Friday, September 1, 2017

Neglected Gem #106: Bad Timing (1980)

Art Garfunkel and Harvey Keitel in Bad Timing (1980).

The feeble pun of its title is the least of several apparent strikes against Bad Timing, the once-controversial psychological thriller directed by Nicolas Roeg. (At one point it carried the subtitle A Sensual Obsession, which didn’t help.) Among its other off-putting elements are dialogue that often evokes bad New Yorker fiction; a soundtrack which, while wide-ranging (Pachelbel, Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, Keith Jarrett, The Who, Harry Partch), is intrusively, even obnoxiously, employed; and a star, Art Garfunkel, whose presence places a question mark at the center of the movie. But for all that, Bad Timing is gripping and lasting, a steel trap whose fingers close slowly but surely. Roeg’s choices, though they often jar against the unwritten rules of psychological thrillers, dramatic realism, or simply agreeable narrative, never feel confused or hedged. The movie knows what it is doing; you may take it, leave it, or, like me, come back every few years to look again.

Garfunkel’s Alex Linden is an American psychoanalyst in Vienna, where he teaches while doing sub rosa profiling work for the U.S. government. Theresa Russell plays Milena, a young American undergoing a protracted divorce from an older man (Denholm Elliott) who lives over the border in Slovakia. The characters begin an affair whose only logical spur is sexual attraction, since they are otherwise dangerously mismatched. He is a controlling prig with a sadistic streak, she a sexual and chemical compulsive with, apparently, borderline-personality disorder. The foreground action occurs over one long night, after Milena has overdosed on pills and Alex has called for an ambulance. Context comes through flashbacks to various stages of the relationship, with front-end tension provided by a detective (Harvey Keitel, subdued and impressive) who, working out some obsession of his own, reconstructs the sketchy, incriminating timeline of the suicide attempt and Alex’s intervention.

For a good while, neither Garfunkel nor Russell seems quite up to what the movie is asking. Following Mick Jagger in Performance (1970) and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Garfunkel is the third of Roeg’s pop-star leading men. But Garfunkel, while similarly passive, lacks the otherworldliness of Bowie in his late space-oddity phase; and unlike Jagger’s, Garfunkel’s presence is not at all sexual, let alone provocative. While his cerebral quality is just right for Alex, he lacks any animal vibration, and we must take it on faith that the highly sexual Milena is instantly drawn to him. Still, something intrigues about Garfunkel’s miscasting. Perhaps it’s a disinclination on Roeg’s part to do the easily defended, recognized, or approved thing: rather like the twisted angling of amorous bodies of the Klimt paintings that show beneath the credits, Garfunkel’s high forehead and heathery voice make the movie more estranging, less easy to process and put away as a conventional thriller. And his performance is actually not bad. He says “I daren’t” in a way that sounds halfway natural, and he’s braver than other, more plausible stars would likely have been, especially in the naked, unflinching climax, which got the movie an X rating in America. (In a terrible irony, Garfunkel’s then-girlfriend, Laurie Bird – she played The Girl in Monte Hellman’s 1971 Two-Lane Blacktop – committed suicide in his New York apartment while this film was being made.)

Theresa Russell and Art Garfunkel in Bad Timing (1980).

Theresa Russell is, in her way, just as offbeat an actor, though her casting never seems so problematic. Her oddness comes from a basic blankness of expression, a flatness of vocal quality. The aura, at first, is of a suburban teenager playing the vamp, the promise that of a woman who is less than meets the eye. Yet scene by scene the character comes together as an unstable woman whose emotional plea – basically, love me for what I am, not what you wish I were – is no less valid for her illness. Russell fills in her own blanks with sudden smiles at strange moments, animates the voice with ugly, taunting tones or giggly overemphasis. She is unafraid of looking clownish in the face-paint of a cartoon whore, or of forcing a bout of ugly, angry sex on a spiral staircase. Russell and Roeg married two years after Bad Timing – in all, they would make five films together (or five and a tenth, counting a segment of the 1987 opera film Aria) – and despite the exhibitionist rigors of the role, the director treats his actress with respect and compassion. A leitmotif involves cut-backs to a semi-conscious Milena gasping and convulsing as a medical team tries to save her life – a graphic physicalization of the character’s struggle throughout the story, which indeed has been, simply, to stay alive.

Roeg was an acclaimed cinematographer before becoming a director, and the unique visual style of his classic phase seems to have derived in no small part from Richard Lester’s masterpiece Petulia (1968), the last movie he shot before co-directing Performance with Donald Cammell. The style is based on associative montage, and quick zooms to background objects and peripheral business – connections withdrawn as quickly as they are made, effaced by the next shot, or otherwise thrown away. It’s often called “fragmented,” the Roeg style, but the fragmentation is only apparent, because the perception it records is terrifically unified, attentive, and keen, always picking up hidden warnings, clues amid the clutter of strange rooms. A great Roeg film has a sonar sense of direction – although we, as initiates into a new way of seeing and absorbing, will not know what it all means until we are meant to know. Bad Timing shares the good timing, the excitingly precise timing, of earlier films, as well as a resurfacing of ideas and atmospheres: we recognize not only the darkly prophetic time-jumps of Don’t Look Now (1973) but also the airless, hermetic interiors of Performance and, during a Moroccan passage, the alienating deserts of Walkabout (1971) and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Meaning is absorbed subliminally, as when a lovers’ quarrel in Morocco is intercut with the performance of a snake charmer: between Alex and Milena, who is the charmer, who the snake?

Bad Timing is easily put off, by those whose reflexes it might offend, as a puzzle, a game – as if there were something decadent, or inherently undramatic, about puzzles and games. Roeg intellectualizes the material frankly and unabashedly, putting Klimt under the credits, pointing out texts by Bowles and Pinter, and generally inserting enough psycho-symbolism to feed several dull dissertations. Yet watch how, in each case, the “game” plays out. Alex asks Milena to take the Lüscher color test, an analytical tool, dating from the thirties but trendy in the seventies, which was supposed to yield a personality assessment based on the subject’s preferential ranking of colored cards. Roeg lingers on Milena’s arrangement, and it seems a pointless indulgence for any viewer who doesn’t know how to interpret the cards. Yet it is plainly meaningful when Roeg focuses on one sentence in a blurb on the back of the Lüscher book: “It is NOT a parlour game, and most emphatically it is not a weapon to be used in a general contest of 'one-upmanship.'" No research or rationalizing is required to see this as a warning, or to relate it afterward to what has happened. Roeg has exhibited a tool that is important to Alex – for whom psychoanalysis is precisely a contest of one-upmanship – while allowing us to register that the emotional and narrative significance lies not in what the test says, but in how it is (mis)used. What Bad Timing does right is so right that even the seeming wrongnesses of it call for more examination, another approach, a different understanding – which is why I come back to it every few years to look again. The movie knows what it is doing.

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics At Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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