Sunday 23 June 2013

Tropic of Cancer [1970]

TROPIC OF CANCER is an American sex comedy that was directed by Joseph Strick and originally released in February 1970.  It stars Rip Torn, James T. Callahan, David Baur and Phil Brown.  Based on Henry Miller's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the film depicts events - usually to do with his attempts to get laid or drunk - from Miller's life in Paris in the 1930s.  However, the film is not a recreation of that period; rather it is an attempt to capture the spirit and flavour of Miller's work, played out in modern Paris.

I must confess I haven't read any Henry Miller but I certainly wasn't expecting a film adaptation of perhaps his most famous work to be a zany sex comedy.  I expected the sex part of course as even I am aware of Miller's preoccupations but a comedy?  And not just any old comedy - more than anything the film reminded me of Woody Allens's early films; you might say that TROPIC OF CANCER resembles nothing so much 'Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Henry Miller... But Were Afraid to Ask'.  However, in the film's defence, Allen had directed only one film at the time so maybe he nicked his style from here.

Sometimes the Woody Allen parallels are overwhelming
Once I got over that initial shock I actually started to enjoy it.  There's no plot to speak of; instead we follow Miller (Rip Torn) around Paris in the wake of him being dumped by his wife Mona (Ellen Burstyn).  He circumvents the problem of having no money by prevailing upon his friends to feed and house him for one night a week each while, during the day, whiling away the hours drinking, screwing and generally having a great time.  Each fling gets its own short episode and so the film builds into a series of what are essentially sketches.  For instance, one sketch sees Henry take a job at a boys school in Dijon where, responsible for improving their English, he delights them by telling them about animals with enormous penises.  Another sketch sees him tasked with ensuring the son of an Indian diplomat gets laid.

Henry Miller teaches French boys some life lessons
Were it not for occasional passages from Miller's novel narrated by Torn I would have been hard pressed to tell this had anything to do with him at all.  Films about writers and writing are notoriously difficult to do well and director Strick makes the sensible decision to not even try but in so doing breaks the link between the film's subject and its source.  I can see why the idea of adapting the book appealed though: this was very much the permissive era in the US and a lot of films from that period took advantage of the opportunity to treat sex with more frankness than had hitherto been possible.  Miller had been ahead of his time in breaking this puritanical taboo with his writings so I suppose the time was ripe.

Yes that really is Sheila Steafel on the left, with her hand on Rip Torn's schlong
I wouldn't say the film is shocking exactly but it's certainly unusual to hear to c-bomb dropped so regularly in a film, especially one that's well over 40 years old.  Similarly there's more pubic hair on display than just about any mainstream film I can think of.  So it's explicit then but not liberated for the women are barely credited with any independent thought, being mere receptacles for Miller and his uncontrollable wang.  I'm intending to read the novel to satisfy myself that Miller was more enlightened than this film makes him appear; I can't believe his literary fame rests on such chauvinistic foundations.

A typically objectifying still, of Ellen Burstyn
You have to give credit to Joseph Strick for making the attempt at all; he clearly didn't mind tackling the impossible - he also directed an adaptation of ULYSSES [1967].  That his film works though is almost entirely due to Rip Torn, whose performance is so carefree, uninhibited and engaging that - as feckless and amoral as he is - it's impossible not to like him.

Rip Torn
Torn is a fine actor who, if the cookie had crumbled a different way, would have had the career that Jack Nicholson has had, having originally been cast in Nicholson's role in EASY RIDER [1969].  They are very similar in a lot of ways, Torn and Nicholson: both strongly linked to the independent and experimental strands of US movie making, both have an anarchic streak a mile wide and both have embraced the mainstream as they have got older.  Nicholson was lucky in that his defining roles came relatively early in his career, and in motion pictures; Torn had to wait a lot longer but eventually hit paydirt in the role of Artie, Garry Shandling's no nonsense producer in THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW, one of the great comedy shows of all time.

Even the credits remind me of Woody Allen's films

One or two points about the supporting cast.  Ellen Burstyn was a big star in the 70s and made some fine films but sadly you only seem to see her these days in documentaries about THE EXORCIST [1973], which is a terrible waste.  Henry Miller's friend Van Norden is played by Phil Brown - not the ex-Hull manager but the actor who played Uncle Owen in STAR WARS [1977].  Sheila Steafel was, and still is in fact, a familiar face on British TV so it was something of an eye opener to see her doing topless ballet in this film.  I shan't ever look at THE GHOSTS OF MOTLEY HALL in the same way.

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