Today, or as some offiical biographies – yesterday, is or was George Harrison’s birthday. The Beatles’ guitarist would have been 72. Besides the music, Harrison and the other bandmates were natural comedians who looked pretty good on film, inventing the music video and reinventing the rock and roll feature film. Spike Lee, to this day, proclaims his love of the Richard Lester classic Help and he’s a pretty good judge of comedy. And of indie films.
George created HandMade Films because he wanted to see a movie. The movie he wanted to see was Life of Brian, this thing the Monty Python crew was peddling all over London. George thought it would be funny. He knew funny. He liked to be amused. He figured, if it would amuse him, it would amuse other people. He’s an amusing guy. These Pythons were good for a chuckle too. So Hare Georgeson put out the cash for what might have been the most expensive home movie ever made.
Well, it lost that honor because it was too funny to be ignored. It was also a little too controversial to be ignored. All the kings’ horses and men stomped on it as blasphemous and irreverent. Of course it was irreverent. It was also one of the most historically correct Jesus movies ever made. That didn’t stop it from being silly. It didn’t stop it from being a hit. It didn’t stop HandMade Films from making more movies.
I like to think Harrison hand-picked the movies made by HandMade Films. He made movies I wanted to see, just like he made music I wanted to hear. HandMade Films made anarchic comedies and crime movies, disrespectful Jesus Movies and even played with time. Harrison didn’t do it all, of course, he had Denis O’Brien on to tell him how to spend his money.
George met O’Brien through Peter Sellers. Besides adopting Ringo Star in the film The Magic Christian, Peter Sellers was part of the seminal British comedy radio troupe The Goon Show, which was produced by George Martin, who produced the Beatles. Harrison played the Sue Me Sue You Blues for O’Brien in the mid-nineties for abusing that money trust.
Before Sean Penn and Madonna crippled HandMade Films with Shanghai Surprise, and drove George back to smoking (Harrison died of cancer in 2001, which he blamed on cigarettes. I’m not saying Madonna and Sean Penn killed him, but they’ve driven me to light up more than once), it produced some classic, albeit underground movies. The films shared a skewered and subversive approach that set them apart from other movies.
Nuns on the Run, for example, had nuns. They ran. There weren’t that many nuns on the run from the London mob on screen at the time. Eric Idle looked pretty good in a habit, which covered his legs. I guess that’s better than when they put John Cleese’s Privates on Parade.
Time Bandits launched the first of Terry Gilliam’s “Trilogy of Imagination” movies, which included the surrealistically hyperrealistic dystopia movie Brazil as well as The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen, by proxy of other studios. Time Bandits is fun for all ages. What with those little people falling on top of Shelly Duvall and that map to everywhere and the funniest, and most logical, Satan in cinema. Sean Connery’s heroism shines through whether he’s wielding a sword or fighting fires. Gilliam’s subversive intensity breaking up into historical hysterics. It’s a kid film at heart. Sweet with a nihilistic center that’s full of compassion.
The darker than dark boozy comedy cult classic Whitnail and I launched a drinking game. It’s a fun game. Try and match, glass for glass and pint for pint, what’s going down the gullets of the lead actors playing actors in 1969 London, when they really knew how to drink. That’s a legacy. My guitar weeps at the thought of it.
The Long Good Friday is a good, solid British gangster film. I love gangster pictures and I like seeing Bob Hoskins in them. This was his breakthrough. Hoskins might have made me giggle with some of his New Yorkese in Cotton Club, which I watch over and over, and Who Fed Roger Ebert- I mean Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but he could be just as clever in his own tongue. The Long Good Friday is The British Connection, Hoskins wants to raise himself above his class by dealing with the American mob. Just like he’d raise his standing by playing American mobsters. Good on ya, Bob, for following the script.
Hoskins would get nominated for a best actor Oscar and win a Best Actor BAFTA for his role in HandMade Film’s noir Mona Lisa. Michel Caine is also a joy in his old stomping ground. Caine made some classic British underworld movies in the sixties where he could be suave and cockney.
HandMade Films felt very personal. They could be maddening. HandMade Films’ movies could set out to be that way. The company nurtured talent and took chances. They didn’t only do this with content, they did it with style.
Nicholas Roeg makes fascinating films that suspend the viewer into unreasonable cinematic realms. The Man Who Fell To Earth blew minds as David Bowie plucked more than his eyebrows as a visiting alien. What’s not to like? Track 29, made by HandMade Films in 1988, was made not to be liked. I’ve seen it a few times, mainly for the cast, which includes the always fine Theresa Russell, Taxi’s Christopher Lloyd, Sandra Bernhard and of course, Gary Oldman.
It’s a trip, not a particularly good trip down south on the Chattanooga choo-choo line. Roeg is good at giving out bad acid. Performance, with Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful in their prime, plumbed deep into depravity with a rock and roll soundtrack and raw performance and flesh. The acting in Track 29 is fully internal, muted and realistic amidst another skewing of reality in a stark verite style. The subversion is that, real as it may look, the worse bits might be only imagination.
After it was sold, HandMade Films made Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, the Guy Richie mob movie, which floored me. Quentin Tarantino exploded into criminal cinema with the perfect debut Reservoir Dogs. Those shots were heard in England. Richie made crime look almost as much fun as Tarantino made it look, but with quick edits and fast pace to the point of whiplash. It was a gamble in a rigged game with a stacked deck and paid off in dividends that meant more than money. Influence. It knocked the London underworld down a notch.
Now, according to Wiki, the rights to HandMade Films sits in a garage in New Jersey. It’s been sitting there since the summer of 2010 just waiting for something to do. There’s a website that says it’s taking advantage of its IP address, but I don’t see them making films right now. And I want to.
George Harrison’s HandMade Films was very influential. It showed how a personal vision could make universal films that were slightly ajar. By the door. With the face.