Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

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 the frequently used established stars (like Leslie Howard-Norma Shearer in the 1936 version), the tale of love destroyed by violent family feuding proved a zeitgeist-riding analogy for our Vietnam state of mind. Nailing hot young things across the dusky setting sun beauty of old Verona street corners or naked in dusty-aired garrets under Old Masters streaks of morning light, Zeffirelli had scored an unlikely smash hit. Naturally El Zeffir (as he was never called) decided to follow it up with a similar period hippie piece, this time making the parallels more obvious. Drawing on the early life of Saint Francis, BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON was released in 1972... which was too late. The zeit had geisted and Zeffirelli was considered square yet again.

Maybe it was because, unlike ROMEO--which was just another of Zeffirelli's adaptation of Shakespeare, never intended to find such a huge youth market (perhaps explaining why it did)--BROTHER it was a film specifically designed to click with that generation, and they hated when adults did that. 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 this filmmaker ever heard of Vietnam? Had he forgotten ROMEO AND JULIET was the tale of lost innocence? Why did he expect us to have kept it?

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! Romeo's dead, Juliet's dead. Jimi dead, Janis dead, Altamont, Kent State, the Democratic National Convention, Nixon, the Baader-Meinhof Complex, Manson... our hippie powers of flowers were, like, totally jettisoned.
The kids knew or believed it was better to 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. We all knew how that ended. 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.

No only that, by then all that slow-mo flowery field running had been run aground by endless repetitions of antiperspirant commercials. The danger of trying to compete for a different country's youth market was thus illuminated: you have less commercials in Europe since TV is state-controlled; you don't always know what images and plots have become cliche through advertising overuse.


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 (1977)  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! I almost volunteered for AA service, actually helped a blind man cross the street.
Seriously.

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 were now all too apparent. Romeo and Juliet was the tale of two attractive young hedonists being driven to suicide by their war-crazed elders; the story of Saint Francis -- paralleling those of Vietnam vets turned war protesters (à la Ron Kovic) -- 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, intentionally no less!

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 it didn't even penetrate my outer layers (Heath Ledger's maniac bizarro world Saint Francis Joker in DARK KNIGHT on the other hand sent me far deeper into the post-chaos embrace).

Still the cast of BROTHER is tops: Graham Faulkner, bright-eyed with guileless spiritual ecstasy like Keith Moon crossed with Sam Rockwel; Judi Bowker, 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 anew.

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 off in fear, 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 and even again in '98. 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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