural milestones: at their best, they show a possibility, a moment in time when we thought that things could get better through wishful thinking. That the entire event spun out of control and still managed to be an overwhelmingly positive experience is nothing short of miraculous. All it takes is watching the Maysle Brothers’ Gimme Shelter to know that this is true.

Woodstock_music_festival_redmond_stageIt’s also true that what was felt to be a wasteful, ridiculous venture by Warner Brothers – filming the festival – would be what saved the studio from bankruptcy, becoming tremendously successful and pulling it out of a financial hole. It won the Oscar that year for Best Documentary and was up for Best Film Editing, which almost never happens with documentaries. The editing is, indeed, brilliant and frequently adventurous, making use of multiple panels in the widescreen, allowing maximum usage of the tons of recorded footage. This was an innovation reportedly created by one of the film editors, a young feller named Martin Scorsese, and it is something you would see repeatedly in movies for the next few years.

The original movie was a little over three hours long, and the Director’s Cut adds over 40 minutes to that. And that’s still not the reason I stretched it out over two nights (though it is admittedly a contributing factor). It’s the interviews. That is an essential part of documentary filmmaking, and the interviews cast a suitably wide net, not only attendees but local townspeople who have a variety of opinions on the festival.

It was the non-stop parade of idealism and optimism that punched me somewhere that hurt. I’m familiar with such feelings, I had them myself aplenty, back in the day. And miserable old bastard that I am, I kept thinking, “I wonder how he feels about that now” or “I wonder if she’s voting for Trump”. And circumstances such as this make me wonder how I got to this state.

woodstock-1969-photo-2There was a time back in… well, it must have been 1989 or so, when my pal Diane and I were the movies, and there was a trailer for the Sean Penn/Michael J. Fox vehicle Casualties of War. A man seated behind us had brought his young son, and the boy asked, after the trailer, “What’s war?” Diane thought that was wonderful and refreshing. I thought it was depressing, because that innocence wasn’t going to last.

How did I get to this state?

Anyway. Woodstock is a marvelous cultural document, deserving that Academy Award, and likely more aside. The trick is, apparently, not to be a miserable old bastard when you watch it.

Buy Woodstock on Amazon

Macbeth (1971)

macbethEven this has an infamous connection to my youth. Accelerated courses for gifted students began to be a thing in my high school days, and I pretty easily qualified for that (only to find that accelerated classes in anything concerning math were doing me no real favors). I was a junior that first year of what was called Alternative School, but the real fun was to be had on the senior level, where the not-surprising innovation was to combine the English and World History curriculums into a sort of mega-humanity study. The Shakespeare studied that year was Macbeth, and they rented the 1971 Polanski version of that play to show the seniors.

They did not repeat that the next year.

They probably realized that mistake in the opening credits, which proclaims it to be a Playboy Production. The snickering that accompanies that is the sound of people forgetting that yes, there actually was a time when you could “read Playboy for the articles”. Part of the so-called Playboy lifestyle was intellectualism. The most in-depth interviews of notable people, along with new fiction by Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As the Playboy Empire branched out, it was almost inevitable they would eventually attempt film production.

They would probably regret that, as Macbeth went over budget and its premiere was a massive bomb. But all this obscures what is one of the best versions of the play I have ever seen.

The Macbeths

Macbeth is one of the Bard’s most straightforward scripts; even for a tragedy, it moves forward with admirable economy. Macbeth (Jon Finch), a minor Scots nobleman, distinguishes himself in battle in an uprising against King Duncan (Nicholas Selby). Three witches prophesy he shall be king, and his wife (Francesca Annis), ambitiously sees to it that this will happen, the cost being escalating murder, madness and death.

There is so much done right in this film, it is almost mind-bending that opinion should be against it. Kenneth Tynan, the former dramaturg of The National Theatre, adapted the script, smoothing the edges of the antique language to make it more seemly to the modern ear, without damaging it. Finch and Annis are a marvelous Macbeth and Lady, but were criticized for being too young for the roles (huh). Those that clutched their pearls at the Playboy production logo had their misgivings confirmed when they discovered there was – gasp– N*U*D*I*T*Y* in their precious Shakespeare!

out dmn spotOkay, Annis does the sleepwalking “Out, out damned spot” in the altogether, but that’s pretty minor and artfully shot. If you think that Playboy is going to make Carry On Shakespeare, you are going to get nut-punched in the libido by Polanski when the first instance of nudity – even before Annis – is the witches coven when Macbeth breaks into their sabbat to demand further prophecies. Anybody watching this movie for whacking material is going to spend several years in therapy.

"Ha Haaa They'll thank the gods of photo-cropping this day!!!"

“Ha Haaa They’ll thank the gods of photo-cropping this day!!!”

The most vitriol against Macbeth, though, is because of the violence. Yes, we are quailing at violence in a story about assassination, mass murder and war. Those critics had probably never seen anything past an antiseptic high school production or Classics Illustrated. (If they had ever seen a production of Titus Andronicus, they would have swallowed their tongues) The most surprising, and yes, satisfying, departure from usual productions is when Macbeth is besieged in his castle by the forces of Macduff and Malcolm, which is usually handled with cost-effective efficiency. But no, Tynan and Polanski haven’t forgotten that Macbeth is a warrior know for his prowess on the battlefield, and he takes on attacker after attacker, until finally Malcolm’s footsoldiers are giving him a very wide berth. Until the vengeful Macduff (Terrence Bayler) steps up, as prophesied. The fight scenes, incidentally, are choregraphed by William Hobbs, who literally wrote the book on stage combat.

bloodPolanski doesn’t quail at throwing the red stuff around, certainly, but didn’t deserve criticism that this was the reaction to his wife Sharon Tate’s 1969 murder at the hands of the Manson Family. I mean, jeez, I have my problems with Polanski, but that is below the fucking belt.

Anyway, I am especially happy that this got the Criterion blu-ray treatment, and I finally got to see it.

Buy Macbeth on Amazon

Phase IV (1974)

phase ivSpeaking of movies that somehow managed to elude me all these years…

Phase IV is an odd mixture of science fiction and mystic philosophy. One of those planetary alignments that new age enthusiasts keep babbling about causes not a change in man, but in the ants. Different varieties of ants, previously warring with each other, begin cooperating and organize into a supercolony near an atomic testing site, creating tall, unusual structures. Enter scientist Dr. Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) and graduate Lesko (Michael Murphy), set up in a high tech dome to study the situation. As funding begins to run out, Hubbs decides to push the issue by destroying the structures with a grenade launcher (and I would love to see the line item on the budget that okayed that).

phaseiv4The ant’s reprisal comes that night, not only swarming the dome, but a nearby farm. Fleeing the biting, stinging invasion, the farm’s occupants nearly make it to the dome, but Hubbs unleashes a dense fog of yellow foam pesticide, killing the family, and any ants that didn’t get away by burrowing into the family’s bodies. The daughter, Kendra (Lynne Frederick) survives by hiding in the cellar of one of the mock houses in the test ground.

The face-off between Hubbs and the ants escalates, and Hubbs gets increasingly unstable, lying about radioing to get Kendra airlifted out (it doesn’t help that Hubbs got stung by the ants, and they’re apparently breeding themselves for extreme venom). The ants build mirrored mounds to direct sunlight onto the dome, and then actually sabotage the air conditioner, so all the high-tech gizmos can’t function until the middle of the night. Lesko, meanwhile, is trying to communicate with the supercolony, and may be actually succeeding – it’s going to be a race between the sun, Lesko, and Hubbs’ increasingly Ahabian desire to tackle the main mound and kill the queen.

phaseiv09This is the first and only feature directed by Saul Bass, the graphic designer who created the iconic credits of so many prominent movies, it would be ridiculous to try and list the here – just go to the IMDb page. It doesn’t have the feel of a first-time director – Bass had been working in the industry for far too long to not have something rub off on him – but it does feel strangely half-formed. The ant footage is amazing, and the storytelling within these sequences is first-rate. The human actors, though, don’t seem to have the same advantage. Hubbs is a cypher, his motivations largely opaque – maybe he read “Leiningen versus the Ants” one time too many. Poor Kendra has to wear a corset to make her look 16 years old, and constantly suppress her English accent. Lesko, at least, shows some humanity and intellectual curiosity, which is what you pay Michael Murphy for.

The movie’s end is pretty abrupt, too, mainly because Paramount cut out a hallucinatory coda that would have made the trip – so to speak – worthwhile. It’s Saul Bass echoing Kubrick’s 2001 in a way. It was rediscovered a couple of years back, and it’s unfortunate it didn’t make it onto this Olive Films blu-ray, even as an extra. Luckily, it can be found on YouTube, even if it is a cam:

Buy Phase IV on Amazon




  1. The scene that really got to me in PHASE IV was when Kendra bids for her escape alone, and the hymn that she sings for courage and comfort, how empty and impotent that felt against what they were up against. Kept me up most of the night when first encountered.

    • Not so much a bid for escape as a willing sacrifice – she thought the ants were after her, not Hubbs. Which makes that halting song even more poignant.

  2. Funny, Woodstock was a multi-day thing for me… because I passed out the first time I saw it (I think it was at midnight after a long day many moons ago) and had to see it again a few more times to take it all in. If I were to watch it again, I’d skip the interviews. All that optimism and such you noted is a bit draining in this day and age of insanity replacing common sense.

    Soooo, Polanski’s film was… a better and smarter precursor to Caligula? I need to see this one at some point then. It’s been on a long list of films that’s growing shorter, so that’s a good sign.

    Phase IV has always baffled and annoyed me because the visual effects are unique but the humans are so… buggy or something I can’t pinpoint. Still, it makes for a cool double feature with the William Castle-produced BUG! (1975).

    • I think if you took the ridiculous softcore inserts from Caligula you’d still have a pretty weak movie, though. I was completely surprised at the quality of Macbeth. Now I just need to see the one starring Fassbinder, and then I can be as sick of Macbeth as I am of Dracula!

      • With Polanski, you get great, good, or “what the hell”, so it’s good to read his Macbeth is well done. I think I gave up on a decent Dracula film a while ago, but I sat through Dracula Untold on cable and wanted to throw a stake through my TV. What a waste of time that was.

      • Ha! A relative passed away a few months ago and I was given some of his DVDs, because “You like this stuff.” One was Dracula Untold. That sumbitch is still downstairs with the chick flicks and musicals.

      • Well, THAT response got a spit take here. Yeah, if you ever want someone to LEAVE your home, put Dracula Untold on and step away from the door. That film is so bad it’ll kill a vampire faster than garlic bread dipped in holy water.

  3. I waffle over whether the Polanski or Throne of Blood is my favourite filmed MacBeth. Funnily enough, I also saw it for the first time in high school, and the teacher apparently knew what was coming; I forget exactly what was said, but the gist was, “I trust you as near-adults not to flip out over this. You can reciprocate this trust by not screaming to your parents.”

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