Monday, February 14, 2011

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970)

          Otto Preminger, a venerable Austrian filmmaker and actor who did significant work from the mid-’40s to the early ’60s, lost his creative way somewhere around the time he directed the disastrous farce Skidoo (1968), a tone-deaf riff on LSD. Continuing his inept exploration of youth-culture themes, Preminger next filmed Marjorie Kellogg’s novel Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, a heartfelt story about three damaged young people who form a surrogate family outside of the hospital where they met. In the hands of the ham-fisted aueteur known as “Otto the Ogre,” however, Kellogg’s intimate tale becomes clumsy melodrama in the worst possible taste. The main characters are presented as freaks only capable of relating to other freaks, except for occasional “normal” folks who pity them, and when Preminger cuts loose with a fantasy sequence in the middle of the picture that’s meant to illustrate a disturbed mental state, he reveals how antiquated his filmmaking style had become: Preminger’s idea of cutting-edge dream imagery is an over-choreographed, over-lit, overproduced production number.
           And it’s not as if the film starts well and goes awry, because the first 20 minutes are a traffic jam of bad and incongruous ideas. During the opening credits, Pete Seeger (!) appears on camera to wander through the Sequoia National Forest (!) and warble a melancholy folk song. Then we cut to a hospital that inexplicably treats every different kind of patient in the same ward, because lined up next to each other are burn victim Junie Moon (Liza Minnelli), paraplegic Warren (Robert Moore), and seizure-prone mental patient Arthur (Ken Howard). It’s Junie’s last day in the hospital, so the movie flashes back to her “origin story.”
          Some time back, even though she was a happenin’ young chick who knew her own mind, Junie went on a date with an uptight dude named Jesse (Ben Piazza), then ignored the obvious warning signs when he refused to dance at a nightclub and instead took her to a cemetery, where he asked her to strip while he spewed obscenities at her. (Preminger prudishly blots out the obscenities with dissonant jazz solos on the soundtrack, and this goes on forever.) Then, because Junie still hasn’t figured out that Jesse is a nutter, she lets him take her to a junkyard where he knocks her to the ground. In Preminger’s finest moment of atrocious direction, Junie writhes on the ground for several moments while Jesse methodically seeks out and cracks open a car battery, from which he leaks acid all over Junie’s face and arm.
          The film never gets any more rational than that fusillade of horrible scenes, even as it settles into trite soap-opera dynamics once the three misfits start living together. Junie’s the assertive loudmouth tortured by how people react when they see her burns; Warren’s the clichéd mincing homosexual whose portrayal constitutes a hate crime; and Arthur’s the gentle giant who reacts to everything like an oversensitive child. As these unbelievable characters, Minnelli, Howard, and Moore give ferociously awful performances. James Coco, exercising a bit more restraint than the leads, enters the mix as a fishmonger who befriends the trio, and smooth cat Fred Williamson shows up as a resort-town stud who gets Warren’s queeny heart racing. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is about as wrong as wrong gets, right down to the implication that the homosexuality can and should be cured by heterosexual nookie.

Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon: FREAKY

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