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Bad Timing

Lineaments of Gratified Desire


“I wish you’d understand me less and love me more” says Theresa Russell’s character Milena in Bad Timing. This is a common enough complaint, no doubt, but surely exacerbated greatly by the nature of the man in Milena’s life: a psychoanalytic lecturer in Vienna, Alex (Art Garfunkel), more than fifteen years her senior. This is an age gap she isn’t unaware of, and it isn’t the first time she has been with an older man: indeed her estranged Czech husband in the film is much older still, played by Denholm Elliott, born in 1922, while Russell was born in 1957. When Alex chastises her for marrying a man so much older than her, she muses over their own age difference. Alex is looking throughout the film to make Milena ‘mine’, but she remains a slippery figure for love and analysis, and when one day she comes into his office, lies on his couch and asks if there is any hope of a cure, she offers it as a joke but the film is already in its form taking the question seriously. For we know at the beginning of Nicolas Roeg’s densely edited film that Milena is being rushed to hospital after taking an overdose: the film is a flashback examination of their relationship from the position, if not the perspective, of a woman who has attempted to take her own life partly because of the overly analytic influence of her possessive boyfriend.

It is as though Roeg wanted to make a film that would offer both the love and the understanding: the desire to capture the moment which reflects Milena’s giddy pleasure principle, and Alex’s need to comprehend what the relationship is. At one moment long into the affair (but halfway through the film) Alex and Milena are holidaying in Morocco and Alex asks her to marry him: that they will return to the States where they are both from. He offers it as a conservative gesture in both sentiment and geography: let us get married and go home. Milena rejects it on both counts. She tells him, “what about now, here right now, this minute, this second; look where we are?”, as she waves her hand and gestures towards the Marrakesh square down below as they sit on a hotel terrace. As Roeg cuts to snake charmers in the square, so Morocco serves as the exotically possible against the staidly comprehensible, and it wouldn’t take much Structuralist work to offer up a series of binaries: uptight man; spontaneous woman; the Occident versus the Orient, the rational versus the irrational and so on. But what makes Roeg’s film especially interesting is that any structural thematic is at odds with the film’s form: it wants to collapse any sense of binary opposition into a collagist associationism.

There are two terms that we can use to take us further into Bad Timing and, hopefully, rescue the film from ready binary assumptions that would lead us to dismiss the work as both simple-minded (in its structural oppositions) and muddle-headed (in its editing approach). One is ‘associational mania’, a term Frank O’Connor uses, in  The Mirror in the Roadway, towards James Joyce and the writer’s obsession with connections between things; the other, Noel Burch’s phrase in relation to editing that is unconventional yet far from random: ‘organised interaction”, taken from Theory of Film Practice. Roeg has often been a director interested in associational editing, in making connections that suggest what we might call thematic intensities: scenes juxtaposed to bring out a thought rather than to progress the narrative. There are the moments in The Man Who Fell to Earth where David Bowie’s character sits watching a Japanese sword fight juxtaposed with a couple making love; the scene where Jenny Agutter swims intercut with nature in Walkabout. However this ‘organised interaction’ seems to be taken further than usual in Bad Timing, where the associations include art, music, poetry, literature, psychoanalysis, politics and theatre, all interwoven as if to defy not only structuralist cliché but also narrative convention by refusing the lyrics of the song that concludes the film: Billie Holiday singing ‘The Same Old Story’. Roeg’s associational mania as the film constantly alludes to other art forms and art works, and the organised interaction of the editing, create a thematically intense work, a film that wants to create a dialectic of feeling which refuses identification of character for freedom of form. Yet this freedom of form is not at all arbitrary. It is held together chiefly by the bad timing of the couple who should never have met. This is the bad timing of a man who cannot love someone “more than his own dignity”, in the words of Milena’s husband, and of a woman who feels she gains nothing from constant interrogation and Alex’s coercive attempts to make her the woman he wishes her to be. As she says to Alex in one scene where we see her face caked in make-up, and on the verge of a breakdown: she has killed the Milena he doesn’t want and given birth to the Milena he does want.

How to find a form that correlates with such bad timing, with such a mismatched couple? “The official difference between the pertinent tricks of men and women (in our culture) is that women learn to cry in order to manipulate men, whereas men, in opposition, learn not to cry in order not to seem manipulable.” So says Stanley Cavell, writing mainly on film and philosophy in Cities of Words, looking at films from classic Hollywood, and the finally well-matched couple in anything from His Girl Friday, It Happened One Night, The Lady Eve, Adam’s Rib and The Philadelphia Story. These are films of ‘good timing’, of people who really ought to be together despite their petty differences, yet Cavell’s quote might curiously bring to mind a Blake poem that Alex reads out to Milena: “What is it men in women do require, but the lineament of gratified desire. What is it women do in men require, but the lineaments of gratified desire.” The film offers the poem up when Alex and Milena are physically entangled rather than mentally at odds, as the film finds visual correlatives for the Klimt paintings we see at the opening of the film. Here the desires are mutually gratified, but is there a sense that beyond the physical the couple cannot survive; that the differences in perspective, in age and in temperament are too great, and that while Milena might not want to manipulate Alex with tears, she might want to defy his sense of reason: to use her own impulsive powers against Alex’s controlled and rational ones?

If most romantic comedies and screwballs can fall under the rubric of good timing, it rests in their capacity to create a consistent moral feeling as Cavell addresses it: “The very conception of a divided self and a doubled world, providing a perspective of judgement upon the world as it is, measured against the world as it may be, tends to express disappointment with the world as it is, as the scene of human activity and prospects, and perhaps to lodge the demand or desire for a reform or transfiguration of the world.” In most romantic films the transfiguration takes place on a modest level: differences are put aside and compromise achieved. But the relationship in Bad Timing is so extremely disjunctive that nothing less than an equally disjunctive form is required. It is almost as if Roeg asked not so much what sort of form should the film take in relation to the content, but what sort of content is required for the necessity of form. Just as Roeg might have chosen Don’t Look Now for its premonitory story so that it could release a form including flashforwards, unsettling match cuts from one shot to the next, and a slippery use of the zoom that can unsettle screen space, so in Bad Timing it is as though Roeg wondered how messy would a relationship need to be to explore a certain use of form.

However, this isn’t at all to dismiss the film as meretricious; it is more that certain relationships cannot be explained by conventional chronology: that their emotional complexity demands a temporal density to excavate the problem. It is a variation on Tolstoy’s oft-quoted remark at the beginning of Anna Karenina: “All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” If the romantic comedy can so often take the same form, is it not because the characters themselves are without the emotional complexity requiring a different one? To paraphrase Tolstoy; they are all seeking happiness in the same manner so that disagreements are essentially superficial and often take place at the level of misunderstanding, mistiming, shyness, pride or mismatched partners in the way. Whether it is screwballs like It Happened One Night, where the characters assume they have nothing in common, or His Girl Friday where Hildy and Walter’s pride and the presence of Hildy’s new man might scupper their remarriage, or the failure to find the address hidden in a copy of a Garcia Marquez novel in Serendipity and the consequent partners who hinder the path to love, characterisation is basically simple rather than complex. The obstacles are external more than internal: practical more than psychological, despite the pride and neurosis often apparent.

But if good timing can offer conventional form, does bad timing require complex form, both associational mania in its many references, and organised interaction in its editing structure? This might be the same old story of a boy meeting a girl, but the characters aren’t any boy and girl. They are characters for whom love brings out their pathologies: her need for emotional and sexual freedom; his insistence on power and control. As Alex becomes more possessive so Milena becomes more slippery; as he demands truth, so she offers lies: telling him for example that she isn’t married when she is. When the relationship moves beyond the lineaments of gratified desire, the pathologies become pronounced. How to find a form to capture the pathological romance?

The three main modes lie in the editing, in the camera and in the film’s reflexivity. The editing is the most pronounced because it is also the most troublesome as the film refuses immediately to locate us in its dramatic world. Though at the beginning of the film we see Alex and Milena wandering round a museum looking at Klimt paintings, it isn’t until later in the film that they meet at a party as the film forces upon us a spatio-temporal guessing game with the characters’ relationship. As the film settles down into a chronology of events past and events present we can start to work out that the events in the past have a loosely coherent chronological structure, and the events in the present an investigation into that past. However, the occasional achronological moment and the introduction of characters that serve no narrative purpose add to the confusion. What are we to make of the scene in a bar where Milena kisses a stranger – or at least a character who we have not seen before and will not see again – and the scenes early in the film of Milena’s last night before getting rushed off to hospital in an ambulance? These could be seen as troublesome because the viewer looks for a stable pattern of meaning as quickly as possible, while Roeg wants to make that pattern as elusive as he can without completely denying narrative cohesion.

Photographed by Roeg’s frequent cinematographer Anthony Richmond, the film is as visually fluid as the editing (by Tony Lawson) is fragmentary, creating a double perceptual rupture: not only does the film throw us around in time, it also throws us into and out of space. Though the film is mainly set in Vienna, Roeg films it so that we have less a sense of the city than of its capacity to disintegrate the characters within a force greater than their own strength of personality. Whether it is London in Performance, the outback in Walkabout, Venice in Don’t Look Now, the States in The Man Who Fell to Earth, or the Caribbean in Eureka, Roeg allows places to reveal the crack in a personality: a variation perhaps of the Zolaesque crack that Gilles Deleuze writes so well about in The Logic of Sense. In Zola’s La Bete humaine, Deleuze notes that “the essential death instinct of the main character, the cerebral crack of Jacques Lantier, the train conductor…as a young man he has a clear premonition of the manner in which the death instinct is disguised beneath every appetite, the idea of death beneath every fixed idea…” Deleuze adds in relation to Lantier’s love for another man’s wife, “as he begins to love Severine, and to discover the realm of the instinct, death spreads out within him – for this love has come from death and must return to death.”

It is as though Roeg’s interest in what we might call the inner reality of milieu comes from a similar place to Zola’s fascination with the crack that opens up between people: spaces in Roeg’s films are transformatve rather than transfigurative: people aren’t healthily released from the limitations of their personalities but find the crack within them. Consequently, Roeg films cities with an eye for their very fluidity; their inability to be solid spaces for the characters who live within them. A couple of scenes that reflect this well is the moment where Alex and Milena are sitting outside a Viennese café and a scene where Milena turns up at the university after they have broken up. In the first, Roeg literally focuses on Alex and Milena to the detriment of the place and those around them as the foreground and background blur, with Richmond concentrating on the middle-distance that they occupy. In the second instance, Roeg and his cameraman go for an extremely shallow focus so that the figures behind the couple become a complete blur. Space, like time, cannot be taken as given, as the editing and the camerawork reveal transformative cracks, radical shifts of personality in a new environment. Whether it is Chaz finding his feminine side in Performance, John Baxter confronting his premonitory gift in Don’t Look Now, or Alex here finding in the city and in the company of Milena a control freakery that borders on the suiciding, Roeg wants to search out the cracks, as his fragmentary editing and slippery zoom forensically reveal the fractured self.

Can art put the self back together again, or at the very least create affirmation out of despair? Roeg has said in interviews that he wouldn’t like to make films without hope, but does much of the ‘hope’ evident in Bad Timing come from the proliferation of references that says art creation is an act of affirmation whatever the diegetic content? Whether it is the soundtrack with Tom Waits, Keith Jarrett, The Who, Billie Holiday and Pachelbel, or the images of Klimt, the poetry of Blake, the psychoanalysis of Freud and Jung, or even Milena surely a reference to Kafka and one of his great loves, the film tries to find a density of non-diegetic meaning out of the black hole that is the diegesis. When the reviewer on reckoned that the film “is all much ado about nothing”, nothing, and nothingness, might be the operative words taking into account a comment by the film’s composer. Looking at a rough cut of the film he said, Roeg reports in a Guardian interview with Jason Wood, “three years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to work on this movie because I kept seeing myself onscreen there, I was in that trap, in that hole.” It’s as if Roeg wanted to explore that crater as a black hole, filled with the dense matter of other art works that Bad Timing will itself disappear into: becoming another attempt at comprehending the lineaments of gratified desire.

After watching the film at a test screening a Rank executive famously said it was a film for sick people made by sick people, and in the Guardian Roeg says of Bad Timing, “I thought everybody would respond to [it]…I thought it must touch everyone, from university dons down.” Roeg, however, had an inkling it might not be so appealing: he quotes someone saying to him while he was making it: “they’re not going to eat this, Nic, because you’re scratching surfaces that people probably don’t want to have exposed.” As with most of his films he exposes what sits beneath the surface of things, what moves one in the direction of collapse and not into the direction of health. The bad timing of the title reflects a characterisational mismatch at its most fundamental, where someone used to analysing people’s behaviour meets someone who wants to escape the gaze of comprehension. Alex might insist he doesn’t use the word mad, refusing to simplify and categorise people, but he constantly reveals his own expectations of human behaviour in how he questions Milena. As he asks her who she happened to be with moments before they talk at the university, the focus becomes blurry, as though each character enters their own world of emotional chaos: Alex’s one of jealousy, Milena’s of being judged. How to reflect these two worlds of subjectivity that will create so much damage: that will not transfigure, in the optimistic manner so expressed by Cavell as he sees moral well-being coming out of the films he analyses, but generate moral despair? The writer Raymond Bellour once said that the Hollywood film was a machine for marriage. By that reckoning, the Roeg film could be a machine for break ups. When in the Guardian Roeg talks of the producer Eric Fellner’s films, and the prepackaging involved, we might also be aware that Fellner is the producer of numerous romantic comedies including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’ Diary. Maybe the couple that works require the mechanics of convention; the couple that is unhappy in their own way, the stylistic investigation offered by Roeg as he searches out what makes people singularly miserable. Yet it is that singularity which possesses its own perverse optimism – Roegian hope as artistic endeavour.


© Tony McKibbin