Sunday, August 20, 2017

Under Milk Wood (1972)

          Forgive a digression. Over the course of many years spent writing film criticism, I’ve held a number of different attitudes toward rating systems. Generally, I find them reductive and unhelpful except in aggregate, which is to say that only by combining multiple perspectives can one find useful short-take analysis. Then again, to say that the Metacritic/Rotten Tomatoes paradigm has shortcomings is to grossly understate things. So when it came time to apply a rubric to ’70s movies for this project, I was hesitant but ultimately decided some framework would be enjoyable for readers. If nothing else, looking at a spectrum of things I find disappointing or exemplary helps loyal readers compare their attitudes to my own, which in turn allows them to contextualize my appraisals of particular films. Yet any ratings system has special quirks, and mine is no exception. Take the “Funky” rating. In the broadest sense, this rating is given to a mediocre picture with more good elements than bad, hence the explanatory phrase accompanying the “Funky” rating: “You might dig it.”
          Under Milk Wood, a peculiar British film adapted from a 1950s radio play by Dylan Thomas, is a different kind of “Funky.” This time, it’s not so much that I found some things to enjoy—rather, it’s that I found some things to appreciate. For most of Under Milk Wood’s running time, I had no idea what was going on, couldn't figure out what X event had to do with Y event, and sometimes failed to penetrate the thick accents of the speakers. (Much of the piece comprises voiceover in tandem with evocative images, and all the participants employ or replicate Welsh accents.) Quite frequently, when I encounter a picture this befuddling, I label it “Freaky” because I believe others will find it just as bizarre. Not so here. Yes, casual viewers of Under Milk Wood are likely to have a reaction similar to mine—but attentive viewers, and certainly those conversant in British culture and Thomas’ literary oeuvre, will simply find the movie idiosyncratic. Flawed, perhaps, but more poetic than weird. Thus it would seem a disservice to label this film “Freaky,” as there’s nothing plainly disturbing or transgressive here, even though some scenes are kinky and provocative.
          If all of this seems like a laborious effort to avoid discussing the particulars of Under Milk Wood, fair enough. I could parrot interpretations that I gleaned from research, but the movie left me so cold I can’t offer much in the way of original insight. Presented in a dreamlike style, the story features disassociated vignettes of life in a Welsh fishing village. Themes of class and sex and madness and religion are explored. Famous actors including Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, and Elizabeth Taylor appear, some for more screen time than others. There’s a fair bit of nudity, and even a threesome in a barn. In one scene, images of a man pumping his lover’s legs back and forth are intercut with images of the same man pumping draft-beer levers in a pub until fluid spews forth. Perhaps these images, and the accompanying lyrical voiceover, mean something. Perhaps they don’t. Similarly, maybe Under Milk Wood is pretentious nonsense. And maybe it isn’t. But, quite frankly, I can’t be bothered to think about the movie a moment longer. Depending on your tastes, please consider yourselves sufficiently intrigued—or warned.

Under Milk Wood: FUNKY


Jocko said...

As a long time reader of your blog, I believe that I will find this movie to be 'square,' or 'lame.'

Your reviews do remind me of Roger Ebert's, because I can pretty much tell if I will like a movie or not after reading the review.

By Peter Hanson said...

The allusion to Ebert is a high compliment. Thanks.

Jamal said...

Okay, 'nuff with that! Is Liz nude?

Unknown said...

Not if I recall correctly. Ruth Madoc and another bird are seen topless. It came as a shock to me because I knew Ms Madoc only from the sitcom 'Hi-de-Hi!' which, occasional double entendre aside, was basically family friendly.

Saw the film a few years ago at a place up the road and the director was there for a Q&A. For the life of me I can't remember if he said Ms Taylor was a great actress but really ugly without make-up or - and this is more likely, I suppose - a stunner who couldn't act.

As for the review: spot on, as usual. My dad's Welsh, and I've lived here for thirty years, and I found some of it difficult to 'get'. But then, I've never really looked into Thomas' work. Glad I've seen it, though.