Tuesday, December 6, 2011

CANON OF FILM: "TOMMY"

TOMMY (1975)

Director: Ken Russell
Screenplay: Ken Russell based on the album and rock opera by Pete Townshend



As an album, it ranks no higher than probably 3rd or 4th among The Who’s catalog, and it’s probably only their second best rock opera, after “Quadrophenia” but as a movie, I now realize that “Tommy,” is a masterpiece. Of course, the story is absurd, most operas have absurd stories, but it’s a fully realized story, and more importantly, a masterful use of filmmaking. The writer/director Ken Russell worked mostly in television with his feature film endeavors comprising of themes as varied as musician biopics to erotica, and his use of imagery and cutting is the reason people continually come back to “Tommy.” The album is good, but we can listen to the music anytime; Russell found a way to correctly use every filmmaking tool developed up until that point to effective use to create visual imagery which is designed to be accompanied by music. Sometimes describing the movie isn’t so much  the plot, the plot is thin begin with, but the constant colliding of images, not knowing what strange and wonderful scene is going to be onscreen next, that’s what the film is about. Kinda like Jodorowsky’s “El Topo,” but in the editing room. “Tommy” for all intensive purpose, plays just like a silent film, where, instead of the guy on the piano playing sheets notes, Townshend’s music works like the notecards that use to inform the audience details in the silent film that the film might not be unable to give justice to visually. Now, with a director who can correctly use color, set design, costume design, props, editing tricks, and especially special effects and numerous others filmmaking techniques to his overindulgent advantage, makes the movie a truly unique experience. Images like the Acid Queen’s (A MemorableTina Turner) contraption that Tommy (Roger Daltrey) enters and opens continually to reveal first his father who was shot down in WWII before his birth, living with the scar that Tommy now feel with his disabilities, than opens to reveal Tommy naked with the needles poking him and blood dripping down him, and a wreath of roses strategically placed on his head, and than opens one more time to reveal a skeleton that is covered with snakes. They’re outlandish images that mean nothing, but I could claim that on closer inspection, the film reveals all these and other apparently over-exaggerated details all foretell the destiny of the title character. I could but, what difference does it actually make, there's dozens of new scenes and images right on the horizon. After Tommy’s mother (Oscar-nominee Ann Margaret) has remarried a louse that runs at a getaway retreat, (Oliver Reed) Tommy witnesses his thought-dead father’s actual death, and the events make him death, dumb, and blind. Eventually, it’s found out that he has a gift for pinball which leads him to riches and fame that his parents appreciate, but his condition haunts his mother, leads her to suffer drunkenly and endlessly. In a memorable scene, she wears a white, sequined, fishnet dress and fur coat, and imagines herself  rolling her body around in laundry soap, than Rex’s baked beans, and than rich chocolate. (I repeat, she got nominated, and ironically, deservedly so.) After Tommy regains his senses, he becomes a beloved messiah idol, whose followers eventually turn on him cause of the endless greed and overexposure of Tommy. Again, recall the first time we see pinball-like objects in the film, being used to mechanisms inside factory-made bombs, made for use during the war. A movie is by definition, moving pictures edited in such a way to tell a story. "Tommy," strangely feels both like the best example of that I could ever give, yet sometimes the entire movie feels like an aberration of thoughts just smashed together. It might not be the obvious example, but it truly is brilliantly-made art. It might only be for art’s sake..., but all art is.
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