Monday, 7 February 2011

AFED #38: There's Always Vanilla (US, 1971); Dir. George A. Romero

If you follow the movies then it's familiar story. A young director has a breakthrough success and, heady with his new status, decides to follow it with something completely different. The public aren't impressed and the film bombs. Chastened by this hard lesson the director reluctantly retreats to safer ground, destined to remain working in the genre that first brought success.

That was more or less what happened to George Romero when he chose to follow the flesh-eating ghouls of Night of the Living Dead with groovy love story There's Always Vanilla. Like many before and since Romero discovered that he didn't quite possess the Midas touch; and subsequently he's all but disowned the film, describing it as "a total mess".


But hold on a second... didn't I mention a very similar response from Alfred Hitchcock to his Number Seventeen just the other day? Could this be another neglected gem hidden away in the depths of a renowned director's filmography?

There's Always Vanilla is very much a product of its time; that particular epoch when the peace and love generation had to start getting real, whether they liked it or not. It opens with an odd sequence in which we hear vox pop soundbites in response to a modern art sculpture entitled "the ultimate machine". The machine is an allegory for the counter-culture movement and the public's opinions are divided as to whether the machine is an important anti-capitalist statement or essentially useless. There have been more pretentious moments in film history but it's a very good attempt.

Then Chris (Raymond Laine) begins recounting the story direct to camera in a quasi-documentary style. An ex soldier turned wayward young drifter, Chris returns to his (and of course Romero's) native Pittsburgh ostensibly to sort his life out. After meeting his father, hiring him a prostitute (as you do) then catching up with his ex-girlfriend (and a hitherto unseen son), he encounters Lynn (Judith Ridley), a young actress on her way to an audition for a tv commercial.

Lynn, is more level-headed than Chris, one might even say a little 'straight'. But they hit it off and, this still being the era of free love, are soon back to her apartment to get to know each other more intimately. Chris promptly moves in and has some vague notion about being a new Jack Kerouac (haven't we all?), while Lynn just wants him to find a job or sign up for college. Inevitably the relationship goes into meltdown and the pregnant Lynn finds solace with another man while Chris moves back in at his parents.

It's actually, for the main part, a good deal lighter than that precis might suggest; tapping into a vein of wry social satire vaguely reminiscent of The Graduate but without any of the bite. Romero and the film's production company, Latent Image, had cut their teeth making commericials and modish editing pervades.

There is one incongruously sinister sequence when Lynn encounters a shadowy back street abortionist, only to change her mind at the last minute and fleeing. Even the choice of music is totally out of place and the episode seems to belong to a totally different script. Ironically it's also about the best thing in the whole film.

The two leads were never going to win any awards but neither is terrible. As the obnoxious dreamer Chris, Raymond Laine is a relaxed and confident screen presence and would work on Romero's next film, the underrated Season of the Witch. Judith Ridley, an attractive but rather underwhelming performer, is best remembered for her role as the barbecued Judy in Night of the Living Dead. With the best will in the world it seems unlikely she'd have got the role if she wasn't the wife of the film's producer Russell Streiner and her acting career went no further than this.

There's Always Vanilla is no masterpiece but at least it's attempting something worthwhile, which is more than can be said for some of Romero's recent insipid Dead cash-ins. With a little more persistence he could have avoided his niche as a horror director; whether he'd have attained the same kudos is another matter.

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