Sunday, March 16, 2014

Movie Buff--Clockwise (1986)

I would have called it "Clockwork," although I suppose that's too close to Clockwork Orange. John Cleese plays Brian Stimpson, a school headmaster who wants nothing more than to make it to Norwich on time to deliver his speech as chair of the annual Headmasters' Conference. But he gets on the left train instead of the right train, and it's all down hill (and through dirt roads, fields, and monasteries) from there.

I imagine that if I pored through TVTropes a bit, I could find one that directly names what's going on in this film, and it'd be called "one misplaced marble" or something like that; in a variation of the "for the lack of a horseshoe, the war was lost" saying, a minor misunderstanding spirals out of control, and such stuff is bread and butter for the comedy genre of the period. (Found it--they call it "The Wrong Turn at Albuquerque.") The plot sets this mistake up to its largest possible dramatic effect by making Stimpson a man who orders his life around punctuality, to the point where everyone--his students, his co-workers, his wife--thinks he's taking himself a bit too seriously, and he never stops ticking long enough to hear them. If the film was done today, there would have to be a Moment where Stimpson realizes the error of his tightly-wound ways, and vows to let life happen a bit more. Because this is an 80s movie, and British, no such moment needs to happen, and the film is the better for it. What we get instead is a wonderful moment where Stimpson holds off all comers just by being a blustery headmaster, then collapses when he looks at his wife, looks at the school girl on stage with him, and finally realizes what he's done.

Sorry, that line sounded more ominous/inappropriate relationship-ish than it was. To back things up a bit, after missing his train, losing his speech, and failing to catch up with his wife, Stimpson stumbles onto one of his students, 18 year old Laura Wisely (Sharon Maiden), and, in a decision that in retrospect was perhaps not his best, commandeers her and her car to drive him to Norwich. Unbeknownst to him, she's eager for the excuse, as she just had a row with the teacher she's secretly been seeing, and run off with her parents' car without asking, and no license. So of course, in short order, Stimpson is suspected of auto theft, and running away with a minor. (Also stealing a man's clothes and fleeing a crime scene, but he actually does those things.)

Maiden does fine as Wisely, and, again, it's a sign of the times that there's no real push to create any sort of relationship between them. She's a kid who's confused about her relationship and worried about her parents' car; he is a man struggling against the universe to reach an appointment. Their goals temporarily align, and Wisely eventually becomes invested in getting him to the appointment too, but never out of anything than minor respect and admiration. While the other characters perform their roles--the music teacher/Laura's lover wanders around wondering if he's been replaced in a vaguely comical (yet also kind of gross) way, and there's three old women that get pulled in and wander around after Stimpson's wife sees him with Laura while she's driving them to an appointment from the old folk's home--the movie is pretty much all Cleese. And to the surprise of no one, he does a good job. Unlike the last film I watched, the mainly meh Arthur, I actually laughed a few times at this one, which is probably a good sign for a comedy. He's comically authoritarian when he needs to be, and blunderingly oblivious when he needs to be that. There's a point in the script where he basically needs to be comatose with despair in order to allow Laura to make some very questionable choices on his behalf, and it should be a ridiculously stupid moment, but Cleese sells that too. It's a great performance.

If you want to go the high-falutin' route, this is a film about the deconstruction of authority. For much of the film, Stimpson's faith is so certain in the system and his role as administrator within it that he assumes he can justify any decision towards his goal and that system will carry him through it. It's important, then, in the understated, British way, that the low point in his fortunes is followed by Laura taking control and putting things on track (well, sort of).  And I know I mentioned this above, but man, does Cleese nail that reaction to Stimpson's wife. At this point, (spoilers) Stimpson has made it to the speech, and people have started to show up to derail him: the conference organizers, Laura's parents, the police. And he stands up to each of them, going full-headmaster, complaining about tardiness and browbeating them into taking a seat. But as soon as the wife enters--and this is only the third scene they've shared in the entire film, with the second being where she sees him without him seeing her--you can see him falter, and realize all the implications of what he's done in the last few hours, and how there's more at stake than a speech.

So yeah--it's not a great film, but it's a good comedy, and it avoids the sentimentality that some comedies *cough* Arthur *cough* can't seem to get around.

Later Days.

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