Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Acid's Greatest #19: Brother Sun Sister Moon (1972)


In 1968 one of the key films of the budding counterculture was Franco Zeffirelli's adaptation of Shakespeare's ROMEO AND JULIET. Featuring genuinely hot young actors--as opposed to established stars like the 1936 Leslie Howard-Norma Shearer version. In Zeffirelli's '68 edition, the tale of love destroyed by violent family feuding proved a zeitgeist-snatching analogy for our Vietnam state of mind. Nailing hot young things against the dusky beauty of the Old Masters and ancient unbombed architecture proved a genius move: the film was a huge hit and Zeffirelli decided to follow it up with a similar period hippie piece, this one based on the early life of Saint Francis, BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON in 1972. Unlike ROMEO which was just an adaptation of Shakespeare, never intended to find it's youth market (perhaps explaining why it did), BROTHER it was a film specifically designed to click with the fickle generation.  But the hippie wave had crested by 1972, even in Europe, and intentionally trying to click with their demographic was square, dad, especially if the would be clickers were old and Italian and thought we'd dig hearing a whole soundtrack full of Donovan singing medieval folk tunes, with nary a trace of insincerity or heaviness.

Whoa, hadn't these cats ever heard of Vietnam?

Vibrant and full of amore' as Zeffirelli's style naturally was, SISTER MOON committed the sin of trying too hard to be Edenic, becoming so flower-power guileless that the counterculture could only laugh from their aloof new vantage points. Peace and love? no thanks man! Jimi dead, Janis dead, Altamont, Kent State, the Democratic National Convention, Nixon, the Red Army Faction... our hippie powers of flowers were like totally jettisoned. Better just climb up the mountain and watch your parents' world burn than pray for rain. Climb up and watch anything, in fact, except another goddamned scene of smiling youths running towards each other in slow mo dissolves through fields of flowers.

By then slow mo flower fields running was cliched beyond all reason, having been run aground by endless repetitions of antiperspirant commercials. The danger of trying to compete for a different country's youth market is thus illuminated: you have a different swath of TV commercials so you don't always know what images and plots have become cliche. The Free Love garden's once-open flowers were now curled back tight for the long night of unrest. No one even wanted to be seen in the theater where BROTHER SUN was showing, lest they be spotted, mocked, and crucified by their conformistly unconformist hipster friends.


I had to cover all Zeffirelli's films for Muze back in 1999, so I saw BROTHER SUN and the nine hour-cut of JESUS OF NAZARETH over a long weekend. I was newly sober and on a "pink cloud" so the spiritual stuff was coming through loud and clear. I don't mind saying BROTHER moved me to tears and JESUS brought me into a state of exaltation. I was a Christian all the rest of the weekend, almost volunteered for AA service, actually helped a blind man cross the street.

Then I wrote about it again for popmatters a few years later, and re-screened it and the giddy pink cloud had rained down into a gray socialist subtext sea: "The analogies to the Vietnam era and the anti-war movement are all too apparent . Zeffirelli's previous film, Romeo and Juliet (1968) was canonized as a counter-cultural touchstone three years previously: the tale of two attractive young hedonists being driven to suicide by their war-crazed elders was a perfect metaphor for the times. The story of Saint Francis -- paralleling those of Vietnam vets turned war protesters (à la Ron Kovic, whose autobiography was the basis for Oliver Stone's 1989 film, Born on the Fourth of July) -- must have seemed a perfect follow-up. Francis' bedridden hallucinations resemble a heavy acid trip, and his rejection of his father's plastic fantastic Madison Avenue gig for a communal church evokes images of so many young panhandlers in the Haight."

In other words, get a haircut, hippie! Oh wait he does, and a rather terrible bowl cut as I recall. Recently I saw it a third time and thought that the imagery was beautiful and full of typically dusky Zeffirelli touches, but all the "Throw away your money! All you need is love" pleading didn't even penetrate my outer layers (Heath Ledger's maniac bizarro world Saint Francis Joker in DARK KNIGHT on the other hand sends me).

Graham Faulkner, bright-eyed with guileless spiritual ecstasy like Keith Moon crossed with Sam Rockwell, is great as Francis. As the lunar sister, Judi Bowker is so frail and beautiful with such long gorgeous blond hair that for me the biggest tragedy of Christendom is when they decide to cut it all off so she can join their muddy little holy order. That's where my Christianity draws the line. Would you pick the lilies of the field right in fullest flower just to cut the heads off?  My Christianity thus withered.

Still, if I came across the post-awakening Francis in the fields outside Assisi, what would I do? Probably join him; lord knows I've joined up with hippies far dirtier and for far less noble reasons. Going after God is never a mistake, people! Following your heart takes guts, and the best Christians are the ones who bow their heads to lions daily. The rest of us forget and run, and are ripped to shreds, lifetime after lifetime.

I'm sorry I badmouthed Donovan before. He's very good, in his way. But the Age of Irony bideth not his naive frailty. He's like the guy who always gets shot first because he can't keep his head down below the sunflower line (yeah that's a PRIME CUT reference). The question is: are you ever going to stand up, snipers and shrapnel be damned? Am I? Not me, man, but I stood once, in '87, man. Far-out!



I never really lost my love of this movie, just pretended otherwise to look cool.

And I'm ashamed, both ways.

Hallowed be thy name Saint Francis, but you ain't cuttin' off no more cute girls' long straight blond hair, not on my beat. And I do mean that metaphorically as well as literally. It's time to let compassion fuel our opiated veins and to open them up to our scuzzy neighbor's balloon. We are the church and the church is under a rock. Somewhere. Jesus said the church can be found under any rock. But which rock? Ladies and gentlemen, tonight we will seek that rock. Who among you would take off their clothes and follow me into the sun like Francis did?  The church, like the song, is you so take a chance. Love thy neighbor as thyself, just don't let him corner you in the vestibule. There's wolves about, and they don't like singing.

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