Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Films: THE WHITE BUS (1966); WONDERLAND (1999)

On the train in The White Bus; on the street in Wonderland.

These are two films about how to have a really unpleasant life in England, if you must, and how you might fix that. Neither is a first-rate work of art, but both are solid and have a certain drive as well as grace that carries the viewer along...the wit of the surreal Lindsay Anderson-directed short, based on fiction by Shelagh Delaney, the only completed bit of what was meant to be a three-short-film anthology (the other two films from other production units), and of Wonderland's quotidian, not quite Dogme accounting of several days in the lives of an unhappy family, certainly helps (the latter was written by Laurence Coriat, though partly improvised, and directed by Michael Winterbottom). That The White Bus is told from the POV of a young woman office worker (played by Patricia Healey, not to be confused with Patricia Healy), who takes off from her unrewarding and taxing job in London for a weekend in the North...where among the wonders she's exposed to are the new council housing apartment buildings, sitting forbodingly on a relatively barren landscape. In not altogether different dwellings a generation later, in London, three sisters (played by Canadian Molly Parker with a reasonable accent, and actual Brits Shirley Henderson and Gina McKee) attempt to make their ways in life. Parker's Molly is very gravid and with a life-partner (John Simm) who is trying to change up his career just as she's about to give birth; Henderson's Debbie is always up for some strings-free sex, even if it might make her sensitive 10yo son and others around her a bit uncomfortable (the boy's father turns out to be an utter lackwit), and McKee's Nadia is attempting to make some sort of meaningful connection, even if she has to delude herself into thinking a personals-ad operator is actually interested in her beyond a quick lay.

Helping make these films seem almost a natural pair is that Healey rather resembles Parker; if you crossed Parker with Sissy Spacek, and made her taller (perhaps a touch of Mary Woronov)...

The White Bus is, typically of Anderson, a film that is impossible to take with a single through-line, though it is possible to interpret it as Healey's unnamed character's passage through the afterlife (she clearly seems to fantasize, however frivolously, about hanging herself at her office, as she's the last office-worker out and the cleaning staff obliviously go about their duties as her legs dangle down from the top of the screen image). She is harangued on her passage from the office to the railway station by an uptight young man of the upper classes, who is desperately trying to get her to date him, since he won't hold her station against her nor should she his, don't you see. Political operatives of an unnamed party surround her in the train compartment, and the rail trip takes all night. She emerges in what might well be Liverpool or Manchester, also unnamed, but a fairly grim industrial city...nearly the first thing she sees is a woman not altogether unlike herself attempting rather ineffectually to escape what appear to be three male kidnappers, who manage to recapture her quickly after she escapes their car. Then the White Bus, devoted to a day tour for an ethnically diverse group, stops at her wave and she climbs aboard...to be shown any number of relatively dark and dreary industrial sites, and then the combination of a library and art gallery, where the Lord Mayor of the town mutters about the utter filth, disguised as literature, that he has been compelled to study at great length. Eventually, the tour disembarks to see a very graphic Civil Defense exercise, with victims actually aflame, during which all the other tourists in the stands with our protagonist turn into mannequins. She then goes to a claustrophobic fish and chip shop, where the staff is trying to close the joint around her, though a romantic couple also seeking service seem to brighten her day a bit.

There aren't too many bold new insights in the film, particularly as presented by (of all things) the digital broadcast network This TV, which ran it this past Sunday night as a primetime film, from 8-9pm ET (thus up against The Simpsons and much duller fare). This TV followed it with two episodes of the Stargate SG-1 tv series. Seeing this genuinely experimental short film in this context, even given the apparent minor edits for nudity and interruptions for commercials, certainly added to the surreality of the experience. But it's genuinely funny and engaging throughout, even if, for example, there's no obvious reason at first viewing for the transition, frequently, from black and white to color footage and back again...it doesn't (yet, at least) seem to indicate greater subjectivity or objectivity, passion or alienation, realism or fantasy to a given sequence.

Likewise, there are not too many Tolstoyan insights into the unhappy family (and families) in Wonderland (which shouldn't be confused with the historical crime drama of the same title from a few years later). The three sisters and their partners, long-term or passing or ex, don't learn too many profound things about themselves nor each other over the Guy Fawkes holiday, though their bitter, resentful mother does commit a covert act of selfish cruelty that seems to take herself aback, if only very briefly; their father, rather more passive-aggressive, finds himself flirted-with by a family friend, who in her turn has a miserable relation with her adult son, apparently not yet financially capable of moving out of their small apartment. Wrapped around and recurring throughout are the apparently rather idyllic sexual and related adventures of a young romantic couple...who turn out to have a key relation to the others in the film (hm, perhaps another parallel...). It's an easy film to take, but is told in a leisurely fashion, even if most of the threads interweave satisfactorily. This one was plucked off the bargain shelf at a big-box bookstore...I've paid far more for much worse films, on disc or in theaters (and I'm willing to give nearly anything Parker is in a shot, as she chooses interesting projects...even if her performance, and that of costar John C. McGinley, were the only worthwhile aspects of the television adaptation of Dean Koontz's Intensity).

Definitely worth a look, both, if you can catch them. Hey, MGM Channel Thailand will be running The White Bus on June 8! And it's available through Netflix streaming. Wonderland should be pretty easy to procure on disc and otherwise.


George said...

Another mind-boggling juxtaposition of films, Todd! Very interesting analysis.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks. Random chance juxtaposed these two, and who was I to resist?