“The Ruling Class, 1972”

“The last time I was kissed in a garden, it turned out rather awkward.”

The Ruling Class, 1972 (Peter O’Toole), Avco/Embassy

The English system baffles me. From what I was led to believe, it has the more Socialistic financial trappings of most of Central Europe (even revising those standards in their entry to the E.U.) while retaining a matriarchy to keep up royal appearances and requiring heavy taxation of it’s working classes. Meanwhile, there is a Parliament; work-a-day politicians who keep the trains running on time and sustain a cock-eyed benevolent fascist dictatorship. You have to wonder how the well-fed higher-ups control this ridiculous England without losing their minds. In Peter Medak’s equally ridiculous satire, The Ruling Class, we are given an approximation of an answer: they have lost their minds. In the first few minutes of the film, one such man, the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) wears a variation of his uniform with the important modification of a dancer’s tu-tu and hangs himself.

At the reading of his revised will, his friends and enemies are horrified to hear that the estate will be passed on to his son, Jack (Peter O’Toole), who is also cousin to the Queen. Upon his announcement and arrival, Jack enters dressed as Jesus Christ, with robe, long golden locks, and beard, but it isn’t that he is merely dressed as Christ. He believes he is Jesus Christ. Though he locks horns with his Church of England relatives, an examiner diagnoses Jack as a paranoid schizophrenic. Hilariously, when asked how he knows he is God, Jack simply states that when he prays, he discovers he is talking to himself. His transformation is no different than the proverbial red-headed stepchild’s journey home to inform her family she has discovered Scientology, but since this is a young man of royal stock and lineage, poised to inherit an unimaginable clutch of power and privilege, his family agrees he must be destroyed for the good of the Crown.

Trading off one set of bizarre rubrics for another and unleashing hypocrisy in the form of off-putting musical sequences isn’t enough for Peter Barnes’ irreverent stage play (which he also adapted for the screen). When Jack insists his doctrine will be one of peace, charity, and love (What would Jesus do?), he puts fear in the hearts of the dogged politicians who really only want his power and wealth. They scheme to distract him with a woman (beautiful Carolyn Seymour as Lady Grace) who, with all her might, attempts to seduce Jack, but is instead seduced by Jack. She falls madly in love with him. It’s interesting how Jack (Jesus Christ) invents and improvises his belief system. Apparently it’s fine for our Lord and Savior to take a wife in Jack’s twisted interpretation. Whatever. I’m an atheist, but it’s quite charming to watch Seymour and O’Toole indulge in an impromptu rendition of “My Blue Heaven.”

When the dimwitted Dinsdale tries to alert Jack to his family’s treachery, he violently withdraws, sensing his strategically constructed walls of illusion coming down. As much as Jack wants (needs) to be Jesus Christ, and though he hangs from a fabricated crucifix in times of insecurity, he would never bring himself to strip to nakedness and pierce his flesh with nails. He marries Grace in an empty cathedral. At the reception, Jack puts party hats on all the miserable nobles. This is where the movie succeeds: as a tarring, jarring rebuke of the affluent – those who merely inherit their privilege and execute nothing of use with it. They are, truly, the most worthless of the world. Upon a visit to a sanitarium, he comforts the inmates with prayer and song. The examiner conducts psychological experiements. He passes a lie detector test. He then undergoes electro-shock therapy (in a method reminiscent of Return of the Jedi when the Emperor tortures young Skywalker). This sequence juxtaposes Jack’s “exorcism” with the birth of his child with Lady Grace, and it is truly terrifying.

However electrifying O’Toole is (Ha!), the film relies on his madness to carry it through the more mundane and tedious passages. Barnes is a writer in love with his words, and what The Ruling Class could’ve used was another pass at the screenplay, and more time in the editing room. Peter Medak’s direction is (perhaps appropriately) stagey, but also cold and emotionless. Maybe it’s because he shoots the movie from the point-of-view of the unlikable outsiders who view Jack’s madness as a form of eccentricity. Even after Jack is relieved of his demons, we spend nearly another hour trying to determining who he has become. He stutters, suffers Tourettes-like aphasia, and possesses murderous impulses. The Ruling Class would’ve been brilliant if the filmmakers had dispensed with the notion of shooting a stage play and instead focused on the strength of film. The aristocratic air and the manipulations of the power-mad in the film would make it an interesting double feature with A Clockwork Orange.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

“Metropolis, 1984”

“Between the mind that plans and the hands that build there must be a Mediator, and this must be the heart.”

Metropolis, 1984 (Brigitte Helm), Cinecom

We start with an explanation of why Giorgio Moroder did what he did; that is to take a print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, and then to add previously missing footage and photographs, affix his newly-produced musical score, and then release the result. A montage of dangerous-looking machinery turning joined with text describing the pleasures and privilege of the “chosen sons” in the elevated city of Metropolis begins the movie. We are shown that the benefits of these few are the result of the back-breaking labors of the masses – the working class. A frustrated man in pleated breeches, Freder, spots a strange woman with dirty children, who apparently took the wrong elevator with an unruly mass of dirty children. She exits as quickly as she came, but Freder can’t stop thinking about her.

Next, we see the massive factory and the slave workers choregraphed to a specific rhythm. It’s at this point that we see parallels to art direction and production design in movies from the ’80s to the early ’90s. Blade Runner immediately comes to mind, as well as Ridley Scott’s bizarre and jaw-dropping commercials for Apple. Freder asks his father why they must treat their workers so badly. His father has no answer. Perhaps it’s easier to simply reap the rewards rather than give care or consideration to those who die to construct this fantasy of superiority. I think if the workers were not made to be so passive through fear, they would have revolted years before. The movie works as a plea for constructive socialism in that regard, but therein lies the inconsistency.

A Jew converted to Roman Catholicism by his mother, Fritz Lang fled Nazi-ruled Germany for Paris shortly after meeting with Joseph Goebbels, who suggested Lang to head the UFA, despite the ban of his film, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Hitler and Goebbels, being film enthusiasts, respected Lang immensely*. As Lang’s Judaism was hidden at the time, they would surely have been embarrassed by that revelation. Yet Lang explicitly preaches the tenets of modern Socialism, at least our perception of Socialism in the words of Marx: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Marx considered Capitalism to be the enemy of Socialism to such a degree that he also wrote (somewhat flippantly), “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.”

Freder rebels against his father after witnessing firsthand the cruelty of his father’s indifference to the plight of the workers after a fierce explosion kills several of them. Meanwhile Freder’s father approaches inventor (and early rival) Professor Rotwang (resembling a slightly bent-out-of-shape Rip Torn) with a series of old maps found among a dead worker’s possessions. Rotwang abducts Freder’s mystery woman and makes an android version of her, in an effort to discredit her with the workers she herself incites to rebellion with Freder. When Freder sees his father with this android version of his dream girl, he flips out, figuratively (but with visual flair) descending into his own personal Hell. He takes to the bed while Rotwang shows off his new creation to all the muckety-mucks with a surprisingly erotic, pre-Code interpretive dance.

Brigitte Helm’s android provides us with a delicious sneer and a winking eye on her face to indicate that she is not human. She incites brawls among the workers, as the leaders and organizers have realized the best way to destroy any notion of dissent through community is to make the workers fight each other rather than the establishment. I see parallels in modern politics and sociology occurring even now. She encourages the workers to destroy the power station, which will cause their own homes to be flooded. In the end, all that remains are desperate, hungry faces, and destroyed machinery and the workers decide that Brigitte Helm is the cause of their misery so they decide to burn her at the stake. The flames burn away at her flesh-like draping, revealing the robot beneath.

Underneath a startling examination of the human condition, Fritz Lang has constructed the definitive science fiction experience. Revelatory and exciting (as with Lang’s M made four years later), Metropolis is less an expressionist piece, and more emotional because of his reliance on character motivation rather than the static interpretation of films produced at the time. The movie is less concerned with progress than it is with entropy and the breakdown of society. Several versions of Metropolis had floated around for years after Moroder’s 1984 release, with runnings times varying from the accepted 83 minute running time to over 2 hours. Moroder, often credited with popularizing disco music in the States, suffuses his Metropolis with songs from popular artists of the time, ranging from Billy Squier and Freddie Mercury, to Pat Benatar and Adam Ant.

Critics savaged this version of Metropolis at the time of it’s release. It was even nominated for two Razzie Awards, Worst Original Song and Worst Musical Score. As this was the only version of the film I had been exposed to (also heavily promoted on MTV), I accepted it as the definitive version. Moroder’s intention was to contemporize the film and the subject matter for young audiences with the use of popular music, and he succeeds. Critics then (and now) never seem to place films in the context of when they were made, and only review them favorably if they are viewed as some subjective definition of the word, “timeless.” Though I doubt filmmakers would ever admit to it, and based on many music video produced, such as C+C Music Factory’s “Here We Go (Let’s Rock & Roll)” and Madonna’s “Express Yourself,” Giorgio Moroder’s Metropolis was enormously influential.

*Conflicting reports state Hitler and Goebbels were aware of Lang’s Jewish background, and were prepared to make him an “honorary Aryan” because of their admiration for his work, and Metropolis in particular. The film could be seen as a rallying cry for desperate, impoverished Germans after the end of the first World War. Lang’s wife at the time, Thea von Harbou (Metropolis’ screenwriter) was alleged to have been an early supporter of the Nazi Party.

Thanks to Geno Cuddy for supplying the source copy of Metropolis for this review.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.