Wednesday, 16 November 2005

Tommy I: Father, Mother, War

Tommy opens with a rather unmistakable religious image:

The glowing disc of the sun sinks behind the mountain and the silhouetted figure climbs down toward us; the glowing light fades into ordinary clear daylight. We see he's not a god or an angel, but an ordinary man - a handsome, patrician Englishman to be sure, but mortal. He joins a woman:

She is young and beautiful, and the place (somewhere in the Lake district) is sublime, but both are real and earthy. This seems to be a hiking trip: the rough tweedy clothes (note Ann-Margret's red socks) and the chipped enamel mug are wholesome and unpretentious. The couple look perfect, innocent and untroubled. They look like Adam and Eve, in fact. We aren't told this until much later, but the woman's name is Nora and Air Force Captain Walker is her husband. They are Tommy's parents. He is not yet born.

But he's on the way.

This movie is not afraid of anything, least of all of looking cheesy and kitsch. If Ken Russell wants to show passionate, wild, natural, eruptive sex, he will film his actors swimming under a waterfall. He doesn't give a damn if it's considered a cliche. Things like cliches don't exist in his universe. If he wants to show post-coital blossoming and fertility and bliss in a state of Edenic innocence and naturalness, he will put his actors on the grass under an orange blossom tree and rub some Vaseline on the lens. There will be no false embarrassment. That supreme artistic confidence is one of many things about the film that I find immensely attractive.

When I first saw Tommy I was in my teens and thus very easily embarrassed. I was deeply mortified by nearly everything in the movie, not only the material of an erotic nature, but also the oddness of the singing (all the actors sing their own parts) and the extreme 1970s-ness of the clothes and hair and so forth. More than anything I was disturbed by Roger Daltrey. (we'll get to him in good time, however.)

That brief rural idyll is over and Nora will never be happy and contented again. We're back in something resembling the real world: at least, we can tell from the clothes and decor that this is the 1940s, and that the war is going to intrude rather violently into the glamour and romance of it all.

This is still a very sentimental and imaginary vision of the world. This image replicates a shot from David Lean's Brief Encounter, but you don't need to recognise that to see that this is nostalgia for an imaginary past - the kind of image a child might fix upon to explain to himself how his beautiful and magnificent parents lived before he was born, perhaps. This part of the movie is cast as a prologue in exactly that way. The pre-historical mood is much enhanced by the complete absence of verbal language in this part of the movie. The soundtrack to the prologue section of the film is music without lyrics, written especially for the movie and possibly written to match the images, whereas almost everything after the first prologue section works around pre-existing songs.

The planes can be heard crossing the night skies over London. In the war, everyone serves, and their work and their suffering is ennobled by their service and its purposefulness. But this may be an illusion: later, Tommy (and everyone who is, like him, born after the War) will suffer without having any higher purpose to serve, and it will not be dignified or noble.

The War takes Tommy's father away.


The first song of the movie is heard:

Captain Walker didn't come home,
his unborn child will never know him.

We believe him missing with a number of men,
don't expect to see him again."

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Zoe said...

*sighs with pleasure*

bless you, Lucy Tartan

Ampersand Duck said...

I've never seen this movie, but I'm move mountains to watch it now. Can't wait for your next instalment!

Zoe said...

Ken Russell festival at mine Ducky. We will need wine and THE BIG SPEAKERS.

Tommy + Lair of the White Worm

Lucy Tartan said...

Oh to be in Canberra this weekend!

(has anyone ever written those seven words in that order before, ever?)

Zoe said...


I cannot wait until you've seen LOTWW, Miss Tartan. Puts Tommy in the shade for over-the-topness.