Feb 5, 2012

Some Call It Loving (1973)

Director / Producer: James B. Harris
Writer: James B. Harris (based on the short story, “Sleeping Beauty” by John Collier)
Music: Richard Hazard
Cinematographer: Mario Tosi
James B. Harris Productions; 103 min; color

Zalman King (Robert Troy), Carol White (Scarlett), Tisa Farrow (Jennifer), Richard Pryor (Jeff), Veronica Anderson (Angelica), Logan Ramsey (Carnival Doctor), Pat Priest (Carnival Nurse)

“I bought a sleeping beauty- I just thought I should let you know.”


I’m going to tell you about one of the most intimate screenings I’ve ever had. It was during a summer night a few years ago, and one of those times where I’d wake up in the middle of the night, realize that I wouldn’t be going back to sleep anytime soon and would randomly pick something to watch. That night’s choice was Some Call It Loving, which evolved into a rapturous experience, as the shadows and darkness onscreen was perfectly complemented by those final hours of night amidst the hushed neighbourhood surroundings, before the sun would rise to burn away the mystery and allure found only in those hours when most of the world slumbers. I cannot imagine seeing this delicate picture in any other circumstance- I rose from one slumber into a waking dream, where the viewing time and its milieu perfectly meshed with what was playing.

To call this a perfect viewing experience does not however suggest that the movie itself is perfect:  one-of-a-kind projects seldom are (at least in conventional terms). One must forgo the usual criteria of judging cinema with a delicate object such as this. To examine this movie strictly on the virtues of its plot or acting is to strip away all that is unique about it; the effect would be much the same as the morning sun laying bare the preceding night hours, or someone turning on the bedroom lights during an act of love making. This is more cinema for the senses- as such, Some Call It Loving is unforgettable as a visceral and emotional experience. But before we continue, we must slavishly explore its narrative thread in order to put all of its true virtues into context.

Robert Troy is a jazz musician who lives in a mansion with two women, Scarlett and Angelica: the three constantly perform role-playing games to the degree that Robert can no longer distinguish what is real-life. His one chance at having a normal existence in the “real world” occurs during a nocturnal prowl when he encounters a carnival sideshow featuring a real-life “sleeping beauty”.  Her host, a doctor (basically a carnival barker in a white lab coat), sells kisses to eager participants for a dollar a smooch, to try and awaken the slumbering girl, and live happily ever after. In truth, the doctor is giving her drugs to keep her sleeping so that the customers will never arouse her (in literal or figurative terms). Have we ever expected truth in a carnival midway?  Do we really think that those bowling pins we knock down aren’t glued to the table? Nonetheless, Robert is so taken by the sleeping beauty, that he buys her from the doctor and takes her home.

When the medication wears off, Jennifer awakens into Robert’s world, and becomes a willing participant into the bizarre rituals that they perform in the mansion, perhaps to his consternation. Was his reason for buying the sleeping beauty truly out of infatuation, or was it to have someone of his own to control in these weird parlour games? Whatever the case, both ambitions would end up in despair.

Any fairy tale is about someone who wants to be free of whatever fantastic situation shackles them (whether they’re a frog prince or have long hair), to live a normal life. There is no “happily ever after” in this tale- or, are we being deceived? Are these characters happier when they surrender to their bizarre role-playing? While Robert makes clear his intention of having a normal life with Jennifer, their escape into the “real world” only reminds him of the cage in which he lives. (No more blatant example of that can be seen than when the couple arrive at a hotel named “Fantasy”.)  His one true connection otherwise with the outside world is in his drug-addicted friend Jeff, who hangs around the nightclub. It is not logically wrong to include these scenes with this mumbling, sweaty, barely coherent character, as Jeff is also playing in a fantasy world, albeit chemically induced. However, all of these scenes with Robert’s friend are incongruous with the otherwise carefully structured narrative. Further, because Jeff is played by Richard Pryor, who had similar problems offscreen, in this film about role-playing, his part is perhaps too close to reality.

On the basis of the narrative, one could obviously quibble about such things as how a jazz musician can afford to live in a mansion, much less spring fifty grand for the sleeping beauty act.  (Maybe his housemates are loaded- who knows?) But since the movie has the elliptical nature of a dream, it is less about logic or reason, more about repetitive patterns: certain scenes are repeated verbatim, albeit with different players.  Even the carnival barker’s patter is echoed in the bittersweet finale. In fact one could interpret all of Jennifer’s journey as one long, continuous role-playing game. (Tellingly, she always calls Robert by his surname, as though he’s her master.)

Viewed under the appropriate circumstances, we too are awakened from a slumber into a living dream, much like Jennifer has been. Much of the film takes place during those hours when most of the world is dreaming in bed. The movie is in near-perpetual darkness- and the figurative characters are in a somnambulistic state- enacting dreams in a concrete world. As such, few films better understand the erotic allure and mystery of the night. (Remember, Robert is a jazz musician, and one can scarcely have a more nocturnal occupation than that.)  Mario Tosi’s woozy cinematography perfectly captures the ambience of the characters’ waking dream world: the luminous, over-exposed lighting of the carnival and jazz club, the expressionistic candelabra lighting of the cavernous mansion and the neon emanating from the juke box during the scenario’s rare attempt at romance.

The latter scene in which the two would-be lovers dance to Nat King Cole’s chilling “The Very Thought Of You” evokes more sadness and unrequited desire than love. Robert’s pursuits for a conventional relationship are instead met with sad realizations of a web he cannot escape. Because the bulk of the film unfolds in darkness and shadows, its daylight scenes are however revealing: we see more about these characters who enact their bizarre role-playing rituals, and most tellingly, daylight pervades most of the sequence of Robert’s ill-fated attempt in escaping to the “real” world with Jennifer.

The career of James B. Harris dates all the way back to the 1950s, when he was producing for a young Stanley Kubrick.  Within his scant filmography is a handful of films which he wrote and directed- of which Some Call It Loving is perhaps his best. Interestingly, it is this project in his oeuvre that relies least upon mainstream conventions to succeed. As such, we could quibble for example about how the performances are one-note, yet upon further examination, like many things in this serpentine movie, this could be by design. (What better way to convey characters who are soulless?) At first glance, nothing in this movie is what it appears to be- the more one ponders it, the complex ideas begin to materialize.

Like any unique work of art, one must be willing to appreciate it on its own terms. Just like the sunlight that strips away the hypnotic enigma of night, and reveals the ugly truths of our characters, scrutinizing this movie in conventional ways would shatter its fragile beauty. However, if one visits Some Call It Loving with an openness to the world it creates, its rewards are large.


Aran Shawcross said...

I saw this movie when I was a student, almost 30 years ago, on a black & white portable TV. In the UK, at that time, videos were not ubiquitous and it was very different from the 'everything, all the time' expectation we have now. So, speaking for myself, i certainly paid much closer attention to films because I might never see them again.
And so it was with this film, but I didn't pay close enough attention to remember the title!For decades afterwards, I couldn't remember very much about it except how amazing it was and I spent endless hours, over the years, surfing the net and trying to figure out what it might have been and hoping to see it again. It was only when I read an obituary of Zalman King and recognised him that I put all the pieces together.
Now that I know the name of the movie, I'm almost scared to watch it again in case it doesn't have the same magic...but of course I will.
I know it sounds utterly ridiculous but I feel like some very significant 'arc' of my life is now complete, having spent so long trying to find this waking dream of a movie!
Excellent post

The G-Man said...

Hi Aran-

Thanks for your comments- much appreciated. Would love to your hear thoughts when you see the movie again! Thanks for writing.