Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973): Hall Bartlett's Masterpiece


One day in 1973, Hall Bartlett walked onto the set of his latest movie with a smile of confidence and self-assurance. He was in a good mood. For the first time ever in his career, he knew exactly what he was doing. He was adapting a best-selling novella by Richard Bach about a prophetic seagull, and he was going to turn it into a major motion picture. It was going to be an independently-financed film with as little studio interference as possible. And by the end of the ten-month shooting schedule, Bartlett had mortgaged his home and invested every last one of his savings into the film’s $1.5 million budget; he was willing to do anything to make his dream project a reality. “I was born to make this movie,” he declared. He was absolutely right.

Hall Bartlett (1923-1993) was one of Hollywood’s most underrated writer/directors. He wrote and directed ten feature films: Unchained (1955), Drango (1957), Zero Hour! (1957), All the Young Men (1960), The Caretakers (1963), Changes (1969), The Sandpit Generals (1971), The Children of Sanchez (1978) and Comeback (1983). Some of his films were bland studio projects, while the others had intriguing concepts but were often unsatisfyingly executed. In his entire 30-year filmmaking career, Bartlett helmed a series of flops, misfires, close calls, small gems, and at least one masterpiece: Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973).

Richard Bach’s enormously popular 1970 book had first come to Bartlett’s attention after his wife had presented it to him as a gift. The timing couldn’t have been better; after the critical and commercial failure of his hospital drama The Caretakers in 1963, Bartlett had watched his career devolve. “I’ve been through about ten years of hell,” he told an interviewer on the set, “up until very, very recently, where everything went wrong. I couldn’t make a right move. The fear was on me that I would never make a picture again… then came a woman with such love to share, and then Jonathan, and suddenly everything was right.”

Bartlett had hoped that, with Jonathan Livingston Seagull, he would finally get the attention he deserved. Nobody ever once realized that the film he was making was very, very ahead of its time.

The film was absolutely reviled when it came out. Reviews were terrible. “The sort of garbage only a seagull could love,” wrote Judith Crist. “Interminable,” said Art Murphy in Variety. “Bird droppings!” snorted Jay Cocks in Time magazine. “Strictly for the birds,” quipped Frank Rich in the New Times. And in a particularly negative 1-star review, Roger Ebert was perhaps the most scathing of all: “This has got to be the biggest pseudocultural, would-be metaphysical ripoff of the year.”

The reviews hurt the movie’s commercial chances significantly; at the box office, it grossed only $1.6 million, just short of the $2.1 million Paramount had spent to purchase the film from Bartlett’s studio. And five years later, Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss excessively panned it in their 1978 book The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time (a book that also trashed such supposedly awful titles as Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible and Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). So drenched in vile cynicism was their review that Medved and Dreyfuss even mocked Bartlett for making his picture “in the true auteur fashion,” as if they considered themselves superior to a filmmaker who had spent all his savings on a personal project they had not even bothered to try to comprehend.


Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one of my all-time favorite American movies, and I hasten to say that because the horrid reception that this film received during its release—and ever since then—has angered me to no end over the years. There is no reason why this film should have flopped as it did. There is no reason why this film should have been dismissed as quickly as it was. As far as I can tell, nobody gave this movie a chance. Nobody was willing to appreciate Hall Bartlett’s directorial vision or take him seriously as a filmmaker. Not one review mentioned anything nice about the film’s story or technique. Everybody walked in with a closed mind, completely unwilling to embrace the movie’s unique perspective. Ebert proudly began his review by announcing that he walked out of the film “some 45 minutes into” it, but then ended his review by revealing that he had left during the sequence in which “Jonathan had dragged himself, groggy and bleeding, onto some flotsam.” Judging from the actual running time, it appears as though Ebert must have, in fact, walked out of the screening approximately 21 minutes into the film.

Then there were lawsuits. Richard Bach sued Bartlett when Bartlett refused to honor Bach's right to final cut. Neil Diamond threatened to sue Bartlett if he didn’t incorporate more of the music from the soundtrack into the film. Ovady Julber, the director of 1936’s La Mer, sued over suspicions that Bartlett’s film might have plagiarized his work.

But surrealism, we must remember, has always been a tough sell for American audiences. Jonathan Livingston Seagull belongs right up there with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977) and David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) as one of the greatest American surrealist films released in the later half of the 20th century. It is a rich, liberated celebration of a writer/director’s artistic sensibilities, free of any constricting narrative rules. Like those aforementioned films, it expands even more in dimension with repeated viewings. What Hall Bartlett did with Jonathan Livingston Seagull is special: he recognized the visual opportunities in Bach’s story—a story that was always heavily cinematic to begin with—thus allowing him to adapt it into a visually powerful cinematic experience that offers images quite like nothing ever produced before or since.

The film even has the audacity to open with the dedication that appeared on the first page of Bach’s novella: “To the real Jonathan Livingston Seagull, who lives within us all.” These words appear as onscreen text that burst in bright blue hues alongside an opening shot of white clouds, enhanced with the help of the cinematography by veteran cameraman Jack Couffer. Couffer, who was hired by Bartlett after his impressive work on Walt Disney’s True Life Adventure series, is largely responsible for the sensational aesthetic effect of Bartlett’s film, from his explosive footage of crashing tidal waves to his unbelievable tracking shots of the film’s title character—whether he be flying above the clouds, near the rocky shores or into the cores of deserts and snowy mountains. That Couffer’s cinematography netted the film one of two Academy Award nominations is not surprising in the least: it remains one of the finest examples of natural footage ever captured on celluloid.


Getting that footage was sometimes dangerous. Couffer was allegedly attacked by one of the seagulls during filming, prompting Bartlett to have his crew members wear baseball catcher’s masks in order to prevent further accidents. We get a good glimpse at just how vicious the seagulls were during filming in one of the movie’s first sequences, which provides us with a glimpse of seagull life. As a tugboat sits out in the middle of the ocean, dumping piles of fish into the water, hordes of seagulls begin fighting all at once for the rotten, filthy chum. In a sequence marvelously edited by Frank P. Keller and James Galloway (thus netting the film its second Oscar nomination), the seagulls bite, claw, gnash and bloody each other’s throats; if this continues, we fear, they may start decapitating each other. It’s an ugly, hostile, disgusting existence, and that’s why we sigh a breath of relief when Bartlett and Couffer suddenly whisk us away into the sky—where we take the point of view of a figure bursting its way through the clouds. Then we see what it is: a lone seagull. An independent. That’s him. That’s Jonathan.


Jonathan is voiced by James Franciscus, that suave, handsome actor who starred in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and in Dario Argento’s The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971). In his day, Franciscus was an irresistible ladies’ man, a Rod Serling look-a-like and a fitting Apes replacement for Charlton Heston. But Hall Bartlett must have recognized that there was something oddly appealing about Franciscus’ voice, a voice which sometimes tended to sound hoarse and monotone. That proved to be the perfect fit for the voice of Jonathan, who is quieter and more observant in the later scenes of Jonathan Livingston Seagull but who has a boyish squeal in his voice in the earlier scenes—as he struggles to determine the secret to “perfect speed.” Jonathan's problem is that he too often lets his doubts control his destiny and, what’s more, lets fear get in the way of his ambition. “Maybe seagulls… can’t fly faster than 62 miles per hour,” he considers. “But wouldn’t it be great if we could?”


His parents are not pleased. Mother (Dorothy McGuire) fears for his safety: “I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid of what you’re doing.” Father (Richard Crenna) is even less helpful: “We were meant to live the way we live—accept it! Take your place. Will you try, son?” Yet Jonathan continues to be interrupted with inspired revelations. What if he were to dive, for example, on the wingtips only? This results in one of the film’s genuinely funniest moments, when Jonathan hits 170 at the short dive but then disastrously attempts to dive at 10,000 ft, loses control, spirals into oblivion and screams, “OH GOD, THE FLOCK… LOOK OUT!!!!!” But then Bartlett segues into a scene that is not so funny, as Jonathan is forced to stand trial before the head Elder (Hal Halbrook), who is cruelly unforgiving to the young independent. “Jonathan Livingston Seagull, the brotherhood is broken!” the Elder roars. “Never again will you see any of your Flock! Never again will you have the protection of your Flock! You are henceforth and forever… outcast!” Thrown out by the Flock, the Elders and even his own parents, Jonathan has gone from a social deviant to something that is even worse: a bastard.

This is where one of the director’s key themes as a filmmaker comes into place. Bartlett loved to make films about illegitimate children disowned by their parents. Think of Janis Paige’s speech in The Caretakers, in which she sobs about being taunted as a “little bastard” all her life. Or Anthony Quinn’s final monologue in The Children of Sanchez, in which he condemns all of his children as “bastards” during a spoiled picnic dinner. In contrast, Jonathan Livingston Seagull deals with the theme of illegitimacy more subtlety. “Outcast” is substituted for “bastard," and yet the term is no less painful. The sequence in which Jonathan departs for his life of solitude, set to the tune of Diamond’s “Lonely Looking Sky," is quite simply one of the saddest sequences of the 1970’s, and it is all the more tragic if we realize, in hindsight, that Jonathan will never see his parents again. He will die without them at his side.

Neil Diamond’s score for the film has often been dismissed as “overbearing”, but I’ve always begged to differ. Among the other songs used on the soundtrack, “Be” represents Jonathan’s independence, while “Dear Father” epitomizes his self-doubt and “Skybird”, his liberation. To me, Diamond's soundtrack remains exhilarating, and it is also a reminder of Hall Bartlett’s often-overlooked talent for juxtaposing the right kind of music with his cinematic stories.


Bartlett’s masterful filmmaking is demonstrated even further in the 13-minute sequence that follows, in which Jonathan attempts to “know all there is to know of this life” and embarks on a long stretch, midway through the film, that takes him all the way to the ends of the Earth and, finally, to his death. All Bartlett does here is follow Jonathan while he flies from one habitat to another, as he observes fellow animals and keeps to himself; in fact, in the last 13 minutes of his life, Jonathan never says a word. There is no doubt in my mind that Bartlett must have been influenced by Kubrick in crafting this sequence, for it invites startling comparison to the famous “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” sequence from 2001. Like Dave Bowman, Jonathan passes through scene after scene of enchanting realms before settling into his own demise and, then, being reborn as a kind of supernatural being. From that point on, the film folds onto itself like a Chinese box, and suddenly it’s a new kind of film altogether.


At the time, the film was suspected by some critics to be an allegory for Christ’s suffering and resurrection; Time magazine claimed that Bartlett had tarnished Bach’s story with “Billygrahmese” dialogue. Were these critics not paying much attention during the film? Listen carefully to the conversations between Jonathan and his mentor, Chiang (Philip Ahn), particularly their discussions about the afterlife. When Jonathan asks Chiang if they are in Heaven, Chiang simply replies, “Who said it was? Heaven isn’t a place. Heaven’s perfection, wouldn’t you think? And we don’t go there, as much as we express it.” Or consider Jonathan’s conversations with Maureen (Juliet Mills), who asks him, “Didn’t you say you know me from somewhere? I believe there were many somewheres!” Her comment, of course, implies reincarnation. In retrospect, the film is about as Christian as the Star Wars films; interestingly enough, Richard Bach’s mythology of “perfect speed” predates George Lucas’ “Force” mythology by about seven years. But a story like Jonathan Livingston Seagull has more in common with something like, say, Buddhism, than it does with Christianity.

Furthermore, Jonathan, unlike Christ, does not fully understand the meaning of love. Chiang’s parting words to Jonathan are literally, “keep working on love.” A truly allegorical Christian figure would have no need for this kind of advice. Jonathan’s romance with Maureen is also one of the more significant changes which Bartlett makes from Bach’s novella. In the book, Jonathan is accompanied by a best friend, Sullivan, who—like one of Christ’s disciples—doubts his master’s success in the face of danger. By inventing the character of Maureen, however, Bartlett makes Jonathan more "human," shall we say, not to mention more likely to give into temptations of the flesh. A case might be made that Maureen is supposed to represent Mary Magdalene, but surely the relationship between Jonathan and Maureen is far warmer than the relationship which Christ and Magdalene ever might have had together. And as Jonathan embarks on a journey to free his old flock, Maureen’s last words to him (“Jonathan, go with my love”) resonate beautifully without carrying a religious context of any kind. My guess is that Bartlett sensed audiences would warm up to the story somewhat more if he were to give the hero a love interest.


The film’s most obvious rejection of blind Christian ideals, however, occurs after Jonathan and his new apprentice, Fletcher Lynd Seagull (David Ladd), try to win over the cynicism of the Flock and are, instead, nearly swallowed alive by their outrage. To be sure, it is not an unexpected reaction: practically everybody in the movie assumes Jonathan is either a heavenly or a hellish force of nature. Fletcher believes he might be a Christ figure. The Flock's Elders believe he’s the Devil. Jonathan dismisses all of these theories. In one scene, he chuckles over the rumor that he’s “oh, yes, yes, I know: the only Son of the Great Gull, I suppose.” And the final request he makes of his apprentice is modest, indeed: “Don’t let them spread silly rumors about me or try to make me some sort of a god, will you, Fletcher?” Clearly, Jonathan considers himself to be just like every other seagull, just as Richard Bach believes there is a Jonathan who lives within us all.


And so, for that matter, did Hall Bartlett. He believed enough in this story to pour his heart and soul into it, confidant every step of the way that he was on the verge of completing an important film. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was not embraced by critics or audiences, but I have a feeling that Bartlett himself always knew, deep down, that he had left the public with a masterpiece. Maybe he knew that he wouldn’t live to see the film get the attention it deserved. Maybe he was aware that the film’s mediocre reception would outlive him.

I wish he were alive to know how much I love this film. I wish he knew how much it has changed the way I look at movies. I wish he knew how much I cherish the way he ends the picture with Jonathan’s immortal closing monologue: “Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know. Use it, Fletcher. Teach it… show it forth. And you’ll know the way to fly.”

Know the way to fly. After Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Hall Bartlett would only go on to make two more films. Then, like Jonathan, he spread his wings, flew off, and never, ever looked back.

37 comments:

  1. Adam - This is certainly a heartfelt tribute to a film with an enormous heart. As you say, the visual spectacle of the film is majestic in many places, and though the special effects look a little cheap now, at the time, they were highly imaginative and advanced and cant be appreciated as such. I think Bartlett must have interpolated some stock photography - I don't see how he could have staged the fight between Jonathan and the hawk; nonetheless, the editing in of these scenes is darn near flawless. I would like to know more about the making of the film, if you have a reference.

    It's hard to understand the critical lambasting it got, other than highly popular quasi-religious works tend to offend the sensibilities of professional critics, who are much smarter and more sophisticated than the average book or film consumer. That said, I did find the second half of the film too explicit in voicing its Eastern philosophy. I started to feel preached at and longed for the simple, visual exposition of the first half of the movie, particularly Jonathan's journey upon being outcast. The simple homilies and caricature of a hostile society in the written script did not do the ideas or the visuals justice. It's the kind of thing that makes the hippie/youth ethos of the late 60s and early 70s, of which this book and movie are important examples, laughable as presented. I have always resented that such messages were ridiculed, simply because they seem unrealistic.

    The philosophy itself, however, is not something I can really get behind. I like that Jonathan doesn't want the flock to think of him as some charismatic leader, but "human" nature and the slight conceit that such a comment reveals shows rather the opposite. That is where we get the Christian metaphor, and indeed, the film mixes its philosophical and religious influences freely, though it sticks most closely to Buddhism. It's not that the ideas invading Judeo-Christian America weren't timely - the popularity of Bach's book shows that they were and continue to be. But their expression, for me, is too simple-minded to really take to heart. Jonathan fails one night to think himself to another place, and then after that he gets it. Yes, it's a movie and has to compress time, but take weakens the message. It's not at all easy to reach enlightenment in this life, and after all, movies are for the living, not the dead.

    Despite my resistance to the way the philosphical message was presented, I do think this film is a singular achievement. It certainly put me in mind of other films, but nothing seemed a direct interpolation. As for the film being surrealist, I think you're on to something there, though it doesn't tap the deepest, most irrational parts of the unconscious and present them to us unfiltered, but rather tries to make sense of our deep urges with its philosophy. Nonetheless, the film does strike some deep chords, and its ocean imagery asserted right at the beginning of the film, pulls us into that realm and announces where this film should be watched - in our hearts and souls.

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  2. Gahrrr! Where did my comment go?

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  3. OK, back to the drawing board.

    Adam - This was an intriguing film for you to choose. A real relic of its time, it captures the fascinating with Eastern philosophy and self-actualization that filtered from hippie culture into the general zeitgeist. That fascination has continued to this day as evidenced by the continued popularity of Bach's book.

    It's sad that the film did not share in that persistent popularity. It is a visually stunning work, and it's more primitive effects can still be appreciated today as advanced for their time. The film seamlessly includes stock footage with Bartlett's original footage - certainly, I thought the fight between Jonathan and the hawk was staged, which obviously it couldn't have been. And the journey Jonathan takes after being outcast deserved the special attention you gave it. I found that sequence quite mesmerizing.

    I'm afraid, however, that after Jonathan's death and ascendancy to a higher plain, the simplistic homilies brought the message down to earth. Less would have been more, and I'm not talking about cryptic gurus who say little and little that makes direct sense. I think Bartlett showed a great skill in visual storytelling, yet he spells everything out for Jonathan and his attainment of enlightenment was a bit too easy. One unsuccessful try at being where he thinks (or prays) himself to be, and then he's suddenly got the hang of it. I understand a film must compress time, but films are made for the living, not the dead. We think linearly and it takes a lifetime to even get close to enlightenment, and Jonathan's mastery was just too easy. It makes enlightenment into a quick fix the way Bartlett presents it. I don't know how I'd fix it, but it needed fixing.

    I think people responded negatively to the religious and philosophical overtones because they did seem dumbed down. And despite Jonathan's protest that he wanted to be seen as just another gull, there is a certain conceit in even making the statement. The flaws of the Me Generation are imbedded in this film - not the film's fault, simply a reflection of the zeitgeist, and a part they didn't want to acknowledge. The conformist flock also lacked nuance, and seemed like a rebellious teen's vision of parents and society. Your youth, I'm sure, allows you to respond to this vision in a way more mature critics were not able to. Indeed, this film was in the teen video section of the library where I procured it. It was not fair of film critics to judge it by adult standards, I think, a flaw in seeing through the eyes of the audience.

    As for surrealism, I think you're on to something, though this film doesn't offer unfiltered glimpses of the unconscious in the way a Bunuel film does. Its offer of the ocean at the very beginning tells us were in for a psychic dive, and I found the rolling waves very magnetic and a perfect beginning for the film.

    As a birder, I, of course, noticed a few flaws. Jonathan is a greater black-backed seagull, but at one point, he becomes a herring gull. Most people might not notice this, though. In other ways, I liked that Bartlett knew the difference between a mature and and immature gull and used it in the story.

    I love the sincerity of the film. You definitely could see all the heart and soul that went into its making.

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  4. Adam, I haven't seen this film but thanks for taking up the mantle of TOERIFC. Maybe in the coming months we can do more with the club, as long as someone else has the reins, like you maybe. I hope this discussion grows over the next week and gets some good feedback.

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  5. Finally woke up! Sorry you lost your comment earlier, Marilyn -- thanks for putting the effort into another one. Now, let me try to work up a response...

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  7. My car has a bumper sticker, put on by my '67 Summer of Love hippie hubby, that says "I'd Rather Be Here Now." Joseph Campbell also said the river of life is "right here." It's definitely a call to stop projecting into the past and the future and be present in your own life, which is good for personal harmony but could be disastrous to a structured society. This was the worry of the flock (society) that everyone would "tune in, turn on, drop out." Of course, Bach's novella was only one of the avenues to the popularity of meditative philosophies - when the Beatles took up with Guru Maharishi, an entire generation, ironically, imitated their pop-culture leaders.

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  8. As for Jonathan's transformation, I could perhaps have bought it if he had been told that he was freer and able to master easily techniques that, let's face it, come from earthly meditation practices, because he was no longer alive in the earthly sense. That would have precluded viewers of the film from thinking enlightenment is pretty much a snap, and at the same time, given the narrative more internal logic for me.

    I'm not sure that the messages to the flock were delivered to the same flock of the same seagulls. I know Jonathan recognized them, but is it possible that it was just the location where his flock resides. That was a little confusing to me, and perhaps I missed something. It would make sense temporally if they were a completely new generation of birds, and would make the story more powerful.

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  9. About the nuance of the Flock itself: you'll get no argument from me that they probably represent a rebellious teen's view of society -- at least, in the earlier scenes, when Jonathan is so lost in his dreams that he's even alienated from his parents. Now, I do think that the parents have some nuance to them; they're obviously of no help to his dreams, but they love him, and they worry about the risks he so often takes. As for the rest of the Flock, they're allowed to show a glimpse of humanity during the ending of the movie. While Bartlett certainly doesn't make them three-dimensional, I do believe that as he portrays them he remains true to the way crowds of "followers" often react to opposing viewpoints, whether it be in a church or at a political rally. When the Flock sees what Jonathan and Fletcher can do, they start undergoing a change of heart.

    That being said, I do think that the ending of the film feels a bit rushed -- we only see a handful of gulls, notably Kirk Maynard with his broken wing, undergo a more nuanced transformation. But when the Elders point out that Jonathan's work might actually be satanic, everything is shot to hell again. So, here, Bartlett remains true to the ways that a crowd might react to situations: when under the dominating control of patriarchs, they might momentarily be swayed by the power of deviants before reverting back to a more hard-boiled demeanor towards them.

    The Flock's Elders, of course, make for one-dimensional villains, but I'm willing to forgive that: Hal Halbrook hams it up nicely with their voiceovers, and that compensates well with the noticeable short-changes in them as antagonists.

    The movie's surrealism is not quite, as you say, on the level of Bunueal, but then again Bunuel's surrealism is more on the humorous, incendiary side (though I'm only judging from what I've seen: Un Chien Andalou; Viridiana; Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie). Bartlett appears to be aiming more for what Kubrick did after 2001, which permanently changed American cinema as a form. But we didn't get too many American movies like 2001 after 1968, and apparently Bartlett longed for another one.

    Good observation there in the flaws of the different-colored gulls; I'm not a birder, so I'd be the last to know. Still, I've always been too fascinated by the ways the birds are handled in the film to take too much notice of their colors. That fight sequence between Jonathan and the hawk is astounding. I can never figure out how they filmed it.

    We're definitely on to stuff here, Marilyn!

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  10. You know, good question there on whether or not it's the same flock of seagulls at the end. Since Jonathan's parents aren't there, it might have been an entirely different Flock, but I've always assumed it's Jonathan's since he recognizes it (maybe his parents are dead?). One thing's for sure: it's definitely Fletcher's flock, since one of the female gulls claims to have watched him grow since he was a boy.

    While it's one way to intrept the movie's ideals as being destructive of reality, I'm not sure it's accurate. The movie is mostly railing against a conformed society that warns away against logical questions and innovations. We can substitute the Flock for anything: the Salm Witch Judges; Robespierre's French government; and any of those tyrannical powers that were going on in the 20th century. Bartlett and Bach portray the Flock as reactionaries who are conditioned to slaughter people they believe to be satanic, which is why I've always found it funny that critics slammed this film for its supposed religious symbolism. The Flock is obviously a lot more zealous in that department than Jonathan, Chiang, Maureen and Fletcher are.

    It's true, Jonathan's meditation is not like the kind of TM that humans practice. I guess it's getting to the heart of what TM really is: simple. Simple means... simple. Anything more and it would be complicated.

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  11. By the way, I missed Greg's comment. Greg, there's still time for you to see the movie if you want: you can always come back to this later. At any rate, thanks once again for giving me this opportunity!

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  12. I think they slammed the religious symbolism both for being too simplistic and for being a mash-up of various philosophies. That makes the ideas seem half-baked, which on closer examination, isn't really true. I thought the ideas were basically Buddhist, and a tacit criticism of Christian doctrine. Jonathan's comment about being mistaken for a Christ figure is kind of a slam at the knee-jerk beliefs of his flock.

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  13. I thought the ideas were basically Buddhist, and a tacit criticism of Christian doctrine. Jonathan's comment about being mistaken for a Christ figure is kind of a slam at the knee-jerk beliefs of his flock.

    Well-said, Marilyn. Very well-said. It's astonishing to me that so many critics missed this at the time. Which reviews have you read that accuse the film of being a philosophy mash-up? I've only read the ones that accuse it of being a Christian allegory -- namely Medved's Fifty Worst... book.

    I have to go to classes so I'll be away from my PC for about three hours, but I love where this is going. I can't thank you enough for contributing so much great feedback so far, Marilyn -- I hope more people show up in the next few days/weeks. They'll be amazed at how much ground we've covered already!

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  14. I called it a mash-up, kind of, and surmise that critics felt that, whether they stated it or not. Have fun at class. See you later.

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  16. Okay one old hippie signing in...Shane here with his two cents. First is last for this take on the conversation. Most critics and for that matter people of the U.S. were not versed in other doctrines or religions. Allen Watts 'Psychotherapy East and West' was new and only in the hands of the fringe for the most part so in answer to you question about why they didn't use other religions in their reviews that is probably it. Not only did they not understand it but their audience wouldn't either and seeing as we had two wars with the East anything of that sort would be suspect.

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  17. I think media people are often very aggressively secular. Remember that film criticism in 1973 was still being done by newspapermen like Roger Ebert. They tend not to want to be led around by the nose with movies that tell them to believe in something airy fairy. The tone of this film could have put them off.

    I haven't read the book. The hubby had and saw the film on release and didn't particularly like them. He doesn't like anthropomorphized characters, but agrees this is a good way to tell a story for children and teens.

    My feelings are lukewarm on Neil Diamond, but I liked his songs and the lyrics.

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  18. Shane here again.
    Now as to your question about readers of the book. Yes the book made the rounds as did many others of that ilk, Animal Farm, Winnie The Pooh, and of course Lord of the Rings. These books were the parables for the younger set of hippies who were not as familiar with Watts,Jung, Buddha and so many others we were to find later. When the movie came out I was very disappointed in many ways. True the dialog was close though the additions were met with little or no appreciation because even though there were members of the opposite sex about, spiritualism was a personal thing done alone and in the privacy of ones own soul. So the sex interest was unwelcome. Though beautiful in its execution the film was not a journey we could travel as easy as say, Francis of Assisi in 'Brother Son, Sister Moon', or Christ in 'Godspell' or really so many more at the time were out there that given the choice many opted for a more mature example of Godhead.

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  19. As a side note to all of this I really like the book 'Naked Lunch' and find the movie totally lacking in any relationship to it and wish Mr.C had just substituted another name. I'm still waiting to see if anyone is brave enough to make a real film of the book. Shane

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  20. LOL Shane. It's nice to hear the perspective of a former hippy on the film.

    But just so that I have you correct. The people in the audience were displeased because Jonathan has a love interest in the film? I mean, I get the whole thing about how spiritualism is a personal thing, but it does seem important that Jonathan have a love interest (like Maureen) in order to evolve as a supernatural being. When Chiang asks Jonathan what love is, the first thing Jonathan thinks of is the Flock. Which is just as arbitrary to the audience as it is to Jonathan himself, because, well... he doesn't love the Flock--that is, not in the conventional "love" sense. But then Jonathan is told to think of love in a simpler sense and-- on the next try--he thinks of Maureen. The thing is, I can't think of a better image to pop in Jonathan's mind when that happens.

    I guess my point is that Jonathan struggles throughout the film to determine, as Chiang says, "the meaning of kindness and love", and it seems impossible for Jonathan to fulfill both sides of that equation if he doesn't have somebody to love. A seagull can be a prophet if her or she wants to, but that doesn't mean they'll have inner happiness. Shouldn't they have somebody special in their life to keep them going? Bartlett solves that problem by presenting Jonathan him with Maureen--who even claims that she might have known him in another life, so it only makes sense.

    Her final words to Jonathan are "go with my love", and those words are pretty vital: without them, we have no good reason to believe Jonathan would have the morale to go back and free his Flock. If we were to take Maureen out of the film, I fear Bartlett's screenplay would have much less soul, much less passion. It would be too cerebral, and it probably would have had an even worse reputation than it already has.

    But you and Marilyn have a point about how the film promotes ideas that may have been alien to critics. I never thought of the issues in regards to releasing a film like this at the time Vietnam was ending, either. Again, I'm glad there's people who lived through that era and can relate all this to me... I'm ever-so-curious about that time.

    And I'm with you on Neil Diamond, Marilyn. I take exception to his work here, but otherwise I'm not much of a fan, really.

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  21. A little off-topic but in case you're interested, Shane, Ryan Kelly wrote a piece on Cronenberg's Naked Lunch last year.

    Oddly enough, he has the same vision on that film as I do of this film: that the movie is better than the book. Just as Ryan feels that Cronenberg makes art out of Burroughs' ramblings, so do I feel that Hall Bartlett finds visual poetry in Richard Bach's story, which reads well on paper but must have been crying out for cinematic adaptation from the moment it was published. Maybe it's different for people who have only read the book (and haven't seen the movie), but whenever I read the read book I can't NOT associate images from the film with Bach's prose. Some might find this less-than-desirable (particular fans of the book who hate the movie), but I couldn't disagree more. Like I've said, if they only knew...

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  22. Shane's the hubby, btw. I, too, think Maureen was kind of superfluous, but I think her character worked in helping Jonathan adjust to his new reality. I guess for me seeing that life after death still seems to be concerned with earthly matters like romance (on Maureen's part, it seems, she was a very traditional 60s hippie chick) just doesn't track very well. I disagree with Shane, though, about flesh and spirit being separated in the spiritual quest. Many people looked at free love as a spiritual journey, a freedom from the bonds of society and a chance to love everyone everywhere.

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  23. Maureen is a replacement for a character in the book by the name of "Sullivan", Jonathan's fellow gull, who complains when Jonathan announces that he's going back to the Flock to help. If Sullivan had been included in the film he probably would have come across as even more superfluous in the film than Maureen is--he'd be just another male buddy.

    I wouldn't go so far as to deem Maureen superfluous, however. It would have been nice if she'd had a few more scenes, but the sap in me appreciates her scenes with Jonathan. After all, Jonathan has never felt that kind of love/lust before: he essentially died a virgin. At one point Maureen asks him, "have you ever felt happier or more alive?" That question is, of course, open to a lot of LCD subtext and in real life it could have only been delivered by a hippie chick, but there's a goofiness to her question that I just flat-out enjoy.

    While it may seem dubious for Jonathan to still be desiring a love interest after death, we should keep in mind that when Jonathan is reborn, he is still his ever-so-curious old self. He's still learning, still wanting to unlock the secret to perfect speed, still full of questions. So we can't immediately rule out that he may still have lustful feelings on top of his curiosities.

    On a side note, did either of you recognize the voice actors without IMDBing any of them? Dorothy McGuire's voice as the Mother is recognizable, but I don't think I would have ever been able to put two-and-two together if I hadn't looked it up. Or how about Hal Holbrook, who booms out each and every one of his lines as the Elders? (I've always thought it funny how "Hal" agreed to be in "Hall's" movie, and I've been desperately searching for interviews in which Holbrook might have talked about his experience working on the film... to no avail, sadly).

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  24. Adam, maybe I'll try to watch it later this week and come back. One thing that always bothered me a bit with the old Toerifc was this kind speed comment frenzy where everyone felt the discussion had to start, flourish and finish in the course of eight hours. I'd much prefer just have the post up and everyone can take a couple of weeks to chime in.

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  25. Greg, that's most likely what this post will shape up to be. It'd be great if everybody wanted to watch the movie and then come back to this in a couple of days/weeks. I anticipated that this piece might not get a lot of posts, since the movie itself probably doesn't immediately attract interest amongst bloggers (and also because I didn't participate nearly enough in TOERIFIC to have the power to bring everyone back), but it's doing much better than I expected. So far, Marilyn and Shane and I have covered some excellent ground, but more input would be greatly appreciated. I'd love to hear your take on this unfairly-maligned film.

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  26. I didn't recognize the voices, but then I rarely do in animated films either.

    As for Jonathan and his lustful feelings, it just hasn't been set up in the film. In seeking enlightenment, one is supposed to eliminate earthly attachments. Shane (whose sitting next to me) said that sex and love were kept separate from the seeking after nirvana because they always led to jealousy and attachment.

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  27. Well, but again, the movie's not exactly addressing Transcendental Meditation (or nirvana) as we, being humans, understand it. Instead, it's basically Richard Bach's own personal system of nirvana, and unlike traditional Buddhism it involves "kindness and love", which Chiang explicitly makes clear to Jonathan. It's doubtful that Jonathan and Maureen would ever have jealously problems --they each share a mutual feeling that they've known each other in past lives, so Bach's system of reincarnation appears to have designed them as soul mates.

    Love is also integral to the story because it is needed in order to free the Flock. The Flock has pretty much abandoned the concept of love: the Elders would say it's a sign of weakness, and that the gulls should instead thrive on lives of scavengry and greed. We get the sense that Jonathan's parents love him but are afraid to show it -- they've let fear control their lives, along with the rest of the Flock.

    Love is simply one of the ways in which Jonathan gets rid of his fear and is able to unlock so many closed doors. It's a concept that is only somewhat dealt with by Bach in the novella, but Bartlett expands on it in the film by including lust into the equation. The Flock probably sees sex as little more than an empty necessity in their reproductive cycle, but as Jonathan and Maureen discover (this is just implied, of course), it can also bring a much-needed happiness. Hey, you never know: maybe that's what's making them fly so fast!

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  28. Ha! You're right that the film is about love - again with that hippie stuff - and not a straight interpretation of Buddhism. If you want a little more history, this film came out at about the time that relations between men and women were at their lowest. Second-wave feminism had radicalized a lot of women, but worse from a male point of view, women were starting to compete with them for good jobs. I can see this gentle relationship between Jonathan and Maureen as a balm to that tension.

    And I'm sorry nobody else has really joined in. This has been an interesting discussion. Thanks for making it happen, Adam.

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  29. lol. I wonder what Betty Friedan thought of this movie? :)

    But man, I can't thank you and Shane enough for making this a TOERIFIC discussion to remember, Marilyn. Hopefully Greg and the others will join in during the next coming weeks -- who knows, we might even get people we've never met before. Many thanks to you for giving me this opportunity!

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  30. Adam: While I'll say this is not one of my top American films, I do believe it was unfairly mauled by the critics. I well remember when it was released, and saw it on the big screen. I have never come across a review of the film nearly as insightful or comprehensive as yours, a fact that's miraculous in view of the book's brief length and the film's pat world-view. Truth be said it's spectacularly beautiful in a visual sense and it cries out for the reassessment you've so painstakingly offered up here. What I've always admired about your taste and writing in that you are never shy to defend what you like, what inspires you, what moves you. I never forgot that passionate defense of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD for example. At the time Bach's book wa sreleased it was fashionable for those very short novels to register with people during the peace generation. Erich Segal's LOVE STORY was another example of a book that was mainly trashed by critics, but eaten up by the public, who then made the film a box-office hit and Oscar nominee. No such thing happened with JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL of course, but it's great to see someone express it's wonderments as magnificently as you have done so here. Kudos to you Sir!

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  31. Sam, as always, thanks a bunch. I wish I could have been there in 1973 to witness this film's release. Every day I wonder if other souls out there recognize the film as I do -- this TOERIFIC discussion makes me hope that future generations will rectify the film as high cinematic art.

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  32. Ebert proudly began his review by announcing that he walked out of the film “some 45 minutes into” it... it appears as though Ebert must have, in fact, walked out of the screening approximately 21 minutes into the film.

    I always wondered why people got so upset last year at the "revelation" that Ebert reviewed a film he didn't watch, because back in the 1980s when I was a kid, Ebert was KNOWN for not watching entire films.

    I haven't commented otherwise as it's been so long since I watched it, and of course am not a member of Toerific, but have very much enjoyed both your post and the comments attached.

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  33. Stacia, thanks for commenting -- I'm glad you enjoyed reading this. And believe me: you don't have to have already been initiated into Toerific to participate in the discussion(s). Hell, I was barely even a member at all before Greg pulled the plug last year... my revival of it for this discussion was only temporary, but I'd be happy to pass the garter to anyone who'd like to take over for another discussion on another film.

    I guess what bugs me about Ebert's 1973 review of Jonathan Livingston Seagull is that he calls it "the biggest metaphysical ripoff of the year", and to me such an incredible statement cannot possible be valid if the critic hasn't bothered to watch the entire movie in question. I'm not against critics walking out of movies, but Ebert trashed this movie for reasons that just don't fly. In fact, at the end of Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss' Fifty Worst Movies of All Time book, Medved and Dreyfuss consulted Ebert and asked him to provide them with his own brief list of the worst movies ever made -- and his list included this film. Again, this is all pretty incredible... he judged a 99-minute film by the first 21 minutes alone!

    Obviously I'm a little passionate about this issue, lol. If you ever get to see the movie again, Stacia, it'd be great if you could return here and offer any additional thoughts you may have over it.

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  34. Reminds me of another movie that suffered a similar critical fate as Jonathan Livingston Seagull, though hardly related... it is a movie called NORTH (1994). This was directed by Rob Reiner, and starred Elijah Wood and Bruce Willis. It is about a boy who travels the world to find ideal parents. I don't know if you ever saw it. It was more geared towards children and family audiences.

    When NORTH was released, it received incredibly abrasive reviews. Most famous was one by, you guessed it..... Roger Ebert. (You can read the entire review online). The film was criticized as being "offensive" "manipulative" "humorless" and a whole lot of other things. Consequently NORTH failed at the box office and became a notorious flop. Probably ruined Rob Reiner's career.

    Some 18 years after the fact I decided to obtain a bootleg copy of the film (it was never released on dvd in the USA). I just had to see what was wrong with the movie. You see, I take note of these critical failures, but not to make fun of it on my own, but to see if the criticism was justified. Well I've watched it and re-watched it, and I still can't see what the critics were so angry about. In fact I actually enjoyed the movie. I think it's better than hundreds of movies I've seen recently. It's better than "Transformers" its better than any remake and superhero movie that keeps getting churned out these days.

    However, NORTH continues to get bashed by internet "trolls" and other robotic people, but
    I don't care. I continue to get much positive enjoyment out of it.

    As far as Jonathan Livingston Seagull is concerned,
    I just purchased a dvd on Ebay (from Korea!) and looking forward to seeing it. From the clips I've seen on Youtube, it looks like a fantastic movie. Once I get the dvd and watch it in its entirety, I'll be happy to post my comments.

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  35. Anonymous, I haven't seen Reiner's North in its entirety, although I must admit that the scathing video review by the Nostalgia Critic made me feel the need to steer clear of it. I might sit down and watch the whole thing one of these days, though, since I like some of Reiner's work.

    And please do check back here with your thoughts on Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I hope you enjoy it.

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  36. Marilyn; I noticed the difference in gulls, but I thought they turned Jonathan into a herring gull as it is paler than a black-backed, and could be seen as more 'ghostly/spiritual'

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  37. I rented this movie from Netflix.After I watched it, I looked for reviews on the movie. I liked this review the best. This is a good film if you are willing to take the time to enjoy it.

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