Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Life & Death of Peter Sellers, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Zeroes

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Life & Death of Peter Sellers, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Zeroes


(This is a revised version of the review which recently appeared on Ibetolis' Film for the Soul, as a part of his fantastic Counting Down the Zeroes series. I strongly urge you to check out this venture; Ibetolis, a.k.a. Ric, has invited the best and brightest of the blogosphere to write up interesting films from every year of the 00's and right now the battery of bloggers is approaching mid-decade. So there's still plenty of time for you, dear reader, to join the fun. The review follows the jump. Many screen-caps are featured, so are (beware!) spoilers, including the very unexpected death of the title character.)






A man stands alone in the lightly falling snow, his eyes wide open, his body immobile. Inside a Swiss chateau, another man looks out the window and sees his friend half-hidden in the flurry. The man in the chateau walks outside, speechless, astonished; he circles the man in the snow, who is frozen as an ice sculpture. (The still man does betrays his humanity, and complicity with us in the audience, for one brief moment: he shifts his eyes side to side while the circling man is behind him). Finally the circling man (who is dressed in designer ski gear replete with dark shades, the apparel of a rich tourist) just shakes his head in disbelief. The man in the snow – clad in a drab overcoat and fedora – still has not moved an inch nor openly acknowledged the other man’s presence. The well-dressed man then does the only thing which comes to mind. He kisses the snow man on the forehead and returns to the chateau.

The tourist is Hollywood director Blake Edwards (John Lithgow). The man in the snow is Peter Sellers (Geoffrey Rush). This is the closest the film comes to showing us the death which its title promises; as Edwards returns to the chateau the camera ascends to the heavens, leaving Sellers stationary in the snow. To softly poignant music, a tasteful text scrolls over the image. We are informed of Sellers's subsequent heart attack, and discover that he left a fortune to his fourth wife (whom he was imminently to divorce and disinherit) but that the only affect in the deceased's wallet was a photo of his first wife. Fade to black, roll credits. Yet as soon as the cast list has rolled into view, the camera pulls back and the image flattens, as if observed on a monitor.


Indeed, it is on a monitor, watched by a man sitting in a canvas-backed chair, his name emblazoned across its back. The name, the man? “Peter Sellers,” both. Sellers is not wearing that blankly enigmatic trenchcoat and fedora, clad rather in a snazzy suit, his trademark black frames capping an utterly self-satisfied visage. Sellers turns towards the camera, shakes his head, pauses for a moment, and, smiling, shrugs. The movie was good, he enjoyed it, not much more to say. Sellers rises and walks off as the soundtrack blasts the Kinks’ “Well Respected Man." In mere moments, with a few deft maneuvers, the tone has become arch, comical, playful. Sellers strolls smugly across a movie set, exits onto the street outside and yanks open his trailer door. As he starts to ascend the steps, his movement is arrested by a sudden start; seeing “us” behind him, he holds up his hand and shakes his head again. “Can’t come in here,” he informs us benevolently, but condescendingly. Then he shuts the door in our face, and there’s that name again, etched onto the trailer door. Roll credits, for real this time.

This ending tells us everything we need to know about the movie, perhaps especially that we should not take it, nor its "deep" revelations about Sellers' personality, too seriously. Life & Death mixes the satirical, the sincere (though we can never be sure how sincere), and the sociopathic. Thus it certainly reflects its subject, the notoriously prickly yet brilliant British comedian who was known to swing with astonishing ease between belligerent tirades, goofy pratfalls, and inscrutable eccentricity. I can’t speak for the veracity of all the screenplay's anecdotes, but the film works on multiple levels, the biographical being but one.


Indeed, the movie is best taken as a subversive artifact of the Zeroes. This was a decade of highly developed surfaces and advanced self-consciousness, all while suspicions lingered about there being any “there” there. The subversions of Life & Death of Peter Sellers operate on three primary levels. First and foremost, the hard-to-read protagonist makes hash of biopic conventions and expectations of sympathy (is he selfish, mentally ill, is it all an act, is he suffering inside, or is he just spoiled rotten?). Yet despite Sellers' sociopathic tendencies, his brash, carefree narcissism can be refreshing at times. Isn't this what we secretly look for in our movie heroes, even while demanding their moral comeuppance (which , by the way, Sellers receives, many times over)? The screenplay can't rationalize his erratic behavior with the usual biographical contrivances, though occasionally it tries. A bit too much Freudian credence is extended towards the overbearing presence of Mum (Miriam Margolyes). Sellers formally calls Mummy Dearest “Peg” throughout, even as they're cuddling in bed - after his first wife leaves him, natch. (Though the Bizarro Oedipal theory - Sellers seems not only to want to sleep with his mother, but kill her as well, and she him - is maybe too conveniently explanatory, it does help matters that Peg is herself a humorously nasty piece of work. While her son is suffering a massive heart attack, she solemnly watches the television coverage. Then she abruptly changes to another station, also covering the news, and proclaims with a satisfied smirk, “Both channels.”)

Secondly, in a more obvious yet also more ambitious subversion, the film twists and bends conventional storytelling, especially entrenched in the hidebound biopic genre. Chronology remains intact, but the film repeatedly careens off into sideshow or spectacle. Not right away (aside from the surreal opening): the first phase of Sellers’ career, from lovable Goon Show loon to British Academy Award-winning actor, is presented in standard-issue clichés. A snippet of his radio act (not particularly funny when presented in handheld, rapidly cut glimpses), followed by a bit of background (changing diapers in a London flat) and motivation (Peg encourages Peter to bite the hands that feed him; "They'll admire the sharpness of your teeth!"). Failure is quickly overcome with ingenious success (turned down for an audition, a geriatrically-disguised Sellers returns to get the part), and of course there's montage to quickly inform us of all we’re missing (Sellers plays a ukulele over not-very-convincing black-and-white “home movie” footage). So far, so familiar.


Then, watching Sellers’ award reception on his parents' dingy little television, we get a surprise. The henpecked and silent senior Sellers (later interpreted as an inspiration for Being There's Chance the Gardener), turns to the camera and begins to address the viewer. And the actor playing Peter's old man is no longer Peter Vaughan, but Geoffrey Rush himself, or rather Peter putting himself into the “old man’s shoes.” What Peter-as-Dad tells us is not so important – banal bromides about how Peg spoiled the boy, how he always had to have the last cookie “even if it was on someone else’s plate” (this instigates the beginning of the Sophia Loren plotline, in which Sellers mistakenly decides the Italian sexpot wants to sleep with him, breaking up his marriage in ill-starred anticipation). The essential facts here are that the geezer is Peter Sellers in makeup, that he is talking directly to the camera, and that he walks out of his cozy little room onto a movie set where crewmembers bustle about. In other words, it’s the Brechtian gesture of the thing which matters most.

The device will be resumed throughout the film, often when least expected. Sellers will show up as his own wife (normally played by Emily Watson, who does bemused wonders with a potentially thankless role), asking to re-record Mrs. Sellers' “dialogue.” In an ADR studio, he/she then dubs a romantic rapprochement over the fed-up breakup that just unfolded in actuality. Later, in drag again as Mum, the ambiguous Sellers gets up off the hospital bed to walk across several sets before entering a funeral home. Celebrating her son’s insensitivity (“My boy’s a star” is how she excuses his refusal to come to her deathbed), Peter-as-Peg concludes the monologue by climbing into a coffin, whence we return to “reality” as a devastated Peter kisses the cold corpse’s lips. DVD commentary informs us that these monologues were intended to show Sellers’ often self-serving conception of how other saw and perhaps justified the star's actions. Yet they also display Sellers' immense narcissism, implying that he sees other people in his life merely as different versions of himself. Indeed, the opening credits, to the tune of Tom Jones’ “What’s New, Pussycat?” display a bevy of animated Peters – some old, some young, some male, some female (some even animal), all with the subtly hooked nose and thick black glasses. Even before that, in a bookending device which will be echoed in the aforementioned conclusion, Peter Sellers enters a dark soundstage, bows before offscreen (imaginary?) applause and flips on the monitor, on which the rest of the film unfolds.


Alongside this second subversion's writerly touches, a visual elan helps goose the moribund biopic tropes out of their doldrums. Life & Death is full of winking, fleet-footed gestures: after the fairly conventional “early years” (appropriate for the early Sellers’ self-effacing normality, not to mention pre-Swingin' Britain's postwar blues), the comedian’s life is shown as a Felliniesque carnival, full of fantasies, movie tributes, and virtual non sequitur effects, such as when our hero visits a car dealership and the various vehicles transform into purring sex kittens. Sellers spots future wife (played by a charming if goofy-accented Charlize Theron) Britt Eklund’s name in a newspaper and the letters “B” and “E” pop out in animated throbs (payoff to a gag involving Sellers' greedy psychic, played with corrupt impeccability by Stephen Fry.) When Sellers and Eklund cavort on their first romantic excursion, they skip through ridiculously soft-focus meadows in over-the-top slo-mo and fast-motion, all skillfully executed with sharp editing and expert music selection. The late sixties is presented as a cartoonish haze of pot smoke, animated butterflies, yellow subma...er, spacecrafts, and even a garishly made-up Peg-cum-human light show, doused in psychedelic front-projection. Later, when Sellers becomes frustrated with his self-serving and drug-indulging lifestyle, he embraces and embodies the Zen blankness of Chance the Gardener from Being There. Yet even this new-found austerity is just a gimmick. Life & Death's loyalty is to style first and foremost; traditional notions of suspended belief are thrown out the window. Thus freed, the movie projects a funhouse of film pastiches (The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Being There itself), trendy devices, hip music montages, and clever trickery.

In other words, the film moves; the editing is deft, the transitions clever if a bit trite, and effective flourishes dress up set piece after set piece. If it all seems vaguely glib, well, that’s largely the point - and not only as an echo Sellers' own short-sighted self-centeredness. For the movie’s third, probably unintentional, and yet most intriguing, subversion is that the narcissistic, shallow, skilled, and self-indulgent hero not only suits the style of the film, but also the dominant aesthetic of our very own decade. No other epoch has been as stylistically sophisticated as the Zeroes on all levels, moving light years beyond the cheesy 80s and drab 90s. Movies, television, and advertisements shook off all traces of the functional and fused self-consciousness, playfulness, and technological sophistication, bringing design into the twenty-first century with a vengeance. The Life & Death of Peter Sellers represents all these trends: not only did it appear on HBO (the “happening” place to be turn-of-the-millennium), not only does it hearken back to the 60s (whose Pop consciousness, shaggy hair, and mid-decade musical and fashion tastes made a comeback in the 00s), but it is also saturated in the style-first, breezy fluidity that characterized Zeroes media. Thus we have a perfect match between subject, form, and zeitgeist.


True, seen from today’s vantage point, some dust has settled on the film's sheen. The CGI is overdone, rendering many backgrounds quite cheesy. The bright lighting is too bright, lending the film’s look an unrefined pallor. Furthermore, as television commercials, TV shows, and films have followed suit, completely consuming the video-age magic tricks - still nominally cutting-edge in Life & Death - the movie’s style is no longer as impressive as it appeared to be four or five years ago. A pity, since the movie's subversive power lies in part on its very fluidity and assurance. Still, none of this has eradicated the film’s unabashed chutzpah, its primary triumph a foregrounding of narcissism and shallowness. Latter-day pop culture has outstripped Life & Death’s surface dazzle, without confronting the unacknowledged unease of uber-sophisticated media aesthetics. The facility of the technical mastery, married to a desire for fantasy and devotion to lifestyles and fashions of the urban rich, has bred a smug vapidity and soullessness in the cultural trendsetters. How hard it is to recognize the vast possibilities of art and, yes, entertainment, as the surface sheen hardens into a lacquer.

Less cryptically, then, it seems all ships are sailing towards the idea of how things are presented, rather than what is presented - both are important, but the scales have been tipped too far in one direction. [On the blog Little Worlds, we have been discussing these trends in relation to Julie & Julia with, I’m afraid, a bit more precision. Let me quote myself to get the point across: “I don't have a problem with escapist fantasies - just wish they could be told with a more realistic texture, instead of this flat ad-aesthetic look (fast cuts, close lens, surface-flashy but bottom-line-generic set design). But of course that would probably subvert the escapist element too much. Still, someone like Spielberg used to be able to situate fantasies in a real world setting - think of all the throwaway domestic details and humorous conversations in E.T. and Close Encounters. I think it could still be done, if mainstream filmmaking wasn't so intellectually lazy (and it's also tiresome how all adults are shown to have the emotional and intellectual maturity of high school students, but that's another point).”]


The admittedly cynical victory of The Life & Death of Peter Sellers is the recognition of its own dead soul. Indeed, the film takes this spiritual death as its subject, and does not let itself off the hook. One of the most noticeable “indie” trends of the decade (simultaneous with “indie” ceasing to mean actually “independent,” but rather a collection of pre-packaged quirky signifiers) is a move towards earnestness. The dominant tone of the decade has been arch irony, but there's generally a guilty undertone to the irony, as if the ghosts of 9/11 and Iraq were peering out of the rubble to challenge our superficiality. Yet the over-compensating New Sincerity (to borrow one of Erich Kuersten’s favorite terms) so often rings false, coupled as it is with a florid stylistic preciousness. Wes Anderson could pull this off (at least when Owen Wilson was his co-writer) but the legion of pretenders to his sensibility have failed. Occasionally Life & Death too seems to be hitting this false note, with crocodile tears for the used and abused in Seller's entourage, but these are usually its weakest moments. The film is strongest when it allows Sellers’ narcissism to seize control of the film. Then the viewer becomes complicit in the sociopathic negation of all that interrupts Sellers' shallow and dissatisfying pursuit of the good life.

When Sellers closes the door on us in the finale, to the tune of the jaunty Kinks, he’s subverting not only the movie’s previous, and seemingly sincere, poignant conclusion (a welcome subversion, despite the Swiss finale’s admitted effectiveness). Nor is he merely shattering the film’s final attempt at narrative believability. He is also effacing the very conceit of the biographical film: that a human being can be unveiled for us onscreen (the best biopic ever, unsurprisingly a work of fiction, both humors and shatters this convention with its elusive “Rosebud”). And with this gesture, Sellers and the filmmakers also, quite subtly, bellow out one last, warped clarion call for humanism. So there is an offscreen, and all the glib fireworks and magic tricks have not been the substance, but rather the articles of concealment. “Can’t come in here,” Sellers tells us before closing the door.

At least he’s honest about it.

1 comment:

Erich Kuersten said...

Hey nice post! I made the mistake of reading 'Mr. Strangelove' after i got for a birthday present, and it made me hate Sellers for a long time... he really screwed his children over worse or as bad as Joan Crawford. Still, at least we have Clare Q and Dr. S, but damn - and death to the New sincerity!!