Dec 19, 2014
After reading comparisons to gutter auteur Andy Milligan’s once-lost English arthouse anti-romance Nightbirds (1970) and Joseph Despins and William Dumaresq equally brutal, ruthlessly raw, and culturally pessimistic lost masterpiece Duffer (1971), I decided to watch Private Road (1971) directed by British auteur Barney Platts-Mills (Bronco Bullfrog, Hero), which, like the other two films, was saved from celluloid oblivion somewhat recently after it was rightfully restored and reissued on DVD/Blu-ray by the British Film Institute under their BFI Flipside label. Starring British cult writer/director Bruce Robinson (How to Get Ahead in Advertising, The Rum Diary) in an early pre-fame role as the lead character, Platts-Mills’ film is, at least in some ways, a far cry from the darkly comedic anti-bourgeois buffoonery of Withnail & I (1987), but then again there are many similarities between the character he played in Private Road and his somewhat autobiographical eponymous “I” character played by Paul McGann in his hit directorial debut. In fact, at various screenings, Platts-Mills has confessed that he believes Robinson was figuratively (and very possibly literally) taking notes for Withnail & I while working on Private Road, which was at a less than ideal time in his life where he was barely getting by and largely living off government social security checks. On the surface a seemingly conventional work of British ‘kitchen sink realism,’ Platts-Mills’ second feature is also a scathing indictment of the degenerate and largely foredoomed generation that bought into hippie hedonism and so-called sexual liberation, as well as a tragic romance about the impossibility of young love in the age of female emancipation, on-demand abortions, the Rolling Stones, hard drugs, and compensatory far-left-wing politics as indulged in by members of the young upper-middleclass. The ultimately rather melancholy and forlorn story of a young ‘offbeat’ writer who receives a book deal and falls madly in love with an ‘enterprising’ young blonde secretary who more or less uses him just so she can move out of her parents home and not have to work, only to have reality smack him in the face when his latest novel is rejected, his pregnant girlfriend decides to demonstrate her ‘female independence’ by dealing with her pregnancy in a most heinous self-centered way, and his comrades degenerate into junkies and humorless far-left revolutionaries who misguidedly think heroin and Trotsky will fill the void in their increasingly sterile and soulless lives, Private Road is a somewhat torturous but never dull depiction of a young and rather naive Mick Jagger look-alike’s soul being crushed in slow-motion by the realities of adulthood. Indeed, Platts-Mills' film is that rare sort of work that reminds the viewer why most white males in the western world forgo marriage and children nowadays.
Opening with a goofy longhaired hippie named Stephen (Michael Feast of The Deaths of Ian Stone (2007)) playing acoustic guitar and singing, “…always wanted to be a racing driver…but I never ever, ever liked the smell of cars,” Private Road initially seems like it will be some sort of horrendous hippie nightmare romanticizing the “bobo” (aka bourgeois bohemian) lifestyle, but luckily that is not the case, at least for long. The film then cuts to a scene of a pretty yet seemingly empty-headed and bitchy young blonde secretary named Ann Halpern (Susan Penhaligon of Paul Verhoeven Soldier of Orange (1977) and Richard Franklin’s Hitchcockian Ozploitation classic Patrick (1978)) fiddling with a piece of string while barely acknowledging the polite yet prosaic small talk of her publisher boss Erica Talbot (Patricia Cutts of William Castle’s The Tingler (1959) starring Vincent Price). Mrs. Talbot introduces Ann to “a very brilliant young writer” of the longhaired too-cool-for-school bohemian sort named Peter Morrissey (Bruce Robinson) whose short stories she plans to publish. Against his better judgement, Peter attends a small party with Ann where he demonstrates his posturing beatnikness by banally responding with “oh, anything” when a clean-cut chap who seems overly concerned with monetary success and social status asks him what he writes about. After the party, Peter asks Ann if she wants to go back to his place, but she seems to be intimidated by the slightly older and certainly more mature young man and blows him off. The next day, Peter calls Ann up and invites her to his hippie flat where he lives with his equally longhaired comrades Stephen (Michael Feast) and Henry (played by Hollywood composer George Fenton, who has composed music for everything from Gandhi (1982) to Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem (2013)). After hanging out with the beatnik boys and doing pretty much nothing like beatnik boys do, Peter takes Ann on a romantic all-night stroll around both the city and countryside which results in the two falling in love with one another, though the romance is clearly one-sided. When his friend Stephen later asks him if he has boned Ann, Peter acts discernibly offended and states that he is not interested in sex “because a relationship isn’t based on sex. It’s not a paltry love affair, the sort of thing that you’re used to. It’s a pure, spiritual love. It’s love. I love her.” Meanwhile, Anne’s father Mr. Halpern (Robert Brown of various James Bond films like Octopussy (1983))—a well to do businessman of the conspicuously old school conservative sort who is genuinely concerned about his daughter’s well being—rebukes his daughter for disappearing all night without notifying him and she responds like an irrational woman-child by screaming “oh, fuck off!” and throwing her covers over her head like a little girl that is made agitated because her parents did not buy her the baby doll she wanted. Deciding she wants to be a ‘big girl,’ Ann then plots to move-in with Peter, who has just received an advance for a projected novel from Mrs. Talbot and makes for the perfect guy for a young girl who wants her ‘independence’ to leech off of.
A calculating lady who, like any sensible young woman looking to start a ‘career’ for herself, uses her body as currency, Ann officiates their first night living together with her new boyfriend and the seriousness of their relationship in general by symbolically stripping her clothes off without any foreplay and somewhat freaks out Peter by coldly and calculatingly giving herself to him in a less than romantic way in what is ultimately their first time having sex with one another. From then on, Ann wants to have sex all the time, even outside in a public square, thus inspiring her boyfriend to jokingly call her a “nymphomaniac.” Meanwhile, Peter is warned by a fellow writer named Alex Marvel (Trevor Adams) to not sell one of his stories to a mainstream Munich-based publishing company called Titan because, as he states, “I thought that story was really very good. And I don’t think you should sell it to Titan of Munich. I’ll tell you why…Because Titan of Munich or any other company like that will just ruin anything. And that story had something. And that story should be kept as it is.” Of course, Peter will soon learn that he will be a loser in life if he stays true to himself and his artistic vision, as writing for an “esoteric audience” does not pay the bills, nor does it meet the demands of a young girlfriend who wants to live a life of leisure. When Ann’s father keeps randomly dropping by their flat and annoying them with his somewhat creepy behavior, Peter offers to move her anywhere she wants, even Greenland where he jokes that she will get “icicles on the end of your titties.” Ultimately, the seemingly loving couple opts to move to a remote cabin in the idyllic Scottish highlands where everything seems perfect, at least for Peter who finds solace in roaming the hillsides hunting rabbits while taking a break from writing, but spoiled brat Ann cannot tolerate having to do dreaded old fashioned things that females use to do like peel potatoes and she even suffers a hysterical freakout after he beloved brings back the corpse of a cute little bunny that he has shot that he wants her to skin for a stew. Of course, dainty dingbat Ann refuses to skin the rabbit and demonstrates that she would make rather pathetic wifey material. After acting increasingly frigid and humorless, Ann finally demands that they move back to the city the next day and that her boyfriend better start making more money on his writing, thus destroying Peter’s dream of an idyllic future of simple and serene pastoral living.
While Peter is somewhat happy to discover that Ann is pregnant upon arriving back in the city, pretty much everything else in the protagonist’s life falls apart from there. Among other things, Peter’s girlfriend has been incessantly bitching at him about writing more stories so that he can bring in more money, so when Mrs. Talbot rejects a novel that he has been working on for over a year because she thinks it is “undisciplined and a little old-fashioned” and needs some “pruning, cutting, shaping, discipline,” he is forced to take a lowly creativity-stunting job as a copywriter at an advertising firm that was given to him by his friend Henry, who is now a sort of self-stylized poser far-left revolutionary that has been cuckolded by his frigid uptight feminist girlfriend and who ironically uses the equipment at his corporate capitalist job to make commie posters. On top of that, Peter’s best friend Stephen is now a full-blown heroin addict who predictably causes Ann to suffer a panic attack after she walks in on him shooting up junk in the bathroom. In fact, Stephen is such a desperate junky that he later breaks into Peter and Ann’s apartment when they are not home, writes the word “shit” on their wall as if to express his disgust with their bourgeois lifestyle, and steals everything they own except the bed and a couple of worthless books. Of course, Peter panics when he comes home one day from a long hard day at work to discover that Ann, who recently turned down his proposal of marriage, is gone and has taken all of her possessions with her, so he runs to her parents’ home and more or less forces himself inside after his sneaky girlfriend’s equally sneaky mother attempts to shoo him away in the most phony stereotypically bourgeois sort of way. After barging into the house, Stephen is physically assaulted by Ann’s father, who subsequently tells him, “Anne has lost her baby. She came here for help and she got it. I begged you to be careful but you took no notice. You went on your own sweet way.”
Indeed, Ann went behind Peter’s back and sought sanctuary in daddy dearest, who gladly paid for the abortion of his unborn grandchild, as he knows that his superlatively spoiled, self-centered, and less than sophisticated daughter cannot even take care of herself, let alone a newborn child. At first, Peter seems in denial about the abortion and naively proclaims that Ann, who he has an unnervingly annoying romanticized view of as a young man that clearly still does not understand the way of women, would never do such a thing because she wanted the baby, but Mr. Halpern sets him straight by stating, “She didn’t. She would never have been able to cope with the child.” Of course, Mr. Halpern is right, as his daughter is nothing but a spoiled little woman-child who would probably be jealous of the baby stealing attention away from her. When Peter visits Ann in the hospital, she is totally ruthlessly remorseless about her sinisterly sneaky and dastardly deed, hatefully stating to her boy toy, “Look, I didn’t want the baby. Can you understand that?,” thus revealing that Mr. Halpern was right after all. Instead of dumping her and never speaking to her again for going behind his back and aborting their unborn child, Peter becomes a sort of spiritually castrated cuckold who completely gives up on his writing, puts all his energy into working a job he hates, and molds his behavior to the banal bourgeois manners and customs of Daddy Halpern, who is so pleased with the drastic change in his daughter's relationship that he tells her that he is going to buy her and her beloved a house when they get married. In the end, Stephen visits Peter and reveals that he has gotten off of heroin, though he clearly will never completely grow up and live a conventional middleclass life. When Peter reveals that Ann got an abortion and that he quit writing, perennial bohemian Stephen is so bummed out that he steals his friend a typewriter the next day so that he can continue writing. As for Peter and Ann, their future together seems dubious at best. Luckily, the real-life Peter, Bruce Robinson, would go on to do something with his writing and become famous doing it.
Unquestionably, Private Road is one of those films that you probably do not want to watch a second time, though not because it is bad and unmemorable, but because it is a total all-around bummer of a melancholy movie that portrays life as a progressive curse plagued by a perennial series of oftentimes unpredictable and uncontrollable disappointments and tragedies that make antinatalism seem like the only rational and sensible life philosophy for any young person living in the post-WWII West to adopt, thus it should be no surprise that auteur Barney Platts-Mills would have to rent out a theater himself just so the film could be publicly screened upon its initial release, only for the work to languish in obscurity for about 40 years until it was rightfully resurrected by BFI Flipside. Not surprisingly, it would be over a decade before Platts-Mills made another film—the medieval sorcery and witchcraft costume piece Hero (1982)—which, although the first film in Scots Gaelic, was an abject failure of the first order that was ridiculed in Time Out film magazine as a “clumping village pageant” and ultimately guaranteed the director would not make another film for about about two more decades until he released the unfortunately underwhelming work Zohra: A Moroccan Fairy Tale (2010). While his debut feature Bronco Bullfrog (1969) is probably equally important in the context of British film history, Private Road is unequivocally Platts-Mills' most immaculate, accomplished, and nuanced work, as a film that captures the dispiriting spirit of an entire generation, or at least a certain segment of it, namely the unsurprisingly increasingly dwindling upper-middleclass, which bought into the bullshit false freedom of the counterculture movement and paid the ultimate price as a result. Indeed, it is refreshing to see a work of British social realism that does not dubiously wallow in poverty porn like some of the works of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach and instead focuses on the certainly different but no less critical problems that plagued the dying bourgeoisie then and still continue to plague it in all the more debasing ways today. After all, unlike the protagonist of Private Road, there is not much pressure on lumpenproles when it comes to maintaining a certain standard in terms of wealth, profession, and overall social prestige. I certainly would not want to have to deal with a pretty yet vacant posh princess like the one in Platts-Mills film who excepts everything from her man but gives nothing in return aside from abortions, headaches, and cold and soulless sex. Indeed, one can only guess the sort of alimony and child support that the protagonist of Private Road would have had to pay if he actually ended up marrying, having children with, and inevitably divorcing his blonde bimbo beloved. In that sense, the film should be mandatory viewing for any middleclass male who is seriously considering getting married and/or having children because otherwise they might end up like the fat deranged slob of Christopher Monger's criminally underrated classic British cult flick Voice Over (1983).
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 8:31 PM
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