The Point (1971)

Everything has a point if you look closely enough. This was the revelation singer/songwriter Harry Nilsson discovered while tripping on acid and wandering into the woods near his home in early 1970. The trees had points, and their branches had points, and every shrub and bush and all the houses in the distance, too. Therefore, everything must have a point. The psychedelic breakthrough led straight to an album called The Point, and subsequently to an animated made-for-TV special – the first of its kind – also called The Point (1971). The album is usually filed away in the children’s section, and rock fans would consider his subsequent album, the classic Nilsson Schmilsson, more worthy of discussion. But the funny thing about making something for children: the children grow up and look back on it with nostalgia, and they expose their children to it, and on and on. In many ways, Beatles fan (and drinking pal) Nilsson had made his own Yellow Submarine, something which could please young and old and earworm its way into the consciousness of future generations. Granted, The Point is a bit more obscure, but if you talk to the right people, they love it. (Digression: on a music board I used to frequent many years ago, one of the contributors happened to mention she was one of Nilsson’s children. What followed was a flood of comments with love for Nilsson’s music, and The Point in particular.) I have recently had a son, and I plan on exposing him to The Point. In fact, I tried to with this viewing – but the three-month-old snoozed through the whole thing. Maybe when he can see a few feet past his head I’ll give him a second chance.

Part of the Gary Lund-illustrated comic inserted into copies of Nilsson’s “The Point” LP. The drawings were inspired by the then-still-in-production animated film by Fred Wolf.

The album, even if it is a storybook interrupted by songs, ranks among Nilsson’s best, and it was produced during what is considered his creative peak. His songwriting had matured while his voice retained the sweetness that contributed to the Grammy win for “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the Midnight Cowboy hit. The record’s cover features needlepoint artwork (get it?) and an LP-sized comic book that skips quickly through the plot. The songs are uniformly excellent, though only the first three seem to actually be about the story and characters. It doesn’t appear that all of them were originally intended for The Point: for example, the stream-of-consciousness standout “Think About Your Troubles,” which explains how your salty tears fit into the grand scheme of nature, had been kicking around Nilsson’s head since at least late 1969. But it’s much the case as it was with Sgt. Pepper: John Lennon once pointed out that the Beatles hadn’t really written a concept album, since so few of the tracks are about Sgt. Pepper, but “it works, because we said it works.” Similarly, The Point, as a record, works; the songs seem to fit into the story, even though a glance at the lyrics reveals more to do with Nilsson’s preoccupations with love, heartaches, and break-ups. The spacing of the storytelling and the songs is such that whenever Nilsson begins to sing and the piano kicks in, it’s a kind of sonic relief, like cool water rushing in; and further unity comes with the instrumental versions of the songs, arranged by George Tipton, that play during the narration. Nilsson reads his fable to the listener while doing all the voices. You can even hear him turn the pages of his script. He was always something of a one-man band; in many of his records, those backup singers you hear are just him. Likewise, the album has an intimate and personal touch. Such would remain the case with the animated film, even though in this case it would be a different one-man-band: Fred Wolf.

The evil Count (Lennie Weinrib) and the King (Paul Frees).

Nilsson conceived The Point as both an album and an animated film. He convinced ABC to buy the project only after cornering the network’s commissioning editor, Marty Starger, on a plane flight from LA to New York. The feature was slated in as an ABC Movie of the Week, to debut Christmas 1970. This date would later be pushed, as the realities of completing a full-length hand-drawn animation film began to settle in. Still, the right man was hired for the job. Nilsson had wanted Wolf to animate The Point from the start, having seen his Oscar-winning short film “The Box.” Wolf’s style is instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up in the 70’s or 80’s; for one, he created the famous “how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop” commercial. Wolf, inspired by how Nilsson was going to record the whole album on his own, decided that he would draw the entire film on his own. Such a remarkable feat is seldom attempted, though Bill Plympton would later make a career of it. What makes Wolf’s accomplishment extra special was the extraordinary time constraint. In Alyn Shipton’s Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, Wolf said, “It’s certainly not the best animation in the world, but this was my challenge. I better come through with a style that is going to be consistent for 74 minutes of animation, in other words, a total of 28,000 drawings which I did in 34 weeks. The hand can get numb just thinking of it. The fact that I was doing it all myself dictated a style, which I think is effective.” Indeed, there are only a few moments in the film where you can sense the animator’s exhaustion, namely a strange brief dance number between two creatures that look like the love children of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. But such bizarre moments only add to the trippy feeling of the film as a whole.

The Pointless Man (Paul Frees), who demonstrates that having too many points is as good as having no point at all.

The completed film finally appeared on February 2, 1971. For this initial airing, Midnight Cowboy co-star Dustin Hoffman played the narrator, who in the film is a father telling the story to his young son. Because his contract only extended to the single broadcast, in subsequent airings he would be replaced by Alan Barzman (a veteran of Wolf animation), Alan Thicke, and finally Ringo Starr. (When I saw this as a child, it was the one with Thicke.) Ubiquitous voiceover artist Paul Frees plays a host of characters. Mike Lookinland – Bobby from The Brady Bunch – is the protagonist, Oblio. And what a great name that is. Oblio has the rounded (“pointless”) letters o and b, but of course b does have a point, as does the l. In other words, even too-round Oblio has a point (or two), which is the point of the story. Oblio, in Nilsson’s tale, is born in a town where everybody has a point on top of their head; all the buildings have points too, and even the pets, like Oblio’s dog Arrow. To disguise Oblio’s freakishly round head, his mother gives him a pointed hat. But his roundness bothers the son of the evil Count – especially when Oblio beats him at a game of ring toss – so the Count urges the King to enforce the only rule which the kingdom has, the rule which states that everything must have a point. Oblio is exiled into the Pointless Forest with only Arrow as his companion, and there he encounters a number of strange characters and creatures before having his own revelation, like Nilsson’s, that everything does have a point, including Oblio.

Animation accompanying Nilsson’s “Are You Sleeping?”

Part of what makes the film so endearing is that it has the same gentle and witty qualities as the album, captured in the script and the characterizations, particularly those of Paul Frees. When Oblio is born, his father says, “Hi there, Oblio,” as though he’s greeting a friend at work. Similarly, Oblio’s banishment from the town is treated as something disappointing and sad but not catastrophic; the villagers are simply perplexed that a time has finally come to enforce a law they never thought would be enforced. Nonetheless, they’re encouraging to Oblio – giving him and his dog candy, and waving goodbye, as he heads off toward possible starvation and death. Well, it’s a children’s fairy tale; being exiled to the woods is pretty common. Most of the strange beings that Oblio and Arrow encounter in the forest feel random and thinly conceived, though the watercolor-speckled animation and Nilsson’s irresistible tunes compensate. By the end – that is, the “Destination Point” – any child will be able to tell you the point of the tale. And if they come away with an appreciation for the genius that was Harry Nilsson in his prime, all the better.

 

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Doctor Faustus (1967)

Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) is best known for his plays The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus and Edward II, and conspiracy theorists have long postulated that he faked his premature death (he was stabbed just above the eye during a brawl) and continued writing under the pseudonym of William Shakespeare. This, of course, is ridiculous, and there is a tremendous disparity between the starch-stiffness of Doctor Faustus, with its “over-solitary” protagonist who mostly speaks to phantoms and the walls, and, say, Macbeth, in which the Faustian bargain of its title character, in the form of learning of his own destiny by the three witches and then proceeding to make it happen at all costs, has more philosophical and narrative complexity, not to mention an impressive plot structure with a richer supporting cast. Which is to say, if this were a gymnastics competition, Marlowe’s Faustus would please the judges, but Shakespeare is performing at a great degree of difficulty and aiming for the perfect 10. Nonetheless, language-focused scholars continue to bring Marlowe into the Shakespeare conversation, to the extent that he was recently credited as co-author of the Henry VI plays by Oxford University Press. This is a more reasonable assertion, although it still feels like a parlor game that doesn’t trust history to know its own facts. But there is no doubting that Doctor Faustus is Marlowe’s alone. He wrote the play sometime in the late 16th century, and it was performed many times before being published posthumously in 1604 and then, with significant differences, in 1616. The story, of the brilliant scholar Dr. Faustus who signs his soul over to Lucifer for a chance to expand his knowledge and mastery of the world, was adapted from an anonymous chapbook published in 1587, Historia von D. Johann Fausten, itself the latest in a long line of tales of men striking deals with the Devil. Later it would be adapted into Goethe’s play Faust (1806-1831, though Goethe had begun working on it much earlier), and further significant incarnations of the tale would come in the form of classical music (Schubert, Schumann, and Liszt), opera (Charles Gounod), and, of course, cinema. The best film adaptation of the tale is F.W. Murnau’s 1926 masterpiece Faust, a pinnacle of German Expressionism and filled with fantastic images and black comedy. Forgotten among the many iterations is the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor Doctor Faustus (1967), though there may be good reasons why no one ever mentions it.

Richard Burton as Dr. Faustus.

Burton and Taylor had appeared in a stage production of Doctor Faustus the previous year for the Oxford Playhouse, benefiting the Oxford University Dramatic Society. Despite mixed to negative reviews, the star power involved led to this filmed record. Burton is credited as co-director with his former English professor, Nevill Coghill, making this a unique vanity project for the actor. He plays Faustus, and Taylor, who has no dialogue, is his muse, Helen of Troy. The same year, Burton also starred with Taylor in Zeffirelli’s adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew (1967) to better notices, and the couple had just made an indelible mark with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). However, the most famous couple in Hollywood history, the mega-stars of the mammoth Cleopatra (1963), were on the cusp of a rapid decline. The late, great Robert Osborne, in one of his last columns for TCM’s Now Playing (March 2017), wrote:

Much newspaper space was devoted to Elizabeth’s love of diamonds and Richard’s signing up for less and less sterling movie roles to allow him the ability to buy bigger and bigger jewels for his wife (including an elephantine 69.42 carat diamond he bought for her in 1969 at Cartier’s). His fellow actor and close friend Laurence Olivier, well aware that Burton and his career were both spiraling out of control, eventually sent Richard B. a one-line telegram that said, in essence, “Do you want to be remembered as a great actor or a household name?” Burton sent a one-word reply: “Both.”

But one thing is clear: Doctor Faustus was never intended to be a blockbuster; at least, it would have been naïve to ever think that such a literary production could enjoy popular success. He was respecting his theater roots and bringing his beloved Taylor along with him.

Elizabeth Taylor as Helen.

To the credit of directors Burton and Coghill, Doctor Faustus has a suitably occult Gothic feel, and it looks for all the world like a lost entry in the Roger Corman-directed Poe series. Colors are bright while retaining a trapped-in-Hell aesthetic. A skeleton hangs next to Faustus as he delivers his soliloquies in his cave-like study, and he decorates a skull on his desk with the black laurel he received from his university. As he is swept along on his long, strange trip, he encounters the 7 Deadly Sins hidden behind masks (Greed is suspended inside a small cage, counting coins), and at one point a number of monks disappear from their cloaks, leaving their hoods vacant, like an assortment of Grim Reapers. Mephistophilis [sic], played by Andreas Teuber and carried over from the stage production, looks like The Seventh Seal‘s Death, and has an impressively forlorn aspect, casually describing the nature of fallen angels and his master Lucifer (David McIntosh, also from the play). On two occasions Burton wanders into a starfield, like the walls falling away for “The Galaxy Song” in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) – though to a modern viewer it will be a reminder that a singing and dancing Eric Idle could only enliven this movie. Nude or semi-nude women are offered to Faustus for his pleasure, but invariably they turn into ugly hags. And as Faustus descends into Hell in the final scenes, the screaming damned are flogged all around him (though Coffin Joe has done this better).

Lobby card.

Every once in a while Taylor wanders in, accompanied by five notes which are supposed to sound ethereal, but are like fingernails on a chalkboard. She is filmed in soft focus and struts before Burton while he gapes in lust, then she disappears. By the second or third time this happens, the film changes from tragedy to comedy. “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?” Dr. Faustus famously asks, to which the natural response is, “No, that’s your wife, Elizabeth Taylor.” Her most impressive makeup – or, at least, her most memorable – is a thick coat of silver paint and a wig made of silver paper curls. In the finale, she becomes a Medusa to drag the good doctor to Hell. But her “glamorous” presentation foreshadows the perfume commercials that would become her prime acting opportunities in later decades. She is displayed like soft-focus divinity incarnate, but never given a single line of dialogue, all she can do is walk some invisible catwalk in her admirer’s library. It’s just one piece of the delusion that fuels Burton’s Doctor Faustus. Though Marlowe’s play is a classic, it contains no real narrative drive; what has endured is its intriguing central idea. Murnau, at least, found quite a bit for his Faust to do while conducting his dealings with Satan. Burton and Coghill alter and cut the play, but they don’t feel compelled to help with its story. For 93 minutes, Burton walks back and forth through the frame delivering his Marlowe passionately, and all that ever happens is Taylor, materializing and de-materializing in her various gowns. Perhaps I’m neglecting the epic battle scene which interrupts the Pride sequence – except this is all borrowed stock footage. A more liberal adaptation of the source would have been welcome, because despite all the 60’s Gothic piled mustily into the frame, to make this one-man-(and-his-woman)-show truly cinematic would require a great deal of visual razzmatazz, something more like F.W. Murnau’s silent film. Instead, it’s like spending an hour and a half locked in a cobwebbed cellar growing nauseous on vats of old perfume.

 

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