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.