Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

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 unknown actors--as opposed to 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. Capturing the lovely classical beauty of hot young things to old Verona street corners (including a sensational Michael Yorke) and dusty-aired garrets under Old Masters streaks of morning light, Zeffirelli had scored an unlikely smash hit, both a museum masterpiece come to life and an urgent tale of the moment. Naturally El Zeffir (as he was never called) decided to follow up its massive success with a similar period hippie piece. Drawing on the early life of Saint Francis, BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON took the same ideas--the purity of youthful idealism struggling against the repressive conservative dogma of their time--but was released in 1972... which was too late -- by then we no longer felt youthful idealism had a chance in Hell. Our hopes were dashed, then re-adjusted. The zeit had geisted and Zeffirelli was considered square yet again. It was a bridge too far.

Maybe it was because, unlike ROMEO--which started just an adaptation of Shakespeare, never intended to find such a huge youth market (perhaps explaining why it did)--BROTHER was a film specifically designed to click with that generation, and they hated when adults tried to pander to them that way. Intentionally trying to click with the youth (and not being one) was a kiss of death, like the dad who shows up at his son's basement make-out party wearing a Beatles' wig.

The wig in this case was the soundtracks. Instead of Nino Rota (whose instrumental theme for ROMEO had become a classic) there was a whole soundtrack full of Donovan singing medieval folk tunes, with nary a trace of insincerity or heaviness... or even self-awareness.

Had he forgotten ROMEO AND JULIET was the tale of lost innocence? Why did he expect us to have kept it? It was like he forgot how that movie ended. 

The analogies to the Vietnam era and the anti-war movement were now all too apparent. Francis' story was a  parallel to those of Vietnam vets turned war protesters (à la Ron Kovic) - young Francis starts out a soldier, but comes back broken from the war, with a terrible fever that  leaves him--when he awakes from it--able to talk to animals and flowers). Francis' bedridden hallucinations before his enlightenment intentionally resemble a heavy acid trip -- a heavy symbolic rebirth/death cycle ala that undergone by Peter Fonda in THE TRIP - when trapped in the tomb of leftover Corman Poe props. His subsequent gratitude to be alive and the burning away of illusion leads to a rejection of his father's plastic fantastic textiles gig for a communal church - evoking parallels to so many young panhandlers in the Haight.

But, vibrant and full of amore' as Zeffirelli's style and dusky gorgeous cinematography still 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! Won't get fooled again! Romeo's dead, man. Juliet's dead. Jimi dead, Janis dead, Altamont, Kent State, the Democratic National Convention, Nixon, the Baader-Meinhof Complex, Manson...

The kids knew or believed it was better to just climb up the mountain and watch your parents' world burn than pray for rain and try to change their minds about love and peace. Climb up and if you don't want to watch the flames, watch anything else, in fact, except, perhaps, another goddamned scene of smiling youths running towards each other in slow mo dissolves through fields of flowers. The Free Love garden's once-open and extended tendrils were now curled back tight for the long night of frosty 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 in most countries; you don't always know what images and plots have become cliche through advertising overuse. European commercials tend to be very artsy and engaging and played only once a night or twice between shows. They don't drone in endless repetition.



Today, though, we can reconsider these things. I had to cover all Zeffirelli's films for Muze back in 1999, so I saw BROTHER SUN and the nine hour-cut of his JESUS OF NAZARETH (1977)  over one long weekend. I was newly sober and on a "pink cloud" so the spiritual stuff in both was coming through loud and clear. I don't mind saying BROTHER moved me to tears and after thatm JESUS brought me into a state of exaltation. I was a Christian almost all the way through to Tuesday! I almost volunteered for AA service I was so Christian; I even actually helped a blind man cross the street.

Seriously.

What a chump.

When I wrote about BROTHER again for popmatters a few years later, and re-screened it on DVD (I'd only rented the tape for the Muze gig), the giddy pink cloud had rained down into a gray socialist subtext sea. I winced at every Donovan lyric, like a dagger.

In other words, get a haircut, hippie! Oh wait he does... intentionally!

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 by contrast, sends 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.

Fuck Donavan, man.

But hallowed be the name of Saint Francis, as long as he ain't cuttin' off no more cute girls' long straight blond hair no more, 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. 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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