It's February, time for Sweeps Month, when TV networks pull
out all the stops to get high ratings for their programming.
Me? I just take it as a signal to spend a month visiting the
'R' rated films of my drive-in youth. If you don't buy that
reasoning, you can cynically consider it my reaction to Valentine's
Day. In any case, THIS REVIEW CONCERNS VERY NAUGHTY
THINGS AND IS RECOMMENDED ONLY FOR MATURE READERS.
Now that I have your attention....
plowed through some muck this month, with the less-than-stellar Girls
Are For Loving and the less-than-likable Love
Camp 7, let us all now imagine the Great Saint of Smugness,
John Cleese, intoning "And now for something completely different."
Let us peruse Art. No, that is more appropriately Aht with
a capital Ah.
is one of those movies where, as you sit watching it, you contemplate
the fact that somebody thought this was a good idea. Somebody
green-lighted this picture. Somebody is probably reduced to
saying, "Hi, welcome to WalMart" for a living, because somebody
decided to let Anthony Newley, still riding high off the success of
Stop the World: I Want to Get Off, produce, write, direct and
star in this strange, purposefully muddled film; whether it is semi-biographical
or simply bitter-tinged wish fulfillment on the late Mr. Newley's
part is a decision better left to someone with more complete knowledge
of the man's life
- in short, someone who gives a fig.
begin at the seashore, where Heironymus Merkin (Newley) sits contemplating
a pile of memorabilia, books, posters and general clutter that represents
his life, all being prepared for shipment to the "Yetta Lipschitz
Academy of Performing Arts". Also in attendance are Merkin's
mother (Patricia Hayes) and his two daughters, Thumbelina and Thaxted
(played by Newley's own children). He explains to them that he has
recently turned 40, and as his insurance company's actuarial tables
inform him that he has a mere 25.3 years left, he wishes to make sure
that the world understands his legacy. He fires up a huge movie house
projector, and the story of his life begins to unfold. In pretentious,
late 60's terms.
no mistake: I love my 60's arty pretensions. Many of these are so
self-consciously Important, it is nearly impossible not to
be charmed. Take the image toward the beginning of Easy Rider,
where our peripatetic heroes are repairing a motorcycle while in the
foreground, a horse is being re-shoed. It is such an obvious statement,
and presented with such pride, that you cannot help but feel some
affection for the filmmakers, as if they were beloved, precocious
nephews. Such, alas, is not the case with the timbre of Heironymus
find that as a child, the fatherless Merkin was drawn to his Uncle
Limelight (Bill Forsyth), a music hall performer who expires while
singing his magnum opus, "Picadilly Lilly". In these
early stages of his life, Merkin/Newley is dressed as a marionette,
complete with clown makeup, square-fingered gloves, and attached strings
ascending to the heavens. (Why? Got me.) More intriguing is the fact
that Uncle Limelight is on stilts, allowing him to tower over the
adult Newley, rendering him in fairly proper perspective for Merkin's
childs-eye view. Flashing on Elton John
as the Pinball Wizard in Tommy? You should be.
through these first two sequences (and most of the film) is The Presence,
who is either God or Death, and is played by Georgie Jessel, dressed
in white and carrying a white umbrella. Everytime he tells a joke,
somebody dies, which isn't that far removed from real life.
his uncle's song as his own, Heironymus becomes Baby Merkin, the singing,
dancing success of the age. Still tethered by his strings, Merkin
sings the song in a squeaky, Micky Mouse voice - until the appearance
of The Devil, or as he is known here, Goodtime Eddie Filth (Milton
Berle!), who introduces him to the pleasures of carnality and the
first of many, many women Merkin will bed throughout the film.
various points, Merkin will stop the film and begin to argue with
a barely-seen film crew, that this "wasn't how it happened",
amending the film of his life to reveal a darker truth. At times he
also consorts with the two writers of the film (one of which is Stubby
Kaye), and holds off two producers, who keep begging him for "an
ending. We need an ending." After about seventy-five minutes
of this, the audience enthusiastically agrees with them.
the movie is basically about what a shallow, womanizing cad Merkin
becomes; how he really cares for no one except himself; and how, he,
in fact, disavows the existence of God and his need for no one but
himself (in a song, of course - this is Anthony Newley we're
talking about). This is not only not a new story, it adds nothing
to the mix except ultimately silly theatrics and forgettable songs.
Newley attempts stark contrasts between the fairy-tale quality of
his life-on-film (complete with names like Filigree Fondle, Trampolina
Whambang, and Polyester Poontang, played by a young and incredibly
desirable Joan Collins) and the dark disagreeableness of his real
life. He ultimately fails at this because the real-life sequences
are as bizarre and pretentious as the reel-life ones; the line is
not only blurred here, it never even existed.
suspect is the Mercy Humppe sequence, which the producers and
writers assure Merkin is "not necessary", and will, in fact,
hurt the chances of his movie being seen anywhere. Uncaring,
Merkin inserts her into the narrative anyway, as the production personnel
grimace offstage. Mercy (Connie Kreski), you see, is Merkin's Great
Love In Life, a nymphet in the Lolita vein (Merkin even introduces
this segment as "The Dream of Humbert Humbert"). Merkin
first spies her on a merry-go-round, operated by Goodtime Eddie Filth
and sporting no horses, but pigs. (Why? Got me.) Much is made of Merkin's
vacillating back and forth between Mercy and Polyester (his Second
Great Love In Life), until Polyester becomes pregnant and Merkin takes
his leave of a tearful, devastated Mercy.
agree with the producers. The segment is unnecessary. The problem
is that so much of Heironymus is unnecessary.
The story, as already mentioned, is not especially original; the much-ballyhooed
nudity, sparse and uninvolving *; and the symbolism,
irksome and gratuitous. To show his detachment from humanity in general,
Merkin is shown watching his double, a wind-up, faceless automaton,
going through the motions of humanity and coupling. The film comes
to a fine ending at roughly 80 minutes, when Heironymus sings his
"I Only Need Me" song to God, and we find ourselves in the
studio's projection room, with the writers and the producers. The
skinny writer, in charge of saying out loud stage directions while
we see them acted out, intones "fade on writers and producers,
not understanding and not having an ending." Too bad the movie
goes on for another half-hour after that.
are some redeeming qualities to be found in Heironymus. One
of Merkin's films, "The Princess and The Donkey" (starring
the aforementioned Trampolina Whambang in a sheer costume) is a musical
piece which pretty much boils down the entire film to five minutes,
and is shown in its entirety. It may be the message of the movie,
or it may just be a sketch that had
been hanging about in Newley's notebook forever and inserted into
the free-for-all that is Heironymous Merkin.
good running bit shows the evolution of "Picadilly Lilly"
through the stages of Merkin's career, from the first Mickey Mouse
interpretation on through the last version, which is sung like Sinatra,
seated before a smoky piano and filling in with "Scooby dooby
doos". Newley has several moments when he actually acts,
and those are nice; at these times we get to see an actual possibility
of pain in the character, some depth. And if necessary, you can probably
make it through the picture by seeing what foolishness Newley will
pull out of his hat next, whether an acid trip in which he may once
again frolic with a nude Mercy, or a black mass presided over by Milton
Berle (Why? Got me!), or the interpretive dance of the zodiac symbols,
used to explain why he and Polyester Poontang got together - although
she, in yet another song, assures him they are as alike as "Chalk
these visual and perceptual gymnastics, though, you cannot shake the
feeling that what you are watching has all the substance of cheesecloth
when it earnestly desires to be fine silk. Newley, understandably,
wanted to create Great Art; but the great filmmakers he wishes to
emulate, past visual panache and a canny knowledge of when
to violate standards and conventions, are also compelling storytellers.
The story told in Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe
and Find True Happiness is neither original, nor does it reveal
anything new about the human condition. It is simply a tale about
a man who sleeps with a lot of women and is amazed that he is not
happier - and this wrapped in artifice and gaudy trimmings.
recognizable character actor Victor Spinetti, playing one of a trio
of movie critics constantly hounding Merkin throughout the film of
his life, has one particularly cogent line: "I blame Fellini
for this." So do I, Mr. Spinetti, so do I.