Boom! The shock of each moment of still being alive

I’m writing this to stand up for melodrama. It’s unpopular and it’s out of fashion, so I feel the inherent need to stand up for it. Melodrama is life times one hundred. It approaches the themes that run through all of our lives, love and loss, but it makes the lovers an ageing actress and a young poet, their home an art deco palace on some Sardinian hilltop and frames their first kiss with the strains of a sixty piece orchestra. It’s overdone, it’s sugary, it’s a dead romantic age briefly resurrected.

Boom is perhaps the ultimate melodrama and in the years since its release it has been characterised as an over-blown, expensive, excessive mess. Based on the Tennessee Williams play “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”, it has won a regular place on those interminable worst film lists that are trotted out every year or so and it has been dismissed as “camp” nonsense by many critics. It is however rather undeserving of the poisonous laurels it has received and is now, forty one years after its original release, being re-appraised as the film appears for the very first time on DVD.

Its rediscovery in itself is something of a miracle. Up until recently the film was thought lost to the ages, before a sole remaining  print was found to render the DVD’s from. Its reputation as one of the worst “flops” in film history is well founded. It stars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and the film marked their decent from box office gold, to if not box office poison, then box office fool’s gold as the very least.

Of course with Burton having crossed the great divide in the early 1980’s and with Taylor now ensconced in her Beverly Hills mansion, Norma Desmond made flesh, quietly Twittering her way into happy oblivion, Boom can be assessed as an artistic statement and not the new Cleopatra or the latest act in a real life soap opera.

The film is also re-released at the tail end of its director, Joseph Losey’s centenary year, a year in which the late film-maker has seen a great amount of critical praise heaped upon him. Losey was never tooled for big box office; he was for the film lover, lovers of serious cinema, sultry cinema, overtly sensuous cinema. If you trim away the deflated expectations and the legend of the Burton/Taylor myth, you are left with a film that rests at the higher end of the Losey cannon, leading on to the two pinnacles of his career, Accident and The Go Between.

It is a stylish, artistic piece that considers the solitude of dying, the fine line between criminality and compassion, the ebbing away of a life’s once bright light and the aged’s lust for youth. It is however presented in a slightly off-beat fashion and parts of it should be approached with tongue firmly in cheek. One also has to try and stifle the odd laugh now and again at the overly lyrical script, which contains such gems as “I have always found a woman fragrant, like a flower, regardless of what phase the moon is in.” Lines like that, which have the makings of something lovely, but have instead been forcibly held down and drowned in a bottle of cheap perfume.

The film opens as Christopher Flanders (Burton) arrives on Mrs Goforth’s (Taylor) very private island, a multi-millionaire heiress, who is dying of an unspecified illness and is in a desperate scramble to complete her memoirs. He’s a poet of course, dying heiresses tend to marry poets, it’s kind of fashionable. He climbs the faces of the jagged rock on which her house sits like a man possessed, screaming her name “Mrs Goforth!” You would think they knew each other, a jilted lover, a potential lover. He gallantly laughs of the “private property” signs and then faces down a pack of vicious dogs, who have a good attempt at trying to rip the poor fellow to shreds, set upon him inexplicably by a rather incongruous midget, who is for some rather bizarre reason Mrs Goforth’s head security man.

In a rather bad way, he limps onto the ladies terrace, still calling for her, now amending his calling card to “Mrs bloody Goforth”. I mean wouldn’t you? After dip in the sea, infested with Meducas (poisonous jellyfish we later discover) and a nasty encounter with some blood thirsty hounds, only to be ignored! “He acts as if he knows me,” Goforth shudders as she dictates her latest batch of memoirs to her surely secretary. She only allows him to stay because the island does not boast a “beware of dogs” sign and she really doesn’t fancy a trip down to civil court or the Italian equivalent.

Christopher Flanders, the poet, is a harmonious character, he is settled in himself and there is an element of calm to him, something otherworldly. He is juxtaposed against Goforth, who is doing her up-most at raging against the dying of the light. Mostly raging. Her temper flaring, as she battles against her disease, whilst in denial about its seriousness. In old-fashioned opera style, you can’t really tell she is ill, apart from the odd vicious hammed up coughing fit, we see a woman with the skin of a goddess, who  trolleys around in huge gowns and headgear that would make even Liberace blush.

And then when you thought things couldn’t get any stranger, Noël Coward arrives, the self-styled Witch of Capri. Delivered by boat and carried on the shoulders of a Goforth lackey, rather like a religious relic lifted through the streets during a Catholic festival. “The bitch would have me over at high tide,” he pronounces, as he is deposited in front of Mrs Goforth to depart his wisdom.

He knows her visitor of course, but knows our Christopher Flanders by another more worrying moniker “Del Angel de la Morte,” “The Angel of Death”, a title gifted to him by European royalty at some blue-blood party. Why? Because he has the wonderful penchant for arriving at a ladies bedside just as she is about to breathe her last. Expire. Kick the proverbial bucket. Hop the twig.

Coward’s performance is riotously over cooked in a film that I suppose is a little beneath “the master”. Non-the less he hams it up magnificently, in a role that was originally written for a woman and offered to Katharine Hepburn,  rolling his rrr’s and clinking the ice in his whiskey glass, as he trots around the terrace, purring at Goforth.

The fact that Flanders could be the signifier, the harbinger of her impending death, makes Mrs Goforth’s relationship with him particularly stand-offish to say the least (que some classic venom fuelled Burton/Taylor berating.) But behind that is a lust (or love depending on your opinion) for him. Is she comforted by the thought of having him around as she prepares to meet her maker? Or is she simply eyeing one final notch on the bed post?

No matter what your opinion of Elizabeth Taylor’s acting ability, it is impossible to deny that when Burton and Taylor are together on screen, there is some kind of chemical reaction. They are perfect together, more often than not when quarrelling. One of the best scenes of the film is when Flanders confronts Goforth over her want for solitude and her failure to preserve her friendships. “Your suffering from the worst of all afflictions” he says, “and I don’t mean one of the body. I mean the things people feel when they go from room to room for no reason and go back from room to room for no reason, then go out for no reason and come back for no reason.” Lack of purpose. Lack of love.

“Boom!” Burton goes on to espouse, in his wonderful bass baritone voice “Boom, the shock of each moment of still being alive.” The best line of the play and the phrase that Losey decided made a better name for the work than Tennessee Williams original “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore”. We often forget what a miracle our own existence is, the off-chance circumstances down through eons of years that have collided to ensure our existence at this very moment in time. Boom! Those are the moments when it dawns on us. When looking into the eyes of someone you know you love, conquering some feat you never thought you would, looking upon some object of natural beauty. One of those moments. Boom! When you think “wow, I’m actually here, this is happening to me, how utterly, utterly amazing.” Burton twins this with the crashing of the waves upon Goforth’s rocky outpost. Boom you see gets louder when the end is near, especially when you have made a lot of enemies and wasted a lot of time.

Of course Mrs Goforth shuffles of into that great F Scott Fitzgerald themed party in the sky, not before though an almost laughably over-cooked coughing scene on the terrace and not before she has tried and failed to bed Flanders, dubbing him the first man to turn down an invitation to see her no doubt awfully sumptuous linens. He does stand by her bed side though, well her death bed, removing her jewellery (interestingly) as he lets us in on his thinking. Helping people to die you see is his vocation, not something his career officer at school recommended, but a North American Indian (obviously), after he helped an elderly man on his way, off the Californian coast.

The final scene offers an attempt at resolution. Burton holds a ring he has taken from Goforth’s dead finger, over a goblet of wine, a recreation of religious symbolism, when during the Catholic communion service, a piece of bread is held aloft over a goblet of wine in an attempt to make the sacrament holy. He then throws the ring into the sea. Whether that represents the completion of Flanders compassionate mission, or the start of his pillaging of her home, before making a quick getaway, is up to the audience to decide.

Of course the question we are left with is who is Christopher Flanders? There is a fine line sometimes between compassion and criminality and it is up to the audience to decide which side of the line Chris falls upon. Is he the mysterious stranger? The otherworldly figure, who is simply there for a person when they need them most, to shuffle them peacefully into oblivion? Or is he there, at the wealthy dowager’s bedside for more conspicuous reasons. Christopher Flanders is of course more than this. Richard Burton was a little too old for the part in the film, for Tennessee Williams originally wanted Flanders to represent unreachable, unattainable youth, the thing that Goforth wants to re-live again both personally and sexually. On top of this Williams also imagined Mrs Goforth as a man, an aging queen, lusting after a youthful visitor.

Stylistically the film is quite beautiful. Based around the concept of Kabuki, Japanese dance drama, the film adopts many of its traditions, including elaborate costume and make-up. The word itself in fact, in Japanese means “out of the ordinary” or “bizarre”, both labels that fit this film perfectly. Another important strand to Kabuki is the notion of Jo-ha-kyu, the idea of timing art around a set time modulation, a slow beginning (jo), a gradual speeding up (ha) and a quick ending (kyu). The conclusion usually involving death or a tragic event, performed quickly.

The Joseph Losey fan will recognise many familiar Losey motifs in this film. He often cuts to the face of a statue, or the gothic features of a piece of art, after a particular set piece of dialogue; this is a technique he also uses effectively in The Servant and Accident. It gives the impression that the action of the film is being played out on some ancient tapestry. The camerawork is also often excellent. In one wonderful scene, the camera appears to drift through the house, drapes fluttering in the Mediterranean breeze, drifting over furniture crafted at sharp right angles, through a deserted house, the principle players gone.

So I’m standing up for Boom and I’m standing up for melodrama. The sumptuousness of it all, the sensuality, the over the top and the outrageous. Whether you see the deeper themes within the film, or just look its way simply to see something amazingly odd, it is alright for a moment, just to indulge.