Steppin’ On The Spaniel

SAVAGES. The Players: Louis Stadlen, Thayer David, Susie Blakeley, Kathleen Widdoes, Ultra Violet. Written: George Trow, Michael O’Donoghue. Photographed: Walter Lassally. Directed: James Ivory. Certificate ‘AA’

One of the saddest facts of living in these civilised times is that a few people are supposed to bundle off to the cinema and then write what they think of what they saw for others to read. But once you’ve sat down at your typewriter and written that Savages is as close to being a masterpiece of a movie as you’re in danger of seeing in the next 12 months — and that’s a long time — you’ve said all that’s worth saying, bar telling the story.

It’s by retelling the story you can usually pad out a review once you’ve run out of words because the movie defies words – there are a lot more knocking words than there are words of praise.

And that being said/written, let me add that there’s nothing anyone can say about Savages that is going to make sense unless you go and see the movie. Ignore what people say, see it. Make up your own mind.

Savages, quite simply has very little story. Or, to put it another way, it is a simple little story which still has an amazing complexity.

It charts the rise and fall of civilisation through a series of chapters (I think there are five, but the number doesn’t matter).

We start with a black-and-white anthropological documentary about The Mud People — as the chapter heading tells us.

The action is explained and interspersed with captions written in a send-up anthropology jargon – after all, co-scripter O’Donoghue is a staffer on America’s National Lampoon, the satirical magazine.

The Mud People are getting ready for a bit of ritual human sacrifice, but they’re quite bowled over by the appearance of a croquet ball from the clear sky over their unspecified territory in an unspecified continent at an unspecified time.

The tribe sets off to find where the perfect sphere – hitherto unknown as a shape in the forest, we’re told — came from. And they end up at a very stylish old house belonging to an unspecified period in the development of the civilisation of an unspecified nation – it looks like America, and it was shot in upstate New York.

They enter the house, find the remnants of the last ‘civilised’ occupation — cupboards of clothes, records and so on. They dress up and assume the attitudes of the people whose clothes they’re wearing – capitalist, eligible young man, limping idealist, remote artist and such like.

The next main step – the third chapter -is the dinner party when the attitudes are played for all they’re worth. Suddenly a croquet ball appears from nowhere and passes the table unseen. But the people know that some force has passed among them — shades of the Exterminating Angel and 2001.

From then on the civilisation they’ve reached is in decline.

Anyone for croquet. Asha Puthli is the Forest Girl in ‘Savages’.

A girl who consistently wears men’s clothes does a number to a song called Steppin On The Spaniel (a song about treading household pets into the ground). People dive into the swimming pool and the eligible young man does an underwater grave robbing job, stealing coins and jewellery. Ultra Violet, described in the beautiful title sequence as a decadent, seduces the maid in the back of a massive car that’s parked in the grounds. This lesbian-fuck scene is typical of the movie in that every time you think you know your bearings, director James Ivory throws in something else to confuse things just a bit.

Confusion reigns at the end, crusty aristocrats, cigar-smoking capitalists, sensitive girls and idealists are involved in a game of croquet that turns into agame of cheat, the hostess keeps moving the pole – a scene reminiscent of the first time I tripped on LSD (when it was legal of course) and cheated gloriously at cards.

The rise-and-fall of civilisation is one huge subject for a movie to tackle, and James Ivory, whose idea the scripters worked from, has used the motif of the croquet ball to link the sequences. That might sound like a clumsy image, but in the context it isn’t, honest.

As I’ve said/written, it’s a huge subject, and it’s a movie I had to see twice before I could take it all in. And it’s still running.

The Curzon ought to sell season-tickets. I’ve got to see it another two or three times to really absorb the subtleties of the script – in a desperate attempt to regain civilisation the hostess relies on ritual and uses an etiquette-form question to get the conversation going again (“Do you know,” she asks, “the precise meaning and derivation of the phrase bric-a-brac?”).

The subtleties are also included in Walter Lassally’s best cinematography since Tom Jones, the soft focus, the muted and delicate colours.

At once. Savages is funny, mind-blowing, intelligent, good-to-look-at and so good it confounds criticism. There’s only one thing to do – go and see for yourself.

Peter Holmes

Peter Holmes wrote extensively for Gay News in the 1970s. He has lived in Belfast, Berlin, London, NYC, Paris and, er, Swindon. He still campaigns for LGBT+ equality and also for European Union membership.
Peter Holmes

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Author: Peter Holmes

Peter Holmes wrote extensively for Gay News in the 1970s. He has lived in Belfast, Berlin, London, NYC, Paris and, er, Swindon. He still campaigns for LGBT+ equality and also for European Union membership.

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