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Tuesday, June 11, 2002

My Favorite Film of All Time

By Kevin John

What's my favorite film of all time? Thanks for asking. It's "Some Call It Loving," written and directed by James B. Harris (1973).

Like "Last Tango in Paris" from the year before, this sad, precious little film presents a bill to the free lovers of the '60s counterculture. Robert Troy (Zalman King), a jazz musician, enjoys a boundary-less romance with two accommodating women, Scarlet (Carol White) and Angelica (Veronica Anderson). The three are engaged in elaborate erotic role-playing that functions on one level as a parody of bourgeois respectability: fancy dinners with French maids, austere religious ceremonies, lessons on proper etiquette, tea on the terrace, cricket on the lawn.

When visiting a carnival, Robert finds a Sleeping Beauty, Jennifer (Tisa Farrow), who has been kept asleep with a drug for eight years. He buys her and wakes her up back at their ocean-side mansion. But she becomes so enchanted with all the play that she makes no distinction between the real and the unreal. This makes Robert realize how deeply he's immersed himself in fantasy; he fears he'll never be able to pull himself out of it.

A scenario such as this, exploring the divide between erotic fantasy and everyday reality, begs for categorization — or something worse, like an ultimate punishment for the participants' perversions. Loaded with bewildering ellipses, stalled moments and shifting identities, however, "Some Call It Loving" presents its fantasies tout court. Take the scene when Jennifer first wakes up. At precisely the point where we crave the most information (How did Jennifer wind up at the carnival? How will she react to the role-playing?), Harris cuts to Scarlet and Angelica tap-dancing in nun habits with Robert and Jennifer enjoying the show. The shock of the cut preserves the urgency of the fantasy and never bothers with explaining or ridiculing it away. In short, Harris radiates a bottomless respect for his characters, which is rare enough. "I mean, what do you call what these people are doing?" a lesser filmmaker might ask. Well, some call it loving, plain and simple.

But then there's Robert's friend Jeff, played by Richard Pryor. Leonard Maltin's annual "Movie & Video Guide," which rated "Some Call It Loving" BOMB, sniffs "Pryor's vulgar turn as a pathetic graffiti artist/wino clashes with the rest of the picture." It clashes because the film has an analytical fervor that resides primarily in his scenes. One of the reasons Robert (or anyone) frets over a fantasy/reality divide is because they have the time and money to do so. It's difficult for Jeff to turn on the erotic when he's pissing in his pants or not pissing at all, as Robert puts it.

What I find so endearing about this film is the nerdish way it oscillates between these different cognitive modes like some impossible marriage of Leo McCarey and Godard. And no doubt this is precisely why so many people cannot stand it. This isn't a self-consciously bad movie like those pitiful Troma productions. This is a "bad movie" because it seems ordered by deeply personal kinks; nothing "fits." But as Theodor Adorno writes in "Transparencies on Film": "Works which have not completely mastered their technique, conveying as a result something consolingly uncontrolled and accidental, have a liberating quality."

"Some Call It Loving" is one of those works. It's a masterpiece that chips away at the very notion of mastery, and thus welcomes in a dorky gay guy like me. But even more than that, its intense self-criticism reminds me of the socioeconomic underpinnings of any kind of privilege — including even having favorite films in the first place.


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