Neglected Films No.4: “Savages”
Here’s a really lost movie. I remember seeing it at the Curzon Mayfair and being unable to get it out of my head for ages, even though it didn’t seem to make a shred of sense to me at the time. What I didn’t realise then is that it was in part an homage to Alain Resnais. ‘Last Year at Marienbad’ is a clear influence, and perhaps so is Luis Bunuel. And yet it is American (in the way that from time to time US filmmakers produce brave, wonderful follies like the perverse ‘Synechdoche, New York’.)
The movie tells the story of civilisation in a day and a night. Initially shot in the style of a fake German documentary, starting in sepia, it follows the Mud People as they root about in the jungle before being hit by the civilising influence of a croquet ball. Following the ball, they arrive at a vast deserted mansion, where they gradually organise themselves into social groupings. Dialogue is fractured, with non-sequitors following broken threads of thought.
By late afternoon the language itself has formed. The group is now in 1920’s fashions and heading for the apex of civilisation – a dinner party wherein ludicrous social rules are enforced, trivial tidbits become social currency and class lines are drawn up.
Soon petty jealousies break out as the guests criticise each other and jockey for social position. As decadence sets in, they head for the basement to get drunk, screw and fight. By this time a dark-skinned beautiful Forest Girl has been turned into a servant. The house descends into chaos and disaster. Dialogue is once more fragmented and knowledge is lost. Reverting to film, those who remain intact tear off their clothes and limp back into the forest.
Between 1969 and the mid-seventies the best source of college humour in the US was The National Lampoon. It was read by those who had outgrown Mad Magazine, who wanted dark satire that reflected the new cynical times. The Lampoon rode through the Nixon years with a number of confrontational issues that often bordered on genius. Two of its wildest writers were George Swift Trow and Michael O’Donoghue (there’ll be a longer post about these heroes of mine soon). They decided to write a movie, and somehow James Ivory, of all the unlikely people, took a shine to it. Casting with Susan Blakely, Sam Waterstone and Warhol star Ultra Violet, and filming it as handsomely as any period epic, Ivory made a magnificent folly.
Any writer will tell you that satire is a way to kill your career. Critical reviews destroyed the film, but it had an in-built problem. Once you see where the story arc is taking you, here’s nowhere to go but on to the bitter end. The laughter faded on audience’s lips and they sat stony face through the end of humankind.
And yet, time has been rather kind to ‘Savages’. It now seems prophetic. Paced in a deliberately slow European style, formally framed, beautifully photographed, it remains true to its intentions throughout, and its serious purpose feels far less vague than when I first saw it. Critics don’t like being told what to think, but in this case they complained that it was all too obscure. With the passing of time, ‘Savages’ has become a warning; that we are likely to pass from barbarism to decadence without properly understanding civilisation.