Richard Lester

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James Monaco

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Seen today, [Lester's] little jeu d'esprit [The Running, Jumping, and Standing-Still Film] is reminiscent of nothing so much as Georges Méliès, Mack Sennett, and early American comedy; and it foreshadows in Lester's work that important strain of Goon Show humor which he will later apply to topics of Universal Significance. (p. 26)

[A Hard Day's Night] is a critical essay on the subject of Beatlemania and media manipulation and, at the same time, the most successful hype in the history of the Beatle myth. This is characteristic, really, of nearly all Lester's films: that they analyze what they are doing at the same time that they do it. And, as always, the form that Lester chooses is equally important here: a quasidocumentary about the group and about the people in it, and about the fierce pressures of media adulation: the crowding, the hysteria, the hotel-room claustrophobia, the lock-step schedule, and most important, the psychological tension which operates on four human beings as they become transformed into archetypes and debased into stereotypes….

The "media-ization" of the Sixties turned public images into social metaphors more vital than the private personalities of the people who bore those images—and that's what Lester did with the Beatles in A Hard Day's Night. He also made an entertaining movie, full of high spirits and good music….

While the Beatles continued to maintain the fiction that they were playing themselves, Lester was forced to construct some sort of characters around them [for his film Help!]. His only real choice was to amplify and extend the images of A Hard Day's Night; but this time the film participates in the process of the media-ization of the Beatles without criticizing it. The resulting caricatures were to haunt the Beatles for years, so it is no surprise to find they "felt like guest stars in their own film." What it lacks in understanding, Help! tries to make up for with flash and filigree. This is the first film in which Lester allows full reign to the Surrealist-Farce style he had developed in his television work. Indeed, only Help! and The Bed-Sitting Room really fit the received opinion about Richard Lester, the demonic stylist.

The Knack … and How to Get It (to give it its full title) was made after the first Beatles film and before the second in a period of furious activity for Lester. The three films taken together are something of an accidental trilogy about the very special situation of being young in the Sixties. "If you want to be pompous about it," says Lester, "in the Beatles pictures were four young people who could communicate without speech because they had a sort of inner language, and The Knack was about four people who spoke endlessly to each other without any communication at all." The fascination with language, which is clearly evident in The Knack for the first time, will become one of Lester's strongest and most rewarding preoccupations.

The Knack is a superbly complex film, resplendent with dense verbal and visual imagery. Lester already had a reputation for being a filmmaker of extraordinary visual power. The scenic complexity of his films was sometimes condemned as merely decorative, or "busy." But The Knack certainly proves that Lester is no decorator: the richness of detail in each shot contributes immensely to the power of the film, and the point. The soundtrack of the film is equally dense and meaningful; it very nearly stands on its own as a work of art….

The Knack is nominally about the classic problems involved in coming...

(This entire section contains 1695 words.)

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of age sexually, but Lester and [screenwriter Charles] Wood have added to the play a background landscape that displays with considerable understanding the generational tensions which were so characteristic of life in the Sixties. The old-people's chorus that comments ironically throughout the film is one aspect of that landscape; the house that Nancy, Tolen, Colin, and Tom are so intimately involved with is another—possibly more important. It is a carefully preserved relic of art deco and the Thirties and, if Tom wants to paint over everything white, Lester certainly doesn't. The young people have moved into an old house, but the old house is not an object of nostalgic humor for the film—rather it is treated with a good deal of respect. The result of all this is a resonant relationship between the foursome and their environment that helps giveThe Knack its surprising depth. Like its characters, The Knack is a youthful work that improves with age. (p. 29)

Petulia is an unusual film for Lester: a dense melodrama in an expanse of satire and farce and, more important, his only film with specifically American themes and settings….

The film is awash in images of death and decay, even as it ends with a birth. Only Archie's (and Lester's) irony and anger offer an alternative to this dark road; the film is otherwise uncompromising. David Danner … is a true Mad Ave sex symbol: beautiful and impotent. Petulia Danner, the "archkook," wears her cutesy mask even in the delivery room and avoids commitment by false challenges. Warren, Archie's exwife's new beau, is a "wonderful human being" in his own right…. Mr. Danner evokes ghostly (and, on Lester's part, quite conscious) shadows of Kane thirty years earlier. And Archie, at the center, is a soap-opera doctor, even if he has a slightly better grip on his reality than the others. This is a civilization so dominated by media images that television sets are as important in hospital rooms as beds—so necessary in fact that the shells must be there even if the guts aren't. (p. 30)

But Petulia is a film of desperate characters who, however, are treated with considerable compassion…. It is, after all, Archie's anger that is the central emotion of the film, the warp of its fabric; and the significance of this emotional orientation can't be overestimated. This anger is the heart of Petulia and, in opposition with the paralysis which grips its characters, informs the film's structural and moral tensions. The result is something other than a sour portrait of a City of Night…. It would be easy to castigate these people; Lester's achievement is that he maintains sympathy with them, and suggests—between the frames of supercilious satire and formalist legerdemain—a quiet rage against the dying of the light.

Running on, murmuring continuously in the background of the film like an atonal refrain, is Vietnam—the central fact of our existence in the Sixties. The foreground is dominated by sexual politics—the central fact of our existence in the Seventies. The film details various subtle, gnawing pressures of contemporary sexual politics; and (an even greater achievement) it avoids the crude heroines-and-villains stereotypes, balancing the conflicting peccadilloes of its men and women so finely that we can easily comprehend how both sexes are caught in sexist conventions, how both men and women are paralyzed by the roles their media culture has forced upon them. And this in a film made seven years ago, during the wave of Bondian machismo! Lester's homecoming film gives us the America of the Sixties as few of us understood it at the time, but as it really was. (pp. 30-1)

The Bed-Sitting Room is his most mannered film, but there are some good reasons for its relatively cold and intellectual mode. Once again, Lester has set up a particularly intricate aesthetic problem—and then solved it with intricate care. How do you handle the Bomb on film?… Lester's solution is not the most successful (Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove is more humanely comical and less coldly farcical, and therefore more effective), but The Bed-Sitting Room does explore with Lester's usual thorough intelligence some important rhetorical methods.

Based on the stageplay by John Antrobus and Spike Milligan (with a screenplay again by Charles Wood), the film bears some strong likenesses to the tragi-farce's of Beckett (especially Endgame and Happy Days). But it's wrong to make too much of this similarity—Milligan's and Lester's experience with the [television] Goon Show seems a much more appropriate source. That style is a good one, since Lester thought of the whole "Bomb question" as rather an exercise in nostalgia. The bomb was something of a "period piece": "Lost in the shuffle of Vietnam, Civil Rights, like Aldermaston, something of the past it seems to me," he said, "it goes with Jailhouse Rock and Elvis Presley—in fact before Jailhouse Rock; "the 'Blue Suede Shoes' period of Elvis Presley."

Maybe Goonish farce is the only fitting mode for such a subject. But there is something too precise, too well-figured, about The Bed-Sitting Room. If there is a flaw that threads itself through Lester's work, it is most evident here: an icy, mannered show of intelligence that makes his films sometimes more thought-about than felt….

If the film is not puppy-dog warm, it's still full of wit; if it demands a lot from its audience, it nevertheless more than repays attention. It shows us an absurd world whose universal dream of easeful death would be nearly perfect if it were not for the almost equally absurd—but irrepressible—life force that insists on bubbling up, even as Western civilization settles comfortably in the void like a pig squatting in a mud puddle. All of Lester's films have roots in this precious acquaintance with the life force, but The Bed-Sitting Room is the clearest statement of his view of the conflict. It gives us the best advice: Keep moving!…

It is [a] dotty, attic, quizzical sense of humor which has always been Lester's basic strength. It depends not so much on contrived comedy (although Lester can set up a joke as well as anyone making films today) as on a pervasive attitude toward reality which is both genuinely affectionate and quietly subversive. The fondness Lester feels for the objects of his wit never obscures his satirist's moral anger at the surrounding illogic and inhumanity. (p. 31)

James Monaco, "Some Late Clues to the Lester Direction: A New Look at the Director," in Film Comment (copyright © 1974 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center; all rights reserved), Vol. 10, No. 3, May-June, 1974, pp. 25-31.

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