Petulia | Warner Brothers | Richard Lester | 1968
Richard Lester, somewhere along the way, accidentally became a modest champion for auteurists. Garbed in quirk (so they say), he wriggled around in big studio productions with a little caustic visual wit and goofball savvy, and shazam! He’s an artist! And it’s perceptible in everything he made from The Knack to Superman III! Now, this isn’t particularly off-base, I guess. I love Lester! There’s just something about this narrative that sticks in my craw. I guess it’s the fact that auteurism feeds on the myth of artistic consistency and is generally reticent to admit to jagged oeuvres, scattered blips of hackwork and breakthrough unfit for linear graph.
I mean, look, Lester directed this movie called Petulia. You may have heard of it. It’s the natural auteurist reflex to insist that it seamlessly bridges How I Won the War to The Bed Sitting Room, or else is but a mere fragment of the ‘Lester mosaic,’ or whatever bullshit. Doctor, this reflex needs to be corrected, pronto! Petulia is a watershed, an anomaly, a masterpiece where no one could have expected it. I’m hardly interested in Lester as the director of this movie, even, because it’s so ineffable, immersive, flashbulb-imprinted in the ol’ noggin, that to talk in terms of its creation seems perverse, as if the wonders of nature required the existence of an intelligent designer to justify their adoration.
Petulia is the sixties in self-devouring paradox. Its strengths do not gather in one thematic or tonal direction, but drift to opposite polarities. What we have here is a lucid nightmare, misery draped in bright colors, the zeitgeist looking back on its own lagging present. Peripheral comedy commiserates with gut-sunken tragedy, and thanks to a bit of achronological editing – as emotionally intuitive as that method has ever been deployed – the film exists in a state of endless climax, from which there is, naturally, no release.
You walk into this movie, you walk out of it, black box-style. You’re not allowed to scrutinize it from a dispassionate distance, and god help me, you should be thrown in jail for appraising it in terms of its own dismal marketing campaign. On the (forthcoming!) ITBS commentary track, we assess it from inside the experience, and for more on the systemic violence of American culture, on the irreplicable hybridization of color-coded formalism with rack-focused, handheld, improvised volatility, on George C. Scott and Julie Christie and the infinite dimensions of their performances – I highly recommend giving it a listen, in sync with the film. But from my perch here at Rio Bravado, where I can merely refer you to the work in question, I find it utterly disrespectful to ‘analyze’ and thus objectify one of the least tangible films to come out of a Hollywood studio. So here this entry ends. Watch Petulia, mooks!!!!!